Cover art by: reena_jenkins
"I used to feel bad for her," Natasha murmured as she sidled up to Sam and waited for the bartender to see her. "But I'm starting to think she enjoys it."
He had been leaning against the bar, showing off his midnight blue tux and watching Steve and Sharon pretend that they had never met before she'd asked him to dance, when Natasha had arrived. He already had his drink, a fancy-pants whiskey that had actual frozen rocks in it instead of ice cube rocks because that would dilute the drink. It was that kind of shindig, a black tie gala with a $25,000 a plate ticket, which was just as ridiculous as it sounded.
But possibly not as ridiculous as watching Steve and Sharon flirt awkwardly. It was some kind of old-timey dance and they both knew the moves, but Sam could see the stilted conversation even without hearing a word of it. "Maybe they both enjoy it. It's not like they don't know the other one's interested."
Natasha turned around with a flute of champagne that had something added to it to make it a deep red. "I like the thrill of the chase as much as the next girl, Wilson, but it isn't supposed to be a marathon."
He chuckled. "You do realize that the two of them are sneaky enough that they could be halfway to engaged without anyone knowing."
Because Steve was old-fashioned about facial piercing and still easily flustered by sixteen-year-old girls demanding selfies in midtown, but he was also a private man who did not kiss and tell. And Sharon was possibly even less likely to say anything because she wanted her career affected by being Captain America's girlfriend even less than she wanted it known that she was Peggy Carter's kin.
Natasha looked horrified -- not at the prospect of Steve and Sharon as a couple, but that she might have missed the signs. "Hush your mouth. He is a terrible liar and I'm sure we'd have picked up on it. Pretty sure. Maybe."
They both settled in to watch because they knew that Steve was not a terrible liar when it came to lies of omission. (Man's actual superpower was defeating you with your own assumptions.) Which was why they saw Sharon slip a piece of paper into Steve's tux jacket pocket and mouth 'call me' before slipping away as the song ended.
"You two are up to no good," Steve greeted them as he joined them at the bar, having gently fought off a couple of attempts to partner up for the next set. "Whatever it is, don't do it."
"You are no fun, Rogers," Natasha pouted, throwing back the rest of her drink with one gulp and turning to Sam. "I'm going to go see if they're registered anywhere."
Steve cocked an eyebrow at her retreating back, then turned to Sam. "Do I want to know?"
Sam shook his head. "Really, no."
Steve ordered a beer and then gestured for Sam to follow him to someplace a little less in the middle of traffic. It wasn't the "we need to talk" wave, more the "I am a little tired of being a public figure" wave and so Sam scooted ahead to lead them to the corner that had two club chairs and insufficient lighting to be useful and too much to be romantic.
He let Steve settle down with his beer and lose some of the 'attack is imminent' posture before gesturing to Steve's pocket. "You gonna look at what Sharon stuffed in there? Because we both know she's already in your phone contacts list."
Under 'Nurse Kate,' because Steve was Steve and had done that after he'd found out her real name.
Steve patted his breast and pulled out the paper. "It's coordinates," he reported, then froze. "I think she found Bucky."
She did, it turned out, but nobody believed it because the only thing on that napkin had been those numbers. They could mean anything, everyone else not Steve had pointed out. They were coordinates to an apartment building in a shitty part of Bucharest, which did not actually eliminate any possibilities. There were plenty of things Sharon might've felt it important for the Avengers to know about that her CIA bosses might not have approved of her sharing. Steve had shook his head and said if that had been the case, Sharon could have simply handed it over to Natasha in the ladies room.
By Thursday, however, keeping Steve from leaving for Bucharest right this minute became a secondary problem for the team because Tony came back from a meeting in DC with a primary one: there was a proposal being written for the UN Security Council to find a way to collar and leash the Avengers.
"I'm pretty sure we can smother it in the cradle," Tony said, sounding not all that worried, which Sam had learned to take with a grain of salt in most cases. But he'd also seen Tony battle government bureaucracy before and it hadn't even been close. "The question is whether we want to. There are advantages to being--"
"Tony, the last time we had government oversight, that government oversight was seconds away from murdering you in your jacuzzi," Natasha pointed out. "You cannot possibly think this is a good idea."
Tony shrugged. "Financially, it's a great idea. Paying for all of this isn't cheap and the punitive damages should we ever actually lose in court would be astronomical. Also, I kind of like sleeping at night."
Which was a non-sequitur until Sam realized it wasn't.
"They're not going to provide the kind of top-cover that makes it easier to live with the responsibility," Steve said because if course he'd gotten it right away. "They're probably going to tell us to do things we won't want to do and they're definitely going to keep us out of places we need to be. They'll tell us it's their call, but just following orders won't help when its our boots on the ground."
"You don't need the financing, Tony," Rhodey added. Jim Rhodes was a full bird and Sam had called him sir the first time they'd met and promptly been ordered never to do it again. "And you won't like what they'll be buying with it. The UN possibly still has a useful function, but policing the world has never actually been something they've been any good at."
Rhodey and Tony had one of those long, silent conversations with their eyes and then Tony sighed. "Fine, right. Killing the bad idea dead. I'll start emailing the lobbyists in the morning."
Tony lived up to his billing as slayer of bureaucratic dragons, but the rest of them kinda fell down on their end of the deal -- keeping Steve from doing anything spectacularly stupid in the general vicinity of Romania. The team went to Brussels to gladhand politicians and show off their lovable, thoughtful, and self-restrained sides and Steve somehow managed to be the star of that show and then get himself to Berlin without anyone being the wiser.
