Something is very wrong. Sam knows this the moment he walks into the living room, because Natasha is slumped on the floor and she is giggling. It’s so unlike her that it feels indecent, like he’s walked in on her with her shirt off or something. Actually, he thinks, that would be much better.
There’s something up with the others as well. Barnes is prowling by the window, but he’s humming and smiling. The contrast with the predator walk is so hideous that it’s making Sam feel nauseous.
Steve’s just staring.
None of them acknowledge Sam until he’s right in the center of the room - which, by the way, is his own goddamn living room in his own goddamn house - and then of all people, it’s Barnes. Who beams at him. There’s no other word for it.
“Sam!” he says, like a small girl spotting a puppy.
Sam smiles back, and hopes it doesn’t look too nervous. As far as he’s aware, Barnes has never beamed at anyone. He wonders if it’s spores again. It was spores when Steve kissed him last month, and wasn’t that a weird day for everybody.
Barnes lopes over and Sam braces instinctively for an attack. Instead, he finds well over two hundred pounds of reinforced supersoldier draping itself over his shoulders.
“You smell nice, Sam,” says the legendary ghost assassin, nuzzling Sam’s ear.
Sam looks desperately to the other two for assistance. None is forthcoming. Natasha’s still chortling on the floor, her eyes wide and dopey, and the blank stretch of wall by the door retains all Steve’s attention.
Barnes is running his fingers across the back of Sam’s head lightly and leaning on him. Sam is not happy about this. If Barnes tries to kiss him he’s really not going to know what to say. Also it’s highly probable that Barnes will kill him for it once whatever’s going on right now comes to an end. Sam attempts evasive action.
“Hey,” he says as he takes his life in his hand by grabbing Barnes’ wrist. The move wins him a confused pout. “Hey Barnes, why are you stroking my head?”
Barnes giggles. It’s not cute. It’s terrifying.
“Because it feeeels nice,” he replies in a bizarrely childlike singsong voice. His eyes are unfocused, sliding over the room. Something weird is happening here. There's something desperately wrong with the three of them.
It occurs to Sam that he’s close to panicking. He takes a deep breath, and tries to release the tension in his muscles. It’s a mistake. Barnes is fucking heavy, and doing absolutely nothing to support his own weight.
“You motherfucker!” yelps Sam as his knees buckle. He catches himself, one knee and one hand to the floor, but Barnes continues his inexorable downward slide until he’s pooled on the carpet like mercury. Sam watches in horror and amazement as the man rubs his face into the thick teal shag.
Natasha snorts, chokes on it, and starts hiccuping. The incongruity is enough to snap Sam out of his appalled daze. This is bad. None of them seem capable of providing an explanation of what in the name of God has gone on here. Privately, Sam’s counting his blessings that nobody’s trying to take his (or their own) clothes off right now. He’s not sure he’d cope quite as well as he'd like to imagine with such provocation. He recognizes this line of thought as unhelpful, and banishes it. Sleuth work it is.
He scopes out the rest of the living room first, trying not to step on the puddle of liquefied Barnes or get in Steve’s line of sight as he inspects for anything irregular other than his friends. There’s nothing. Nothing in the hallway, either.
In the kitchen, the teapot is sitting out, surrounded by three half-empty mugs and a dishevelled-looking succulent with half its leaves missing. He ignores the denuded xerophyte entirely, and sniffs the contents of one of the mugs. The liquid inside is the color of healthy piss and smells similarly appealing, so he dismisses it as one of Banner’s calming tisanes and goes to clear the table.
A couple of minutes later, he realizes he’s less washing up and more watching the late afternoon sunlight weave through the dancing stream of water pouring from the tap. He also realizes that his mouth is dry, and that he can feel his pulse in his eyelashes.
“Oh fuck,” he says to the empty room. “Am I high?”
With the pulse in his extremities picking up in both speed and intensity, he does the only sensible thing and sticks his head under the water. It’s hot, and goes straight into his ear.
“Oh fuck!” he shouts again. He turns the temperature down and stands there doubled over, cold water sluicing over his face as his heart rate settles. The memory of the plant pot swims across the backs of his eyelids. For the third time, he mutters, “Oh fuck.”
