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It starts when they find the lab.

It’s like something out of a horror movie. (Sam doesn’t watch horror movies these days, now that Riley isn’t there to make fun of him when he gets spooked, but still.) He skids into the room, shield flying, and his eyes skim—predatorial, like his old codename—across the panorama of horrors, taking in the twin chairs, the wires, the blank monitors, the aggressive clinicality of it all, so oddly juxtaposed against the none-too-clean floor and walls. Then his gaze lands on the Winter Soldiers.

One of them, at any rate. Steve is standing between the two chairs, throwing and catching a pistol over and over without looking at his hands. He’s looking at a spot on the wall somewhere between all the machinery, but there is a vacant, glassy cast to his face that suggests his mind—or soul, or spirit, or sapient entity, or whatever; Sam isn’t entirely sure what he believes in nowadays—has gone somewhere far away. No trace of Bucky—always a dangerous sign. Sam steps closer, but not too close; his ma always told him not to wake a sleepwalker. “Steve?”

A missed beat. Then, with the toneless, pitch-perfect enunciation that makes him sound like one of Stark’s AIs, Steve says, “It’s all right.” Throw and catch, throw and catch. “Bucky’s out back. He’s throwing up.”

It’s more words than he (or Barnes, for that matter) has ever said to Sam in one breath. It’s not that they don’t get along, per se—it’s just that Steve emerged from a lifetime of brainwashing to find some stranger wielding his shield, and that’s bound to make things awkward, no matter how many times Sam offers to give it back. That and Steve and Bucky are so absorbed in each other, they don’t often have the time of day for anybody else.

“Steve,” says Sam again, desperate. If one thing is clear to him, it’s that there is absolutely nothing all right about this situation.

“They did things to him here,” says Steve, still in that dead voice. Throw and catch, throw and catch. His face is schooled into the blank showman’s mask Sam recognises from both the USO archives and the security camera footage from the Triskelion, and for some reason, he doesn’t seem to need to blink. Like, at all. “He can’t forget.”

“Neither can you,” says Sam.

No answer. Sam can taste bile at the back of his throat; and beyond that bitterness, something else, something infinitely more dangerous and powerful, something that wants to set its sharp black claws and long fanged teeth into this room and tear it apart, piece by cruel piece. “Steve,” says Sam, and the third time the name seems to sink in. The pistol stops going up and down. “Go and get Barnes. I’ll deal with this.”

Momentarily, the mask cracks, and Steve looks at him with a face like a stricken doe. (Sam wonders, then, how often people other than Bucky offer to do things for him.) He hovers for an uncertain second, gun clenched tight between white-knuckled fingers. Then, with something fleetingly grateful in his eyes, he darts out the open door.

Sam closes his eyes. He takes a couple of deep breaths.

Then he proceeds, slowly, calmly, methodically, to do every single thing he wants to do to this room, starting by overturning all the equipment and ending with the detonation of a frankly gratuitous number of grenades.

Later on, by the pulsing light of the ensuing pyrotechnics, he finds Bucky sitting on the curb behind the bank. Steve kneels beside him, petting his hair with all the concentration of a surgeon performing a heart bypass. They both look up as Sam approaches.

“Sharon and Trip’ll take things from here,” he says. “C’mon, I’ll drive you guys home.”

Steve looks at Bucky. Right on cue, Bucky says, “In a few minutes.”

“He wants to watch,” Steve explains, with a little more inflection this time. The light from the fire is reflected four times in their wide, glimmering eyes, and there is no need to ask what he means.

“’Kay,” says Sam. “Me too, actually.”

He goes to sit some distance away, but they look at him beseechingly—or rather, Bucky looks at him beseechingly, while Steve just kind of simmers—until he gives in against his better judgement and allows them to ease him down between the two of them. They flank him on either side, still and protective as gargoyles, and together they watch the building burn to the ground.

