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What no one told you about miraculously coming back from the dead was how it was a total goddamn shitshow. Because yeah, Sam was alive, and yeah, the apocalypse had been averted, sort of—he wasn’t clear on if it counted when the apocalypse had still happened but all the people who’d died came back. But at his last count, Sam had lost: five years, two best friends, a home and/or place to live, practically all of his stuff, and—okay, this one wasn’t so bad—his fugitive status. Sam had gained: Captain America’s shield and Bucky. 

It wasn’t ideal.

If he’d goddamn known Old Steve was going to just fucking disappear after saying some nice things and handing over a shiny new shield, Sam would’ve asked a few more damn questions, or he’d have at least demanded that Old Steve fork over some cash, because otherwise Sam was just gonna have to pawn the shield for rent money. But noooo, Sam had told Steve, maybe you oughta talk to Bucky, and Old Steve and Bucky had talked for a few minutes, heads bent close together until their foreheads were almost touching. Then Bruce had said hey, there’s a weird reading from the quantum tunnel…? And next thing Sam knew, Old Steve had disappeared and Bucky had returned, looking so at peace that Sam had genuinely worried that Bucky had been about to do something irrevocable. 

Where’s Steve, Sam had asked Bucky. Or should I be asking when is Steve?

Bucky had just shrugged. I don’t know. But don’t worry, he’s coming back. 

He’d refused to explain any more, to anyone, which, whatever, fine. Bucky was entitled to the denial stage of grief if he needed it. Meanwhile Sam kept shaking the magic 8-ball of his mind for some kind of appropriate emotional response, to any of this, and the only answer he got was ask again later, so apparently Sam’s stage of grief was ??? Which was at least where basically everyone left milling around the Starks’ cabin/mansion was at right now, after Stark’s funeral and sending Steve off with the Infinity Stones.

In short, the situation was awkward as hell, at best. 

For Bucky way more than Sam, what with the whole killing Howard and Maria Stark thing, but it was still plenty awkward for Sam. He hadn’t known Stark all that well, really, and the five years he’d missed out on were making him feel even more disoriented and displaced here, uncertain where the hell he fit in with these friends and teammates who were so changed now. Hell, Sam hadn’t entirely come down from last week’s/five years ago’s big battle with Thanos yet. If he didn’t feel entirely unmoored from reality, it was only thanks to a thin thread tying him to everyone else who was in the same boat as him. He just needed a day, maybe, to wrap his head around all of this. One quiet day, one day where everything just stopped.  

For now, he was going to have to make do with some quiet time in nature. Sam wasn’t sure whether it was him or Bucky who’d silently decided to linger in the woods outside the cabin together, but they were still out here even now that Old Steve was long gone and the sun was setting. Sam wasn’t sure either of them knew what to do or where the hell to go next. The shield was already heavy on Sam’s arm, and he had no idea where he could put it down.

Those of the funeral attendees who actually had somewhere to go home to and a mode of transport for getting there had left already: the Wakandans back to Wakanda—and Wanda with them, to see if Vision could be restored—Lang and his crew back to San Francisco, all the space people back up to space, Thor back to New Asgard, the spider kid to Queens…the only people left were the last of the Avengers and Sam, and Bucky, who hadn’t gone back with the Wakandans, to Sam’s surprise.

Sam knew why he was still here: his family was in Atlanta now, and there was no way in hell Sam could get down there in all the chaos of half the planet’s population reappearing. He’d called them, and everyone had cried a lot, then they’d all agreed to wait until things were calmer to try any traveling. Sam didn’t know what was keeping Bucky here though. If the answer was that Bucky was waiting for Steve to return, or that he was about to use the time machine himself or some shit, Sam had no idea how to deal with that.

So it was with some trepidation that he asked, “Why didn’t you go back with T’Challa and Shuri?”

Bucky shrugged. “I might go back some time. But if I’m not a fugitive anymore, I can spend some time in the States, and I’ve missed Brooklyn. Thought I’d stick around for a while, help out here. Uh, Fury suggested it.”

“You two talked? How’d that go?” asked Sam, then helpfully added, “You know, on account of how you almost assassinated him that one time.”

“I’ve had a lot of awkward conversations today, so. Coulda gone better, coulda gone worse.” Bucky’s dryly self-deprecating tone made Sam smile despite himself, and when he looked over at Bucky, he saw that Bucky’s lips were curved upwards just a little bit. “How about you? You know where you’re headed yet?”

“Not really,” said Sam, and he hated how lost his voice sounded, hated how Bucky heard it and how it made his eyes go too soft and understanding. 

Thankfully, before Bucky could say anything or ask him anything else, Rhodey called out to them from the direction of the house.

“Hey! What the hell are you two doing lurking out in the woods? Come inside! Dinner’s ready!” 

Inside, Rhodey, Bruce, Barton, Stark’s security guard, and Ms. Potts—Mrs. Stark? Sam had no idea which she preferred—were all sitting around the dining table, where a mismatched dinner of sandwich fixings and casseroles was laid out on the table. Everyone looked varying degrees of tired and sad and confused, and worst of all, old. Not old old, not like time-traveling Steve or whatever, but old like ten years had passed rather than five, with new, deep lines carved into their faces and more grey hair. Hell, Banner practically looked like the Hulk’s grandpa, what with his skin’s muted shade of green, the glasses, and the salt and pepper hair. 

Sam didn’t know how the hell he fit in here, without Steve and Natasha. He didn’t know this team without them. Even Lang being here would have made him feel better, which was how he knew he should have just hitched a ride, any ride, to Atlanta. Too bad the wizard dude had fucked off before he could open up a portal or something for him.

“C’mon, sit down and eat,” urged Rhodey, so Sam set down the shield and sat with Bucky. Ms. Potts gave them a tired smile and pushed a plate of sandwiches towards them.

“We were just going over how to deal with the logistical nightmare of undoing an apocalypse,” said Banner.

“How bad are things out there?” asked Sam. 

The scattered news reports he’d managed to catch between the big battle and the funeral had been all chaotic joy: loved ones reuniting and people celebrating the Avengers’ win against Thanos. But maybe things had gotten worse, or maybe there were unforeseen consequences to using the Infinity Stones. Sam could feel Bucky tensing up beside him, and Sam’s own shoulders went stiff, still-sore muscles twinging, as he braced for bad news.

“Not nearly as bad as they could be, thanks to Bruce and Tony,” said Ms. Potts.

Sam let the explanations and details wash over him as he ate. He got the general gist: when they’d used the Infinity Stones, Banner and Stark had both done their best to head some potential disasters off at the pass, by returning people to safe locations and increasing resources to deal with the doubled/restored population. But there were still a hell of a lot of displaced people apparently, and Sam kept forgetting he himself was one of those people, kept forgetting that the stuff the others were talking about, about people who had to be reintegrated into a world that had changed and moved on without them, that all applied to him.

