It figured that just when Sam’s Avenging side job had settled down, his day job would go to total shit. He had been feeling good about balancing them well too: he’d moved back to Harlem to work out of one of the New York VA offices, and with HYDRA in its death throes, Sam mostly just pitched in on Avengers emergencies and the occasional raid on a HYDRA or AIM base. Really, things had settled down better than Sam had ever dared to hope for, during the long and grim search for Bucky Barnes. It was over a year since Bucky came in from the cold, and Bucky’s recovery was going well, Steve looked happier than Sam had ever seen him, Natasha seemed more at peace….and Sam—well, Sam loved his jobs, both of them.
Or, Sam usually loved both his jobs. That was before the past month of setback after setback, some small, and most not so small. A lot of it was normal, sure, Sam knew that. He knew recovery wasn’t linear, and that just because some of his clients were having a hard time, that wasn’t necessarily a reflection on him. So Sandra hadn’t left her house in two weeks, and Mike lost his temper with his kid, which had sent him off into a weeks-long spiral of self-loathing, and Rico’d started skipping his physical therapy appointments again. So Sam got a new, determinedly uncooperative client, a hollow-eyed kid who just got sent home with a medical discharge after surviving an IED attack that took out half his squad. So one of Sam’s group sessions had been just that extra bit sadder and more tense because his clients’ lives had taken a turn for the sad and tense. None of that was about Sam, and he just had to help his clients through it.
He figured it was going to be one of those draining, quietly sad months that got him down, but nothing a nice weekend with friends and some self-indulgent couch time couldn’t fix. That was before he got the call from Stacey though. The call from Stacey took Sam’s Monday from typical slog to actively awful, and it wasn’t something a nice weekend with friends could fix.
He answered the call thinking it was going to be from Tyler. They hadn’t talked all that much since the requisite “holy shit you’re an Avenger?!” call Sam had with all his friends and old Air Force buddies, but they texted fairly regularly, and Sam kept up with Tyler’s Instagram. He felt a quick flash of guilt for not keeping up with Tyler better, and tried to think of when the last time he had heard from him was. A few months ago at Christmas maybe? Or no, it had been just last month, when Tyler had texted him a photo of an adorable Falcon onesie he was getting for his baby nephew.
He should really stay in touch with Tyler better. Sam wasn’t one of those guys who thought you had to be tight with everyone you served with, but he counted Tyler as a genuine friend even if they didn’t see each other all that often now that they were ostensibly civilians again, and living across the country from each other on top of that. But Tyler had sat with him, the night after Riley had died. He hadn’t really said anything, or tried to comfort Sam, he’d just been present, and Sam thought of that often in his work as a peer counselor, and as friend to a bunch of traumatized super heroes.
“Hey Tyler, been a while since I heard from you, man! How’re you doing?”
“Hello, is this Sam Wilson?” That wasn’t Tyler. It was a woman’s voice, but Sam was sure his caller ID had said it was Tyler—
“Yeah, this is Sam. I’m sorry, I thought Tyler was calling—”
“No, sorry, this is Stacey, Tyler’s sister. I’m just using his phone to call all his contacts.” There was a heavy pause, and he knew this was going to be one of those bad news calls. “Tyler passed away a couple of days ago.”
Sam was already sitting down, but he felt unsteady anyway, and gripped the edge of his desk with his free hand. “No,” came the automatic denial. “Can I ask how?”
“Tyler shot himself,” said Stacey, her voice flat and tired.
“What? But he—” Sam cut himself off before he could say “seemed fine.” How would Sam know? Some texts and “great pic!” comments on Tyler’s hiking trip photos weren’t exactly enough to go on. Tyler’s life had seemed like it was going well from the outside. Obviously Tyler hadn’t thought so.
Stacey sighed a little shakily. “Yeah. I’ve been calling his friends and old Air Force buddies, I didn’t want everyone to find out on, on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. The medical examiner has to do an investigation and all, but Tyler left a note, so. There’s not much question about what happened. We’re going to have a memorial service here in Bend in a couple of weeks, I’ll be emailing out the details. Obviously, you’re welcome to come. I know Tyler considered you a good friend.”
Sam was probably one of the last people she’d had to call, if she’d been going down the list of Tyler’s contacts alphabetically. He could hear the toll of all those calls in her weary voice.
“Of course. I’ll be there. I’m so sorry for your loss, Stacey.”
“Thank you, Sam. Take care of yourself.”
Sam ended the call and set his phone down on his desk. He still had the rest of his work day to get through. He had another group session to lead in a couple of hours, and there was some paperwork he was supposed to submit by the end of the day. And there was that Avengers meeting tomorrow morning too. Life had to go on. But fuck, Tyler. Tyler was dead.
The fact that the shape of this grief was familiar to him, both personally and professionally, wasn’t a particular comfort right now. Sam knew what he’d counsel any of his clients to do: take the rest of the day off work, get support from friends and family, let yourself feel your grief. But before he could do much more than think about going to let his supervisor Megan know he’d gotten some bad news and had to head home, he got a call on his office line from one of his clients who had just had a flashback, and from there it was one minor crisis after another. It seemed easier to just lurch through the day on momentum, shoving his grief aside. And really, he could do it. The news was a shock, and he was sad, but he didn’t have any right to be so upset. He and Tyler hadn’t been that close. That’s what he told himself, anyway. Physician, heal thyself, said a wry voice in his head that sounded an awful lot like Natasha.
By the time he got home, he didn’t have the energy to do anything but face plant into his bed. His thoughts skittered uselessly from one subject to another: did he want to bother with eating dinner, should he follow up with Rico tomorrow, how was he going to get to Tyler’s memorial service and how much time off should he take, shit, what was the agenda for tomorrow’s Avengers meeting….Sam needed a distraction.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked his social media accounts. His personal, non-Avengers feeds were full of friends and acquaintances reacting to the news of Tyler’s death. Sam had posted something to his own Facebook and Instagram earlier in the day, just a generic expression of grief and some resources for suicide prevention. Looking at it again now, Sam felt a surge of disgust with himself. It seemed like too little, too late, and it was Sam Wilson, VA peer counselor talking with professional detachment, not Sam Wilson, Tyler’s friend. Tyler deserved better from him.
He couldn’t bring himself to dredge up anything more personal right now though. Everything just felt—heavy, was the only word Sam could think of. He felt weighed down, not just with grief for Tyler, but with his clients’ problems and with Riley and the ghosts of all the other vets he’d lost. An obesity of grief, he thought, a half-remembered snatch of poetry from some class or another. And that was what it felt like, like he’d eaten too much sorrow. Scrolling through others’ condolences and shocked reactions only added to the weight. There wasn’t really any comfort in the fact that everyone else was as surprised as Sam had been to learn Tyler had taken his own life.
Sam told himself he should get up, make himself some dinner. He didn’t though. He just kept going through the photos and memories of Tyler. A lot of the photos had Riley in them too, and that old grief flared with new pain now. Most of the photos Sam had of Riley were of him making goofy faces at the camera, and whenever Tyler had been in a photo with him, Tyler had some over the top serious pose going on. Even now, those photos made Sam smile.
They had been in the middle of what amounted to a war zone, but the photos were all blue skies and smiles. That was one of Sam’s overriding memories of his tour in Afghanistan: the depthless expanse of the blue sky above Bagram and Kabul. Other, worse memories had overtaken that later, like the flash of the RPG that had taken Riley and the sick disorientation of tumbling in the air with non-responsive wings. But the sky and Riley and Tyler—those were good memories.
Sam only managed a couple hours of sleep before he had to get up and head to midtown and Stark Tower for the Avengers meeting. Twenty-something Sam Wilson could have brushed off the sleepless night with some strong coffee. With his twenties in the rear view mirror and fast receding, the Sam Wilson of today felt a pulsing pressure behind his eyes that even a double-shot latte didn’t alleviate. Caffeine and stubbornness were just going to have to be enough to get him through the day.
Today’s Avengers meeting wasn’t all-hands or world-saving urgent, and truthfully, Sam probably didn’t have to be there. Thor wouldn’t be, since he was off at some observatory in the middle of nowhere with Jane Foster, and neither would Bucky, who was upstate on a boring but necessary surveillance mission with Maria Hill instead. Sam could have pled VA business and gotten the minutes emailed to him. That would have felt like shirking though, and Sam could handle one Avengers meeting, sleepless night or no.
He made it to the conference room with only a couple minutes to spare before the meeting officially started, which was by design. He wasn’t in the mood for small talk. Of course, he worked with a bunch of superheroes and spies, so small talk or no, they could tell something was up.
Natasha took him in with one quick, assessing glance. “Rough night?”
“Didn’t get a lot of sleep.”
Steve got that little worry line between his eyes, and looked like he was about to say something, but then Tony made his entrance and the meeting began in earnest. By which Sam meant that Steve and Tony started their requisite opening volley of bickering and needling each other, before settling down into official business. Said official business was an update from Steve and Natasha on what was pending on the Avengers’ mission slate and a quick briefing on situations that might need Avenger attention, and Tony haranguing everybody about submitting proper feedback on the latest upgrades to their gear and weapons, with bonus nagging about “all of the Avengers” pulling their PR weight.
Everyone muttered something about promising to attend some charity event or another, and then the meeting was wrapping up. Usually, he’d stick around for a few minutes to catch up with the rest of the team, but this time, all he wanted to do was grab a bagel from the conference room’s breakfast spread and ghost on out. Dealing with the well-meaning sympathy of his teammates just felt like too much right now. Maybe he’d text Steve or Natasha later today to tell them about Tyler, and ask them to give him some space. This is not an emotionally mature decision, said Sam’s inner peer counselor. Shut the hell up, Sam told it as he grabbed a blueberry bagel.
The moment of distraction was enough for Steve to block Sam’s exit. “You alright, Sam? You look a little…”
“Like you went on a bender, and not the fun kind,” finished Tony with his customary lack of tact. “Do you want a smoothie? I have a great smoothie for that.”
“No, thank you,” said Sam, eyeing the door and judging the likelihood of getting past Steve. Which of course gave Natasha an opportunity to slide in next to him and snag an onion bagel. It also effectively trapped him, because there was no sneaking past Natasha if she didn’t want you to sneak past her.
She hip checked him companionably while she smeared her bagel with cream cheese, and said, “Seriously, what’s up.”
Sam could lie and say he’d just had a bad night’s sleep. Everyone would accept that as the euphemism for traumatic nightmares that it was and leave him alone about it. Natasha would definitely be able to tell he was lying, of course, but she’d probably let it pass out of politeness. She could be nice like that. Or you could model emotionally mature and healthy behavior for your fucked up superhero friends, said Sam’s inner peer counselor. He’d been quiet too long, and Steve was giving him the big eyes of concern and earnestness now. The truth it was, then. Most of it, anyway.
“Got some bad news yesterday. Friend of mine from the Air Force died.”
Sam accepted the requisite condolences, and answered the well-meaning questions. No, Tyler wasn’t killed in combat, yes he was going to the service, sure, they’d been kind of close, yeah Sam was doing okay, he just needed some time and space, and oh look what time it was, he had to get to the VA. He got a text from Steve on his way there: let me know if you want to talk. Sam didn’t think he’d take Steve up on that offer. This cut too close to the bone for both of them.
Sam downed another cup of coffee on his way to the VA, hoping it would make him look like less of a hot mess. Maybe he should have taken Tony up on the smoothie offer. A hangover-curing smoothie made by Tony Stark was probably pretty effective, even if you didn’t have a hangover. Too late now though, he’d have to make do with coffee. When he got to the VA, he gave the receptionist a wan smile and headed straight for his office to throw himself into some paperwork and answer emails. That kept him busy and distracted until it was time for his group meeting.
Group went alright, for all that Sam was off his game. Which was fine, the supportive setting was really more important than anything else. Sam didn’t know if Tyler had had a supportive setting. He seemed to have reintegrated into civilian life easily, had a decent job and an active social life. He’d never mentioned anything about going to the VA, or to any group therapy. Tyler hadn’t mentioned having any problems at all. There was the group of people he hiked with though, would Tyler have talked to them? Would it have made a difference if he had? All it took was one really bad day, and the means to act on that bad day. Maybe if a friend had texted or called Tyler that day, it would have been enough to keep Tyler from pulling the trigger. He had left a note, sure, but maybe—
“Sam? You alright?”
Sam startled, jolted from his train of thought. How long had Rico been trying to get his attention? “Yeah, sorry, just thinking about something.”
The other vets exchanged worried glances with each other, and Sam was about to deflect, change the subject, before he realized just what it was he was doing and felt the swift rise of shame. Every week his vets trusted him, and each other, with their closely-held anxieties and griefs, and Sam had the gall to not trust them with his own? Way to model good behavior, peer counselor, he thought. Do your fucking job.
“I was thinking about my friend Tyler. He killed himself a few days ago. I just got the news yesterday. It’s been…kinda rough, brings up some bad stuff for me.” Killed himself. He hadn’t told the Avengers that, had sidestepped around it. He wondered if their reaction would have been the same mix of sympathy, grim resignation, and anger he saw from the vets in group.
“22 vets a day, and does anyone give a shit?” muttered Jason, making Jackie, who was sitting beside him, flinch.
“It’s more like one a day, for veterans of OIF and OEF,” corrected Sam absently.
“Oh, only one a day, totally cool then!”
“Not what I meant.”
“I know, it’s just—”
They all sat in tired silence for a moment. There wasn’t anything to say, really. Everyone knew the stories, how some battalions came home battered and missing some people but safe, only to face the slow attrition of suicide. In some units, it spread like an infection, communicable by grief and despair. The first suicide just made people angry, the second and third sad, the fourth numb, and after that it stopped seeming like a surprise, and started feeling inevitable, a foregone conclusion. Like a guy could just have a bad day, and bam. Or like their lives were the layer of ice over a dark and grasping lake, and the ice could crack without warning. Sam knew. He had heard it from other veterans, and in his darker moments, when it seemed like the VA was irreparably broken and thoroughly inadequate, he had felt it himself.
Sam took a breath, and was about to give the usual spiel about resources and crisis hotlines and how things got better, before he stopped himself. Did anyone think of those things, when they put the barrel of the gun to their heads? Did the standard platitudes do any good, when you could hear the ice creaking and splintering?
“Please don’t kill yourselves, you guys. Just—don’t. It fucks up your friends.”
“Amen,” murmured most of the group members, and Sam adjourned the meeting. He got a few hugs and slaps on the back as people filed out. Sam hoped he hadn’t just fucked up by even bringing Tyler’s suicide up, as if just speaking about Tyler’s suicide was the equivalent of being the guy coughing on the plane in some outbreak movie. He knew it didn’t really work that way.
It sure felt like everyone was worried about it working that way though. Sam’s phone and inbox were full of messages from guys from his unit and the units they had served alongside: they were short, simple messages like “hey man, thinking of you, take care of yourself,” and “hope to see you at Tyler’s memorial.” There was something talismanic about that, as if by the simple act of checking in with each other, they could prevent another Tyler. And maybe they could. He certainly didn’t want anyone worrying about him offing himself. So Sam responded to all of them, even though it felt like it took more energy than he had.
Getting through the rest of his workday took more willpower than flying into a firefight. But Sam managed it, and when he got home, he was rewarded with the sight of a bag of food from his favorite delivery place waiting for him in front of his door. He picked up the bag, running a hand over the bottom; it was still warm, almost hot even. If it was a HYDRA bomb, too bad, because Sam was too tired and hungry to care. But no, there was a note stapled to the bag with the receipt: This seems more useful than flowers. I’m sorry about your friend. -Nat. The note wasn’t in her handwriting, so she must have told the restaurant to write it for her. Otherwise, the note and gesture were thoroughly Natasha.
