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Natasha drinks her strawberry smoothie through the blue straw that the girl behind the register had handed her with a sweet little smile and watches Steve. He sits across from her at the table, hunched in on himself, trying to look small and failing miserably, trying to hide the way he must have done once before Erskine’s serum, before everything.

“You look ridiculous,” Natasha tells him, and finishes the last of her smoothie with a loud sucking noise. Steve glowers at her but doesn’t say anything, just looks down at his hands, folded on the counter, his shoulders trying to climb into his chest.

“Are you gonna talk about it?” she asks.

Steve shrugs. “Probably not.”

Pathetic. Truly. “Is this emotional repression a ‘I grew up during the Great Depression’ thing or a Steve Rogers thing?”

He pulls away, irritated now. He’s so easy to anger these days, so quick to flare bright and hot and then he stomps down on it, buries it, douses the match in his mouth until it inevitably flares once more, this constant resetting of anger-repression-denial-anger that’s almost dizzying. And it’s new, this cycle; Natasha remembers when they’d only just met and the easy way that Steve could maintain a pleasant veneer—not that he’d been good at lying, he never has been, but he was in control of himself. The pain and anger under the surface remained where it began—under the surface. Natasha reaches out her hands these days and Steve doesn’t squeeze her fingertips, doesn’t meet her eyes and smile that embarrassed, self-aware smile, just pulls away, tight, quiet, quelled but not restrained.

It’s exhausting. And Steve isn’t the only one with demons. The problem is, he knows that—and he’s so damn convinced that his issues aren’t worth bothering with, so damn focused on making sure everyone around him gets what they need, that he never deals with anything going on in his head. He can’t see what he’s doing because he’s too stuck in it, too deep, and Natasha doesn’t know how to show him. Every time she tries he does this: shuts down, slams all the doors in her face, says something pathetic and self-pitying, like—

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stands from the chair. “I bet you want to go see Sam anyway.”

He doesn’t mention Bucky at all, and the absence of that name in his mouth is a presence unto itself, so obvious, undeniable. Dumbass, Natasha wants to say, but Steve’s not going to smile when she says it, not going to shrug and say you know me best, not going to let her have any of the familiarity she fought so hard to accrue with him, so hard to hold.

He tosses a tip on the table and leaves. Natasha does the same a short while later, loosening the light scarf around her neck as she goes; it’s mild and warm outside, the very end of a hot summer. This is what hanging out with Steve ‘I am an island and no one may know me’ Rogers gets you. Even Bucky doesn’t have this precise effect on people. His pain is profound, deep, but purely his own. There’s something admirable in that, and frustrating, and proud, too, like Natasha is proud of him, like he’s proud of himself, but that’s—a mess, a junk pile of thoughts she doesn’t spend time sifting through. She tosses this moment on top of the pile and walks the brisk mile to Sam’s apartment, the sun climbing higher in the sky, midday light warm and golden yellow on the back of her neck. The bright blazing blue of the sky grows only bolder as the day strengthens.

She walks into Sam’s apartment without knocking. She’s always in and out of here lately, spends nearly as much time here as she does at her own place, which is remote, hard to locate. Safe. Completely lacking in Sam’s bright, sharp humor, Bucky’s quiet smiles, Steve’s resolute stubbornness. She misses them all when she’s gone.

So honestly, terribly pathetic. She’ll never tell them. Maybe that way, they’ll never know.

The apartment is in quiet disarray when she comes in through the side door, the one Steve brought them to when they first came to Sam for help and Sam looked down at them with that bemused disbelief on his face, opened his door to them without any questions asked. The immensity of that strikes Natasha all at once, just as it had then. How? she wants to ask Sam, and nothing else, because he’ll know; how could you do that, just let us in, just keep opening your door and letting us in when we kept coming back? That’s a strength she doesn’t know. That’s a strength she wishes she had.

The fridge is sitting open, spilling refrigerated air into the tiny kitchen. Natasha nudges it closed. “Hello?” she calls, and the silence doesn’t seem malignant, doesn’t feel wrong, but you never know these days. Anyone could show up on Sam’s doorstep, and he’s not a fool, not stupid, but you don't know who might get in.

Sam stomps into the kitchen, breaking the silence, his face lighting up when he sees Nat. “Hey!” He glances at the fridge for one confused second. “Why’s it so cold in here?”

“You left the fridge open.”

“I was looking for something,” Sam says. “Hm.” He’s wearing swim trunks and nothing else but a pair of flip flops, and Bucky trails into the room after him a moment later, holding out a button down shirt on his arm. He has swim trunks on as well but his shirt is buttoned almost all the way to the collar, nothing visible but the smallest glimpses of skin between the buttons.

“Forgot this,” he says, holding the extra shirt out to Sam.

“The beach will be crowded today,” Natasha notes.

“Bucky wanted to go to a waterpark,” Sam says, buttoning his shirt, and Bucky gives Natasha a look that tells her this had been infinitely more Sam’s idea than Bucky’s. “Experience some twenty-first century thrills. You know.”

“We had amusement parks in the forties,” Bucky says.

“Yeah?” Sam pats his pockets, looking for his keys. Natasha picks them up off the counter and hands them to him. “Were they fun?”

“Sometimes,” Bucky says, and then there’s that look on his face—when he remembers something he doesn’t like, the slow slide of his features, reconciliation, recalibration. The fingers of his left hand flex, instinctually, and Natasha doesn’t think he even realizes it. The moment passes quickly, but Natasha and Sam, who are all too good at looking for moments like that these days, recognize it anyway, and communicate this to each other by avoiding each other’s gaze.

“Well, have fun,” Natasha says, “I guess.”

“Do you want to come?” Bucky looks up at her, his eyes startlingly bright, blue like the light off of snow at dusk. She shrugs.

“You should,” Sam says, fervently; “what are you going to do, sit around in this kitchen until Steve comes crawling home?” and he grabs her by the arm to lead her into the spare bedroom where all her stuff is stashed, so fast that none of them have a chance to recognize what he’s said, the words he’s used, the acknowledgement of Steve’s absence in this, Sam’s home: home.

“You spend too much time trying to reach him,” Sam says. He’s digging in a drawer for a bathing suit he somehow knows is there. “If Steve wants to let you in, he will.”

“He wants to,” Natasha says. “He just pretends he doesn’t.”

“Sounds like his problem to me.” Sam holds out the bathing suit, and Nat takes it.

“I’m not—I’m not trying to take care of him,” she says, because she feels like it needs to be said; she can’t tell what Sam is thinking behind the words he’s saying. “I’m just trying to help him.”

Sam shrugs. “So am I,” he says. “And now I’m trying to help you. Put the suit on? We’ll be waiting for you in the kitchen.”

He waits until she nods, finally, discomfited, not sure what exactly has happened. He puts his hand on her shoulder as he passes, warm, electric to the touch, and the skin all along the back of her neck feels as if it’s been passed under a live wire, static clinging to her skin. And then he’s gone, and she stands there holding the bathing suit, wondering.

She returns to the kitchen with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt on over her swimsuit, a wide brim hat on her head because she knows it’ll make Sam smile and she doesn’t know how she knows it, but he does. Quick and quiet and pleased and open and everything she doesn’t understand but here she is, drawing it out. Please, she thinks, without knowing why or how; please, understand, I don’t think I do anymore.

“Sunscreen?” she asks. Bucky holds it out to her.

“Already told wonder boy over here to put some on,” Sam says. “Gotta look out for his delicate complexion. Good thing you have me here to watch over you.”

She squints at the bottle. SPF 80. Sam is an insufferable sweetheart, and he knows it, too.

“Let’s get going if we’re going, then,” she says. “Three grown adults, headed to the waterpark.”

“That’s the spirit,” Sam says.

Once they reach the park, Sam makes Bucky go on all the water slides and laughs the whole way down, his arms clutched around Bucky’s middle as Bucky’s face goes wide-eyed and open and bright. Natasha watches them from the ground, her hat keeping the sun from her eyes, and sips from the water bottle she bought for an exorbitant price from one of the little vendors in the park. She watches them for a little while longer, motionless, and then goes to one of the lounge chairs. Sam comes over a few minutes later, dripping water everywhere, splattering her with it.

He holds out his hand to her. “Your turn.”

Bucky stands behind him, wrapped in a towel. He hadn’t taken his t-shirt off for any of the rides, and it clings to him, damp.

“Okay,” Natasha says, and she takes Sam’s hand, starts laughing as he drags her over to the tallest waterslide, his flip flops slipping in the puddles of water on the ground.

“You get on first,” he says when they reach the top, flights and flights of open stairs later, standing so high above the ground that Bucky is a small distant smudge, waving at them. Natasha bites back a smile. She gets onto the rubber tube first and Sam climbs on behind her, wraps his arms around her middle.

“This okay?” he asks, right by her ear, and there it is again: the live wire, the static ghost.

“Please,” Natasha says, as if offended, and kicks them off into the slide, which is open to the sky, to the crowd below, and she hopes Bucky is watching them all the way down. She closes her eyes tight because the rush of it isn’t watching the end coming but falling towards it endlessly with nothing but Sam’s arms around her stomach, his laughter ringing in her ears.

The slide spits them out into the shallow pool at the bottom, and Natasha, breathless, clambers out of the tube. She turns to look for Sam and for a brief moment, he’s nowhere to be found. Bewildered, she turns again, and that’s when he yanks her under the water, knocking her off balance and everything goes cloudy and bubbly when she slips under the surface.

She comes up laughing, choking, splashes him in the face like a little kid. The lifeguards watch disapprovingly.

When Sam and Natasha, dripping wet and shivering lightly in the now-cooling late summer air, finally make their way back to Bucky, they find him asleep on the lounge chair. He’s still clutching the towel around his shoulders, his head nodded off to the side, his long hair getting in his eyes.

“Hey,” Natasha says, quietly, and then nothing else. She and Sam just stand there for a while, dripping, drying slowly, the sounds of small children screaming with laughter distant and faraway from them here. Natasha looks over at Sam.

