There would come a day when Sam Wilson could no longer put off a complete debriefing session with his Momma. On that day, Sam hoped to escape the conversation alive by glossing over 'following a juiced-up supersoldier on a brainwashed assassin's revenge tour' in favor of 'convincing a traumatized war hero to come in from the cold with the power of Wilson family recipes.'
He made his first move in the Ukraine. The HYDRA base twenty miles outside of Lviv was going up in smoke. Sam had his shiny new Stark Industries wings locked in hover mode while he provided covering fire for Steve, who was sprinting out of there with Bucky slung over one shoulder. Bucky was bleeding from a huge gash in his hamstring, shooting into the flames behind Steve, and screaming, "SUCK MY DIIICK!" So, a normal day, aside from some poor bastard managing to land a hit on Bucky, which was just the opportunity Sam needed.
Once they were at a safe distance, Sam landed and slapped a field dressing on Bucky's leg while Steve was still holding onto him.
"Dude, you need sutures."
Bucky grunted, "Do 'em myself," which was exactly the kind of horrifying Sam was coming to expect from the guy.
"I'm sure you will, but you're still gonna be slowed down. Come back to camp with us." Usually Bucky split as soon as an assault on a base was completed, texting Steve with coordinates and a date and time for their next meetup.
Steve gave Sam a sharp look, but followed his lead. "Yeah, Bucky. We'll keep watch."
"Hell, I'll even cook some real food."
Bucky wiggled his ass irritably. "Fine! But put me down first."
Steve blushed and lowered Bucky to the ground. He tested his weight on his injured leg, scowled, and slung his metal arm over Steve's shoulders. "Okay, let's go." As it turned out, Bucky could even look menacing while hopping on one foot.
Back at camp, Sam hauled out some of the items he'd stocked up on when he first got his idea: minute rice, cans of beans and coconut milk, and 'seasoning mix'. He would have been mortified to serve this to company in his own home, but it was pretty swank for out in the bush. It almost felt like an actual camping trip, except instead of little nieces and nephews he was surrounded by white boys from World War Two.
Steve coughed. "Uh, need any help, there, Buck?" Sam looked up. Bucky was shimmying out of his pants. The number of knives still strapped to his legs should not have been surprising. His boots, belt, and the frankly excessive amount of ordnance associated with both were already laid out beside him, along with a suture kit.
Bucky paused and looked at Steve for a moment, then handed him his ripped pants and a second needle and thread from the kit. Then he sat down, hiked his calf behind his head, and set to cleaning and stitching his wound with all the nonchalance of a cat licking its balls.
Sam spared a moment to be thankful that this particular Howling Commando did not go commando, and resumed putting supper together. Steve, scarlet-faced, bent over his sewing. “That smells great, Sam,” he said desperately, "I can't wait 'til it's ready."
Sam poked the thick, steaming mass in the pot. “It’s ready now, actually, but it’ll get better the longer it sits.” He hoisted it out of the hottest part of the fire and started rummaging around in their supplies, coming up with a lime, a knife, and bowls and spoons. When everyone was finished sewing and Bucky was reunited with his pants, Sam passed out bowls of rice and beans with a squeeze of lime juice on top of each.
Steve, when he was confident that it would not be rude, could eat a truly impressive amount. He finished two bowls in the time it took Sam to eat half of his first. Sam was expecting Bucky to be the same way, but instead he ate a couple of spoonfuls and then stopped.
"We've got other supplies if you're not into that," Sam offered.
Bucky looked down and twirled the spoon in his hand. "No, this is good. Really good. I'm just - waiting."
Steve paused in engulfing his third helping. "For what?"
Bucky muttered, "See if it stays down." He looked embarrassed.
Sam could almost feel his ears pricking up. "That been a problem?" He tried to keep his tone casual.
Bucky shrugged. "Less so now." He rubbed his belly, which, Sam realized, had to be pretty sunken for that bulky tac vest to fit as tight as it did. "Seems freezer burn is a lot like gut rot, 'cept it gets better."
There was an awkward silence. Sam looked into the fire and thought more than he ever wanted to about the innards of someone who was repeatedly frozen, thawed, and re-frozen. "What were you even eating? Before, I mean."
Bucky grimaced. "Some kind of liquid. Fake shit. Stayed down, but tasted worse on the first pass than most things do on the second."
Steve looked ready to cry, or punch somebody. He settled for eating his feelings instead, digging back into his food in a more subdued manner than before.
Eventually Bucky must have decided the rice and beans were low risk, because he started eating again and rapidly picked up speed. Sam beamed at him and provided a refill.
"Really good," Bucky said again, "thanks." Steve shook off his funk and nodded agreement with his mouth full.