All of a sudden, his chest felt tight and his eyes burned with tears. He grabbed the food and fumbled to unlock his door, then fairly staggered to his kitchen table. After everything else during this whole long, shitty day, what really wrecked him was a sweet gesture from a friend? Really, Sam? he asked himself. But yeah, apparently that was happening. He was now almost crying over his Chinese food. It would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so shit sad.
The food was, of course, composed of all of his favorites, and it was all still hot because of course Natasha had made sure to have it delivered at the exact right time. He wouldn’t have put it past Natasha to have known that he had skipped lunch earlier too. The morning’s bagel was a long time ago, so Sam got his misbehaving tear ducts under control and dug in to the food. Thank you, he texted Natasha, unable to muster up a joke or quip. She texted a heart emoji back, which definitely made some butterflies flutter in the vicinity of his stomach.
Once he had eaten and boxed up his leftovers, he headed straight to bed. His thoughts weren’t as unsettled as they had been the night before, but sleep still stubbornly evaded him. When he did manage to drift off, it was to inchoate dreams that seemed to race in double-time, and that made him jerk awake every couple hours or so instead of sinking into a real deep sleep. He woke up more bleary-eyed than ever, and still so, so heavy with the weight of sorrow. If he put on the wings right now, Sam didn’t think he could fly, he felt that weighed down.
Sam dragged himself out of bed anyway. And that was his routine for the rest of the week. He staggered and stumbled through what remained of his workweek, everything taking five times more effort than usual. He didn’t think he was fucking anything up at least. He was still managing the day-to-day work of helping his clients find civilian jobs and otherwise reintegrate into civilian life, and group sessions were going okay. It was fine. He’d be fine. He’d go to the memorial service next Saturday, and then—Sam couldn’t think past that. He’d have to be fine.
By Friday, Sam was ready to throw in the towel and spend his entire weekend in bed. Which was of course the cue for a minor Avengers emergency on Friday afternoon, when the Avengers were called in for a workplace hostage situation in Maine involving suspected HYDRA agents. It was, thankfully, quickly resolved, thanks to said HYDRA agents being the absolute bottom of the barrel. The sum total of Sam’s contribution to that mission was to shepherd some hostages to safety while the HYDRA agents wept and sniveled in the face of Cap’s judgy face of disapproval. They probably would have shit their pants if the Winter Soldier had been on the mission too, but Bucky was only just back from his last mission. Just him, Cap, and Widow were overkill as it was. They got the hostages safe and the HYDRA idiots arrested in time for happy hour, and then they were on the quinjet back to New York.
Natasha was piloting, which left him and Steve in the passenger bay, sitting in awkward silence after they had finished the requisite post-mission informal debrief, which in this case was mostly shit talking the stupid HYDRA agents. Usually Sam would be the one initiating non-work related small talk. Today, he was coming up empty. Everything he could think to talk about circled back around to “my friend Tyler killed himself,” and Sam just did not want to go there. Not now.
In response to the uncharacteristic silence, Steve’s face took on the frowny face of concern, with bonus big eyes. “You doing okay, Sam? You’re looking kind of tired.”
“Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just been a long week, y’know? I’ll rest up this weekend.” He dredged up a smile for Steve, who only looked more worried in response.
“I can take you off the Avengers on-call rotation—”
“No,” said Sam sharply, then moderated his tone. “No, it’s fine. I’ll just need a couple days for the memorial service next weekend, then I’m coming back.”
“You could take more time,” said Natasha from the cockpit.
“I’d rather not.”
Natasha turned around to look at him, and Sam had to immediately resist hunching his shoulders defensively. Natasha could probably tell. She exchanged a speaking look with Steve, which, come on, Sam was sitting right there. It was just plain rude to nonverbally talk about him while he was sitting right there.
“Eyes on the sky, Romanoff,” he snapped.
“C’mon, this thing basically flies itself. You sure you’re okay? It’s okay if you’re not.” It really wasn’t, thought Sam, but whatever.
“I’m fine, seriously, I’m just tired.”
“Alright,” said Natasha, turning back to the quinjet’s controls. “We’ve got about half an hour until we get back to the Tower, you can take a bird nap.” Natasha paused for effect. “Get it, because—”
Steve rolled his eyes, while Sam wondered how anyone, ever, thought Natasha Romanoff was cool. “Yeah, I get it, thanks. I’ll do that,” said Sam, and pointedly closed his eyes. Time spent napping was time spent not boring his teammates with his problems.
It felt like five minutes later that Steve was shaking him gently awake, and Sam stumbled off the quinjet more or less on autopilot. He dumped his wings and guns in the armory, then headed to the Avengers common area, the lure of food stronger than his desire to avoid his teammates. And why exactly are you avoiding them? asked Sam’s inner peer counselor. Sam ignored it.
Steve was already in the common area kitchen, still in his uniform and making sandwiches. Sam briefly considered just grabbing a protein shake or something from the fridge and leaving, but then Steve slid a sandwich-laden plate across the kitchen island to Sam, and Sam wasn’t about to turn down one of Steve’s sandwiches. Sure, he was an artist who made nice paintings, whatever—Steve Rogers was also a goddamn sandwich artiste. They ate in companionable silence, Steve tapping away one-handed at what was probably an after-action report as he ate, while Sam contemplated whether he wanted to stay in the Tower tonight or make the trek back to his apartment in Harlem.
“You should sleep here in the Tower tonight,” said Steve, once they’d finished eating.
“It’s like barely 7 o’clock, old man. I was going to go back to my place,” protested Sam.
Steve frowned at him. “Why? You always crash here after a mission.” Which was true. Sam didn’t really have a good excuse for going back to his place. The desire to isolate himself just felt reactionary, instinctive. Necessary, somehow. Like quarantine. That was probably bad.
“Right. Guess I can go back tomorrow morning.”
“Bucky’s back from his mission, we were gonna watch a movie, if you want to join us. Sometimes us old men do stay up after 7, you know.”
“Nah, you two have fun. I think I’m just gonna write my report real quick, then go to bed.”
Steve nodded in acceptance, but he had that worry line on his forehead again. “Okay. Well, our door’s open, if you’re still having trouble getting to sleep.”
They both headed to the elevator, and Sam got off on his floor, which housed all the apartments for the Avengers who didn’t live in the Tower full-time. Despite Tony’s endless wheedling, Sam had put his foot down about not living in the Tower: there was no pressing security reason for him to stay there, and he knew it would fuck with his work-life balance if he did. Plus, the place felt like a hotel. The amenities were nice, and so was the robot butler-assisted room service, but no matter how much he personalized his apartment in the Tower, it still felt like a hotel room, or maybe a particularly fancy dorm room. A transitory kind of living space.
As soon as he entered the dark, empty apartment, with its seemingly permanent new house smell, Sam felt the urge to take Steve up on his earlier offer. Steve and Bucky’s apartment in the Tower didn’t feel like a hotel room. It was lived-in, homey; less intimidatingly modern and well-decorated, and more messy and imperfect. It was full of Steve’s art and Bucky’s books, and pleasantly mismatched furniture that Steve had found from who knew where. When Bucky had come home, Steve had taken to furiously nesting, and it hadn’t required any grand psychological insight to figure out what he was doing. He had been making a space worth coming home to. It had worked, for both Bucky and the rest of the Avengers. The team tended to gravitate towards Steve and Bucky’s apartment in their down time, especially when the Avengers common areas felt too public, or too much like being on the job.
Sam let himself picture it for a minute: the squishy couch, the lights turned down low for the movie, the cone of movie-watching silence that Steve strictly enforced, the not-from-a-microwavable-bag popcorn that Bucky insisted on. But no, if he went down to Steve and Bucky’s place, he’d just end up falling asleep on their couch, and then Steve would wake him for a run in the morning. And he really did need to write that report. So Sam turned on the lights, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and settled on his own couch to write up the hostage situation. He was done in an hour, there not being much to say aside from “combatants surrendered upon exposure to Captain Rogers’ disapproving face, hostages secured with no casualties.”
After he uploaded his finished report to the Avengers server, he grabbed another beer and checked his personal e-mail. He should email his sister, he thought, and check to see who else on the east coast had made travel arrangements for Tyler’s memorial service—he stopped dead as soon as he saw his inbox full of bolded messages from his old unit. Victor just sent me this on snapchat, I’m worried, can someone go check on him? And then who’s closest to Virginia, can anyone— And he’s not answering his phone, followed by his wife said he’s been drinking, the gun’s gone from the safe—
Sam’s thoughts were a roiling mass of no, and he had to force himself to keep reading. Fuck, not Victor too—but no. One of the guys from the unit had gotten there in time, and Victor was alive, Victor had consented to check himself into the hospital, Victor hadn’t slipped under the ice to drown. He shot off a quick email apologizing for not being able to help and that he was glad Victor was okay, entreated the others to take care of themselves and reach out if they were having trouble, and then went to bed on autopilot. There wasn’t anything else he could do.
He lay there in bed, in the dark, on the too crisp sheets and supportive mattress. This high up, there was no street noise, and the insulation was good enough that sound just didn’t travel from unit to unit in the Tower. The quiet made the inside of Sam’s head feel loud and overstuffed, like the pressure needed to be equalized. Sam wondered if he should go up to the Avengers infirmary and ask for a sleeping pill. He didn’t go, though. He just stayed in bed and went over a mental list of every single guy in his unit that he could remember, and how likely they were or weren’t to be the next Tyler, the next Victor. He drifted in and out of sleep, the list a constant presence that was only interrupted by frantic and difficult dreams that kept jolting him awake.
The night crawled towards dawn like that, Sam still in that groggy half-sleep that was difficult to let go of. He thought of just staying in bed and dozing, but even half asleep, his mind wouldn’t let go of its litanies. So he stumbled out of bed at around 8, and left the Tower. He took the train back to Harlem.
He got a text from Steve just after he got on the train. Did you leave already?
Yeah, got some stuff to take care of. Raincheck on a run? It was a vague as hell excuse, and Sam didn’t even really know what he was planning to do at his apartment. He just knew he couldn’t stay at the Tower right now, couldn’t let what was in him out around the others.
Sure, replied Steve, and then after a few seconds of the dreaded … , you okay? Not really, thought Sam. But he texted, Yeah, just want to spend a weekend watching netflix and resting up. Which was total bullshit. Okay. Door’s open here, if you need it, responded Steve, and it was the very nice straw that broke the camel of sadness’s back. So now Sam was hitting that New Yorker milestone of openly weeping on the subway. Because that was what this week really needed. He tried to be quiet and unobtrusive about it, and thought he was mostly succeeding, until someone dropped a packet of tissues on his lap on their way out at the next stop. In the language of New Yorkers, that was a kindly meant “get your shit together.”
It took another couple of stops, but Sam got himself under control and made it back to his apartment without any more emotional breakdowns. Of course, he didn’t really know what to do with himself when he got there. What he wanted was to skip forward to after Tyler’s memorial service, when he would have this grief under control. When he should have it under control, at any rate. Because this was just situational, it wasn’t like after Riley or after he got discharged—he was just sad, and shit was just hard right now, but it’d get better after the memorial helped him process his grief. It had to.
He ended up just lying on the couch endlessly refreshing assorted social media apps, which was definitely Not a Healthy Coping Mechanism. Thankfully his mom called and interrupted him, and then immediately demanded he go over to her house, which he did because he didn’t have a goddamn death wish. He told her about Tyler over a home cooked lunch, and she let him cry on her shoulder a bit, and it helped. He felt better for a bit. But then he went back home to his apartment and spent another half-sleepless night with the names of the dead and the living scrolling through his head in a litany against disaster.
He gave the weekend up as a wash when he woke up bleary-eyed and with an aching head. In an effort at redeeming the weekend with some gesture towards productivity, he tackled a couple cleaning projects in his apartment, which at least distracted him. If he was attacking the grout in the bathroom with more attention and force than it deserved, well, whatever. Steve showed up when Sam was elbow deep in scrubbing the toilet, and apparently the sight of Sam with yellow cleaning gloves on and a general air of edgy sleeplessness was off-putting, because Steve couldn’t hide the split second of alarm on his face when he answered the door. The alarm was followed by relief, at least.
“Hey. You weren’t answering your phone, and I was—I just thought I’d come see how you’re doing.”
Shit, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table. “Sorry, guess I was just deep in the cleaning zone.” He made a halfhearted jazz hands sort of gesture with his gloved hands.
“You get some sleep?”
“Some.” Steve made that concerned face, and not the one that portended a lecture, but the one that made him look like a tragic puppy. “Not as much as I’d have liked. It’s fine, I’m fine.”
“Okay. Do you want to—”
“Listen, I’d invite you in, man, but I’m—” Sam gestured at his gloves and cleaning apron.
“Yeah, no, of course. I’ll just—”
“See you later? Maybe lunch later this week.”
“Sure.” Steve paused on the brink of leaving, about to say something, but apparently thought better of it and just gave Sam one of his sad smiles and left.
Later that day, after Sam had resorted to dusting on top of the cupboards, he got a text from Natasha.
Do I need to be worried about you?
No, he answered.
Steve thinks I should be worried about you.
I’m cleaning my apartment, not having a nervous breakdown.
If you say so. And then after a minute of …, I hope you get better sleep tonight.
Me too, he texted back.
He didn’t get a better night’s sleep. This time, it was good old-fashioned nightmares keeping him up, the wake up shaking in a cold sweat kind. Sam hadn’t missed them. He gave up on going back to sleep after the third round of lather-rinse-repeat, bad dreams edition, and went for a pre-dawn run. There was no “on your left!” from Steve, just him and the handful of other grim-faced or half-asleep joggers who nodded to each other in miserable solidarity.
One shower and a banana for breakfast later, he headed to his office at the VA, where he sat through a staff meeting in silence, and then doggedly attacked his to-do list. Everything was taking him twice as long as usual, and he kept barely catching little mistakes. Knowing it was the cumulative effect of too little sleep for too long didn’t help. To top it off, he was five minutes late to group because somehow, it had just entirely slipped his mind until Megan poked her head in his office and told him his group was waiting for him.
Unsurprisingly after that, Megan was waiting after his group meeting, and tipped her head in a silent invitation/order to join her in her office.
“You doing okay, Sam?” she asked once he’d slumped into the chair across from her desk.
“Just dealing with some stuff, fallout from Tyler dying.” He’d told her about Tyler’s death already, as a heads up that he might need a day or two off. That wasn’t all she was asking about though, Sam knew, as she let the silence stretch until Sam gave in. “And I’m not sleeping so great.”
“Yeah, you look like shit.”
Sam slumped down further and ran his hands over his face, feeling stubble. Shit, he’d forgotten to shave after his run. “I know.”
Megan sat back in her seat, and regarded Sam with a mixture of sympathy and keen assessment for a minute before she said, “Sam, you’re one of my best peer counselors, and I don’t want to lose you to burnout. Take a couple weeks. Go to your friend’s memorial, get your head straight.”
Two weeks off? What the hell. Sam knew he looked like a hot mess right now, but not take a two-week vacation level hot mess.
“But my clients—”
“The rest of us can cover them for a couple weeks. Seriously, take some time for yourself. The only personal time you’ve taken in the past year has been for Avengers business. And yeah, kicking HYDRA ass with Captain America and Black Widow is cool and all, but it’s not exactly a vacation. So take a break. Go to your friend’s funeral, process your grief, and for god’s sake, don’t wallow in your apartment.”
Megan was right about the personal time. Sam had taken a grand total of two sick days to get over a lingering chest infection, and all the rest of his time off from the VA had been for Avengers missions. But really, he wasn’t anywhere close to burnout, he was sure of it. So this month had been pretty rough. He was handling it.
“Okay. I’ll take a few days for Tyler’s memorial service.” That was reasonable, right? He’d fly out there, go to the service, and be back a day or two later. He was sure he’d have his shit more together after that.