“He wouldn’t have done this a few months ago,” Sam says. He’s watching Bucky. He looks serious in a way he never seems to when Bucky’s actually awake.

“Probably not,” Natasha says, because it’s impossible to avoid; here it is, staring the both of them in the face. She wants to reach out and take Sam’s hand and is terrified by the strength of that conviction, how strongly she wants to. She picks up a towel and her hat, instead.

They don’t wake Bucky, just sit on the chairs on either side of him in the sun, watching the crowds of people pass them, talking a little about not much at all.

When Bucky wakes a little while later, embarrassed, self-conscious, Sam shrugs it off, shrugs it all off. “Come on,” he says. “It’s getting late, and I was gonna make dinner.”

‘Make dinner,’ as far as Nat understands it, means ‘order take-out,' but she’s not going to argue with that.

 

-

 

Natasha crashes at the apartment that night, which isn’t much of a surprise; she’s been there more often than not most weeks, stopping in for a few days and then disappearing for a few more, often without giving any information at all about where she’s gone or why. Sam lets her do it—not that he could stop her or would ever want to—but he lets her do it without questioning it. The anonymity, the ability to disappear without a trace at a moment’s notice, makes her feel safe; whereas stability, a place to come home to every night, is Sam’s security. But he understands the need to run, to be a stranger in your own skin. If you don’t know who you are anymore, then no one else will, either. No one will find you.

If he wants her to stay—he doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t matter, really. He’d never want to be the one to bind Natasha down against her will. He just wishes for something he can’t name. Some inescapable and yet inexplicable yearning: for familiarity, for an explanation of the ways she looks at him sometimes, quiet, soft, her expression warm, when she thinks he isn’t looking—the same way she looks at Steve sometimes, more openly, because she thinks Steve needs to see it; and Bucky, too, but like she’s afraid to let him see her, because she doesn’t know what he’ll think. This thing that they all share, it manifests differently among the four of them: Steve and Bucky with their shaken but unbroken bond, forged decades ago; Steve and Natasha, Avengers who don’t fit with the other superheroes of this era, both too young and too old at heart; and now, Sam and Bucky—Sam thinks, at least; he doesn’t want to presume—he doesn’t even know what to name this thing between them, a friendship, a cautious familiarity, a stability. Bucky’s been living at Sam’s apartment for the past four months, and Steve is angry about it and won’t talk about it and thinks no one knows it but of course they do. Sam doesn’t know how to tell Steve that it isn’t about him. It’s about stability. It’s about being somewhere that doesn’t expect anything from you, intentionally or not. There’s too much history on Bucky’s shoulders for him to ever put any of it down.

Stability. What else do you call it when the other person smiles at you from across the table at breakfast, reads all the books on your old worn shelves, tells you your taste in music is shit just to watch your hackles go up even though they’re listening to all your CDs as loud as they can when you come home from the supermarket? Sam doesn’t know what to call it. Maybe it’s easier not to call it anything.

That’s what Riley used to say. And this isn’t the same—it’s not the same at all—but sometimes Sam can’t stop himself from hearing Riley’s voice, through time, across oceans: don’t overthink it, Wilson, he always said. You don’t have to know the word for something as it’s happening to you. Just let it happen to you.

Sam never quite got the hang of it. And then it didn’t matter anymore, because Riley was gone, and Sam could do nothing but let that reality happen to him, over and over again, without end.

So—he won’t overthink it. He’ll let this happen. Bucky—James Barnes—the Winter Soldier, recovered from Hydra a year ago and several months free of the most obvious signs of their influence—is lying low at Sam’s apartment. Sam, who is no one, a burnt out pararescue pilot who’s seen better days. Whatever, you know? It happens. Sometimes dead supersoldiers come back to life and sit across from you at breakfast pulling the crusts off their toast and turning pink when you raise your eyebrows at them. No big deal. Just another day in the life.

Sometimes gorgeous international spies crash on the couch in your living room, too, so often that you have a whole system set up: clean sheets for her to use, a pillow that’s all hers, a toothbrush that you don’t think she leaves behind when she goes but which somehow always shows up when she does, on the bathroom sink like it’s been there this whole time, innocuous. She uses Sam’s toothpaste. The only people who’ve ever done that before have been Sam’s ex-girlfriends and boyfriends. He doesn’t read into this. Just let it happen to you.

“Let’s watch a movie,” Natasha says when they finish dinner. Her face is pink from the sun, the tip of her nose, her green eyes bright. Sam lets himself look away from her, to Bucky, who is a stiller, calmer presence as he does the dishes in the kitchen sink, a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder.

“Sure,” Sam says, and they all pile onto the couch, Nat’s couch, and put their feet up and go through Sam’s half-hearted DVD collection looking for something to watch. Finally they give up, just put on what they always end up putting on, and Natasha falls asleep almost at once, her head pillowed on the couch’s armrest, her bright red hair falling into her eyes. It’s longer than Sam is used to seeing on her. He pulls the blanket up around her shoulders and puts her feet on his lap while she starts to gently snore.

He puts his arm on the top of the couch as he lounges back, lets the flickering light from the tv wash over him, dimly, distantly, as if from another world. Bucky has his feet pulled up on his couch as he watches the movie, the light flickering in his eyes. He seems hardly aware of Sam here, though Sam can’t help but notice the closeness of Bucky’s presence, just as he has never been able to avoid it these past four months: Bucky in the spare bedroom, in the bathroom in the morning brushing his teeth when Sam wakes up in the morning, eating cereal in the kitchen, leaving his laundry lying on the floor of the bathroom.

They had found Bucky lying facedown in a dirty, cramped alley on the other side of the world from where he’d been born: a rough, backwater city, hard-edged and slick and impossible to keep in a single frame no matter how hard you tried. Bucky had been bleeding, his metal fingers soaked rust-red with his own blood, and he wasn’t moving. He didn’t open his eyes when Sam—hesitantly, watching the way Steve stood motionless and frozen like a block of ice, a statue of steel—reached out and turned him over to see his face. Bucky had lain there like a dead man, as if seven decades of time had caught up to him all at once and set right a terrible chronological wrong at last.

Sam had been the one to kneel at his side, reach for his right arm, feel for a pulse, touch at his cracked, dry lips to check for breath. The barest feather-pull of a pulse beneath the thin skin of his wrist. Blue veins, hard, ropy white scars at the inner crook of his elbow. Steve had stood there, a thousand miles away, a few feet away, his hands opening and closing on nothing, looking desolate and empty-handed without his shield. While Bucky was close, too close; Sam could smell the acrid tang of his blood, metal on metal, sweat and dirt and the stink of the alley and the hair in Bucky’s face, the way his eyes fluttered beneath his eyelids, the way he didn’t even fight back when Sam lifted him in a fireman’s carry and got him the hell out of there, got him away.

They’re about halfway through the movie when the tension leaks slowly out of Bucky’s limbs, drains away. His feet land on the floor, quiet, barefooted, one after the other, and he leans back against the couch. This means that Sam’s arm is now around Bucky’s shoulders. Sam doesn’t know what to do. If he pulls away it shows he was aware of what had happened and uncomfortable with it—and it’s not like that, he just—

Bucky leans his head back on Sam’s arm. Sam lets out the breath he’s been holding. Adjusts so that his hand is cupping Bucky’s shoulder. Warmth, and stability, and four months of throwing Bucky’s clothes into the hamper. Hm, Sam thinks, trying not to smile; worth it.

Eventually Bucky slips into sleep too, just like Nat; the two of them have the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, as long as they have a free moment. And as long as they feel safe. You wouldn’t think it to look at them, but maybe that’s a part of the training that neither of them asked for—how to shut yourself down on a moment’s notice, how to wake up again all at once if danger has come, if your back is to the wall.

Bucky wakes up slowly most days now. Comes into the kitchen half-awake, scrubbing at his forehead, yawning, pushing the hair out of his eyes and holding out his hand for the coffee Sam hands to him. The same thing happens now as the movie ends and the credits start to play and Sam shifts in his seat, not sure whether he should wake Bucky and get them both to their rooms, leaving Nat the couch, or just stay here and fall asleep for the night.

Bucky turns his head, shifts his weight, presses, suddenly, against Sam’s side. Warmth, stability. He opens his eyes, blinking slowly, and meets Sam’s gaze. They’re very close now: Sam could count Bucky’s eyelashes if he wanted to. Not that he’d ever want to. Not that he’d ever really think of doing it. But he could. Individually curled, fluttering against the hollow above Bucky’s cheekbones as he closes his eyes again.

Sam realizes, all at once, that he’s staring. That Bucky’s letting him. Nat is still asleep, her feet still on Sam’s lap, close and so far away.

Sam shifts—maybe to leave, maybe not; he can’t be sure. He doesn’t have time to decide. Bucky opens his eyes again, turns his face towards Sam’s, and then, before Sam has time to know what’s happening, Bucky leans forwards and slots his mouth against Sam’s, a sleepy, open-mouthed kiss, gentle, unobtrusive, but deliberate.

Sam reacts instinctually, his eyes closing, his mouth opening to Bucky’s, the slide of Bucky’s tongue and the motion of his lips. Bucky turns his head, tilts towards Sam, deepens the kiss for a short moment before pulling away, leaving Sam with his mouth parted, sucking in air, slowly, like there’s ice in his lungs, piercing behind his ribs.

Bucky blinks at him: wide-blue-eyed, soft and quiet. He makes a quiet noise, of assent, of a question, Sam cannot tell. He moves as if to lean in again. Sam turns his mouth away, but presses his forehead to Bucky’s: softly, gently. His fingertips at the nape of Bucky’s neck.

“We should go to bed,” he says, hopes Bucky knows he doesn’t—doesn’t mean anything in particular about it. “Don’t want to wake Nat up.”

Bucky nods, slowly rises. He’s still half-asleep. Sam gets up and gently places Nat’s feet back on the couch, pulls the blanket down to cover her bare toes. He feels the urge to smoothe her hair back from her forehead, resists it, and doesn’t know why.