Sam laughed. "We get back to civilization, I'll make it for you again sometime. Do it up right with good rice, fresh thyme and chilis... mmm!" He gave the remains in the pot a stir. "I begged my mom to make this so many times when I was little, she finally taught me how to do it myself. First thing I ever learned to cook."
Bucky looked at Steve as he chewed. Finally he swallowed and murmured, "Date squares."
Steve grinned. "That's right! Yeah, you got your Ma to teach you those because I liked 'em so much."
Bucky nodded. "Lots of butter," he said approvingly. Sam squinted at him. With his wild-man hair and crazy-man arsenal, Bucky bore almost no resemblance to the clean-cut soldier from the history books, let alone a small boy trying to feed up his even smaller friend. Sam gave up and turned to Steve.
"What about you? What's the first thing you learned to make?"
Steve blinked. "You know, I don't actually remember?"
"I do," Bucky grumbled, "same as the last thing: 'soup'."
"What kind?" Sam asked, although the audible quotation marks Bucky put around the word did not bode well.
Steve smiled ruefully. "Two kinds: the kind you make with a can opener, and the kind you make by boiling table scraps into submission." He chuckled at Sam's wince. "When I said the food's a lot better now, I guess I meant I don't have to eat my own cooking anymore as much as anything."
"If you hadn't moved in with me when you did, I think my folks would've kidnapped you," Bucky said, "and I'd've helped." He eyed the pot. Sam took Bucky's bowl and scraped the remaining rice and beans into it, wringing the last of the juice out of the lime.
"Speaking of," Sam said easily, "you got any plans for once you're finished your rampage? How many stops are left on that, anyway?" Bucky gave Sam an impressed look. Sam kept his gaze steady; you didn't have to be a world-class sniper to shoot straight. Steve appeared to be holding his breath. The only sound was the crackle of the fire.
"Three bases," Bucky admitted, "couple dozen faces. More and more of 'em are already dead, though."
"Old age?" Steve asked.
"Not all, but. Yeah," said Bucky. His voice was quiet now, and infinitely bitter. "Ain't that a kick in the ass."
"After," Steve said, "if you want - if you want, we're invited to Stark Tower in Manhattan."
"Stark," Bucky echoed. "You mean like Howard Stark?"
"His boy, Tony."
"Tony know his folks' death was a HYDRA job when he extended this invitation?"
"Yes. Even if it was you. Was it?" Damn. Sam knew Steve could shoot straight, too, but he was so affable that sometimes he forgot.
Bucky snorted. "Psh, no. Even if I was stateside, you could cause a dozen car crashes with the resources it took to activate me, and in less time." He stared into the fire. "They bragged about it, though. To my face, once - musta been a test." He shook his head and lurched to his feet. “Thanks again for the chow, Wilson. I’ll take first watch.” With that, he limped into the woods and was out of sight in seconds.
Steve said to Sam, barely audible, “I can hear him climbing a tree.” A moment later, Steve’s phone chimed. Sam picked it up and started laughing.
The text read: and I can hear you forgetting all meaning of the word covert. fucksakes.
The next time they met up with Bucky was in Athens. Sam woke up from a really sensational sleep (the chintzy hostel they were in had nice hard mattresses) to the smell of really sensational coffee. Bucky and Steve were sitting at the tiny in-suite table, poking at something on Steve’s tablet. Bucky had civilian clothes on: jeans and a sweater, hair in a neat ponytail. There were big paper cups of coffee and a promisingly-greasy brown paper bag on the table.
“Morning, Sam,” said Steve. “Bucky brought us breakfast.”
“Bless you, my son,” Sam said fervently. The coffee tasted as good as it smelled, but his morning got even better when he opened the bag: inside was, hands-down, the best baklava Sam had ever tasted. Sam was pretty sure he made sex noises.
“I figured,” Bucky said almost shyly, “any cafe still in the same place since 1975 had to be pretty good.”
“You figured right.” Steve fished another piece out of the bag. “We may need another pit stop before we visit…" He peeked at the tablet. "Giotopoulos Indoor Hall?”
“Fucking Gio,” Bucky sighed, “he would get an Olympic facility built on top of his base.”
Sam licked his fingers. “Is this one active?”
“Arena’s closed to the public. Anything more than a skeleton crew would attract attention." Bucky hefted a bright, overloaded tourist's rucksack that was clanking suspiciously. "They'll be casualties in a meth lab explosion." He looked at Steve. "You said you can get us a boat?"
"A friend of ours is in the neighbourhood. They'll meet us at this marina." Steve zoomed out the map on the tablet and tapped a spot on the nearby coastline.
As it turned out, the base was not one of the ones to have survived the chaos caused by HYDRA's internet coming-out party. The computers were missing their hard drives, and the only personnel were a few dried-up corpses. Bucky looked at them and grinned.