“Not a few days. A couple weeks, Sam. You owe it to your clients to practice the self-care you preach,” countered Megan, more firm than kind now.
Sam clenched his jaw on the automatic angry retort he wanted to let out. It was a low blow bringing his clients into it. Megan wasn’t entirely wrong though. He owed his clients his best, and he was far from that right now. It was just—what the hell was he supposed to do with two weeks off?
The first thing Sam did with his surprise two weeks off was take a nap. Two hours of dozing didn’t do much for his distressing sleep debt, but he did feel better afterwards. When he got up, he contemplated heading to the Tower to see if he could sweet-talk anyone into sending him on a mission, no matter what kind of easy milk run it was, but he doubted he could manage it without someone snitching to Steve. Maybe he’d just go to use the gym. Clint or Bucky could probably be relied on to be workout buddies without asking him any uncomfortable questions like, “why do you look so terrible,” or “why aren’t you at work.” Or maybe he could clean his fridge, he thought, and was immediately disgusted with himself. He grabbed his phone to check his email instead. All caps email from Tony demanding everyone return their new gear evaluations (which Sam had done, thank you very much, why was he still on the email list), email from Natasha that was just full of really cute pictures of baby animals (genuinely heartwarming and mood-improving), email from his sister trying to coordinate the next family dinner, email from Stacey with more details about Tyler’s memorial service—Sam read that one carefully.
Stacey was hoping people would bring photos or mementos of Tyler to the service. It was a good idea, one that would hopefully encourage people to remember the good times instead of dwelling on the bad. And Sam was relieved to have something to do, even if it wouldn’t take long. He went to his closet, where he had a box stashed away with some of the stuff from his tours. There’d definitely be something in there that would fit the bill.
As he pulled out the box, he was struck for a moment with the desire to shove it back in the closet. There were good memories in there, sure, but there was also a lot of stuff he wanted to leave behind. The last time he’d looked in here had been when he’d pulled out the EXO-FALCON file to show to Steve and Natasha, way back when. This time, he set aside all the other crap in the box and went straight for the photos and letters. The cards and letters from his friends and family made him smile, but they weren’t what he was looking for. He got to the photos, and of course the one on top was of him and Riley. Even years later, the sight of Riley made his chest feel a little tight with sorrow.
He flipped through more photos, some of them artsy shots of Afghan landscapes and cityscapes that Sam had taken when he’d had delusions of producing a proper war memoir, but most of them were photos of his squad. And there, one photo of Tyler, Sam, and some of the other guys in a humvee. They were all in full gear and Tyler was behind the wheel, sunglasses pushed up on his head and trying to look serious. His eyes gave him away though: they were bright with barely suppressed hilarity. In the photo, Sam had his lips pursed together to keep from laughing. There was a note on the back of the photo: ROAD TRIP!!! Next time we gotta do one that involves less desert.
Tyler had always talked about it whenever he drove the humvee. He’d wanted to do a cross-country road trip, or to drive the entire length of old Route 66, or drive all the way up PCH. He’d had a different route every time he was behind the wheel of the humvee, and Sam had taken it for the kind of pie-in-the-sky planning that everyone did when they were sick of being where they were. Sam himself had done a lot of waxing rhapsodic about taking a food tour of the Eastern seaboard and eating his weight in burgers. It hadn’t really happened for Sam after—well, after Riley. And as far as Sam could tell, Tyler had never gone on any of his road trips either.
Sam didn’t know why. Life happened, he guessed, and you put stuff off for a better time, and you kept putting it off, and then he guessed death happened when you shot yourself in the fucking head without ever having taken one of your dreamed-of road trips. He loosened his grip on the photo before he inadvertently ripped it.
A road trip, Sam thought. Tyler hadn’t gotten to do it. But maybe Sam could, for him. He could drive to the memorial service. He had the rest of the week to get there, he could do it. Yeah. A cross-country road trip. That would take up the two weeks, and fulfill Megan’s condition of not wallowing in his apartment. And it felt right.
He spent the rest of the day planning the road trip and getting ready for it, more and more certain that it was the right thing to do. He felt more settled than he had the entire last week, because it felt, finally, like he was doing something for Tyler. Maybe too little, too late. Maybe he should have called or emailed and said, “hey, let’s take that road trip you were always talking about.” It was too late to know if that would have made a difference.
Once he was done with the bulk of the planning and packing, he texted Steve to let him know the plan, and that he wouldn’t be available for Avengers business unless the world was ending. Okay, texted Steve back, and then, this seems kind of sudden. You okay? Sam thought about how to respond in a way that wouldn’t have Steve embarking on a full-on Make Sure Sam’s Not Having a Nervous Breakdown mission. He settled on, yeah, it’s just something I feel like I have to do for Tyler. You know how it is.
Yeah, I do, came the response.
Sam was packing up his car the next day when Bucky showed up. He was a little surprised that Bucky got roped into Operation Make Sure Sam’s Not Having a Nervous Breakdown. They were friends, sure, Sam would admit to that. You didn’t fight a bunch of HYDRA assholes and save each other’s lives a few times, and also share a best friend, without being friends on some level. Admittedly, Sam had started the non-brainwashed-Bucky portion of their friendship by ragging on Bucky a lot, which was justified, okay, because clearly Bucky had been lurking around that shitshow of a HYDRA base in Poland for a while, and yet he had only bothered to make himself known after everything went FUBAR, and really, Sam had spent months in Europe’s finest shitholes on that asshole’s tail. Months! So Sam had, perhaps, been a little cranky about it. Bucky’d given as he good as he got anyway.
Once they’d all ended up back in New York, Bucky had understandably been pretty focused on recovering and getting his shit together, so Sam mostly only saw Bucky for Avengers stuff or in group settings. Bucky was closest with Steve and Natasha, and weirdly enough, Tony. Shared life experiences, Steve had said with a wry smile, and Sam had been confused until he remembered that Tony Stark knew a little something about unwelcome and painful body modifications. Anyway, Bucky wasn’t exactly a talker, so if Steve or Natasha had sent him to try to talk Sam out of this trip, they were shit out of luck. Sam figured Bucky would dutifully check in on him, ask if he was okay and maybe insult his life choices or something, and then flee. Which was fine by Sam.
Still, he wasn’t a total asshole, so he turned to greet Bucky properly once he’d finished shoving a cooler full of drinks and sandwiches in the backseat.
“Hey Bucky.” Sam tried for a smile, but didn’t know how successful it was. Not very, judging by the tiny frown of concern he got in return. Bucky had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, which was kind of suspicious. As was the fact that Bucky hadn’t come here on his bike. Maybe he was on his way to the gym.
“Hi Sam. I heard about your friend. I’m sorry for your loss.” It was a rote platitude, the kind that Sam was used to giving and receiving, but he could hear the total sincerity in Bucky’s voice, and when he met Bucky’s eyes, the look of honest sympathy there made his throat tighten.
The thing about Bucky was, he didn’t talk much. Not in a creepy way, or in a way that had Sam worried on a professional level. He was just a quiet guy. He didn’t used to be, according to Steve, and Sam knew Steve grieved the loss of the Bucky Barnes who used to talk his ear off. Sam never knew that guy, only knew the Bucky who said little, but whose facial expressions and body language were open books, when he wasn’t Winter Soldiering it up. As far as Sam was concerned, Bucky talked plenty, even if it wasn’t all said out loud. When Bucky did break his habitual easy silence to actually say something of substance, it was usually carefully considered and entirely genuine. Well, that or it was a grim as fuck joke or some manner of terse shit-talking.
“You’re driving to the funeral?”
“Yeah. It’s just a thing I’ve gotta do. For Tyler.”
Bucky nodded, then shifted the duffle bag on his shoulder and bit his lip, clearly considering what to say next. Sam just wanted to get in the car and go, but he took a deep breath for patience instead. Bucky would ask if he was okay, Sam would tell him sure, and—
“You don’t have to do it alone, if you don’t want to. You shouldn’t have to go alone.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t. Tyler should be on this stupid road trip with me, but he’s dead, so I’m just gonna have to make this shitty pilgrimage by myself.” Oh look, the anger stage of grief, thought Sam.
“You don’t have to go alone,” Bucky repeated. “Steve says you haven’t been sleeping much. I can drive—”
“Did Steve send you here to chaperone me? Because I am a grown-ass man, and if Captain America thinks I need a minder, he can come his own damn self so I can tell him where to stick it.”
Bucky scowled. “No, Steve thinks we should give you space, because Steve is bad at this. Steve thinks holing up in his apartment alone avoiding all human contact is a good way to deal with losing people. Steve thinks going on sad road trips alone is a reasonable thing to do. I don’t. I think someone should go with you. I want to go with you.”
Sam just stared at Bucky in surprise for a second. He was pretty sure that was the most he’d ever heard Bucky say in one stretch, outside of briefings and mission planning. Bucky himself looked briefly surprised at the rush of words that just came out of his mouth, and then the surprise shifted to a familiar expression of stubbornness. Sam wondered if he had learned it from Steve, or if it was the other way around.
“You want to come with me.”
And man, that was probably something of another first: that was maybe the first time he’d ever heard Bucky say he wanted anything. Sure, he’d heard the guy offer a casual affirmative to questions like “do you want some pizza?” or “do you want another cup of coffee?” or “do you want to blow up this HYDRA base?” But a real, genuine want, about something that wasn’t immediately related to food or a mission? That felt like important progress. Sam wasn’t on the clock, and Bucky wasn’t one of his clients, but it was such a good step for his recovery that Sam couldn’t reject the idea out of hand, not without feeling like a total dick. And if he was being honest, he probably should have someone to share driving duties with. The past week of sleepless nights suddenly made itself at home in his bones. Fuck, he was tired.
“Okay,” said Sam, and tossed Bucky the keys before he could think better of it. Bucky blinked in surprise but caught them easily. “So we’re headed to Bend, Oregon, and I’ve got a whole route planned, but I figure as long as we make it in time for the service, I’m flexible on how we get there.”
“You got a map, or are you just using the GPS?”
Sam did actually have an actual physical map, even though it felt a little old-fashioned. He just hadn’t wanted to rely solely on his phone’s GPS, leery of driving through areas where he might not get signal. There were still plenty of parts of the country where Sam wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable stopping to ask for directions. A paper map seemed prudent. Though hey, maybe since Bucky was with him, he wouldn’t get pulled over for driving while black. He’d already resigned himself to getting at least one spurious speeding ticket.
He pulled the map out to spread it on the roof of the car, and Bucky studied it with an intent focus and a tilt to his head that gave Sam a moment of weird deja vu before he recognized why the sight was so familiar. He’d seen it in old newsreel footage.
“That long stretch in the Midwest is gonna be brutal,” Bucky commented, following Sam’s highlighted route with a metal finger.
“They call them flyover states for a reason.”
“Camp along the way, or stay in motels?”
“I know you don’t want to camp, city boy. Motels. We don’t have to share a room—”
Bucky shrugged and said, “We’ll figure that out when we get there.” He folded the map back up and handed it to Sam, and Sam got in the passenger seat before either of them could second guess or change their minds.
Apparently, Bucky had been geared up for more of a fight than that, because he didn’t get in the driver’s seat just yet.
“What are you waiting for, Barnes? I wanna drive through at least three states today.”
In response, Bucky walked around to the trunk, and when Sam glanced at him in the rearview mirror, he was pulling out his phone, probably to text Steve about the success of his mission.
It gave Sam a minute to think about just what he was getting himself into. Sam was going to road trip with the Winter Soldier, for non-HYDRA revenge reasons. There were a lot of ways it could go wrong, both superhero-related and mundane. HYDRA was still out there, what if they ran into them? The five days or so it would take to get to Bend would far and away be the longest time they’d spent alone together, what if they found out they just didn’t get along at all? What if Sam had a messy emotional breakdown, and that set Bucky off, and then they were in Buttfuck Middle America having mutual mental meltdowns? Well, it would be interesting, if nothing else. And maybe he’d feel less like he was road tripping with Tyler’s ghost. He heard Bucky pop the trunk and toss his duffel in, and then Bucky slid into the driver’s seat. The set of his shoulders was tense, and he fiddled with adjusting the seat controls and mirrors for a minute.
“If you’d rather do this with Steve, or Natasha, if you really don’t want me to come with you, I can go. I know I’m not—” Bucky broke off, clearly frustrated with himself for being unable to find the right words.
Some mean, small thing in Sam wanted to finish the sentence with any number of cruel little digs: not a good driver (remember that time you literally tore the steering wheel out of my car? good times), not mentally stable, not good company, not the kind of guy Sam would willingly spend time with. Sam shoved his worse impulses down; Bucky didn’t deserve it when he was making a genuine effort to be kind.
“Nah, it’s cool. You’re right, I shouldn’t be making this drive alone. And man, I think I’ve done enough road tripping with Steve and Natasha for the next decade at least. Do you know how many bathroom breaks Steve needs?” Sam shook his head in mock dismay.
Bucky huffed out a nearly silent laugh, shoulders finally relaxing. Bucky started the car, and that was it: the Sam and Bucky Road Trip of Sadness and Maybe Bonding was officially happening. Sam hoped they could get through it without killing each other, or anyone else.
They drove in comfortable silence as Bucky navigated to the interstate, and Sam was surprised by the flood of total relief that, minute by minute, grew in him. He felt suddenly, crushingly grateful that someone else was driving, that he wouldn’t be making the pilgrimage to Tyler’s memorial service alone. All the effort he had gone through to nurse the wound of his grief and distress alone, all the solitary planning and moping, and for what? What had been the point?
I think someone should go with you, Bucky had said, and wait—Sam replayed the conversation in his head.
“What did you mean, Steve thinks going on sad road trips alone is a reasonable thing to do?”
Bucky glanced at him from the corner of his eye for a moment before returning his eyes to the road, a crooked smile on his face that spoke of equal parts exasperation and sadness. “After Steve came back, and after the whole thing with the aliens in New York, he got on his bike and just drove. Cross-country, alone.”
Sam frowned, imagining it. Steve Rogers, weeks out of the ice and days out of a pitched battle against actual aliens, and just about everyone he knew and loved dead. And SHIELD had left him to go on some road trip of self-discovery and mourning alone. Sam could see how it must have played out: Steve, telling whatever SHIELD agent or psychologist had been assigned to him that he would be fine, he just needed some time and space. He’d have had that solemn, brave Captain America face on, and it would have been convincing and reassuring. Of course Captain America would be fine, that face would have said. The Avengers wouldn’t have known Steve as anything but a miraculously returned-from-the-dead leader, more symbol than man, and they’d have had their own shit to deal with besides. They probably hadn’t entirely seen Steve Rogers, the tired and sad soldier Sam had met all those months ago. So they had let him go. And so Steve had held his pain close and tight and private.
“That’s fucked up.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow that very clearly expressed a sarcastic, “oh, is it?” and let the obvious comparison hang in the air between them. Sam felt himself bristling at the implication, because this definitely wasn’t anything like that, he was just grieving a friend, not an entire world and life. He hadn’t been repressing and hiding, he hadn’t totally withdrawn—except he had. He had brushed off help with requests for time and space to mourn, he had hidden behind his peer counselor facade with his friends, he had avoided them when they wanted to help him. Sam slumped in his seat, resting his head against the window and closing his eyes. The weight of exhaustion and sorrow tugged at him again.
“Don’t be a fucking martyr. You don’t have to do this alone,” said Bucky. His voice was soft but certain, and something about the way he said it, or that he even said it at all, felt like a gift. Sam didn’t think he’d have been able to ask for it, but now having received it, it was a gift he was intensely thankful for. Maybe especially because it was coming from Bucky.
Sam opened his eyes. “I know.”