“C’mon,” he mumbles to Bucky, and they go down the hall; Bucky to his bedroom, Sam to his. Their hands brush as Bucky moves past Sam in the tiny hallway, and Sam feels it again, once more: warmth.

Sam lies awake for a long time after that, staring up at the ceiling; his heart isn’t pounding, but he can feel his blood under his skin, hot, fluid, anything but motionless even as he lies still. Holy shit, he thinks, and then tries to maintain some of his dignity and can’t: holy shit.

 

-

 

Sam wakes early the next morning, or early enough; Bucky is still sleeping in the other room, and Nat’s couch is empty, the shower running in the bathroom. Sam goes into the kitchen, opens the fridge, and stares into it for a moment, blankly. He can just imagine what his mom would say if she could see him now. Two internationally wanted superspies staying in his apartment. One of them an ex-brainwashed assassin. Whatever, you know? It’s casual, Mom. Don’t worry about it. I made out with the assassin last night, too, so it’s probably not a big deal or anything.

He takes out a handful of oranges and sits at the kitchen counter, pensive, waiting for Nat to come out of the shower and smile at him in that way she has, crooked, innocuous and unreadable until she does something like trip you on your way out of the room or send you fifty text messages of the same smiling moon emoji for no explicable reason.

He peels an orange, pries apart the slices. Eats, repeats. The shower stops running, and Sam can hear Nat’s footsteps in the hallway. Then she comes into the kitchen, barefoot, wearing an old t-shirt and a pair of Sam’s sweatpants. One of her eyebrows is raised when she notices Sam looking, and he just starts peeling another orange. She’s not going to ask permission and he’s not going to give it to her, because she doesn’t need it. She already has it and knows it, too. He remembers how quickly she fell asleep during the movie last night, how she snored and will deny it until the day she dies, but he was there: he knows the truth; he knows what she did.

“Morning,” he says. His fingers are sticky. She comes over, sits at the table across from him, and takes an orange slice from his hands.

“Mm,” she hums, and puts the orange slice in her mouth. When Sam looks up at her, she’s smiling at him, the orange between her teeth so that it’s all Sam can see. Shocked into laughter, Sam looks down again, just once, quickly, and when he glances up once more she’s still smiling a little at him.

“Sleep well?” she asks.

Not really, Sam thinks, and says, “Yeah, you know, the usual.” It’s whatever, Mom. No big deal.

“Me too.” She flicks a bit of orange juice at him. “When do you think Steve will show up?”

“What?”

“You know.” She shrugs. “He always does.”

This is absolutely not true. Steve does not always show up as far as Sam can figure; he’s there some days and not others. Most others. The days he does show up, Natasha is usually around, and she’s usually the only one who isn’t surprised to see him. Maybe she knows, then. His pattern.

“Yeah,” Sam says, noncommittally. “Maybe.”

Natasha says nothing. But she glances down the hallway towards the door nonetheless, like she thinks she’s going to hear Steve knock at any second. He’s the only one who bothers anymore.

“Hey,” Sam says, quickly, grasping for a new conversation, one that doesn’t circle around the same goddamn center point that every conversation any of them seem to have anymore circles around: “tell the truth: who has the prettiest eyes out of you, me, Rogers, and Barnes?”

It just—sort of comes out of his mouth. He’s watching the morning sunlight turn Natasha’s eyes bright gold-green and it’s an accident, but he says it, and he doesn’t particularly regret it, but—

It is weird, isn’t it. It’s probably a weird thing to ask someone.

Natasha, to her credit, doesn’t even stop to think. Doesn’t look at Sam like he’s weird at all. Just finishes the last of her orange, stretches her arms up above her head so that her t-shirt rides up over her stomach and Sam is not looking, goddammit, he’s not, and says, easily: “You, of course. Duh.”

It is possibly the last thing Sam would have expected her to say.

“What?” he asks, eloquently, before he can catch himself.

She smiles at him, pityingly. “C’mon, Wilson,” she says. “Sure, blue eyes are nice, but maybe you get sick of everyone harping on about them all the time, you know? You’ve got the prettiest eyes a girl’s ever seen.” And she flutters her lashes at him, like she’s joking, but Sam knows she isn’t and he can’t even explain how he knows it but the knowledge hits him, all at once, fuck, Natasha Romanoff is flirting with him, has been flirting with him for probably months, and she thinks he’s got pretty eyes.

Not gonna lie. It’s a good feeling. A lot like the way he felt when Bucky put his mouth on his, soft, quiet, slick in the late night—

Don’t think about that now though. Meet Nat’s gaze. Say something back.

“You’re just saying that because they’re not here.”

It's the wrong thing to say. Sam knows this as soon as he says it, but it's too late to take it back now. Natasha blinks at him. Shrugs, leans back in her chair. “You know me. Always changing the truth when I need to.”

Sam wants to pull the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and hide there. “For what it’s worth,” he says, “I was gonna say you, too.”

It sounds hollow now. He can hear Riley laughing at him from across oceans. Good one, Wilson. Real smooth.

She smiles at him, though. Real gently. “Thanks, Sam.”

“They’d probably say each other,” Sam says. He doesn’t know why. Riley is still fucking laughing and it’s making his ears ring. “Fucking—narcissists.”

Natasha almost laughs, but then she looks sad. “He’s so twisted up in himself,” she says, and Sam doesn’t have to ask to know that she means Steve. “I wish I could—I don’t know, tell him somehow.”

“Bucky thinks Steve’s scared of him,” Sam says, because he does; because Bucky told him; because Nat’s eyes are bright green and sad and she’s looking down at her hands and she seems angry at herself, at Steve, at all of them. “Or doesn’t want to know him anymore. Or….”

“I know,” she says.

They sit in silence for a long time. Natasha puts her feet on Sam’s knees under the table, quietly, without looking at him.

“Bucky kissed me last night,” Sam says, almost whispers.

She looks at him. Bright gold-green eyes. Her face impassive, her hair still tangled and damp from the shower.

“Really,” she says, slowly.

Sam nods. Nat just keeps studying him, the gravitas of her gaze holding Sam in place. He wonders, for not the first time today, what she’s thinking.

A loud knock on the door. Sam jumps. Nat smiles.

“Told you,” she says, and gets up to go let Steve in, leaving Sam staring at where she’d been a few moments ago, not sure what to make of her. His ears are still ringing.

 

-

 

Steve looks like he’s pissed and trying to hide it when Natasha opens the door. She wonders if it’s because her hair is still wet from Sam’s shower, or because she’s wearing Sam’s sweatpants, or because she fell asleep here again last night after ignoring Steve’s single text to her, a plaintive self-pitying little ‘sorry.’

Sorry for what, Rogers, she almost says, and instead, looking at the way Steve’s shirt sticks to his sweaty skin, says, “Water’s still warm if you want a shower. I just got out.”

“I didn’t come here to use Sam’s shower.”

Natasha shrugs. “Yeah, well. Everyone else did.”

She leaves the door open and goes back inside. All Steve can do is follow her. He does, of course. Of course he does.

“Your usual route?” she asks over her shoulder as she reaches up to get a glass from one of the taller shelves in Sam’s kitchen. Her shirt rides up on her stomach, and she can feel both Sam and Steve staring at her. The insufferable sweethearts, both of them.

“Yeah,” Steve says after a moment, and Natasha wonders whether he means the one he used to run around the Mall with Sam or the one he’s taken to running these past few weeks to Sam’s apartment. There’s not much difference in either route, really: they’re both about following Sam, and Natasha isn’t sure if Steve even realizes it yet.

After a silence, Steve asks Sam, “Can I use your shower?”

“Sure, man,” Sam says. He sounds bewildered. “Go ahead.”

Steve disappears down the hallway. Natasha, now holding a glass of water, sits down across from Sam again.

“It’s sad,” she says. “Right? He’s sad.”

“We all are, I think,” Sam says, and Natasha doesn’t really know what to say to that. Maybe he’s right. Sam looks faraway and a little fragile this morning; like the first wrong move anyone makes will set him off balance.

“Let’s go to the beach,” Natasha says. “All four of us.”

“Didn’t you say it’d be too crowded?”

“Did I?” She smiles. “C’mon, Wilson. We’re miserable bastards and I’m sick of it. Let’s go to the beach.”

Sam sits still for a moment, deliberating. Then he smiles. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll get Bucky up.” And he does.

They accost Steve on his way out of the shower. He’s got a towel around his middle and his face is bright pink when Natasha barges in on him.

“Beach day,” she says, and throws a pair of swimming trunks at him. “Suit up, Rogers.”

He protests, sputtering, but Natasha closes the door on him and goes back to the kitchen where Sam is getting ready and Bucky is blinking sleepily at the proceedings.

“Do we have to,” Bucky says as he watches Sam stuff a bunch of beach towels into a bag.

“Yes,” Natasha says, and Bucky drops his head onto his hands.

 

-

 

Fury always told her that they did what they had to do. If what you’re doing is right, he’d said, then you have to do it. She’d wondered, then, how he’d known: what was right. What needed to be done. He’d certainly never told her that part. Maybe he never knew either.

She thinks about watching him die a lot more often then she’ll ever admit to anyone. Standing by the window of the operating room, strangers with their hands on him, cutting him open, trying to save his life even as he bleeds out in front of them, his blood dripping onto the cold floor, the steel frame of the emergency bed. Blue-black in the harsh light. The beeping of the heart rate monitor, so unsteady, so unfaithful, so fucking plaintive and mocking: look, Romanova, its reedy mechanical voice; look how we’ll take the things you love. Look how you’ll never hold onto any of it, water seeping between your shaking human weak mortal fingers.