“I was right: skeleton crew.” He sniggered. Sam groaned. Steve rubbed his face with his palm.
Bucky assembled his ‘meth lab’ set dressing, piled all the paper documentation they could find, and carefully set fire to the outer edge of the heap. They ran until they got back to street level, and were speeding down the road before the first wisps of smoke even became visible from the outside.
There was an honest-to-God little yacht idling at the marina. In less than a minute everyone was onboard and speeding out to the open ocean, car abandoned in the parking lot. When they made their way up to the bridge, Sam was not exactly surprised to find that their host was Natasha Romanoff, looking cute as hell in a captain's beret.
"Hey fellas," she called, keeping one hand on the wheel and both eyes on Bucky.
Sam was kind of surprised when Bucky took one look at her and sank to the floor, back against the short passenger bench, covering his face. "Oh no," he groaned, "oh nooo."
"Dude, how come she gets the dramatics and I only rated a "sorry I ripped your wings off"?"
"Wing," Bucky said absently. He parted his fingers and peeked at Natasha, then closed them again. "I shot you." His voice was ragged. "I shot you two times."
Natasha blinked at him. "You remember Odessa?"
Bucky pressed the flats of his fingers hard against his eyes. "Now, yes. I am so sorry, spiderling." His accent, usually Brooklyn-flat, was instead guttural and precise.
Natasha's posture went from faux-casual to completely rigid. She snapped at Bucky in Russian. He answered back in the same language, softer but just as fast. His hands slid into his lap; his face was incredibly sad. (And pissed off, but then Bucky almost always looked pissed off.)
Finally Natasha threw a hand, palm-out, between her and Bucky, cutting him off mid-sentence. "I need a drink," she announced, "I need- several. Drinks. Only people who can get drunk may come belowdecks until further notice." She slapped a few buttons on the ship's console. "Holler if we get company." She all but bolted down the stairs, and Sam followed uncertainly. Behind him, Steve said, "Bucky?" but Sam entered the cabin before he heard Bucky's response.
Natasha was in the galley, pulling a large bottle of vodka out of the freezer compartment of the fridge. She plunked a pair of shot glasses on the bar, filled them up, handed one to Sam, and tossed the other back herself. She exhaled gustily and gave herself a refill.
“Natasha, what did Barnes-”
“Less talka, more vodka.” Sam shrugged and followed her lead. Natasha wasn’t this rattled by Sam almost falling through a helicopter forty-one stories above the ground; whatever she was going to say, he could probably use a drink before hearing. And the vodka was superb, icy and smooth and just a little sharp, like taking a deep breath of winter air.
When Sam had two shots in him and Natasha had five, she set the bottle carefully on the bar, still gripping it. She didn’t look at Sam.
“He said I was his favorite student.”
“...Shit.” Sam grabbed the vodka away from her and took another shot. His hearty breakfast of too much baklava was hours ago, so the booze worked its magic pretty quick, the cold slide down his throat transmuting into a warm slide through his belly and muscles and brain. Everything was slowing down and softening up, which was exactly right for what appeared to be happening: being trapped on a beautiful boat on the beautiful ocean, and forced to contemplate the hideous wreckage that was the lives of Sam’s new friends.
“Wait. How does- how could Barnes be a- an assassin instructor, or whatever the fuck? In DC he was about as interactive as a bullet.”
Natasha grunted. “The thing about ‘cut off one head, two more shall take its place’ is you end up with twice as many heads. More than half of the Cold War was infighting between American and Russian HYDRA. I guarantee that when the Americans bought the Winter Soldier, they were given a very incomplete instruction manual out of spite.” She took another shot.
“Bought. Jesus fuck.” Sam sat down.
“Shitty maintenance may have helped him break his programming when he did,” Natasha mused. “His functioning would have already been seriously compromised in DC. Lucky for Steve.”
Sam snorted. “Lucky for the world. I’ve seen him fight now, when he’s firing on all cylinders. If he'd been like that then? HYDRA would’ve won, I think." Sam rubbed his face, hard; it was starting to go numb. "I gotta eat something before I drink anymore. What kind of food you got on this boat?"
"Oh!" Natasha moved to the fridge. Sam got up carefully and followed her. "I kind of made an impulse purchase before meeting up with you boys. Figured I'd learn to cook them while I had the equivalent of nine guys around to eat the results." She threw open the fridge, half of which was taken up by a cooler. She pried off the lid.
Sam could have wept. The entire cooler was packed to the brim with fresh fish on ice. "Those... those were alive earlier today, weren't they?"
"Pretty sure they were alive less than four hours ago." Natasha licked her lips.
Sam's stomach growled. "It's your boat, and your fish, but as a person who cares about food, may I suggest pan-frying? I'll help if you want."