 

 

After that, Sam becomes aware of a definite change in the wind.

It’s like there’s something in the air, something hallowed and almost eerie, that Steve and Bucky step around quietly when they’re around Sam. They’re so subtle about it that he doesn’t notice for weeks, until he gets caught in a shootout in the ruins of an old warehouse long since reincarnated as yet another Hydra depot. The mission takes a wrong turn somewhere around the time he got shot in the shoulder and separated from the rest of his team behind an auto-locking door, and—after a great deal of blood, pain, and delirious swearing—culminates in this: the Winter Soldiers, dressed in matching silvers and greys and blacks, slithering out of an air vent to drop beside him.

“Cap,” says Steve. He’s all wide-eyed concern with a faint tinge of shiftiness, like an absentee parent at his first PTA meeting.

“Back atcha,” says Sam automatically. He’s carried the shield for over four years now, ever since that one time in New York when he ran into a burning building to evacuate a crowd of office workers and wound up inextricably tangled with the whole gods-and-aliens mess. Still, it’s hard not to think of Steve Rogers as Captain America, Original Vanilla Flavour, albeit now with an added zing of gun oil. Even with the choppy buzz cut and the crimson tentacles of a Hydra brand spilling out above his collar at the nape of his neck, he just looks so wholesome.

Steve ignores the jibe. “How’d you get here so fast?” he asks.

“How’d you get shot so fast?” Bucky adds.

“I dunno,” says Sam, more than a little woozy from blood loss. He’s not sure why he’s being prosecuted. “The usual way?”

Bucky produces a clean towel from one of his eighteen belt pouches and applies pressure to the wound with his metal hand. The plates shift and resettle all along his arm, and his servos emit a high-pitched mosquito-like eeeeee for no reason that Sam can see. It’s unnerving. It’s also oddly reassuring. Steve peeks over his shoulder at the bloodsoaked towel, and glowers. “Next time,” he says, “count to fifty before you go rushing into any gunfights.”

“A hundred,” Bucky says.

“Nah,” says Sam. His vision is so blurry Steve and Bucky seem to have melded into a single tank-like body, two-headed, eight-limbed, bristling all over with guns and knives and leather straps. “Gotta be fast. I keep showing up to missions only to find all the mooks dead already, or beaten into submission. S’weird.”

Above him, his uninvited guests exchange a glance. They look like a pair of seraphim with flaming swords, except far more demonic. So maybe just like demons, then. Bucky says, “Oh?”

“Yeah,” says Sam, squinting up at the indistinct halo of his face. “For weeks now. Funny, huh? Almost like someone made sure to get there first and do all the grunt work before I showed—“

Finally, finally, the conscious parts of his brain clank into motion. He says, “Wait, what?”

“What?” Steve echoes. Unlike Bucky’s rusty creak, his voice has a certain vintage sweetness that Sam is beginning to associate with suspenders and stockings and red-lipsticked women brandishing rivet guns.

“S’you,” says Sam thickly, with altogether more Archimedean triumph than the situation warrants. If he had been in a bathtub, and had any bodily strength left to speak of, he would have shouted Eureka. “You’re the ones who keep doing my missions for me, and beating everyone up before I—“

“—before you get yourself killed,” Steve says severely. His jaw is very square, but his eyes are large and round and oh, Sam thinks, really quite alarmingly blue. “So give us a head start. Like I said. Count to fifty.”

“A hundred,” Bucky says again. He lifts the bloody rag, sticks out his lower lip at the wound, and puts a fresh towel over it. “He’s faster than us in the air, Stevie.”

“Is not,” says Steve, sounding affronted.

“Is too.”

“Guys,” says Sam. “Guys, I’m right here.” Then he launches into a discourse about his patriotic duties and the necessary risks of battle, or at least he thinks he does, but his feet seem to leave the ground and his ass is definitely no longer on the grubby concrete, and he hears Steve hiss, “Gently, Buck,” and Bucky say, “I got him, asshole.”