The Black Widow program unwrote that sort of thought. You weren’t mortal; you were a machine, a weapon, a knife tipped with poison. You could not die because even if you died, your sisters would live. All of Natasha’s sisters are dead now and she’s still alive and she carries them all on her shoulders, their nameless voiceless faces, watching her, walking in her footprints behind her as she goes. It was a lie, of course, just like it all was a lie; you could die as easily as anyone else, harder if you fought for it, but you would die and just because the Black Widows lived on without you didn’t mean you would. You were already gone.

Nick Fury dies. A young girl lives. And lives, and lives, and lives, outliving them all, outliving all her sisters, outliving everyone she’s ever looked in the eyes and thought, yes, I know you, and maybe one day I will let you know me.

She always did know herself best. She had to, after the KGB. If she didn’t know herself, anyone could use her. If she didn’t know herself, she didn’t have anything. She knows her limits, her habits, her desires. It isn’t acknowledging them to herself that’s the problem. That’s Steve’s problem. It’s acknowledging them to anyone else; to speaking them aloud, to letting someone else know any piece of herself as deeply and truly as she knows it.

Pressing her hand against the cool, scarred skin of Fury’s forehead. “Don’t do this to me, Nick,” she remembers saying—remembers the way Steve looked at her, shocked, hollowed out, his eyes like black dark faraway stones. She wants to ask him how he does it. He lives and lives and lives, too, unable to die while everyone else falls away behind him, growing smaller in the distance. How do you do it, she thinks, and smoothes the thin delicate skin of Fury’s eyelid with the pad of her fingertip. Don’t you ever get tired.

“I’m sorry, Nat,” Fury tells her later. A long time later. She wants to tell him it’s too late, but of course it’s not. Of course she still cares.

“Yeah,” she says. Looking at her hands, empty. Fury is faraway and distant and not angry with her, but frustrated, perhaps; wondering why she’s taking it so hard. “I know you are.”

She doesn’t forgive him. She’d have done the same exact think he did if she had to, and she wouldn’t expect him to forgive her for it either. But he would.

She’s sitting in the backseat of Sam’s tiny car, squished up against Steve’s side with all the beach supplies bundled up next to her. Sam is driving and Bucky rides shotgun, staring out the window while the music plays. Steve keeps lifting his hand as if to put it around her and then changes his mind, over and over again. She leans her head on his shoulder.

“Are you tired?” she asks, very quietly. Sam and Bucky can’t hear the two of them back here, but Natasha can feel the pulse of Steve’s heart in the crook of his elbow where her fingertips lie.

He understands, as if without knowing how he does, what she means: or at least that she is not merely asking whether he slept well last night, or any night before.

He doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Yes,” he says, finally.

She lifts his arm and puts it around her shoulders because she knows he’s not going to do it. In the front seat, Sam hums along to the music on the radio, the sun streaming bright and warm through the windows and turning his eyelashes gold.

The beach proves very crowded. It’s one of the last weekends before summer ends, and everyone clamors for one last taste of surf, of sand, of saltwater and solitude, camaraderie. Sam opens the door for Nat and Steve to climb out, blinking, into the hot bright sunlight. Distantly, Natasha can hear the sounds of the crashing sea, small children yelling. She squints, reaches back into the car for her wide brim hat, and puts it on. Sam grins at her, toothily, and uncaps his water bottle.

“That reminds me,” Natasha says; she reaches back into the car, digs around for a while. Finally she pulls out a Coke. “This is for you.” She tosses it at Bucky, who has been looking out towards the beach, his thin t-shirt clinging to his shoulders. He looks at the bottle blankly.

“Warm soda,” he says slowly. “Wow. Thanks.”

“It’s got your name on it,” Natasha says.

Bucky looks at it again. “What? ‘Share a Coke with James—’” He stops. The Coke bottle does, indeed, say James. But it’s been crossed out with a black Sharpie, and Natasha has scribbled Bucky on the bottom of the label in cramped letters. Bucky stares at it for a long moment, so long that Natasha wonders if maybe she read this all wrong. And then he starts to smile.

“Thanks, Natasha,” he says, quietly, and gives her a small, genuine smile. Quiet and bright. She smiles back.

Steve is watching them. He looks like he might frown, if he could move. Just because it’s what he used to call Bucky doesn’t make that his name. It’s Bucky’s name, Natasha thinks, angrily, and represses the urge to do something to Steve. Slap him, maybe. Kiss him hard with teeth and see what he does. Maybe both.

“I don’t get a Coke with my name on it?” Sam asks, mock-outraged. “Wow, I see how it is. I see the truth. I see who’s really loved around here.”

Natasha throws a beach towel at him. It hits him in the face. “Shut up and carry my stuff to the beach, Wilson.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, grinning, and starts pulling stuff out of the car.

Sam and Steve end up taking most of the towels and chairs, leaving the two beach umbrellas for Bucky and Natasha to carry. They set off through the sand after Steve and Sam, quiet; Bucky’s got the Coke in his swimsuit pocket. They haven’t had a lot of time around each other lately; there’s always Sam there, too, or Steve, and Nat isn’t complaining about that, but—there’s a solitude, a silence, that both she and Bucky yearn for and find in each other, that Steve and Sam find in each other. And it’s silly, maybe, to think about that now—trudging through the hot sand towards the sparkling Atlantic Ocean, aqua blue and dark navy in the distance, late August summer heat—but Natasha can’t help it. Bucky looks uncomfortable in that way he always does in public—like he wants to somehow hide himself, hide his prosthetic arm, so as to keep others from being uncomfortable for him. Natasha tugs at the sleeve of his t-shirt, right above the red star engraved in the shining metal of his shoulder.

“Look at you, strong guy,” she says, sweetly; “you been working out?”

It shocks a laugh out of him, which is exactly what she wanted. What was it like? she almost asks him, and it scares her how close she comes to saying it: kissing Sam.

He’s still brave. He’s still, at heart, James Barnes. A tool doesn’t kiss someone of its own accord. And this laughter is all Bucky’s: harsh, loud, unashamed. His smile, the light in his eyes. You’re okay, kid, she thinks, and feels warm all the way through: if he can be, then she can be, too.

“So how different are the beaches now?” she asks.

“Not much,” Bucky says. He thinks for a moment, pensive. “Bathing suits have changed, though. For everyone.” He meets Natasha’s gaze for a moment, then looks out to where Steve and Sam are in front of them, both shirtless, both wearing nothing but their swimsuits. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Natasha’s the one who laughs this time, shocked. “Pig,” she says, and nudges him with her shoulder.

The four of them find a spot that isn’t overrun with people and set up their chairs, lay the towels flat on the sand, raise the umbrellas. Natasha sits down in the shade and puts her feet up on the cooler, tips her hat so the sun stays well out of her eyes.

“So…now what,” Steve says, mildly, and Natasha throws a tube of sunscreen at him.

 

-

 

She dozes lightly in the hot sun, drifting in and out of wakefulness. Bucky is reading, and Steve and Sam are talking, a low quiet blur in the background. She feels rather than sees someone adjust the umbrella for her when the sun starts to slide up on her skin. Bucky, she thinks. This half-doze is more a pretense than a reality: it’s hard for her, even now, to ever let her guard down. But pretending is nice, too, its own sort of relaxation. At least until Steve comes over, dripping saltwater, his long cool shadow.

“Who’s going in?” he asks, looking at her and Bucky, who both look at each other.

“You and Sam,” Bucky says. “Have fun.”

“I don’t think so.” Sam reels Bucky to his feet by the wrist, all at once; Bucky lets him, easily, but Natasha can see the tense line of his back when Sam’s fingers curl around the metal of his left wrist.

“Please just leave me alone,” Natasha says; “I’m serious, Rogers, I’m sleeping.”

“Uh-uh,” Steve says, and—still dripping seawater—he reaches down, picks her up, and throws her over his shoulder.

She pounds her fists on his back. “STEVEN GRANT ROGERS,” she yells. His arm around her waist is loose but deliberate and steady, sure. She could break free if she wanted to and they both know that; she’s taken down men Steve’s size before, easily, twisting around their necks and using their own weight to throw them down to the ground. And Steve could pin her with his full strength, hold her so tightly she might not be able to struggle free—who knows—and it makes the color rise in her face, which is absolutely, unequivocally bullshit; if anyone blushes around here, it’s Steve Rogers, not her.

She kicks her legs halfheartedly. “Don’t you dare, Steve,” she warns as he wades knee-deep into the shifting blue water. She can feel the salt spray on her toes. Bucky and Sam are already wading in beside them, and Sam is smirking at her. She kicks at him.

“Give me her hat,” Bucky says. He pulls it off her head so that her long red hair comes loose and free around her eyes.

“Traitor,” she accuses him, wounded, and then Steve throws her out into the water.

It’s a shock, even as warm as the water is this late in the season. She comes up spluttering, her eyes swimming with salt, and sees the three of them laughing. She pulls her hair out of her eyes and in one fluid, smooth motion, kicks Steve’s legs out from under him so that he goes flying backwards into the surf just as another wave crashes over him, foamy white and wild.

Sam and Bucky hold their hands up in surrender when Natasha turns on them. “We’re innocent,” Sam says. “We saved your hat. Look.”

Bucky is wearing it. Natasha trips Sam backwards into the water, anyway.

“Harsh,” Bucky says, watching Sam splutter. “But fair.”

“Watch out or you’re next.” Natasha takes her hat back to the safety of their beach towels before running back into the water, her feet kicking up sand and salt as she goes.

The surf is still rough from the storm that passed by a few days ago, the waves large and powerful, pulling and pushing the swimmers in the water, forward and back. The water is clear, too, clearer than Natasha is used to seeing; she can see her feet in the sand as she moves with the waves, a flash of Steve’s legs as he kicks past her. The sky is hot and clear and free of clouds.

They swim for a long time, until Natasha’s lips feel chapped and raw and her mouth tastes of salt. The current is strong, and they have to keep struggling against it with the other swimmers, back in view of the lifeguards, who whistle shrilly whenever they get too far away. Steve and Sam are strong swimmers, always shooting ahead while Bucky and Natasha follow. Sam takes to dunking Steve under the water as often as possible, climbing nearly onto Steve’s shoulders in an attempt to unbalance him and knock him down into the surf. Steve comes up grinning, his shoulders taut and his arms spread, and knocks Sam down into the water so hard that the lifeguard stands up and whistles again, knock it out!