"Of course I put a tracker on the shield," Tony said exasperatedly as he pulled up a solid light screen in his hotel suite's sitting room and a map of Europe appeared. "Nominally, it's for combat reasons. But let's be honest, this has been a possibility all along."
There was a debate whether to go straight to Bucharest or try to waylay Steve in Berlin; Sam thought the latter was pointless, which was why he got assigned to the task.
"Y'all realize that he knows we're going to be looking for him, right?" Sam felt obligated to point out. "Are we sure he didn't mail the tracker to Berlin and then go do what he is going to do no matter who tries to stop him? Ten gets you twenty that that tracker is sitting in a FedEx envelope on Sharon Carter's dining room table."
Because of course that's where it was. Or where he was, maybe. Sam didn't think so and neither did Wanda or Rhodey, but they didn't have the kind of voting power that Tony and Natasha did. Which was why Sam went dutifully to Berlin, knocked on Sharon Carter's door, and when that didn't work, used Natasha's lockpicking doohickey to get inside and hoping to hell that he wasn't about to catch them naked on the floor.
The tracker was not in a FedEx envelope. It was on the dining room table, however, with a note that simply said "sorry" on it.
"You are not sorry, you bastard. You are the polar opposite of sorry," Sam said aloud, mostly for the benefit of Sharon's cats, a pair of gray Burmese that yowled mockingly at him while rubbing against his legs.
By the time he got to Bucharest to join the others, they had figured out that (a) Sharon had taken vacation "to go somewhere with her boyfriend. Paris, I think," and (b) Steve and Sharon, whatever their relationship status, had not flown into Bucharest. Or Paris, for that matter.
"They wouldn't drive," Wanda pointed out, tracing the line on the map with her fingertip. "It would take forever. He obviously knew we'd follow and he wouldn't want us to get ahead. Sofia, perhaps. Belgrade is possible, it's a bigger city, more chaotic and easier to get lost, but the Serbs are a pain in the ass. The Bulgarians are a pain in the ass, too, but they like to think they're civilized about it."
Sam only saw Natasha's smile because he was standing next to her. Natasha pretended it didn't matter, but Sam kinda thought she liked having another woman on the team. Not as a competitor, but as someone to mentor with gentler hands than those that had shaped her. That that Wanda was also a Slav, burned and betrayed by the rusty remnants of the Soviet dream, didn't hurt, either. Not to be partners in misery, necessarily, but someone who understood long winters in the metaphorical as well as literal sense.
"At the risk of offending," Vision began in that tone of voice that meant he knew damned well he was going to offend, "does it matter how they get to Bucharest?"
No, it did not. And they'd all known it. But speculating had kept them from having to think about what came next: dealing with Bucky Barnes.
Tony sighed, waving his hand in the light map and making it disappear. "Steve Rogers, path-independent function."
"Indeed," Vision agreed, but he didn't look like he'd picked up on the rest. Vision recognized some kinds of human behavior better than others and while he had a pretty good read on human emotions, he was still pretty crappy about understanding where they were coming from and how that mattered. He and Sam had talked about it a few times, how "the fundamental irrationality of the human mind" flustered him because it was chaos and not the kind of chaos he'd been built to anticipate. So when he looked to say something else that Sam was very sure was not going to be helpful, Sam was grateful Rhodey cut him off.
"So let's go directly to the elephant in the room," Rhodey said in a too-loud tone Sam recognized from his days in the service as 'let me save you from having to dig your foot out of your mouth with an e-tool.' "Since we are now officially at the point where we can't pretend there isn't one."
There were plenty of scenarios for what happened when -- if -- Steve ever found Bucky Barnes. Most of them depended on what kind of shape Barnes was in, but not all of them. All of them did, however, factor in that if it ever came down to Steve having to choose between Barnes and the Avengers, Steve was going with Barnes. Steve was going with Barnes over anything and anyone and Sam didn't think anyone doubted that anymore, although Tony had probably been the last holdout. But Tony knew better now and that's why he was so worried. Why they all were.
"If Barnes is here, then he's been here long enough for someone to see him and not long enough for anyone to come after him, even just to chase him away," Natasha offered, crossing her arms over her chest. "Maybe Sharon buried the info so it didn't get put on the Interpol wire, in which case I don't know how much time we have because there are still independent witnesses and someone's going to wonder why there hasn't been a op to capture the Winter Soldier yet."
Barnes's identity hadn't been in the original data dump Natasha had unloaded upon an unsuspecting internet. HYDRA had leaked it later on, part of an effort to discredit Steve by destroying his past and questioning his present. And it had nearly worked, in no small part because Steve had been categorically uninterested in discussing the Winter Soldier at all and would only ever talk of James Buchanan Barnes as a brother and a loyal soldier. Tony and Hill and the others had had to carry the brunt of Barnes's in absentia defense in the court of public opinion. The end result was mixed -- or maybe not. There were warrants for dozens of charges in dozens of jurisdictions still outstanding, but Sam thought that every government more or less understood that there was no way a trial of James Barnes for the Winter Soldier's sins went down easily and that's why nobody was trying too hard to find him. At least in the west; the Russians were kind of keen on blaming the Winter Soldier for everything short of Andropov's kidneys.
"Maybe Sharon put herself in charge of the op?" Sam offered.
Natasha shook her head. "She's not senior enough to pull that off. No division chief wants to risk a junior agent pulling in the biggest fish there is."
