Sam's smile faded into something more sour the moment he saw who was standing right behind Steve on the other side of the cell door. Who was smirking right behind Steve on the other side of the cell door.
"I got this one," Barnes told Steve, who missed the byplay entirely -- he probably thought Sam was giving him side-eye for taking this long to spring the brig break. So Steve smiled and said "thanks" and gone on down the line to go get the others.
Barnes stood there for a minute, looking pleased as punch. Bastard even folded his arms across his chest.
Sam finally gave in because he wanted to get the hell out of here. "Do I have to ask nicely?"
Barnes grinned, wolf-like. "Nah, because then I'd have to tell you 'no,'" he replied, then his expression went dark. "Stand back."
Just for the record: the arm was marginally less terrifying when it was punching out a biometric lock holding you in a prison cell. Marginally.
It wasn't until Sam was free that he noticed that the metal arm looked different than it had in Berlin. "You come with an accessory kit?" he asked, gesturing with his chin and wiggling the fingers of his left hand.
Barnes frowned. "I kept it in my pocket. I was never that happy to see you."
It took all of Sam's years as an EMT showing up at calls too ridiculous to be made up to manage to keep a straight face. Sadly, Barnes had already stalked off, so his achievement went unwitnessed. But it still counted.
It took five minutes for all of them to get free. Steve didn't have the shield, which was maybe not a good sign, but history's favorite boy scout was actually a pro-level lock-picker, so The Man With the Plan had only been a little slower than The Man with the Brand New Vibranium Fist at busting the good guys out.
It took less than that for Clint to comment about the new arm. “You Mister Potato Head with the extra arms?”
“I would have gone with… crap, who was the GI Joe with the mismatched arms?” Lang asked, rolling his neck.
Clint stared at him. “That was none of them,” he said slowly. “What were you doing to your Joes that you are going to regret sharing with the class?”
It was all fun and gallows humor until Barnes brought Wanda out of her cell and Steve's skeleton keys couldn't help with the lock on the thing around her neck. If Sam had had any doubts about following Steve into a life of insurgency (again), they'd ceased the minute nobody on Tony's side had so much as twitched at watching Vision putting that 'inhibitor collar' on Wanda. Who'd promptly puked once it had been activated. There was some shit you just didn’t pull on your own, even when you weren’t seeing eye to eye, and that was on the list of things that would be hard to forgive. And not even Tony's little visit to ride to the rescue would change that -- that had just been superhero business. This had been personal.
The collar was something Tony had apparently just lying around in case Wanda lost control of her powers or something -- he'd tried to justify it, saying it was for her protection. But coming after him putting her under house arrest and everything else... it was hard to think how he'd ever meant it as anything other than "when I lose control of Wanda." Which might've made sense four years ago when she'd just come in from the cold and nobody was quite sure how stable she was after her brother's death, but that had been four years ago.
Now, she was swaying on her feet and the fact that Steve and Barnes had apparently survived their meeting with Zemo and his supersoldiers wouldn’t change anything no matter how much Tony had helped.
Sam hadn't been able to see Wanda since they'd been put in their cells -- the order they were in, they couldn't see each other and the guards made sure that didn’t change when they’d been marched one by one to the showers and shitters -- but he'd known that she hadn't been doing okay. He'd tried to triage everyone by self-reportage once they’d been locked up, getting Clint to palpate his ribs so that they'd maybe know if it was a bruise or a break (probably the former), walking Lang through the neuro protocol to see how badly going big had screwed him up (badly at first, but he'd slept it off).
But Wanda'd been her own special case because of that collar. He'd been able to tend to her while they were all being transported -- Widow had uncuffed him once they were airborne and he'd sat with Wanda, her back to his chest, giving her as much water as she could keep down and making sure she stayed conscious and comfortable. He'd asked Widow what kind of drugs were being fed to Wanda through the collar because turning off her powers alone shouldn't have made her so listless and unable to focus. Widow hadn't known and Sam had never found out because it had turned into a free-for-all argument because Clint had started yelling at her for going along with this so far that she couldn't see how low she'd sunk and imposing her own shit on Wanda.
(Sam had done his best to stay way the hell clear of Widow's past. Natasha was a good woman, a sexy woman, but she was also a bugfuck crazy woman with more issues than tissues. He'd chosen early on to deal with her in the present, where her only history was any she'd built with him. And up until now, it had served them both just fine.)
Once they'd gotten locked up, he and Clint and Lang had pretty much taken turns making sure Wanda was still lucid enough to talk and eat and take care of herself. They'd talked her through every mealtime and put up enough of a stink to make sure that there were female guards who could help her with hygiene and whatever else.
But he hadn't seen her since they'd been marched off to their cells and what he saw now didn't look good. She was glassy-eyed and weak, half-propped up by Clint as Steve tried to fiddle with the collar around Sam, who was trying to test her vitals.
"Hey," Steve said, gently holding Wanda's head up so she'd look at him once Sam was done. "We're going to take you somewhere that they can get rid of this thing without hurting you. I'm sorry you have to hold on a little longer." Wanda half-slurred something in Sokovian and Barnes was the only one to react to it, since apparently he knew the language. She'd spoken in it occasionally during their imprisonment, but she'd usually translated it. Now, they didn’t need to ask as she clutched at Clint in an effort to stay up and Barnes came over to hold up her other side.
"I'll take her," Barnes said to Clint, who watched him carefully as he scooped Wanda up into his arms with zero effort, not ready to trust a compassionate act from a violent man. They had all more or less gotten used to the idea of Steve's BFF Bucky, the Winter Soldier, and Sergeant Barnes of the Howling Commandos all being the same dude, but just because the first one was driving didn't mean the other two weren't riding sidecar. Especially not when it was so recently obvious just how close the Winter Soldier was to the surface.
Right now, though, Barnes murmured something to Wanda in Sokovian and she murmured something back and settled in his arms like a sleepy child, relaxed and tiny-looking. Her head was up against his metal shoulder, but Barnes didn't look like a legendary assassin carrying off a victim, he looked like a guy who'd once had little sisters. Which was why Clint finally stepped back.
The carnage that had accompanied the break-in began at the cell block door, a trail of broken equipment and smashed floor tiles and unconscious men and blood spattered on dented walls. This was supposed to be the best prison in the world, in the galaxy, Sam's guards had boasted to him, built to keep the most super-powered villains. "Captain America couldn't get out of here," a guard had told him. "What're you going to do without your bird suit?"
"Wait," Sam had told him, holding the smile long enough to make the guard nervous. Because they'd all known that they might have to be the pawn sacrifice at the airport so that someone could go stop Zemo and they'd been fine with it – it was why they were Avengers in the first place. But they'd also never quite given up the hope, and maybe the expectation, that it would only be temporary. Either Tony would come to his senses or Steve would bust them out or something.
But Sam’s faith in Tony’s ability to see reason had died with Wanda’s collar activation and Steve… Steve was not a man who willingly let his friends down, but all bets had been off the minute the Winter Soldier had called himself Bucky.
It wasn't as if Sam could be surprised at anything Steve did with respect to James Buchanan Barnes, not after five years, but yet he was. Because he'd gotten used to Steve's willingness -- and occasional eagerness -- to die for what he believed in and all of the Avengers had gotten a lot better at what they did in no small part to keep from being reminded of that or to avoid making it necessary. But Steve wasn't just willing to die to save Barnes. That had been just the start. Turns out Steve had an extra gear on his self-sacrificing bicycle for Barnes and was willing to set fire to his entire life in the future for the sake of one man from his past. And Sam honestly wasn't sure how he felt about that and how much of that was tied into jealousy and envy and the fear that he could be collateral damage in Steve's fight for Barnes. It had colored his interactions with Barnes so far, that much he knew, and he probably should regret that more than he did. But he'd felt Barnes measuring him up, testing who'd taken his own place as Steve's minder and friend, and that had pissed him off. Hadn’t helped that he was almost as much of a sarcastic shit as Steve, either.
"Why are there no alarms?" Clint asked as they moved. They were going station to station, Steve in the lead with Clint as tail-end charlie, but it was quiet. Too quiet considering the circumstances and Clint was just the first one to say so. "I'd ask if this was some kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge breakout, but some of these guys were hit way too hard for just making it look good."
There was nobody looking obviously dead -- a terrible skill Sam had picked up during his combat tours as a PJ; he could spot a KIA or a dead tango from any distance -- but there were an awful lot of guys who'd be looking at some time on the DL once this was over. He'd already counted four who were going to need knee surgery and the concussions alone were going to keep the local hospitals busy with the scans.
"They don't want security alarms sounding near the cell blocks," Lang answered as he stepped around a pile of shards that had once been a riot shield. "Lets the prisoners know that the guards are otherwise occupied. Might give 'em ideas."