“First thing’s first, we gotta offer people some stability and shelter, give them something concrete to do,” said Rhodey.

Barton didn’t look up from his half-full plate as he said, “And we have to be ready to handle the people who are gonna take advantage of all the chaos and confusion to pull off bad shit.”

It was a good point, but the dull and blank tone Barton delivered it in sent a shivering tickle of unease down Sam’s spine. Rhodey and Banner took over from there, tossing ideas back and forth, and Sam contributed when he could, as did Bucky. But given that the both of them had just returned to life a few days ago, they weren’t exactly abreast of current events, and their contributions had limited utility.

Eventually, the talk turned to Steve.

“Should we—I don’t know, send someone after him?” ventured Banner.

“How?” asked Rhodey. “We don’t know where, or when, he even is, or if we’ve got enough Pym particles to send anyone there. And Barnes says he’s coming back.”

“He is,” confirmed Bucky, calm and even and rock-solid certain. 

It pissed Sam the hell off, one fiery flush of angry heat searing through him. How the hell could Bucky sound sure of anything right now. How fucking dare Bucky act like all this shit was normal, like they’d just come out of any old battle. 

“Still not gonna share how you know that?” 

Bucky didn’t bristle at Sam’s pissy tone. “Other than that Steve told me he’s coming back?” Bucky shook his head. “Don’t think I should, no.”

That got Banner’s attention. “You’re worried about a paradox, aren’t you.” Bucky shrugged, which wasn’t exactly a confirmation or a denial, and Banner sighed, taking his glasses off to rub at his forehead. “Yeah, okay. I guess there’s nothing we can do anyway, if we don’t know when or where he is.”

“Listen, I don’t know what plans the two of you have,” started Rhodey, and Sam bristled at being lumped together with Bucky, like they were both just Captain America’s sidekicks, like they’d be deciding what to do next together. “But some version of Cap gave you that shield, Sam. You know what you’re gonna do with it?”

Fuck, the shield. Sam had almost forgotten for a minute. He laughed, immediately all too aware that of how high-pitched and hysterical his laughter sounded.

“Man, I don’t even know where I’m gonna be living tomorrow. I don’t have a house, and the Avengers’ compound is a pile of rubble. Unless there’s room at the Tower—”

Ms. Potts winced. “There, um, isn’t. Sorry. After the Snap, things were—chaotic. Infrastructure started breaking down, there weren’t enough people to keep it up, there were power outages…but Stark Tower has the arc reactor, and a lot of extra room with so many businesses and offices vacant. We opened it up as housing for whoever needed it, and we’re full up. I’m sorry.”

“We’re gonna have to open up some room for a temporary Avengers’ HQ,” said Hogan. “But I think that’s all the space we’ll be able to spare.”

“It’s okay. We’ll figure something out,” said Bucky. 

We?” demanded Sam incredulously. “Uh, I didn’t ask for your help, Barnes.”

Finally, there was a tiny crack in Bucky’s calm, just the slightest narrowing of his eyes. 

“If you wanna do this on your own, you can. But I’ve done this before, Sam. Losing a few years, building a life again outta nothing? I know it’s not easy, but it’s not new for me the way it is for you. So let me at least help you get back on your feet.”

“Did Steve put you up to this before he left? Do you just come along with the shield? Because I did not sign up for—”

“How about we all get some rest and work it out tomorrow? You’re all welcome to stay here until we get things sorted out,” said Ms. Potts, gentle but firm, and Sam flinched. 

Christ, what was wrong with him, he was in her house and she’d just attended her husband’s funeral, and here Sam was yelling about his own miraculous return from the dead leaving him inconveniently homeless.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Potts—”

She waved a hand to stop his apologies, then she snorted with a quick, tired laugh. “Sorry, just, it’s not a real funeral or wake until someone yells or has a bit of a breakdown, right? It’s fine, really. I’m gonna go check on Morgan, Happy can show you all somewhere to bunk down for the night.”

“Get some rest, Pep,” said Rhodey, and rose to kiss her on the cheek. “We’ll clean up down here.”

“Sorry for being an asshole,” Sam told Bucky, as they helped put away the food and the dishes. “I won’t say no to your help, I guess.”

Even if Bucky’s help amounted to finding him a sketchy squat in Brooklyn, Sam would take it. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Bucky lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and his hair slipped forward to cover his face as he stacked dishes into the dishwasher.

“It’s okay. But Steve didn’t need to put me up to this,” he said quietly. Sam didn’t have to see his face to identify the hurt buried under Bucky’s careful tone.

Before Sam could formulate a response to that, Barton approached them.

“Hey. So Nat—Natasha had a place, in Brooklyn. A brownstone in Red Hook. Nothing fancy, just a few bedrooms, and kind of a fixer-upper, but not in bad shape. She said it was a safe house, but—anyway, she had a place. I think she’d want you to live there. Both of you.”

“Yeah?” said Sam.

“Yeah,” said Barton, grief carving deep lines in his face. “And I’m—I’m as close as it gets to an executor of her will, I guess, so—it’s yours, if you want it.”

Sam wanted to say no, a reflexive denial that was mostly just a denial of Natasha being gone at all.  Don’t be an idiot, Wilson, said Natasha’s voice in his head. Take the damn safe house.  

“Okay. Yeah, I’ll—I’ll take it, thanks,” he told Barton, then he turned to Bucky. “Hey, good news, we’re not homeless.”

“We?” said Bucky, soft and sardonic, hair still covering Sam’s view of his face as he closed the dishwasher door gently, and yeah, okay, Sam deserved that tone.

Sam shot for casual in response. “If you’re cool with it. Until you can find a place, or you go back to Wakanda…”

Bucky tucked his hair back, finally revealing his face and eyes. There was a wary furrow in his brow, and an uncertain slant to his mouth, like he was reconsidering ever having offered to stick with Sam at all. Sam wouldn’t blame him in the least if he decided to go back to Wakanda to help out there, with the way Sam had just acted. 

But Sam wanted Bucky to stick around, at least for a little while. Bucky was right, after all: he was the one who’d been in something like this crazy situation before, and Sam was getting the feeling he’d need whatever help he could get to deal with it. The prospect of being entirely on his own right now felt daunting. Even if Bucky ended up being a terrible roommate, he’d at least be another person dealing with the same back-from-the-dead shit Sam was, and plus, it would only be temporary.

“Yeah, alright. I’m cool with it,” said Bucky after a long, considering moment. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to put up with me for long, just until I find a place.”

Sam had been in enough of Natasha’s safe houses to know: this brownstone wasn’t one of them. The keys Barton had given him had opened the locks, and this was the right address, so this had to be the right place. And yet, Sam couldn’t shake the feeling: it wasn’t a safe house. It was safe enough, probably, and it was definitely a house. It was just missing all those Natasha safe house touches: no booby traps and no cameras, and a layout that had nothing to do with enabling defense or escape. 

