The most surprising part about this picture, Steve reflects, is that the HYDRA agents who’d been left for him in his apartment are still alive.
There are three of them, piled up neatly just inside his front door, their black STRIKE gear hiding the worst of the damage. They're out cold and one is bleeding from a head wound, but he can still hear breathing. All things considered, he’s willing to count this as gentle handling.
He pulls out his phone and texts Natasha.
She shows up ten minutes later with a cup of coffee in each hand, one of which she gives to him. "I have to admit, I'm kinda jealous. I only ever get diamonds and perfumes from my admirers."
"Should I take this as some form of sweet talk?" Steve asks dryly.
She gives him one of those sharp, softly loaded looks he never knows how to decipher. "From the dust and wear on their pants, two of them had been sitting on the roof of the next building for at least a day. The third was in this building, maybe even inside this apartment. They were waiting for you." One of the men stirs slightly. She gives the limp forms on the floor a very unimpressed look that Steve thinks somehow penetrates the guy's hindbrain, because he goes quiet again. "They were a threat to you and your home, and they've been neutralized. You won't even have to answer any awkward questions about dead men being found in your apartment." She takes a casual sip of her coffee. "It's actually kinda adorable."
He doesn't know what to say to that.
"I'll take care of this," says Natasha, pulling out her phone. "You staying at Wilson's?"
"Thanks. And yeah," says Steve. "Though most of my things are still here." He pats the duffel bag full of clothes he'd brought with him. He comes back a couple times a week to do laundry and air out the apartment, but the place where he sleeps and eats and spends most of his time at is Sam's.
She finishes typing on her phone and looks up at him. "I'm thinking about moving to New York."
That makes him raise his eyebrows. "Stark?"
She nods. "SHIELD had a lot of clout in Washington, which means HYDRA does, too. I'm far more exposed here than I'm comfortable with." She nods pointedly at the men on the floor. "Seems like you are, too. This is a warning."
He looks at the wall with the bullet holes. Right through-and-throughs. Someone, Steve has no idea who, had patched them over with duct tape. Steve is a big fan of duct tape, it’s versatile and multi-purpose, but right now the little strips of grey are serving as a reminder that the Winter Soldier had shot Fury right through the wall. "I'll talk to Sam about it."
Sam likes to think that, between two tours abroad and all the recent excitement in his life, he's developed a sturdy constitution and a damn good tolerance for unexpected surprises.
Which is why he doesn't piss his pants when he looks up in the middle of the eleven a.m. group session at the VA to find the Winter Soldier sitting in the last row.
At least Sam's no longer the primary counsellor; he's just there to support Rodriguez, who's taking over most of his groups. Stability is important for effective therapy, and simply disappearing on his people doesn't sit right with him, so they do a proper handoff. He's made clear that he'd like the group to keep in touch with him, and he'll try to visit whenever he can.
"You're going back in, aren't you?" asks formerly Petty Officer Daniels, who now goes by Michelle.
"Not exactly," says Sam. He keeps his gaze on her while his thoughts scramble around, wondering if he should start freaking out. If he'd spotted that bleak, dead-eyed face in a mall or out on the street, he would definitely be freaking out. But in this space— it doesn't feel right, to be warier of one damaged soldier amongst other damaged soldiers. Even if it is the Winter Soldier. Sam swallows and focuses on keeping his cool. "I'm afraid I can't really talk about it."
"Give it up, Wilson, we know you're working with Captain America," pipes up Frank. There are slow nods around the room.
"The news footage didn't show much, and it was all from a distance," says Michelle, "but I thought, who would be crazy enough to fly around those fucking floating fortresses packed with cannons and machine guns without any fucking cover?"
"And I might have mentioned that my unit saw one of yours in action once," says Eric.
Sam shakes his head. "I should have known you guys would be a bunch of gossips."
"There might have been a Facebook group involved," admits Frank.
Perry, who never says anything without being prompted, rasps through his damaged voice box, "The wall is very therapeutic."
Laughter. Sam chuckles along with them. "Then you know I wouldn't just take off if it weren't important." It takes every ounce of willpower not to glance at the back of the room.
"I think what we're trying to say is that we're absolutely behind you in this," says Frank. "Like, how many people here signed up because of Captain America?" Next to Sam, Rodriguez raises his hand, shrugging shamelessly when Sam gives him a betrayed look. Most of the room have their hands up, and Frank waves his arm to emphasize the point being made. "Hell, knowing you're out there watching Cap's back is already doing wonders for my peace of mind."