They lapsed into silence again, and Sam pulled out his phone to send a group text to the Avengers about the change in plans. Bucky had surely told Steve already, but it was best to confirm it with everyone, and give them some more details on the road trip itinerary in case of an Avengers Assemble level emergency. He got the expected round of confirmations and jokes in return, and then a flurry of private texts. Tony’s said, Bucky’s got the Avengers black card, feel free to stay in swanky four star hotels and rent a party bus for your cross-country odyssey. Also not too late to take the jet, just say the word. Clint sent a numbered and annotated list of the best diners in the midwest. Natasha’s text immediately followed Clint’s and said, DO NOT TRUST CLINT’S DINER RECOMMENDATIONS. Steve’s text just said, I’m glad Bucky is with you.
By the time Sam was done dealing with all the texts, he looked up to find they had made it onto the interstate, and were well on their way out of the city. He watched the landscape go by for a while and thought about what it would have been like if Tyler was driving. Singalongs would have definitely featured, never mind that Tyler couldn’t sing worth a damn.
“You can put on some music, you know,” said Bucky, interrupting Sam’s musings.
Bucky hadn’t turned on the radio himself, and Sam hadn’t plugged his phone in either, so they had been driving in silence. Which was fine with Sam, he was willing to defer to Bucky when it came to music or the lack thereof for now. The guy was driving after all, and he was in no mood to pick a stupid fight. Now, when Sam took the wheel, it’d be a different story.
“There’s an unspoken rule, don’t think it was around in your day: ‘driver picks the music.’ Music’s your call, man.”
Bucky grinned and said, “Good rule.” His grin turned wry. “But, uh, I’m still not really caught up on modern music yet. So if you wanna—”
Sam straightened in his seat and stared at Bucky’s profile. “What. Who has been neglecting your education this way?”
“No one, really. I’ve listened to some of the stuff you guys listen to, but it sort of all just sounds like…noise.” He had a half-thoughtful, half-apologetic frown now.
“Aww, Grandpa Barnes not up with the new-fangled rock and roll music of kids these days,” teased Sam. Bucky didn’t have some smart ass comeback, instead shifting uncomfortably and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, and that got Sam’s attention.
If Bucky listened to whatever the team listened to…Steve wasn’t a big music person, mostly listened to whatever everyone else was listening to or the oldies from the 30s and 40s, so he wouldn’t have helped Bucky catch up. Natasha’s taste was eclectic, but she listened to a lot of instrumental stuff and weird niche micro genres, when she wasn’t listening to the top 40. Clint loved country music and classic rock and roll, Tony liked obnoxious hair metal and just plain metal, Bruce’s taste was firmly and permanently stuck in the 90s alt rock scene, and Thor was an alien…huh. Maybe no one had gotten around to properly catching Bucky up on the music he’d missed. And hearing all of that in a contextless, haphazard jumble…shit, no wonder Bucky thought it just sounded like noise.
“Oh my god, everyone else’s music taste is awful and no one sat you down for a history of music lesson,” said Sam after he’d thought it through.
“I can fix this,” he said, and pulled out his phone to set about building the best “Sorry You Were Frozen Through Most of the 20th Century” playlists known to man. Had anyone introduced him to Earth, Wind & Fire? Probably not. Sam had a lot of work to do.
And that was how they passed the first day’s drive: Sam giving Bucky as thorough a musical education as he could manage, Bucky listening with quiet enthusiasm, tossing in the occasional opinion or question. It was far from the raucous singalongs and mutual musical shit talking it would have been with Tyler, but it was—nice. Fun, even. Sam couldn’t remember when he’d last had as much fun. Some time before the last few relentlessly shitty weeks, probably. By the time they got off the highway to stop for the night, Bucky had determined that he liked Motown, was undecided on disco, wanted to hear more classic rock, and was willing to humor Sam about the superiority of funk. So all in all, Sam felt pretty proud of the day’s work.
They stopped for the night at a small motel near Lake Erie that was a ways off from the highway without being in the ass end of nowhere. The vacancy sign was lit, though the parking lot was a little fuller than Sam would have expected from a place like this. Sam honestly wondered how the hell Bucky knew about the place; Sam himself had planned on stopping at the most convenient chain motels or hotels along the way. After a few missions with Bucky though, he’d learned it was best to leave that kind of thing to him, and just now it was a relief to have Bucky take care of it. For all that his plans in the field could be terrible, winging-it shitshows, Bucky could take efficient and seamless charge of logistics in any and every circumstance, and that was 100% Sergeant Bucky Barnes of the Howling Commandos. The first time he’d done it, Steve had looked like he’d wanted to cry from relief, and not just because it was a sign of Bucky reclaiming parts of his past. Steve and Sam, it had to be admitted, were not the best with the smaller details of logistics.
So when Bucky asked if the motel was okay with Sam, Sam just said, “Sure,” and went to get them rooms while Bucky did his habitual check of the perimeter.
The clerk at the motel lobby’s desk was a tired looking older white woman who nonetheless smiled when Sam came in.
“Well now, aren’t you a pleasant surprise! How can I help you?”
“Good evening, ma’am. Me and a friend are just passing through and need a place to stay. Do you have two rooms available for the night?”
She consulted a guestbook on her desk and said, “I’ve got two rooms, but they’re not adjacent. One on the first floor, and one on the second.” She looked up with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, there’s a family reunion in town, and we’re a little more full than we’d otherwise be.”
Bucky wouldn't be comfortable with the rooms not being adjacent, Sam knew. Hell, Sam wasn’t comfortable with it. Non-adjacent rooms were a no-no from a security perspective. Sure, the chance of HYDRA attacking was slim at best, but it wasn’t nonexistent and healthy paranoia had saved all of their lives more than once when they’d been on the road looking for Bucky and then taking out HYDRA with Bucky. He really didn’t want to get back in the car to find a new motel though. Bucky had been driving all day, and he’d started rolling his left shoulder in that way that suggested it was starting to bother him. And Sam just wanted to faceplant onto a bed and sleep.
“Got a double room open?”
“We do! Two full beds, plenty of room for two.”
Bucky came into the office then, his and Sam’s bags on his shoulder.
“There are no adjacent rooms left, double okay with you?”
Bucky nodded agreeably and shot the clerk a smile. She smiled back and pulled a set of keys out, while Bucky slid the Avengers black card across the desk. Sam wanted to demur and pay for the room himself, but Stark had offered. And he would probably be kind of offended if they didn’t use it.
“Now what brings you two boys to this neck of the woods?” asked the clerk as she ran the credit card.
“Road trip, ma’am,” answered Bucky, and Sam was prepared to handle the ensuing exchange of small talk about where they were from and where they were headed rather than let it peter out into awkward silence when Bucky reached his quota for talking. But Bucky handled it ably, smiling sweetly at “call me Jan, dear,” and listening to her ramble on about the motel and town with his particular solemn focus.
A couple gentle redirections in the flow of conversation from Bucky later, Jan wound down her chattering and handed them the keys. “Now, I’ll let you two rest up for tomorrow’s drive. Enjoy your stay!”
The room was unremarkable, but clean, with a vaguely rustic cabin theme. It had all the standards of a motel room: TV, tiny desk with a chair wedged into a corner, generic mass-produced painting on the wall. All Sam cared about was the promised two beds. He took the one furthest from the door, pleased to find it was firm, bordering on rock hard. Meanwhile Bucky set their bags down and headed straight for the bathroom, then came out and gave the room a quick but thorough examination.
It was a soothing routine, familiar from missions with Bucky, Steve, and Natasha, and it let Sam forget for a little while what this trip was really for. He’d managed to forget on the drive too, occupied as he had been with the music. Now the reality of what waited for him at the end of this trip was settling its heavy weight back on his shoulders. Sam stared at the ceiling and tried very hard not to think.
“There’s a diner down the road, if you want to get dinner.” Sam turned his head to look at Bucky, who was studying Sam with a small frown of concern. “Or I can bring you something.”
Shit, how sad did Sam look? Pretty goddamn sad if Bucky wasn’t telling him “to get your own fucking food, Wilson, I’m not a waiter.” But there would probably be more small talk at the diner. And he’d have to get back in the car. Yeah, no thanks. “Yeah, can you bring me something please? Burger and fries is fine.”
“Yeah. Need anything else? I was gonna swing by the store too.”
“Nah, I’m good. Thanks, Barnes.” He was a little curious what Bucky needed from the store, but whatever. Probably forgot his toothbrush or something.
Sam figured he should get something done while Bucky was out, so he fished his phone out of his pocket to text the team. We’ve stopped for the night. Also, you’re all ON NOTICE for failing to properly educate Barnes on modern music. Don’t worry, I’m fixing it. Then he sent Steve a photo of the bland landscape painting that hung in the room, because he knew that shit hurt Steve in his art snob soul in ways that were frankly hilarious to Sam and everyone else.
After a few more minutes of staring at the ceiling, he picked his phone back up to post an update on Instagram. He posted one of the photos he’d taken when they’d stopped for a bathroom break earlier that day, a shot of the road stretching out towards the horizon. Wish you were here, Tyler #roadtrip. He tapped post with a lump in his throat and stinging eyes, and stared at the ceiling some more until it passed.
By the time Bucky got back, Sam had swapped staring at the ceiling for staring at a Law & Order rerun on TV. The mouthwatering smell of the burger roused him from his TV coma, and he got up and made grabby hands at Bucky to hand over the goods. The burger was pretty good, ideal road trip food, even if Bucky had “forgotten” about Sam’s no onions rule. They ate in satisfied silence, and when they were done Bucky cleared away the food and pulled a notebook from the other bag he’d brought back. Sam watched with interest as Bucky settled on the bed to write in the notebook. Did Bucky keep a journal? Sam wasn’t even going to make a crack about teenage girls and diaries if he did, keeping a journal was a good idea for his recovery.
One episode of Law & Order later, Bucky tore a few pages out of the notebook, and stuffed them into an envelope. He scrawled an address on the envelope, then pulled a sheet of stamps from the bag and stuck one on. Sam hadn’t been expecting that.
“Who’re you writing? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I know you know there’ve been technological improvements to snail mail. You could email him, or text him.”
Bucky shook his head. “It’s not the same.”
“We might be back in New York before the letters get there.”
“Just like the old days, then,” said Bucky with a small, sad smile. “Our letters used to cross all the time. I don’t mind.”
Sam was wildly curious about what was in that letter. That handful of pages represented maybe more than Sam had ever heard Bucky actually say. It was between Steve and Bucky though, so he let it drop, and got ready to go to sleep.
He dropped off quickly, and for the first time in over a week, slept through the night. He woke near dawn when he heard Bucky moving around, but when Bucky said, “I’m just going for a run, go back to sleep,” in his quiet, slightly raspy voice, Sam went right back to sleep again. The smell of coffee woke him next, and he opened his eyes to the sight of Bucky seated at the small desk looking at something on his phone, two big, steaming to-go cups of coffee in front of him.
“You are the best road trip buddy,” said Sam with deep sincerity, which made Bucky’s eyes crinkle with pleasure.
“I’m gonna remind you of that when you’re whining about my driving later. Sleep alright?”
“Yeah, actually. Best night of sleep in a while. You?”
“Okay,” he said, which could mean anything from ‘I managed to nap for an hour’ to ‘I slept like I chugged a bottle of NyQuil.’ He looked clear-eyed and relaxed though, so probably he’d managed what passed for a full night’s rest for a super soldier. To Sam’s disgust, Bucky and Steve did just fine on four hours a night, if they weren’t injured.
Sam downed his cup of coffee in a few big gulps, then took a quick shower. When he came out, they were all packed and ready to go, courtesy Bucky, who dangled the car keys at him in a silent question.
“Yeah, I’ll drive,” said Sam, and Bucky tossed the keys to him, and then they were off on Day 2 of the Road Trip of Sadness and Maybe Bonding. Definitely bonding at this point, if only through the power of music.
They drove straight through Chicago without stopping, because this wasn’t that kind of road trip, but they did stop at the Vulcan live long and prosper sculpture carved out of a tree in Peru, Illinois, because this was that kind of road trip. Bucky stared at the thing in baffled delight. Sam snapped a photo of him and sent it to Steve, and then made Bucky take a photo of him standing in front of it making a Vulcan salute and trying his best Leonard Nimoy eyebrow raise, and sent that to the team.
Two ridiculous, kitschy tourist traps later, Sam confessed, “Tyler would have loved shit like this.” Bucky gave him a comforting squeeze on the shoulder in response, which was a first that Sam tried hard not to be visibly surprised by, and they got back in the car and drove.
Sam drove until their growling stomachs urged them to make a pit stop for a late lunch and a chance to stretch their legs. And because Sam was now committed to this Road Trip Experience, and to making it as authentic as possible to the spirit of Tyler and the Platonic ideal of a road trip, said lunch was foraged from whatever looked mostly edible from the gas station convenience store and the rest stop’s vending machine.
They sat at a rest stop bench to eat their way through their haul. Bucky had gone with gas station hot dogs as his lunch pick, which Sam thought was a move so brave as to be foolhardy, and told him so.
“Back in my day, we didn’t ask where the meat in our hot dogs came from, we just ate ‘em. How much worse can this be?” Bucky said as he squirted packets of mustard and ketchup on the hot dogs in fussily neat lines. Once he was done, he looked dubiously at Sam’s gas station burrito, which was slowly cooling down from its boiling lava temperature to something a little more palatable.
“After you!” said Sam with a wide grin. Bucky rolled his eyes, and took a bite of his hot dog. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, expression bland and calm. Only the slight twitching of his nose gave away his disgust.
“K rations were better,” he said once he’d swallowed.
“That bad, huh?”
Bucky shrugged and kept on eating anyway. Sam poked at his burrito to gauge whether it had reached a temperature that wouldn’t immediately burn off all his taste buds, and once satisfied, slathered it with hot sauce in sufficient quantities to draw a raised eyebrow from Bucky.
“Aww, shut up, white boy,” muttered Sam, and bit into his burrito. Sam was definitely going to regret this dietary decision later on, but that sounded like a problem for Future Sam. Present Sam was really enjoying this terrible, but good—but seriously, terrible—burrito right now.
Bucky consumed his hot dogs with a speed that suggested he wanted to get that particular culinary experience over with sooner rather than later, and moved on to perusing the rest of the gas station/vending machine snack spoils. He eventually settled on a bag of Funyuns and munched thoughtfully on them while Sam finished his burrito. Sam washed his burrito down with a Mountain Dew, to Bucky’s obvious disgust. Both he and Steve flatly refused to drink anything with a color that “unnatural” and reminiscent of “nuclear waste.” Sam had tried to explain that was part of the appeal, but whatever. Steve and Bucky weren’t too culinarily far removed from the people who decided that the height of food innovation was to stick things in jello that shouldn’t be stuck in jello, they had no room to talk.
Sam was trying to decide if his dessert should be mini donuts or a Snickers bar when Bucky said, “There’s no actual onion in Funyuns?” He was looking at the ingredients list with some consternation.
“Probably not. Everything’s made of corn, basically.” Bucky frowned in disapproval and set the Funyuns aside to take a swig of his Coke. “Yeah, that’s made of corn now too.”
Sam left Bucky to contemplate the mysteries of modern snack food while he went to the rest stop’s bathroom, which was, god bless Iowa, pretty clean as such things went. When he came back out, Bucky was stretching, metal arm throwing shards of light as he moved through the gentle stretches Sam recognized from his own physical therapy sessions. Sam wondered if he should find a way to delicately ask if the cramped quarters of the car were bothering Bucky. He’d probably just shrug and say it was fine; Bucky’s pain tolerance was stomach-twistingly high, and some stiffness and aches probably didn’t even register to him. Sam would just have to drink more water and make them take more bathroom breaks.