They got to the end of one hallway and then down another, all littered with the detritus of what must have been a comic book kind of fight -- Steve and Barnes against an entire prison's worth of guards and security and it hadn't even been close. Sam hoped there was video.
Especially after he found the supine body of the guy who'd mocked the costume. One more for the orthopedists if that elbow was as bad as it looked.
"Might've kept Captain America in," he said to the guard. "But sure as shit didn't keep him out."
"I'm not Captain America anymore," Steve said as he checked that the next hallway was still clear. He turned back and grinned at Sam. "As I was reminded, the shield and uniform are not mine to do with as I please."
There was a story behind the second part and it wasn't going to be a good one. But the first part, that Steve sounded okay with it. Maybe he was. Sam didn't think for a second that if it had come down to Barnes versus the shield for real -- it had unofficially been Barnes versus the shield since Romania -- that Steve would choose the shield. But for all that Sam had spent the last five years trying to get Steve to actually work on being Steve and not just Cap out of uniform and largely failing at it, it still sounded weird and not just to him.
"What do you mean you're not Cap anymore?" Lang asked, perplexed. "I mean, I know they're kinda annoyed you're not being a good little soldier, but you're kind of famous for not being a good little soldier. And nobody's figured out how to make non-crazy super-soldiers without unpleasant side effects... Sorry, man, but with the Hulk off the map and the Mandarin kablooey, you are totally the object lesson here."
The last had been said to Barnes, who gawped at Lang as if he couldn't believe what he'd heard. Which, to be fair, was the number one reaction to most of what Lang said. But for all of the off-the-wall shit that came out of his mouth, Scott Lang was no fool. He'd done good work in the field and his history of legit hard time had made him a steadying presence during their incarceration, from being real good with Wanda to explaining why and how the guards' bullshit worked to a competition with Clint about the worst places they'd been imprisoned that involved a long argument whether armpits counted.
"I mean exactly that," Steve said, looking around on the ground before picking up a shard of what might've been someone's SAPI plate. "I am no longer the Star Spangled Man with a Plan."
He threw the ceramic shard around the corner, waited a beat, then gestured for them to follow as he led.
"Can you be the Man with the Plan without the Spangles?" Lang sighed plaintively. "I'd kind of like to maintain the fiction that we're not winging this at least until we get away from the submersible prison in an undisclosed location that is presumably in international waters."
They passed through the hallway and then up the stairs and on to another level before they started to hear the shriek of the security alarms. On this new level, which seemed to be the admin center, the bodies on the ground were thick enough that it was hard to walk. There was all kinds of weaponry on the ground: rifles, batons, tasers that were undoubtedly set to more than just "ouch." There was more blood here, too, and Sam had mixed feelings about seeing it. On the one hand, the people here had been doing their lawful jobs and had been wounded by fugitives breaking out criminals. On the other hand, the criminals in question were in pre-trial confinement without having been mirandized or whatever the hell the UN version of it would be because the Accords had only stated that the Avengers would be authorized to detain violators without a whole lot of details about the civil rights part of things. (Or, why Mini-Ross had cackled when they'd asked for a lawyer in Berlin.) And on the third hand, Sam had realized early on that you had to be a special kind of strange to spend your life zookeeping supervillains in a pineapple under the sea for Thunderbolt Ross. Which left the fourth hand to wave away any real guilt about what kind of life changes were in store for these chuckleheads once they finished their post-op physical therapy.
"Speaking of plans, we're not going to have to swim our way out of this place, are we?" Clint drawled as he kicked a helmet aside. "I know you two got a thing going with that, but I left my water wings with the rest of my vacation gear."
Steve smiled broadly. "Would I do that to you?"
"Yes!" Sam and Clint retorted almost in unison.
Over to his right, Sam could see the edge of a smile on Barnes's face, mostly hidden by his own hair and Wanda's.
"Nobody's swimming," Steve said sourly, then perked up. "We left someone conscious over at Flight Control."
Said someone, once they got there, did not look overjoyed at his luck. To be fair, he was gagged with what looked to be an athletic sock tied around his face, so it was hard to read his expressions. He was also flexi-cuffed spread-eagle to four separate work stations and let out a high-pitched squeak of fear when Clint crossed the plane of his ankles.
"I almost want to know which one of you came up with this idea," Clint said, looking down, "but I think I'm happier with the mystery."
He took a half-step toward the guy's jewels, which prompted another squeak, then stepped back. "Want me to get him up?"
Lang helped cut the cuffs, then frog-marched Lucky over to the console, where it was very carefully explained to him that if he tried to screw them over by making some sort of noble gesture, he would be changing his name not to Unlucky, but to Dead. Lang sounded like he meant it, looked the part, too. It was only when he stepped back behind Lucky that the mask fell away and Sam realized that that had probably been something he'd had to work on in prison. Goofy guy like him must've looked like Christmas for the other inmates when he'd arrived for his first stint.
"You flew here in a quinjet?" Sam couldn't help but blurt out when the flight deck elevator rose to the top and he saw the Avengers logo on the side. "We miss something while we were in the pokey?"
The new metal arm, the quinjet... wasn't like Steve at all to bury the lede.
"They weren't exactly going to let us in if we flew Lufthansa," Barnes said and Sam frowned. But Clint laughed, disloyal bastard, as he jogged over to the jet and opened up the panel to drop the ramp.
Barnes didn't lay Wanda out on the bench, instead just sat down with her still in his arms because if she wasn't out cold, she was close to it. He did shrug his shoulder to turn her head slightly toward Sam when he came over to give her another look.
"Her breathing's steady," Barnes told him quietly. "But she's not good."
Sam could only grunt agreement because she wasn't. Her skin was clammy and her face was warm but her hands were ice cold.
"You got a destination in mind?" he asked Steve back outside the jet, where he was waiting while Lang continued his routine with Lucky to start the procedures to get them to the surface. "And some idea of when we're getting there?"
Steve didn't wonder why he was asking. "Yeah. He told us it would take about five hours in the quinjet from here."
There was a different siren, a more sci-fi kind of whooping as the entire structure started to vibrate a little. Sam had felt it from the prison cell, but it was more pronounced here; made sense they'd have more dampeners down there, less chance of a lock vibrating loose.
"He who?" Sam prompted once it was clear things were going according to protocol. "Tony? You two make up?"
Because that would explain the quinjet and the other mysteries about the breakout. And would make him feel a little better about the little visit to find out where Steve had gone.
"Tony and I are still in a cooling off period, shall we say," Steve answered, which on the Cap-to-English translator came out to 'fuck no.' But then Steve smiled. "King T'Challa."
Sam stared. "We're going to Wakanda?"
Of all of the places to find sanctuary -- to be offered sanctuary because bigger fish than Steve had asked the Wakandans for smaller favors and been turned away -- this was not on Sam's list. (Of course he had a list. They'd all had lists and had killed hours debating the merits of every location. A discussion that would have been a lot funnier if Clint and Lang hadn't seriously had to consider schools and playgrounds.)
Steve's smile turned almost wistful. "I know you always wanted to go... Could have been better circumstances, but you take what chances you get and make the most of them, right?"
Sam could do nothing but shake his head and go back up the ramp.
Clint flew and Steve rode shotgun, so the others were in the back, Sam and Lang sharing one bench with Barnes still cradling Wanda on the other. After so much time together, there was no real need to make conversation and they'd more or less been sleeping in shifts so far, so they all dozed off without any kind of agreement.
Sam woke with a start. It took him half a beat to realize Barnes was hissing at him and he cocked an eyebrow.
"She's starting to fever up," Barnes said, gesturing with his chin at Wanda, still sleeping fitfully in his arms.
Sam nodded, then went forward to get the first aid kit out from the rear of the cockpit. "What's our ETA?" he asked while he was up there.
"Another ninety mikes, maybe?" Clint offered. "I know where we are, I know where Wakanda is, and I know how fast we're going. But I'm not sure how long it'll take us to gain permission to enter Wakandan airspace and land after that, so..."
So he could give Wanda some tylenol, at least, and have it be mostly gone by the time he handed her over to the Wakandan doctors, assuming the diplomacy thing didn't go too badly. Steve still hadn't explained how the hell they'd gone from T'Challa chasing Bucky down with intent to murder him to offering them a place to stay.
"They know who you got riding in the backseat?" he asked Steve, since this was not the right time to get the whole story. Or, rather, if he asked right now, it would be a one sentence answer that oversimplified an insane situation down to meaninglessness. He knew Steve and his reduction ad absurdem tendencies when it came to explanations.
So he didn't know what to make of the pleased smile he got back. "They do and I think the invitation was really for him and I'm the plus-one. Which makes you the plus-four, I suppose, but T'Challa knows where we went and why and who we're bringing back. He's the reason Bucky's got two arms again -- make it easier for us to do this."