Tony jumped off of the table he'd been sitting on. "To paraphrase Vision, does it matter?" He spun on his heel to face them. "Sharon and Steve are going to find Barnes or they're not. If they find him, Steve is either going to disappear with him or he's going to bring him back to us. And I'm willing to bet that Sharon is the messenger one way or the other. So we can get details when she calls, but until then... Let's go get pastries or something."
They went and got pastries and coffee and then Tony took Wanda, Rhodey, and Vision back to New York in the quinjet because Tony deciding he wanted papana?i while in Brussels was plausible; the entire Avengers team decamping to Romania for no good reason for an extended stay was not.
Sam and Natasha stayed behind, in separate hotels but constant communication. Natasha let herself be seen, knowing it would get back to Steve somehow. Sam was only notable in the 'black dude wandering around in Eastern Europe' way, which wasn't as much fun.
On the third day, Natasha called Sam in the mid-afternoon. "Our prodigal son has returned," she reported dryly. "And he is failing very badly at trying to look contrite... Stop apologizing, Steve, nobody believes you feel the least bit guilty."
Sam smiled, then sobered. "So does he have a plus-one or a plus-two?"
"Two," she reported and Sam wished he could understand the bit of whatever was in her voice. He wasn't the only one who suspected that Natasha had a history with the Winter Soldier that predated the bullet in Odessa, but the only one who might know would be Clint and he wouldn't say. "You text Tony, I'll start figuring out how we're getting out of here."
Getting out of Bucharest happened the next day, in a two-car convoy heading toward Istanbul, where Tony would have a chartered corporate jet waiting. Sharon rode with Sam and Natasha rode with the super-soldiers because she didn't trust anyone else with keeping the two of them from driving off into the sunset together.
"They're not going to," Sharon said when it was just the two of them in a late-aughts Audi that looked like it had spent some quality time with a dent puller over the years. It was a stick shift and while Sam could drive it, Sharon was better at it and so she was wheelman. "They're both too tired of running."
Which was as good a summary of the last few years as any Sam could come up with, especially after he'd seen Barnes. Who'd sat in Natasha's hotel room next to Steve looking more like a nap risk than a flight risk.
They ditched the cars once they crossed the border into Bulgaria on false papers, switching over to a panel truck because it was big enough to fit the five of them and because Steve had, for whatever reason, chosen a vintage Volkswagen Beetle as his getaway car of choice.
"Hey, I learned to steal cars in Nazi Germany and what do you think they were driving then?" Steve protested when confronted with this decision. "Also, do you know how hard it is to steal a late-model vehicle off of a city street?"
Natasha turned to Barnes. "I know why she let him get away with it, but what's your excuse?"
Barnes shrugged. "He wanted to feel useful."
For the record, Sam found Barnes awkward as hell to be around, even as he was Very Clearly Bucky Barnes. Possibly because he was Very Clearly Bucky Barnes and that meant something both in the historical sense and in the hanging-out-with-Steve-Rogers-for-the-last-few-years sense. Sam had grown up with Sergeant Barnes the Tragic War Hero, fought the Winter Soldier, and spent years chasing the largest surviving fragment of Steve's past. But the man in front of him now was just that, a man, and Sam had to adjust to that. So did Barnes. He was hyper-vigilant in a way Sam recognized from his VA days, embarrassed by who he'd been and what he'd done, didn't speak unless spoken to with anyone else but Steve, and yet had a presence about him that made him impossible to ignore in not-bad ways. Also, Sam recognized that look of bemused despair on his face that came with hitching your wagon to Steve Rogers and that humanized him more than the Brooklyn accent or inability to open a shrink-wrapped sandwich did.
The ladies handled Barnes's presence very differently. Natasha retreated into her Black Widow persona, ostensibly because someone had to get them home and that someone wasn't going to be Steve right now. (Steve would have gotten them home fine; he orbited around Barnes like a moon, but he was far less distracted than he'd been.) Sharon, on the other hand, was rolling with it like a pro, completely unfazed by it all. She was the one who'd grabbed the sandwich out of Barnes's hand with a strangled cry. "Oh my god, I know you two are younger than cellophane. The Axis would have won the war if they'd realized all they had to do was cover the important stuff in saran wrap."
Once over the border into Turkey, they ditched the panel truck in a parking lot and picked up a large 1970s-era Mercedes sedan for the drive to Istanbul. In any other situation, Sam might have joked that being wedged into the backseat of a car with women who looked like Sharon and Natasha was pretty much any man's dream, but his sense of self-preservation kicked in just in time and he spent the last leg of the trip with his hands in his lap thinking very pure thoughts.
The plane was waiting, as promised, a generic corporate Gulfstream that Sam was pretty sure would spoil him for economy class forever more. They stopped off in Berlin to drop Sharon off and that's when they got proof, at the base of the ladder, that she and Steve had gotten past the super-awkward flirting and moved on to super-awkward dating.
"I feel a little better knowing that they are, in fact, both objectively terrible at this," Natasha said as she took pictures with her phone of the badly-coordinated billing and cooing down below. "This is how species die off."
Steve was pink-faced when he re-boarded, only partially because Barnes had been waiting at the door with an arched eyebrow and "I'm not sure whether to congratulate you or be embarrassed because you are reflecting so badly on my teaching."
"You were a crappy teacher," Steve shot back, taking his seat.
"I was a great teacher," Barnes said, pulling the door closed and locking it. "You just stopped listening after you realized that 'yes ma'am' got you everything you wanted."
Sam turned to Natasha. "I'm not sure I'm ready for the sex secrets of Captain America."
