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Sam would admit it – it was kind of strange to be sitting at a table here, at this wildly over-priced seafood spot along the Georgetown waterfront. It wasn’t even the whole Georgetown thing, a section of the city that Sam had never really spent much time in even when he actually lived in DC. Oh, Georgetown was cute for a daytrip, sure, with its quaint little storefronts and the C&O canal carving lush green tracks through it. But it was a pain in the ass to get to and a little too white and expensive to make it that attractive of a trip anyway.

It was more about what was next to Georgetown, to be sitting and picking over a plate of sub-par calamari right beside the Potomac, the old S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters gleaming along Roosevelt Island on the other side of the river. Hard not to look at it and think back to that day when he’d found himself fighting alongside Captain America, helping Steve to bring Project Insight to its knees. That day when the Winter Soldier had done his best to take Sam down, too, ripping off his wings and kicking him off the edge of a helicarrier to what would have been the death of anyone who didn’t have the same whip-smart reflexes and combat experience of someone like Sam Wilson.

Now Sam was sharing an appetizer and over-priced beers with the aforementioned soldier, who was looking a lot less murderous and a lot more stylish than any 106-year-old man had any right to be in a dark denim jacket and fresh new haircut. Bucky Barnes took a sip of his beer and sat sideways in his chair, regarding their surroundings in the same way any idle tourist might, but Sam knew that Bucky was the furthest you could get from “idle tourist” in every way. Case in point, the host had originally tried to seat them in a sunny table nearer to the pier, and Bucky had asked if they could have the two-top under the trees, right against the side of the restaurant.

“I burn easy,” he’d said to the host, with an unnervingly fake smile.

Sam, who would have preferred the sun, shook his head but said nothing. This was how Bucky operated, scrutinizing every scene through the old lens of the Winter Soldier, always asking himself if I was sent to come in here and kill everyone, how would I do it? Sure, it could be interpreted as thoughtful, but Sam imagined that playing chess against the ghost of yourself had to get exhausting.

Which was why, in Sam’s opinion, Bucky was all too lucky to have him. The guy needed someone to remind him to lighten up.

“How many escape routes you calculating in there?” asked Sam.

“I already calculated escape routes,” said Bucky.

“Okay, so what are you doing now, establishing a perimeter?”

Bucky raised his eyebrows at Sam, the rest of his face neutral behind his sunglasses (again, way too stylish).

“You think I’m that paranoid?”

“Oh, I know you’re that paranoid,” said Sam, snagging another piece of calamari from the dish that sat between them. Not enough batter.

“Thin line between paranoid and prepared,” said Bucky, looking back out over the scene. “How are things with the Smithsonian?”

“Slow,” said Sam, deciding to be gracious and allow the change in subject. It was the Smithsonian that had brought him back to DC, the new addition that he was lobbying to add on to the Captain America exhibit. But nothing moved fast in this city, least of all museums. Sam could have left the truth about Isaiah Bradley on the table, said good job and get to work and let me know when it’s done. But this was too important not to get right – which meant regularly scheduled trips back to DC, checking in with exhibit designers, helping with the fundraising.

He’d once called this city home, so it wasn’t so bad to return. And it came with the frequent upside of Bucky being willing to travel down from New York and meet up with him while he was in town. Not that Sam didn’t see enough of the guy already with the whole Captain America deal, but it was nice to catch up outside of the suits.

“Slow but good,” clarified Sam.

Bucky nodded, taking another sip of his beer before adding, “I guess one day you’ll be in that museum.”

“Then I can finally get some insight into your messed up mind – oh! Reminds me,” said Sam, reaching a hand into his jacket pocket. He pulled out something flat and rectangular, wrapped in a thin paper bag that had National Air and Space Museum stamped on the front.

“I got you something,” he said, tossing it over towards Bucky, who neatly caught it in his left hand.

Bucky gave him a look that even through the sunglasses could be construed as skeptical. He opened up the bag and reached his hand in to pull out a small magnet that depicted a recreation of a 1940s-style poster. Bold letters spelled out CAPTAIN AMERICA AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS! across the front, and beneath them were the painted depictions of a World War II-era Steve Rogers leaping into battle, his hand-picked troop, the Howling Commandos, along either side of him – including Bucky Barnes, just to his right.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s you! On a magnet!” said Sam, laughing. “Isn’t that cool? I saw it at the gift shop. That thing was ten dollars, okay, but you see your friend on a magnet, you buy it right?”

“What am I going to do with this?”

“Put it on your fridge,” said Sam. “Or stick it on that arm of yours.”

“My arm’s not magnetic,” said Bucky, considering the magnet before putting it back in the bag, neatly folding the top of the bag over, and sliding it into his pocket. “Thanks. I guess.”

“You’re welcome,” replied Sam. A sweet breeze drifted by, rustling the napkins on the table and skimming over the Potomac – which, Sam did have to admit, looked a lot cleaner than it had before he’d been blinked out of existence for five years. When he’d lived here, you felt like you needed a shower just looking at it.

“How are things back in Brooklyn?”

“Fine,” said Bucky. Sam waited to see whether that was all Bucky had to say, or if this was one of those situations where all he had to do was wait it out long enough to eventually be rewarded with a follow up.

Turned out to be the latter.

“I finished the book,” said Bucky, and Sam knew he wasn’t talking about one of those second-hand paperbacks that he sometimes pulled out during a long plane ride. And he didn’t imagine Bucky would be looking away as deliberately as he was if he was just talking about book three in whatever Overly Dense Fantasy Series he’d started reading.

“Hey,” said Sam, and Bucky turned his head a little at that. Sam smiled. “That’s good, man. That’s really good.”

“Yeah. Well. I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s done.” He let out a heavy breath. “I’m done, at least.”

“What do you mean?”

“Done with the book, done with the doc,” replied Bucky, taking another sip of his beer. “Guess I get my Wednesday mornings back.”

“You’re saying you’re done with therapy?” asked Sam, before laughing and settling back in his chair, “Oh, no, man. I don’t think so.”

Bucky stared over at him.

“I finished the book.”

“You finished the book. But we don’t just finish ourselves.” He laughed again at the slight frown on Bucky’s face. “Hey man, I’m proud of you. Really. I’m not saying that isn’t some real shit there, because it is. I know that was hard for you.”

“But it’s not enough.”

“I didn’t say that,” said Sam. “It’s just that… something like that, learning how to check in with yourself, work on yourself – it isn’t like an assignment or a mission that you just complete. It takes a while. You have to keep going at it.”

“Okay,” said Bucky, his brow still slightly furrowed. “So why aren’t you seeing a shrink?”

“You think I haven’t? I counseled vets, man. They don’t let you do that kind of thing unless you’ve been on the other end first – I did my time after I came out of the Air Force, a lot of it.”

It had taken him too long to come around to it, of course, as was the case with most of the veterans that he’d counseled. It was easier to fall into a spiral, believing what you learned in the service, that the thing to do was push through. That all you could do was keep going, like the regret and the nightmares were things to be muscled past. It had taken him a while to understand that sometimes the stronger thing was to stop trying to hold yourself together and just let yourself break.

“Look,” said Sam, “Therapy, it’s like – it’s like learning to ride a bike with the training wheels on. You don’t want to take them off too soon, but, eventually, you get to a point where you can.”

Bucky scowled. “I know how to ride a bike.”

“Come on, man. They didn’t have metaphors in the 1940s?”

“So I still need training wheels,” said Bucky in a monotone. “And you’re an expert bike rider?”

“In this metaphor, I’m doing the emotional Tour de France,” replied Sam. “That’s a bicycle race in – ”

“I know what the Tour de France is,” said Bucky. “It’s older than me.”

“And that’s saying something.”

Sam was smiling, but he felt the pinch of Bucky’s question still. Yeah, Sam was mostly pretty good, especially if you decided to consider how screwed up everyone else was and grade on a curve. And sure, maybe it would be nice to talk to someone, but he didn’t know how Captain America was going to find a therapist, let alone the time to see one. And Bucky would probably have had something to say about that, but lucky for Sam that knock-off HYDRA serum coursing through Bucky’s veins didn’t come with any mindreading powers.

Their waitress appeared then with two entrees – crab cake sandwich for Bucky, and for Sam, a catfish sandwich that he was already disappointed in. She was cute, long, dark hair swept up in a ponytail and a genuine smile on her face as she carefully placed their plates in front of them.

“Anything else I can get you gentlemen?” she asked, looking between them.

“Think we’re good for now,” said Bucky, and Sam took note of the way he turned that full smile on her. Nothing wry or forced about this one – there was a lazy charm to it that promised but you should check in later. “Thanks.”

“Of course,” said their waitress, smiling back at him. She lingered for an extra moment before turning and walking off towards another table. Bucky watched her go, and Sam watched Bucky watching her.

“What?” said Bucky when he turned back to the table to see Sam’s face. Sam grinned and raised his eyebrows in a universal gesture that apparently everybody but the hundred-year-old cyborg that he was having lunch with understood.

“Why don’t you use your words,” said Bucky, reaching for a french fry.

“Just noticing you and the waitress.”

“It’s called being polite.”

“It’s called flirting and you know it,” replied Sam, pointing with the fry for emphasis. Bucky shook his head, but he was grinning. “Aha, see,” continued Sam. “You know it.”

“Can we just eat?”

“Alright,” said Sam, who allowed a generous minute of eating in silence before turning back to the conversation at hand. Plus, it wasn’t like the food itself was that absorbing – he knew he could get the same order at half the cost and twice the quality back in Louisiana.

“So now that you’re a well-adjusted, non-murderous cyborg, how is the love life?” asked Sam. “Are you back in the game?”

“Ha.”

“Come on man, when’s the last time you went on a date? Don’t tell me the 20th century or I’ll cry into this catfish.” Sam considered his lunch. “Might make it a little less dry though.”

“You don’t have to cry,” said Bucky. “It was more recent than that.”

“Oh?”

Bucky chewed on a piece of crab cake, looking thoughtful before continuing. “It was before everything went down – everything with Walker and Karli.”

“Yeah? How’d it go?”

“She was a waitress at a spot I used to go to with Yori.”

“Uh huh,” said Sam, already sensing a drop to this story.

“I sort of…left, about halfway through. After she started talking about a man that was killed by the Winter Soldier.” Bucky grimaced slightly. “Wasn’t super romantic.”

“That’s a tough break,” said Sam.

“Yeah. So, haven’t really tried that since.”

“You can’t let that stop you. There’s a lot of people out there in the world, they can’t all know someone that was – had a run in with the Winter Soldier.”

Bucky furrowed his brow at Sam, and Sam could feel that familiar stare through the sunglasses. Sam chuckled and grabbed another fry.

“I’m just saying.”

Bucky nodded, and then, to Sam’s surprise, continued the conversation.

“The problem with dating is that it’s all about getting to know somebody. People want to know what you’ve been up to for the past ninety years.”

Sam laughed, and the corner of Bucky’s mouth twitched.

“They want you to share things about yourself. And I’m not great at that.”

“And you thought you were done with therapy,” said Sam. “No, but listen – you’re talking about all this like I’m telling you to find someone and get married. I’m not talking about marriage, I’m talking about dating! It doesn’t have to be serious, it can just be, you know, fun!”

“People have different ideas of fun nowadays.”

“You sound like Steve,” said Sam, shaking his head. “Which means you sound like an old man.”

“I am an old man.”

Sam shook his head. “You know when Steve and I were on the run – while you were having your nice little vacation in Wakanda? – he told me a lot about you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I think he wanted to convince me you were worth all that damn trouble. It really mattered to him that I saw you as more than just a brainwashed assassin who had tried to kill me multiple times – and wrecked my car that I had just paid off.”

“Here we go with the car again.”

“It was a nice car, Buck.”

“Well I got you the new suit didn’t I?”

“You put in an order for that suit, you telling me you built it?”

“I helped with the colors.”

“Red, white, and blue, how hard did you have to strain all those little wires in your brain for that one?”

“You know I don’t have any wires in my brain.”

“Hey, I don’t know what I don’t know, you know?”

“You going to tell me what Steve said?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sam, “I’m getting there. Anyway. One of the things he told me, he said you were quite the ladies’ man back in the day.”

“Back in the day?” said Bucky, huffing a small laugh. “You mean 1943?”

“Sure. Told me about all the double dates you’d set up for them. He said half the time he was just an excuse so that you could take out two girls.”

“Steve said that? Jeez.” Bucky shook his head. “So ungrateful. Kid was like the hardest person to set up with a date.”

“‘Cause of the skinny thing?”

“No, the moral righteousness thing,” Bucky nodded at Sam. “Maybe you know something about that.”

“Oh, I got no trouble setting up dates,” said Sam, which was mostly true – the real trouble for him these days was time. Hard to schedule a dinner with someone when being Captain America meant he might have to fly off halfway across the country after the appetizers were out.

“But we’re not talking about me. What happened to the lady-killer Bucky?”

“Things are different,” said Bucky. He opened his mouth, but it was a long moment before he finished the thought. “I’m just not interested right now.”

“And yet you flirt with my sister every time.”

A full smile broke out across Bucky’s face, and he looked over at Sam. “Well, that’s just to mess with you.”

“Man,” said Sam, scowling.

“Hey, you think I should ask her out?”

“Why don’t you shut up and eat your damn crab cake.”

xxx

Sam forgot about that lunch until later, when he was sitting at his laptop in the upstairs den with the video file that Torres had sent paused on the screen. It’s not pretty, Joaquin had said when he’d sent the file, but I still think you should watch it – just to get an idea of how they think. Know your enemy, right?

Joaquin was good for this kind of thing, keeping an ear to the digital ground and figuring out which rumblings were worth taking note of. And ever since Sam had taken up the shield, there had been a lot of rumblings. Most of it was typical shit, from the conservative zealots railing their blatantly racist credos, to the insidious “I’m on your side” types, couching their concerns in questions of authorization and oversight, questions that they’d never bothered with when Steve had worn the mantle. This was a noise Sam was used to – not that it made it any easier to hear. He tried to tune it out as best as he could.