"I love it when you don't just leave out the setup, you skip the joke as well and go straight to the punchline," was all he said, grabbing the kit and returning to the rear. Clint snorted in what was probably agreement as much as amusement.
The first aid kit hadn't been updated to reflect the Accords, so the jacked-up horsepills Steve needed to take the edge off the pain were still there, as was the kind of liquid skin that was marked 'JUST FOR HAWKEYE" because Clint was allergic to the one everyone else used, which was in turn marked with Clint's insignia with a red circle with a cross through it.
"You need anything while I'm at it?" he asked Barnes in a low voice as he dug out the acetaminophen bottle. "We got super-soldier strength if you do."
Barnes flashed a lopsided grin. "I'm good," he half-whispered back. "Thanks, though."
Getting Wanda alert enough to take the pills and chase them with water took the both of them, Barnes murmuring to her in Sokovian and holding her up enough to drink without choking and Sam to get everything in her. She rewarded them with a wan, sweet smile and then went right back to sleep against Barnes's chest.
Almost two hours later, they were on the ground in Wakanda, having flown directly to the airstrip on the palace grounds with little more than a request for identification, a welcome on behalf of the king, and then directions for where to set the quinjet down.
There was a medical team waiting for them when the ramp came down, along with T'Challa and his courtiers or whatever they were. The focus was on Wanda instead of whatever bowing or protocol was supposed to be observed, Barnes placing her on the waiting gurney and Sam giving a handover briefing to the leader of the medical team before being asked to come-with in case there were follow-up questions, especially regarding the collar. He knew shit about that and told them so, but he still went along after getting a nod of acknowledgment from Steve.
The hospital inside the palace -- it was not right to call it anything less -- made the Avengers' medical suite look like a third world clinic. It was pristine, it was high-tech, it was beautiful with natural light and actual plants instead of institutional blandness and soaps blaring on a tiny corner TV.
And it was staffed entirely by black people.
During his EMT training and refresher courses and his career as a PJ, he'd been in plenty of ERs and military aid stations where the nurses and orderlies were all none of them white folks, but the doctors usually were. Here, in this first-rate, of-the-future facility filled with sunlight and bright colors and perfect everything, everyone was a proud shade of ebony. It felt fucking fantastic and if he'd been in any other circumstance than worrying about a patient in his care, he'd have taken a moment to enjoy it. But Wanda's condition was still stable but not great and the priority remained getting that damned thing off of her neck.
Sam answered everything he could about the collar -- how long it had been on, how quickly Wanda had shown symptoms and what they were, what care measures he'd taken and in what time frame, what she had eaten and drank, how often had he tested her responses. They didn't even blink when Sam explained how his hands-on treatment had had to cease once they were incarcerated and how he'd had to rely on self-reporting, instead asking what results he'd gotten from that and how she'd seemed once they'd been freed.
During this, Wanda was being scanned by what looked like a metal detector but turned out to be a kind of portable CT scan.
"We developed it for our medical outreach program," he was told. "So that our doctors may go far into the bush or the plains and still be able to provide a high level of care."
There was a separate scanner for the collar and they were still running that, the technicians and engineers arguing -- mostly in English, on his behalf -- about what each component was when Steve and T'Challa and the others came in. There was fuss, but not too much, about the king turning up and the newcomers kept their distance to stay out of the way.
The end result was that they found the compartment in the collar that contained a bladder full of an as-yet unidentified cocktail of drugs. The collar itself was beyond Sam's ability to understand, even after he got the dumbed-down version, but it seemed to work not by somehow canceling out Wanda's powers, but instead by making her unable to access them.
"The drug is to induce a suggestive state and the neural interface takes advantage of that by essentially convincing her body that she has no abilities," the lead consultant, a biomedical engineer named Nomfazwe, explained. "It creates a situation where her mind might be convinced of something's existence, but her body tells her mind that she is making it up. It would be as if she were convinced she had a tail, but her body told her mind that there was no tail and sending signals to wag the tail would not do anything, so she could not."
Steve's face darkened. "Tony used his cure for Extremis to build this?"
Which was a leap Sam wouldn't have made on his own, but Steve's mind worked faster than anyone's and it made sense. Stark had stabilized Extremis for Pepper and the others, he hadn't removed it.
"It works along the same principle, yes," Nomfazwe agreed. "Extremis is nanite-based and the reprogramming could be done without without such... coercive methods, but the means of control are functionally identical."
Steve nodded and murmured something that vaguely sounded like 'excuse me' and then stalked off. Barnes watched him go for a moment, then turned his attention back to the others.
"Can you tell if there are failsafes?" he asked. "Will something like an EMP shut the collar down or will it give her a lethal dose of whatever's in there?"
Nomfazwe nodded. "We are still examining the results of our scan to make sure that we understand what each component does and how it is integrated into the device and whether it is protected and, if so, how. Depending on those answers, it might be safer to drain the drug reservoir before attempting to deactivate the collar."
Clint, who'd come up next to Sam in the wake of Steve's departure, sucked on his teeth. "You drain the drug, Wanda'll be able to blow the thing off on her own, yeah? She stops being suggestible, the neural interface stops working so well, abracadabra?"
"She might not be in any shape to," Barnes answered before anyone else could. "She's been getting regular shocks to the brain for however long. Trust me, nothing works like it's supposed to right after that."
There wasn't anything anyone could say in the wake of that, so nobody tried. Nomfazwe was called away, which left Sam with Barnes and Lang and Clint and T'Challa and he had no idea what to say to a king, let alone a king he'd recently been battle royale-ing with. He was also a little worried that his running partners had even less of an idea.
"As was explained to the others," T'Challa began before Sam could embarrass himself on behalf of the others, "you have been granted sanctuary from your pursuers. Wakanda is a signatory to the Sokovia Accords and we still believe in their value as a guiding force, but we cannot countenance being a party to the imprisonment without trial of what amounts to the protectors of an innocent. We have no extradition treaties and will treat all efforts to remove you against your will as attacks on Wakanda herself. You have the freedom of our country and we bid you welcome."
Sam thanked him, stumbling on whether he was supposed to use "your majesty" or "your highness" and sort of mashing the two together and T'Challa nodded and left them.
"Do I ask first why he's suddenly cool with you or go straight to marveling that he's being pretty damned nice to the girl who got blamed for killing a dozen of his subjects the other month?" Sam asked, looking at Barnes. "Because last thing that happened before us getting tossed in the underwater hoosegow was him spending a lot of energy trying to kill you."
"We could go chase down Captain Mopey instead," Clint offered, not sounding like he was interested at all in volunteering. "Before he breaks something."
"Can he still be Captain Mopey?" Lang wondered. "I suppose he was Captain Rogers before he was Captain America, so he can still be Captain Mopey. And why isn't he trying to kill you anymore?"
Barnes rubbed at his face. "He knows I didn't set the bomb in Vienna," he answered with a sigh, scratching his beard. "He knows why I was what I was. The rest... Steve took the blame for Lagos and they sort of philosophized each other to a draw."
He was deeply uncomfortable talking about this and Sam couldn't blame him; for all that they'd been poking at each other since the start, Sam never forgot that Barnes was a victim as much, in his own way, as his victims.
"You want to go run down Captain Mopey?" Sam asked him. "You're faster than we are and harder to break."
The look on Barnes's face showed he understood what Sam was offering and that maybe he was a little grateful for it and Sam did him the favor of not responding to it.
"I think you'd better go," Barnes said, corner of his mouth quirking up a little for a second. "He's not gonna break anything; his mother raised him better than to destroy someone's home when he's a guest. But what he's moping about right now is not going to be improved by seeing me."
Because Steve was pissed about Tony or because Steve was pissed about technology controlling people in general? Or was there something else entirely?
Sam was about to suggest that he rock-paper-scissor it out with Clint to see who was going to fall on that grenade, but Clint cocked an eyebrow at him that was very clearly a comment on those odds, so Sam sighed and nodded. "I'll go take one for the team, then."
Steve hadn't gone too far, turned out. There was a courtyard at the end of the hallway he'd stormed down and Sam found him sitting under the shade of a palm-like tree, next to a probably-artificial rock-and-waterfall garden. It was a pretty little spot, hidden from the public areas of the palace grounds, and Sam hoped Wanda would be able to see it shortly.
He just sat down next to Steve and waited, past experience telling him that if Steve was this easily findable, he'd start talking on his own. So Sam leaned back and enjoyed the quiet tinkle of the water hitting the rocks and the distant caw of birds and the fact that he wasn't in an underwater prison anymore and this was pretty much the first daylight he'd seen since Berlin.