Natasha smiled broadly. "I am taking notes. It'll be on his Wikipedia page by the time we land."
By the time they landed at Teterboro, Steve's Wikipedia page status was unknown -- Sam slept the entire flight and he suspected everyone else had done the same. There was a limo waiting and they headed toward Tony's with only mildly horrible traffic leading into the Lincoln Tunnel, but Barnes was getting tenser and tenser the closer they got to Manhattan.
"It'll be fine, Buck," Steve said quietly, putting on hand over Barnes's real one, which was clenched so tight his knuckles were white. "It'll be safe."
Sam knew Steve had gone over this before with Barnes, that there had been plenty of discussion with him and Sharon about whether he could or should come in from the cold before Sharon had called Natasha. Barnes had come this far on his own free will and in full knowledge of and agreement with their destination. But that had been theoretical and, the traffic aside, it was rapidly becoming a lot less so. There was still time to abort the mission if Barnes needed to and Sam knew that Steve understood that -- because Sam had spent nearly an hour whispering in a bathroom in Romania making sure Steve understood that. Whether Barnes did was another matter.
"I'll be fine," Barnes insisted and Sam recognized that tone, the same one Steve used when he knew he was being bullheaded and still wasn't backing down. But taking Barnes at his word was important, even if those words were pure bullshit, and Steve let it lie.
Tony was in California, Rhodey was in DC, and Wanda and Vision were upstate, so there was only a skeleton staff around when they arrived at the Tower. Sam went to the studio apartment he got to use as a pied-à-terre when shlepping back upstate wasn't convenient. He showered and changed because he'd packed for the three day gladhanding trip he'd thought he'd be going on and not the ten-day spy adventure he'd actually gone on.
He didn't see Barnes or Steve until the next afternoon in the rec room, by which point Barnes looked a little less shocky and Steve still looked like it was Christmas morning. "We are going to have to work on that poker face when you're out in public," Sam said to him. "You are not a smiler. It looks weird on you."
Steve's grin only broadened and Sam couldn't help smile back. This was Steve's Christmas morning -- he had Bucky back. He also had the Avengers and, apparently, a girl whose crazy seemed to match his own. This was as good at Steve's life had been since he'd woken up in the future, Sam suspected, and he was not going to do anything to harsh that buzz.
The next few days were more of the same, getting over jetlag and catching up on email and commitments and regular-people stuff, at least for Sam. Who was the only Avenger with any kind of normal-people life apart from Clint, who was still insisting he was retired despite demanding updates from everyone about everything. And whose reaction to the news that Bucky was on the penthouse patio was "about damned time."
Bringing Barnes to the upstate base was, everyone agreed, a terrible idea. They had their own private spaces up there, personal and communal areas that were not accessible by anyone without the right badge, but it was still a high-profile workplace with government officials stopping by all of the time and both the paparazzi and the spy agencies keeping it under surveillance. There was no way Barnes could hide from all of that and not feel like a prisoner or a pet.
Barnes had been asked and had stated no particular preferences for his future besides a desire not to fight anymore and Sam honestly wondered how Steve was handling that. Steve fought, Steve always fought, and Sam wasn't sure he knew how not to anymore -- or if he ever had. And here was Barnes who just wanted to lay down his weapons... Maybe Barnes had never wanted to fight. He'd been damned good at it, even before he was the Winter Soldier, but their whole generation had gone over there to do their duty and come home and tried to forget about it. Barnes had never gotten that chance... until now.
"Maybe we find someplace that's off the radar," Steve suggested as they debated what to do. "Find you a place in Jersey or something."
"Jersey?!?" Barnes repeated, appalled and outraged. "I'll keep the bedsit in Bucharest."
"You have to admit, nobody would think to look for you in Mahwah," Natasha pointed out, smirking.
Barnes said something in Russian and Natasha looked surprised for a moment, then laughed out loud. Steve, who understood Russian, cocked an eyebrow and Wanda, who'd come down to Manhattan the previous evening, looked acutely embarrassed.
"I didn't think you'd remembered," Natasha said with a ghost of a smile and Sam waited for someone to let him in on the joke. Which turned out to be Steve, although the nature of Barnes's and Natasha's history was probably better explained by Wanda squeaking when Steve chose an intentionally benign translation.
So there was that, apparently.
While everyone debated his options, Barnes stayed at the Tower and Steve negotiated with the Avengers support staff to weed out the obligations that were actual obligations from the ones that he had agreed to do because he'd needed something to fill his time. Tony still wanted them all to maintain some kind of benevolent social profile to help the "optics" of defeating the plans to put the Avengers under UN control, so there was still metaphorical and literal baby-kissing to do on everyone's schedule, Steve's the most. Sam's list wasn't too short either because the PR team had decided that he was second after Captain America on the Cuddliest Avengers list, which had been a fact he hadn't known what to do with. But he was more than okay with visits to Boys and Girls Clubs and IAVA events; he'd done that sort of thing before he'd become a bold-faced name on Page Six.
And so for a while, everything seemed like it might work out. Steve was terrifyingly buoyant, lit from within with what might possibly be joy. Sam had his first bonding moment with Barnes when they both realized Steve was on the phone with Sharon and started making fun of him. Natasha and Barnes circled widely around each other while maintaining eye contact the entire time before she and Wanda headed out to the Bartons for a vacation. Vision went to Korea to see Helen Cho and Tony wasn't due back from California until early next week and so that meant Sam and Rhodey were the only Avengers out on the town Saturday night and stumbling in Sunday morning with bottles of peach juice in one hand and prosecco in the other because Rhodey insisted bellinis were hangover cures for more than just white boys.