"All right, all right. I'm still gonna be dropping in when I can," says Sam, "and I better see all your ugly mugs here when I do."
"Ugh, and I thought being out means I wouldn't have to get surprise inspections anymore," complains Michelle. She grins at him, though. All of them are smiling at him.
It's not a bad send-off, he thinks philosophically, especially if he's about to get his fool ass killed by the Winter Soldier.
"Man, I know you don't like them," Sam's voice drifts over from the direction of the kitchen, still a bit breathless from their morning run, "but that is no call for stealing a man's bananas."
Steve wipes his face with his sleeve and goes to investigate. The kitchen appears unchanged from when they left an hour and a half ago. The discreet little markers he'd left on all the entry points are still there, even the fine thread that had been strung across the doorway connecting the kitchen to the living room, which Sam sometimes forgets about.
Sam is glaring at the little basket on the kitchen counter that they use to hold fresh fruit. Where a bunch of bananas had sat that morning, purchased the previous night and only partially ripe, there is now a enormous bag of banana-flavored candy instead. It's a good thing the only other fruits in the basket are a couple of apples, because the bag might have squashed anything softer. Steve hadn't realized they even made the bags that size; it's bigger than his head.
"I still maintain your taste buds must have gotten messed up at some point, because those things are awful, banana-flavoring my ass, though it's comforting to know that you have some flaws. Or maybe it's a phase, ask me one day about that time I ate nothing other than red vines for a whole week- Steve? Why are you laughing? What's so funny?"
He gets caught up enough in the talk that he doesn't notice the Winter Soldier leaving, only sees that his chair is empty at the end of the meeting. Sam's instincts tell him this particular ghost hasn't left the premises, though, and sure enough, he finds him lurking in the hallway outside, still within sight of the front door but in the opposite direction from the meeting room. The regulars usually hang around chatting for a while, and Sam always keeps himself available during this time in case anybody wants to approach him, but today he excuses himself with a meaningful nod. None of the vets question it; all of them were first-timers, once. Sam casually ambles over to the man making like a statue next to the 'Coming Events' notice board.
It's rare for Sam to be at a loss for words. Riley always asked him how he knew exactly what to say in any situation. It'd been Riley who first suggested trying to be a counsellor or a therapist, if Sam ever separated or made it to retirement, "in case stand-up comedian doesn't work out for you."
Right now, Sam has no idea what to say to the Winter Soldier.
They stare at each other. Formerly Sergeant James Barnes looks a lot leaner without all the leather and Kevlar, or maybe he's in need of a few square meals these days. His hoodie is grimy and getting a little threadbare around the edges. Sam can't help but notice his choice of clothing is very similar to Steve and Natasha's when they're in incognito mode. Maybe this is what translates as "harmless bystander" amongst... super-people? Lean mean fighting machines?
"I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you haven't sought me out for a fight," says Sam, though by “guess” he means “really, really hope.” He has no illusions about the man not knowing where Sam lives; the fact that he's chosen to show himself to Sam at the VA must mean... something. "So I'm thinking, maybe, you might be looking to talk?" Even saying it sounds a bit ridiculous. He gets no response, other than more staring.
On the flipside, he hasn't been punched in the face yet.
Sam glances towards the front entrance. There are still knots of people standing around and talking. He sighs and gives the Winter Soldier a mild look.
"How do you feel about coffee?"
Steve's become so thoroughly used to Sam's presence that he is only vaguely aware of the other man wandering past the couch, stopping, then bending down to rest a questioning hand on one of Steve's sketchbooks on the side table. "May I?"
Steve has nodded, focused on getting the shading just right on a particularly troublesome curve of metal plating, before he registers Sam and looking through Steve's art, and by then, Sam's already flipping through the sketchbook.
It's not that Steve is embarrassed about other people seeing his sketches. It's more that a) this is Sam, who knows what Bucky looks like and has eyes sharp enough to pick out familiar features in the partials other people would assume to be generic body studies, and b) even discounting the partials, there are rather a lot of pictures of Bucky.
He should have been suspicious when, instead of a teasing "I fully support your creative expression but this is getting a little creepy now" or a dry "what about some nice cityscapes, for a change?" he gets Sam looking thoughtful and saying, "You know, your boy is not bad looking."
"No, he isn't," agrees Steve, relieved, and then, "Wait, what?"
The Winter Soldier follows Sam readily enough to the café down the block. He doesn't volunteer any information when Sam asks him what coffee he'd like, so Sam ends up ordering him a caramel macchiato because that's the last thing Steve tried and liked. After a moment's thought, he also asks for a blueberry muffin and a scone. Yes, he'd like them heated, thanks.