"I keep going over the past few months to figure out when I fucked things up so badly to put us on a course to get us here," Steve finally said. "And I can't pick a point and go 'there, that's when you started the dominoes falling.' It's not one thing, it's a whole pile of things and--"
"And you might not be Cap anymore, but you never were the center of the universe," Sam cut him off. "You don't get to take credit for everything. Everyone else did their part and everyone else chose their side. Clint came in on his own and Lang understood what we were asking him to do and Wanda fought to be by your side. I stuck with your stubborn ass even after I realized how far you were willing to go and all of the others will say the same. You don't get to take that from me or anyone else. You haven't been the Sexiest Man Alive for three years now, so you are plenty resistible."
This was not a new argument. It was also not what was really bothering Steve -- or, rather, it wasn't the important part of what was bothering Steve this time precisely because it was not a new argument. Sam knew the low hum of 'fear of not meeting expectations' that hung around Steve like a white noise cloud and there was something drowning that out.
"You also don't get to let Tony skate on his role in this, which I know is a lot bigger than it was earlier because he came to us before he went up to you," he went on. "And he only knew where to go because he swore he was going up as a friend and you two are not friends now, so something else happened. And you might as well get that bit over with because otherwise, I'll get it out of Barnes. And you know he's not going to tell a version that makes you look good."
Which got half of a fond chuckle out of Steve and then a look of despair and Sam didn't roll his eyes because of course this involved Barnes.
"Tony found us in Siberia and that's what Zemo wanted him to do," Steve began after a pause that went on long enough for Sam to make a 'get on with it' gesture. "He had no interest in building an army of super-soldiers. He didn't even care about Bucky anymore. He just wanted to ruin us -- the Avengers."
It took some more prodding to get the rest out of him, from Tony's heel turn to T'Challa's re-evaluation and the offer of sanctuary at a Wakandan-owned warehouse on Hokkaido, from which they planned their assault on The Raft and T'Challa himself secured Barnes's new arm. It was worse than Sam had feared in some ways, not as bad in others, but mostly worse because Holy Shit.
"Tony tried to murder Barnes, on top of all the other shady shit he's done in the name of some 'no more people dying ever' pipe dream and you're still wondering what you did wrong?" he finally interrupted to ask, since Steve was very much still looking for a way to shoulder all of the blame. He'd stood up and started to pace to work off the irritation -- the anger, and turned to face Steve again. "I'm not talking the kind of rhetorical murder that really means 'beat him up some because he can take it,' like when we try to throw you around on bad days, but actual attempted murder. Because of something -- admittedly terrible and totally fucked up and no son should ever watch his parents' murder -- but something that Barnes had no goddamned control over.
"So why do you get to take the blame for this? Why do you want to? Because you didn't tell Tony that you knew? Fine, you made a judgment call and maybe it's not one you're proud of and him finding out was gonna cause a problem between you two no matter what. But going after Barnes because of what he did as the Winter Soldier when you know how he became the Winter Soldier... That's fucked up, I'm sorry, and I'm not gonna let you pin that on yourself.
"Tony's hurt about finding out about his family and he's pissed at you and those are all legit reactions. But that is still not a good man's motive for murder. That's Zemo's motive for murder and he's gonna be on trial for that, I am going to hope."
Steve had ridden out Sam's explosion without saying anything or even looking up, but Sam knew Steve had been listening.
"I am not sure I wouldn't have done the same things I did even if I'd known Bucky was guilty -- really guilty, not just the vehicle of someone else's guilt," Steve finally said. Confessed.
Sam laughed, which made Steve give him a dirty look. "Man, you keep acting surprised when people already know how far you are willing to go for Bucky Barnes. Everyone knows, Rogers. Everyone. And even those of us who weren't privy to your Stupid Human Tricks on the Helicarrier know because it's literally in the damned history books. It is not news that you would die for the man.
"But it's also not news that you wouldn't have let him go if he'd been guilty, either," he went on once Steve stopped looking outraged, which really just made him look constipated. "If you'd thought for a minute that he'd willingly done what he'd done, you wouldn't have hidden him after you caught him breaking out. You would have flung his guilty ass in jail and cried your heart out once the door was locked."
Steve took a deep breath. "I'd like to think so, but I'm really not sure. I'm not, Sam."
This time, Sam did roll his eyes. "Welcome to the human condition, buddy. Self-doubt is how the rest of us get through the day. But if it makes you feel better, I know you would have. I bet the house on it because there is no way in hell I was going to help you free a murderer, your childhood BFF or not."
Steve did not look convinced, but he gave Sam a smile anyway. "Especially when you don't seem to like the BFF much?"
Sam snorted and sat back down because Steve was actually worried about this. "Your BFF's fine, but you really should've mentioned in all of the five years we have been looking for him that he's just as much of an asshole as you are. Cuz that part ain't in the history books. I'm all for freeing the oppressed and all that, but a little warning that I was going to have to deal with you in stereo would've been the kind thing to do. Just sayin'..."
Steve's smile was a bit more genuine now.
They sat in companionable silence for a little while, long enough for Sam to close his eyes and feel the exhaustion of the day -- of the week, of the month -- catch up with him because a catnap on the quinjet wasn't enough.
"Do you want me to explain to the others?" Sam asked, mostly to keep from falling asleep because he knew what Steve's answer would be.
"I'll do it," Steve replied, right on schedule.
"Fine, but if you try the bullshit with blaming yourself for Tony's murder attempt, Clint is gonna have less patience with it than I did. And Lang's gonna make you feel stupid by asking an insightful question... and then make himself feel stupid by asking an idiotic one. And Wanda, when she comes to...," he trailed off. "Basically, don't try to sell the same story. It didn't get bought the first time."
When they went back inside, they found out that Wanda had been moved to a room down the hall and that's where they found her, sleeping seemingly peacefully with an IV drip running. Clint and Lang were sitting on chairs by the open window, mostly asleep, but they stirred at the motion.
"Barnes went to go get his arm taken off," Clint explained after telling them that all of the engineers and doctors had gone off to conference on what to do about Wanda's collar. "Said it was hurting him."
Steve frowned. "I thought that got fixed before we left Japan," he muttered, then excused himself to go find Barnes.
Sam went over to the machines monitoring Wanda's vitals, but she was actually doing okay according to them. She didn't look uncomfortable or feverish, but she couldn't look "fine" with that thing still around her neck.
"Barnes wouldn't say what went down in Siberia," Clint said once Sam had sat down in the chair on the far side of Lang. "But it wasn't Zemo or his super-soldiers that tore off his arm, was it?"
Sam sighed. "No," he confirmed. He gave them the general overview because just because Steve wanted to fall on that grenade didn't mean that Sam couldn't defuse it first. He told them to act moderately surprised, though. Steve should feel like he was making a difference.
"Well, that just makes me feel a whole lot better about who's going to be chasing me down for breaking the law," Lang grumbled. "Iron Man got replaced by his evil twin, Judge Dredd."
Any further discussion was halted by the return of Nomfazwe and Andiswa, the attending physician. They had reached a consensus on how to proceed with Wanda.
"We will defang the drug delivery apparatus with a cutter," Andiswa explained, chopping with her left hand along the side of her own neck. "It will be a delicate procedure, but one we have performed similar enough in kind that I feel confident in our success. From there, we will deliver a focused electromagnetic pulse to disable the collar and allow for its safe removal."
"There is no evidence of any defensive countermeasures against such a course of action," Nomfazwe picked up. "There are such measures against a direct attempt to remove the device through physical force, which is why we are not cutting it off straightaway. I would speculate that the lack of resistance to electromagnetic manipulation is not an oversight, but rather a feature that allows for remote control of the collar."
"You don't mean just turning it off, do you?" Clint asked darkly.
"That would not be the only possibility, no," Nomfazwe agreed soberly.
Andiswa asked if they wanted to talk it over with Steve, but Clint said no and they could start their preparations whenever they wanted. Wanda wasn't his second daughter, but she was 'his' more than she was anyone else's, including Steve. He gave her forehead a quick kiss as she was wheeled off for the procedures.
When Steve returned, he came alone and looked a little rattled and lot distracted as he listened to the update on Wanda. He asked a few questions but seemed willing to let Clint play lead, which had nothing to do with his distraction. For all of his greediness when it came to blame, Steve was more than willing to delegate the good parts of leadership.
Barnes had joined them by the time Wanda was returned to her room almost ninety minutes later; he had a cap on the metal stump and seemed physically fine, but there was definitely something going on between him and Steve. It would keep, though, and it wasn't like the two weren't talking to each other.
There was a bandage around Wanda's neck when she was wheeled in, but Andiswa assured them that the procedures had gone "swimmingly" and that while there was some temporary irritation marring the skin, there would be minimal scarring, most likely just a small mark from the spike that had been shooting the drugs into her neck.
"Her physical recovery should be complete," Andiswa said to them. "The emotional aspect of what was done to her... It shall be determined."
Dubula, a guy who said he was from the office of the Royal Steward, came by to tell them that they'd been assigned rooms, but none of them were leaving until Wanda woke up and he recognized that, saying he would return later on and have some food sent down.