Sam and Steve are both laughing. Natasha can’t help but wonder at it. It’s Sam’s way, this easy, unspoken affection, familiarity, charm—the ease with which he makes everything simpler, and funnier, and easier to laugh at. An angel, she thinks; and with the metal, scaffolded wings to back it up.

Steve and Sam, tempered under the lifeguard’s watchful gaze, swim back to Bucky and Sam. “Let’s go out to the sandbar,” Sam says, and Steve shrugs. Sam looks at Bucky, wide brown beautiful eyes—he hadn’t believed Natasha when she’d said he had the prettiest eyes out of all of them but she hadn’t been lying—and Bucky gives in without any sign of a fight. They swim off.

“Don’t think you’re gonna start dunking me now,” Nat says; a wave comes and buoys her up and for a moment she’s taller than Steve, and he’s looking up at her.

“Okay,” he says, easily, and they drift with the waves for a while as the surf grows slowly stronger and stronger, the tide coming in rough and jagged, sideways against the shore.

A particularly strong wave catches Natasha off balance, sends her tumbling. She comes up all right, her bathing suit top loosened by the force of the wave. She reaches up to untie the knot around her neck and refasten it before another wave can come by. When she looks up, Steve is watching her, the quick movement of her slender fingers. He turns bright pink when he sees her noticing him, a full flush that spreads from his cheeks to his ears and down his neck over his chest. She winks at him. He turns around and dives into the water, and she finishes tying the knot of her bathing suit, out of breath, sticky with saltwater and replaying in her head the way Steve’s blush had spread, all at once, under his skin.

 

-

 

They troop out of the water together later. The sun has shifted in the sky and changed the nature of the light; less intense, warmer, more full of color. Sam feels almost lightheaded with how easy the day’s been, how well needed, how long in coming. It’s nice not to sit around pondering how heavy everything is for once.

Steve is already sunburned, turning pink across his nose and cheekbones and shoulders. Natasha hands him a tube of aloe and he winces when he starts to apply it, mixing salt and sand and cool gel on the surface of his skin. Nat smiles pityingly. She hasn’t gotten burned at all, because she actually applied the sunscreen Sam supplied, and she looks rather smug about it.

Bucky hasn’t burned either. But there are freckles standing out on his skin: on his nose, along his shoulders, across the back of his hands. They’re faint and they won’t last—it’s too late in the season to properly get any sun. But they’re endearing as hell, anyway.

“More sunscreen?” Sam asks, holding up the tube at Bucky, who nods, as if barely hearing him, and then hesitates for a moment. Then he reaches for the hem of his shirt and pulls it off, all at once; exposing scarred skin, and the base of his metal arm where it meets his shoulder, ridged, twisted, kept hidden all day and the other three had not pushed, had not asked; scars are your own to bear, and if you want to share them, you will.

“Here,” Sam says. “I’ll get your back?”

Bucky nods.

Sam tries not to be nervous. Tries very hard. Bucky’s skin is warm from the sun and freckled here too, all over. Sam applies the sunscreen and feels the tense line of Bucky’s spine, his shoulders. It’s easy, somehow, to let his fingertips slide over the ridged, terrible scarring on Bucky’s left shoulder, even as the contact makes a shudder go down Bucky’s whole body. But he doesn’t pull away. Sam traces the scars there, just briefly; just long enough to cover them with sunscreen.

Bucky’s eyes are dark when he turns around, holds out his hand for the sunscreen. Wordlessly, Sam gives it to him.

When he looks up, Steve and Natasha are watching them. Natasha’s face is open, warm. Steve’s is closed and silent and when he turns away, Natasha turns with him, opening her mouth to speak, to say something that Sam does not hear, and Steve shrugs his shoulders, shrugs her off—shrugs it all off, as he’s been doing for a long long time.

Steve wanders off after that. Natasha sits down on a beach chair again, leaning forward, not reclined, her elbows on her knees as she watches the water. Bucky, after meeting Sam’s gaze a moment, sets off down the beach, too; faint footprints in the sand, the outline of his weary shoulders as he walks away. Sam lets him go, sits down in the sand by Natasha and starts methodically burying her feet.

She kicks at him. “It’s been a good day, right?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, even though the peace of it feels different now, somehow changed. In the distance, Bucky catches up to Steve, and their paces even out to match each other’s. “Do you want to bury me in the sand?”

Natasha considers. “Yes,” she says, and sits next to him as he lies down, and then she gets to work.

Bucky and Steve return a half hour later. Maybe longer. By this time Sam is buried in sand up to his neck, completely unable to move.

“Nice,” Steve says, looking down at him. “Now cover his mouth so we can have some peace.”

“Wow, what was that, Rogers?” Sam says. “You want to be buried in the sand, too? How strange. What a coincidence. Bucky, get on that.”

Natasha smiles. “You’re so feisty when you’re covered in sand,” she says, and then she leans forward—suddenly close, impossibly close, and Sam panics because if she kisses him here now, in front of Bucky, in front of Steve, doesn’t she know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t she know what they’re going to do? But she doesn’t kiss him. Not on the mouth, at least; she kisses him, gently, on the nose, closing her eyes when she gets close, and her eyes are bright when she pulls away, wicked, the color high in her cheeks, and Sam’s whole face is burning.

Bucky has a whole collection of seashells and rocks made smooth by the sea in his hands. “I’m bringing these home,” he says when Natasha raises his eyebrow at him, and Sam’s face just won’t cool.

 

-

 

They all crash at Sam and Bucky’s place that night. Natasha nearly falls onto the couch when they get back later, the sun long since set. She holds her hands over her eyes for a moment. “I smell like seawater.”

“Yeah, you do,” Sam says. “Gross. Truly disgusting.”

She raises her bare foot at him, shows him the sole.

“Where do you want to be, Steve?” Sam asks. “I’ve got a sleeping bag—you can take the floor somewhere maybe, I know it’s not, um, very nice—”

“That’s fine,” Steve says. “You know me. Soft beds.”

Bucky is staring into the living room, staring a hole into the wall. He’s holding his flip-flops in his left hand and he’s sweaty and his hair clings to his face, curly with salt water. “Pull out the couch cushions,” he says, quietly.

Steve stares at him. “What?” he asks, after a long moment.

Bucky almost smiles. “Like when we were kids.” And there’s the white of his teeth, the dark blue of his eyes.

Steve swallows.

“I’ll get the sleeping bag,” Sam says after a moment of watching them in the silence. His mouth feels dry, his tongue heavy. When he returns, Bucky is gone, the water in the shower running, and Steve is still standing there, staring at nothing, staring at the floor.

“Here.” Sam holds out the bag. Steve takes it.

“You should talk to him, man,” Sam finally says, quietly. “He wants to talk to you. He thinks you….” He trails off. He doesn’t know how to say it.

Steve just shakes his head. “He doesn’t want to talk to me.” He goes into the living room where Natasha is already asleep, spreads the sleeping bag on the floor.

Riley used to say—but what does it matter, what Riley used to say? Riley used to say a lot of things. And Riley is dead.

Steve has never asked Sam exactly how Riley died. Just like Sam has never asked Steve what it felt like to watch Bucky fall from the Hydra train to the snowy mountainside a thousand feet below. They already know all the details they need: the grief, the way it stops and starts, the shaking rhythm of your desperate heart. Riley had been quick, and funny, and an absolute pain in the ass, and Sam had loved him. Sam never told Steve that, but Steve never told him about being in love with Bucky, either, right up to the fall, before the fall, during and after the fall, and so Sam feels like it’s a fair trade.

Riley used to say, you think too much, soldier. Always that, always soldier. They’d been soldiers together and maybe sometimes that’s what they were foremost to each other, though Sam doesn’t think that’s true. It just feels that way sometimes, a long way from home. Open skies, and aerial rescues, and supply drops, and flying, and the swell of the clouds, the weight of the sky above you; the distant tips of pointed, scraggly trees in the dry lands, the light reflecting off Riley’s wings, the pilots, all of them pilots, the ruin and the war. Riley had been beautiful in an average, boring way, beautiful because he wasn’t, because he was just another kid like the rest of them, his dark skin, his bright green eyes, the scar that traveled the full length of his spine from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. He shuddered when Sam ran his tongue across it one time when they were both on leave together, between tours: before the tour that would be both their last.

It’s hard to love someone you fight alongside. It’s hard to love someone who is courageous and fierce and a little wild and watch them slowly get beaten to pieces, beaten down to nothing. It’s hard to love someone.

Maybe that’s the root of it. Maybe that’s what’s wrong here, the rotten core of this apple. Maybe it’s not Steve or Bucky or Natasha but Sam himself, hollowed out inside; maybe Riley was the only one who would ever love him and now he’s dead and that’s that: story’s over, folks. Everyone go home.

Sam is sitting on the edge of his bed, the door to the hallway still open before him. He doesn’t realize the shower has stopped running and the bathroom is silent until the door opens and Bucky steps out, a towel slung around his waist. He scrubs at his long damp hair with his open palm, spraying water droplets. Water drips from the nape of his neck, over the line of his shoulder, crosses from flesh to metal and gets lost in one of the slits of his prosthetic arm, slides away.

Bucky looks up and meets Sam’s gaze. He does not seem disturbed, or uncomfortable, or even surprised to find Sam sitting there staring at him. His hair is in his eyes, but even if it weren’t, Sam thinks, he’d find it hard to see them clearly.

“Good night,” Bucky says.

“Night,” Sam says, hoarsely.

Bucky disappears into his bedroom, closes the door behind him when he goes. Sam, motionless. It’s hard to love someone, he thinks; but then again, it’s harder not to.

When he wakes up in the morning, Steve is still there, and Bucky is fast asleep in the next room over, but Natasha is gone.