For a while, everything seemed like it might work out. And then everyone but Vision came back to New York and the shit hit the fan.
Sam was on a day trip to Great Adventure with the BBBSA when his phone started to blow up. Getting a text from all of his teammates almost at once could mean many things, depending on the order and quantity. But one thing it didn't mean was that there was an actual Avengers Assemble kind of emergency, so he kept his phone in his pocket and focused on getting his group from the Sky Zooma to Taz's Tornado without losing anyone.
Once all were aboard who were going aboard, he checked his phone and realized that while it might not be a 'get your wings and go' emergency, it was probably not good. Team text chains that began with Tony were usually bad jokes or event suggestions or pictures of new Iron Man tech or, occasionally, actual relevant Avengers news because Steve was the field commander, but Tony was the CEO. Text chains that started with Vision were usually questions being answered with varying degrees of seriousness. Wanda, surprisingly, was the team paparazza and she had deeply unflattering candids of them all. Text chains that started with Steve, however, were never good news because Steve didn't send group messages. Which meant that the first message had been Steve warning him that shit was coming and then everyone else reacting to that shit in Sam's general direction. Because while he might be the Second Most Cuddly Avenger according to PR, within the team he was the Steve Whisperer/Cap Corraller/Sam-Talk-To-Him-PLEASE.
"What the hell did you get up to this morning that everyone is freaking out?" Sam asked when Steve picked up. He'd looked at Steve's text, which had been a simple "hey, feel like a road trip?" and then skimmed the blurbs of the others, which had all been variations of "WTF?!" and then called the culprit directly because sometimes Steve's shitstorms were not textually renderable.
Steve's answer was a profound sigh. "We told Tony about his parents."
In the background, Sam could hear Barnes saying "We told Tony nothing. I told Tony about his parents and you told Tony that you already knew and he told us to get lost."
Sam took a moment before he finally just gave up and went "What?!?"
He'd known that Steve had suspected the Winter Soldier to be the killer behind the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark. He'd also known that Steve had left that part out when he'd told Tony that his parents had been murdered by HYDRA. It had been an informed guess, Steve had reasoned at the time, and Tony was taking it badly enough as it was because he'd always kinda blamed his dad for his mom's death and that meant twenty-five years of hate wasted on the wrong man. Even if it had been the Winter Soldier, Steve had reasoned, it hadn't been Bucky and Tony should be blaming HYDRA. It had been kind of wonky reasoning at the time -- not without logic, but not really on the up-and-up -- but it had been Steve's secret to keep and Sam had let him.
And now it was no longer a secret and no longer an informed guess and now, apparently, there were no longer a Captain America in the Avengers.
Sam didn't get the full story until lunch in Harrisburg the next day, having driven half-way to Shenandoah National Park. Because the road trip was actually happening. Natasha had more or less organized it, with Sam looking over her shoulder as she booked hotels online, because getting Fred and Barney out of Bedrock for a few days was going to be the best (only) chance of making sure the Avengers survived. Tony was being handled -- there was no other way to put it -- by Natasha and Rhodey, but they needed time and space and the removal of the problems from the immediate area.
They were in the Cracker Barrel because none of his tripmates had ever been and Sam felt he was owed the enjoyment of Steve's drop-jawed expression once they hit the general store. (The look of muted horror on his and Barnes's faces would warm many a cold night.) On the other hand Wanda, who'd tagged along, had moved through the displays with unfeigned delight and was now the proud owner of a rodeo-themed decorative plate.
"I'm not saying that Tony didn't go a little overboard," Sam said when Steve and Barnes finished their tag-team reporting of events. "But I think there's a chance that this maybe wouldn't have gone thermonuclear if you'd said something back when you told him the rest of it."
Tony had apparently not only thrown Steve out of the Avengers, he'd also promised to tell Washington that Steve was harboring an internationally-wanted mass murderer. And then he'd magnanimously given Steve twelve hours and access to the quinjet to fly back upstate and clear out his things before siccing the government on him. "Not because he wants us to be able to disappear," Steve had added wryly. "But to make the chase more fun. He plans on hunting us himself."
The Avengers' version of hide-and-seek was a regular team exercise and Steve won more than he lost. And Barnes was better than Steve at what had never been a game to him. Sam would put his money on the Wonder Twins if it came down to it, but he hoped it didn't.
"I never wanted to hurt him," Steve replied, sounding a little defensive and more than a little defiant. "But I'm not going to let him take his anger out on Bucky."
Barnes gave Steve a grim half-smile. The two of them had argued about what to do in the wake of Tony's threat and that's how everyone else had found out that there'd been a threat in the first place. But the end result was that Barnes seemed to have accepted that where he went, Steve was coming-with. Sam suspected Barnes hadn't really expected to win that fight and he wasn't sure how much Barnes had wanted to. The two of them together weren't frictionless, but they were in sync to a remarkable degree for all that had gone on since the last time they had walked side by side.
"And I'm saying that you never had to be in this position in the first place," Sam said. "But you are and so we are. Which is why we are now going to go look at mountains from the ground."
Wanda looked up from where she was picking at Barnes's fried okra and smiled. "You might have to stay on the ground," she teased. "I didn't have to leave my wings behind because they weren't mine."