“You said this was a safe house?” said Bucky, looking around with a critical eye.

“Barton said Natasha said this was a safe house,” said Sam slowly. “But I think—I think it’s just a house.”

Dusty and half-empty, full of a haphazard mix of furniture—a beautifully carved coffee table, some bookshelves filled with books, a couple armchairs but no couch, and that was just the living room—and walls that someone hadn’t finished painting, or that someone had painted two different colors, as if not sure what color to go with yet. Sam thought the pale green looked nicer than the blue, and part of him was already calculating how many buckets of paint it would take to finish the room. Focus, Wilson. The color didn’t matter. What mattered was that Natasha had bothered to paint the place at all, because he doubted she’d bought it in this condition.

No, this was not a safe house. This was a place that might have become a home. The urge to cry twisted up Sam’s throat. Oh, Nat. You should be here.

Bucky moved carefully into the next room, some sort of den or maybe dining room, and Sam followed him. The room was empty, except for an old TV sitting on the floor, a power cord trailing behind it to plug into the wall. Sam hadn’t seen a TV like this since high school maybe: it was one of those combination TV/VCRs that public school AV departments used to favor. Bucky approached the thing like it was a bomb.

“It’s just a TV, Bucky,” Sam told him. “With a VCR. Which I guess is kinda simultaneously before and after your time, but the point is, it’s just a video player.” 

Bucky hummed in assent, examining it from every side, before he knelt down to stick his metal finger gingerly into the VCR’s tape slot. “There’s a tape in here.”

Before Sam could tell him to leave it and move on—they probably had a fair amount of work to do to make this place livable in the short-term, and watching whatever ancient tape was stuck in that TV wasn’t going to help—Bucky turned the TV on and hit the VCR’s play button.

There was nothing but static for a couple of seconds, which was just long enough for Sam to remember the valuable life lessons of The Ring, then the static disappeared to show a person: Steve. It was Steve, the Steve in the horrible white uniform who’d left them on the quantum tunnel platform. Sam kneeled down next to Bucky in front of the TV. From this close up, he could hear the faint buzz and sizzle of the old CRT display, could see where the taped footage was a little grainy.

“Hey. So, if I’ve done this right, I’m hoping Bucky and Sam are the ones watching this, and I hope you’re watching this in Natasha’s house. If you’re not James Buchanan Barnes or Sam Wilson, please either get this tape to them, or leave it where you found it.” Steve paused for a moment, taking in a deep breath, then he smiled softly into the camera. “Hey Buck, hey Sam. Hope you two are doing alright and looking out for each other. I’m sorry I can’t be there with both of you right now. You got no idea how much I’ve missed both of you, the last five years. But I’ve got something to do before I can come back home, and I’m not willing to risk either of you.”

Steve paused then, the softness on his face shifting into firm resolve.

“I’m getting Natasha back. Whatever it takes. I’m still gonna return the Infinity Stones, don’t worry. And, hopefully, I’m not gonna fuck up our timeline while I do it. But I’ve got a plan to save Natasha, and I—when I have, when I find her, we’re gonna come home. I promise. Keep a light on for us, alright?” said Steve, a heartbreakingly hopeful kind of half-smile on his face.

“This is why you said he was coming back,” said Sam. “He told you he was gonna—?”

But Steve wasn’t finished talking. On the small TV screen, he swallowed hard and scrubbed at his eyes.

“There were so many things I told myself I’d tell you, both of you, if I ever got the chance. We just never seem to have enough time. I’m gonna tell you one of those things now, but I swear, this isn’t—I’m not saying goodbye, alright? But you gotta know, Sam, Buck: I love you. Both of you. A guy couldn’t ask for better best friends. And every day, every second, I am trying to do you two proud. Alright. See you soon, hopefully.”

The video ended, and the sound of static left after it was loud. Sam wiped at his cheeks, surprised to find them wet with tears.

“You think he can get Natasha back?”

Bucky put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “If anyone can, it’s Steve.”

“But we saw Old Steve. Was that—was that our Steve? What the hell is our Steve doing? Did he tell you anything else before he left?”

Bucky was quiet for a long moment, and though his eyes were shiny with held back tears, there was nothing but calm, resolute faith on his face. Shit, between that and the long brown hair, Bucky really looked like White Jesus right about now, and Sam had to fight back some wildly inappropriate laughter.

“No,” said Bucky. “And I don’t know shit about how all this Infinity Stone, time travel stuff works. I just know that if Steve says he’s coming back, he’s coming back.” Bucky stood up and held a hand out to him. “Now c’mon. The power works, clearly, but we should check to see if the water in this place is still running.”

The water was still running, and all the appliances even worked. The rest of the brownstone didn’t have much else though: three out of the four bedrooms upstairs had bare beds in them, and nothing else, and the fourth had weapons lockers and boxed up computers, which were some of the more usual contents of Natasha’s safe houses. 

Still, Sam saw Natasha in every single thing in this house. Sam had caught her flicking through an interior design magazine once, wrinkling her nose at all the Nordic minimalism on display in one photo spread, but poring over a layout that was all warm wood and cozy textiles with intense interest.

Wouldn’t have thought that was your style, he’d said, looking over her shoulder. Or that you’d be in the market for furniture what with our glamorous fugitive lifestyle.

You never know. A girl’s gotta have dreams.

Her tone had been sly and light the way it usually was, but now Sam was standing in her unfinished dream, and he knew: she’d meant it. 

What else had she wanted to fill this living room with? There was a small, weed-choked yard out back: would she have wanted to fill it with a garden? Which of the bedrooms upstairs would she have wanted? The master bedroom, probably, and Steve would have picked the bedroom with the best morning light. But Sam didn’t really know anything else about what they would have wanted, or how Natasha had intended to use this house, and that made Sam not want to change anything about it. Maybe he and Bucky could just rattle around in these half-furnished rooms like unquiet ghosts, waiting for Natasha and Steve to come back and finish bringing them back to life.

The hardwood floors creaked, startling Sam out of his gloomy thoughts, and Bucky stepped into the living room.

“You got a preference for the bedrooms?” asked Bucky. “One of them has an attached bathroom.”

“That should be Natasha’s,” said Sam automatically, and he didn’t know if the awful ache in his heart was hope or grief. Right now, both options hurt just as much. He swallowed past it. “Uh, I’ll take whichever other bedroom, I don’t care.”

“Alright,” said Bucky softly. “I’ll take the room closest to the stairs for now, if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, sure.”

It took them a couple days to settle in, helped out by enormous care packages from Wakanda and Ms. Potts. Sam felt weird about accepting the boxes of clothes and food, like surely someone else was in more need of this stuff, and he said as much to Bucky.

“Hey, this particular stuff is my stuff,” said Bucky, opening up a box full of clothes and books that Shuri had sent over.