 

-

 

“How many times is this?” Steve asks over breakfast.

Bucky almost tells him to fuck off. Comes so close. Thankfully, Sam does it for him.

“Yes,” Sam says, lightly, “because Natasha’s the only one who’s ever pulled a disappearing act on us.”

Terrible, lengthy silence.

Bucky is washing the seashells from the beach in the sink, letting the sand drift away, slowly, down the drain. She’ll be back, of course; and it’s not precisely a shock to find her gone. It’s her way; it’s how she feels safe. Bucky understands that. Sam and Steve understand that, even if they will act as if they don’t. The instinct to run to ground is hard to beat out, to tamp down on, even years after the fire has burned down your home.

Bucky lets the faucet run hot over his left hand. Watches the steam rising. Steve is watching him uncomfortably from the kitchen table. Bucky thinks of ice and glaciers and time and impenetrable, unbreakable cold. Nothing makes sense, now. A long time ago, things didn’t make sense either. Bucky wishes, suddenly, for Peggy, and something terrible swells behind his chest, in his throat, filling up his vocal cords. He turns off the faucet. He doesn’t get to miss Peggy, now. That’s not his right. But he does.

“She’ll be back,” Steve tells Bucky, as if Bucky doesn’t know; as if Bucky doesn’t understand Natasha as well as Steve does; as if Bucky needs to be reassured, or protected; as if Steve still doesn’t fucking get it.

“Yeah, thanks, Steve,” Bucky says, can taste the anger in the back of his throat, and he bites down on it, bites down on everything.

Sam watches as Bucky puts on his sneakers. “When will you be back?”

Not: where are you going, or: what do you think you’re doing? Two questions that Steve would have asked, maybe, a long time ago. Steve is silent. Bucky wants to take Sam’s face between his hands, the metal and the flesh, and kiss him, right on the mouth while Steve watches, slide his tongue over Sam’s lower lip, the ridge of his teeth, pull him in close and kiss him until he can’t fucking think and Steve just goes away and Natasha comes back and she is not hurt. But that is not how the world works.

“Not long,” Bucky says, and then he’s out the door: into the bright sunlight, into the world, into this place that’s so unfamiliar and familiar all at once, broken puzzle pieces, the slide of forgotten memories into place, like a bullet into a rifle stock; like a knife into the space between a person’s ribs, deliberate, slick.

He doesn’t go looking for Natasha, because she doesn’t want to be found and therefore Bucky won’t be able to find her. Bucky knows about lying low: about safe houses and false trails and new names and forged passports and anonymity and whispering in the dark. He knows about shame, and he knows about isolation, and he knows, just a little, about redemption. Bits and pieces, broken fragments. He doesn’t know everything yet.

He gets on a bus and looks out the windows, presses his metal fingertips to the glass, listens to the rattling. A little girl across the aisle is staring at him, wide-eyed. He sticks his tongue out at her. She starts, just slightly, to smile, and then it’s his stop and he gets off the bus, wondering what that girl knows about the man with the metal arm. The man who tried to kill Captain America.

The receptionist gives him a skeptical look. “Your name isn’t on the approved visitors list,” she says shortly, looking over her glasses at him. She’s young and tired and her nails are chipped. Bucky notices these things and doesn’t really know what to do with the information. Before, it was important. It was always something he could use: the slight limp in a mark’s walk, calling back to a childhood injury; a hesitance they had in lighting a candle, because they were afraid of fire. Now it’s all useless bits and pieces. What Sam’s favorite sandwich is, his favorite deli. What this woman’s mother is like, two hallways over in a small bedroom with a large window facing the busy street outside, a poor view.

Bucky doesn’t know what to do under the weight of her gaze. “Can you ask her?” he asks. “Please. Tell her my name.”

The woman stares at him for a moment, searchingly. “Hold on,” she says finally, and she does.

When she returns, there’s a strange look on her face. “You know where her room is?”

“32A,” Bucky says. “I can find it. Thank you.”

The woman watches him walk away. Bemused, sad. She pulls at the hem of her shirt and turns around and goes back to work.

Peggy’s room is small, full of light. Bucky knocks at the door first, somewhat hesitantly, and then pushes his way inside. Peggy is lying upright in bed, looking out the window; she turns and looks at him, her dark brown eyes, the clever twist of her mouth.

“James,” she says, and his shoulders tense; “Bucky,” she says, more gently, and holds up her hands to him, and he reaches out, takes them with his right hand, keeps his left arm close to his side, afraid to touch her with cold metal, afraid to touch her at all.

She brings his hand to her face, presses his palm flat against her cheek, her skin, translucent, soft. She’s crying.

“Steve told me what happened to you,” she says, finally. Her voice is steady even though her hands are not. “I didn’t think you would come to see me.”

“I didn’t know if I should,” Bucky says, through the ache in his throat. He looks around the room. There’s a wheelchair folded in the corner.

Peggy kisses the palm of his hand, lets him go.

“Do you want to go outside?” Bucky asks, and Peggy lets out a shaky laugh.

“Oh, you’ll have a time of it getting me into that old thing,” she says, looking at the wheelchair, but Bucky rolls it over to the bed. Peggy pushes herself up on her wrists.

Bucky doesn’t know how to touch her, how to be gentle. He can’t believe it’s her, and that’s the root of it, really: when he tries to remember the war, it slips away from him. He remembers the sound of her laughter, but maybe he’s fabricated it, her deep laugh; he remembers the way she looked at Steve, and there’s no way Bucky could ever have made up the depth of love and faith in her eyes, but what if he did? What if nothing he remembers is as it was; what if nothing is left for him to remember?

He helps her into the wheelchair, carefully as he can. His hands are shaking more than hers are, and if she notices, she says nothing. Brushes her fingertips against the inside of his right elbow. She watches the fingertips of his left hand, their metal alloy, but says nothing about that either, for now.

He rolls her out of the tiny bedroom and down the thin hallway, beneath fluorescent lights, out the side door of the building into the tiny, green little garden outside, small but bright with life and fresh and beautiful, too, all alive, and new, with small lights in the trees. He rolls Peggy under the shade of a small tree and sits down on the grass beside her. She looks down at him, raises her eyebrow, and holds out her hand.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Bucky asks, hesitantly.

“Are any of my ideas?” Peggy says, cryptically. “You never could stop me, anyway.”

I can now, Bucky thinks, but he doesn’t want to. He takes Peggy’s hand and helps her out of the chair so she’s sitting beside him in the grass, barefoot, still in her long nightgown. She sighs and leans back against him, his right side, and closes her eyes. He can’t move for the pain in his throat, in his chest, for the warmth of her presence and the brush of her long hair on the side of his neck.

They don’t say anything for a long time. Now that he’s here, Bucky doesn’t know what to do, where to put his hands. Every time he breathes in there’s the pain of it, the realization of how much time has truly passed them by, him and Steve and Peggy, how little time they had together, how unfair it was that she should be left behind, and yet how brave of her, how bold. She was always better at picking up the pieces, starting over, making something out of nothing. Bucky just keeps staring at the bottom of the coffeepot. He just keeps emptying out what’s left.

After a while, Peggy turns. She puts her hand to Bucky’s face, runs her fingertips over his cheekbone. She’s looking into his eyes and he can’t look at her, keeps looking down. She looks at his hands, coiled in the grass.

“Let me,” she says, and then says nothing.

Bucky swallows past the ache. “Okay,” he says, quietly.

She takes his hand, his left hand, the metal hand that Hydra gave him, in hers. Laces her fingertips in his. Holds on, tight, doesn’t let go.

She sighs. “Oh, what did they do to you, darling boy,” she says, quietly, and she’s not crying anymore; in fact, there are no tears in her eyes at all, just grief, just a distant faraway pain that Bucky is scared to touch.

“I didn’t come here to talk about me,” Bucky manages, quietly.

“Oh? Maybe you should have.” She’s still holding his hand in hers. “What did you come here to talk about?”

“I don’t know. I felt like—I couldn’t avoid you anymore.”

Her voice, quiet. “You were avoiding me?”

“Yes,” he says. “Is that so strange?”

“No.” She smiles sadly. “Not so strange at all.”

“I’m sorry, Peggy,” Bucky says, and he can’t keep his voice steady for the life of him.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Peggy says, fiercely, suddenly. “Don’t you dare, James Barnes, or I will get up and walk my old ass back into this damn home and leave you out here by yourself, and I’ll tell Mellie to never let you back in to see me again. Just because I’m old and—not what you’re expecting—that doesn’t mean you get to feel sorry for me.”

“I’m not sorry for you,” Bucky says. “I’m trying to apologize. I….”

He remembers, vaguely, falling. The swift sudden thrill of it, like a snakebite lacing poison into his veins. Falling, his heart seizing in his chest. Steve above him, looking down, clinging to the side of the train as it speeds away. The sound of the train tracks, the whistling wind. Thinking: who’s gonna look after him now. Thinking: I didn’t tell her anything.

“You took care of him for me,” he manages, finally. He can’t look at her. He can’t.

Peggy almost laughs. “Not very well, I’m afraid,” she says. “He followed you down a few days later.”

“And left you alone.”

“Oh, not alone,” Peggy says, lightly. “You weren’t the only men in my life. That’s what war is, you know. That’s what they tell you, over and over. Beautiful young men going out and getting themselves killed for something they only vaguely believe in. We were all just part of the tapestry.”

“You didn’t deserve to be left behind.”

“And you didn’t deserve what happened to you,” Peggy counters. “What do you want me to say, Bucky?” His name in her mouth is a shock, like ice water. “Yes, it was hard. It was so hard some nights I still don’t know how I made it through them. But I did, and you did, and so did Steve, in our own ways, our separate paths, and we can’t change that. I’m thankful for the time we had together. I’m thankful that you’re here now—that you are alive, that you still have your life ahead of you. That you will have a chance to live just as I did. That you didn’t stay dead in the mountains of Germany and that you got a second chance like you deserved. There’s no simple answer for the things that happened to us, no simple way to make easy our reality.”