The fish were already gutted, but not filleted. Sam was relieved that Natasha volunteered for that step; he was not feeling his most dexterous.
"Steve and Barnes are still up on the bridge. Should I let them know they can come down?"
Natasha separated a fish from its head, bones, and skin in two seconds flat. "Yes, all right."
Sam popped his head through the top of the stairwell to the bridge, opening his mouth to let the supersoldiers know they had the run of the ship - and wound up gaping in shock instead.
Steve and Bucky were laid out on the passenger bench, Steve on his back and Bucky on top of him. They were kissing- no, they were making out, mashed together so tight they had to be tasting each other's tonsils. Steve's right hand was tangled in Bucky's hair, and Bucky's left arm was - oh Jesus - moving between them. Both their flies were open.
As Sam watched, frozen like a deer in the headlights, Steve broke the kiss to throw his head back, gasping and shuddering, the veins on his neck standing out. Bucky licked a stripe between Steve's collarbone and jaw, and murmured, "That's it, love, gimme another one. Gettin' all messy for me, ain'tcha? Gonna lick you clean, doll, tuck you away so neat, won't nobody 'cept me know what we were doin' where anybody could see-"
Sam's retreat down to the cabin was the quietest he had ever tried to move in his entire life. By far.
Natasha had processed about half the fish in the cooler. "They coming?"
Sam bit his tongue. "They're... having a moment." Sam took out his phone and texted Steve: food downstairs when you're ready. He thought for a second, then he sent Bucky the same message. He decided against having another shot of vodka. Then he decided he'd better make good on his text.
He dipped the first couple of fillets in egg, then in flour and salt, and got them sizzling in an oiled pan on the little two-element range.
Natasha smiled at him. "You're a bit of a stress-cook, aren't you?"
"What tipped you off?"
"Breakfast for six the morning me and Steve dragged ourselves in your door?"
"That was nothing. We ever get those two lunkheads upstairs home safe, I am gonna bake eight, maybe ten pies. And y'all are gonna eat 'em." Sam gently lifted the edge of one fillet with the spatula. "There, see how it holds together? Means it's ready for flipping."
"Let me try." Natasha turned the fish over. The breading was golden-brown and crispy. "It's a good coping strategy, really. You feel like you've accomplished something, and there's tasty food to eat. How long should I do this side?"
"Not quite as long as the first. These little dudes are pretty flat, so they cook fast." Sam cut one in half with the spatula. It was steaming and flaky. "Perfect."
They ate the first two fillets standing over the stove with their plates in their hands, watching the next ones. The fresh fish tasted amazing.
"You know what else I've got?" Natasha waved her fork at the freezer. "Precut fries. We could have fish and chips."
Sam beamed at her. "This is gonna be the best bender ever." By the time Natasha had the fries going on the other element, Sam was starting to stack cooked fish on a plate under some tinfoil. Steve and Bucky better come up for air soon - there really was a ton of food.
As if summoned by thought, the two men came trooping into the cabin, sniffing avidly. Was there an extra spring in Steve's step? Was Bucky's mouth pinker and poutier than usual? Sam couldn't tell. He didn't want to be able to tell. His ears burned, and he was once again grateful that he was too dark for his blushes to show.
Steve squinted at him. "How much vodka did you two have? Your nose is red, Sam." Goddammit.
"Holy cow," Bucky said. "Steve, look. They made fish and chips, Steve."
"I see that." Steve looked at the stack of fried fillets like he was seeing the face of God.
"Stop looking, start eating. There's lots." Natasha dumped some fries on a plate and handed it to Bucky, who said something in Russian that made her crack a smile and finally meet his eyes.
Steve opened the cupboard. "What are the chances you have some vinegar around?"
Bucky rolled his eyes. "You and your vinegar."
"Shaddup, you like it too- aha!" Steve brandished a bottle triumphantly. Bucky held out two loaded plates, and Steve doused them. Then they sat down on the couch and started stuffing their faces - both of them.
Sam raised an eyebrow. "No waiting, Barnes?"
Bucky swallowed a huge bite, then said slowly, "The day I cannot digest potatoes and fish, is the day my Nan rises from the grave, just to shame me to death."
Steve burst out laughing. "Oh my God, she would! What would she say, she'd say," he switched to a creaky falsetto, "'Lord t'underin' Jesus, what'll it be next, b'y? Too fancy for porridge? Too tired for Mass?'"
“'Oh, your grandfadder would have a t’ing or two to say if he was ‘ere God rest ‘im,'” Bucky continued in the same vein before dissolving into rusty giggles and cramming more food into his mouth.
Sam stared at them briefly, then shrugged and sat down with his own plate. Turned out fish and chips were pretty good with vinegar. It left him thirsty, though, and after all that salt and sour he made a beeline for the dark beer he’d seen in the fridge earlier.