It takes a couple of minutes, but the flow of water across his scalp calms him enough that he’s able to think about next steps. He pulls his head out from under the stream, dries his face on the hem of his t-shirt, and goes to inspect the plant. This is essentially pointless, as the house is stuffed with unidentifiable vegetation, but he does it anyway.
It is a simple fact that Sam Wilson knows approximately fuck all about botany. A further straightforward matter: this is his house, and he is not especially overjoyed about J.B. Barnes turning his front room into an outsized terrarium. The third uncomplicated truth is that Sam’s objections on the point have made absolutely no difference. One final salient nugget of information pertaining to the rapidly-encroaching domestic jungle is that Thor pitched up unannounced last week with half a garden center in his arms, announcing (once he’d divested himself of the greenery) that the plants were sent with the best wishes of Asgard’s apothecaries. Sam had been too busy fighting the clearly suicidal instinct to curse out the God of Thunder, a brain-damaged assassin, and Captain America on best retriever-face form to pay close attention after that. Even so, faced with the evidence slumped in his living room - Sam thinks he can guess what he missed.
He marches back to Steve, Barnes, and Natasha, brandishing the terracotta pot with its sadly-ravaged occupant at arm’s length. The scene that greets him has changed very little. Natasha is still hiccuping gently. Steve’s eyes are glazed, his posture rigid. Barnes has not yet lost interest in massaging his jawline on the soft furnishings.
“Right,” he snaps, trying to ignore the disconcerting pleasantness of the carpet between his bare toes. Maybe Barnes has a point, says an intoxicated corner of his brain. It would be nice to swim through that plush softness - Jesus CHRIST. “Who thought it would be smart to drink alien herb juice?”
Nobody replies. Barnes scrubs his face deeper into the floor, and Natasha makes a peculiar choking noise into the silence. Steve remains immobile. It’s really beginning to freak Sam out. The only concrete evidence he has that the man’s not left the land of the living is a faint tic in his right eyebrow. Sam stomps over to him and slams the plant pot down on the coffee table. It cracks. Steve finally shows some sign of life, inching his tongue out to lick his lips and wrenching his gaze from the inexplicably mesmerizing panel of blank grey wall. He looks for all the world like a confused infant as he blinks, first at the shattered flower pot and then up at Sam. Sam’s annoyance subsides a fraction.
“Steve,” he says gently, “are you doing alright?”
The smile he receives could power the Eastern seaboard for a week. Steve looks like he’s made of helium and sunbeams. And then his face shuts down, as quick and absolute as if his cable’s been yanked out of the power source. There’s somebody home, but the lights are out. Sam fights down his rising sense of alarm and puts his hand on Steve’s forearm. He doesn’t respond, so Sam checks his pulse. It’s Steve-normal, at least - too strong, a little slow, but regular.
Sam has a worrying thought: Natasha. She seems fine, if out of it, but she’s the only one here without an enhanced metabolism, and whatever they’ve taken was strong enough to affect Sam just by sniffing it. He crouches down next to his friend, who’s started giggling weakly again, and puts out a hand to her. She reaches out, pink-cheeked, and grasps his hand with her smaller one. It’s clammy, and too hot. He takes her pulse, and that’s fine, so he decides not to worry too much.
“Hey Nat?” he asks. Her eyes focus on him quickly enough. He tips his head toward the armchair. “Do you want to come sit up here?”
She nods as he stands, but instead of following, she clings to him and reaches out with her other hand. He hauls her to her feet, where she tucks herself in under his shoulder. They shuffle over to the deep armchair and he wrangles her into it with all the gentleness he can manage. For all she’s tiny and light, she’s skipped straight past ‘floppy’ and arrived at viscous. It’s like trying to arrange soup in three dimensions. Once he’s got her settled, he ducks back into the kitchen for a bottle of water and a damp dishcloth for her. She seems happy enough, but she's clearly pretty far gone.