"Of course she'd wake up for dinner," Clint said when Wanda's eyes first began to flutter open a few minutes after a tray heaped with food had been rolled in. She took a few minutes to rouse fully, after which they were all shooed out so that she could get looked over -- Lang snagged a piece of fruit as they left, which Clint promptly stole and took a bite out of, only to find out that that didn't stop Lang from taking it back.
"Your food is only your food once it's in your mouth," he explained as he took as many bites as he could, going full chipmunk cheek before offering the pit back to Clint. Who declined, completely understandably.
Sam was appalled -- not surprised, just appalled -- but Barnes looked almost delighted and even Steve was fighting a smile.
"Savages," Sam groused. "I have fallen in with savages."
Wanda was weak but in good spirits when they were allowed back in, grateful that their rescue hadn't been a fever dream and surprised that they were in Wakanda, not entirely pleasantly.
"They are very generous," she said when it was just them again. "Considering what I did to their countrymen in Lagos."
There was a look around the room before Clint spoke up. "Let's just say that their king got a sharp reminder of the differences between murder and manslaughter and accidental death. Drink your soup."
Wanda was still dopey enough that she raised the bowl to her lips, needing both hands because they were shaking badly, before she paused.
"Drink!" Clint insisted and Sam didn't understand how nobody had figured out the man had kids before being presented with said kids.
Wanda drank and nobody mentioned the spillage. The soup was cold, some kind of clear fruit thing with flowers floating in the bowl. There was a second soup, some kind of ground nut thing that Sam told the others to dip their fufu into. He wasn't sure it was called fufu in Wakanda, but it was starchy and looked like fufu. Lang, of course, was utterly delighted at the idea of treating food like play-doh and then eating it, but truth be told, it was kinda fun for everyone.
Sam was less helpful with identifying the various fruits, but he considered the fufu points worth more.
About half an hour after the food trolley was rolled out, Dubula returned and suggested that they might like to be shown to their accommodations. Wanda was starting to fade and so were they, truth be told. Even the super-soldiers, although considering their adventures since the airport without real rest, probably not that surprising. With Wanda's blessing, they left.
Sam's room looked like a set in some movie set in a paradise. Late afternoon sun streamed in from floor-to-ceiling windows open to the weather and the entire space was airy and light and tropical. There were flowers everywhere and a ceiling fan kept everything cool. There was an en suite bathroom and Sam headed straight for the shower the minute he was left alone. His first bathing experience since he'd left for Romania that hadn't come with spectators armed with stun guns or hadn't been a washcloth in a sink and he took his sweet time and enjoyed the beating of the water on sore muscles. Prison had been harder than he'd thought it would be -- and he understood that for various reasons, better and worse, what he'd experienced on the Raft had been nothing like what, say, Lang had experienced in Gen Pop -- but it had still been hard. The lack of privacy had been different than the crowded box of puppies that had been military life, the staring intentional and angry, the assumption that he was a bad guy and a loser and a waste of breath because good men didn't wind up in jail, the dehumanization of it all. He'd never admit it, mostly because Lang would immediately do something appallingly stupid, but he had a new respect for the guy for having gone through what he had and still emerged a decent man. A kind man. A goofball with no filter, but, still, someone who could still appreciate whimsy and fun and hadn't let the darkness overwhelm him. Because it had been overwhelming, the urge to live up to those expectations, to be the brute they'd thought he was, to snarl and spit and fight back at being treated like an animal by becoming an animal.
He tried to rinse it all away with soap that smelled like the rain.
There had been pajamas laid out for him and he used them, leaving his prison outfit crumpled in a heap in the trash. There was a covered carafe of water with a slice of some citrus fruit in it and he poured himself a glass and went out to the balcony and sat on the ground, leaning against the wall with the glass at his side. The view was tropical but not, dense vegetation without the soul-sucking humidity and the putrid stink of a jungle. It was pretty and quiet and he just enjoyed the sun on his face after days without it, without knowing when he'd see it again. It was something he'd stop taking for granted, he hoped.
He must have fallen asleep, since when he opened his eyes again, the sun had fallen below the tree line. He took the glass and went inside and pulled back the covers and went back to sleep. He was woken up by knocking on the suite door and he was about to get cranky at the unwanted interruption when he looked at the clock and realized that eleven hours had passed. The light was morning sun, not the coming dusk.
"Bucky wants T'Challa to put him back into cryostasis," Steve said when Sam opened the door. Sam wasn't in any shape to handle either the words or what they meant, either to Steve or to Bucky or to anyone else. So he waved Steve inside and followed Dubula's instructions to call for breakfast, although he did it for two because Steve could always eat.
"Okay, with the understanding that I have had no coffee and you will probably have to repeat this," Sam sighed, sitting down on the bed across from where Steve had parked himself on a chair. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Which was how Sam found out that what had come between Barnes and Steve yesterday had been that proposal, which Steve was understandably aghast at. But Sam could almost-sorta see the point, as much as he could understand how badly this would tear Steve's heart apart.
"I told him to think it over and we'd talk about it this morning and he's still stuck on the idea," Steve said, running his fingers through his hair. "Sam, how can I let him do that?"
"You don't let him do anything, Steve," Sam replied. "You know that. Man's earned the right to make his own choices."
Breakfast was introduced by a well-timed knock on the door and another trolley with more fruit and a giant carafe of coffee and a loaf of hot, soft, sweet bread with a tub of butter that might have been freshly churned.
They ate, changing the topic to Wanda (doing fine medically, still sleeping when Steve had gone down earlier) until they got to the second round of coffee.
"He's afraid there are more triggers," Steve said, poking forlornly at a strawberry. "He's afraid of what else someone might make him do."
Sam cocked an eyebrow. "Can you blame him?"
The man had broken out of a high-security capsule that should have held anyone short of the Hulk, all just in a vain attempt to get away from being forced to obey his conditioning. And then he'd torn through all of the security measures put in place specifically for him and if it hadn't been for Steve, he would have blown for good. He'd have come out of it on his own, probably, but it would have destroyed him. Sam had been there when Barnes had woken and he understood -- Steve had used sheer force of will to keep Barnes level until Barnes could put one foot in front of the other. They'd been propping each other up and it was the realization of that that had gotten Barnes to stand on his own and hold up his fair share.
"He's safe here!" Steve's voice came close to breaking. "Wakanda has never had a HYDRA incursion."
"You don't know that," Sam pointed out, hating that they were having this conversation here, now, in this beautiful room before he'd fully absorbed his caffeine and before Steve had had a chance to just spend some time with Bucky without someone trying to kill them. "T'Challa doesn't know that. Nobody can promise him that and you have to understand how terrifying that is, Steve. He's maybe got a bomb in him, maybe a dozen, and he doesn't have control over who sets them off. He doesn't have control over himself and after what he's been through, there is nothing worse than that. Nothing. Not even losing you again."
Steve had tears in his eyes. "He can't lose me."
Sam smiled rather than tear up on his own. "And if you don't think he knows that, you're a goddamn fool," he said, reaching for another piece of the bread. "You think this is the easy way out for him? It's not. Going off and killing himself would be the easy way out -- no mess, no fuss, and nobody can ever use Bucky Barnes against his will again. But instead, he's volunteering to go back into a situation that has... he is asking to get himself frozen alive. Again, after every other time was living hell. And he's willing to be left at the mercy of whoever has their hands on the tank's controls, the hand currently being the guy who spent a few days very determinedly trying to kill him, all so that you won't have to lose him, either.
"He's doing this to stay Bucky Barnes, Steve. He's doing this so that he stays who he wants to be. And that's who he wants to be."
Who he'd have been if he'd died in 1944 like he was supposed to, Sam didn't say, but he knew Steve had heard it clear as bell when Barnes had said as much earlier. A good man, a good soldier, a son and brother and friend, all of the things he undoubtedly wished he'd only been instead of what he'd become. That this would be punishment for that was also undoubtedly part of the point and Sam was sure Steve had gotten that part the first time.
Steve gave up trying not to cry and wept then, hands in his face and elbows on his knees, and Sam could do nothing but bear silent witness to it. When he was done, Steve went into the bathroom to wash his face and when he came out, Sam had a glass of juice and a hug for him.
"Shut up and take it," Sam told him and he meant both, since Steve had been mid-protest. Steve did.
Steve could pass for normal by the time he left Sam to get changed, saying he'd go check in with the others and meet Sam down by Wanda's room.
Wakandan clothes were loose-fitting and sharply cut and Sam felt a little weird and a lot comfortable as he moved through the palace down to the hospital. He couldn't pass for Wakandan for a dozen different reasons, but he could admit to himself that he liked having one less reason to stand out. Wakanda had been a kind of shangri-la for most black kids growing up, a negro paradise without all of the blood and famine and plague that beset the rest of Africa and none of the shit that black people had to deal with anywhere else. And here he was, in the palace, at the invitation of the king.
