In the middle of all of the shit that's going down, getting Barnes back isn't hard. It's straightforward, even though it's a trap, and very little is these days. Sam doesn't think he's the only one who is maybe a little relieved by that -- and a little appalled. Life on the run is logistically simple for a band mostly made up of ex-soldiers, but running from the government that you used to soldier for, that you swore to defend with your blood and your honor, that's not nearly as easy. They all believe that they're doing the right thing, but sometimes it feels like they're operating on faith, on Steve's faith in their mission and their faith in him. It's a lot like being back at war. It's lonely and terrifying and exhausting, in the way that war is, and they are rootless and paranoid because everyone is chasing them and there is no safe harbor that stays safe for long. It's not a kind of war Sam is used to; his war came with hot meals at the DFAC and mandatory reflective belts and spotty wifi in garrison and the knowledge that if something went wrong, a QRF would come after you. And, most importantly, a redeployment date, whenever it was, after which he'd get to go home and return to his civilian life. There's none of that here and now, none of those protections or promises, just another day and night on the run where a good day is getting to eat and sleep and maybe Steve gets his message out some more and a bad day is pitched combat in the streets where they have to pull their punches because they're either fighting their friends or men and women who might even agree with them, but must uphold the law.
It's not the life Sam expected when he first took his oath of enlistment or when he first told Steve that he'd follow Captain America because it was the right thing to do. It's not the first time he's been surprised like this, though, and he deals with it as best he can. He's not the only one a little at sea and rolling with the waves; they all are except for Steve, whose certitude is their life preserver when they feel like they're drowning. They have each other and then they have Barnes, something they probably never expected, even less expected to be grateful for.
Barnes is shaky at first, physically from living in extremis and emotionally from being reunited with Steve. Who is aware of this and Sam watches them both carefully because he knows what finding out about Barnes did to Steve the first time, what the search has done to him, and what the fight they are all engaged in is doing to him now. But Steve handles this new burden with surprising ease and grace and, when Sam finally brings it up in a quiet moment, wry humor.
"This, I know what to do with," Steve tells him with a genuine smile, rare even before things went pear-shaped. "The only difference between now and 1943 is who we're at war with."
Sam learned the history of Captain America and the Howling Commandos from history books and Mrs. Holmes, his ninth-grade social studies teacher. He knows now that there was more to that story, has known since Steve first explained how the Winter Soldier could have been Bucky Barnes and not a cruel joke of plastic surgery or the wishes of a broken heart, but he's never really combined the two truths in his head. He has tried to be friends with the Steve Rogers of the present, not the character from the movies or the figure in his high school textbook, and sometimes that means treating them as separate people when they're not. Which is maybe a disservice to Steve, who does not divide his life into a before and an after - well, he does, but his before is before the serum, not the plane going down in '45.
Steve is not the only one to appreciate that getting Barnes back is a case of history repeating. It doesn't take long before Barnes is making sarcastic comments to Steve about not learning from previous mistakes, about neither time nor deep freeze doing anything to curb his worst traits, and Sam thinks that that does more to demonstrate his recovery than his improved appetite and endurance. Nor is Barnes the only one showing improvement. Steve is delighted to be insulted like this, laughing and snarking right back at Barnes and it's a little weird because Steve has rarely been this animated in the time Sam has known him. Steve is a sarcastic asshole when given half a chance and he loves shocking people who expect him to be the Captain America of the old movies, all polite and full of aw-shucks charm. But this is a Steve of a different wattage, giving Barnes shit about his hair and his 'penchant for playing boy hostage' and every other topic none of the rest of them broach even in the most delicate of terms.
"Makes you wonder," Clint says to Sam one day. The two of them are on a supply run, halfway through their shopping list and taking a break for lunch. "Maybe this is the guy who went into the ice."
Clint shrugs when Sam looks up from his burger at him, but it's not an idle comment. It's good to see Steve like this, good for him and good for them because Steve is their leader and their moral center and their center of morale and any light he gives off makes their world brighter. But it's also maybe a little bit of an indictment of them because they couldn't do this for him, not even before things got ugly and strange. Sam knows the bonds of brotherhood and friendship, knows how they are tested and strengthened by circumstance and by war, and he knows and accepts that none of them could ever replace Bucky Barnes in Steve's heart. And yet that feeling of maybe letting him down anyway remains, for him and, apparently, for Clint. Steve cannot be and doesn't want to be the guy from 1945, not in the literal sense and that's not what Clint is suggesting. It's a matter of comfort, of family, and that's where the failure would stand if they let it.