He jogged back over to the rest stop bench and joined Bucky on the stretches, because it was a good idea before they got back on the road, and after a couple minutes, found that they had an audience of two little kids of indeterminate age. Sam looked around for their parents, and spotted a couple trying to repack a car over in the parking lot. He didn’t envy them that game of luggage tetris.
“Whatcha doing?” asked the slightly taller one.
Sam glanced at Bucky to see how he was taking the childish scrutiny, and relaxed when he saw the slight crinkling of his eyes and quirk of his mouth that said he was amused.
“Stretching,” answered Bucky.
“We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and we wanna do some moving before we get back in the car,” added Sam.
The taller kid nodded knowingly. “Yeah, us too. We ran around in circles and yelled. You should try it.” Sam laughed and Bucky broke into a grin.
“Maybe at the next rest stop,” said Bucky.
“You’ve got a metal arm,” blurted out the smaller kid.
Sam winced. Trust a kid to go there. Most adults didn’t comment on it out of politeness, and in deference to Bucky’s resting murder face. Though come to think of it, he’d been seeing a lot less of Bucky’s resting murder face lately. Still, Sam couldn't help but tense up and ready himself to get them out of this situation if it got rough for Bucky, or the kids.
Bucky stopped stretching and focused his attention on the kid. “I do.”
“It’s pretty cool. Does it do anything?” asked the taller kid.
Bucky blinked in bemusement. “Does everything my other arm does.”
The kids scoffed simultaneously. “Well, duh. I mean, does it do anything cool. Like, is it a cool transformer arm that can turn into a gun—”
“Or does have it lasers or grappling hooks or maybe a cool glowy glove thingy like Iron Man—”
Bucky crouched down so he wasn’t looming over the kids, and held out his arm to show them. “Nope. Just an arm. Grappling hook though, that’s a cool idea.” He wiggled his fingers and the plates of his arm did that shifting and rippling thing, to the kids’ delight.
Sam started relaxing a little, though now he felt weirdly off-balance. This was not going like he had expected it to go at all. He watched with no small amount of wonder as Bucky kept answering the kids’ barrage of excited questions, even the insensitive ones like “how’d you lose your arm,” voice low and sweet, that smile lingering in the creases around his eyes. He only stopped when the kids’ mom came over, looking wary, though her expression smoothed into apology and vague mortification as she was met with a barrage of “Mom, Mom, Mom, this guy has a METAL ARM, it’s so cool, he lost his old arm in a WAR—”
“I’m so sorry, I hope they weren’t bothering you—Mara, what have I told you about talking to strangers—”
Sam was tempted to say “it’s fine, we’re minor superheroes,” which would have led to a whole new set of questions, but thankfully Bucky stepped in and soothed her with the requisite reassurances. Bucky’s gaze flicked over to the family’s car, where the dad was still playing, and losing, luggage tetris with the trunk.
“Couldn’t help but notice, ma’am, it looks like you’re having some trouble loading your car?”
The woman swept her hair back in a gesture of exasperation and sighed. “Yeah, we had some stuff lashed to the roof, but the rope started giving way. We just haven’t been able to fit it all in the car, though Rick insists he can do it.”
Bucky gave Sam a “can we?” sort of look, and Sam shrugged. He wasn’t averse to some good Samaritaning. Pretty damn surprised that Bucky thought of it, but not averse. “We can help out, if you’d like?” offered Bucky.
“Oh, I couldn’t impose—”
“It wouldn’t be an imposition, ma’am,” said Sam. “I’ve got some bungee rope in the car, I think. We can get your stuff lashed back to the roof of the car easy.”
She smiled gratefully. “Really? Oh my god, you’re lifesavers. I’m Jenny, by the way.”
They made their introductions, and Sam went to his car to dig up the bungee rope he was pretty sure was lurking in his trunk behind the first aid kit and tire iron. He found it, and jogged back over to Rick and Jenny’s car, where he and Bucky made quick work of getting the family’s stuff tied securely. Bucky even made a point of showing the kids how to tie secure knots, which knowledge Sam hoped they wouldn’t use to tie each other up. After thanking them profusely, the family drove off, kids waving from the backseat until the car was too far away to see them.
Good deed accomplished, he and Bucky got back on the road. Sam knew he should feel relieved and happy. That had been a social situation that could have been a lot more awkward or traumatizing for everyone involved. Instead it had gone smoothly, and here Bucky was, loose and relaxed in the passenger seat of his car. And Sam just felt weird and off-kilter, almost disappointed that it hadn’t gone badly. What the hell was wrong with him?
“Good job not traumatizing those kids,” he said eventually.
Glancing at his face now, Sam noticed that for all his relaxed body language, Bucky looked kind of sad. As Sam was looking, Bucky didn’t react with the rolled eyes or glare Sam had expected, and instead closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the passenger window, his mouth pressed into a firm, downturned line. “I had three little sisters. I miss them.”
They were, as far as Sam knew, long dead. And even if they weren’t, they were decades removed from the little girls Bucky had been big brother to. Good job bringing that up, Wilson, he thought. “I’m sorry,” he said, and it was laughably insufficient.
He always felt helpless when faced with the magnitude of what Bucky—and Steve—had lost. And, he thought guiltily, it was too easy to let the bigger traumas eclipse the seemingly smaller ones. As a counsellor, Sam should know better. He knew guys who’d been through awful shit like barely surviving an ambush and losing most of their squads, only to find that the thing that really fucked them up was something that seemed less terrible, like missing a shot that could have saved a life. He shouldn’t presume to know what was and wasn’t easier to bear.
They drove in not wholly uncomfortable silence for a couple miles, and then Bucky let out a shaky sigh and opened his eyes. “Thanks,” he said, and then after a few more miles of silence, “I’m really kind of into that grappling hook idea, Mara was onto something,” and Sam burst out laughing.
They still had hours of driving left ahead of them for the day, and Bucky took over in the late afternoon while Sam napped in the passenger seat. He woke up around sunset to the sound of Bucky humming—Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Sam identified with a private smile. If this road trip accomplished nothing but making Bucky a Motown fan, Sam would consider it worthwhile.
“We stopping for the night soon?”
“Yeah, there’s a place about thirty miles away.”
Said place was another slightly out-of-the-way mom-and-pop motel with the vacancy sign lit, tucked at the end of some small Iowa farming town’s main drag. Like the night before, Sam got the room while Bucky did a perimeter check. This time, he didn’t bother to ask the bored clerk for two rooms, and since Bucky didn’t comment on it when he got back, he figured it was okay.
The clerk actually showed them to their room, giving them a quick little tour along the way, because, “I’m so bored, you guys, humor me and at least let me leave the desk.” So they did humor him, and he duly grabbed their bags and told them about the best dinner options in the area while he walked them to their room, leaving them there with a muttered, “god, I’m so fucking hungry.” As he walked off, the faint smell of pot wafting around him, Sam shook his head with a grin, while Bucky laughed.
Despite the fact that they were in a landlocked state, their room had an inexplicable nautical theme, complete with a lifesaver mounted on the wall above the bed. Bucky did his usual round of the room, and came out of the bathroom looking confused.
“There’s a lifesaver in the bathroom. Was drowning in the shower a concern for the decorator?”
Sam poked his head into the bathroom. There was indeed a lifesaver, this one mounted above the toilet. The shower curtain had little fish printed on it.
“You’re the one that picked this place, man.”
“True. Hey, wanna order from that pizza place the guy mentioned?”
Sam did, so he placed the order while Bucky sent out the road trip update texts to the team. Once the pizza was ordered, Sam flopped down on the bed, trying a few experimental bounces. Bucky followed suit.
“Too soft,” declared Sam, and Bucky agreed.
Sam settled on the bed anyway, and turned on the old CRT tv in search of a Law & Order or Seinfeld rerun to zone out to. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Bucky pull his notebook out, just as he had the night before. It had been years since Sam had watched a non-LCD tv, and the buzz of the CRT was weirdly soothing, somehow recalling Saturday morning cartoons and early evening Jeopardy with his parents. That, and the gentle, steady scratch of Bucky’s pencil against the paper nearly lulled Sam to sleep until the knock of the pizza delivery guy startled him to full wakefulness.
Bucky ate pizza with one hand and kept writing with the other, to Sam’s amusement. The sight made his curiosity about just what Bucky was writing to Steve flare up all over again. Bucky was filling pages of writing, so this was no quick postcard-style, wish-you-were-here trip update. Sam himself struggled to write any personal emails longer than a page or so, far preferring to talk to his friends on the phone, or through texting or IM. Maybe it was a generational thing. Or maybe, for Bucky, it was just a nostalgia thing.
“Still writing Steve?”
Bucky hummed an affirmative, then glanced over at Sam with a slightly wicked glint in his eye. “Tellin’ him what a terrible singer you are.”
Sam gasped in mock outrage and chucked a pillow at Bucky, who just laughed and caught it one-handed before tossing it right back. “How dare you, I sang great backup on Ain’t No Mountain High!”
“Sure, pal,” said Bucky, all teasing condescension, and then he went back to his letter-writing.
“No, but seriously, what do you write him about? Even when I was overseas, it was like goddamn sweating blood, writing more than a page. Like, ‘Dear Mom, food is terrible, sand everywhere, still alive, miss you,’ was about all I could manage. I mostly just skyped with people back home.”
“Yeah, not an option for me back in the day. All we had were letters. I wrote Steve and my sisters a lot.” Bucky paused and tapped his notebook with the eraser end of his pencil, frowning a little into the middle distance. “I—Before the war, Steve and me, we hadn’t really spent much time apart. Not much longer than a week or two for sure. And, y’know, we talked a lot, so when I shipped out—I missed him. There was all this shit happening, and who else was I gonna talk to about it? So I wrote him. Sorta got to be a habit.”
That was kind of sweet, Sam had to admit. “It’s only been a couple of days now, you miss Steve already?” Sam teased gently.
Bucky just met his eyes and said, artless and open, “Yeah, I do.”
Sam smiled at Bucky, even as the easy admission tore at something in him, some wound that was barely scabbed over. Though if Bucky had written Steve so much… “What happened to the letters? I know there are a few in the Smithsonian.”
There were a handful of faded and wrinkled letters exchanged between Steve and Bucky in the Smithsonian’s Cap exhibit, but as far as Sam recalled, they were the kind of brief, mostly inconsequential letter Sam would’ve expected: baseball news and neighborhood gossip from Steve, funny stories about fellow soldiers and complaining about food from Bucky.
“Oh, Pegs had ‘em. My letters, anyway, I lost most of Steve’s when the 107th was captured,” said Bucky, a little distracted as he erased something in the letter and then wrote more.
Pegs? “I’m sorry, Peggy Carter? Were the letters classified, or—”
Bucky glanced up, surprised. “No, nothing like that. Or, I guess they maybe would’ve been if the SSR knew. But Steve kept all the letters with him when he came to Europe, and after we, y’know, died, Peggy held on to them. She gave them back to me when I asked, when I was still—” Bucky made a vague gesture at his head that Sam assumed meant “amnesiac and a little crazy.”
Sam hadn’t known that. All Sam knew was that after a brutal and miserable ten months or so of chasing Bucky and taking out HYDRA bases, Bucky had pulled their asses out of the fire at some shithole of a HYDRA base in Poland and consented to come in from the cold. He’d remembered himself, and he’d remembered Steve, and wasn’t actively dangerous to himself or others, which had been enough for Sam. Beyond that, Sam had been scrupulous about giving Steve and Bucky privacy; Bucky had been so damn tense at first, and interacting with people who weren’t Steve had clearly taken him so much painful effort in those first months, that Sam hadn’t pushed much when it came to asking about what it had been like for Bucky before he came home. Plus, Bucky’s level of trauma was way above Sam’s pay grade.
“They helped with your memories?”
Bucky nodded. “Even before—” he stopped, clenched his hand on the pencil, took a deep breath. Then he looked up from the notebook, to meet Sam’s eyes. “Before I came in, before I remembered much of anything, I wrote. Not really letters to Steve, just—what I did remember. Guess that was one thing that—stayed.”
“I’m glad it did,” said Sam, and then, “Thank you for telling me,” which seemed formal and inadequate. He meant it though, and hoped Bucky could tell.
When he was lying in bed, trying to sleep, Sam turned the conversation over in his head. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was about the day that was needling at him. It had been a good day: no disasters, easy driving, they were on schedule. And Bucky had been fine. He’d been friendly with strangers, even nosy kids, and he’d helped people, and he’d been, for him, talkative. He’d been open, like it was easy—Sam cut the thought off. He knew it wasn’t easy.
But Bucky was sleeping, and Sam was the asshole who was lying awake wondering why the guy traumatized in fifty different ways could show Sam some of his tender parts, while all Sam could manage was a terse “wish my dead friend was here.” And that, Sam realized with a surge of shame, had been the most he’d admitted to feeling about Tyler to anyone but his mom. This trip was supposed to honor Tyler and his memory, and here Sam was, doing his best to avoid talking or thinking about him.
Sam drifted off to sleep in a haze of self-recrimination, then jerked awake a couple of hours later thanks to an almost-nightmare about driving a humvee where none of the controls worked right. The dream’s landscape had kept switching from rolling fields to treacherous mountain roads to long stretches of desert. It was obvious enough where the dream had come from, and wasn’t even all that upsetting as these things went. Still, Sam ended up tossing and turning after it, unable to settle. He winced when he heard the rhythm of Bucky’s breathing change. Great, I’ve woken him up too, he thought, as Bucky woke with a sharp inhalation of breath.
He stayed quiet, letting Bucky orient himself for a moment, ready to do more if Bucky needed it. In the dark of the motel room, he could only see Bucky’s outline on the bed, back facing him, every line of his body taut. After a few deliberate, deep breaths—breaths that Sam knew were counted out, and that Sam silently counted out with him—Bucky relaxed and he turned to face Sam.
“Sorry if I woke you,” whispered Sam.
“You didn’t, it was—just a weird dream. You?” Sam squinted into the dark; Bucky was wrapping himself up tight in the blankets.
They were both silent then, and there was something about it that felt close and safe. Memories of sleepovers, of bunking with his sisters, of shared dorms and barracks rendered the shared dark comfortable. If he had to be awake in the middle of the night, he was glad he at least wasn’t awake and alone. He drifted off to sleep again after a few minutes of listening to Bucky’s even breathing. When he next woke, it was dawn and Bucky was still asleep, wrapped up tight in his own personal blanket burrito. He stirred when Sam got out of bed.
“You can go back to sleep, I’m just gonna go get breakfast.” Bucky made a muffled noise of assent and shoved his face back in his pillow.
Sam took a sedate jog down the town’s main drag, keeping an eye out for a likely breakfast joint. It was only just light out, so the pickings would probably be slim, but surely there were some farmers or something who needed their morning cup of joe. Soon enough he did find a small cafe that was open, where he bought a couple coffees and some pastries and breakfast sandwiches. When he got back to the room, Bucky was awake, sitting on the bed with his knees drawn up, still a little sleepy-eyed.
“Best road trip buddy,” he said when he spotted the coffee and food in Sam’s hands.
They hit the road after breakfast, Bucky taking over driving duties. Today, and probably a decent portion of tomorrow, was going to feature the trip’s most stultifying driving thanks to a numbingly long stretch of flat boredom through the rest of Iowa and Nebraska. Sam had no compunctions about letting Bucky do the driving for it; the man was a sniper, and as such, was used to long stretches of alert boredom, so really, he was best suited for the job. And at least they had Bucky’s continued musical education to distract them. They were up into the 80s now, and Sam intended on giving Bucky a thorough and nuanced education on hip hop. He’d also constructed a truly epic playlist of the 80s’ cheesiest, synthiest hits, reasoning that they’d need something high energy to get them through Nebraska’s endless miles of flat farmland.
Sam’s super awesome playlists got them through about 250 miles of flat Midwestern boredom, and almost to lunch. Sam knew they hadn’t been on the road all that long yet today, but the sameness of the landscape outside was starting to get to him. Just—corn, as far as the eye could see.