When he comes back, Barnes has scooped himself off the floor enough to rest his head on Natasha’s knee. She’s absently petting his hair and jaw as he nuzzles her thigh. Sam’s torn between finding it sweet and surrendering to the riptide of his frustration. He’d had plans for this afternoon, and they had not involved playing caretaker to a posse of stoned superheroes. He’s at a loss. Black Widow’s a feverish, giggling wreck, the Winter Soldier has melted, and Captain America has temporarily vacated his star-spangled skull. Sam sags against the doorframe in exhaustion, his eyes closed.
It’s at this moment that Barnes decides to speak. His voice is still gentle, though a bit muffled - his face is smushed against Natasha’s leg.
“Sam,” says Barnes, “I feel really nice. You have a soft house.”
And doesn’t that just make Sam feel like an asshole. He’s never seen any of the trio this relaxed before, and while he’s certainly not advocating getting wasted on alien herbal products on a Tuesday afternoon as a means of getting your shit together, it isn’t the worst way they could have chosen to unwind. He’ll take this over Barnes’ usual habit of dismantling every gun known to mankind on the coffee table, at least. He looks so young and content curled up at Natasha’s feet.
Sam’s puzzling out how to respond - he still wants more information on what exactly they’ve been ingesting and is considering giving Banner a call for advice - when he’s reminded that Steve is not as pliant and relaxed as the other two. There’s an almighty crash to his left as six feet of blond supersoldier springs out of its chair as though jabbed in the nipple with an electric cattle prod. They all start violently, and Barnes yelps as Natasha clenches her fist on reflex. She’s yanked a handful of his hair.
Steve stands alert and wild-eyed in the middle of the room, head whipping from side to side as his jaw works around words he can’t find. He’s gesturing frantically with his right arm, but Sam’s drawing a blank. The other two simply stare at him in bemused horror while he grasps at the air and comes up short.
“My shield,” he gets out at last. “I need my shield!”
That explains the sweeping gesture, at least. Sam’s brain starts whirring through crisis management plans, including how to tackle a HYDRA home invasion in bare feet while looking out for his three charges, so he almost misses it when Barnes asks the obvious question.
Steve looks at him like it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard and huffs out a breath like an enraged bull. Barnes gives a confused shrug, which makes Steve slap his palm to his forehead. Apparently they’re all missing something blindingly obvious. Sam decides it’s his turn, as the only compos mentis adult in the room, to step in. He knows exactly where the shield is - below the coat rack by the front door, as always - but Steve’s reason for needing the shield right now might not be ‘defense against impending assault’.
“Steve,” he says, in his best counselor voice, “tell us why you need the shield and then we’ll help you look for it.”
Steve glares at him with naked disdain and frustration.
“I have to eat it, Sam,” he spits out. He looks offended.
Whatever Sam was expecting, it wasn’t that. Steve keeps looking at him like his failure to predict this extraordinary declaration is a damning indictment of his intelligence. Cogs turn rapidly in his head, but nothing comes up. It’s a rare occasion that Sam Wilson is struck dumb, but today is too much for anybody to handle without some lapses.
Once again it’s Barnes who comes to Sam’s rescue. He’s looking generally sharper, though his voice is still a little too soft.
“But why, Stevie?” The nickname comes out so intimate that Sam briefly considers sticking his head under the hot tap again. “Why do you need to eat your shield?”
The look Steve turns on Barnes is pitying, less abrasive than the way he’s been glowering at Sam. He still looks entirely too keyed up. Nervous energy is pouring off him in great crackling waves.
“I have to eat it,” he repeats, but he sounds anxious now. “It’s dangerous.”
“Why is it dangerous, Steve?” pipes up Natasha hazily. It’s the first thing she’s said since Sam arrived home, and she hasn’t hiccuped in a few minutes. The effects seem to be wearing off for both her and Barnes.
Not for Steve, whose jaw is doing the stubborn thing as he repeats, “The shield is dangerous.”
Oh no, thinks Sam. Steve with his heels dug in is quite enough at the best of times. Intoxicants are not going to make this prettier. Sam tries again - sense might be beyond Steve at present, but there’s some sort of rationale established in the man’s mind. The counselor in Sam knows that understanding might help him to help Steve, and a detached part of his brain is honestly curious as to what he’s thinking.