Somehow Joaquin was able to tune into it without losing his entire mind – or his faith in humanity. He filtered through it all to figure out what was just anger and fear – dangerous but directionless – and what held the spark for something that could catch and grow into a raging fire. It was a real skill, and one time when Sam had complimented him on it, Joaquin, beaming, had said something about how after years of moderating on Reddit this was almost second nature to him. Sam had nodded as if he understood what that really meant and wondered distantly if this was how Bucky felt all the time.

This latest video was more vitriol, a digital manifesto from an angry group that apparently had an issue with any Captain America, given the way they gunned for Steve, too. You’d love them, Zemo, Sam thought to himself as he frowned at his laptop. But it wasn’t the hypocritical rhetoric, the logical fallacies, or the hacky narration with the bad voice filter thrown over top that caused Sam to sit up a little straighter and hit pause on the video.

Sam didn’t care too much for watching himself whenever he showed up in the media, whether it was some image online or an evening news report. He hadn’t cared too much when he was the Falcon, either, but this was different. Showing up on the scene in the red, white, and blue and brandishing the title of Captain America, that added a considerable heft to things. Those were the moments when he felt the hollowness of Steve’s absence, knowing he couldn’t ask Steve about it. What had it been like to see himself show up in old propaganda reels and vintage comic books? To walk through a museum about a life that didn’t belong to him anymore? What had it been like later, watching the news report Captain America on the Run?

But they hadn’t talked about it then and he couldn’t ask him now, and there was no point in dwelling on it anyway. Steve’s journey as Captain America had been his own; Sam was forging a new path for himself. So the moment the news anchor closed out one story and turned to the next with “Captain America was seen today…” he tended to pick up the remote and click the television off.

So despite the fact that there had been a dozen news cameras and hundreds of cellphones there on the night when the Flag Smashers had disrupted the GRC vote, Sam hadn’t actually seen much of the coverage.

Until now, at least. There was a clip from that night folded within the video Joaquin had sent him. It looked like it had been shot on a cellphone, and there was a moment, before it swung over to settle on Sam in full Captain America mode, delivering his speech to the huddle of senators, that it was resting on Bucky Barnes. Sam paused the video, rewound ten seconds, and paused on the shot of Bucky.

He almost looked as though he’d been painted into the scene, cast in a wash of different colors from the streetlamps and emergency lights. He was leaning against an ambulance with his arms folded across his chest, standing on the edge of the scene, another observer to Sam’s speech. Nothing particularly remarkable about him in that moment, unless you happened to be Sam Wilson, because Sam Wilson knew that man and his face all too well by now. And it was the face that was giving him pause.

Bucky’s face was an all-or-nothing game. Everything was either on lockdown or painfully open – and why wouldn’t it be, after decades living as a brainwashed HYDRA assassin? Years of being wiped and reset, cut off from your own self, would leave anyone out of practice with feeling, rendering nuance as some foreign concept. As far as Sam could tell, Bucky’s initial reaction to having his mind back had been to keep everything shut down. Sam had spent years chasing after the guy, fought with him and against him, but it was only now, in this new world, that he’d started to see a version of Bucky beyond the grim and guarded man who’d crawled out from the other side of the Winter Soldier.

It was that day by the dock. That clear, bright day, when the community had come together to help fix up the old Wilson family boat and Bucky had shown up and ended up staying. That was the first time Sam really saw a Bucky who wasn’t so determined to keep everything muscled back, who moved and smiled and spoke with a new sense freedom. Sam had wondered that day if this was what Bucky had been like way back before, if this was the Buck that Steve had known and grown up alongside, the one that he’d defended again and again. Things had been so easy and open between them that day, and that new camaraderie hadn’t left.

Now there was a look on Bucky’s face that Sam had never seen before, and he hesitated to speculate what it meant. But Sam had spent a lot of time talking to people who didn’t want to talk, and you learned how to read the other cues they offered up when that happened. How they were sitting, how they stood. The line of their mouth, where they were looking, the tilt of their eyebrows.

Come on Sam. You know what you don’t want it to be.

Affection. That was what troubled him. That was what he saw in Bucky Barnes’ expression, a painfully unguarded affection broken across his face like sunlight tipping over the horizon. It was a face that brought to mind the image of an animal rolling over and baring its stomach, the soft trust and barest please inherent in the action.

And he was looking at Sam. Watching Sam, to be more accurate, when he knew Sam wasn’t looking back at him. How many people had been there that night, cellphones out to record Captain America, and inadvertently snagged Bucky in this moment? The thought made something twist inside of Sam, sparking something protective.

He made himself pause, take a breath. Think, he told himself. You’re making something out of nothing. You’re making assumptions. You’re reacting to something you don’t even know.

And that was when he remembered the lunch in Georgetown, Sam dogging Bucky about dating. He had just figured Bucky was still being a guarded old man about the whole thing. Dating was intimidating for anyone, let alone a guy with seventy odd years of patchwork history as a trained HYDRA killer. Made sense for there to be some reticence.

But then he remembered the way Steve had always carried that torch for Peggy, and it hadn’t occurred to Sam that when Bucky had said he wasn’t interested in dating, it was because he was interested in someone already. And if the someone was Sam –

Sam was startled by the sound of the front door opening below, followed by the usual coming home sounds from Sarah and the boys – keys being pulled out of the lock, the rustle of plastic grocery store bags, AJ running towards the kitchen for a snack and Sarah yelling after him to take his shoes off first. Sam closed the video and shut his laptop, frowning slightly at the computer. He hadn’t even noticed the familiar grumble of the truck coming back down the dirt road.

“Sam!” called Sarah from the first floor. “We’re back!”

He stood up and pushed the chair back into the desk.

“Sam?”

“Yeah,” called Sam. “Be right down.”

Something out of nothing.

That was what he told himself, allowing himself to get caught up in the rest of the day, putting more space between himself and his suspicions. He helped Sarah with the groceries, worked on a lego set with Cass, had a quick call with Joaquin and washed the dishes after dinner. He was trying to forget about the video, but it was the conscious trying of it that seemed to keep it stuck in his mind. Bucky’s face, captured on that camera for one brief moment, kept returning to him like a piece of driftwood caught tumbling in the surf, being dragged in and out by the current of the waves along the shore.

But the tide had to go out eventually. That was what Sam reminded himself later, standing alone on the back porch with the frogs croaking and the night stretched out all around him, no more dodging from what he was trying to forget. Tide had to go out eventually, he reasoned, and things had to settle wherever they ended up.

xxx

Here was something else that wasn’t easy – figuring out just how the hell to even be Captain America. There were ideals, and then there were logistics. It couldn’t always be as simple as a group of militant idealists with enhanced physical abilities interrupting an international convention to take all the representatives hostage. A fight like that was just a symptom of something larger, and that was the harder problem to tackle. Even now, the Flag Smasher’s cause lived on, and that wasn’t the type of thing he could just throw the shield at and knock to the ground. It wasn’t the type of thing he would knock down even if he could, and that was part of it. When he picked up the shield, people noticed. So Sam had to decide what was worth picking up the shield for.

Steve had started going from one army base to another, trading in the 1940 Allied offices for a S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters on the other side of the century. And when that had gone up in smoke, he’d had the Avengers. Then they’d gone up in smoke, and it had been life on the run for two years, Steve leading them from one covert do-gooder mission to the next. Until a mad, intergalactic despot had shown up, scrambled the usual order of things, and Steve had decided that his next mission would be his final one.

Sam had watched Steve lead, but like with all things, it just wasn’t the same. Instead of Stark Tower, Sam had the Wilson family home in Delacroix, nearest major airport about an hour’s drive away. Instead of the Avengers, he had a kid in the Air Force who was happy to lend him some expertise in his off time, and a guy with a government pardon and a metal arm doing god-only-knew-what in Brooklyn. And instead of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the army for taking charge and handing down orders, he only had himself.

Sometimes that did mean coming up against a familiar sort of danger, the type that wore Kevlar and packed explosives into pipes. Other times it was like his days doing pararescue in the Air Force, arriving on the scene of a disaster and doing everything you could against a tide that wasn’t turning.

And sometimes it meant days like this, days where it wasn’t about tactical strategy or running into a fight. These were the days when it was simply about showing up and listening.

He and Bucky were in Oklahoma that day, in a small town about two hours out from Tulsa. They were at a modest political rally for Molly Sandoval, a young woman who was fighting the impossible fight – running against the republican incumbent of Oklahoma’s 1st district. It was the type of race that shouldn’t have made headlines, a foregone conclusion in a district within a state that overwhelmingly went red at every opportunity.

But Molly had something, that indescribable fire and honesty that managed to cut through the calloused sensitivity that every American started to build towards political leaders and their cheap-plated promises. Molly didn’t temper the truth. She tapped into a deep frustration and married it with a well of love, spoke of a yearning to care for her people and see care given to them. Her message brought in people from beyond her district, beyond her state. People all across the country were paying attention to Molly.

She reminded Sam of Karli. The way Karli, at her best, had seen how people from all walks of life and different backgrounds shared the same things, and seen how to unite them. Sam still felt the hollow question of what if echo within him when he thought about Karli. When had it become too late for her? When did the world fail her to the point that she had to wall off her heart, pick up a gun, and point it towards Sam?

“Hey,” said Bucky on his right. Sam glanced over at him. “You’re thinking too much.”

Sam furrowed his brow at him. “Excuse me?”

Bucky shrugged. “You’re the one who dragged us out here. Don’t tell me I flew connect to Tulsa just so you could stand here and contemplate.”

“Some of us like to think about things, Buck. We can’t all just flip a switch on our robot brains and go into hibernation mode.”

“Seems really inconvenient,” replied Bucky, turning his attention back to the crowd. He and Sam were standing a ways off, giving them enough distance to see the growing crowd as well as the stage that Molly Sandoval would eventually occupy. Sam was in mostly civilian mode – mostly, because he still had the wings and the shield tucked against his back, and Redwing was hovering lightly above his left shoulder. So, okay, maybe a little more Captain America than not. Bucky meanwhile was wearing a light jacket that still had two sleeves, so he at least was in full civilian mode.

“So what are we doing here?” asked Bucky. “We’re really just watching?”

“Yup.”

“Great.”

“I told you, you didn’t have to come on this one.”

“Well, I didn’t have anything else going on.”

“So you figured you’d show up just to complain.”

“Well, that, and I don’t trust Redwing to stop you when you try to do something stupid,” said Bucky, with a nod towards the robot bird. Sam laughed.

“Something stupid? This from the guy who regularly just jumps out of planes.”

“That’s not stupid, it’s efficient.”

“I guess there’s a reason they didn’t call you the Winter Genius.”

“Ouch.”

Sam looked over at Bucky, who was shaking his head but smiling, too. Sam couldn’t help grinning himself, until the memory of that video, that one frame of Bucky’s face, jammed itself like a crowbar in his mind, and he let his smile fade.

On stage, the local band that had been jamming for the last thirty minutes finished out their last song. There was applause from the crowd, applause that grew into a cheer as the bandleader took the microphone and started to talk about Molly, clearly building her way up towards something.

“Think the main event is starting,” said Bucky, looking around at the crowd.

“Good deduction, Winter Detective.”

“You think that doesn’t get old, but it does.”

“Not to me it doesn’t,” replied Sam, conscious of how propped the smile felt on his face.

Whatever else Bucky might have said was lost as Molly Sandoval stepped onto the stage, and the crowd roared like a super bowl stadium. Even from the distance he and Bucky stood at, Sam could feel the presence from the woman on the stage, the way she strode out with all the confidence of someone born to inspire. She hugged the bandleader, saying something that made her laugh, before taking the microphone and turning to the crowd.

“Hola! Halito! Hello!” she said, in a ringing voice. “It’s good to be here with you.”

Sam had asked Molly before coming, reaching out to her team to make sure they were okay with the idea of Captain America appearing at one of their humble rallies. The notoriety of the shield could cut two ways – he wasn’t interested in brushing up too much against politics, but he had hoped that Captain America showing up to Molly’s rally in Oklahoma might draw more people to listen in, win her more allies in an upcoming election that promised to be merciless. But it could do the opposite, too. He knew how his presence could be a distraction.

Molly had said yes. Had asked, even, if she would be able to speak with Sam after the rally, and he had been relieved. Because more than being a presence, reflecting some of the attention that inevitably followed him onto her, he’d genuinely just wanted to be there. He wanted to stand with a crowd that had come together on the strength of her message, to listen to what she had to say and hear how she said it.

And now after all that, half his brain was out the window, chewing over the same old worry like a dog with a bone. Bucky’s expression watching Sam. The idea of what that could mean.

Sam knew he was being real high school about the whole thing. Which was to say, he knew he was being real fucking stupid, getting himself worked up over unfounded suspicions. But part of the problem was, well – he was good at reading people. He was good at picking up the vibe. And he couldn’t help but look for it now, feel for it in the way Bucky smiled at him, stood beside him, always appeared by him, even if it meant taking a connect flight from New York to Oklahoma.

He knew the advice he would give to someone in his situation. Move on, because he didn’t actually know anything, or call it out, and see if there was something there. Because if there was, then it was the kind of thing Sam had to close off as gently as possible – because he cared about Bucky, of course, but he couldn’t feel that way about him. Knew he didn’t feel that way about him – Sam knew he liked women, for one thing, and not only was Bucky a guy but, well – Bucky was Bucky.

Solid advice for normal people, he thought. But the problem was that this situation involved Bucky Barnes. Bucky Barnes, who, in Sam’s generous opinion, had the emotional stability of a chihuahua.

On stage, Molly was wrapping up. Somehow the crowd’s cheering was even louder than before, a surge of hope traveling through them, inspiring the shouts and applause that followed Molly even after she left the stage.