"You look a sight better," he said when he came into Wanda's room. She was wearing a Wakandan dress in a color that matched her eyes and sitting in the chair Steve had sat in yesterday. She was still looking a little fragile, but compared to yesterday or her time in the Raft, she looked like she could slay dragons bare-handed.
Which she could even on a bad day, but the point stood.
"It's short of 'good,' but after the last few days, I will take it," Wanda said lightly, but the smile on her face said she understood.
Barnes was there, looking like a man who'd just had a fight with his best friend. He greeted Sam with a grimace that said that he knew that Sam knew what was going on.
"Mister Barnes here was telling me of his decision," Wanda said mildly and Sam's eyebrow shot up. He thought Barnes would be more of a silent brooder and not someone who'd seek counsel. "I told him that it was a very brave choice, although not one without problems. But in the end, how we define ourselves... is that not everything?"
"It's most of it," Sam agreed. "But I think everyone would handle this particular decision a whole lot better if it was a solution instead of a stopgap measure."
Because that's really what it was -- it was rendering Barnes temporarily harmless, not anything that would allow him to live -- really live, not just be alive in the tank -- a life of his choosing.
"Ah, for crying out loud!" Barnes groaned, leaning his head back so that it hit the wall. It startled Sam a little because he'd rarely seen Barnes that animated. "Of course Steve stopped listening by that point. I'm doing this so that the Wakandans can figure out how to get rid of all of the shit in my head, not just to..." he trailed off, waving his hand in a gesture that was a shorthand for all of the other reasons he was doing it for, too. "They're gonna scan my brain and stuff, maybe even figure out how to fix me when I'm still in cryo." He sighed heavily. "I swear, that idiot listens to what he wants to hear and then ignores the rest."
Sam made a sour face. "Maybe his hearing would've been better if you hadn't spent the last few years running from him."
Barnes frowned right back. "That was more than just about him and no, his selective hearing goes back to his days in short pants."
Which was probably true and there was no point in actually trying to argue that Steve wasn't difficult when he wanted to be.
"They think they can come up with a way to deprogram me," Barnes went on and it broke Sam's heart a little to hear the hope in Barnes's voice. "They have stuff here that's not anywhere else and they think they can fix me. But I can't just hang out until they figure it out. I don't want to hurt anyone else, let alone the people working to fix me. HYDRA fears Wakanda in a way they aren't afraid of anyone else. If anyone found out I was here, walking around like a normal person, they'd send everyone they could. They'd fly a goddamned plane overhead with trigger codes blasting from a speaker. But they won't even have to, not with Wakanda opening itself to the world.... I've already killed friends. I can't do it again."
It was one thing to try to explain Barnes's fears of being turned into the Winter Soldier again to Steve. It was another to hear that fear in Barnes's own words. Visceral and terrified in a way that none of them but Clint could ever understand and Sam prayed they never would.
"No one is going to let you," he said instead, waiting for Barnes to meet his eyes. "Steve, King T'Challa, those terrifying and terrifyingly hot bodyguards he has, the rest of us... We got your back, okay? You are an asshole, but you're our asshole. You get me?"
Once upon a time, Steve had said that when he'd had nothing else, he'd had Bucky Barnes. And when Bucky Barnes had nothing else, he'd had Steve. It was time to expand the circle a little and both of them should learn to accept the extra coverage.
Barnes looked at him like an alien for a second, but then he smiled. "But not your first asshole. You'll watch him, too?"
Sam laughed. "Yeah," he assured, meaning it. Barnes wasn't asking him to just keep Steve out of trouble. "We got a mixed record of keeping him from doing stupid shit, but I'm pretty sure your record ain't perfect, either."
"I prefer to view that as a feature, not as a bug," Wanda said, drawing both of their attention to her. "Stupid shit occasionally leads to the best ideas."
Once upon a time, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff had turned themselves into guinea pigs for HYDRA and then minions for Ultron and then found themselves Avengers. She would trade all of everything to get Pietro back, that Sam knew, but in her grief, she'd gained perspective not only on what she'd done and what she could do, but what she could be.
"And on that note..." Lang said as he and Clint and Steve entered. "That was my cue if ever there was one."
All of them together and the focus shifted from Barnes to Wanda, which probably pleased one more than the other. Wanda assured everyone she was doing better, despite the bandages still around her neck and the weakness she obviously still felt. She was not using her powers, not comfortable attempting that when she wasn't quite steady on her feet yet, but she assured Clint that she felt them again, coursing under her skin like blood.
"Give me time," she assured. "I will be fine."
The next week was both very strange and, in its own ways, very familiar. They all watched the international news to see what became of the world they'd left behind and the team they'd left behind. There was nothing from the UN about the jailbreak from the Raft, which was probably telling, nor was there an actual list of who was considered to be a fugitive from justice. Possibly because nobody was sure which rules had actually been broken. The Accords were supposed to have had a gradual rolling-out period to cover the fact that they'd been pushed through with so little debate and most of what Ross -- and Tony -- had done was enforce penalties for breaking rules not supposed to have been implemented within the first three months.
"I'm pretty sure 'toss people in the Raft without so much as an arraignment' isn't even in the full version," Clint groused as they watched BBC Worldwide.
Nobody knew if the Avengers still existed, under the Accords or otherwise. Natasha was in the wind and Tony wasn't commenting and that left Kyun and Marsha, the Avengers' PR people, to release public statements that meant nothing even when you read between the lines. General Ross was only braying about the capture of Zemo, the true mastermind behind the deaths in Vienna, with no mention of who or why or how he hadn't believed anyone until T'Challa had turned him over to authorities. There was nothing about Barnes at all.
Which did not mean that he wasn't the subject of a lot of conversation among their little group.
"I get why he's doing it, but..." Lang trailed off one morning as they were sorting through the big box of western clothes that had been brought in from Pretoria, which had the nearest Banana Republic – and yes, they’d made that joke that it wasn’t the nearest banana republic. "But I guess I am damned lucky that I don't really understand how becoming an ice cube is the best choice. An ice cube, not the Ice Cube. Barnes is just not cool enough for that, not with that hair."
Barnes, who had had ample opportunities to both cut his hair and shave and had done neither, spent most of his days either with the Wakandan scientists getting his body and brain scanned. They gave him a new temporary arm – he didn’t want one permanently attached – but mostly because they were going to have to custom-build a cryostasis tank and wanted one that would be gentler on him physically as well as useful mentally. When he wasn’t playing medical pinup, he was often off with Steve having the kind of conversations that were impossible and necessary for both of them. They tended to turn up after one of these exhausted but more at peace, which in turn made the tension level of the group much lower. That, and secure VOIP connections that allowed Clint and Lang to call their kids without giving up their locations to the authorities undoubtedly tapping the phones.
"You remember that movie from the early eighties," Clint asked, holding up a black t-shirt that was too long for him and frowning as he put it back. Sam loved how Clint never went for the small sizes first, like there just might be a large that would fit him -- like the 'large' Steve insisted he wore that were totally mediums. "Charles Bronson and I forget who the gal is, but they're chasing Soviet sleeper agents who some rogue KGB agent is activating over the phone..."
"'The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and I have promises to keep,' right?" Sam replied, going through the jeans. They'd been asked for their measurements beforehand, so it was just a matter of finding the ones that fit him. "One of the sleepers gets activated and tries to blow up the Hoover Dam... Who was the girl, Angie Dickenson?"
He'd seen that movie on TV at his granny's, he thought. Him and his cousin Jamaal sitting around and watching the bad action movies on Channel 9 with the volume turned down real low so none of the adults heard all of the shooting.
"Guys, IMDB does work in Wakanda," Lang held up his phone. "And the answer is Telefon, from 1977, and the lady was Lee Remick."
The topic was abruptly changed when Barnes came in with Wanda, who was looking much better. The bandages around her neck were gone and while there was a small scab on the right side from the injection site, the other marks were nearly faded and she had gotten a little color in the palace gardens. But most of all, she was smiling now and it made a world of difference. Steve had worried a little about Wanda losing what sense of home she'd made with the Avengers, but that part didn't seem to bother her much.
"A home is not a room or a set of walls," she'd said to Sam the one time he'd obliquely brought it up on Steve's behalf. "I have seen many of those fall and it took me a long time to realize that that is not the tragedy of loss. A home can be wherever you feel safe and wherever you are with people you trust. And I like understanding that."
Right now, though, Wanda looked at home in a yellow dress with red borders and her hair tied up in a matching scarf. There were clothes in the box for her, but she probably wouldn't wear them until they had to leave, whenever that was.