She falls suddenly quiet, as if there’s more she wants to say but she can’t find the words. She’s breathing hard, tired. Her mouth is grim and she looks old, truly old, for the first time; my fault, Bucky thinks, and wonders why he came here; why he wanted to hear her voice so desperately when he doesn’t even know what to say.

Bucky struggles to find the words, struggles to remember the things he wants to be real. “He loves you, still.”

“Of course he does,” Peggy says, brushing this aside. “And I love him.”

“You married.”

It’s not an accusation, and Peggy, wisely, does not take it as such. It’s bewilderment; it’s helplessness. “That’s the beautiful thing,” Peggy says, “about love. You’re always able to make room for more in your heart. Even when you think all ability to feel it—to feel compassion, affection, joy, tenderness—has been robbed from you forever.”

She’s quiet, and then: “I loved you too, you know. Do you remember?”

His eyes burn, his chest burns, the back of his neck, his lungs. “Yes,” he says, though he hadn’t wanted to, hadn’t wanted to speak it in case he’d been wrong, in case his memory, so full of holes, so warped and broken, had been faulty. In case he’d dreamed her fingertips on the base of his spine, the way Steve had smiled, so gently, so happily, in that terrible frozen moment of time during the war, a world apart, a world about to be broken.

She takes his metal hand and kisses its palm, her mouth against the bare metal. Takes his hand and presses it, slowly, to the skin above her heart.

“I’m glad they could not take that from you,” she says, and he doesn’t know what to do, how to think. Just feels the pulse of her heart beneath his metal fingertips. Just looks, finally, into her eyes.

“Steve’s scared,” he says.

“Steve has always been scared of love,” Peggy says. “Someone always has to remind him that it’s worth it. I remember we did a pretty good job.”

“Do you—do you know,” Bucky asks, doesn’t know why, “Sam? Natasha? Has Steve—has he told you—”

“He’s told me about them,” Peggy says. “Sam came by one day with him to meet me. Natasha came alone. I don’t think she ever told Steve.”

Bucky stares down at his empty right hand. Peggy is still holding his other one. She follows his gaze, reaches down and takes his other hand in hers, too.

“Look,” she says, and her voice is clear and strong, now. “You deserve to be happy, James Barnes. You find whatever it is that makes you happy, and you hold onto it as tightly as you can. Do you understand me?”

He does. He nods. He squeezes her hands, gently. “You make me happy, Peggy Carter.”

“Charmer,” she says, but she smiles.

 

-

 

The apartment is silent after Bucky leaves. Sam wonders whether Steve will follow him out, leaving Sam alone, finally, in his own damn house, but Steve stays. Steve stays and washes the dishes in Sam’s sink and starts cleaning out the refrigerator and generally making a nuisance of himself every time Sam turns around, so Sam goes into the other room and turns on the tv and flicks through his Netflix account. It’s full of all the crap shows that Bucky and Natasha watch together.

“Am I the one who lives here or am I the guest,” Sam says, trying hard to reach for genuine bitterness and coming up with only failed sarcasm, failed anger.

A while later, Steve comes into the room. Sits on the chair beside the couch where Sam is stretched out, where Nat slept last night. He sits on the very edge, as if he’s afraid to touch anything, and he doesn’t say anything, and Sam is so sick of it he could run for miles.

“Look, man,” Sam says, because Steve’s not going to say anything about it even while it eats him up inside: “if you’re pissed because Bucky wanted to live with me and not with you, just say it.”

Silence. Sam watches the light of the tv. He doesn’t even know what he’s watching. Every sense, every nerve stretches towards Steve’s presence, tries to figure out what the fuck he’s thinking. He wishes Natasha were here. He wishes no one was.

At last, Steve speaks. Like an old violin, creaking from misuse, the bow finally drawn against its ancient strings. “What am I doing wrong?”

Natasha would know what to say to him. Sam, as it is, does not. He knows the taste of blood in the back of his throat, the hot press of gunmetal in his hands, glowing fires behind his eyes, and right now it’s all that he has. Let’s just fucking go for it, man, Riley had said. We might be dead tomorrow.

He never said, I might be dead tomorrow and you might live. No—Riley never said that.

“Just talk to him,” Sam says.

“I don’t know how, anymore,” Steve says. He’s pressing his hand to his abdomen, tensely. Sam wonders if he still feels the bullets that were there, once; the bullets the surgeons had to pull out of him after Bucky dragged him out of the Potomac. After Bucky shot him.

“You’re pissed, aren’t you,” Sam says. “I knew you were. I knew you’d been pissed this whole time.” Why didn’t you say anything, he wants to shout, and he doesn’t. Why didn’t you just fucking say something.

“If I’m pissed at anyone, I’m pissed at myself.” The wry, self-deprecating twist of Steve’s mouth. Sam misses him so intensely, so fiercely, that it hurts.

“Well, good,” Sam says. “You deserve it.”

Steve’s shoulders slump. Sam, taking pity on him, just a little bit, sighs and pats the space next to him on the couch.

“C’mon,” he says. “Just—don’t think so much, for a minute.”

Steve sits down next to him. Studiously not touching Sam anywhere. Asshole, Sam thinks, but leaves him be. They don’t really talk much more after that. Sam falls asleep an hour later, the tv still flickering, and when he wakes up, Steve is gone: but the blankets have been pulled up around Sam’s shoulders, under his neck, carefully tucked into place.

 

-

 

Bucky returns later that afternoon. Sam is reading in the kitchen, trying to catch the last bit of sunlight from the windows. There’s a look in Bucky’s eyes that, for a brief moment, frightens Sam because he can’t identify it. And then he recognizes it: grief, loneliness, yearning so strong that in the end, it frightens Sam anyway, just a little bit—just enough.

“Hey,” he says, trying to reach Bucky through that incredible distance, “where’d you go? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Bucky looks around the kitchen. “I thought Steve might still be here.”

“He snuck out hours ago,” Sam says. “He’s—” He struggles for a minute. Steve’s what, he’s sorry? “—working on some stuff.”

“Oh,” Bucky says. “Okay.” He looks lost. Like his hands are empty when they should be holding onto something. He looks over at Sam properly. “What are you reading?”

Sam shrugs. “Nothing good.” He puts the book aside, which is a mistake, because now it feels like there’s something between the two of them that has to be examined, discussed, acknowledged. Fuck.

Bucky feels it too, which is worse. “Look,” he says, and his left hand goes up to the back of his neck, somewhat sheepish, somewhat afraid. “About the other night.”

“I thought maybe you didn’t remember,” Sam says, even though he never for a second thought that, ever. “You were pretty tired.”

“Yes.” Bucky looks, with clear eyes, towards the window; the setting sun. “I remember,” he says, quietly. “I remember a lot of things, and I don’t understand many of them, and I don’t think I ever really did.”

Sam is silent. He doesn’t know what to say.

Bucky rubs at his face, tired. “I remember,” he says, “getting my face split open because someone didn’t think I should love the person I loved. That was a long time ago. But it leaves an impression.”

Riley’s voice. Riley’s low, angry laughter. They’ll kick us out of the military for this, kissing Sam here, and here, and here; then DADT was repealed between their first and second tours, their last tour. They’ll kick the shit out of us for this, Riley said then, and neither of them cared.

“And I remember,” Bucky says, his voice growing stronger, more steady, “that I still loved that person—” his voice falters “—those people, anyway.”

He looks at Sam, helpless. “How can I remember that, and Steve doesn’t?”

Sam opens his mouth to answer and closes it without saying anything. He remembers the look on Steve’s face, the incredible, voiceless pain he kept inside the whole time, because he’s so against the thought of speaking over anyone else’s, just for a second, to relieve any of his own. Steve, who has also lost everything. Steve, who doesn’t talk about it. Steve, who is just as sad and stupid and lonely as the rest of them.

“He knows,” Sam says. He has to know. He must. It’s a lesson they’ve all had to learn: loving someone even when everything the world has is against you. “Someone just—has to remind him, I think.”

Bucky doesn’t move. Outside, it’s getting dark. Something is coming, Sam can feel it, and he wishes he could shake the feeling off. Shrug his shoulders and let it all fall away.

“You kissed me,” Sam says, finally, because it seems like the time to mention it.

Bucky almost smiles. “Yes,” he says. “I did.” And he doesn’t say anything else, not for a long while.

Sam can’t take the silences, the waiting around. “I didn’t hate that,” he says. “In case you were worried, or something.”

And Bucky smiles now, fully, for real. “I spend days agonizing about it and all you have to say to me is that you didn’t hate it.”

Sam shrugs. He can feel the corners of his mouth trying to smile. “Maybe you just gotta work harder to impress me.”

“Hm,” Bucky says. “Well, then, maybe I will.”

 

-

 

Natasha is halfway to her safe house forty miles outside of the city when she changes her mind, turns around, and drives back to D.C. She only has the one safe house. She knows what Sam and Steve and Bucky all think—that she’s rebuilt her contacts. Made new covers. Set up new aliases, fake lives in other cities. That she’s got a safe house in every state in the U.S. First of all, she never even had that many before everything that went down last year. Sam and Steve and Bucky know nothing about being a spy. Second of all, she still doesn’t. She has one I.D., and it’s legal. It’s not even a fraud.

S.H.I.E.L.D. fell over a year ago. She’s had plenty of time to reconstruct the web she so easily tore down when she revealed Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s worst secrets. But something always stops her. The voice in the back of her head, asking: what was the point, then? Dismantling Hydra, rooting out the evil in S.H.I.E.L.D., joining up with Steve fucking Rogers, king of the boy scouts? What was the point of anything she’s been working for if she doesn’t learn from anything that she’s done, that Steve’s said, that Fury’s taught her.

So: she has one safe house. Restraint and all that. Learning new things. It’s forty miles outside of D.C. and it’s very tasteful. But she doesn’t go there.