“You know, people kept saying how much had changed,” said Bucky, his voice soft. There was a distant look on his face, brows slightly furrowed as he watched the stage. “When I really came back. People talked about how the world was different. But then I’d walk around the city, see a lot of hungry people, a lot of angry people, and think – not so different.” He nodded towards the stage. “Kid like her though, kind of makes you think things really can change.”

“Yeah,” said Sam, watching Bucky. “You get why I wanted to come?”

“Sure,” said Bucky. “She’s fighting the good fight.”

Sam nodded. “This world doesn’t just need soldiers anymore. We need a lot more listeners, a lot more people who are willing to help before it turns into a fight.”

Bucky was silent at that.

“Now who’s thinking too much?” said Sam, nudging him lightly. Bucky smiled.

“Uh, Mr. Wilson? Captain America?”

Sam turned to look and saw a youngish couple, an olive-skinned man and woman with a baby between them.

“Hi,” said Sam, smiling broadly at them. “Nice to meet you.”

The couple beamed back at him – they were a new family, and they just wanted to thank him and offer their gratitude, let him know how much they loved seeing everything he was doing. Sam was grateful for their support, happy to hear from anyone who seemed to understand what he was trying to do.

But he knew he was distracted while talking to them. He couldn’t help but wonder at the back of his mind how Bucky was looking at him now. He could feel Bucky pulling back during their conversation, stepping to the side and becoming Captain America’s protective shadow, as he’d always done.

As the couple walked away, Sam noticed more people looking over towards them, and towards him, specifically. Bucky must have noticed, too, since he was standing beside him and saying, “Unless you want this to become a convention, we should probably move.”

“Yeah,” said Sam, “I’m not meeting with Molly for another few hours.”

“Great. I’ve always dreamed of exploring whatever this town is.”

“Coronado. Don’t act like you don’t know,” said Sam, beginning to turn and walk away from the square, Redwing gliding easily beside him. “You know this is why people don’t like New Yorkers, right? You all think your city is the center of the world.”

“Compared to this place, yes,” said Bucky. He squinted around at their surroundings. “You think your robot bird can find a good place to eat?”

“I’m sure he could,” said Sam, “Or we could ask around, get some recommendations from the locals.”

“I thought the internet was invented so that you didn’t have to do that anymore.”

“That’s exactly why your generation pretends to hate the internet.”

“I don’t hate the internet. I don’t understand most of it, but I don’t hate it.”

“Look at you, defying stereotypes. I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks. So can we find some food?”

“Sure, let me find some people,” said Sam. Bucky did everything just short of groaning and rolling his eyes like a teenager, and Sam laughed and added, “Relax, old man. I’m not going to make you talk to anybody. I wouldn’t do that to an innocent person.”

Coronado wasn’t exactly a bustling city, and they were currently walking away from the heart of it. But they were still going down a commercial street, lined with drugstores and other beige-brick shop fronts that had store names displayed on chipped plastic signs, and there were enough people wandering in and out of these that Sam was able to talk to a couple of folks and get some recommendations through them. Bucky hung back during all of this, reminding Sam of when he was a kid and would wait for his mom to stop catching up with the cashier at the grocery store.

Multiple people ended up recommending the same taco spot, about a half-mile walk away, and Bucky was agreeable to it, so that was where they headed. It was hot, the air still, and Sam appreciated that they didn’t have far to go. They’d been walking for about a minute in a companionable silence when Bucky said, “Hey.”

Sam glanced over at him. Bucky was staring straight ahead in a determined way that Sam recognized, the precursor to Bucky saying something that was hard enough to say, harder still to look at someone while he was saying it.

“Something I wanted to ask you.”

“What’s up?” asked Sam, making every effort to sound casual while his thoughts went hurtling towards far-off conclusions, because what did Bucky have to ask about asking? He was trying to put the brakes on his thoughts, which were screaming you were right, you knew it, you figured out how he feels and he’s going to tell you himself now and you’ll have to let him down gently in this tiny-ass town two hours outside of Tulsa and the car ride back to the airport is going to be hell.

“Would you spar with me?” said Bucky, “Without my arm?”

“Spar with you?” repeated Sam, whose brain was scrambling to rearrange itself. False alarm. Never mind. Back to your positions everyone.

“Without this,” said Bucky, holding up his left arm, as if Sam would have ever assumed he was talking about the flesh and blood one still attached to Bucky’s right shoulder.

“You can – ” said Sam, who was about to ask take it off, before he remembered the chaotic fight in Riga. That fight had been a blur, and Sam had been busy trying to keep his own head above the water, as any one would during a battle involving John Walker and the Dora Milaje. But the definite clunk of Bucky’s vibranium arm hitting the floor stood out in his memory. He remembered seeing the stand off between Ayo and Bucky, the grim commitment on her face and the hurt shock on his – right before the Dora he’d been tangling with had put his own ass on the ground.

“Ayo showed you how to take it off?”

“I could always take it off,” said Bucky, grimacing. “Not the way she did it. But I can take it off.”

“Huh.”

“So – you’ll spar with me?”

“You don’t need to ask me twice to fight you, Buck,” said Sam. “Let me ask – why now though?”

“There’s no real reason for now,” said Bucky after a moment. “I meant to ask sooner.”

“Well, alright,” said Sam, who knew when he was walking near the edge of a wellspring of emotional repression. Part of the gig. “You know there’s a lot of places out there, like boxing clubs and martial arts studios and stuff, that work with people who are missing limbs? I used to have this one vet in my group, amputated below his right elbow – he got really into some kind of kung fu. Man, he was good, invited a bunch of us to come see him at, I don’t know, a match? Whatever it was, he really kicked ass. Put this other guy down in less than a minute.”

“If you don’t want to fight me you can just say that.”

“Did I say that? I didn’t say that. I’ll fight you anytime you want, man, I’m only saying – I can practice with you, but I don’t really know a ton myself about fighting with one arm.”

“Well luckily you’re not the guy with one arm.”

“I just mean I can’t offer any sort of – technique or advice, you know? But there are people out there who definitely can.”

“I know,” said Bucky. “I already found those guys.”

“What! Buck, you made more friends and you didn’t even tell me?”

“It’s called the internet, Sam,” said Bucky.

“You know it doesn’t make me feel good when a man three times my age is telling me to use the internet,” said Sam. “Alright, so you found people – they’re not good enough?”

“I can’t just fight with normal people.”

“Hey, I’m a normal person.”

“You’ve fought the Winter Soldier,” said Bucky. “Multiple times. And he didn’t kill you. That makes you not so normal.”

“Alright,” said Sam. “So you just need me to fight you.”

“I just need you to fight me.”

“Well, if that’s all,” said Sam, smiling, “Then let’s get some tacos and figure out the next time I’m in DC so I can kick your ass.”

“Okay,” said Bucky, his walk a little easier, a burden finally lifted. “Sounds good.”

xxx

Sam didn’t much care to admit it – or remember it at all, really – but the last time they’d actually squared off, after Bucky was finally cornered in Bucharest , Bucky had put him down fast.

Now to be fair to Sam, he didn’t have his wings at the time and he’d followed Steve into that room first, which should have meant the place was cleared. And to be fair to Bucky, it hadn’t really been Bucky who had been silently hiding in the shadows, waiting to leap forwards and wrap his metal hand around Sam’s neck to hurl him at the wall. That had been the Winter Soldier there, thanks to Zemo, of course. Zemo, unfortunately, had popped back up in their lives, but that was the last time Sam had seen the Winter Soldier.

Sam still had plenty of connections in DC from the days before Steve Rogers was a name in his phone’s contact list. Turned out, one of those connections was working at a boxing club in Northeast. He was able to put in a word with the owner of the joint, saying that Captain America would be grateful if he could borrow the place for a night, and apparently hearing ‘Captain America’ was all it took for Sam to get the spare key.

He could probably have found a spot for him and Bucky to practice through the Army or even Stark Industries, the latter of which he was sure had hi-tech operations facilities squirreled away all over the country. But he was still figuring out his own path, and when he flicked on the fluorescents in Maurice’s Gym that night and breathed in the dry, concrete smell, he felt like he was on the right one.

“Are we going to box?” asked Bucky, following him inside and looking around the space appreciatively. It was nothing fancy – just a big open room with a concrete floor and cinderblock walls with past championship posters tacked to them. There was a boxing ring set up along one side, and a pile of mats and punching bags set up along another.

“If you want,” said Sam. “I bet you’ve got a mean left hook.”

“Not tonight I don’t.”

Sam huffed a small laugh at that, walking past the ring to a large section of the floor that had been covered with foam tiling. He dropped the bag he’d brought with him on the floor, crouching down to dig around inside before pulling out a wireless speaker. LL Cool J had barely rapped Don’t call it a comeback before Bucky was asking, in his most skeptical voice:

“What is that?”

“Music, Buck,” replied Sam. “I’m not fighting without a soundtrack. Give me a minute to warm up.”

There weren’t any windows in the room, and without them it was easy to forget that outside it was Friday night. Plenty of the city would be turning off the lights, getting ready to settle in until Monday, while other sections poured drinks, turned up the music. Parties would be starting, concerts approaching their encores, clubs starting lines to get through the door. Outside, people were starting to pour into the weekend, while in here Sam was doing jumping jacks, going through stretches, getting ready to go a couple of rounds with a super soldier.

“Alright,” said Sam, feeling a little warmer. “You ready?”

Bucky looked over at him and nodded. He held up his metal arm, and with the fingers on his right hand tapped a pattern along the inside of his vibranium forearm before laying his right thumb along his wrist for a few seconds. There was the softest mechanical whirring, a quick pulse of light that traveled down his arm, and then with a light click Bucky’s left arm came off in his hand.

Sam had done two tours, worked at the VA office, counseled plenty of vets. He knew his fair share of men and women who had lost limbs as a result of combat – hell, he’d been there for too many of the bloody and confused moments that came before anyone was talking about amputation. You didn’t live the kind of life Sam had without knowing a couple people who could do everything you could, give or take a limb.

Sometimes Sam forgot about that part of Bucky. Most of the vets he knew, the ones who had prosthetics or used wheelchairs, they didn’t have Wakanda technology on their side. When Bucky was fighting or working or even just walking beside him, with a metal arm and a metal hand with five metal fingers that seemed to function as well as the real thing, it was easy to forget the whole truth of it – he was the guy with the metal arm, sure. Which also meant he was the guy who’d lost an arm in combat, falling off a train in World War II. Sam knew that story all too well.

“Alright,” said Bucky. He stood across from Sam now, empty left sleeve dangling off his shoulder. “Come at me – and don’t hold back.”

“Now why would I do that,” said Sam, mirroring Bucky’s posture and moving into his own fighting stance.

“Because you’re scared I’m going to wipe the floor with you.”

“You should just stick to staring, Buck – you’re a lot better at that than trash talk.”

Sam darted forwards, closing the distance between them and swinging at Bucky’s right. It was an easy punch for Bucky to block with his right arm, and maybe you could say Sam was holding back, but he would have merely argued that he was testing the waters, figuring out how this fight was going to go. He aimed a punch lower and Bucky pivoted away, bringing his right hand up in a chopping motion as he did so and aiming it towards Sam’s neck. Sam blocked it easily, pushed forwards.

It wasn’t like fighting the Winter Soldier. And not only because the Winter Soldier always carried about twenty types of guns, knives, explosives, and who knew what the hell else, in addition to having the metal arm. Because the Winter Soldier fought to kill and only to kill. Every single movement was merciless, calculated for maximum lethality at minimal cost.

Bucky didn’t fight to put a person down permanently. Sam had seen that when they took on enemies together, how Bucky was trying to take an old ruthlessness and tame it into something blunter. His movements had room for error, the feeling that there was a man behind them instead of the cold, brutal efficiency of a machine built to accomplish only one specific mission.

They went back and forth for a while, and maybe to an outside observer who didn’t know anything about either of them, it would have looked like an even fight as they moved across the floor, gaining and losing a little ground. But Sam was avoiding the obvious hits, the openings that would have let him put Bucky down fast. He knew he was controlling the fight, and Bucky knew it, too.

“I get you feel bad about beating up a guy with one arm,” said Bucky eventually, sounding slightly out of breath, “But it doesn’t help if you go easy on me.”

“Fine,” said Sam, his own breathing coming in hard.

Five seconds later and he had flipped Bucky flat on his back, leaving the super soldier staring up at the ceiling. Sam moved to stand over him.

“That what you wanted?”

Bucky flicked his eyes over to meet Sam’s and gave a short nod. Sam rolled his eyes but offered a hand, and after a moment Bucky took it, allowing Sam to help pull him up.

“Okay,” said Bucky. “Again – like that.”

“Alright.”

Sam stopped holding back – and realized, once he did, that Bucky had been restraining himself, too. Not that he was in Winter Soldier annihilation mode now or anything like that. But now it was less of a polite conversation – hello, how are you, let me allow you to finish your sentence before I start mine – and more of a fight, a real fight. The kind where Sam let a different part of his mind take over, where his thinking was all breath and muscle, balance and force, trusting his training and the edge he’d sharpened his instincts to.

Most of their rounds still ended with Bucky on the floor, or in a chokehold, or backed against the wall, or some other way that clearly spelled out Sam as the winner. But as they kept going, Bucky surprised Sam with a couple of moves that really left Sam scrambling, and at least one where he managed to pin both Sam’s arms under his elbow. That move had brought their faces close, enough so that Sam could see the individual droplets of sweat beading along Bucky’s brow and forehead. They’d locked eyes, and Bucky had pushed away then, grinning as he did so, but Sam felt that pressing worry, and wondered if Bucky had pushed away faster than he needed to.

It was crawling past one in the morning, and Bucky had just swept his leg under Sam, sending him stumbling backwards and flat on his ass, when Bucky finally said, “Let’s call it for the night.”

“Why, because you won that one?”

“No, because you’re tired.”

“Tired?” breathed Sam. “Why would I be tired? It’s not like it’s the middle of the night and I’ve been fighting a super soldier for hours.”