“Can you tell us what’s dangerous about the shield, Steve?” he asks, going for maximum sincerity and dialling back on incredulity, amusement and frustration. Steve blinks for a moment, unsure, then shakes his head.
“No, no, Sam,” he says with renewed conviction. “You can’t know. You’ll be compromised. But I have to eat it, I have to.”
There’s rising urgency in his words. He makes a move to dash out of the room but Barnes, looking vastly more like himself, unfolds from the floor with his usual lethal grace and rises to bodycheck Steve, who isn’t expecting it. Barnes stretches out his metal arm with an ominous whir, and plants his palm in Steve’s chest.
“Steve, stop,” he says sternly. His voice is back to normal and the hazy smile has been replaced with a cold steel glare. “It is impossible for you to eat your shield.”
The sheer preposterousness of the statement combined with Barnes coming over all schoolmarmish takes Sam unawares and he chokes on a poorly-timed laugh. Natasha lets out a tiny snicker and Sam scowls at the floor to make sure he doesn’t catch her eye.
Steve, however, does not find this at all amusing. There’s raw panic in his eyes as he wrestles against Barnes’ metal grip on his shirt, the immovable object blocking his unstoppable force. He looks a little hysterical.
“If I don’t, Bucky,” he virtually squeaks, “I’ll die!”
Natasha loses it first, a rich chuckle that’s miles away from her earlier creepy giggling. Sam glances at her and makes eye contact. She looks like her normal self again and the surprise trips him up. He feels a little guilty as laughter spills out of him - Steve’s having a rough time in his own head, after all - but the whole situation is so implausible that he can’t stop himself. Anyway, Natasha’s sobered up now and so has - Sam sneaks a glance at Barnes, who makes a terrible mistake. He laughs.
Steve, enraged, seizes full advantage of his captor’s momentary distraction and makes a break for the hallway. Natasha twists out of her seat like a greased eel and catches him around the knees as Barnes crashes into him. The three of them topple over, Steve writhing as Barnes grabs his arms behind his back with the metal hand and straddles his hips. With his right hand he strokes the back of the pinned man’s head, murmuring at him like a startled horse.
“Shh, Stevie, it’s okay, I’ve got you.”
Steve yowls incoherently and attempts to flail his legs. Natasha’s sitting on them. She looks up at Sam and speaks, eyes glinting with amusement.
“Give him another twenty minutes or so. We started without him and he had to be talked into it a little bit.”
Barnes grimaces before adding, “Maybe not my best idea.”
Steve has stopped snarling, but picks this moment to twist his neck and snap at Barnes’ right hand. Barnes puts his hand gently but firmly over Steve’s mouth and gives him a look as he adjusts his position astride the larger man. Sam really does not want to think about that look, so he starts speaking again.
“What exactly was the plan here anyway, Barnes? What did you think you were doing?”
Barnes has the good grace to look a little embarrassed. Natasha does not.
“It was his idea,” she says with an arched eyebrow. “Apparently Thor told him it would provide an amusing diversion for worried minds and settle the spirits -” here she pauses to smirk “- and better enable the taker to appreciate the pleasures of the body. That’s what Steve took a little time to be convinced about.”
Sam’s face feels hot, and he wonders if he’s reading more into her words than she meant by them. And then Barnes twists, still pinning Steve with his thighs, and leers grotesquely up through his eyelashes. It’s a parody of something flirtatious.
“Obviously things didn’t work out as planned, Wilson, but we had been going to ask if you wanted in on it when you got back,” he says, and Sam’s brain whites out.
He turns without a word and walks to the front door, lifting the shield from its hiding place and hoisting it onto his shoulder. The second it appears, Steve starts making a terrible racket. Sam ignores it and calls back over his shoulder as he opens the door.
“Barnes, this mess is all on you. Count me out.”
The door doesn’t slam fast enough for him to miss Barnes’ response.
“Sure thing, doll! See you later.”