Sam tried not to be too jealous. His mom had sent over a box of those few things of his that she’d kept, but it hadn’t arrived yet, and it would almost certainly be a much smaller box. He and Bucky were still more or less living like squatters in this house. Bucky especially was still giving off a distinct air of I’m a fugitive and I’m ready to make a break for it at any moment what with being armed at all times, and also always keeping his backpack in arm’s reach. It wasn’t really an ideal quality in a roommate. Maybe he’d settle down now that he had some of his stuff back.

“Okay, whatever, but the rest of it,” said Sam, gesturing towards all the nonperishable food. “Like, aren’t there refugees or families who could use it more than we could?”

Bucky looked up from his box, clearly exasperated. “Sam. Most of them are in the exact same boat as we are. Basically everyone who came back needs this kinda stuff. Just ‘cause we’ve got a place to live doesn’t mean we don’t still need food and clothes.”

Sam kept forgetting: he wasn’t just a former fugitive who’d been hastily exonerated and welcomed home as thanks for helping to save the world, he was back from the dead and missing five years, along with half of the entire rest of the planet.

“Yeah, I know, you’re right. I’m not used to needing charity, I guess. I was kinda starting to consider pawning the shield just for the cash.”

Sam was half-joking, but Bucky took him seriously, his forehead getting all frowny and concerned.

“Hey, no, you’re never gonna have to do that. I’ve got more than enough money to tide us over.”

“What? From where? And in what bank accounts?” demanded Sam, because he didn’t have a penny to his name at the moment, beyond the Avengers’ black card Ms. Potts had pressed on him.

“HYDRA accounts, I figure I’m owed. And offshore banking is forever, apocalypse or not, apparently. I’ve still got access to them. I transferred most of it to charities and stuff after Insight, but I kept a rainy day fund.”

“Huh. Okay, well, groceries are on you then until I’m a real live boy with a bank account again.”

“Sure,” said Bucky easily, and then he grinned, a spark of mischief in it. “That doesn’t count as charity to you?”

“Hell no, that’s just compensation on account of how I’ve been emotionally damaged by having to fight Nazis,” said Sam, and Bucky laughed.

“Yeah, that was basically my reasoning too. I’ll pick up some groceries tomorrow.”

Maybe being roommates with Bucky would be okay.

For the first few weeks, Sam was too busy to notice much of anything about what kind of roommate Bucky was, or to even spare much thought to their living situation. All he knew was that Bucky quietly handled most of the practicalities like making sure the house was secure and acquiring household necessities. Same was grateful, because while there were no big battles, no ops or missions, the new Avengers had more than enough to keep them busy in a post-post-apocalypse world, and as the new Captain America, Sam had to be the reassuring symbol of a safe, fresh start, and that took up most of his effort and time. It was a lot like the entire world had been ravaged by a long, quiet war that they had endured rather than fought, and now that it was over, everyone was looking around in shock, wondering where normal had gone and how to get it back.

Sam had to do his best to pretend he wasn’t just another one of those shocked and confused people too, though the truth was, he’d said goodbye to normal back when Steve and Natasha had knocked on his back door in DC. What Sam was missing now was the normal he’d had with them, the unpredictable rhythm of life on the run and secret Avenging.

Sam had a routine again now: training with the Avengers at the temporary HQ in the Tower, meetings with the Avengers and assorted government agencies, and working with whoever needed a boost of superhero help to rebuild or recover. At the end of the day, he went back to the house that he still couldn’t think of as anything other than Natasha’s brownstone, and tried to catch up on everything he’d missed. It wasn’t a bad life. He was doing important work with people he respected and trusted. It just didn’t feel right, not yet.

Was this what it had been like for Steve? Sam wondered. Maybe a little. But Steve, Sam knew, would have given anything to come home with Bucky. Sam was as yet undecided on the merits of that. Because, yeah, sure, it was nice not to live alone, and Bucky always got the groceries and kept the fridge stocked, and he wasn’t even a half-bad cook, but also, Sam had to share a bathroom with him. 

“Barnes, you have been in there for forty-five minutes!” said Sam, banging on closed the bathroom door. “Do you have poop issues, is that it? Do I need to get you some fiber, old man?”

“What the fuck, Wilson, no, I don’t have ‘poop issues!’ And what are you, five? Use adult words!”

“Okay, then are you jerking off in there or what—”

“No! I’m taking a bath!”

“Now look who’s acting like he’s five!”

“Oh my god, just use the master bathroom—”

“Plumbing’s busted in there, so get your ass out of the tub, I need to take a shower!”

At least Bucky was scrupulously neat and tidy. Keeping the bathroom clean only just balanced out Bucky’s bathroom hogging tendencies. Or, thought Sam, as he grimly pulled out an enormous clump of dark hair from out of the sink drain, it absolutely did not balance it out. Sharing a bathroom was the fucking worst.

“Barnes!” shouted Sam. “Keep your stupid long hair out of the drains!”

“So, uh, I’m gonna start looking for a place,” said Bucky over dinner, a couple months after they’d moved in.

“Anything to avoid having to unclog the bathroom drains, huh?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “No, I just figure you’re settled in okay, you must want this place to yourself by now.”

Sam was settled in okay, and he could admit it was thanks to Bucky. Sure, the house still looked like it was mid-renovation, or like they hadn’t quite finished moving in yet, but it was livable, with all the important stuff working. It was also now officially as secure as a safe house, because Bucky was a paranoid bastard, but better safe than sorry, Sam supposed.

“Hey, don’t leave on my account if you’re not ready. And definitely don’t leave if you’re just planning on finding some sketchy warehouse to squat in. You’re not, you know, an awful roommate.”

“Thanks,” said Bucky dryly. “But I’m guessing you just want those sweet groceries bought with re-appropriated HYDRA funds.”

Sam grinned at him. “Maybe. Let me know if you need any help though. Apartment hunting’s practically a full-contact sport now.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. Thanks.”

“So apparently, a bag full of cash is not an adequate substitute for a credit check, and neither is being an Avenger,” reported Bucky after one week of apartment hunting.

He plopped himself down at Sam’s table with a sigh. No one at the surrounding tables spared him a second glance: by now, the Avengers were a familiar sight in the Stark Industries cafeteria that doubled as the Avengers’ temporary mess hall.

Sam sighed and put his tablet down. “Just when I think you’re equipped for modern life, you have to prove me wrong. Did you need me to co-sign your rental applications or something?”

“I don’t know, how’s your credit after being a fugitive and then being dead for five years?” asked Bucky as he stole a fry off Sam’s plate.

“Get your own! And excuse you, us un-Snaptured prefer the term ‘being temporarily nonexistent’, thanks. Also, my credit is better than yours is after being presumed dead while being a brainwashed assassin for seventy years, then being a fugitive, and then being dead for five additional years,” retorted Sam, then paused. 

Shit. How was his credit? Probably not good at all. Whatever, that was just gonna have to be a problem for future Sam.