Bucky threw him a small half-smile and walked over to where their stuff was. He tossed Sam’s water bottle over towards Sam, and Sam caught it gratefully. Stretches be damned, he was sure he was gonna feel this tomorrow. Or later today, technically.

He drained half his water bottle and looked over at Bucky. His shirt was damp with sweat, same as Sam’s, and his hair was a sweaty, fly-away mess. Bucky’s vibranium arm was still lying on top of his gym bag, as though it was a piece of wayward sports equipment and not a one-of-a-kind technological Wakandan marvel.

“So,” said Sam, feeling that he had enough of his breath back. “They didn’t teach you anything in Wakanda?”

“They taught me a lot of things in Wakanda,” said Bucky, staring towards the side. “Best way to help a rhino with a cracked hoof pad. How to test if the soil’s good for growing yams. The high elastic modulus of vibranium.”

“Not that I wouldn’t have loved to see your little yam garden, but I meant they didn’t teach you anything about this while you were there,” said Sam, gesturing vaguely towards the spot in the room where they’d just been sparring. “Fighting without the arm?”

“I wasn’t really there to fight,” said Bucky after a long moment. “Really, it was… It was the first place I’d been in a while where I wasn’t there to fight.”

Sam nodded. They hadn’t spoken much about that strange time for either of them. Not Sam’s years on the run across the world with Steve, feeling like an anti-hero out of the Westerns he’d always had a guilty love for as a kid. And not about Bucky, about what had passed between the moment he’d asked to be put on ice, to greeting Sam and Steve on the battlefield in Wakanda.

“I got kind of used to life without it,” said Bucky after a long moment.

Sam nodded slowly, then asked, “When did they give you the arm?”

“When it was time to fight again,” said Bucky. He looked down to where it was lying, considering it. “It made sense. It’s always been a weapon first.”

“It’s your arm,” said Sam immediately, thinking about all the people he knew with prosthetic limbs and imagining how fucked up it would be for them to be withheld, only offered as a trade. “I know you can block bullets and shit with it, so, okay, it’s a cool arm. But it’s an arm first. It’s for helping you to hold groceries and tie your shoes and sometimes punch people in the face.”

“That’s a nice way of looking at it,” said Bucky, and Sam heard the clunk in his mind again, remembered asking Bucky did you know they could do that and how Bucky had responded no.

Sam pushed himself off the floor – and wow, that took way more effort than it should have – and crossed over towards Bucky.

“You know, we never got a chance to talk about this,” started Sam, “But it’s kind of messed up that the Wakandans gave you that arm with a little cheat code only they know about.”

Bucky shook his head. He was wearing that smile that wasn’t really a smile, some bitter resignation in the corner of his mouth. “Why? It makes sense.”

“Maybe to them, but I’m talking to you right now,” said Sam, his voice slipping into that gentle tone, the place that was supposed to be reassuring. “They could have told you about it.”

“You don’t build a secret vulnerability in a weapon so that you can tell the weapon,” replied Bucky in the same matter-of-fact tone. Sam concentrated on keeping his face neutral, not letting it slip the way it made his blood heat to hear Bucky talk about himself as if he were merely some tactical asset.

“They were just being careful,” continued Bucky, as though he could sense some of Sam’s tension. “When they let me into Wakanda, the world still didn’t know the truth about them. Now everyone knows. And when you’ve got something that everybody wants – you’re careful with who you give it to.”

“Sure,” said Sam. “Global politics I get. But you – ”

“Didn’t have any control of myself for seventy years, Sam,” said Bucky, and he didn’t sound accusatory or angry, just tired. “I’ve spent more time as him than as me.”

Sam was quiet for a moment. He didn’t pull out the usual platitudes, because they didn’t do shit – and he knew that, because people had tried to use them on him. Saying things about how the past was in the past. How you only did what you had to do to survive. How you couldn’t blame yourself for that.

What he wanted to do was tell Bucky that a second chance was the kind of thing you offered someone in good faith. That was why they were so hard to come by and so hard to give. Hard to accept, too, when one finally landed in your hands.

“But you’ve got control now,” said Sam eventually. “You’ve got you.”

“So far,” replied Bucky. He looked at Sam, and something passed across his face, like he was puzzling something out. Sam was about to ask if a bolt had come loose, when Bucky said, “You should know.”

“What?”

“You should know how to take it off, whatever Ayo did – they’d tell you, I’m sure.”

“No,” said Sam firmly. “I don’t need to.”

“Sam.”

“What? It’s your arm, and you’re my partner. I trust you,” said Sam. “That’s all I need to know.”

Bucky turned his face from Sam, directing his glare at nothing in particular. Sam sighed.

“Buck, you know if we were in a situation, if something happened, I’d have your back.”

“I know,” said Bucky, “But I should have yours.”

The realization came over Sam swiftly but gently. He’d thought tonight was just about Bucky wanting to make sure that he had all his angles covered, that he could still hold his own if something like Riga happened again. But there was more to it than that, more than the fears that Sam was starting to understand lay at the back of Bucky’s mind. It wasn’t just the idea of Bucky losing himself again, but that it could happen and then he wouldn’t be there for Sam. It struck Sam in some soft spot, a place that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar but had been mostly forgotten until now.

Sam took a breath, recovered himself, and smiled. “Hey, you don’t have to worry about me – I’m Captain America, baby.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly why I’m going to worry about you.”

“You gotta lighten up,” said Sam, reaching over to clap a hand on Bucky’s right shoulder. Just like that, the room felt lighter, some of the tension finally released. “You know stress can make you age prematurely.”

“Well,” said Bucky, one corner of his mouth twisting into a smile. “Guess I’d hate to look a hundred and twenty.”

Sam laughed. “I bet you would.”

“Just for the record,” added Bucky, “I can tie my shoes with one hand.”

“Which one?” said Sam, then laughed when Bucky turned a face of serious concern on him. “I’m kidding, Buck.”

They collected their things, making sure the room was put back in order. Bucky reattached his arm the same way Sam had seen him do it in Riga, bringing the joint up to his shoulder and swinging his arm around after it had connected. Sam couldn’t help but marvel a little at the design of it, how it immediately transformed from a solid chunk of metal to a fluid, glowing part of Bucky.

“You know we can do this again,” said Sam as they headed towards the exit. “If you want to. My guy says he’s happy to let us use the place at night whenever, long as we give him a heads up.

Bucky nodded, an easy smile spreading across his face. “Yeah. That’d be good.”

“Great,” said Sam. He flicked off the lights and locked the door behind them. He was about to mention that he knew a good pizza spot nearby, one that was actually open until three am, when he caught himself. Would that look some kind of way to Bucky? If Sam’s suspicions were nothing, then it would be nothing, but if they weren’t – he didn’t want to screw with the guy. He was walking some tight rope that he knew he’d put himself on, but he wasn’t sure what the best way was to get off.

“Sam?”

Sam blinked, pulled out of his own thoughts, and looked at Bucky. “What?”

“You just seemed out of it.”

“Sorry – been a long day.”

“Yeah,” said Bucky, still looking at him. Then he turned his head away, readjusted the bag on his shoulder. “Thanks again. For doing this.”

“Yeah, man,” said Sam. “Anytime.”

xxx

And then one day the rest of the Flag Smashers got blown up.

Sam learned about it on one of those rare Friday nights when he was actually home. He was in the living room with Sarah and the boys, watching some Disney movie about a girl who was off to save the world and had to sing about it half the time. There were two pizza boxes on the table, empty grease-stained plates stacked beside them. Cass and AJ sat cross-legged on the floor, absorbed in the movie, and Sarah and Sam were sharing the couch.

It used to be Sarah and Sam who sat on that floor, in this same room in this same house, always a little too close to the television set (one of the only things that wasn’t the same – Sarah and Sam had grown up with a big bulky thing that you could hear the static jumping out of). Their mom would stick her head in the room and tell them to back up, back up or you’ll ruin your eyes now and they would obediently scoot back under her watchful gaze, before inevitably drifting closer after she’d walked away.

Now Sam watched his nephews watching TV, something so simple and unremarkable, and felt it graze against his heart. These were the moments when it seemed almost insane to him that he’d ever stayed away from Louisiana for as long as he had.

“That used to be us,” said Sam, nodding at Cass and AJ. “Isn’t that wild?”

Sarah smiled and shook her head. “That’s what time does, bro.”

“That’s messed up.”

“It is.”

There was a ping from Sam’s phone. He’d left it in the kitchen on Do Not Disturb mode, which meant if something was coming through, it was something he needed to answer.

“No phones during the movie!” said AJ, twisting his head around to look back at Sam.

“Not even for Captain America?” asked Sam as he walked towards the kitchen.

“It has to be an emergency,” called Cass, still watching the movie. “A real emergency.”

Sam stopped to look over at Sarah with a face that said why would I be answering a fake emergency? Sarah rolled her eyes, her own face answering I’m just his mom, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about half the time.

Sam picked up his phone and saw why the notification had come through. It was a message from Joaquin:

Rest of the Flag Smashers were just killed. They were set to be transported from NY Facility to the Raft today, van they were in got blown up right after they were loaded into it. Probably deliberate. Looks like they were all killed in explosion. Injured officers too.

Sam stared at his phone, brow furrowed. Another ping from Joaquin.

Sorry. I know it’s movie night.

Sam shook his head, typed back a message asking about what else Joaquin could tell him, when his phone started to ring in his hand. He’d expected to see Joaquin Torres light up the caller ID screen, but instead was greeted with Your Friendly Neighborhood Cyborg.

“No phones!” called AJ again.

“My bad, my bad, I’ll take it outside,” replied Sam, heading towards the back door and answering the phone as he did so.

“Hey Buck,” he said, stepping into the night.

“So someone blew up the Flag Smashers.”

“I’m good, thanks, how are you?”

“Sam.”

“Yeah. Someone blew up the Flag Smashers – how did you know that?”

“Torres told me.”

“Torres tells you things, too?”

“Aren’t we supposed to be a team?” said Bucky, and Sam could practically hear the heavy air quotes around team as he said it.

“I’m kidding,” said Sam, “Who do you think gave him your number?”

“Thanks for that. So what are you thinking?”

“About the Flag Smashers?” asked Sam. “I don’t know, I’ve had about thirty seconds to process this.”

“But you know who did it.”

Sam was silent at that. He knew who Bucky was talking about. And it was who he had first thought of, too. If you spend a lot of time with a guy who’s very passionate about wanting to kill all super soldiers, he’s maybe the first guy you think of when a bunch of super soldiers end up dead.

“Listen,” said Sam, “It might not be him. The Flag Smashers made a lot of enemies – they held the entire GRC hostage, and if things had gone their way, they would have killed everyone there.”

“So we’re writing him off?”

“No, we’re not. I just think we don’t limit the list to only him.”

“Maybe,” said Bucky. He was quiet for a moment, then continued. “The type of people who sit on the GRC, or work for that council – they’re interested in results more than revenge. They’re the type of people who would look at a group of super soldiers and try to figure out how to use them.”

Sam was silent, because he knew Bucky was right.

“Someone who killed them all, doesn’t care about that,” said Bucky. “They just wanted them destroyed.”

“Yeah,” said Sam, feeling a strange reluctance to go down this path. Couldn’t they just be done with this guy?

“And Zemo’s done this before,” said Bucky. And Sam knew what he was referring to – the scene that Steve and Bucky had walked into in Siberia, the super soldiers shot dead in their cryo chambers.

“I know,” said Sam. He rubbed a hand across his face, seeing the responsible course of action. Zemo made the most sense, and if Zemo had somehow figured out how to orchestrate and carry out an explosive murder while being kept locked and surveilled in the world’s most high-security prison, then that was another problem.

“Damn,” said Sam. “I have to go see Zemo.”

“We have to go see Zemo.”

“Oh you’re coming?” said Sam with mock surprise. That earned him no response. “Yeah, I figured you might say that. But the last time we talked to Zemo in a prison, you busted him out.”

“That was different.”

“Uh huh. Well no jailbreaks this time.”

“No jailbreaks,” agreed Bucky. “Unless I get bored.”

“You’re a menace,” sighed Sam. He could hear a small chuckle from Bucky on the other end.

There was a full moon that night, glinting off the bayou in the distance. A noisy night-time chorus played all around him – chirping insects and frogs, and somewhere further an owl. Sitting here, with life teeming all around him, it was hard to conceptualize a place like the Raft – closed and closed in, buried in the ocean.

“When are you going to go?” asked Bucky eventually.

“Soon as I can,” said Sam. “I’ll have to talk to someone with Defense, I don’t think we can just fly up on the Raft.”

“Probably not.”

“I’ll talk to Joaquin first, see what else he knows. Try to get us out there tomorrow or Sunday, I’ll let you know.”

“Great.”

Neither of them hung up. It was easy to sit out here on the back porch on the phone with him, even if he did have a movie to get back to. He wondered what Friday night in Brooklyn looked like for Bucky. Probably nothing too exciting, since he’d gotten the Flag Smasher news and called Sam all within five seconds.

“Okay,” said Bucky after a while. “I gotta go.”

“Wild Friday night plans?”

“Obviously.”

Sam laughed. “Alright. I’ll let you know when I’ve got us a ride to the Raft.”

“Thanks – oh, do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Tell Sarah I say hi.”

“What did – alright, good talk, have a good night, Buck,” said Sam over Bucky’s laughter. He hung up, shaking his head.

He meant to go back inside and catch the end of the movie, but it was too easy to stay out for another moment, and let that moment turn into too long. He always liked sitting on the back porch, letting the sounds and feelings of the outdoors drift across him and quiet his mind.

He heard the wooden scrape of the screen door opening – the humidity always caused it to swell, and you had to give it an extra little push to get it open. Sarah stuck her head out and looked over at Sam.

“You’re still out here?”

“Can’t a man sit on his own porch?”