By the time Sam had gotten back from Great Adventure, Tony had decided that Sam was Team Cap and might possibly take his wings and run. So he'd very loudly reminded Sam that the wings were Stark Industries technology and not his to do with as he pleased. Which was possibly a point to be debated, but not at that juncture.
"We're supposed to be under the radar," Steve reminded her. "No floating in public areas."
Wanda rolled her eyes and poached a carrot from Barnes's plate. "Spoilsport."
Going to a National Park with thousands of camera-wielding tourists wasn't exactly an intuitive choice for laying low, but they had two things going for them. First, if they got recognized, it was some of the Avengers on vacation and not a civil war -- the press would not have a field day. Second, it was actually pretty unlikely that they would get recognized because Steve apparently had the kind of bland good looks that made him hard to identify out of context and nobody looks for Captain America in a park.
"Why aren't you eating anyone else's lunch?" Barnes finally asked Wanda after the second filched carrot.
"You're the one who ordered finger food," Wanda pointed out with a shrug, going for another carrot. "Also, the other two eat like high-powered vacuum cleaners and there's nothing but scraps from them."
Steve and Sam, who'd both been grinning, stopped. "Hey, now."
Sam had polished off his country-fried steak quickly because he didn't want it getting soggy. (That was his story and he was sticking to it.) And everyone knew Steve ate quickly.
Barnes smiled and pushed his plate a little closer to Wanda so she could reach the fries.
They got to the northern end of the park in the early afternoon and Sam paid the $20 admission out of the cash Natasha had given him and then drove to the visitor's center to get a map and some suggestions. The park ranger who provided both had no idea who he was talking to; with Wanda off using the ladies' room, he thought they were three old Army buddies.
"This one's Air Force, sir," Steve told him, pointing at Sam with his thumb. "Better pick easy trails."
Which got the invited laugh -- from the ranger and from Barnes.
"Man, why do I put up with you when all you do is put me down?" Sam asked, mostly rhetorically.
The suggestions didn't get revised down, thankfully, even after Wanda joined them. They were all in civvies, but Wanda was the only one who looked like she was undercover -- fresh-faced and wearing jeans and sneakers and a lilac windbreaker wasn't anywhere near her usually off-day look.
Nature on the ground had its moments, Sam could admit by the time they broke for a snack at the high point of the Mary's Rock trail. It was still early enough in the spring that the mountain air was cool enough to be refreshing, the flowers were still beginning to bloom, and there weren't many bugs. Or other hikers, especially not on the more strenuous trails, and that meant that Barnes could make a decent attempt at acting like he wasn't on an op -- Sam caught him pausing to look around a few times for reasons that had nothing to do with security. It also meant that Wanda could float her way over some of the steeper bits, which was pretty much the only reason she could keep up despite everyone slowing down for her. She was in fine shape for a girl her age, but two super-soldiers and a semi-retired PJ were going to be too much for almost anyone. So every time Wanda started to look a little more than a healthy rosy, they paused to take pictures of nature and each other and re-tie shoelaces. She wasn't fooled, but she appreciated the gesture enough not to gripe at them for it.
By the time dusk hit and it was getting hard to see, they'd done three hikes and they had taken more than a hundred pictures, mostly of trees and some blurry spots that Wanda insisted were chipmunks. Their crash space for the evening was the park's hotel, in the form of a hundred-year-old wood cabin that pretty much defined 'rustic living' but had three beds and surprisingly good water pressure.
"The good news is that Tony hasn't called DC yet," Sam announced after he got off the phone with Natasha. "The bad news is that he hasn't taken that off the table yet, either."
He had gone outside to take the call, going to the small playground across from their cabin because he didn't want to have to talk about people while they could hear him. Natasha had sounded exasperated but determined, annoyed at Tony and Steve both, and more than a little worried. "Tony's really easy to manage if he doesn't know it's happening," she'd explained. "But he's suspicious about everything I do or say and I can't even offer him a potato chip right now without him wondering what my motives are. Rhodey and I are strategizing, but it has to sound like it's coming from him and not what I'm telling him to say."
Which was why they were going to take their full "vacation" and hope there was still an Avengers to go home to.
Five days later, they'd seen pretty much all there was to see at Shenandoah, gone down to Richmond and played tourist there, visited a diner Steve had found on a previous road trip for what was admittedly some first-rate peach pie, and everyone had taken a turn trying to teach Wanda how to drive on back-country roads. The last was probably more dangerous than the average Avengers mission -- usually it was the bad guys who came closest to killing them -- but it was also when the trip stopped feeling like an exile and started feeling like a family adventure. While Wanda remained banned from operating a motorized vehicle in populated areas, Barnes became Bucky, Sam became a devotee of bourbon pralines, and Steve turned out to still hold some grudges from 1928. And 1932. And 1935.
"I don't think I fully appreciated what kind of a bitter old man you are," Sam said gleefully as they drove north. They were going to go to Gettysburg, hopefully on the first leg of what would be a trip back up to New York for everyone to apologize.
"He was a bitter old man when he was nine," Bucky scoffed, then consulted the map. "Getting on 81 won't be shorter, but it won't require getting on the Beltway, either."
By the time they got to Pennsylvania, it was pretty clear that there was more than one Civil War battlefield they were going to have to cross. Natasha and Rhodey had gotten nowhere with Tony -- he'd cooled off enough to appreciate that publicly destroying Captain America would not be in anyone's best interests, but that had only taken one option off of the table. Natasha didn't think Tony had actually done anything yet -- Sharon had confirmed that there were no new reports on the whereabouts of James Barnes and Rhodey had heard nothing out of DC -- but he was planning something. And so they were going to start having to plan something.