“This is why everything is made of corn, isn’t it.” Bucky’s hands were clenched a little on the wheel, his eyes sniper-steady on the road ahead of him. He’d stopped bothering to look around with any interest about 150 miles of corn ago.
The landscape eventually changed to prairie, which was not much more interesting. Beautiful in its own way, maybe, especially with the sky an invitingly vast expanse of bright blue above them. But the flat sameness made it feel like they were doing the driving equivalent of running on a treadmill. Actually arriving in Bend and attending Tyler’s memorial started to seem as unattainable as reaching the wavering horizon that perpetually hung in front of them on the road, and that made Sam anxious and unsettled, torn between the competing desires to get it over with and to avoid it. He didn’t want to think about what things would be like after the service. Because what if things weren’t better? What if what already felt like a low point was just the peak leading to an even steeper dive?
The atmosphere in the car grew glum and a little oppressive, and Sam decided to just lean into it and introduce Bucky to 90s grunge. At first Bucky looked kind of adorably confused as he listened, because yeah, straight up screaming barely comprehensible lyrics was probably pretty far from his general conception of music, even after some history of music catch up. Sam was about to enter into a half-hearted defense of the merits of screaming grunge music and the 90s in general, when Bucky flinched at a sudden screech of guitars and wall of drums.
“Can you change it, please?” asked Bucky, voice a little tight with unease. It was the first time he’d asked Sam to change the music. Even when he’d straight up insulted the music, he hadn’t asked Sam to change it.
“Yeah, sure,” said Sam, and rolled them back to the 80s. In a concession to his mood, he settled on The Cure. “Guess Kurt Cobain’s voice is an acquired taste, huh?”
Bucky nodded, still looking a little unsettled. “It is kinda weird that you don’t have to have a decent voice to be a famous singer nowadays. He still around, or was this guy just some sort of fad?”
“No way, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were a big deal, real influential and shit. It’s just that he committed suicide, so—” Well, there was an unwelcome reminder. Bucky looked at him, a furrow of concern on his forehead at Sam’s sudden silence. Sam cleared his throat and finished, “So he didn’t leave a lot of music behind.”
Thanks a lot, subconscious, thought Sam. Just had to pick Nirvana, didn’t you? With one ill-advised song choice, he’d managed to upset both himself and Bucky. The drive turned silent, and stayed that way until Bucky suggested stopping for lunch.
Despite Natasha’s dire warnings against it, they were hard up for options in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, so they ate a late lunch at one of Clint’s diner recommendations. It was one of those frozen in time kind of places, where if you didn’t spot the occasional smartphone, you could be forgiven for wondering just what year it was. Most of the other customers seemed to be truckers, or locals. Sam was definitely the only black guy in there, and probably the only black guy for miles, judging by the looks he got. In response, Bucky did that thing with his body language where he managed to simultaneously convey “don’t fuck with me” and “don’t notice me,” and herded Sam to a corner booth with a good vantage on the doors and the rest of the diner. A waitress dropped off a couple of menus with an absent smile and a “be with you in a sec!”
Sam perused the menu and wondered why Clint had recommended this place, until he got to the five-page-long, all-day breakfast portion of the menu. That was almost enough to make him smile. When he looked up from the menu, Bucky was tapping away at his phone.
“Asking Clint what’s good here,” he said, in answer to Sam’s silent question.
“Sure you wanna trust Clint’s idea of good? I’ve seen the man eat week-old pizza and say it was delicious.”
Bucky wrinkled his nose and conceded the point with a shrug. The waitress breezed by again, this time only barely stopping to get their drink orders before hurrying away again. Sam pulled out his own phone and idly scrolled through some messages, while Bucky scoped out the diner’s other occupants, part people watching, part threat assessment. After the waitress dropped off their drinks with a promise to be back for their order, Bucky turned his attention to Sam. Sam tried not to fidget under Bucky’s steady, keen gaze.
“You okay?” asked Bucky, just as Sam had been ready to retreat to the bathroom for a brief respite from being the object of Bucky’s focus.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he said, and then thankfully the waitress returned to take their orders before Bucky could prod any further.
Her name tag said Noreen, and she had the kind of weary, faded beauty that made Sam think she’d been prom queen back in the day. Now that she wasn’t rushing past them, she appraised them with a good-natured sort of curiosity.
“Sorry about the wait! How’re you two doing today? Y’all seem a little glum, if you don’t mind me saying. I know the Nebraska scenery isn’t all that interesting, but it can’t be getting you down that much!”
If he hadn’t been on a goddamn funeral road trip, Sam would have been happy to chat with her. As it was, he just wanted to eat his diner food in miserable silence and leave. Thankfully Bucky threw himself on the grenade that was small talk.
“Nebraska’s lovely, ma’am. We’re from New York and all this open space is a real change for us,” said Bucky, and nudged Sam with his foot under the table. Apparently Bucky wanted him to carry his conversational weight. Sam nudged Bucky right back, and none too gently, but duly made his contribution to the conversation.
“Sky seems a lot bigger out here.”
“Oh, I do love the sky out on the prairie. There’s really nothing like it! And at night, it’s just—all those stars, and the Milky Way.” Noreen sighed, the stars practically visible in her eyes. “I couldn’t live without it, I really couldn’t.”
Noreen’s face had brightened as she’d talked, the years falling away from her. Bucky was looking up at her with a slowly growing smile on his face, clearly charmed. Hell, Sam was a little charmed too.
“There good stargazing around here? We were planning on driving for a few more hours before stopping for the day, but if you’ve got any recommendations—”
“Wyoming’s the best for stargazing, and you’ll be driving through it if you stay on I-80. You staying on I-80?” They nodded, and Noreen continued, “Now, it’d be best if you got well away from the roads and cities and went camping, then you’d be clear of as much light pollution as possible, but if you’re city boys…” she looked them over with teasing appraisal, and Bucky’s smile deepened. Sam blinked in surprise.
“Aww, we can manage,” said Bucky, exchanging an amused look with Sam. Sam found himself smiling back, some of his bad mood dissolving like fog in sunlight.
Noreen grinned and continued, “Well, you don’t even have to camp, really. Just get away from the city lights. And gosh, it’s the perfect time of year to see the—oh my goodness, what am I doing, you boys are hungry and I haven’t even taken your orders! I could ramble on all day about stars, really, but I’m sure you’d rather have some food! What can I get you two?”
They gave her their orders, and she bustled off with one last smile. Sam raised an eyebrow at Bucky and asked, “Stargazing? We making a camping detour now?”
Bucky blushed, which Sam was not prepared for. “Oh no, I got no desire to spend a night freezing in a tent. But, uh, if we could stop somewhere without as much light pollution…?” he trailed off tentatively, eyes big and hopeful. It would take a stronger man than Sam to resist that look. And it did sound nice. He didn’t often get a chance to appreciate a clear, star-filled sky, and it’d sure as hell be better than lying on another motel bed watching another interchangeable Law & Order rerun.
“Don’t make that puppy dog face, you’re a grown-ass man. But yeah, okay. After we stop for the night.” He was rewarded with Bucky beaming at him, which made Sam feel pretty pleased with himself. That full-on, beaming smile was still a rare enough sight from Bucky that everyone who knew him who managed to cause it tended to reflect it right back at him in sheer delight and relief. Sam was no exception.
While they waited for Noreen to come back with their food, Bucky fiddled with the straw in his drink, and Sam idly scrolled through emails on his phone. Nothing urgent there, thankfully. It looked like everyone was trying to track down Javi to see if he’d be at the memorial; Sam tapped out a quick email to say he hadn’t heard from Javi about it yet either, though he’d seen him active on Instagram, so at least there wasn’t a Victor situation going on there. Sam felt the weight and gravity of sorrow tug at his bones again, and sighed.
“Bad news?” asked Bucky.
“No, just—worrying. Some of the guys are taking Tyler’s death pretty hard.”
And there was that keen gaze of Bucky’s again, full of sympathy but also searching. Sam shifted and looked away, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He didn’t know what Bucky was seeing.
“It’s good you get to say goodbye at least,” said Bucky, low and solemn.
“Yeah,” said Sam, a lump forming in his throat, and then Noreen was back with their food, and tsking at their renewed glumness.
“All this food better cheer y’all up!” she said as she put down Bucky’s ridiculous meat-dominated breakfast platter and stack of pancakes. Not that Sam’s choice of a one-pound burger was any more sane or healthy. In Sam’s defense, they were in Nebraska, and wasn’t the beef supposed to be really good here? That was his excuse, anyway. His own dubiously healthy lunch choice wouldn’t stop him making fun of Bucky though.
“You’re gonna get the meat sweats eating all of that.”
Bucky had already shoved some bacon in his mouth, and narrowed his eyes in response. Once he swallowed he said, “That’s not a real thing.”
“It is so a real thing,” answered Sam, and took a bite of his frankly comically huge burger. Fuck, why had Natasha told them to ignore Clint’s diner recommendations, this burger was amazing. Noreen gave them an approving glance when she stopped by to refill their drinks.
Both Sam and Bucky steadily plowed their way through their respective meals in silence. No meat sweats for either of them, but Sam was ready to enter a food coma and even Bucky’s super soldier metabolism seemed like it was going to have to work overtime to process the massive amount of breakfast meats and pancakes he’d just consumed.
“You’re gonna have to keep driving, dude, I’m tapping out. It’s food coma time for me.” Sam slumped to the side in the booth, groaning.
“Weak,” accused Bucky, even as he slid down his side of the booth.
Noreen came by again and rested a hip against the edge of the table as she cast an amused eye over them. “Enjoy your lunch, boys?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.
“Can we get some coffee, please?” asked Bucky.
“Yeah, you’ll need that if you’re hitting the road again. Coming right up!”
“Does coffee even do anything for you any more?” asked Sam, frowning. Maybe they should both just have a food coma nap before getting back on the road.
“Probably not, but I don’t care. Don’t worry, I’m good to drive.”
“If we die because you drive us into a semi thanks to a food coma, Steve is going to be so mad.”
Bucky threw his gross napkin at Sam, and Sam flicked water at Bucky’s face in retaliation, and this was probably about to dissolve into a real undignified food fight, but then Noreen came back to drop off a pot of coffee and two mugs, and they both hauled themselves upright to sip at their mugs of coffee. It was nearly scalding, and strong as hell, which wasn’t surprising given the number of truckers in the place. Noreen stopped at their table again a couple minutes later, this time bearing a couple slices of pie.
“We didn’t order pie, ma’am,” said Sam, though it did look really good. It was apple pie, almost the platonic ideal of apple pie: a golden vision of a slice of pie stuffed with thick-cut slices of apple speckled with cinnamon and spices in a flaky crust, and Sam really, really wanted to make some room for it in his over-full stomach.
“I know. This one’s on me. You two look like you need it,” she said with a wink. “Don’t know what had you two looking so sad when you walked in, but I figure if a little thing like pie can make you smile, it’s worth it.”
It was a little act of kindness from a stranger, unlooked for and unasked for, and it hit Sam hard. Someone who didn’t even know him had noticed he was sad, and did something to try to make it better. Sam didn’t know how to deal with that. He smiled at Noreen anyway, and if there was something pained in it, Noreen didn’t notice, because Bucky was giving her one of his rare full wattage, light-up-the-room smiles.
“Thank you,” Sam managed to choke out, and then hid his inconvenient feelings with a bite of the delicious pie.
Meanwhile Bucky, wonder of wonders, made the first move in engaging Noreen in small talk, and they ended up chatting about Noreen’s stargazing tips and must-sees along I-80. Sam let it wash over him while he ate his pie and wrestled with his unruly emotions. So he was sad enough for some random waitress to notice and give him a slice of pity pie for free. Whatever, that was fine. It wasn’t like some psychiatrically recognized warning sign or anything. And pity pie or not, it tasted really, really good.
Though jesus, it felt like opposite day. Sam was the one being sullen and non-communicative while Bucky charmed some random waitress and actually talked to people. Bucky had, Sam realized, been talking to random strangers this entire trip. And not just in the social obligation, don’t want to seem like a loner weirdo kind of way. He was talking to people, really talking, and sure it was a relief, both because it meant Sam didn’t have to and because it was a good sign for Bucky’s recovery. But it wasn’t helping Sam feel any less off-balance, like they were on a mission and Sam had swapped his wings for Bucky’s sniper rifle.
They left a big tip for Noreen, and then got back on the road to drive through more endless flat prairie. Sam embarked on the hip hop portion of Bucky’s musical education, all the better to distract himself from unwelcome self-reflection and sadness. He couldn’t lie to himself though: he was kind of hoping he could get into some big debate with Bucky over how hip hop was a valid art form. Sam’s heart lay with funk and soul, sure, but he still loved hip hop and was willing to throw down in its defense. So Sam carefully curated a history of hip hop playlist, and prepared himself for a lot of explanations and impassioned defenses.
Except that Bucky listened with careful attention like he was in a goddamn graduate seminar on hip hop, and Sam was the professor.
“I don’t think I understand half this slang,” admitted Bucky. “But something about it reminds me of—shit, I can't remember the name…uh, Slim Gaillard?”
And that sent them both on a trip down music history lane, as Bucky dug up misty memories of his exploits in jazz clubs across New York back in the day, and Sam explained all the music that helped lead to the birth of hip hop in the Bronx. It wasn’t the debate Sam had been hoping for, but it was just as much of a distraction, and when they got to the night’s motel, Sam was feeling good enough to handle check in and getting them settled in. It wasn’t dark enough yet for stargazing, so they had a quick dinner and a nap before heading out to the isolated off-road spot Bucky had deemed sufficiently free of light pollution.
The drive there wasn’t long, but it was long enough to give Sam the opportunity to text the team an update. He kept it short. Who knew what Bucky was writing in his letters to Steve, but Sam was no old-timey correspondent, so his updates were pithy and to-the-point. Endless fields of amber waves of grain, free pie, history of hip hop, and done. By the time the team’s replies had come in (free pie?!? I never get free pie :( and I’m going to need you to send me video of you two singing america the beautiful and Glad to hear it’s going well), they’d reached their destination.
The sky was dark enough that you could see the foggy spill of the Milky Way, and of course, instead of the handful of bright pinpricks that struggled to twinkle past the city’s busy and polluted skyline, the stars here were uncountable and brilliant. Like always, the sight simultaneously filled Sam up, and made him feel incredibly small. They settled on the still-warm hood of the car to take in the sky. The angle and shift in perspective made Sam feel a little like he was falling up into the sky, free for a moment of everything shackling him to Earth’s gravity. He heard Bucky make a happy sort of sigh next to him.
Sam nudged him. “Hey. This was a good idea.” He looked over at Bucky, who was looking back at him with a smile in his eyes that was a little sad.
“Yeah? I’m glad,” said Bucky.
Sam wondered if he and Tyler would have done this on a road trip. Maybe. Tyler had been an outdoorsy kind of guy. If it had been Sam and Tyler though, they wouldn’t be sitting on the hood of the car in peaceful silence. Tyler would definitely have immediately started talking about UFOs and aliens, and Sam would have egged him on. Sam huffed out a little laugh just thinking of it.
“You know, if I was out here with Tyler, he’d have started telling some long, bullshit story about UFOs and alien abductions.”
Bucky turned his head to grin at Sam. “Honor his memory, Wilson. Tell me a long, bullshit story about UFOs and alien abductions.”