“It’s our porch,” said Sarah, stepping all the way outside. “And yes, he can, but he did miss the rest of the movie.” She walked over and sat down in one of the chairs beside Sam. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “Everything’s fine. Just a lot to think about.”

“Mm.”

“Bucky says hi, by the way.”

She laughed at that. “Is that what you’re doing out here? Talking to him on the phone?” Sarah had a smile that could light up the yard even at night, and she was smiling now looking over at Sam. “You remember high school? You used to sneak down at night and throw the kitchen phone through the back window here, so you could talk to Chrissy or Nondi or whoever.”

“Chrissy was tenth grade,” said Sam. “Nondi was… damn, maybe also tenth grade?”

“Mom would always ask who’d been stretching out the cord so long.”

“Yeah well, she was the one really stretching it out. Talking on the phone for three hours while cleaning everything on the first floor.”

“Yeah, that kitchen phone worked hard.” Sarah leaned back in her chair, breathing deeply. “So what was the call about?”

“The rest of the Flag Smashers,” said Sam after a moment, “They were supposed to be transported today to a high security prison. But their van exploded, and they were all killed.”

“Oh my god, Sam – that’s terrible.”

“It is,” said Sam. He wanted to reach over and hug his sister just for having a normal reaction to tragic news. One of the downsides of this line of work. Mourning always seemed to get sidelined.

“So now you gotta figure out who did this?”

“I might already know who did this. Doesn’t really make it any easier.”

“It’s like what dad used to say,” said Sarah. “About how the just road is always the harder one.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “But he used to say that about everything. He’d say that if I was ten minutes late getting out of bed at five am.”

“He did say it a lot,” laughed Sarah. “But he wasn’t wrong. The right thing’s always the hard thing, and you’re out here superhero-ing and trying to save the world and all of that.”

“Yeah I know. You don’t have to remind me.”

“All I’m saying is,” continued Sarah, “You gotta look out for yourself, too. It’s okay for you to have a movie night with us.”

Sam looked over at Sarah. “Oh, I see – I disappear for five years and you think you get to be the older sibling now.”

“Age don’t got nothing to do with it, I’ve always been the wiser one.”

“Oh really now.”

“Yup,” said Sarah, standing up, “I’m gonna head to bed now, we left the dishes in the sink just for you.”

“My wise old sister can’t clean the dishes?”

“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that, ‘cause if I had heard that, I’d have to come over there and punch you.”

“Okay okay, goodnight Sarah!”

“Night Sammy.”

She disappeared back inside the house, and from the porch Sam could hear a handful of kitchen noises, followed by the staircase’s familiar creaking as Sarah made her way upstairs. He gave himself another minute outside with the night, then stood up, stretched, and went back inside. He had dishes to take care of.

xxx

These days, Sam didn’t like the feeling of owing the army a favor.

When he’d first returned to the world after being snapped out of existence for five years, everything had been chaos. Then Steve was gone and the dust didn’t seem to be settling, it just whipped around more. Sam was caught in a storm, and so he reached out for an anchor. That had brought him back home, back to his family and his community. And it had also brought him back to the Air Force, lending his wings to what had seemed like a good cause.

Because hadn’t the Air Force also been family once? When he was just out of high school, still a kid but thinking himself a man, not yet seeing the ways the army recruitment tables were always setting up shop at schools like his – public schools, lower-income neighborhoods, predominantly Black. At the time, he only saw opportunity. Sign up and see the world. They gave you a college education, direction, a purpose behind you.

Then he found his way into pararescue, and that had felt right in a way nothing else ever had before. It wasn’t about learning to fly or taking down enemies – it was about dedicating his entire self in pursuit of saving others. The men and women he served with had become another kind of family, his brothers and sisters. If he hadn’t joined the PJs, he never would have met Riley. And if it hadn’t been for their time flying rescue missions together, he never would have become Falcon. He wouldn’t have met Steve Rogers, wouldn’t have helped to save the world, and he wouldn’t be standing here now as the new Captain America.

But pararescue didn’t stand alone. They stood beside and in service of the US Armed Forces and the Department of Defense, who had smiled at Sam while shaking his hand and thanking him for the shield, right before turning around and handing it to John Walker. The memory of that betrayal still left a sour feeling in his stomach. Of course it didn’t matter that Sam had fought beside Steve Rogers, that Steve Rogers himself had handed that shield to Sam. Of course that’s what they would do. But the bitter truth of it didn’t take the sting out of it. You could brace for the impact, but it still hurt.

So Sam wasn’t feeling so chummy with the Army these days. But he needed access to the Raft – fast – and the easiest path involved talking to Joaquin and pulling on old connections, connections that he was sure would pull back themselves one day.

For now, it had earned him and Bucky a ride on a small cargo plane, piloted by Joaquin himself, and that at least was a small relief. Sam spent most of the ride near the front, chatting with Joaquin, who always had something to chat about. He got updates about Joaquin’s family, including the latest gossip surrounding his cousin Jeanette’s wedding – her third one, and a destination wedding, which was the suspicious part of it all according to Joaquin because everyone knew Jeanette and everyone knew her fiancé Leon and neither of them had the money for a wedding in Thailand, of all places, so something had to be up there, I mean you know what I’m saying?

As they neared the coordinates of the Raft, Sam gave Joaquin a small pat on the shoulder, interrupting another family story.

“Hang on to that, man,” said Sam. “I’ll be back in a sec.”

He moved back towards the cargo hold, where his decidedly un-chatty partner was spending the trip. Bucky was sitting on one of the benches that folded down from the side, a book open in his vibranium hand.

“Is it any good?” asked Sam as he approached. Bucky glanced up at him, dog earing the page he was on and folding the book closed. Sam had expected to see another one of those nerdy fantasy novels with a self-serious title. He was surprised to recognize the cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God in Bucky’s hands.

“Not bad,” said Bucky.

“Yeah, I’ve read this one,” said Sam, bemused. “Doesn’t seem like your usual pick.”

“Why?”

“Not many dragons in it,” said Sam. “Unless I’m remembering it wrong. It has been a while since high school.”

“I read more than one type of book,” replied Bucky. “We almost there?”

Sam nodded. “Probably another twenty minutes.”

“Alright,” said Bucky. “So how do you want to play this?”

“I think I should go in alone,” said Sam, who’d been chewing it over on the plane.

“And I think that’s a bad idea.”

“Yeah, I figured you’d say that. But I don’t need backup on this one, Buck. Nothing’s going to happen to me – this is the Raft. But if you show up, he’s going to spend the whole time just trying to mess with you.”

“Zemo likes to talk,” replied Bucky. “If I’m there, he’ll talk more.”

“That’s like saying hey, if we throw a cow in a lake full of piranhas, we might see more piranhas!” exclaimed Sam, “And you’re the cow.”

“Except it’s like you just said, it’s the Raft. He can’t get at us.”

“But he can mess with us,” said Sam, looking at Bucky. “He can mess with you.”

“Good thing I’ve got a great therapist,” said Bucky, meeting Sam’s gaze. Sam held it a moment longer, then sighed and shook his head. He couldn’t force Bucky to stay behind, and if Bucky wanted to stick to Sam like the most determined, crusty barnacle on the hull of a ship, there was no prying him off. The man was super soldier stubborn.

“Alright. But maybe let me handle the talking.”

“Whatever you say, Cap.”

Sam left Bucky to his book and moved back to the front of the plane to watch their approach. It was a clear day, the world divided into two perfect halves with the blue sky above and the ocean below. And waiting for them in the center of it, like some strange and ominous sea beast, was the Raft. It reminded Sam of the old story in the bible, Jonah and the whale. The Raft did the same thing – swallowed people up, carried them through the ocean. But Jonah had divine intervention waiting for him, and the same couldn’t be said for the people on the Raft. Usually.

The last time Sam had entered the Raft had been as an inmate. He’d done it for Steve, who’d done it for Bucky, and he’d had no regrets – but he remembered the creeping shame that had slithered inside him all the same. Even with the truth on your side, prison was prison, and the Raft in particular made you feel the weight of your confinement. It didn’t matter enough that this time when Sam entered, dressed like a civilian, armed guards saluted and stood aside for him. The dark walls loomed all over, cold and pressing. You’re back, the Raft seemed to say. As if that was all that mattered.

“How you doing,” asked Bucky beside him, his voice low.

“Great,” replied Sam. “Really missed this place.”

Two armed guards in black fatigues led them through a series of halls, stopping multiple times and waiting for a heavy set of doors to slide open for them. Finally, there was one set where they stopped and turned back to Sam and Bucky, and it was like déjà vu all over again when one of the officers addressed Sam to tell him, “He’s past this door.”

“Last chance,” said Sam, looking over at Bucky. He was treated to a silent glare. “Alright then – like we said. I’ll handle the talking.”

Bucky nodded in response. Sam turned and gave a nod to the guard, who scanned his thumb and keyed in a code. The last door slid open.

Sam wanted to believe in the potential of people, that no one ever had all the goodness burned out of them. He was familiar with the other side of that belief, the way some people were labeled as damaged goods right from the beginning, born bad. He understood all too well the systems that left people with no choices to make but bad ones, then pointed and condemned and said I told you so when the bad choices were made. Give someone enough chances and enough time, and Sam wanted to believe they could choose good.

But Zemo tested that. Here he was again, standing on the other side of his cell, arms folded politely behind him and smiling as Sam and Bucky approached, as if they were merely guests at his invitation. All of it – the casual camaraderie, the soft way of speaking – a pretty picture to cover over the emptiness. Sam knew loss, and knew how it could lead a person to be more empathetic or close themselves off. For Zemo, it had shut him down, burned down a man to leave only an ideology, a determination to see heroes fall.

Sam steeled his face as he came to a stop directly across from Zemo, Bucky hanging slightly behind on his left. There was a small intercom built into the cell wall, to allow them to talk between the six inches of polycarbonate glass and steel bars. A small red light on the intercom blinked out and was replaced by a green one.

Zemo smiled, and Sam’s first thought was of an alligator drifting in dark waters.

“Sam. How kind of you to visit.”

“This isn’t a social call, Zemo.”

“Of course not,” said Zemo. His eyes flicked over behind Sam. “And James. Ever the moth to Captain America’s flame. How does it feel? Just like the old days?”

“Like I said, not a social call,” repeated Sam.

“Ah, forgive me.” Zemo raised a hand, his beady eyes lingering over Bucky before turning towards Sam. “I don’t receive many visitors, and my manners are out of practice. What can I do for the new Captain America?”

“I’m sure you remember the Flag Smashers.”

“Of course. How could I forget our grand tour?”

“The ones who were left were supposed to be your new roommates. Then two days ago, they all got into a van.”

Zemo looked at Sam as though he were sharing a charming anecdote during a dinner party.

“The van blew up,” said Sam. “There were no survivors.”

“How terrible,” said Zemo. “Yes. I did hear about that, actually.” He gestured behind him. “I have a radio here. Good behavior.”

“I’m thrilled to hear it,” said Sam.

Zemo didn’t immediately respond. Sam could feel the way Zemo’s eyes dragged across him, as though it were a stranger’s hand moving over his body. He focused on keeping his expression neutral.

“So you think it is something to do with me,” said Zemo, “And now you are here, trying to find the holes in the ship so that you can plug them up.”

“The Raft isn’t the kind of place you want holes.”

“Tell me.” Zemo spread his hands out wide. “How could a criminal being kept in the world’s most secure prison orchestrate such a thing?”

“Well, I’m not sure. That’s why I’m here, talking to you.”

Zemo clucked his tongue. “Sam. This is no dirty American prison with minimum wage guards. They are quite selective about who they employ. Very loyal, strong-willed people. They are taken care of, well paid – they do not easily fall for bribes or threats. I’ve tried.”

“Which one, the bribes or the threats?”

Zemo’s grin was sharkish. “I always try the carrot before the stick.”

“You don’t seem too shaken up about the whole thing.”

Zemo gave a small shrug. Even behind the bars, dressed in the blue smock and pants of a prisoner at the Raft, he carried himself with the same smug confidence he’d swanned about with out in the world. He did enjoy having his leverage.

“You’ll forgive me for not seeing it as much of a tragedy. I’ve only been honest with you from the beginning – I am not interested in a world full of super soldiers and titans, where we aspire to turn people into gods. That has never served humanity well.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Sam. “I know this talk.”

Zemo laughed. “Yes, that’s right. I remember the last time we had this conversation. You made some good points. And you defended your friend.” His eyes flicked over towards Bucky. “I mean you, James. It was very sweet.”

Sam glanced backwards towards Bucky, who was doing a fantastic job so far of sticking to the plan where he did nothing and Sam handled everything. He was staring forwards, Zemo’s words evidently finding no purchase in him. Nice one, Buck.

“You’ve gotten better at controlling your temper. Or maybe it’s just this – ” said Zemo, gesturing to the thick wall of glass between them. “ – not that anything like this stopped you during our first introduction.”

Bucky remained silent, but Sam tensed slightly – this was the risk with letting Bucky come along. Zemo liked to talk about the way he had used Bucky in his ploy to fracture the Avengers as though it was nothing personal, like Bucky was merely a pawn on the board, a necessary sacrifice for a better play. But that sure as hell hadn’t been any consolation to Bucky, who’d been dumped from one person’s board to another for nearly a century. And Sam had seen nothing impersonal in Madripoor, in the way Zemo had relished the Russian words that had left Bucky with no choice but to knowingly comply. Didn’t take much for him to fall back into form, eh? he’d asked Sam with a nod and a drink, as though inviting Sam to enjoy the show.

“Impressive restraint,” said Zemo, with all the pride of someone who’d trained their dog to balance a treat on their nose. “Born of a necessity I think, yes? Not one required with Steve Rogers.”

Sam felt something eerie in the way Zemo was speaking to Bucky, like something unseen brushing against his legs in the water. Zemo liked to speak in slippery ways, finding the murky spots and setting tripwires with his words. If Sam didn’t know what he was talking about, probably a good reason to try to steer the conversation away from whatever Zemo was doing.