It makes no sense. But the room is moving, and his head is propped against something firm and warm and comforting, and really, it's a lot easier to stop talking and go to sleep.

 

 

 

“Goddamn this and everything else to hell,” says Sam pleasantly, when he surfaces long enough from his morphine-addled haze to find himself in a scratchy hospital bed. He hates hospitals, with good reason. Then his eye is drawn to the familiar figure in the plastic chair at his side, and he blinks. “Huh. You're missing a piece.”

“Coffee run,” says Steve. He sits with more muscular precision than most soldiers march. “He needs three espressos before noon or else he isn’t entirely corporeal.”

Here is the thing about Rogers: he’s so earnest and solemn all the time that it’s possible everything he says is a joke, or nothing is. Sam decides to pick his battles. With his good arm, he reaches up and fumbles under his pillow for the thing he discovered, or dreamt he discovered, at some point in the night. His fingers close around something small and hard, and he holds it up to the fluorescent light. It’s a handsome Derringer, fully loaded, but—thankfully—with the safety on. “Did Bucky leave this here?”

“Yes,” says Steve. “That’s his third favourite gun.”

Sam flicks his eyes heavenward in a silent plea for help. “Why the hell?”

Steve gives him a withering look, couched in just enough politesse to be condescending. Sam thinks of all the Hydra moles he’s ever unknowingly befriended, from Rumlow and Rollins all the way to Pierce, and hopes they were all on the receiving end of this expression at some early and particularly painful point in their careers. “He,” says Steve patiently, “wants you to be safe.”

It seems like an exercise in futility to point out that there are at least three SHIELD agents patrolling the hallway outside, and a red and gold Get Well Soon card on the bedside table, indicating that either Stark or his money is on the loose somewhere close at hand. Sam just says, “Ah.”

Steve seems to make up his mind to play nice. It’s an elaborate visual transformation, one that Sam has seen a hundred times and still finds fascinating. His shoulders relax, or at least appear to, and his shark smirk transmutes into a dolphin smile. He looks like your friendly, wholesome, all-American neighbour, the one you’d trust to babysit the kids on weeknights in return for free casseroles. It makes him a good bit more terrifying than Barnes, who at least wears all his menace on the outside.

“I guess it’s weird,” Steve says. “It’s not a Normal Person Thing.”

The capital letters are audible. “Yeah, well,” says Sam. “Usually we just send flowers.”

“Flowers,” Steve repeats, with the air of someone making a mental note in bold red font and double underlines. “Okay.” And then, “Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s trying his best,” says Steve. He tries to shove his hands in his pockets, finds that they won’t fit when he’s sitting down, and sticks them under his thighs instead. It might be the most human thing Sam has ever seen him do. “They had him longer than me, and he was fucked up by the war even before that. I can… talk to him, if you want.”

“No, hell, of course not, look.” Sam scrubs a hand over his eyes. He isn’t conscious enough for this. “It’s not an issue. Weird is good. I can deal with weird, okay? Tell him thanks for the gun, it’s real sweet of him, I’m keeping it.”

Steve grins. The other thing about him is that all his smiles are genuine, even the ones that make him look like a hyena. “Will do. You go back to sleep.”

Sam’s already drifting off again, feeling oddly warm inside, when he senses movement under his pillow and cracks his eyes open just enough to see Steve standing at the bedside, twitching his blanket back into place. “Steve,” he says accusingly. “Was that a knife?”

“Three knives,” Steve agrees. “Good night, Sam.”

(The flowers arrive the next day, a tidy bouquet of red roses and sunflowers and other things that make the room smell like a rainforest, with a little plastic sparrow perched in the midst. Sam’s so impressed, his shoulder forgets to hurt.)