“I know you’re joking, but yeah, your credit probably is better than mine. I mean, it exists, for one thing, and apparently that matters.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, it does.” Sam forwent the rant on how discriminatory credit checks for housing ended up being, and how much they fucked over the unbanked and people trying to get back on their feet. It wasn’t particularly helpful to Bucky at the moment. “Seriously, just let me co-sign for you, it’s no big deal.”

“Really?” said Bucky, the look of wide-eyed gratitude on his face making him seem all of ten years old. He pulled a stack of papers out of his backpack and slid them over to Sam. What the fuck, Sam didn’t remember rental applications being so long. “Thanks, Sam.”

Sam’s hand cramps from filling in so many damn forms weren’t in vain, because with Sam as a co-signer, Bucky actually managed to get accepted as a potential tenant by landlords and property management companies. The waiting lists were still ridiculously long, of course; a couple months post-un-Snapture, housing was a big issue. People were happy to open up their homes to let those who’d returned have a spare room or couchsurf, but that charity didn’t extend to the housing market itself, to say nothing of the widespread legal clusterfuck of people returning to homes they no longer technically owned. If Sam had thought getting an apartment in Brooklyn was bad before, it was maybe even more wildly competitive now. 

So Sam wasn’t surprised that it took Bucky a few weeks to actually get himself to the top of a waiting list. When it was finally time to hoof it to the apartment and sign the papers before anybody else could get there first, Sam went with Bucky to co-sign the lease. Upon actually seeing the apartment though, Sam exercised his co-signer’s rights to nix the place, because it was a roach-infested death trap. From the outside, the grimy building had a distinct and concerning rightward tilt, and the inside was no better. Sam worried that if Bucky knocked into any of the apartment’s walls with his metal arm, the whole thing would collapse.

“Naw, Bucky. You cannot live here.”

“I mean, it’s not that much worse than my place in Bucharest…?” A roach skittered out from under the kitchen’s grimy fridge. Bucky flinched. “Never mind.”

Bucky missed out on the next few apartments by virtue of them being too busy with Avengers business to drop everything and run to sign some papers and pick up keys, and then the next batch of possibilities all rejected Bucky and Sam’s collectively meager credit score.

“I hear Jersey has a lot more vacancies,” suggested Sam during Month Two of the Great Apartment Hunt.

Bucky got an expression on his face that Sam had previously thought was reserved for foul-smelling dead alien monsters.

Jersey? Not even if I was brainwashed and amnesiac again.”

When Bucky finally got to the top of a waiting list for a perfectly nice one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup in Bed-Stuy, and they both managed to get to the rental office door in time to sign the papers and hand over the deposit for first and last, a new wrinkle presented itself in the form of a family of three arriving just as Sam and Bucky were about to head inside.

“You’re here for Apartment 5C?” asked the harried and tired looking man. 

He was weighed down with a briefcase and a few duffel bags stuffed nearly to bursting. Sam wondered if he and his family had just arrived in New York, or if maybe they’d just returned. His wife looked nearly as haggard as he did, and she had a cute, curly-haired toddler on her hip. She was shifting him around like she’d been carrying him for a while. Sam’s muscles twitched with the automatic desire to offer to take the kid, but that kinda thing only went over well when he was in the Cap uniform.

“Uh, yeah,” said Bucky. “You too?”

The man slumped, everything about him seeming to grow more wrinkled and grey. “Yes. We’re too late, I suppose.”

Bucky’s eyes did that thing where they got very big and very sad, before his face settled into an expression of stubborn certainty. Goddammit, Sam saw what was coming here, and he couldn’t even be mad about it.

“No. No, you’re not too late. Here, let me take those for you, sir,” said Bucky, and gently took charge of the man’s bags. “Apartment’s yours, if you want it.”

“But—but you got here first?” said the woman, then she squinted at Sam. “Wait, are you Captain America?”

Sam nodded and shrugged, as Bucky said, “Yeah, I got here first, which means I can give you my spot, if I want. C’mon, let’s go inside so you can sign the papers and get your keys.”

The couple—Ali and Fauzia—protested, but Bucky would hear none of it as he chivvied them into the office. 

“I’ve still got a place to stay,” he told them. “Don’t worry about me.”

As Ali and Fauzia sat down in the lobby to deal with the paperwork, Bucky distracted the kid with his shiny metal arm, and Sam got some of the family’s story. In some ways, they’d been lucky: the whole family had gotten Snapped, so they hadn’t had to mourn each other. But they’d been abroad visiting family at the time, and when the Snap was undone, they were stranded there without papers. It had taken them this long just to get back to New York, where of course they didn’t have a place to live any more.

“One doesn’t grow used to being a refugee,” said Ali with a tired grimace. 

“Especially not when it’s like this!” said Fauzia. “I still can’t believe we’ve lost five years.” 

Ali, wincing and rubbing at his back, moved to stand and submit his paperwork, but Bucky forestalled him. “Here, I’ll take it, sir.”

Ali smiled at Bucky and settled back in his chair with a sigh. “We have lost five years, but allahu akbar, we have been returned to life, and we have each other, and that is a miracle. The rest will sort itself out, inshallah.”

“Inshallah,” murmured Sam. 

He spotted Bucky pulling out the envelope of his own cash for the family’s first and last rent deposit from his pocket, and handing it over to the receptionist with the paperwork. 

“These are your copies,” Bucky told Ali and Fauzia, when he came back with a packet of papers that Sam knew was thicker than it should have been; Bucky was giving them back their money. 

Warmth bloomed in Sam’s chest, expansive and sharp enough to ache. He cleared his throat to dislodge the happy tears caught there and said, “Let me give y’all some resources for the returned…” 

They didn’t leave until they got Ali, Fauzia, and little Ahmad settled in the thankfully furnished apartment. To Sam’s surprise, Bucky accepted a long, tight hug of thanks from Ali. Bucky hugged Ali back with gentle caution, mindful of his own strength, Sam supposed. Sam couldn’t hear what the two of them told each other, but when they separated, they were both smiling. They all exchanged phone numbers and promises to keep in touch, and then Sam and Bucky left the exhausted but joyful family to spend their first night together in their new home.

“You’re a good man, Bucky Barnes,” Sam told him on the way back to Natasha’s brownstone. 

The words were true, but they were a shortcut for something else, something Sam didn’t know how to express after seeing Bucky’s selfless kindness, something that almost ached, but in a good way. This felt different, somehow, from the super heroics of their day job—more personal, maybe. 

Bucky just ducked his head and shrugged. “Nah, anyone else would’ve done the same.”

“Really don’t think so. Anyone else definitely wouldn’t have paid their deposit for them,” said Sam.

“Just putting HYDRA’s money to better use,” said Bucky, sticking his hands in his jacket pockets, his shoulders hunching up.

Sam let the deflections slide, and they walked in silence for a minute or two. “Hey, you can just stay, you know. You don’t have to get a place of your own.”