“Hey. We’re not here for the diet Hannibal routine,” said Sam.

“No. You came here for your questions,” said Zemo. He glanced towards Bucky. “Although I suppose you came for something else.”

“We’re here for the same reason,” said Sam.

“The Flag Smashers,” said Zemo, almost rolling his eyes. “Tiresome. Sam, even if I was involved in something like this – an involvement which, still, is an impossibility – but if I were. Like the bad guys always say in your movies, why would I tell you anything? I am at the end of the line.”

“Great point,” said Sam. “Well it’s a little like you were just saying, there’s the carrot or the stick. I could probably put in a word, and I could get that shiny new radio of yours put away for a bit. Or you can tell me something that I actually believe, and maybe we can get you some new reading material, some Sokovian crosswords. I know Amazon doesn’t deliver out here.”

Zemo smirked. “I don’t support their abusive labor practices anyway.”

“Such an ethical guy. Well I’ll find an independent bookstore, just for you. How’s that sound?”

“I have missed these conversations, you know. Our time together.”

“If you like going new places and meeting new people so much, maybe you should have considered all that before you bombed the UN.”

“Perhaps I would be more inclined to take those words to heart if I didn’t know that you have stood exactly where I am now,” said Zemo. “Well, not exactly. Your cells were on a different floor, right?”

“This was fun Zemo,” said Sam, stepping back. “Really great. We’ll have to never do this again.”

“What about information for information,” said Zemo. His cadence didn’t change, but Sam detected a sharper edge to his words. “A fair trade. Save you the trip from the bookstore.”

“Information? I’m not going to trade state secrets with you.”

“If I was interested in state secrets, I wouldn’t be talking to Captain America to learn them,” said Zemo with a small smile.

“So what do you want to know?”

“I’m merely curious about you,” said Zemo, and Sam could feel the conversation shift beneath him, like rotten floorboards that had a little too much give. “A regular man, trying to take the place of a super soldier. What is that like?”

“You want to know what it’s like for me to be Captain America?”

“If that is how you choose to interpret my question, then yes.”

Sam stared. “And then you’re going to tell me something that I’ll find satisfying?”

“Yes.”

Sam frowned at Zemo, then allowed himself a sideways look towards Bucky. Bucky looked back at him, holding his gaze. His face was a shut door, his mouth a hard line, but even still Sam could read the shrug in Bucky’s eyes. Go ahead. Let’s get this over with, he seemed to say.

“Alright,” said Sam, turning back to Zemo. He could try to guess at what Zemo wanted, or what Zemo might want to hear. But Zemo dealt in deception, Sam in honesty. All he could do was answer the question.

“The stuff that everyone sees? The wings and the shield, the fights they end up talking about on the news – those things aren’t so bad. I used to be with the PJs. I used to not exist. I’ve fought with like, twenty different types of aliens to save the universe from the guy that made me not exist.”

Zemo nodded.

“The hard part is keeping faith,” continued Sam. “Believing in a better world. I’ve seen some shit in my time. I’ve done some shit, too. I know how easy it is – give up on the right thing, hold on to the wrong thing.” Sam nodded at Zemo. “Maybe you even know something about that.”

Zemo gave Sam a smile, but his eyes were hard. “Wishful thinking on your part, Sam.”

“Yeah. Well a guy can hope.”

“You have a beautiful outlook,” said Zemo. “If not also terribly naïve.”

“That’s the easy way out, you know. Just decide there’s no point to anything, assume the worst in everyone. Wait for the world to burn just so you can say ‘I told you so.’”

“I didn’t wait for the world to burn.”

“No. I guess you didn’t.”

Sam kept his gaze level, not looking away from Zemo’s scrying eyes. A long moment passed, and Zemo smiled.

“It seems you’ve picked a hard road.”

“People like you make it hard,” said Sam, then nodded his head towards Bucky. “People like this guy make it easier.”

Zemo’s eyes drifted over from Sam towards Bucky, and Sam felt that same strange, protective feeling as when he’d found Bucky’s face caught in some random person’s cellphone footage, a cousin to the helplessness he’d felt when Zemo had instructed Bucky to take out half that bar in Madripoor. Zemo always looked at Bucky as though he knew him best, and what killed Sam was that sometimes Bucky seemed to think he did, too.

“Let’s finish that conversation. You said the serum corrupts,” continued Sam, trying to ignore how Zemo wasn’t focused on him. “You said there’s never been another Steve Rogers. But I got a guy with bootleg HYDRA serum standing next to me, with more reason than anybody to give up on this world, and somehow he’s out here fighting to be better everyday. That’s what it’s about – looking for better in others, striving to be better yourself. That’s what it’s like.” He took a moment, then asked, “Is that enough for you?”

“An honest answer,” said Zemo, nodding at Sam. “You’re a good man.”

“Thanks. Not sure how much that means coming from you.”

“And you,” said Zemo, dragging his eyes from Sam to rest on Bucky again. “You are trying to be a good man, too.”

Too late, Sam realized the unsteadiness was back beneath his feet, the dark water below.

“Is that why you haven’t told him the truth, James?” asked Zemo, the searching look on his face shifting into a light, conspiratorial smile, like he was sharing some private moment with Bucky. “You are sparing him the pain of refusing you.”

What?

Sam looked at Bucky without thinking. He looked, like they did in all the old stories, the ones where all it took was a single glance at the exact wrong time.

He looked at Bucky and saw a shocked and miserable terror on his face, like a kid watching their dog run into traffic. Zemo had found his mark, and Sam saw the cellphone video, felt the circling of the wonderings and suspicions, the way he was sure he knew something but wanted to deny he knew anything. He saw it all confirmed, this tender truth that Zemo had wrenched out of hiding and thrown to the ground. Any last chance for doubt or denial was ripped away in the look on Bucky’s face. The implication in Zemo’s words had stabbed up through him like a knife in the ribs, and lies couldn’t wound like that.

“Buck,” he said, and maybe he shouldn’t have, because when Bucky met his eyes he found the naked truth there, and worse – his own discovery reflected back. Sam knew the truth, and Bucky knew that he knew.

It all happened in a second. Then Bucky straightened up, shut his mouth and looked ahead again. But the damage was done.

“Ah,” said Zemo. “I didn’t speak out of turn, did I?”

Sam snapped his head back towards Zemo. There was an old rage in him now, the kind that wasn’t interested in checking in or feeling what you feel. It was a rage that was all need, that wanted nothing more than to slam Zemo against a wall and knock that smug look off his face.

“There was another guard here, who used to bring me my meals,” continued Zemo. “He wouldn’t accept bribes and there was no need to threaten him. It turned out we saw eye to eye on things. He was a charming student. More than happy to relay some messages into the outside world for me, handle my communications.” Zemo shrugged. “I haven’t seen him for two days.”

Sam stared. He could hear Zemo’s words but it seemed to take his brain a few seconds longer to process what Zemo was telling him, this quasi-confession that yes, of course, it was me all along, and now the game is called, the pot is won. But that was what they had come here for. Which meant they were done.

“Great,” said Sam in a voice like stone. “No new reading material for you.”

He turned and walked away from Zemo’s cell, back in the direction from which they’d come. He heard Bucky following a second later, and didn’t want to think about what last look might have traveled between him and Zemo.

“Good bye, Captain America.”

Sam waited for the metal doors to open, walked through them, and didn’t turn back.

 

Their departure was tense. Bucky was in automaton mode beside him, silently stalking through the hallways and glaring at everything. All Sam wanted to do was take him aside so that he could reassure him that nothing was changed, and then maybe talk about how Zemo was still such a huge dick. But there was no opportunity to talk between being led out of the cold, metal maze of the Raft’s interior and back to the entry hangar where Joaquin was waiting.

“How’d it go?” asked Joaquin. Bucky continued walking past him and towards their plane. Sam had to imagine Joaquin was used to this type of interaction by now.

“Someday I’ll teach him some manners,” said Sam, hoping it sounded like the usual jab he’d make. He nodded at Joaquin. “I’ll tell you the rest on the way back.”

Sam followed Joaquin into the cockpit, going through the routine takeoff procedures like a man on autopilot, his thoughts a million miles away.

Because Bucky felt the way that Sam had suspected – which was, affection? Desire? Love? Maybe Sam didn’t know the exact shade of wanting, but he knew he was right about it now. Bucky’s face revealed it all, and it made Sam sick to think that it was Zemo who had confirmed it. Zemo, who had sniffed out the truth like a fox seeking something small and vulnerable, with a neck he could sink his teeth into.

Sam felt like he’d just made it out the other side of a fight. His senses felt too alert, his adrenaline high and a coppery taste in his mouth. He needed to talk to Bucky, but he needed to bring himself back down first – they both did, he thought, which was why he’d followed Joaquin to the front, not just to touch base with him but also to give Bucky space.

Or had that been the wrong move? Maybe what Bucky needed was some kind of reassurance, to be told that whatever Zemo might have said, everything between them was still okay. That Sam always stood by what Sam said, that Bucky was his partner and his friend. Maybe the last thing Bucky needed was space, time alone in his mind to convince himself of some lie, some reason for why Sam had immediately left Bucky to the back of the plane.

Shit.

“You’re good, right?” asked Sam to Joaquin.

“Huh? Yeah, I’m good,” said Joaquin.

“Great. I’m going to go check on the Terminator then.”

“Cool cool, I’ll be here.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

Sam made his way back into the hold. Bucky was sitting in the same spot he’d been in on the way over, leaning forwards with his book open in front of him. He was looking at the pages, but Sam noticed his eyes weren’t moving, and his posture seemed tense – well, more tense. Important to clarify with this guy.

“Hey,” said Sam, walking over to him. A cargo hold in the back of the plane wasn’t exactly the way he’d planned to ever have this conversation, but then Zemo stringing up Bucky’s heart to smash it like a piñata hadn’t been part of any plan either.

“Hey,” said Bucky, not moving.

“Can we talk?”

He didn’t immediately respond. Sam waited until finally Bucky closed his book, keeping his place with his finger, and looked up at Sam. “What’s going on?”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Sam.

“Well there’s nothing going on with me.”

“Look. You know that I trust you. You’re my friend.”

“I thought we were coworkers.”

“Sure – work friends,” said Sam, forcing a small laugh. “Zemo’s a punk. Nothing that guy says is going to get between you and me.”

He looked at Bucky, trying to gauge a reaction, but Bucky was giving him nothing.

“But,” started Sam.

“Yeah,” said Bucky, cutting him off, making the most tragic attempt at a smile. “I know you love to talk about things. But sometimes there’s nothing to talk about.”

“Buck, I – ”

“Nothing, Sam,” said Bucky, cutting across him again. “I mean it.”

Sam knew how he had to look, brow drawn in a worried line, mouth frowning. It was hard to know how much Sam could push Bucky on this one, when Bucky’s problem was Sam. Anyone else, any other situation, Sam knew how to handle it. But with Bucky it was different. Bucky had just started to climb his way out of that hole he’d been stuck in, and yeah – a lot of the victory in that type of struggle always came down to the person’s own work, but Sam knew another truth. No one fought that fight alone, and the people that carried you forwards were crucial to how you found your footing again.

He knew the reality. Bucky didn’t have anyone like he had Sam. And the last thing Sam wanted to do now was fuck everything up further to the point where Bucky didn’t feel like he had him either. Maybe it was too soon, everything a little too raw. If Bucky wanted to leave it alone, then maybe Sam had to roll with him on this one.

“Okay,” said Sam, even though it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel like the kind of thing to be let alone. “But. Bucky…”

“Weren’t you the one who told me not to let Zemo get in my head?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t let Zemo get in your head.”

Bucky held Sam’s gaze for another moment, and Sam couldn’t read anything in this one. Without another word Bucky flipped his book back open and returned to the same page he’d been staring at when Sam had first walked in.

“Right,” said Sam softly, not even meaning to say it. “So.”

“So we’re good, Sam.”

I think you’re stealing my line, thought Sam. But he didn’t say it, didn’t say anything else. Bucky didn’t want to talk, so he turned and headed back towards the front of the plane, leaving Bucky alone in the hold with his book.

xxx

Sam had meant it, when he’d told Bucky that what Steve thought didn’t matter. That was what it meant to be gone. It was easy to talk about intentions and wishes, what someone might have wanted, but at the end of the day the living were the ones with their boots on the ground, marching forwards.

He’d never meant that Steve didn’t matter. The world mourned the loss of a beacon, a hero. It was a small number who understood what it was to lose the man Steve Rogers. And with Tony and Natasha gone, it was an even smaller number who knew what it was to lose Steve as a friend.

And he had been Sam’s friend. That was who Sam missed more than the Avenger: the man he’d met jogging alongside the reflecting pool that morning in DC, who’d come by the VA office a handful of times just to check in with Sam. The man who’d been relentless in his crusades, stubborn in his beliefs, warm in his friendship. Sam had broken international law, done a brief stint in the Raft, ended up on the run for two years, and it took a particular kind of guy to inspire that sort of life change.

They’d done good work during that time on the run, things that Sam was proud of, but what he held close now were the memories of all those in-between times, the evenings where it was just the three of them – Steve breaking out the cards for pinochle, Sam occasionally getting him to switch things up for dominoes, and Natasha always using the bullshit excuse that those games didn’t work as well with three people to stay out of it. Those had been the last real days he’d had with Steve, before the universe had been flipped upside down. When things were put right side up again, Sam had skipped five years, and Steve was an old man.

Wasn’t that a trip. Steve in his old age was the rare kind of old, a man who seemed to be mostly at peace with everything. He carried gratitude like something soft along his shoulders, a soldier who was just happy to have come home after a long day.

There was only one real worry that seemed to stick, one regret that was harder to square away than the others. Sam remembered – it had been one of the last things they’d talked about, before Steve had taken his last bow, exited the stage.

“It’s not so bad to get old,” Steve had said, and Sam had smiled.