The short answer to that question was 'not before Barnes went into the tank,' but Steve and T'Challa were still discussing the longer answer to that. Which was anything but straightforward. T'Challa's belief in the Sokovia Accords had been shaken but not shattered and he still believed that some kind of oversight had to be introduced. But he had also been appalled at the heavy-handed tactics used by Ross and then Ross's willingness to accept Barnes as an easy solution to a difficult problem and he'd agreed that there had to be a lot more thought put into how that oversight got put in place -- and who watched the watchers because SHIELD had thought itself the answer to that, too.
In the meantime, the rogue Avengers were welcome in Wakanda, at least as guests. They would not be allowed to use it as a base of operations, but Sam honestly wasn't sure Steve intended for them to continue on as they'd been. Sam had been present when T'Challa had asked Steve the same question Sam had asked him years ago: what do you want to do? And Steve, now as then, hadn't had an answer. He didn't seem to mind too much not having the uniform ("miss the shield a little, though") and while he still answered to the name if someone called for Cap, half the time he'd remind you that he wasn't. Who he was, well, he'd been putting off that question since 1943 if you asked Barnes.
(Sam hadn't asked. Barnes had volunteered the information to Steve at a rather high volume and Sam had had to admit that it made him feel good that Barnes couldn't get Steve to think about these things any more than he could. It wasn't a competition between them, it wasn't, and Sam was okay with that and Barnes never once gloated about it. But Sam was still Steve's friend and Bucky was still the platonic ideal of Steve's friend and sometimes that mattered a little. Sam tried not to let it happen too often.)
Steve had spoken about the future with all of them as a group -- Barnes present as both courtesy and peanut gallery -- and he had some ideas that weren't all that bad. He was also aware that it might be a trio instead of a group because Clint and Lang had people they wanted to get back to and T'Challa was already trying to figure out a way to make that happen without kidnapping Cassie or moving the Bartons to Central Wakanda.
But a small group that helped those in need instead of just fighting supervillains and creating new ones in the process, that idea might have some merit.
Sam also suspected that Natasha was not nearly as off the map as the news seemed to think.
In the meanwhile, while the great and the good were figuring out how to save the world and freeze people alive, Sam took day trips around Central Wakanda. It was nothing like he'd imagined as a kid, but everything he might have hoped for as an adult. It was amazing, but it also emphasized how uncertain his place in the world was. It was strange – good-strange, but still fundamentally foreign in everything from language to culture to how they did their science, if Lang was to be believed (he was, at least on this). It was a world that knew its own value and Sam, a man without a home, without an identity, with no ability to reach out to his past life and no idea where his future might lead… he was very unsure of his. Steve and Wanda and even Barnes had been through this before, rebuilding from the ashes of a life they’d once known, and Sam felt a bit like a fool for having thought he’d known enough to offer advice once upon a time when he’d really had no idea. He said as much to Steve, who laughed and told him that he’d been far more useful than he was giving himself credit for being.
“So how do you do this?” Sam asked him. “What’s your advice, as an expert on having to start all over?”
Steve smiled again. “A wise man I know once asked me what made me happy.”
Sam rolled his eyes, but it felt good to be assured that he hadn’t been talking completely out of his ass back then.
One day, Clint reported that his wife and kids had received a visit from Natasha, who’d swept the place for bugs, improved security, and left Laura with cash and a secure phone that couldn’t be tapped and a way to reach her in case she needed anything. On another, Lang managed to fix the stand mixer in the palace kitchens with a rubber band and a couple of washers and suddenly everyone was calling him MacGyver despite nobody in Wakanda understanding the reference. The cryo tank moved from blueprint to prototype and Steve disappeared for almost a day.
“He did this after I enlisted,” Barnes said as they sat in the courtyard eating dinner. It was him and Barnes and Wanda, Clint and Lang both taking advantage of the time difference to call their kids. “He didn’t run away, but he didn’t talk to me for two days.”
Sam looked over. “Wasn’t he the guy who tried enlisting a dozen times before he got picked?”
Barnes smiled, a lopsided half-grin. “Yeah, and he was pissed off that I had gotten taken and he hadn’t. That I was going to leave him behind, even if it was the right thing to do.”
Across the table, Wanda put her fork down a touch too hard. “Excuse me,” she said, and got up and almost ran away. But not like she was about to burst into tears, rather instead like she’d just gotten a good idea.
Nonetheless, it was left to Sam to explain about Pietro and Barnes felt a little shitty for having accidentally reminded her of that loss. Sam assured him that it might not have been a bad thing because not only was it true – he’d seen Wanda on the edge of tears before and this wasn’t that – but also because it was important to let Barnes off the hook. Turned out that while Barnes was almost as much of an asshole as Steve, he was, when he allowed himself to show it, a decent guy. Barnes was still rabbity as hell around people, but he was also curious and kind and that made it all the worse for what awaited him, by choice or not. He was interested in the world around him for reasons that had nothing to do with what he could do with it or to it and he was, for very good reasons, opting to take himself away from all of that.
Steve was found in a park halfway across town at a quarter to eleven at night and while Barnes was more than willing to go drag him back, it turned out not to be necessary. Wanda was with him, apparently, and had been for a while and they were having a Very Serious Discussion.
The next day, Steve showed up at breakfast looking mildly sheepish until Barnes sat down and went “Only one day this time? You’re getting lazy in your old age.” At which point Steve looked peeved, but then he burst out laughing and all was well.
The UN voided the warrants for Clint and Lang, using the questionable reasoning that neither of the two had broken the Accords’ provisions because Clint had been retired and Lang was merely the tester for Pym Technologies and not an Avenger.
“I was kind of deputized at the time,” Lang pointed out, sounding aggrieved.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Steve told him. “You’re only out of this at all because nobody wants to try to legislate the kid in the spider-suit.”
Sam and Wanda were still in limbo because they had actually been Avengers who were supposed to have signed the Accords and hadn’t; Wanda hadn’t actually given an answer and there might be wiggle room there, but Sam… Sam had done what he usually did, which was everything Steve did, except slower. Which in this case meant breaking the law, even though it was a bullshit law.
“Are you seriously trying to apologize to me for leading me astray?” Sam interrupted Steve, who had in fact been doing precisely that. “Because we are going to have the personal agency discussion again and you never like that one.”
Tuesday night became movie night, when some or all of them wound up in Sam’s rooms to watch whatever they could find. Sometimes it was old stuff picked out by the two old farts, sometimes it was cartoons and animated movies, sometimes it was terrible trash – usually picked out by Wanda, who had an unerring ability to find the most hilariously appalling B movies. Sometimes it was Wakandan cinema, which was hard to find with English subtitles and none of them had enough of the language to make it worthwhile anyway. (Although that had prompted a viewing of What’s Up, Tiger Lily.)
The cryo tank went into testing – not on Barnes. Although he did report that one of the things they were testing was audio. Nobody was sure he’d hear anything in the stasis – he hadn’t ever, but apparently this ‘sleep’ was going to be different from what HYDRA had done to him and it was possible that not only could he be able to hear things, but also that they could possibly begin the time-intensive deprogramming while he was in this state. It wouldn’t be like listening to an audiobook or music, although the Wakandan scientists were very intrigued by the possibilities of both. It would be the same kind of endless repetition that had rewired his brain in the first place, this time without the physical torture to reinforce it. Barnes seemed genuinely excited by the notion and it broke all of their hearts a little to see how surprised and pleased he was that there were ways of doing things to him that didn’t hurt like a motherfucker.
“Why isn’t he angry?” Lang asked Sam when it was just the two of them going for frozen fruit juice in town. “I’m furious on his behalf and he’s not.”
Clint’s reactions to Barnes and his desperation to be free of his programming was necessarily more complicated than anyone else’s and everyone tended to tread a little lightly because of that. Which was why Lang had waited to ask.
“Because the man has been through so much shit that if he got angry about all of it, all he’d be is angry,” Sam replied, which was as near as he could come up with for an actual answer. “It’d be like bailing out the Atlantic Ocean with a dixie cup – it’d keep you busy, but it’d be useless.”
Barnes wasn’t angry about many things in general, which made him that much more of a contrast with Steve, who was angry about so much. Not without reason – the man had lost almost everything and everyone with a connection to his ‘old’ life and now the biggest remaining part was plotting his departure. Steve hid it well, of course, like he hid his loneliness and his fear and everything else that he didn’t think was anyone else’s business or not part of what Captain America should display to the world. Which was pretty much everything. But the anger… the anger came out most when he was fighting with Barnes in the outdoor gym. The two of them went at it hammer and tongs, not pulling punches and not taking it easy, for two very different reasons. Steve was venting his frustration and Barnes was trying to keep Steve safe one last time by trying to teach him how to fight better without his shield. Watching Barnes fight, even with the temporary arm, was a master class in efficient destruction; he was much better than Steve, who in turn was much better than everyone else not T’Challa. Who on occasion would show up and challenge the two to fight and that was pretty much when all useful activity in the palace ceased – everyone wanted to watch. Sam and the others were no exception.