"You'll go to Clint's," Steve told Wanda. "It'll keep you out of this mess for as long as possible."
Wanda went to the Bartons all of the time, crisis or no crisis, because Laura and Clint had put the same effort into making her a part of their family as they'd once done with Natasha. But she didn't want to go now because she didn't like the idea of leaving her friends or running from a fight. She thought Tony was being a hypocrite, that blaming Bucky for his parents' murder was like her blaming him for her parents' murder, and she wanted the opportunity to tell him so.
"Tony's not in a mood to listen to anyone right now," Steve explained, softening his tone because this wasn't Captain America issuing orders to the Scarlet Witch. "And it's probably a matter of when and not if you get dragged in, so this isn't so much a sending-you-home as a keeping-you-in-reserve.
"But right now, this is Bucky's and my mess and I don't want Tony lashing out at you out of spite. Natasha's not wrong about him being able to get your visa yanked."
Because of course Tony was already broadening the scope and threatening to make it intensely personal; he wanted everyone to hurt like he hurt. Natasha had warned Sam that she'd seen his DD-214 on one of the solid light displays. There was nothing hinky about his service record or his discharge, but that wouldn't stop Tony if he really wanted to do something. But in the meanwhile, Tony was the sponsor of Wanda's work visa and that was her point of vulnerability.
Clint, when they brought him in to the loop, agreed wholeheartedly and his argument with Wanda had been short and more than quasi-parental. He thought the entire thing was batshit, which it was, and that Steve had made a weird situation worse, which he had. But he, like everyone else, was surprised at the degree of Tony's vindictiveness.
"Where is Pepper?" he asked, voice tinny from the speakerphone. "I know Natasha is not a fan of asking for help, but this is Tony and she and Rhodes know better than anyone that Pepper can fix whatever's wrong with him."
Sam looked at Steve, who shrugged. Might as well.
"Pepper is part of what's wrong with him," Sam said, frowning as everyone's attention turned to him. Steve knew already, but the others did not. "They broke up a couple of months ago."
Because Natasha and Rhodey had gone to Pepper, who'd been forced to explain.
Two days later, Sam and Bucky were sitting around a table in a food court plotting the best route to Nebraska while Wanda took Steve shirt-shopping. (Sam had told her to buy Steve mediums and larges, to which she'd given him an incredulous look and asked why.)
The route itself was actually pretty straightforward -- I-80, stop before you hit Wyoming -- but the logistics of it were a little less so.
Also, and this would matter far more than it had up until this point, they were going to need something to listen to that wasn't each other. The trip down had been talking about what had happened, some storytelling, and a lot of pop culture and Americana instruction because Sam had been the only one in the car who'd known who Michael Jackson was, let alone the Ronettes. But the trip out west wasn't going to need a navigator reading off directions and they'd already been to a Cracker Barrel and a Waffle House and Sam sincerely hoped that they were not going to spend three days talking about Tony.
When he brought it up, it turned out that Wanda had almost as much music on her phone as he did, plus podcasts. Steve had some music, a really bizarre collection of stuff he liked and stuff Sharon thought he might like -- and Sam really, really hated that nobody he was traveling with would get a joke about the romance of a mix-tape. Bucky had nothing and seemed wary of changing that. Especially after he found out what a podcast was.
"It's amateur radio," Steve said after Wanda had given what Sam thought was a pretty good explanation. "It's random people with microphones and tape recorders. Remember that guy who did 'man on the street' interviews for Army Radio? Like that, except worse."
"It is not amateur anything!" Wanda sputtered indignantly. "They have sponsors and commercials and do research and have theme songs!"
They were in public and drawing stares, but not the kind that were dangerous. Just the kind that said 'pop culture catfight at Table Nine.'
"They have squeaky voices and weird cadences and sound like they're either reading their award-winning essay to the school assembly or like they're telling ghost stories at camp," Steve went on, talking to Bucky but frowning at Wanda. Who in turn was glaring back in outrage.
"Hey," Sam interrupted before Wanda's eyes actually started glowing red. "Remember that these two yahoos come from a time when everyone on the radio sounded like they were reading official proclamations," he pointed out, mimicking the formal tone of old-time radio ads for the last few words. "Anything that sounds like how normal people talk is gonna sound weird to them."
Wanda looked almost ready to accept this as a deficiency on Laurel and Hardy's part, but then Steve had to open his mouth.
"They still call it the Golden Age of Radio, you know," he told Bucky smugly, reaching for his water glass.
Bucky smiled back. "She's going to kick you under the table, you know that, right?"
The actual soundtrack for the road trip ended up being a compromise, one that had Sam feeling even more like a kindergarten teacher than he had when he'd first been told to take Chip'n'Dale off to an out-of-state time-out.
"Everyone gets an hour to DJ," he told the three of them. "No whining. You don't like what's playing, you got headphones."
The last was directed at Steve with a raised eyebrow.
Bucky raised his hand. "Can I get headphones?"
They got Bucky headphones when they went to Walmart to stock up for the drive. Headphones, underwear, water bottles, a bag of apples, three kinds of potato chips because nobody could agree, and everyone had their own trail mix because that argument made the potato chip discussion look peaceful.