Tray in hand, Sam leads the way to a pair of armchairs in the corner. They are unoccupied, which is a minor miracle during lunch hour. He lets the Winter Soldier take the one that has its back to the wall and angled for a good view of the rest of the café. The tray goes on the small table between the chairs. The Winter Soldier is holding the recyclable cup of coffee like he's not sure what to do with it. Sam slides the plates of food over to him.
"Okay, can you give me a name to call you by?" asks Sam. "I can't keep calling you Winter Soldier. It sounds weird even inside my head. And I'm not going to just assume you'd be okay with... other names you might have had, before. Not unless you say so."
The man stares at him some more. Sam's wondering if the only thing he'll be getting out of this is the silent treatment when he hears, faint and rough, "Barnes."
"Barnes," repeats Sam, just to be sure. Barnes nods. "All right. Well, Barnes, care to tell me what you want from me?"
"He's not the guy you grew up with. You know that, right?"
Steve lifts his head from where he'd been poring over the Winter Soldier's file. Sam's on the couch, watching a cooking show on TV. Steve stopped reading a while ago (they both pretend Steve hasn't already memorized the whole file), and his thoughts have wandered backwards, as they tend to do, to cakes made without sugar or butter and stew stretched to last for days and coarse bread that stuck heavy in the gut; he has to pull himself back to the now that has a whole channel on food and the various preparations thereof, gourmet or cheap or global. At the moment, it's on a commercial for some kind of high-tech vegetable peeler (Steve sympathizes with the carrots), and Sam's turned towards Steve.
A faint breeze drifts through the open window.
"Yeah," says Steve, clearing his throat when his voice comes out a little raspy, "yeah, I know." He glances down at the file. Doesn't look at the open window. "Thing is— I'm not the same guy either." Steve licks his lips. Lets the thoughts roll out of him, slow. "I don't mean just now. Back in the war, all our time was focused on knocking down HYDRA, and there wasn't room for anything else. I told him everything afterwards, of course, the serum and Erskine and the SSR. But he— I never really thought about how well he took it. My changes. Last he saw me, I couldn't make a hundred pounds soaking wet, and I never got to telling him I was in training, that I might join the war after all. Then he was in that awful place, and I just— turn up in a completely different body. Once I told him the full story, after, he was pissed I'd risked myself on an experimental procedure." Bucky's impassioned you could have died! had made him duck his head but also warmed him up on the inside. "But other than that, he just... accepted it."
Bucky hadn't really been the same either, and Steve hates that it makes more sense now, hates that he hadn't looked farther into what had gone on in that HYDRA factory. At the same time, he can't really regret leaving Bucky alone about what he'd gone through; he's pragmatic enough to know it wouldn't have made much difference without also knowing Zola's goals.
“'Course, we didn't really have much of a choice,” he adds conscionably.
He hopes maybe some part of Bucky will remember there's at least one person in the world who won't try to force their way inside his head.
Steve clears his throat again. "At least I had a say in a lot of the changes that happened to me. He didn't. He's been hurt, and I want to help him." He meets Sam's eyes. "We're neither of us the same. So, I guess... I want the chance to get to know him again."
The question seems to throw Barnes for a loop. Or maybe he just hadn't planned this far ahead in whatever it is he wants with Sam. There's a banked tension in him Sam recognizes from vets who are stepping out in public for the first time. Sam sits back and sips at his coffee; given the alternatives, he's more than willing to wait Barnes out, give him a chance to work through whatever's in his head. Sam doesn't think real communication is something the man has had to do in a long time.
He briefly considers stealth-texting Steve, but if Barnes had wanted to approach Steve, he would have. Hell, Steve's practically rolled out the welcome mat for him. Sam tries not to dwell too long on why Steve, whom Sam has personally witnessed to have zero qualms about flinging himself off high places and jumping straight into hostile situations, is being so cautious when it comes to this— whatever it is he has tied up in Barnes. He wonders if Steve even knows.
He can appreciate why Barnes might not want to deal with that just yet, though.
So, no alerting Steve. There's every chance it'll turn out to be the stupidest decision he's ever made. His instincts, though, clamor at him to wait.
Finally, Barnes says, "Steve Rogers. Codename Captain America."
It's been long enough that Sam has to recall his own words, tell me what you want from me, before he can try and figure out what Barnes means. "You want... Steve? But... you came to me?" Barnes tenses further. "Wait, sorry, I'm going about this the wrong way. Different question: what about Steve?"