Instead she drives back into the city, circles around for a little while, aimlessly (getting rid of anyone who might be tailing her—an old, deeply engrained habit that she’s not eager to break, considering how long it has kept her alive) and then parks, sometime later that day, outside of the building that houses Steve’s tiny apartment. And then she goes up the seven flights of stairs and picks the lock and sits on his couch and waits for him to come home.

Enough, she thinks, and she isn’t sure, really, what she even means. Enough.

She has spent too much of her life living someone else’s narrative, someone else’s purpose. She is tired of it; so, goddamn tired, bone-weary, like she’s run for miles and miles without any rest, running until the snow is heavy and packed with her footfalls. She’s earned the right to her own narrative, her own life. She has fucking earned her happiness—any shred of it that she can grasp. She wants to live, and live truthfully.

And, apparently, this means confronting Steve Rogers about his self-imposed emotional repression. Funny how things work out. Three years ago, meeting Steve on the helicarrier for the first time, having to listen to him call her “ma’am” over and over and avoid her like he was too nervous to be around her, and she probably would have never thought twice about living truthfully, about emotional expression. It’s not Steve’s effect on her so much as it is the effect of their shared experiences. It’s been a long three years. It’s been, you might say, a very long time.

“Nat?”

He sounds genuinely surprised to see her here, which is something of a comfort. “Hey,” she says. “What’s up?”

He stares at her. He’s still holding the key he used to get into the apartment, since Natasha re-locked the door once getting inside.

“I’m not even going to ask,” Steve says, wearily. He looks very tired, and somewhat sad, and it’s really just getting to be too much. Natasha is done with it. She needs to say what’s on her mind.

“Let’s talk, Steve,” Natasha says.

“I’m not going to like this, am I.”

“Probably not.”

He sighs and sets down the two bags of groceries he’s holding. “Sam wanted to talk, too.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Not as much as I should have.” He looks resigned to it.

“You never do.” She can see that it hurts when she says it.

“What do you want, Nat?”

To live truthfully. “I’m going to tell you three truths,” she says. “How about that, Rogers? Are you good with that?”

He just stands there, waiting for her to speak. Insufferable.

“Okay,” she says. “Truth one: you’re punishing yourself. See, I can tell, because I’ve been punishing myself for years. You get stuck in it. It’s hard to get out.”

He swallows. “Did you?”

“What?”

“Get out.”

She wasn’t expecting that. “I don’t know. I’m….” Clawing at the edges. I’m almost out. I can show you the way. “I will be.”

He nods. Accepts this, easily.

“Truth two,” Natasha says, unsettled. “You’re afraid to admit when you care about someone. I know this because Peggy told me this.”

Steve’s mouth falls open, blankly. “Peggy? What—?”

“I probably should have told you,” Natasha says, “but it seemed easier not to at the time.” Live truthfully, goddammit. “I mean, I didn’t visit her to find out stuff about you. I wanted to meet her. I wanted to know her. She told me to come back whenever I wanted. I think she liked me.” Which is, in itself, an amazement: that someone as good, as strong, as wonderful as Peggy Carter might ever like someone like Natasha Romanova. “Finding out stuff about you was an accident.”

“Okay,” Steve says, slowly.

“That’s the point,” Natasha says. “Finding out anything about you is an accident, lately.” She holds up her hand when Steve starts to protest. “Truth three.”

Her heart is beating very fast; she’s never done anything like this before; never stated anything this plainly, this wholly; never so determinedly stood next to the truth and refused to bend for anything else.

“Truth three,” she repeats. “Sam cares about you, Steve. Bucky cares about you, too, even though you think he doesn’t, that neither of them do. They do. And—” oh, goddammit, just say it “—I care about you too, Steve. I want you to be happy.”

He’s staring at her. He doesn’t say anything, just stares with his insufferable big blue eyes. He looks, she thinks, as if someone has gutted him.

“Nat,” he says, finally, forcefully, like he can’t pin down anything he wants to say, like he is, absurdly, ridiculously, proud of her—“Nat, I—”

“Don’t you dare, Steve,” Natasha says, fiercely, just as forcefully back; “don’t you dare. Don’t you see? It matters, it all matters—you have to speak your loves, you can’t just—hide them back into the dark parts of yourself where you never have to look at them, you can’t keep it inside, and you know that, you know it, why are you fighting that, why the hell do I have to be the brave one, I’m not—I never—”

She trails off. Her eyes, ridiculously, are burning. You have to speak your loves. She means it with she’s ever known or felt. But you have to act on your loves, too, and sometimes that gets the point across better than words do.

“I’m not the brave one,” she says, again; “goddammit,” and then she lunges forward and puts her hands on either side of Steve’s face and kisses him, hard, on the mouth.

It’s hasty and awkward and she has to pull Steve down to get him close enough because it’s as if he’s forgotten how to move, how to react, and she fists her hands in the front of his shirt and holds him in place long enough to kiss him properly. Do you get it now, asshole, she thinks, and bites his bottom lip hard before pulling away, just to see the wide-eyed shock on his face, the quiet amazement.

“Oh,” he says, looking down at her face, looking down at her mouth.

“Yeah, oh,” she says, the twist of her lips. “Asshole.”

He laughs, quiet, sheepish. “I guess I deserve that.”

They stand there for a moment, awkwardly, before she remembers.

“Truth four,” she says, and Steve blinks at her: “Bucky kissed Sam. Truth five is that I don’t think we should let them get away with that.”

Steve stares at her: that same gutted look on his face, stronger than before.

Speak your loves, Natasha thinks, and she says, “I talked to Peggy, remember?”

The realization moves, finally, into place behind Steve’s eyes.

 

-

 

This is what Steve knows: a long time ago, he loved someone, two someones, and he lost everything.

Those two things aren’t related: not directly. But the only way to lose something is to love it. The only way to mourn someone is to have loved them.

It follows him everywhere. His hands are full of it, this knowledge he cannot unlearn, this history he can’t unlive. He can’t find a place to set any of it down.

Peggy used to say he had an old soul. “You still do,” she said when he went to visit her a few weeks ago, when she was particularly lucid. “I’m the one who’s old and I still feel younger than you, Steve.”

Dancing with her in warm candlelight. The flutter of the hem of her dress, the red of her lipstick, the deep pleasure of her laughter. Bucky, watching them from across the room, his arms crossed, his eyes dark. Fast forward, and the ballroom is gone. The bombed-out bar is gone. It’s seven decades later and Sam Wilson is staring at Steve with huge brown eyes, talking about loss like it’s something that can be stared in the face, that can be countered. It’s seven decades later and Natasha Romanoff is kissing him on the mouth and telling him he can still get the things that he wants.

He feels so far away from this, from the truth. Looking through the wrong end of a telescope, backwards binoculars.

You have to speak your loves, Natasha said, and she’s right. You think too much, Sam would say. And, a long time ago—longer than Steve cares to think about—yeah, I’m scared, Bucky said, still says, as if through water, endless distance: that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let this go.

He’s still looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He still can’t set any of this down. But maybe, he thinks—maybe it’s time.

Bucky answers the door to Sam’s apartment when Natasha knocks. “I thought you left,” he says.

“Yeah, me too.” She tilts her head. “You gonna let us in?”

Steve remembers the day they spent at the beach. The glow of the water, the feel of the sand. The way Natasha’s smile looked when she caught him staring at her. The easy way Sam could still make him laugh. The walk down the shore he and Bucky had taken in silence, Bucky picking up seashells as they passed and bringing them back home.

Sam looks resigned when the three of them walk back into his house. “I know what you’re going to say,” he says, and he sounds tired.

Steve blinks. “You do?”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “You all want to move in, don’t you?”

And Natasha laughs. “Not a bad idea,” she says, “considering.”

“There’s only two beds,” Sam says, chagrined.

“We might only need one,” Natasha says, and her eyes are bright with laughter. Sam chokes.

“Are you kidding me,” he says, loudly, as if affronted; “really, now of all moments, after all this time, you guys finally decide to get your shit together?”

“Me, mostly,” Steve says. He can feel his face flushing. “I think it was mostly me who had to get his shit together.”

“I had my fair share of shit to get together,” Natasha says.

“So did I.” Bucky is watching Steve inscrutably.

Steve swallows. “Still. There’s some things I need to acknowledge. I haven’t been fair to any of you. I was afraid. I guess that’s obvious.” His face is burning, and he feels a hundred miles away from himself, from this room with these three people, these people he cares about more than he could possibly say. “I don’t want to live like that anymore.”

He trails off. He doesn’t know what else to say, how to put the immensity of what he feels into words.

“Someone please say something,” he says, finally, when the silence feels too long.

Bucky is still watching him, his head tilted to the left. He glances at Sam, then at Natasha. “Or,” he says, “we could do this.” He steps forward, and for the second time that night, Steve is being kissed, hard, Bucky’s strong fingers at the back of his neck, tugging him in close, the slide of his tongue and the less than gentle press of his mouth. It’s familiar and strange and not what Steve expected and he can’t move, speechless, even after Bucky pulls away.

“He does that,” Natasha says, drily. “Stands there gaping after you kiss him.”

Steve flushes again, all at once. “Only because you keep catching me by surprise.”

“Am I the only one who hasn’t kissed Steve?” Sam demands. “I refuse to be the fourth wheel in my own house.”

“Don’t worry,” Natasha says. “I’ve waited too long for this,” and she pulls Sam close and kisses him, gentler than she was with Steve, probably because Sam is actually reciprocating properly, his hands on her waist, pulling her in close after he makes a surprised, happy little noise and tilts his head towards her, his eyes closed.

Warmth, Steve thinks. Stability. Maybe he can set the heaviness down at last.

Later, after he has been thoroughly kissed, Sam says, “I’m serious, though, if you guys are gonna move in here, we need to like, make a plan or something—”

“We will,” Natasha says firmly. “Tomorrow.”

“We have time,” Steve says, quietly, and that’s the truth of it: now, they have each other.