Things got a bit vague after that.
Sam woke up with a queasy stomach and a pounding headache. Somebody was spooning him on the couch, somebody with narrow shoulders and - he craned his neck - red hair: Natasha. As far as he could tell they were both fully-clothed. Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
Slitting his eyes against the light, he peered farther afield. He didn't have to look far; Steve was sitting on the carpet with his back against the couch and Bucky's head in his lap. He was eating cereal straight out of the box. Sam grunted and flapped a hand in Steve's direction, and received a fistful. It turned out to be Honey Nut Cheerios.
"How you doing?" Steve said quietly. Sam still winced.
"Liver's not so happy with me. Haven't partied that hard in a few years."
"Clint - Hawkeye - he says it's a bad idea to try and keep up with Natasha."
"He's not wrong." While not as huge as Steve, Sam was still a big, strong guy, and he remembered Natasha outdrinking him by a factor of two at least. He wondered if she had a little of the same knockoff serum Bucky got. Apparently she spent time in the right hellhole for it.
"How was drunk-sitting?"
Steve chuckled. "Kind of boring. The next time I see Thor, I am seriously considering asking if he can spot us some Asgardian hooch."
Sam thought that 'us' was encouraging. With only two stops left on Bucky's vigilante agenda, Sam figured Bucky was about to need as many things to live for as they could make him think of. It would help if Steve was already thinking that way.
Frankfurt was a fucking gong show. There were renovations Bucky hadn't accounted for, and the entire place was crawling like an anthill. Sam wound up playing 'distract the big guns' like he did over the helicarriers. Eventually he was able to get the two anti-aircraft cannons to fire on each other. The explosion was very satisfying.
"Have you found that water main yet?" He demanded over the comm.
"Negative," came Bucky's voice, muffled by the creepy mask he'd insisted on wearing for the mission. He'd tried to get Steve and Sam to wear them too, but Sam would've said no based on the muzzle vibe alone, even if he'd never heard of the Winter Soldier, and Steve had taken one look at the thing and blanched.
("I don't see what all the fuss is about," Bucky had huffed, "they're perfectly good gas masks. And there's a real risk we're going to get our pictures taken on this one.")
"Pressure points are seeded," said Steve. "I'm coming to you, Buck." Both of them were speaking over a chaos of gunfire, clangs, screams, and thumps.
"Keep an eye on the pipes overhead, we need the-"
"Yeah, I know- hey! Here it is!"
"I see you."
Sam fumed with anxiety as he circled overhead, taking out anyone who tried to abandon their post. They were a small number; the events in DC had stripped HYDRA's ranks down to informed loyalists.
(Sam had worried about prisoners at the beginning of this adventure, but it seemed that blowhard Rumlow was telling the truth: there were no prisoners with HYDRA.)
"Catalyst deployed. We're coming to you, Sam." The sounds of fighting grew sparser as they backtracked.
"Shit! They sealed a blast door. We'll have to duck through here."
"Bucky, watch out!" There was a tinkle of breaking glass, then:
"Don't breathe in!" Bucky bellowed. The comm screeched with feedback.
"What the hell's going on! Barnes? Steve!" Sam shouted.
Thirty seconds (or years) later, a fireball bloomed in the wall of the building and Bucky came barrelling out with Steve in a fireman's carry. He had evidently created a new exit with his grenade launcher.
"Sam. Sam!" Bucky's voice was frantic. Steve was conscious but nonverbal, staring wide-eyed at nothing as his breath came in tiny, horrible wheezes. Bucky said, "Inhaled hyper-inflammatory, go!" and shoved Steve into Sam's arms.
Sam spread his wings and took off for the van. He threw open the back doors, and Steve all but crawled inside while Sam tore into his gear. Within a minute, Steve had a non-rebreather mask strapped to his face, with nebulizer mist puffing out the sides. His breathing became a little deeper, but no easier; his chest heaved as his accessory muscles tried to help him create more pressure. He didn't lose consciousness, though. After a moment's thought, Sam reached for the mask Bucky had offered him earlier and snapped it onto himself.
Two minutes after they reached the van, Bucky joined them. He planted himself behind Steve and propped him up against his chest, leaning back slightly and taking Steve's weight.
"Everything's fine, Stevie," he said, in a warm, soothing tone Sam had never heard from him before, "just breathe with me, deep and slow. Feel my chest, breathe with me. In, one, two, three; aand hold; out, one, two, three. We're taking in air, we're letting the meds work, we're letting out air." After a minute or so of this patter, Steve started to relax and he slumped against Bucky, their chests rising and falling in time, Steve's inhalations getting deeper and easier as the medicine was drawn down.