T’Challa was amazing to watch, a different type of fighter than the two super-soldiers, faster and more agile. And he laughed as he fought, enjoying his own physicality and prowess; it was a sharp contrast to Steve’s fury and Barnes’s emotionlessness. Being Black Panther for him was an accomplishment and a privilege and a joy and he wore the responsibility of it far more easily than he did the crown. He was a sober king, one still figuring out how he wanted to rule and honor his father and forefathers, but he fought like a man who understood who he was. The more time Sam spent in Wakanda, not just as a guest of the king, but among the subjects and palace staff, he got a sense of what he Wakandans thought of T’Challa, which mattered much more than the opinion of a guy who’d met him in a fight. And the Wakandans were proud of T’Challa and expected great things of him and for him and Sam was a little thrilled to be a witness to what could be history in the making.
Clint and Lang left on a Tuesday morning, both of them torn between loyalty to Steve and burgeoning friendship with Barnes and the longing to be with their kids. Barnes had told them to go and Steve had told them not to worry and Sam had offered to send pictures of the Barnesicle and Wanda had promised not to let him.
It was a much quieter life without the two of them, but not as much as it could have been. Both turned out to be prolific texters and that started on the flight out, with Lang taking pictures of Clint sleeping with straws tucked into his nostrils.
“That is going to end badly,” Wanda said with such perfect understatement even Barnes laughed.
A few hours later, Clint sent a selfie with Lang in a headlock.
The first test of the cryo machine on Barnes was hard for all of them, Barnes included. He’d never wavered, but even Sam could see the dread in his eyes. Steve was practically on autopilot and Sam would’ve paid him closer mind had Wanda not taken the job herself, holding his hand as they watched and murmuring to him bits of what seemed like an old conversation. So Sam stayed near Barnes, cracking stupid jokes and threatening to get the Wakandan scientists to play the Botswanan heavy metal that was becoming very popular in Central Wakanda and always blasting when they went downtown. Barnes insulted him right back, but Sam understood it to be ‘thank you’ in all but words. A far change from getting into a pissing match about seating in the Beetle.
Watching Barnes get frozen was one of the hardest things Sam had ever done. To see the life drain out of him like someone had pulled the plug in the bathtub, to see someone who lived and breathed and talked and moved turned into a pale statue inside a frosted case was simply unreal in all of the worst ways. That he was doing this of his own volition, that didn’t matter. It was like watching someone commit suicide, even if this was only going to be for twenty-four hours.
Nobody even tried to get Steve to leave the lab. Instead, Sam sat on one side and Wanda on the other and they sat doing nothing for a while, then Sam got out a deck of cards and dealt five card stud, since that was the only poker Wanda knew how to play. Steve wasn’t paying attention at first, playing like he had both eyes on the tank, which he did.
“You know the whole point is that he’s not going to move, right?” Sam asked after the third time Steve blew a chance to make two pair. “And if he did move, it’d be to tell you to get your eyes on the damned game because you need that ten if you expect to beat what I got.”
Dinner and then blankets appeared as the night went on and they had a picnic and then a sleepover. Sam fell asleep to the symphony of quiet beeps of all of the monitors and sensors on and in the tank and woke up the next morning to the chatter of the scientists as they went over the reports. Everything was fine, Steve was assured. Everything was more than fine – it was optimal. Barnes would have to verify it when he was woken up, but there was very strong evidence that he could ‘hear’ while under, which in turn meant that they could begin to deprogram him while he was in cryo.
“It’s not like hearing-hearing,” it was explained to Steve. “It is more like a passive awareness. Like a dream, perhaps, but one that has the possibility to influence the waking mind.”
Sam didn’t think Steve was sure whether to be relieved or disappointed – the thing worked, Barnes would possibly get a headstart on what he needed to do… but he also wouldn’t need any more tests. He could go in any time he wanted and Steve hadn’t yet convinced him to want anything else.
Barnes himself was less conflicted, but it was obvious to everyone except Steve that he was a good deal less eager to jump back in. Not because it had been traumatic; it had been anything but and Barnes had laughed when he’d woken up in a bed under blankets – he hadn’t even known that it didn’t have to be painful, that it could be like waking up from a peaceful sleep and not whatever HYDRA had done. (“The Soviets went with buckets of ice water, Pierce’s crew liked drugs and electricity. Sometimes both at once.”) But Barnes had gotten used to being human again since Romania and had a lot more to lose. He had Steve to lose, in the concrete and not the abstract, and that mattered.
“Don’t tell him not to grieve,” Sam told Barnes -- Bucky -- when the guy turned up at his door two evenings after the test completed. Sam had invited him in and they’d sat out on the terrace with two glasses of the local firewater mixed with mango juice. The visit hadn’t been totally unexpected; the two of them had gotten past the two-dogs-sniffing-each-other’s-butts phase and on to something that might have become a solid friendship if they’d had the chance to spend time together. They openly recognized each other as allies in more than just the fight against evil or trying to keep Steve from doing anything particularly stupid more than twice a day. “You mean more than anything, anyone, in the world to him and you know that and you know that’s not going to change with time or you becoming a Barnesicle. You are disappearing out of his life when you just got back into it and it doesn’t matter why or how necessary it is or whether you’ll be back out in a year or whatever they think they’ll need to figure out how to get all that shit out of your head. He just lost Peggy, he just lost his entire world in the present, and now he’s losing you. Don’t tell him it’ll be okay because it won’t be, not for a while.”
Bucky nodded, looking out at the trees beyond. “I know that, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell him instead.”
Sam didn’t roll his eyes because he knew from past experiences that it was never obvious to the people actually in the situation. “You tell him you love him, too,” he said instead. “You make sure he knows that you’re not running from him and that you’re not running from being you. You’re running toward being you and that, for the time being, is going to take you away from him. I know you two were supposed to have worked this shit out back in the Forties, but he is a damned slow learner and it never hurts to tell him again.”
Bucky smiled wistfully and took a long drink; Sam had to sip and he did so.
“We should’ve done it in the Thirties, but we just sort of grew up without growing apart,” Barnes said, shaking his head. “Steve didn’t have a girl, I had too many girls, and it was the end of the Depression and we weren’t exactly in a position to settle down or move away or move on. We didn’t in the Forties because we were goddamned idiots who didn’t know what we were getting into. I didn’t know. Steve didn’t care. And look where we are now.”
Sam took another sip. “Now, you two are starring in the palace’s greatest soap opera. Everyone agrees it’s better than anything playing on WRTOne, Two, or Three. Four’s got the soaps from Gambia and you two aren’t nothing on that drama.”
Bucky looked over and Sam shrugged. It was true. Half the palace gossip was about the tragic saga of Mister Barnes and Mister Rogers. Sam had learned so many vocabulary words by being quizzed by staff because even the tiniest nugget was worth its weight in gossip gold.
“If it makes you feel better, it won’t actually stop once you’re in the tube, but T’Challa’s official mourning period will be up soon and then everyone will go back to wondering when he’ll get married because now it’s important.”
The look he got back would’ve once put the fear of god into him, but it was completely undone by Bucky’s inability to hold it. “It won’t, but T’Challa’s already complaining about it.”
Two days later, the date for the cryo freeze was set for ten days later. Steve and Bucky spent the greater part of it together, which left Sam to plot with Wanda how they were going to deal with the fallout. Sam hadn’t necessarily considered Wanda on the hook for the assist, but she came to him and announced that this would be too big a project for one person, so they should coordinate.
(Wanda’s blossoming in Wakanda had made Sam ask Steve what the hell they’d been doing wrong in New York for her to flourish so here. She had picked up more of the language than anyone and had gone to the families of the aid workers she’d inadvertently killed and apologized and asked for forgiveness, a gesture that had gone over well, and now went out and about with much more confidence and frequency. She was done with being the little sister of the team, she’d told Sam. And he’d told her right back that that status, once earned, was never shed.)
The last dinner wasn’t really a Last Supper, but it was definitely a little weird. Sam said goodbye to Bucky with a hug and a quiet promise to look after Steve. He knew when and where the procedure was happening, but it wasn’t his place to be there this time. Instead, he and Wanda did their own things that morning, meeting up half an hour after the appointed time, and waiting in the courtyard nearest Steve’s room for him to return, figuring it would be even odds if he disappeared for a day or two or came right back to go change into workout clothes and let the Dora Milaje beat the crap out of him – enough of them at once could do a respectable job.
They were a little surprised when Steve came around the corner with T’Challa, who left Steve with a pat on the shoulder and a nod to Sam and Wanda.
“So,” Sam said. “What’s next?”
Steve shrugged, not the helpless shrug of the hopeless, but a guy who genuinely didn’t know the answer. “Lunch, I guess. Then maybe it’s time to figure it out.”