“Probably not when you’ve got super soldier serum,” replied Sam. “You can break a hip in the morning and be alright by your six o’clock bed time.”

Steve laughed. “Well, that is true. Don’t need anyone’s help to unscrew my own bottle of prune juice.”

“What a blessing.”

Steve smiled softly. It was something, to look at Steve with his deep wrinkles and white hair, and consider how long he had been gone. The lifetime he had lived while Sam had waited a few minutes.

“I did what I did,” Steve said. “And – I know how this is going to sound, coming from me, but – you have to live with the decisions you make.”

“So no plans to go back in time again?”

“Not yet,” said Steve. He breathed in deeply, let it out in a heavy sigh. “I’ve got one last favor to ask.”

“Just one?”

“And I know I don’t have any right to ask it,” said Steve. “But you’ll keep an eye on him, right?”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “You mean the rehabilitated robot wonder?”

“It hasn’t been easy for him, Sam.”

“This hasn’t been easy for most of us, Steve.”

Steve looked up at Sam, considering him before nodding slowly. “You’re right. It hasn’t.” He was silent a moment, as though thinking over what to say, and Sam remembered the Steve who could pull an inspiring speech out of thin air. What did it mean if he had to ponder his next words with this much consideration? Or was this something else, some other realization he’d come to during his life?

“I know in some ways… Maybe I took the easy way out. I didn’t know exactly how everything was going to shake out for me, sure, but – I knew the ending. I knew where things were headed. Adds a different sort of color to life.

“And I knew, going down this road for me, it would make things harder for him now. That’s the one thing that doesn’t sit so right with me. I mean, when we were kids, Bucky was the one who was always watching out for me. Hell, even when we weren’t kids. Even in the war. Buck always had my back.”

“Yeah, I know. You told me all about it.”

Steve laughed. “I guess I did. Sorry, Sam. That was a long time ago for me.”

Sam was quiet.

“I can’t wonder too much about that. If I should have stayed. But… I think he’ll land on his feet. Bucky’s good like that.”

Sam nodded, thinking again about how the Bucky that Steve knew best was one from the 1940s, one who hadn’t yet had to survive decades of HYDRA programming and assassinations, of having his mind treated with the same impermanence as writing on a chalkboard. Something of that Bucky had survived, sure, otherwise their story would have ended when Steve sank into the Potomac. But you didn’t pass through a crucible without coming out different on the other side.

Of course, there wasn’t any point to bringing all of that up now. At the end, you wanted to wish only the best for those you were leaving behind. You wanted to believe things would be okay for them, and that they’d carry on.

“I’m not asking you to be his keeper,” continued Steve. “He doesn’t need that, and it’d be wrong of me to put that on you. I’m not even asking for you to be his best friend.”

“Yeah, maybe don’t hold your breath on that one.”

“But you know how it is, Sam. You can’t do it alone.”

Sam shook his head. Of course he knew how it was. And of course Steve would know to remind him of that.

“Trying to appeal to my better nature, I see,” sighed Sam.

“That’s your only nature,” said Steve. “I’m just… it’ll be easier for me, to go, if I know…” He grimaced at the ground. Shook his head slowly, and straightened up a little in his seat, squared his shoulders slightly. “Just check in from time to time. When I’m not around to do it.” He grinned. “Maybe play a game of pinochle?”

Now you’re asking too much,” said Sam.

“Probably smart.” Steve grinned. “If I remember right, I used to beat you most of the time. And Bucky would always wipe the floor with me.”

“Alright now, I let you win half those games just so they’d end. If I really wanted to? I could whup you at pinochle. I could probably kick Bucky’s ass all the way back to 1940.”

“I’d love to see that.”

“Stick around a little,” said Sam. “Maybe you will.”

Sam really meant it, he realized. It was a genuine plea. I can’t imagine a world without Captain America in it, he’d said. What’d he really meant was a world without Steve in it.

“I know that what I did,” said Steve, “at the end of the day… I did that for me. I guess I was a little selfish.”

“Guy saves the universe, maybe he’s entitled to a retirement,” said Sam.

“That’s what I told myself,” he paused. “I guess I have one more thing to ask.”

“Man, should I get a pen and paper? How much longer we gonna be doing this?”

“Last thing, I promise,” said Steve with a smile. “I just want you to remember that. If you get the chance, be a little selfish.”

“Wise words from Captain America.”

“Damn right,” said Steve. “This beautiful world just takes and takes, Sam. Whenever it gives, you have to hold fast.”

Sam didn’t remember too well what they had talked about beyond that, if anything. It had been more about just being with Steve then, knowing that the pages were running out, the book coming to a close. He hadn’t thought too hard then about the passing of the shield, of what he’d asked about with Bucky or remembering to be selfish. He’d just sat there, sharing space with Steve. And then things had come to their close. Then one day, Steve was gone.

xxx

As Sam had suspected, not talking about what had happened with Zemo and the Raft did absolutely nothing to make anything better. He wanted to talk about it, the strangeness between him and Bucky, because as far as he was concerned nothing good came of turning your back on something and pretending it didn’t exist. Sam needed Bucky to know everything was going to be okay, that Sam was still there for him. And that meant talking about it.

But Bucky clearly wanted to act like nothing had happened and nothing was different. So Sam tried to stick to the script. He was trying to act normal, like everything was fine, like Bucky wanted it to be. But the whole thing was off, like a bad performance by actors who couldn’t quite sell their lines. And Sam couldn’t help the guilt that seemed to weigh on his shoulders, knowing the way that Bucky felt about him both was and wasn’t his fault.

They were still jetting around the country, doing the whole superhero thing and helping out wherever help was needed – punching things that needed punching, elevating voices that needed to be heard. The first phase of the new Captain America exhibit was finished, and Sam was finally able to take Isaiah Bradley to see it. Nothing could justify what had been done to Isaiah, but this felt like a small piece of justice here. When Isaiah had taken Sam into a firm hug, Sam had felt a terrible gratitude. Sorrow and pride, humility and thankfulness. There weren’t really words for what it was to be able to show Isaiah this unburied truth in the nation’s capital.

He didn’t really know how to talk about it, and he didn’t know how well Bucky would understand it, but Sam had wanted to tell him all about that day anyway. Really, there was a lot he wanted to tell Bucky, because there was so much he wasn’t saying, not with how they were now. It was strange to be standing beside Bucky and realize he was missing him, like Bucky wasn’t even there. He was slipping back towards who he’d been after Steve had handed over the shield and left them for good, the withdrawn man who Sam texted and never heard back from.

And then it got to be too much, on a day when they almost had their asses handed to them by a group of violent insurgents who’d set up shop in an abandoned warehouse in the Midwest, busy planning the kind of activities that would interrupt any evening television with a breaking news bulletin. Dangerous and organized, but these were the exact kind of guys that Sam and Bucky trained to be able to take out. It was never going to be easy, but it shouldn’t have been the embarrassing performance that it was.

They were off. It was clear from the beginning. What they knew, what they both knew, was that it wasn’t about the training or the weapons, all the years behind you or whose star you wore. It came down to how well you could lock in with the other guys on your team, slipping into a way of communicating that had nothing to do with the tech in your ear that let you talk during a fight. It was that indescribable zone, that place that was built on trust and instinct and let you know what the other guy was going to do even before they knew it.

They’d had that before. They’d earned it. And now the rhythm was missing, something was out of sync. Sam felt like he was playing catch up the whole fight, barely keeping his head above the water, leaning too hard on Redwing and sending the shield on some wildly off throws. He could see Bucky, swinging way harder than he needed to, like the fight was mostly an opportunity for him to let off steam, break a building tension. That was the type of fuel that burned too fast.

They finished the job and got their guys, because that was what they did, but it wasn’t prettily done. They were still catching their breath later, outside the warehouse that the insurgents were now subdued in, when Sam took off his goggles, pulled down his cowl, and turned towards Bucky.

“Okay,” he said. “You know we’re still a team. You know that this – ” he gestured between them “ – is still happening. But what happened back there? That was rough.”

Bucky glared in response.

“Yeah, I get it okay, but that was way off! You know it too, man.”

“Sorry.”

Sam exhaled deeply. “I’m not saying it’s anybody’s fault. But we have to get back on the same page. We need to talk – ”

“No.”

“Buck,” said Sam in a firm voice, a voice that wasn’t interested in offering any little cracks or holes for someone to wiggle their way out of. “Come on, man. We’re both adults – you’re like, a senior citizen. Can’t we talk about shit?”

Every bit of Bucky was saying no, we can’t. He had both fists clenched, his shoulders squared like he was ready for another fight, and he was frowning at the ground. He had the look of a man who would rather go ten rounds with the Hulk than have the conversation that Sam was pushing for. And it almost broke Sam’s heart, but he meant it. Things couldn’t go on like this.

“Fine,” said Bucky, his voice hard. Sam could see the effort it took for Bucky to lift his eyes from the ground and meet Sam’s gaze. “Fine. You want to talk? Okay. I’ll talk, but I’m only doing this once. I’ll talk about it here and now, and then never again.”

“I don’t know if that’s the best way to start this conversation.”

“I don’t think we should be having this conversation at all,” said Bucky. “But since you asked for it.”

“I just want us to be okay,” said Sam. “That’s all I want. I’m not saying I want things to be like before, just that I want them to be good.”

“And you think this makes it good?”

“I think honesty is a start to that,” said Sam.

Bucky was worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, shaking his head.

“Look,” he said, “This is my problem, okay? Whatever I’m feeling – that’s for me to deal with. And I’m dealing with it.”

“You don’t have to do this alone, Buck.”

“No offense, Sam, but I do. This isn’t something you talk about or hash out or solve.” He grimaced. “You just shut it down.”

“Okay. You know what I’m going to say about that.”

“Sure,” said Bucky. “I’ve spent enough time with you and my court-mandated therapist to know that sometimes talking about shit really does help. Some things get better. But some things don’t. Right? Some things stay bad. You can’t fix them.”

“It’s not about fixing,” said Sam, who felt like he was losing the thread of something important here. “It’s about understanding.”

“Well what don’t you understand, Sam?” said Bucky, the words coming out fast and sharp. “Tell me what I need to explain to you.”

“I’m not trying to put you on trial here,” said Sam, and it was like the battle they’d just fought, with Sam playing catch up all over again. “I just want us to talk about this Buck, have a conversation. Not talking about what happened with Zemo, and everything with us – it isn’t helping anybody. We’re still a team, okay? We’re still friends – you’re still invited to the cookout.”

Bucky snorted.

“I care about you, man. I just want to know how you’re doing.”

“Great. Can’t you tell?”

“Bucky.”

“What do you want to hear? That Zemo was right?” And it was only because Sam knew Bucky too damn well at this point that he could hear the spackle in his voice, the effort to keep it together. “I’m telling you, he was right. You think this is something I want to be dealing with?”

Bucky was staring at Sam, and suddenly Sam didn’t know what to say next. He’d wanted to reassure Bucky, he’d planned to be honest, to say how he felt and let Bucky down gently. He’d gone over it again and again in his mind, rehearsed this conversation while driving along the highway or waiting for the toaster to finish toasting. But now all those words felt cheap and flimsy, they faltered and curled back in the face of Bucky and this borrowed admission.

Bucky, who was barely holding it together, straining under a truth that Sam thought he understood but only now, somehow, was starting to realize he didn’t. There was some crucial piece he wasn’t getting, but it was like trying to remember the lyrics to one song while listening to another – and meanwhile here was Bucky, looking about as happy as a piece of road kill that was just waiting for the truck to back over him one more time.

“Hey,” said Sam, not knowing what to say, feeling like an idiot for not knowing what to say, and realizing that whatever came out of his mouth would be inadequate. “You know, that… you know that I’m here for you.”

Bucky’s mouth twisted into a smile that wasn’t really a smile. “Yeah. I know.”

He sounded defeated when he said it, and Sam felt those three little words, like something soft pressing against his chest.

Someone’s cellphone rang, the cascading chime hitting the air like a siren. Sam almost instinctively reached for his own phone, even though he knew it wasn’t the one ringing, just because the alternative would mean someone who wasn’t Sam was calling Bucky. And then to Sam’s surprise, Bucky pulled his phone out, looked at it, made a face, and to Sam’s further surprise actually answered it.

Zdravstvuyte,” said Bucky, pausing as he listened to whoever was on the other end. He looked serious, nodding to himself, and when he answered it was in more Russian. Sam hadn’t even known there were more than three people in the world with Bucky’s phone number, and now it turned out there was one who had his number, could call and expect it to be answered, and spoke Russian.

And wow, did Bucky just chuckle?

When Bucky hung up, Sam was the one staring for once. Bucky caught the expression and gave Sam a slightly confused look.

“What?”

“Who was that?” prompted Sam.

“My neighbor,” said Bucky.

Sam continued to stare, because he had about twenty questions in response to that, and all of them presented a brilliant distraction from their earlier conversation. When Bucky didn’t seem likely to pick up on any of them, he prompted again with:

“And she’s Russian?”

“She’s from Kazakhstan.”

“Okay, so why is your Kazakhstani neighbor calling you?”

“She had a question about my cat.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sam, whose brain was about to explode with the influx of implied information. “Your what? Your cat? Do you have a cat? A real cat, one of those little, furry, alive things?”

“Yeah.”

“Since when do you have a cat? And why do you have a cat?”

“I have a cat because the therapist that you made me keep seeing told me to get one.”

“Alright, I didn’t make you keep seeing your therapist, I just recommended it – she told you to get a cat?”

“Yeah. She did. So I did.”

“Why is your therapist telling you to get a cat?”

“Because she thinks it will be good for me,” said Bucky, in a not-so-subtle tone that implied what he thought of that idea.

“Okay,” said Sam, trying to get used to the idea of Bucky taking care of a small fuzzy creature. “Okay – I guess this makes sense actually.”

“Great. I’m glad it makes sense to you.”

“What’s your cat’s name? You got a picture?”