Sam took a few deep breaths of his own. "What the hell happened."
"A tech threw a vial of something that started vaporizing on contact with the air." Bucky held up his right hand; it was breaking out in fiery red hives. "I shoved it away, but not before Steve got a faceful. Thank God you still got oxygen and meds in your gear."
"Hell, I can ventilate if I have to." Sam was even equipped to intubate, not that it would have helped in this case. "Hey, whoa whoa whoa!" He all but shouted as Bucky reached behind his own neck, presumably to take his mask off. "Leave everything on until you're decontaminated. I don't need two patients here."
Bucky's eyes flicked to Sam's mask. "Right." He sighed and rubbed Steve's sternum. "How you doing there, Stevie?" Steve gave them a thumbs-up.
"Your asthma used to be really bad, huh," said Sam. Steve waggled his hand dismissively.
Bucky said, "He got pneumonia at the drop of a hat in the winter, too. Steve's mom and I used to take it in shifts - we must have logged weeks sitting like this all told."
"Days." Steve's voice was a hoarse whistle. Bucky cuffed him on the side of the head.
"You was delirious half the time, ya punk. And no talking yet!"
Since Bucky was behind him, Steve glared at Sam instead.
"You're stabilizing. Good. We should get outta here." Sam glanced at Bucky. "Shit. The base?"
Bucky crinkled his eyes at him - a smile, probably a toothy one. He held up the little detonator. "Pressed it while I was running to the van. Whole thing is now a sinkhole."
"Good." Sam dug out his phone and pressed a number in the contacts. A few seconds later, Tony Stark's face appeared.
"Other Birdman! You don't call, you don't write, it breaks my heart. How are the wings? How's Cap? How goes the Hunt for Red Bucktober?" Stark didn't look up from where he was welding something.
"I'm calling now, the wings are good thanks, Steve's not doing so hot, and you know we caught up with Barnes weeks ago."
Stark switched off his torch and shoved his goggles onto his forehead, turning to face the camera. "Your voice sounds funny- whoa. What's with the murder-gimp getup?" Sam turned the phone to show Steve with his oxygen mask, who waved, and Bucky in full murder-gimp regalia, who glared.
"Huh." Stark rubbed his temple with a gloved hand. "Where are you guys?"
"Frankfurt. Didn't you say you had a house here? We need a decontamination shower."
"Sure, sure. JARVIS, roll out the welcome mat and text Sam the address, will you?"
"Very good, sir." A second later Sam's phone chimed. Sam climbed into the driver's seat and followed his GPS app to a - well, it was still a mansion, but a low-key one by Stark's standards. As Sam watched, a garage door opened and the indoor lights flashed at him. He let himself by guided down a ramp into a well-lit underground garage with a couple of beautiful vintage cars... and, yes, an open door revealing a bathroom with a decontamination shower.
"You first, Barnes. You've got the most on you." Bucky stripped off all his gear except his mask into a bag and trooped into the stall. Sam went back for Steve.
He'd taken himself off the oxygen and was sitting with his legs dangling out the back of the van, taking some experimental breaths. Of course.
"Man, I don't know how Barnes reached adulthood without grey hairs, looking after your ass all the time."
"Oh, I've got 'em!" Bucky hollered from the shower. "I got my first one at seventeen. Seventeen, Sam!"
"That ain't my fault," Steve rasped mutinously, "it's those Black Irish genes of yours."
“If you can walk to the shower yourself, I won’t make Barnes hold you up in there.”
Bucky muttered something Sam couldn’t hear, but which made Steve turn bright red. Sam didn’t want to know. Anyway, Steve got up and walked into the bathroom perfectly steadily, and was just stripping down when Bucky got out, mask in hand. He tossed it into the bag with the rest of his gear, tied it up and started looking around.
“Sergeant Barnes,” said JARVIS, “if you would, please put your gear down the chute to your left.”
Bucky jumped a good two feet in the air. “Who said that?”
“Oh, my apologies. I am JARVIS, a digital associate of Mr. Stark.”
“No shit.” Bucky seemed to take this in stride, shifting straight into arguing, “What’s at the bottom of that chute?”
“A fully-automated cleaning service, capable of handling every part of the Iron Man armor. All your items will be returned to you in perfect condition.”
Bucky glowered at the ceiling. “They better be. Lili’s in this bag.”
“Lili?” said Sam.
“The SIG-Sauer P226.” Bucky loved that pistol.
“Is there a Marlene?” said Steve.
“The Barrett M82.” That was Bucky’s fuck-off huge sniper rifle. Sam had no idea how Bucky was transporting it from country to country, but it kept showing up. He usually used it to soften up a base before entering, picking off guards and destroying property at his leisure.