Sam threw his head back and laughed, even as grief squeezed a tight band around his chest.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, and cobbled together some tall tale made up of half-remembered X-Files episodes, urban legends, and terrible the aliens built the pyramids “documentaries” from the History Channel. Bucky managed to listen with entirely too genuine seeming wide-eyed, golly-gee gullibility for a full five minutes before Sam finally got him to break, and then they were both giggling in an entirely undignified way, and Sam was laughing so hard he was crying, and then he was just crying a little. Bucky didn’t say anything, but threw an arm around Sam’s shoulders and squeezed, a little rough, a little ungentle, and that was exactly what Sam needed right now. He leaned into it, unspeakably grateful, as he wiped at his leaking eyes.
They stayed out there until it got uncomfortably cold, then went back to the motel. Sam headed straight for bed, the day’s unease transformed into a pleasant sort of weariness. Some small portion of the weight of sorrow had lifted from him.
Meanwhile Bucky kept the lamp by his bed on, and wrote his nightly letter to Steve. Had Steve gotten the first letter yet? What was Bucky writing about anyway? There were only so many ways to describe corn and the prairie….Sam drifted off to slip, mid-musing, and he slept deep and long. If he dreamed, it wasn’t anything that survived the transition to wakefulness.
The next morning, Bucky was especially quiet. He had retreated into himself in some undefinable way, and ordinarily, that would have worried Sam. It wasn’t good, when Bucky went a particular sort of quiet and blank and emphatically not-there. This wasn’t that sort of quiet though. It was more thoughtful, and maybe just plain tired. Judging from the way Bucky avoided any interaction with the desk clerk at check out aside from a perfunctory smile, Sam figured he’d hit his limit for talking after the past few days. Which was fine, because Sam was willing to pick up the slack.
It was Sam’s turn to drive too, and the plan for the day was to drive across the better part of Wyoming, maybe even get to Utah if they made good enough time. Then they’d just have the last leg of the trip left, and they’d arrive in Bend late afternoon or evening on Friday. The memorial was on Sunday, so they could take Saturday to rest up and see whatever sights there were to see in Bend. It occurred to Sam that he hadn’t really planned a route back, for after the memorial. Sure, they could do the same drive, just in reverse. That would take up what was left of Sam’s two weeks off from work. But it unsettled him, that he didn’t have a plan for after the rapidly approaching memorial. Well, no plan other than “get your shit together, Wilson.”
A couple hours into Wyoming, Sam was beginning to wish he’d taken the Nebraska stretch of driving instead. The landscape along the highway was barren and desolate, just mostly flat scrubland, and it made Sam think longingly of the endless fields of grain. Sam glanced at Bucky, who was frowning out at the landscape, a question in the way his brow furrowed.
“Wyoming’s got the lowest population density in the US,” offered Sam.
Sam thought so too. “Some people like it.”
Bucky pulled out his phone, which meant his boredom level had reached critical mass. After a few minutes of tapping and scrolling away, he said, “Everyone on the internet says this is a godforsaken wasteland of a drive. We can stop to see a statue of Lincoln—”
“—Tour a historical prison—”
“—See a historic byway, whatever that is—”
“Or just play road trip games. Like cows and cemeteries? Is that an actual thing?”
“You count the cows that pass, and each cow counts as a point, but if you pass a cemetery on your side of the car, then you lose all your points.”
“What the hell kind of dumbass game is that?”
“It’s not really any more dumb than punch buggy, Sam,” said Bucky, glaring at him.
Okay, so maybe playing punch buggy during the HYDRA revenge road trip had been a less than wise idea, given that Bucky had still been twitchy and grimly silent, but Sam had been feeling pretty punchy, and he thought it had lightened up the atmosphere of intense and unspoken emotional revelations between Steve and Bucky. Which it definitely had! It had just also led to Steve saying, in all seriousness, “I swear to god, I will turn this car around if you two don’t stop.”
“Fine, let’s play cows and cemeteries.”
Sam quickly realized that Bucky had several unfair advantages, including but not limited to a) not having to drive and play cows and cemeteries at the same time, b) having 60/20 vision or some crazy super soldier sniper bullshit like that, which meant he was able to identify any number of distant specks as cows, to Sam’s voluble disapproval, and c) having straight up no problem with just flat out cheating, just to fuck with Sam. Stupid premise and arguing aside, the game did relieve the boredom, and they got to the next town in what felt like fifteen minutes, but was really an hour.
They took the opportunity to stop for lunch, since actual cities were few and far between on the Wyoming stretch of the I-80. After eliminating the handful of fast food and chain restaurants as lunch options, they ended up in another diner.
“Yelp says it’s the only decent place to eat at around here,” said Bucky.
“Oh, well if Yelp says so.”
When they walked in, Bucky didn’t wait to be seated. He just did his usual scoping out the lay of the land, then huffed out a laugh, and headed straight for the table in the far corner where a woman wearing a ball cap and hoodie was sitting.
“Uh, Bucky,” started Sam, following after him, but when they got close to the table, he saw why Bucky had a made beeline for it.
Natasha was sitting there, her beauty rendered into something more ordinary in the nondescript, ill-fitting clothes she was wearing. Her face was bare of any makeup, and not in that way where guys thought a woman wasn’t wearing makeup but she really was. One of Sam’s exes had schooled him on just what it took to look “natural.” No, Natasha was really wearing no make up at all. It made her look younger and softer. More tired, too.
Natasha stood to greet both of them, giving first Bucky, then Sam, a hug.
“This isn’t Avengers business, right?” asked Bucky once they’d all sat down.
“No, things have been quiet, we’re good.”
“Are you here to check on Bucky?” asked Sam. He wouldn’t put it past Steve to send someone to make sure Bucky was handling things alright, and Natasha herself could be a little protective of Bucky’s recovery. The question just earned him twin looks of indignation.
“I’m not worried about James.”
“I don’t need checking up on.”
Sam raised his hands in defense. “Okay, okay, sorry.” A waiter came by to take their drink orders. “So why are you here?”
“I was in the area,” said Natasha, and took a sip from the mug of coffee in front of her. She and Bucky exchanged some complex series of micro expressions that Sam couldn’t read at all, so he just glared suspiciously instead.
“Really. Which particular area of this barren wasteland were you in?”
Natasha ignored the question. “So how’s the road trip going?”
“Aside from the fact that we’re headed to a funeral?”
“Yeah. Aside from that.”
“Great. We’re making real progress on Bucky’s musical education.”
Natasha narrowed her eyes and just looked at Sam. He tried not to fidget or flee in response, which took a lot of willpower. Sam had seen men in interrogation rooms literally burst into tears under that stare. Bucky, the coward, muttered something about the bathroom and left Sam and Natasha alone.
“You’re as bad as Steve, you know that? I’m here to check on you. Are you okay?”
Sam blinked in surprise. “I’m fine. I mean, sad, but fine.”
“What?” Natasha sat back in her seat and crossed her arms. Sam tried not to flinch. “Did Bucky say something? The narc!” Sam didn’t even really know what Bucky would narc on him for, there had been no embarrassing breakdowns.
“No, James didn’t say anything, I just know you.”
Her expression of unimpressed annoyance shifted to honest unhappiness. Without the protective armor of any makeup, and without the usual careful control Natasha exhibited over her facial expressions, her obvious distress made Sam’s stomach sink straight to his feet. He leaned across to take her hand.
“Hey, seriously, I’m okay. Nothing to worry about.”
She pulled her hand back with a quick jerk. “You really don’t get it, do you. How are you a literal counselor?”
Sam felt his hackles rise. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I’m not on the verge of a breakdown, I’m just going to a friend’s memorial service, and it’s sad, and it sucks, but I’m okay. I don’t need a goddamn wellness check.” The way his chest felt tight put the lie to that. He’d be damned if let Natasha see that now though. “No one asked you to be here.”
Bucky came back from the bathroom, and he must have heard some of that, because he had the big eyes of worry, and his shoulders were practically up around his ears when he took his seat again. But Bucky didn’t say anything, and they all stewed in uncomfortable silence until the waiter came back to take their orders.
After the waiter left, Natasha said, low and quiet, “You’re right, no one asked me to be here. I’m here because I want to be here, and because I care about you, and because I was worried. That’s all.”
A hot rush of shame filled him, bitter as bile. Fuck, he was being an asshole. He looked down at the discolored linoleum of the diner table and said, “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
The tension snapped and eased, and they spent the rest of the meal exchanging updates and stories, Bucky chiming in with the occasional dry comment, and it was good. Sam had missed Natasha, he realized, and he missed Steve too. Their little group felt lopsided and strange without him.
“Feels weird without Steve,” said Sam, as they were getting up to leave. “Say hi to him for us?” He thought of Bucky’s easy admission from a few days ago. “Tell him we miss him, and not to mope around the Tower.”
Natasha smiled. “Aww, he’s only moping a little. He got a couple of your letters already, James.”
Bucky’s eyes crinkled with one of the small, tender smiles that was reserved for Steve. “Yeah? Good.”
“He sent this along with me, said he’ll give you the rest when you come home.” Natasha pulled a thick envelope from her bag, and gave it to Bucky.
Once they got outside, Natasha reached up to hug Bucky, whispering something in his ear that Bucky nodded at before dropping a kiss on the top of Natasha’s head and pulling back. She moved to hug Sam next, and Sam clung a little, another apology for being such a dick to her earlier. She tugged him down to press a kiss to his cheek, then held a hand to his face. Her eyes were very green and serious as she held his gaze.
“Let someone help you carry the weight, Sam. Please.”
Something like a sob wanted to rip its way free of Sam’s throat. He swallowed it back and nodded instead.
Bucky stayed close as they walked back to the car, and raised an eyebrow in silent question when they reached it. Did Sam want him to drive? Sam shook his head in response, and took the wheel again. They pushed on through the rest of Wyoming, and finally stopped for the day in Utah. Bucky directed Sam to yet another motel, this one a little out of their way, but options were apparently slim unless they wanted to keep driving until Salt Lake City. So Coalville it was, where the motel theme for the night was yet another friendly clerk, and log cabin decor.
Once they’d gone through the whole check-in and settle in and figure out dinner routine, Sam sent out the usual round of updates to the team, then checked his email. They were only three days out from Tyler’s memorial, and still no one had heard from Javi or not about whether he was going to be there. That worried Sam. Javi lived in Boise, not all that far from Bend. He was one of the guys who’d stayed pretty close with Tyler, and they’d hung out every few weeks or so. Maybe Javi just wasn’t in the place to talk to anyone yet about Tyler, and thought it was a given that he’d be at the memorial.
The last email in the group email chain asked, Can anyone swing by and check in with Javi? I know he’s around and okay, but he’s been avoiding all our calls and texts. He hasn’t said anything about Tyler and I don’t know what the hell’s going on with him. Stacey’d like him to be at the memorial.
Sam pulled up a map on his phone. Boise was on their way. They could be there by the early afternoon. If they killed some time sightseeing on their way there, they could get there in the early evening in time to catch Javi after he got off work, and then they could stay in Boise for the night before finishing the last leg of the trip to Bend.
“Hey, do you mind if we stop in Boise tomorrow? I’m worried about one of the guys, he hasn’t said anything about going to Tyler’s memorial, and I know they were kind of tight.”
Bucky looked up from reading Steve’s letter. “Sure, of course.”
“Thanks, man,” he said, and sent out an email to the guys. Boise’s on my way to Bend. I’ll go by his place tomorrow.
Sam spent some time idly scrolling through news feeds, and tried not to die of curiosity about what was in Steve’s letter to Bucky. It was a surprisingly thick packet of pages, and Sam honest to god couldn’t imagine Steve writing that much. No one would call Steve quiet, but he wasn’t actually the kind of guy who talked about himself much. Maybe he was though, with Bucky, because Bucky was smiling down at the pages, expression sweet and affectionate enough that Sam felt like he was intruding just watching it. As Sam watched, Bucky turned to the next page, and his smile widened to a delighted grin. Sam thought that if he turned the lights off in the room right now, he’d see Bucky visibly glowing with happiness, and that gave him a contrary sort of ache in his heart, mingled joy and sadness. Maybe a little jealousy too. Sam tore his eyes away and went back to reading whatever was on his phone. Sports news, apparently.
After a few minutes, Sam saw that Bucky had finished with the sheaf of pages.
“So what’s the news with Steve?”
Bucky made his scrunchy face of disapproval at Sam. “If you wanted your own letter, you shoulda written to Steve too.”
Sam rolled his eyes and tossed one of the balled up napkins from dinner at Bucky, who batted it away easily with a laugh. Bucky shuffled through the pages of the letter and pulled out a few, then held them out to Sam.
“Really? You don’t have to, whatever Steve wrote to you, if it’s, you know, private, I don’t wanna intrude—” Sam definitely wanted to intrude, but he should at least pretend not to be a nosy motherfucker.
“It’s fine. Seriously, go ahead.”
So Sam did, and was surprised to see not a letter, but a series of comics-like panels full of well-rendered little sketches in a clean and expressive style. There were no words on the images, and they were mostly in pencil, with the occasional pop of color. Sam had seen Steve’s work before, so the fact of the drawings wasn’t a surprise. Their content was, a little. The handful of pages showed a series of panels of what looked like little glimpses of what Steve was up to while they were gone. Steve himself wasn’t in any of the drawings, just scenes from his perspective: a bit of Central Park, probably on Steve’s running route; a sketch of Tony looking up with a grin from what looked like doing some work on Steve’s gear; a funny little series of sketches chronicling one of Steve’s cooking disasters; Maria Hill, captured mid-word gesturing at something on a screen. And the last one, of an unmade bed, with a Bucky Bear sitting on it. Below the panel was the only text in the whole set of drawings: I miss you.
Jesus christ, thought Sam. The whole thing was ridiculously sweet, and evidence of an openness that made Sam simultaneously proud and confused. Steve didn’t often, if ever, admit to that kind of thing. He covered it with dry jokes or small, nice gestures. But there it was, written out plainly to Bucky. Sam was reminded again that there was a whole world between Steve and Bucky that the others only rarely got full glimpses into.
“These are great,” said Sam eventually, handing the comics back to Bucky. “You get this kind of letter when you were overseas too?”
Bucky shrugged. “Steve’d usually doodle along the margins of whatever letter he was writing, or send just a couple separate sketches.”
“Thanks for showing them to me.” It felt a little like Bucky had let him in on a secret, only Sam wasn’t sure what the secret was.
With plenty of time to make the drive to Boise, they indulged in a more leisurely morning the next day. Bucky finished up a new letter to Steve while Sam poked at their complimentary Continental breakfast and hunted for possible sightseeing stops. They went on a run together too, Bucky mostly keeping to Sam’s pace after lapping him a couple of times, the asshole. Still, it was a good morning. Sam felt more grounded, less apprehensive. For a while, anyway. Left with his thoughts while Bucky drove, he ended up dwelling on what the deal with Javi was, and what waited for him at Tyler’s memorial.
It made him a poor road trip buddy, too distracted to do more than offer cursory answers to Bucky’s occasional questions about when and where to stop on their way to Boise. Bucky didn’t seem too bothered by it, and kept to his comfortable silence while Sam’s “Sorry You Were Frozen Through Most of the 20th Century” playlists ticked on through the rest of the 90s and into the 00s. When they finally reached Boise in the early evening, Sam directed Bucky to Javi’s house. Sam wondered what kind of welcome he’d receive. He and Javi weren’t close or anything, but they’d gotten along well enough. He didn’t think Javi would ignore him anyway.
When they got to Javi’s house, a small but nice place tucked away in a suburban cul de sac, Sam took a deep breath to fortify himself, and stepped out of the car and towards Javi’s front door.
He rang the doorbell, and waited. If Javi didn’t answer, it’d be obnoxiously anti-climactic, but he supposed they could come back later in a couple hours. After a minute or so though, he heard someone approach the door, and he waved at the peephole.
“Hey Javi, it’s Sam. Sam Wilson, from the 24th?”
The door opened, and Sam was face to face with Javi. “Holy shit, Sam the Falcon!” greeted Javi with a smile that was mostly genuine, and they exchanged the standard handshake and quick backslapping hug.