A muscle twitches in Barnes' jaw. "Time parameters exceeded. Mission failed."
"I'm assuming this refers to your mission to kill him?" asks Sam. He's surprised at the calmness of his voice. The flatness in Barnes's gaze is the creepiest thing he's ever seen, worse than the rare cases from black ops or career military; it's only long practice that keeps him acting relaxed and matter-of-fact.
Barnes repeats, "Mission failed," as if he thinks Sam is deliberately missing the point. His eyes skitter away, sweeping around the café like he's checking no threats have shown up in the 0.05 seconds since he last looked. Or like he's expecting a threat to show up at any point.
Sam becomes painfully aware that the guy sitting across from him is probably wanted by a lot of scary-ass people. The thought is followed by a related one: namely, that Sam himself hasn't exactly been discreet in following after Mr. Red-White-and-Blue, and it's not inconceivable he might be of interest to a few people now as well.
Barnes twitches. It's a small movement, only noticeable because he's so still most of the time. Sam stares at him, thinking hard, and, well, there aren't exactly manuals and self-help books out there for brainwashed amnesiac soldier-assassins, but he and Steve have been reading a library's worth of literature on PTSD, dissociative identity disorder, traumatic brain injury- basically anything and everything that might be even a little bit relevant to Barnes's situation.
"Please tell me this is not your way of alerting me that he's still your mission," says Sam, a little plaintively.
"Natasha Romanoff. Codename Black Widow." Barnes is now glaring at him for some reason. It's somewhat terrifying but also, oddly, a little reassuring— because that's emotion right there, which means there's still somebody behind those eyes. Somebody who seems to think Sam is being a bit slow on the uptake. "Time parameters exceeded. Mission failed."
"Wait." Sam narrows his eyes. "Is this some kind of... report? Debriefing?"
"Mission report," confirms Barnes, looking pleased. Well, looking slightly less murderous than before.
"What-" Sam bites down on the first thing he wants to say. "All right. Thank you. What, uh, what now?"
Barnes looks down. The brief burst of personality seems to be fading, the blankness sliding back like camouflage blinds. Sam tries not to be alarmed, dismisses the thought of deliberately triggering another emotional response; the brain constructs defences for a reason, and poking at them without understanding more about Barnes's state will likely do more harm than good.
"I am so not qualified for this," sighs Sam. Barnes, staring at the table, doesn't present an opinion on the matter. "Look, just— I assume you've been taking care of basic necessities, because even amped-up superhumans need food and water and shelter. I don't know how safe this place is, but nobody's tried to kill us yet, so why don't you drink your coffee and have all that food?"
Barnes sets upon the muffin and scone like he's been waiting for Sam to give him a direct order. (Sam had been careful to phrase it like a suggestion, leaving wiggle room for Barnes to refuse, even though he really had meant it as an order, because the guy needs feeding up.) He eats neatly, efficiently, eyes continually scanning the café behind Sam's chair.
Sam makes a decision. "Steve and I are headed to New York. You've probably noticed us packing." He wonders if that's what had finally gotten Barnes to show his face, though Sam wouldn't have thought a relocation would present much of a problem to someone with the Winter Soldier's skillset. "I'm sure you won't have any trouble following us— if, you know, you want to. But. I guess this is me telling you, officially." Is this an invitation? He's inviting the Winter Soldier to come along with them. Sam is sure he used to make sensible life decisions, once. "Personally, I think you should just talk to Steve" —Barnes's eyebrows curl downward over the white cover of his coffee cup— "but, yeah, I can see you're not ready for that, yet. I guess I'm easier, right? Since we don't have a history. That's how Steve and I became friends, you know— a stranger can be more helpful, especially when you're trying to start over."
A soft expression settles briefly on Barnes's face. It's only there for a few seconds before he puts his cup down and the blankness is back, but Sam feels a unsettling pang of recognition— there, for a moment, he'd gotten a glimpse of the guy standing next to Steve in the rare few photos from the war where Captain America had looked happy.
"You know, I lost my best friend in the war," says Sam. In his head, he hears that ridiculous song that had kept him company on hundreds of restless nights, thousands of hours on transports, sky after unending sky, the slow Meg Bodoun version that warmed like bourbon in Riley's steeped-in-the-Deep-South voice: Who’ll rise or fall, give his all for America. "D'you want me to tell you about him?"
He's not really sure what he's expecting— for Barnes to up and leave now that he's given his “report” and been fed, probably. Barnes stares at him like he can't understand what he's being asked, or maybe like he can't understand Sam.
It feels an age before Sam hears a quiet but clear, "Yes."