“This isn't actually the weirdest conversation I have ever had with two naked dudes, but I’m still out.” Sam threw his borrowed mask in another bag, handed it to Steve to put his clothes in, and retreated up the stairs.
The kitchen would not have been at all out of place in a five-star restaurant. Sam peeked in the fridge and pantry, and was briefly overwhelmed at the number of choices before he made up his mind. It had been a seriously shit day. Serious comfort food was called for.
A huge pot of hot water was working its way up to a boil, bacon was broiling, and Sam was chopping onions and jalapeno peppers, when the sound of Bucky haranguing Steve became audible as they came up from the garage. He propelled Steve in a one-armed frog march from the lower stairs and directly up the next set without stopping. They were both still naked.
“-left you alone for five minutes, and you got yourself signed up to be a lab rat! I was still in the country; I was still in the city! The last guy to undergo the procedure got his face melted off and turned extra-crazy, but you-” A door slammed upstairs. Sam could still dimly make out the sound of Bucky’s voice, but not words.
Sam dumped all the macaroni in the pantry into the pot. He grated a fuckload of cheese while it cooked. He chopped the crispy bacon and set it aside. Bucky’s muffled yelling started to get drowned out by the sounds of Steve moaning and a bedframe slamming against a wall. Sam cracked one of the German microbrews from the fridge.
“Yes, Staff Sergeant Wilson?”
“Oh my God, first, please just call me Sam.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“You- okay. Second, can you put on some music or something?”
They went through the verbal equivalent of channel-flipping before settling on something bluesy and relaxing. If a faint wail of “BUCKYYY!” still penetrated the music every few minutes, well, Sam could live with that. Sam worked his way slowly through his beer while he put together a thick, velvety cheese sauce, mixed in the bacon and macaroni, and turned the whole creamy mass into four large casserole dishes. He blanketed them in buttered panko crumbs, slid them into two of the four ovens, and settled down at the island with the tablet he found in the living room for thirty minutes.
Slowly the kitchen filled up with warm, savoury smells, and then with supersoldiers in fuzzy Iron-Man themed pajama pants. Bucky was still talking, but wound to a close as he took a single forkful of macaroni and cheese and then sat down, gesturing with the fork in his left hand, the ruined margin of his metal arm twisting as it moved. Sam hoped it wasn't too obvious how he couldn't look away; it was the first time he’d seen how the thing was attached. It was, predictably, awful.
“In conclusion,” Bucky was saying, “you are the biggest punk in the world two centuries running, and while I can get by without you around, I don’t want to.” Now Sam had to look away from the frank affection on Bucky's face.
“So don’t,” Steve said earnestly. “Come back to New York with me. Live in a high-rise designed by a paranoid genius and controlled by a sentient AI.”
“That’s me,” JARVIS said, sounding pleased.
“Fight on my team with another sniper, a spy, a Hulk, a Norse god, and a Stark. Between them they’ve been through a lot of the same shit that got dumped on you."
"Oh yeah? And how do they deal with it?"
"Bunch of ways, mostly violent, but not all."
Bucky rubbed his stomach and got up to serve himself. "Where's Sam in this scenario?"
"I'm touched, Barnes." He really was. Bucky was very Steve-centric; the only other things he'd seen him base decisions on were vengeance and food.
Bucky sat down with a plate that was nearly overflowing. "I got a rule, Sam. Anybody who's seen my bare ass has to call me Bucky."
Sam smiled. "Okay. The truth, Bucky, and even Steve doesn't know this yet, is that I accepted a casual position at the New York City VA two weeks into this crazy trip. And I can't afford to live there without taking Stark's offer of an apartment in the tower."
Steve looked at him, wide-eyed. "Sam-"
"I ain't sharing a wall, a floor, or a ceiling with you guys, though; you fuck too loud."
Steve turned beet-red and bent as close to his macaroni as he could without actually shoving his face into it. Bucky burst into his rusty giggles again.
"So much for Stark's soundproofing, huh Stevie?" He chortled.
"Yeah, yeah." Steve saved himself from having to say anything more by taking a huge forkful of food. When he no longer looked like he was about to spontaneously combust, he cleared his throat and said, "So, there it is. Live with me, Buck. Whaddya say?"
"I say I'm thinking about it," Bucky said gently, "but there's one more thing I gotta do first."
The last of the bases Bucky meant to hit. Sam knew they were already finished working backwards through his resume; the Winter Soldier's first credited kill was right here in Frankfurt, and Steve and Sam suspected there were uncredited kills clustered around the same bases. Sam wondered what was left.
In the morning, Bucky was gone, leaving behind only a set of coordinates, and a meeting time a week in the future.
The new coordinates were not associated with any city at all, rather wilderness so complete they had to go in on foot, Siberian forest enveloping them in the kind of indifferent harshness one found in places where people never went.