Steve got to DJ first because he'd picked up a three when they'd drawn cards. Unsurprisingly, Steve's hour was spent with the Big Band station on Pandora. To his credit, Steve would try whatever you wanted him to listen to. But left to his own devices, he tended to stick with what he'd known before he'd gone down and what had come right after -- he liked Sinatra and Jo Stafford and Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald, that sort of stuff. He'd admit that some of the early Beatles songs weren't awful, but they started to lose him by Revolver and Motown had been better received than anything the Stones ever did. So they listened to that for an hour -- and then another hour because it was Bucky's turn and he was content to let it keep going.
Wanda, on the other hand, went to war. She started out with the Bangles, for which they could blame Laura Barton, then some Earnest Male Folksinger, which was definitely not Laura's fault. And then came the K-pop, which was Vision's unlikely influence on both Wanda and Tony, both of whom had become addicts. After that was the Imperial Death March, which could have been anyone and might've been funny with anyone else but a former HYDRA assassin in the car and Sam thought Wanda might've realized that only after it started playing, so whatever she had planned next, it became Dolly Parton and then the Commodores and what could have possibly been the playlist at Clint's last high school dance.
Lunch was at a Friendly's that played muzak and Wanda took over the dessert ordering so that she got to try a taste of everything without looking like a glutton. "Oh, please, you can totally finish that," she scoffed when Steve looked askance at the sundae the size of the Matterhorn placed before him.
Sam started the next leg of the trip with an hour of The Best of Car Talk. Steve started to agitate the minute he heard voices instead of songs, but Sam reminded him of the deal and that he owned headphones. "Seriously, man," he warned. "I will follow you into battle any day, but if you do not like Click and Clack, you can walk to Nebraska."
Steve did not put on his headphones and he did not end up having to walk because Car Talk was awesome and even asshole supers-soldiers found themselves giggling along with the Tappet Brothers. And then again a few hours later because Bucky asked for it during his hour.
Which was not to say that there wasn't any conflict over audio choices. By the third day, everyone not Wanda was pretty sick of K-pop, they had discovered that Pandora had an unending supply of versions of Mack the Knife and Beyond the Sea that even Hans and Franz were getting tired of but were too stubborn to say anything, and nobody else appreciated Parliament the way Sam did. (Philistines.) Wanda pushed forward with her podcasts, which Sam honestly didn't mind, but Steve just wasn't going to warm to them and he griped that he couldn't listen to headphones while driving. Bucky started opting for hours of silence instead of playing anything.
They got to the Bartons without any real arguments, however. Or with any resolution of affairs back in New York. Natasha was flying out tomorrow, mostly because Rhodey seemed to have better results on his own and partly because she knew murder was never the answer. Clint and Laura were gracious and welcoming, including and especially with Bucky, who'd hung back at first. The kids swarmed Wanda, then realized Bucky had a metal hand that was attached to a metal arm and Sam didn't know which put more dust in his eyes -- watching Bucky or watching Steve watch the Mini Bartons treat Bucky the way he'd always see him, as a man and not as the Winter Soldier in mufti.
Natasha arrived with treats from New York and a powerful thirst for something stronger than lemonade. "Rhodey thinks he's winding down," she said when it was just the adults and a giant pitcher of gin-and-tonics. "Or at least he's not still so pissed that he can't see the larger picture."
"Which is not forgive and forget, but we probably won't have to buy you two fake mustaches," Clint said as he got up to top off glasses, starting with his wife's. "The remake of Easy Rider is not off the table, though."
Which only Laura and Sam understood, but they'd laughed hard enough to make up for it and Clint looked extremely pleased with himself.
The Avengers were needed before Tony wound down enough to talk to Steve again, but Iron Man still took orders (as much as he ever did) from Captain America and so there was no collateral damage from that fight as far as civilians or the government went. Sam's nerves, on the other hand...
"Pick a dream destination," Rhodey ordered him one afternoon once they were all back upstate at headquarters. Sans Barnes, who had set up shop in Woodlawn down in the Bronx, and sans Tony, who was still telecommuting to team meetings. "You, me, Romanoff. We are going somewhere with lots of alcohol and no responsibilities to friends incapable of making good decisions and we are doing it out of Petty Cash. Romanoff says to pick a climate and she'll do the rest, but if you got a place in mind, speak up."
Which was how Sam's second road trip of the year involved first-class plane tickets to a place where there were hardly any roads, but plenty fresh seafood, local distilled spirits, and lovely dark-skinned beauties dressed for the tropical weather. Sam and Rhodey bickered about who was whose wingman and Natasha suckered them into a bet that had them up at oh-dark-thirty to bike across the island to watch fish jump out of the water backlit by the sunrise, but that was what qualified as conflict during what was officially down as the Symposium on Personnel Management with a Focus on Intra-team Dynamics.
"I feel so much less likely to push both of them off of the penthouse deck," Rhodey said as they lay out on the beach the morning of their last day, just them and the waves and some birds looking for fish. "You think that lasts more than an hour after we get back?"
"I booked our return for late at night for a reason," Natasha said from Sam's other side. "Everyone'll be in bed already. Gets us an extra night of not having to give a crap."
Sam smiled. "I did one better," he announced, looking over at Natasha so he could enjoy the victory. "I called Sharon and guess who left for Berlin yesterday?"
(That had been a hilarious conversation; Sharon accusing him of being a pimp for setting up a booty call for Captain America and then him telling her she owed him for feeding her cats. "After you broke into my apartment!" "Which was only necessary because you're the one who started this mess with that napkin!" And then they'd agreed that (a) Steve was really at fault and (b) yes, of course she wanted him to visit.)
Natasha looked gratifyingly shocked at being outplayed; behind Sam, Rhodey whooped with laughter.
For the record, it took four days.