“I don’t wanna—impose, I guess. I know you weren’t ever planning on getting stuck with me, I don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

“I think we’re past just being stuck with each other by now, Bucky. We’re teammates, aren’t we?” said Sam, gently bumping Bucky with his shoulder.

“Yeah. But you shouldn’t have to live with the guy who’s tried to kill you twice. At least. God, it was only twice, right?”

Bucky looked genuinely upset to need the clarification, so Sam swallowed down any inappropriate laughter or smart ass comments.

“Bucky, that’s—listen, you know I don’t think any of that was on you, right?” asked Sam. 

Shit, Bucky did know, didn’t he? Except, maybe he didn’t. They hadn’t ever really talked about it, beyond the occasional joke. Sam had thought forgiveness was implied what with working together and trusting Bucky to have his back in the field, but maybe Sam had to use his words here.

“Sure,” muttered Bucky, eyes downcast. Shit, yeah, Sam had to use his words.

Sam stopped walking, and put out a hand to stop Bucky too. “Hey, seriously. Maybe I’ve been kinda an asshole about it, but I don’t blame you for any of that shit. You weren’t exactly behind the wheel.”

Bucky lifted his eyes, and in the streetlamp-lit twilight, they shone like a pair of old coins. “I still did it.”

“And if you need forgiveness from me for it, you’ve got it. There’s plenty of shit about you that annoys me, but the things you did as the Winter Soldier, the things that happened to you when you were brainwashed and mind wiped? None of that counts, as far as I’m concerned.”

Maybe Sam still woke up in a cold sweat every so often after late-night replays of the Project Insight fight, or nightmares of the dead-eyed Winter Soldier coming for him like some kind of implacable Terminator. But memories of the real Bucky, the one he lived with and worked with and was, at this point, friends with, had long since crowded out any unease with the remnants of the Winter Soldier. That guy was so different from the Bucky Sam had been living with for the past three months that he couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever mistake them for each other.

Bucky let out one long, shaky breath. “Okay. Um. Thanks.”

“If you wanna move out ‘cause you hate living with me, or just ‘cause you wanna be on your own, that’s cool. But don’t leave on my account. Spare yourself this whole apartment hunting ordeal and stay.”

“Alright,” said Bucky quietly, eyes still downcast, but smiling now. “I’ll stay.”

As the weeks turned into months, people started calling the five years between when Thanos had snapped half the population away and their return the Blip. It didn’t take a former counselor to psychoanalyze that word choice. People wanted it all to have been a blip, an aberration, a glitch easily skipped over before the return to normalcy. Sam didn’t blame them. He just couldn’t be one of those people.

For one thing, the empty spaces in Sam’s life couldn’t be skipped over. They yawned wide and enormous, and maybe he could keep flying over them, wings and shiny new Captain America shield on his back, but he couldn’t ever ignore them. He wasn’t going to get back to any kind of normal until Steve and Natasha came back, and if they didn’t—Sam tried not to think about if they didn’t. He held to Bucky’s faith, if not his own.

Bucky’s patient faith in Steve’s return was alternately comforting and infuriating, just like his presence as a roommate. Bucky was neat and tidy, and if he kept weird hours when he couldn’t sleep, or if he woke Sam up with his nightmares every so often, well, Sam wasn’t about to hold that against the guy. Sometimes it was Sam up at weird hours or coming awake with a shout, after all, so he figured they were even on that score, and in the dead of night after unquiet dreams, there was a comfort in knowing he wasn’t alone.

One night, their nightmares aligned, and Bucky knocked lightly on Sam’s door. Sam must have made more noise than he’d thought.

“Sorry, did I wake you? I’m alright, man, you can go back to sleep.”

“I was already up. Wondered if you wanted company,” said Bucky, his voice still hoarse with sleep.

Was Bucky asking for his own sake, or for Sam’s? It didn’t matter: the remnants of Sam’s dream made his decision for him. He wanted to feel solid, right about now, he wanted to feel seen. He didn’t remember turning to dust, not really—there’d only been a dizzying moment of wrongness, then nothing—but his sleeping brain sure liked to act like he’d felt and seen all of it, and tonight’s attempt had featured a slow disintegration of his body that no one but Sam had noticed.

“Yeah,” he said. “Gimme a minute.”

“I’ll be down in the kitchen.”

Bucky hadn’t turned on any lights on his way downstairs, so Sam stepped carefully until he reached the island of warm golden light that surrounded the kitchen, where Bucky was perched on one of the chairs at the kitchen counter. His hands cupped a steaming mug of something, and another mug waited for Sam on the counter.

“Thanks,” said Sam. He took a seat on the chair beside Bucky and sipped carefully at the hot liquid. The scent and taste were unfamiliar, woody and sweet, but it went down easy and the spreading warmth made Sam feel more present in his body.

“It’s a tea from Wakanda, supposed to be calming,” said Bucky, his voice still pitched rough and quiet. “Shuri sent some back along with my stuff.”

“It’s good,” murmured Sam. They sipped in silence for a minute as the tea did its job. “You ever dream of it? The Snap, I mean?”

Bucky hummed in assent, and stared into his tea, his eyes shaded and shadowed by his long lashes, his expression too close to absent for comfort. 

“I saw it, you know. When my hand started turning to dust. Had just enough time to call for Steve. It felt—I don’t know. Like coming undone.”

Despite the hot tea warming his throat and hands, Sam went ice cold. He’d assumed it’d been the same for all of them, a moment of disorienting strangeness then nothing, but Bucky had felt it, had known—Something of his horror must have shown, because Bucky’s distant, hazy look cleared some, and he focused on Sam.

“It’s not—it’s okay. I dream about it sometimes, but it’s—they’re not nightmares. Just—weird dreams. Figure my brain is full up on nightmares, no new ones need apply.”

Sam snorted out a startled laugh. “Jesus, Barnes.”

“Do you? Dream about it, I mean.”

“Yeah. I didn’t feel it, when it happened, but tell my subconscious that.”

“You can wake me, if—I mean, in Wakanda, when I couldn’t sleep, when the nightmares were bad, there was always someone to sit with me. And—it helped. A lot. More than—I don’t know, a lot more than I’d ever expected.”


Bucky nodded. “Don’t know if I’ll be as good at it as Oluchi and Thandiwe and the others were. But I can try.”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks. You can wake me up too, you know. If you need it,” he said.

Bucky smiled at him, the sad and sweet smile that lived mostly in the fine lines around his eyes, and ducked his head back down to sip more tea. They sat in comfortable silence as they sipped on their cooling tea, Natasha’s house dark and silent around their little island of golden light.

So sharing wakeful nights with Bucky was a definite pro when it came to being roommates with Bucky. Sharing a bathroom with him remained firmly in the con column: Bucky spent as much time in there as Sam’s two sisters had in high school, and he used up all the hot water.