The night before the rendezvous, Steve didn't sleep a wink. At one point Sam blinked awake to find him sitting up by the fire, going over the Winter Soldier file from Natasha for the umpteenth time, as if he hadn't memorized every word of every page already.
"What's got you so worked up, Cap?"
"The Winter Soldier is credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last fifty years. Fifty, Sam."
"We already knew he was cryofrozen-"
"Bucky fell off that train seventy years ago."
Sam's stomach clenched. "Steve."
"Tomorrow morning, we're going to the place where they spent twenty years breaking him." Steve crumpled a sheet of paper in his fist. "Being there, seeing that - what if I come out of there and I can't be what Bucky needs anymore?"
"Or- or what if he gets to the end of his list, and decides the last person on it is himself?"
"Don't borrow trouble."
Steve wrinkled his forehead. "People still say that? My mom used to say that."
"I can see why. All these what-if's; can you name a single, solitary thing you will accomplish by working yourself into a lather over them?"
"I- no." Steve's shoulders slumped. "God, I like it so much better when there's something to punch."
"Don't we all." Sam waited until Steve looked him in the eye. "Look, man. This used to be my actual, literal job: going into bad places and trying to bring people out alive. There's nothing you can really do to be ready for the badness except focus on that work. And we've done pretty well with that, here. Bucky's got other things besides some cosmic balance sheet in his head: food, and sex-" Steve looked down, probably blushing though it wasn't visible by firelight. "We've got him thinking about home, and family. Good things. We've done the best we can. Tomorrow's gonna go down the same whether you sleep or not. So you might as well sleep."
"Don't know if I can do that." Steve smiled a little. "But thanks, Sam."
Steve put away the damn folder, at least, and sat staring into the fire. Sam rolled over and fell asleep watching sparks drift up into the night.
The next day, as they picked their way closer and closer to their destination, there was a faint, then overpowering, smell of smoke. Their pathfinding became more urgent.
"Jerk started without us," Steve grumbled, trying to cover his tension.
They finally burst out of the tree cover onto a barren, rocky hillside. The only notable feature was the giant patch of smouldering ash. Bucky was sitting quietly a few feet back from its edge, a huge field pack and a little cooler beside him. He turned and waved as they jogged up. When they reached him, he opened the cooler and offered them each a beer. They sat down and drank, watching the smoke rise.
"Hope you don't mind," Bucky said at length, "there was nobody in this one. Decommissioned decades ago. Just had to be torched." He picked at the label on his beer. "Didn't want to be alone, after. So, thanks for coming."
"Anytime, man," said Sam.
"So, this is it?" Steve asked carefully. "Nothing else on your to-do list?"
Bucky took another swallow of beer. "Nope. Every person who gave me a kill order, and every person who worked on me, is dead. I," he pronounced, with immense satisfaction, "am the sole remaining expert on myself."
"Someone could still have information," Sam pointed out.
"If they haven't met me, that information won't do them much good." He raised an eyebrow at Steve. "Besides, there's this team people have been talking up to me; think I'm gonna fall in with them for a while."
Steve swallowed hard, and said thickly, "Think you'll fit right in."
Bucky dropped his eyes. "Don't expect- uh. I'm not much good at things that aren't violence, anymore."
Sam said, "You'll get there. We'll help you. But you gotta do one thing for me." Bucky looked at him. "Show me a way outta here that isn't hiking straight through the damn woods?"
Bucky chuckled. "Well, I came in by the old road, which ain't much better than that. But I called us a ride for the trip out." He brandished his phone. "Should be here any minute. Which reminds me..." He set down his beer and ambled up to the edge of where the fire had been, unzipped his fly, and started pissing on the ashes.
"Anyone else need to go before we leave?" Bucky shouted over the increasing roar overhead. By the time he'd shaken off and zipped up, a Stark Industries quinjet (which looked suspiciously similar to a SHIELD quinjet) was settling on the ground.
"No way," said Sam, "no way." Steve started to laugh.
Bucky came back to them and put the empties in the cooler. He shouldered his field pack - from the way it clanked against his left arm, Marlene was probably disassembled in there - and inclined his head to where the jet was lowering a ramp. "You coming?"
The very first time a person lived instead of died because of Sam, he felt like King Kong on cocaine. Hooked for life. He'd been a rescuer ever since, one way or another.
He could see the cracks in Bucky, the bravado slapped over the fault lines; and he knew all too well the story about the soldier who was fine on the front and fell apart when he got home. Didn't matter; Sam got that old rush all the same: saved this one. Looking at Steve's face, the most openly joyful Sam had ever seen his friend, he figured it was probably more like two.
"Yeah, let's go." Sam walked onto that plane, and felt like singing.