“I think I can guess what you’re here about,” said Javi, leaning against the doorjamb and crossing his arms.
“Yeah. I’m sorry about Tyler. I’m on my way to Bend for the memorial, thought I’d come check on you, man. Some of the guys have been worried.”
Javi’s face went stony. “They don’t gotta worry about me. I’m fine.”
“Stacey’s been worried too. She didn’t get an RSVP to the memorial from you. If you need a ride or anything, you’re welcome to come with me. I’ve been road tripping with my buddy, and we were planning on getting to Bend tomorrow—”
“I’m not going.”
“You heard me. I’m not going.”
Sam paused, recalibrated his approach. “Did you have a fight with Tyler or something before he—”
“Nah, we didn’t have a fight. I’m just—he fucking punked out. Suicide? What kind of cowardly bullshit is that,” spat out Javi. Sam was taken aback by the venom in Javi’s voice. This kind of anger wasn’t uncommon to the loved ones left behind, but—
“Hey, we don’t know why Tyler—killed himself. But he must have been hurting, and that doesn’t mean we should—”
Javi scoffed. “Yeah, you’re definitely a counselor. I don’t give a shit, okay? Fact is, Tyler decided eating a bullet was easier than dealing with his shit, or asking for help. And he fucking knew he could ask, I’d’ve—” He swallowed hard and shook his head. “It was fucking cowardice, him doing what he did, and I’m not gonna go to his memorial and honor him for it, alright? I know you mean well, Wilson, and I don’t wanna upset Tyler’s family, but I’m not going.”
Sam opened his mouth to say something, he wasn’t even sure what, but Javi cut him off before he could. “Thanks for coming to see me, but I think you should leave,” he said, and slammed the door shut.
He just stood there staring at the door for a minute. Some part of him wanted to pound on the door and demand Javi come back out, wanted to scream at him that he was wrong, that he’d regret it if he never said goodbye to Tyler. He wanted to scream at Tyler too. Look at where you’ve left all of us, you asshole. What hurt so bad that you couldn’t stay? He didn’t, though, just clenched his fists and breathed through the fury and sorrow, then turned around and walked back to where Bucky was waiting in the car.
Sam got back in the car, and told Bucky it was time to find them a motel for the night.
“Your friend not coming with us?”
“No,” said Sam, and didn't volunteer anything else for the rest of the drive. Bucky glanced sidelong at him a couple times, but didn’t pry.
Sam just rested his head against the window and closed his eyes. His anger—at Javi, for his refusal, and at Tyler, for putting them into this position—had drained out of him, leaving little more than a heavy weariness.
Bucky got them a double room with his usual efficiency, foregoing any banter with the clerk in favor of herding Sam to the room. Sam headed straight for the bed (the one furthest from the door, as usual), used to the routine by now, and in no mood to tease Bucky about it. Bucky would satisfy himself that the room was secure, then he’d go out to check the perimeter, and within five minutes he’d be back with the weirdest thing he’d managed to find in the vending machine, and would settle on the bed to write to Steve.
Sam needed to get his shit together. So Javi was being a dick and didn't want to go to Tyler’s memorial. So what. Why should that open a yawning chasm of grief and rage in Sam’s chest, why should it make Sam feel like he couldn’t breathe. Eating a bullet was easier than asking for help, Javi had said, and of course that was an oversimplification, Sam doubted that Tyler had weighed the two options against each other like that. Things got all twisted up and dark when you were bad off enough. But still, Tyler hadn’t asked anyone for help, not Sam, and not Javi, and not his sister. Had never let on to anyone even the smallest hint that things were bad enough to get to that point.
And that. That was what kicked Sam’s heart into a panicked rabbit rhythm, that was what made him feel like all any of them were doing was stomping blithely around on an ice-covered lake, unknowing and unaware of the icy water underneath that wanted to drown them. Sometimes they could hear the ice crack, and sometimes they could catch a lifeline in time, but right now it felt like everyone was on their own personal iced-over lake, wandering around blind and deaf and dumb.
When Bucky came back in the room, Sam was still sitting on the edge of the bed, head in his hands and trying not to hyperventilate. He heard Bucky pause at the door for just a second, then Bucky came over to sit next to him on the bed, and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder.
He turned his head to look at Bucky, and if he’d looked worried or upset or surprised or carefully neutral, Sam could have kept it together, but Bucky just looked compassionate. And not even the distant compassion of the professionally sympathetic, an expression Sam was intimately familiar with from the mirror, but full-on, big, serious blue eyes of sincere “I know this sucks and I’m here,” and Sam just lost it.
Let someone help you carry the weight, Natasha had said, and Sam felt, finally, like he had to. Didn’t want to, but couldn’t let it crush him, couldn’t keep flailing around on the ice like there weren’t people patiently holding out hands to help. Steve, who had showed up at his door and tried to help and who Sam hadn’t let in, and Natasha who had given him the rare gift of her openness, and Bucky, who had just planted himself there and hadn’t left him alone.
Bucky’s arms were tight and strong around him, and Sam thought maybe he shouldn’t pass any of this weight off to him, because god knew Bucky had a hell of a weight to carry himself. But Bucky was holding on and holding him up, murmuring quietly, “It’s okay, let it go.” So Sam did. Weeks’ worth of sadness and anger and grief and fear that he’d kept setting aside for later. Well, now was later, and it was all coming out in a mess of tears on Bucky’s shoulder, the metal one no less.
After long minutes of the frankly embarrassing kind of messy weeping, Sam pulled back, wiping at the mess on his face in vain. Bucky, the old-fashioned bastard, pulled out a handkerchief. Sam gave him an “are you shitting me” look, but used it anyway. He blew his nose in it, obnoxiously loud, which made Bucky’s lips twitch into a small smile for a second.
“Sorry,” he muttered, and looked down to avoid Bucky’s too-knowing gaze.
“Just—all of this.”
Bucky shook his head. “Nothing to be sorry for. I’m sorry about whatever happened with your friend.”
Sam thought maybe that was enough for this sharing moment, but Bucky didn’t move away, just waited patiently, his eyes sincere and solemn when he held Sam’s gaze. I can carry some of the weight, was what Bucky said without saying.
“So, I don’t think I mentioned, but Tyler killed himself.” Bucky made an encouraging little hum, and Sam had to look away from Bucky’s stupidly sincere sympathy to stare at the motel wall. “Javi said it was cowardice, and that he wasn’t gonna go to Tyler’s memorial and honor him for it.”
It occurred to Sam that maybe Bucky would agree. The thought made his stomach roil.
“Guessin’ you don’t think so,” said Bucky, still calm when Sam turned to look at him again.
“No. You know 22 vets a day kill themselves? It’s not cowardice.”
Bucky’s face tightened with some remembered pain. “No, it isn’t.”
His eyes went distant, and for just a few seconds, he looked as tired as he had when he’d first come in from the cold. Sam was about to try to bring him back from wherever he’d gone in his head, when Bucky focused again and bit at his lower lip in consideration. Sam waited for Bucky to work his way up to saying whatever it was he had to say.
“It’s not why I tried,” said Bucky eventually, and Sam’s heart jolted violently in his chest.
“When HYDRA had me. The first few years. To—make it stop. Try to escape.” Jesus christ, thought Sam, furious and heartbroken all over again. “Tried a few times, whenever I had a chance. Didn’t have many, and it never stuck. Stopped bothering to try, eventually. They always brought me back anyway.” Bucky’s voice was terribly even, and though there was pain in his eyes, he was calm. Somehow, that made it worse.
Sam didn’t even know what to say. Sorry about the incomprehensible levels of torture, but I’m glad you’re still here? Then fear grabbed hold of him. Maybe Bucky was on thin ice too, maybe he was closer to going under than anyone thought. “And since then?”
“Thought about it, before I came home. Seemed safest. For everyone. And everything—hurt. A lot. At first. But the more I remembered, the more I wanted to come home. If I had done it though, it wouldn’t have been cowardice, and it wouldn’t have been anyone’s fault. Just—sometimes things hurt too much, and it seems like the only way.”
Unable to find any words, of comfort or of thanks, Sam just tugged Bucky in for a hug instead. Bucky let out a shaky sigh and sank into the embrace.
“If it ever does again, you tell me, you hear? Or someone, I don’t care who. Just—promise. I don’t wanna do this again, I don’t wanna get that call.” Bucky nodded into Sam’s neck. Sam pulled back to look Bucky in the eye and bring the point home. “Promise me.”
“Sam, I promise. Will you? Tell me, if—”
His first instinct was to refuse, and that was fucked up, he knew. But still, the first thought was there: I can’t put that on you.
Sam laughed miserably. “You know, the first thing I thought was, ‘I can’t put that on you.’ You got enough to carry. I don’t want to—I can’t make things harder for you.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Bucky, angry now. “Jesus christ, you and Steve—how many times do I gotta tell you, you don’t have to do this alone. None of us do. I came in, Sam. I came home because I didn’t want to do it alone. You shouldn’t—” Bucky broke off, frustrated and out of words.
And suddenly, a hell of a lot of things about Bucky made a lot more sense to Sam. Bucky had chosen to come in from the cold, had slowly and painstakingly connected to people other than Steve with his friendships with Natasha and Tony and the rest of the team. Had, this whole trip, made the effort to talk to people and be kind, to be open with Sam, and with Steve in those letters. For all that his suffering still weighed heavy on him sometimes, Bucky was doing just fine. Sam was doing him a disservice to think he couldn’t offer his own support. And Bucky was right. He didn’t have to do this alone. Practice what you preach, Wilson.
“Yeah, okay.” He laughed again, sharp and sad, and ran a shaky hand over his face. “So, it’s been a shitty few weeks, Bucky, and I don’t think I’m okay.”
Bucky’s frustration melted away, and he gave Sam a crooked smile, the blue of his eyes as warm and welcoming as a summer sky, no trace of Winter Soldier ice in them. That was its own kind of miracle, and Sam gave wordless thanks to the universe for it.
“I know. Wanna talk about it?”
Just the thought of it made Sam start feeling lighter, light enough to think he might be able to fly again, wings or no wings.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, and started talking.
Sam had a crying hangover the next day, which sucked, but he felt clean and light, like the world after a summer squall. They got to Bend after one more day of easy driving, and then Bucky did his usual I’m-the-Sarge thing, and chivvied Sam around like a protective mama bear. Sam was too amused and fond to protest too much. He knew why Bucky was doing it, and the man was good at this kind of thing, even when it wasn’t in a war zone or on a mission.
“Sergeant my ass, you’re just the mom friend. Admit it, deep in your soul, you’re the mom friend!” said Sam as he dutifully ate the food Bucky had brought back to their hotel room. Bucky had apparently decided it was time to push the Avengers black card’s limits a little, because they were in a proper, nice hotel this time, in a full suite. Sam suspected he was being coddled, but whatever. Treat yoself, he thought, and slurped on the chocolate milkshake Bucky had brought him.
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure, sure. It’s okay, I won’t blow your cover. Terrifying Winter Soldier, makes HYDRA agents piss their pants and run in fear, also brings his friends their favorite milkshakes. It’s cool, no one has to know.”
Bucky glowered. “I will dump this milkshake on your head.”
Kidding aside, Sam appreciated it. Bucky went with him to the memorial service, his presence a solid, silent island of calm in an ocean of grief. It gave Sam the strength to get through the eulogies and remembrances, to hug Tyler’s friends and family and the guys he’d served with, to offer and receive comfort and condolences. And it was good, to share memories of Tyler, even if it hurt.
And it did hurt. Stacey had no answers to give them about why Tyler had killed himself. The note he’d left had been short, not much more than an “I’m sorry.” All of Tyler’s Bend friends said he’d been fine, he’d seemed fine, cheerful as usual and making plans for a trip to Zion in a couple months. Maybe the cheer had been a mask, or a lie. Maybe for Tyler, the ice hadn’t cracked to dump him in those deathly cold waters. Maybe the ice had just gotten thinner and thinner, slowly so no one noticed, until before anyone knew, he’d been nose deep in the cold and the dark, and smiling all the while. It took people that way, sometimes. Whatever it had been, Sam would never know. He made his peace with that, as best he could.
Sam and Bucky took the scenic route back home to New York. Things weren’t magically better. Sam slept for shit the first few nights of the trip back, and he and Bucky had to finally get separate rooms for a night because Bucky had started looking a little wild around the eyes at having to keep sharing his space with another person.
(“You live with Steve though.”
“Steve doesn’t count.”)
But it was still a good road trip, and he could admit now that he’d needed it, or some sort of break, or else he’d have been headed towards a long train wreck of a burnout with one or both of his jobs. He didn’t know if Bucky got something he needed out of the trip. Maybe whatever it was, it was in the letters he kept sending to Steve.
When they finally got back to the Tower, instead of the over the top welcome home party that Sam had half-feared (because Tony), JARVIS told them to head on up to Steve and Bucky’s apartment, where Steve and Natasha had dinner ready. To Sam’s delight, Bucky spent the elevator ride up fidgeting in impatient anticipation.
“Dude, you talked to Steve yesterday,” said Sam. Letters aside, Bucky had actually texted and called with Steve during the road trip too. They’d been far from incommunicado.
“So? I haven’t seen him in two weeks.”
“Your BFFship is adorable. Codependent, probably, but adorable.”
Bucky flicked Sam in the arm, with the metal fingers. Sam just laughed. “Haven’t you missed Natasha?” asked Bucky.
“Not like you've missed Steve, apparently.”
When they finally got to Steve and Bucky’s floor, and stepped into the apartment, Sam felt the strain and exhaustion of two weeks of being on the road ease. It smelled like Steve had made his signature pasta with red sauce, the one dish he reliably didn’t fuck up, and Natasha was curled up on the couch reading. She lit up when they came in.
“You’re back!” She got up to hug Sam long and hard, then cupped his face in her small, calloused hands, and pulled back to study his face. “You took my advice.”
Sam’s eyes flicked towards Bucky, who was being smothered in a hug by Steve. “Yeah. I did.”
“Good,” said Natasha, and gifted him with what Sam knew was her real smile, the one that had no purpose but to show that she was happy. It made Sam’s stomach flutter like he was a middle schooler with a crush, and impulsively, he leaned forward to press a quick kiss to her cheek, only she moved a little at the same time, and he landed closer to the corner of her mouth. Natasha dimpled at him and laughed. Sam’s face went hot.
He cleared his throat and stepped away from Natasha, ready to go give Steve a hug of his own, but Steve, it turned out, was otherwise occupied. Because Steve was holding Bucky’s face in his hands like it was the most precious thing in the world, and kissing him with some Ryan Gosling kissing Rachel McAdams in The Notebook level intensity. Bucky was smiling into it, arms tight around Steve, and holy shit. Was this a new development? It had to be a new development. There had been no makeouts during Steve and Bucky’s first glorious reunion.
“Did you really not see this coming?”
“No?” He thought back to the sketches Steve had sent, the last one especially. “What was in those letters?”
Steve and Bucky finally pulled apart, and came over to greet Sam and Natasha respectively. Sam was tempted to shield his eyes from the practically visible aura of true love and happiness happening in the couple’s general vicinity. Steve just grinned at Sam sheepishly.
“What, I don’t get a kiss too?” asked Sam, and Steve laughed. He moved in for a hug, and Sam obliged, smacking an obnoxiously loud kiss to Steve’s cheek that had Steve shoving Sam’s face away with a groan.
Sam looked over at Bucky and Natasha, whose heads were bent close together in quiet conversation, and looked around the familiar apartment, at the apartment Tony had given Steve, that Steve had made into a home, and that Bucky had chosen to come home to. These walls held the three people that Sam could trust to carry his burdens with him, if he was brave enough.
“You okay, Sam?” asked Steve.