There was also how Bucky no longer bothered to make noise as he moved around the house. Sam hadn’t even goddamn realized that the audible steps on the hardwood floors and the rustling of clothes had all been so deliberate on Bucky’s part, a guest’s courtesy in a living space he’d figured was temporary. Now that the temporary part was off the table, Bucky lapsed back into moving around like a goddamn assassin, and it seemed like every other day that Sam was stifling a scream when Bucky came into the kitchen after him, so quiet that Sam didn’t even realize he was there until he turned from the stove or fridge to see him at the counter.

On one notable occasion, Sam had looked up from the armchair where he himself was reading the latest stack of reports from Maria Hill, only to manfully shriek when he saw Bucky sitting curled up in the armchair opposite him.

“Jesus, what’s wrong?” asked Bucky.

“How long have you been sitting there?” demanded Sam, clutching his papers to his chest.  

“Like, an hour, did you not notice?”

“No! No, I did not notice, because you make less noise than a goddamn ghost, what the fuck! I’m gonna have a fucking heart attack, I swear to god.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’ll…try to make more noise? I swear, I’m not doing it on purpose.”

Bucky looked so awkward and apologetic that Sam believed him, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop jumping every time Bucky entered a room as silently as if he were stalking prey.

Sam had to admit though, that when Bucky’s sudden, silent presence didn’t scare a few years of life off of him, it was nice to have him around. Sam was used to being the relatively steady one, the guy who kept it real no matter how weird and wild things got, but being resurrected and losing five years made that pretty damn hard. Bucky, in contrast, was rock-solid steady, to an almost concerning degree. Coming back from the dead, losing years—none of it was new to him, and he was proof that all that and much worse were survivable. If there was some comfort in knowing Sam was in the same boat as half the rest of the planet—the universe, even—there was even more comfort still in living with someone who’d been on an earlier, much more ramshackle boat in those same waters, and who had found safe harbor.

Even if, on occasion, Bucky’s coping mechanisms were pretty fucking weird.

“You know Hill has, like, a whole team of people handling the intel analysis on HYDRA and terrorist-affiliated groups during the Blip, right? You don’t have to have your own wall of crazy about it.”

Bucky glared at him from where he was pinning up a new set of satellite images on his cork board. When the hell had Bucky even gotten a cork board anyway, and why was it in the living room?

“You ever wonder how I stayed off literally everybody’s radar after Insight?” He gestured towards the board and his laptop. “This is how.”

“You’re not on the run anymore, man.”

“Sure, but these guys might still be interested in the Winter Soldier.”

“Right, okay, but it’s just a little weird that this is the literal only thing you’re interested in about the five years we missed.” 

“It’s directly relevant to me, which is more than you can say for all the sad TV shows that aired during the Blip that you’re watching. Are any of them even good? Because they all just seem really grim and depressing.”

“Hey, Glass Half Full is a sitcom!”

“You have watched multiple episodes where the laugh track wasn’t a laugh track, it was just a cry track. It’s fuckin’ creepy.”

Bucky wasn’t wrong. People got real weird during the Blip, from what Sam could tell, and the frequent public displays of catharsis had quickly tipped over from seeming like healthy expressions of shared grief right into being some real horror movie shit.

“I’m just trying to understand what people went through while we were gone.”

“People don’t wanna dwell on it, Sam,” said Bucky, glancing at him from over his shoulder. “And take it from me, it doesn’t go anywhere good if you do. You gotta live now, you gotta look to the future.”

Bucky had a point, not that Sam would admit it to him. Sam himself had counseled vets about exactly the same thing: the past is over, and we can’t change it. Look to what you can change: your present, your future. The problem was, while Sam was doing just fine with his present, and was even okay with his near future, anything past the next few months was a blank. He remembered what Steve had told him, during the long search for Bucky: I can’t think past finding Bucky. I don’t think I can make plans for a future if they don’t involve him. Sam got it, now. He couldn’t make plans for a future if they didn’t involve Steve and Natasha. At the very least, he needed to know whether to mourn them or not. 

He didn’t feel so stuck when it came to the job, thankfully. With Rhodey’s help, Sam led the Avengers’ post-Blip efforts: supporting the world’s continuing recovery, handling the villains and assholes who tried to take advantage of those who’d returned, training up a new team, liaising with their colleagues in space. Given all that, did it really matter that he was still living in a half-furnished, half-renovated house?

Bucky thought it did, apparently.

“We should probably get, like, more actual furniture at some point. Shouldn’t we?” said Bucky over dinner one night.

Four and a half months into living in Natasha’s brownstone, and neither Sam nor Bucky had yet done much of anything to the house apart from moving any inconveniently placed furniture, and getting household necessities like sheets and towels. Looking around now, a vivid possible future flashed across Sam’s mind: Steve and Natasha coming back, taking in the whole gave-up-on-renovations-halfway-through, squatters vibe Sam and Bucky had going, and saying why have you two been living like this? 

He answered their imaginary future question instead of Bucky’s.“We’ve been busy! And I hate Ikea!”

Bucky frowned at him from over his takeout container. “Okay? We don’t have to go to Ikea though. And if you’re too busy, I can take care of it. We should at least get a couch. And a kitchen table, we can’t keep doing this eating at the kitchen counters thing.”  

“Oh I see how it is, someone’s got ideas now that he’s an official roommate,” said Sam, uncertain if he approved of Bucky’s initiative when it came to interior design. 

This was Natasha’s house, was the thing. Sam and Bucky were practically house sitters. Hopefully. God, Sam really hoped they were just house sitters. And house sitters didn’t buy a bunch of new furniture. The counselor part of Sam unhelpfully floated the possibility that this was the denial stage of grief talking, but counselor Sam could shut it. Stages of grief didn’t apply when there were potential rescues via time travel in progress. 

“Well, yeah,” said Bucky. “Also, I really want a couch.” 

“Whatever, sure, go get some furniture.”

Over the next week and a half, furniture started appearing in the house. The couch showed up first: an enormous, squishy, dark green sectional with deep and wide cushions that, while it didn’t exactly match with the two dark blue armchairs already in the living room, didn’t exactly not match either. When Sam sat on the couch, he immediately understood why Bucky had bought it. 

“Oh, that’s nice.” He sank back into the cushions, which welcomed him eagerly.

“Right? It’s the exact right amount of squishy.”

Next was a sturdy kitchen table and matching chairs, and a couple of desks for a makeshift office space, followed by dressers for the bedrooms, and assorted other odds and ends. It was all nice, well-made stuff, no Ikea flatpack furniture, and it even fit in with what was already in the house. Sam was sufficiently inspired by Bucky’s interior decorating binge that he made some contributions of his own, mostly in the form of throw pillows and rugs and painting the walls, and after a couple weeks, the house lost its half-abandoned vibe.

Bucky didn’t stop with the furniture. His next home improvement project was the square of dirt and weeds behind the house that might, at one point, have been a garden. One Saturday morning, he hauled in big bags of soil and assorted gardening implements as Sam drank his morning coffee and watched, bemused. When Sam asked him about it, Bucky just shrugged with one shoulder, as if to say it wasn’t a big deal.