Steve won't let it, however and, perhaps more importantly, neither will Barnes once he's settled into himself and the group.
At the beginning, the full force of Barnes's personality is reserved first for Steve alone, which is maybe best for all concerned. He's never rude or stand-offish to anyone, more muted, and that is both easier for his recovery and for the rest of them to absorb the reality of him. James Buchanan Barnes contains multitudes, all of them daunting as hell: Sergeant Barnes, war hero, prisoner of war, and legend in his own right; Bucky, the best friend and brother Steve loves with breathtaking power; and the Winter Soldier, about whom most of the hellish rumors are true and some of them have the scars to prove it. Barnes isn't nearly the mess in his own mind he could have been - maybe should have been for all that has been done to him - but he has had to negotiate his way through that minefield with an eye toward survival and not toward who he wanted to be. Here, at Steve's side and among Steve's friends, however, he can afford himself a bit more luxury to choose his future self. Sam, who has watched this transmutation from the front of a hundred group sessions, observes with something close to pride. He doesn't have the standing with Barnes to tell him anything, to offer more than to not make things harder, and it's difficult to sit on his hands like that, but he knows he has to. It gets a lot easier once it becomes obvious that the man Barnes is becoming, while still being molded and refined, is a man he seems to be comfortable living with. That man is, like Steve, mostly the man who existed before the war, but filtered through everything that has happened since and while that could be devastating, it's not. The Winter Soldier's skill set isn't the only part of him that remains, but the Bucky Barnes of the Twenty-First Century is actually, mostly Bucky Barnes. Who is first Steve's brother and friend and then his partner and then his team sergeant and Sam, who was an NCO himself once upon a time, can appreciate how the expansion happens and why.
Steve is a wonder and a marvel as a soldier, a commanding officer you want to follow even without the obligation of service, but he is still a man and Barnes appreciates that in a way none of them can. Steve will do whatever needs to be done on his own, that Sam knows well, but asking others to follow him into the breach isn't something lightly or easily done. Neither is the following. And no matter how sure all of them are of the rightness of their actions, of the necessity, that's not always enough. Barnes, from some combination of experience or distance or whatever is part of him that neither war nor HYDRA could touch, can see what is needed and how he can provide it. For Steve, it's a pair of shoulders strong enough to take some of the burdens he assumed when he went rogue and asked them if they wanted to follow. For all of them, it's another ally at their backs when those are thin on the ground and, as Barnes gets comfortable, it's a confidante and a friend. Barnes away from the battlefield and his horrors is very much the man Steve has talked up over the years, charming and clever and just as much of a sarcastic bastard as Steve, but he's also nothing like the man from Steve's memories for reasons that have nothing to do with what happened to him. He provides a change in the team's dynamics for more reasons than that he's someone with the standing and the confidence to look Captain America in the eye and ask if this is really a good idea and expect an answer. Which is not nothing; it's closer to everything. Sam has tried to be the friend of Steve Rogers, but he is also the guy who got an A in Mrs. Holmes's American History class and who has fought by Captain America's side and under his orders as an Avenger. Clint and the others are no better - it's hard to question Captain America's orders for reasons that have nothing to do with what got beaten into them at basic training once upon a time.
Barnes, on the other hand, has no trouble at all. The plans don't change radically from what Steve was doing before they rescued Barnes and he started speaking his mind behind closed doors; Captain America really does know what the hell he's doing on a level not even the most hagiographic movie can quite capture. But they change a little, sometimes, always reflecting the team's concerns even if Sam knows for a fact nobody said a damned word. And even when they don't, Steve is more at ease explaining them to the team. Sam knows from his own time in the service that being forced to justify a battle plan and pass that test is a comfort. Steve doesn't lack confidence, but he doesn't lack a conscience, either. This will never be easy, running from town to town like the fugitives they are, but Barnes makes things easier and Sam is grateful for it.