 

 

 

And then Nat drives him home from the hospital, and he walks in to find his house sparklingly clean, the newspapers picked up, the fridge stocked full of OJ, and Steve and Bucky sitting on the carpet in the den under the stairs, trying to get Blob Kitty to chase the laser light from Steve’s unloaded rifle.

The main difference between Bucky and his adopted shelter cat is that Bucky’s frame is all rectangles and right angles, while the cat is, with the exception of legs and tail, a near-perfect ball of dark grey fur. (Her real name is Helen, but no one except Bucky, not even Steve, ever calls her that.) Bucky is also marginally more talkative and only his arm purrs, but apart from that, they’re identical in temperament and behaviour as far as Sam can see. At the moment, the cat is swishing her tail disdainfully, ignoring the skittering dot of light in favour of glowering at Steve, and Bucky—Bucky is actually grinning. “She’s too smart, Stevie, she sees right through it.”

“Nah, she’s just too bloody lazy.”

Smart.”

Lazy. Or stubborn. Like you.”

“Hey!”

Standing in the doorway, Sam takes a few seconds to struggle half-heartedly with a sudden, all-encompassing upsurge of affection for them both. Early on in their tenuous acquaintance, he didn’t think he would ever grow to like them. He hadn’t thought they could learn to lead anything resembling normal lives, or do much beyond killing and clinging to each other. But here they are, playing with their ridiculous spherical cat on the floor of Sam’s house, with two half-empty mugs of hot cocoa and a full one on the coffee table beside them, and the house feels so warm and lived-in for the first time since he moved in that Sam doesn’t quite know what to do.

As it transpires, Blob Kitty patters up to him before he can say a word, and both Steve and Bucky swivel round to look. “Oh, hi,” says Steve. His cheeks are a shade pinker than usual. “You’re back.”

He bounces to his feet and pushes the full mug of cocoa into Sam’s hands. “Don’t keep him standing,” Bucky admonishes. “Helen, move. Sam, come upstairs, we fixed the heating in your room.”

“Fixed?” Sam asks, distracted. The cocoa is excellent and clearly homemade, and the cat has coalesced like a purring rug over his bare feet.

“It wasn’t warm enough before,” Bucky says, with a disapproving sideways look at Steve. “You didn’t tell us. No wonder you caught cold last month.”

“That was just a sniffle, Bucko—“

“Don’t argue with him about colds,” says Steve. “Trust me, I’d know. Move your giant amoeba, Buck, we gotta put Sam to bed.”

The cat is picked up and Sam is whisked away up the stairs with all the ceremony of a warrior king’s homecoming. His bedroom is, in fact, much warmer than before, and smells faintly of lavender (“it’s relaxing,” Bucky explains). When he pulls back the sheets—toasty and starchy clean—he finds rose petals scattered across the bed.

That just about does it. Sam’s humble and realistic, he’s not oblivious.

“Right,” he says. “Whose idea was this?”

The briefest of pauses. Then, with the automaticity that can only be born of a lifetime fighting side by side, Steve and Bucky point at each other. “Of course,” says Sam. His face feels hot. “Of course it was.”

“Is it too much?” Steve asks with an air of faux-concern. Faux because, damn the man, it’s not like he doesn’t know exactly what Sam’s thinking. You can’t play coy with guys like these. You just have to bite the bullet and be as shameless as they are.

“Not at all,” says Sam. “But I thought maybe you two’d like to share with me. It gets lonely in a king-sized bed, you know.”

They exchange another meaningful look. Bit by bit, Sam’s picking up the vocabulary of their private language, if not quite the syntax. Lonely! says the urgency in Steve’s eyes. Impermissible, says the jut of Bucky’s lip. As one, they turn back to him. “Can the cat come?” asks Bucky.

Sam feels his smile widen. “Of course.”

He gets in bed and they curl up around him, Steve on his left, Bucky on his right, Blob Kitty a blissful ball somewhere among the pillows above his head; and surrounded by his guardian demons, Sam has never felt safer in his life.