“Had a garden in Wakanda. I miss it, is all. And it seems like a shame to waste the space. Unless, do you think—uh, would Natasha not want—”

“I don’t know. Doubt she’d say no to homegrown tomatoes or whatever though,” said Sam. “You looking to recreate your little Wakandan farmstead?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, that yard doesn’t have anywhere near enough room for goats,” said Bucky. “I was thinking of going with a chicken coop instead.”

Sam stared at Bucky, who looked back with complete earnestness. “You want to keep chickens? In Brooklyn?”

“People used to do it all the time back in my day. Free source of eggs!”

“Okay, well it’s not the Great Depression anymore, gramps, and I am absolutely vetoing a chicken coop in our backyard, are you kidding me—” Bucky broke into a grin. “Oh I see, you are kidding me, very funny.”

“I thought it was. Seriously though, it’s just gonna be some herbs and vegetables, maybe some flowers too. If there’s anything you wanna plant, you can let me know. Or you can work on it with me, I wouldn’t say no to the help.”

“I haven’t really got a green thumb, so I wouldn’t be much help. Just clearing it out seems like it’ll be a big job, you gonna have time to plant anything before winter?”

“Maybe not, but I don’t mind. It’ll be ready for spring.”

Bucky’s casual answer belied the intensity with which he worked on the little plot of land, and the attention he devoted to it through late summer and autumn, but Sam recognized a coping mechanism when he saw it, so he left Bucky to it. Sam couldn’t help but wonder though: would Steve and Natasha be back by the time Bucky’s garden bloomed next spring?

Their first real mission as a team after the Blip was simple, as Avengers’ missions went. Some scumbag human traffickers had taken advantage of displaced kids and teenagers desperate to get back home to their families, and had been ransoming them back to their families. When the families didn’t, or couldn’t, pony up the ransom, they funneled the kids into the usual horrifying avenues. The Avengers were called in to deal with it both for the optics—the heroes were back and ready to save people, things were going to be safe, things were going to be normal—and because they needed to rescue the kids fast, before they were moved.

It just so happened to be that this was Sam’s first for-real mission as Captain America too. 

“Looks good on you,” said Bucky, when Sam walked down into the living room in his own version of the stars and stripes, the shield on his arm.


Bucky walked over, casting a sharp and assessing eye over Sam’s body armor. He reached out to tighten a strap here and there. Once he was satisfied, he smiled at Sam, a complicated thing that was a tangle of pain and pride and encouragement.

“Yeah, Cap.” Part of Sam still wanted to turn, look for Steve, but Bucky was looking at him, and the shield was on Sam’s back. “You got this.”

Sam breathed in deep, and squared his shoulders. “Hell yeah, I do. Let’s go.”

The mission went off without a hitch, mostly. The traffickers weren’t exactly a sophisticated operation, more opportunistic than anything else. Between Sam, Bucky, Rhodey, Lang and Van Dyne, they had more than enough firepower to deal with them. Bucky stayed on overwatch in the warehouse rafters, while Lang and Van Dyne went in to get the kids and Rhodey and Sam took on the traffickers. The shield flew from Sam’s hands easily, though every time it came back, it jarred his bones with its unexpected weight.

He was feeling good about it, until a couple of the traffickers burst out of a hidden trap door and got the drop on him. Or, almost got the drop on him. Sam knew in a split second that he didn’t have enough time to let the shield fly—he was no super soldier, he didn’t have Steve’s superhuman fast reflexes—and he hoped like hell his body armor could take a few bullets. When he heard the booming cracks of gunfire though, no bullets hit him. The two traffickers dropped.

“Alright, Cap?” said Bucky’s voice in his ear, calm and even.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good,” said Sam, and willed his heart rate back to steadiness. “Thanks, Barnes.”

After, Sam did all the right superhero things: he comforted the kids, he liaised with local LEOs, he did the press conference. But the whole time, he couldn’t forget that split-second moment, the near-miss that might’ve ended his career as Cap when it had barely begun.

“So is this how this Avenging thing usually goes, when it’s not about alien invasions and evil robots?” said Bucky when they were back in Natasha’s brownstone, on the stupidly squishy couch Bucky had bought, having a couple celebratory beers. “Saving kids and taking out asshole human traffickers? ’Cause I gotta say, it’s pretty great.” 

“Yeah, this is the life,” said Sam absently, picking at the beer bottle’s label.

Sam could practically feel Bucky’s frown radiating out, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky set his beer down on the coffee table. On a coaster, of course, because he was that kind of person.

“Hey. This was a good mission. Saved the civilians, no casualties. Why the long face?”

“Those traffickers almost got the drop on me. All I could think was, I’m not as fast as Steve. Maybe I’m Cap now, but I’m not as fast as Steve, and someday, that’s gonna get someone killed. It almost got me killed today.”

“I’m as fast as Steve,” said Bucky, and Sam looked at him. Bucky looked back, nothing but calm certainty on his face. “And I’ve got your back.”

“Shit, you really do just come along with the shield, don’t you.” 

The words came out stilted and harsh, wavering uncomfortably somewhere between a joke and a barb, and Sam winced, covering it with a swig of beer. Bucky didn’t find it a particularly funny joke, apparently.

“I’m not the weapon that comes along with the shield, Wilson, I’m a person who’s making a choice,” said Bucky, flat and furious.

Fuck. That’s not what I meant, Sam wanted to say, but the words rang hollow even in his own head. Sam forced himself to look at Bucky, to meet the hurt and anger in his eyes. Shame roiled like bile in Sam’s gut, and the smell of the beer still in his hand turned sickening. He set it down on the table before it could turn his stomach even more.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know that, and I know you’ve got my back and I’m grateful as hell, I’m just—being an asshole for no reason. Some Captain America I am, huh? Nearly got myself shot, and now I’m here being a dick to the guy who saved me.”

Bucky sighed, the anger and hurt in his eyes fading like they’d never been there at all. 

“You’re doing fine, Sam. And if it helps, it’s never been the shield I give a shit about. I wasn’t Cap’s sidekick during the war, I was Steve’s backup. And I’m not Cap’s sidekick now. I’m the guy who has Sam Wilson’s, my teammate’s, back. Okay?”

Sam believed him, but even if Bucky felt no obligation to the shield and everything it represented, there was still a Steve-shaped hole in their lives. Was it just for Steve’s sake that Bucky was sticking with him? Sam let out one long, shaky sigh. Maybe so, maybe not. But he was here. He’d watched Sam’s six today, and he’d saved Sam’s life, probably. Gratitude won out over resentment. 

“Okay,” said Sam, before holding his hand out to Bucky. “Partners, then.”

Bucky smiled, small but sincere, and took Sam’s hand in a steady grip. “Partners sounds good.”