“A picture?”

“Like on your phone, man,” said Sam, and then when Bucky’s only response was to regard his flip phone with a vaguely suspicious look, Sam sighed and added, “This is why you gotta get an iphone or something.”

“So that you can see pictures of my cat?”

“Among other things, but yeah,” said Sam. “What’s your cat’s name?”

“Frodo.”

“Frodo? Like the guy from Lord of the Rings?”

“I didn’t name her, the shelter named her.”

“You have a girl cat named Frodo?”

Bucky gave him a skeptical look. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” said Sam, and after a moment, “There aren’t any chicks in that story?”

“Her name was already Frodo,” said Bucky, as if the idea of re-naming his cat was too heinous to even consider.

“Okay, okay,” said Sam. “Miss Frodo.”

“It’s just Frodo.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you got a cat.”

“Why? I don’t tell you everything.”

And that’s the problem, thought Sam.

“I don’t need to know what you ate for lunch but getting a cat is like, a big deal.”

Bucky shrugged. “Is it? Mostly she just sleeps.”

“That is mostly what they do,” said Sam. “And claw up the furniture.”

“Well,” said Bucky with a face that Sam didn’t quite know how to read, “That hasn’t been much of an issue yet.”

“Okay,” said Sam, nodding his head slowly. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and a slow, unsteady silence filled in between them, leaving only the aftermath of their earlier conversation.

“Yeah,” said Bucky eventually. He was staring off at nothing in particular, then turned to look at Sam. “Can we be done here?”

Could we, Sam wondered. For the first time, it felt like a question where the answer landed squarely with him, not Bucky.

“Sure,” said Sam, not sure what this meant, not sure what was waiting for him. “Let’s get out of here.”

xxx

Sam still had nightmares, too. Not as often now, and not as bad as they’d once been. They’d been at their worst when he came home from his second tour, after Riley had died. Serving abroad, flying missions, doing the things that they were told were necessary to survive – that had all been hard enough, hard but doable. When he’d lost Riley, that had been a grief he wasn’t ready for. You never forgot the danger all around, but sometimes you forgot how it could get you. Especially with Pararescue, the ways Sam and his team had tangled with danger and death every day and somehow still made it out. One moment Riley was there, flying beside him, and the next he was gone.

Then Sam had been home, alive and readjusting while Riley was still dead, and he’d sunk for a while, following that spiral down until he found the way up. Finding people he could talk to helped, and time did its thing, smoothing down the past and making it a weight that you still felt but at least could carry. He still had nightmares, but the bad ones – the ones that threw him out of bed so he woke up halfway to the floor, his heart straining in his chest and a cold sweat stuck to his skin – those didn’t come as often.

But he had one that night. It was a dark blur, and in it he knew that Riley was still alive and that Sam could save him if he just acted fast enough. But his nightmares were full of that thick, molasses feeling, where his limbs wouldn’t work and the only thing that seemed to be moving was the danger. It was a horrible pressing feeling, like a clawed hand wrapped around his stomach, an icy knowledge that death had Riley in its scopes and it was coming for him, finger on the trigger, but he was still alive, he could still be saved, but only if Sam moved and if Sam didn’t move then it would be too late

He woke up. His breathing was hard, his mind racing like a spooked horse, trying to throw the nightmare from his body. He pushed back the covers and shifted so that he was sitting on the edge of his bed, feet planted on the floor, and let himself breathe. The cruelest part of these dreams was always waking up into the real world and believing, even if it was just for a second, that Riley was alive. Remembering the truth was like pressing against an old wound and finding it wasn’t so healed.

God, he hadn’t had one like that in a long, long time.

Slowly but surely, he could feel himself coming back to himself. His phone was telling him it was just past three in the morning, which meant it was Thursday – barely. The annual Wilson family cookout, usually one of the highlights of the year for Sam, was in two days, and Sam was feeling a little less than excited about the whole thing. Most of the reason for that being the super soldier that he was picking up from the airport in approximately fourteen hours. Sam was the one who’d insisted Bucky should come down for the full weekend, trying to pretend like everything was normal, and Bucky, also pretending everything was normal, had said sure, great, sounds great.

Great.

Sam sighed deeply into his empty bedroom. From the way his nerves were still singing, he knew that that was it for sleep tonight. He remembered how it went with these nightmares. He could try, but if he lay back down he’d just spend the next four hours staring at his ceiling in the dark.

So he got up. He dug around for his sweatpants and a t-shirt, laced up his sneakers and quietly headed downstairs for a nighttime work out. It was the only way he knew to bring his mind back down, to stop its frenzied tail chasing after a nightmare like that. Make his body move and sweat, push it to the point of a different type of exhaustion, so his mind had no choice but to be dragged along.

He did the full workout. His set up was humble – a mat, a bench, a set of weights – but that was all he needed. Legs, arms, core. Stretches, push ups, squats, curls, lunges, sit ups, pull ups. Working every muscle so that he wasn’t thinking about Riley, he wasn’t thinking about the news, he wasn’t thinking about Bucky and the way he didn’t look at Sam these days. Finish one rep, start another. So that he wasn’t wondering about why the nightmares had come back now, so that he wasn’t wondering about Bucky, alone in Brooklyn, and how he might be sleeping. Or how he might not be sleeping. Finish weights, shift to cardio.

He went on a run, a long run. It was summer, and the sun was just starting to creep its way over the cypress trees when he finished it, jogging back up the front steps of the house. He was breathing hard and his body was soaked with a satisfied exhaustion, even if he had pushed himself a little too hard. If Joaquin called with any emergency news today, Sam was going to end up looking like a real idiot later.

He made his way into the kitchen, where he downed a glass of water before getting the coffee going. He was just finishing tapping the last spoon of coffee grounds into the basket when he heard the stairs yawning behind him, and he looked over his shoulder to see Sarah coming down.

“Morning,” said Sam, setting the pot to brew before turning fully around.

“Hey,” said Sarah, before taking in Sam’s appearance, his clothes already completely drenched in sweat. She raised an eyebrow. “You already went running?”

“Yeah. Just woke up a little earlier than usual.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“What?”

“Whatever’s got you so you can’t sleep.”

Sam shook his head. “Relax, I just woke up early. And look at you,” he nodded at her. “You’re up.” Sarah was planning to take it easy for the next two days – not a day off, exactly, but not a full day on the boat either.

“You know how it is. You wake up before five am every day for work, suddenly six am is sleeping in.”

“Yeah, I know how that is.”

The coffee pot made a small click behind him. Sam fished two mugs out of the cabinet and poured a cup of coffee for him and Sarah – a little cream in his, a little bit of sugar in hers. They both ended up drifting out onto the back porch, settling on the bench out there with their coffee. It was early, but the day was already pleasantly warm, the sky a bright, butter-yellow that cast a silver reflection across the water. Life was already awake around them, the night time insects playing their last encore while the birds trilled their morning songs, darting across the trees.

“Cass and AJ want to know when we’re all going to go fishing,” said Sarah. “They keep asking about it, I said it’ll be whenever Uncle Sam isn’t out saving the world.”

Sam smiled. “I’ll put in a word with the world, see if it can hold it together for a day.”

“Good,” said Sarah. She sat with her left elbow hooked over the back of the bench, her left leg crossed over her right and her body angled towards Sam. She looked entirely comfortable out here, savoring a cup of coffee on the back porch of a house that she’d been raised in and was now raising her own family in. When Sam really thought about Sarah’s life, everything she’d accomplished, he couldn’t help a sense of pride, marveling at the dignity and grace with which she took on the world. Even if she did still punch him too hard.

“How’re things going with you?” he asked.

“Things are good,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee. She smiled. “Really, things are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

“Well damn. Maybe you can actually take a vacation soon.”

Sarah laughed. “That’s real funny.”

“What, I’m serious! When’s the last time you had a break?”

“Shoot, I don’t know – probably before Cass.” She smiled over at Sam. “No days off.”

Something their mother had always said to them, one of her go-to ways to explain motherhood. No days off. The type of phrase that both Sarah and Sam had ended up absorbing deep into themselves and every part of their lives.

“Well, you can take a break. You know I can watch the boys for a weekend.”

“And when some national emergency happens on the other side of the country?”

“I could use some wingmen.”

“Don’t even joke,” said Sarah.

“Okay, okay. I’m sure between me and Mr. Liu we could watch the boys for a weekend.”

“Maybe,” said Sarah. “Things really have been easier. With the boat fixed, and with you back – even if you are out there putting your damn neck on the line every day. Again.”

“Aw, you worry about me?”

“Of course I worry about you.” She was quiet a moment. “But I’m glad you’re out there doing things on your own terms this time. And that you’re not alone. It’s good you’ve got someone watching your back.”

“I mean, Bucky’s my partner,” said Sam, “I watch his back, too.”

“I know, but you’re too good a guy. I always have to worry about you becoming a martyr over something real stupid.”

“Wow. You really know how to cut a guy down just for trying to do some good.”

Sarah laughed. “Look, I get it. The world needs its Captain America. That’s cool. And I’m proud of you, proud of everything you’ve done and everything you’re doing. But I just want to keep my brother around for a little while longer. I’m just selfish like that.”

There’s the unsaid I don’t want to miss you again, and Sam’s heart hit against his ribs a little harder when he remembered finding Sarah. After the fight, after the losses, after everything – what it had been like to finally come back home to Delacroix, to have his sister attack him in the driveway with a hug so tight it felt like she’d never let go. Sam knew he’d been gone for five years, it was a fact that people had told him, but it wasn’t until his sister, the strongest person he knew, was hanging onto him and crying into his shoulder that he really believed it.

“It’s not so bad to be a little selfish sometimes,” said Sam distantly.

“Like you would know,” said Sarah, smiling. Neither of them said anything for a while, letting the morning unspool around them, a little piece of calm before all the other little responsibilities and tasks of the day started to pile up on each other.

Sarah was the one to pick up the conversation again, asking in a gentle voice, “You sure everything’s okay?”

“I guess you’re not going to believe me if I tell you it is,” said Sam, and when she just looked across at him, he sighed. “Yeah. I guess things have been a little stressful.”

She nodded. “You’ve been distracted. Ever since you came back from that Raft place.”

“That place will screw with anyone’s head,” muttered Sam, which was half the truth anyway.

Sarah was silent for a moment, then said, “You remember that one time, when you told mom and dad you were spending the weekend at Chris’s?”

“Sure,” said Sam, frowning, not sure what this had to do with anything. He’d been in high school then, maybe sixteen years old, and Chris Laguerre’s parents were going to be out of town for the weekend. Sam had gotten the go-ahead to spend the weekend at Chris’s, omitting the fact that his parents wouldn’t be there, and that the real plan was for Chris’s older cousin to come down and drive him and Chris up to New Orleans for the weekend. Which he did, introducing Sam to a whole mess of firsts that weekend in the city, from his first time sneaking into a club to his first time puking his guts out after drinking too much of some sweet, alcoholic drink.

Any other sixteen year old would have taken that story home with them and kept it to themselves, a delicious secret that they knew they’d gotten away with. Sam had made it about a week before he told his parents the truth, knowing it would come with harsh consequences, the worst of which was the disappointment. But for Sam, it was better than the alternative, his parents trusting in some idea of him that just made it easier to lie to them.

“I remember,” said Sam.

“You got away with it,” said Sarah. “You didn’t have to say anything. But you did. Even though it got Chris in trouble, too.”

“Oh, I definitely remember that.” Chris cussing him out, Chris in disbelief that Sam would tell his parents when they’d had it made. “Why are we talking about this now?”

“Because I’ve seen you when you’re not being honest with yourself,” said Sarah. “I know how you get when you think you’ve made up your mind one way, but something else is feeling another.”

She was looking at Sam with a kindness, that familial type of fondness that said hey, I’m rooting for you. Sometimes siblings made no damn sense, these crazy humans that came from the same blood you did and yet acted in ways that were impossible to understand. But sometimes they saw too much, knew you too well, maybe even better than you knew yourself.

She stood up. “And I know – even though you want everyone else to talk about their feelings – you like to figure stuff out on your own. Even if you don’t have to.”

Sam looked up at her. “Where are you going?”

“I’m gonna go start breakfast. You good with eggs?”

“So you’re going to say all that and then just go make breakfast?”

“I’m giving you time to figure it out,” said Sarah with a small smile. “You want more coffee?”

“I’m good,” said Sam, frowning at Sarah.

“Alright,” she said, and she disappeared back inside the kitchen.

In the absence of Sarah, Sam turned his frown at his coffee. So Sarah could tell there was something going on, okay, fine – of course she could. She was his sister, she’d known him her whole life, and they lived in the same house together. Made sense she’d pick up on something.

But how she seemed to have a better idea of whatever the hell was going on, when Sam himself wasn’t even sure?

You’ve made up your mind one way, but something else is feeling another.

Shit, wasn’t that it? Something wasn’t sitting right, he knew that. Sam couldn’t trick his heart, couldn’t convince himself of something that deep down he felt was false.

So what had he overlooked?

Bucky felt some way about him – and Jesus, didn’t Sam know the truth now? Even without the cellphone video or Zemo’s little gambit. Even without the way Bucky had looked, the near-break in his voice when he’d confessed whatever I’m feeling. Bucky was always there, ready to save Sam while Sam was saving the world, and his face always said what his words fell short of. That was love splashed across him, the real deal kind, bold and obvious and undeniable. And it was only love that left a person anguished like that, standing diligently outside the door of a house they knew they couldn’t come into.

Couldn’t he?

And Sam – Sam had just immediately assumed that the same couldn’t be said of him. Told himself that he wasn’t interested in finding anyone right now, and he’d never been into men and if he suddenly was then why, of all people, would it be Bucky?

Sure he cared for Bucky. Of course he liked having him around, had been pleasantly surprised to watch the animosity fall away, to see more of the Bucky that Steve had always fought for. Hadn’t he meant it when he told Zemo that Bucky made it easier, pointed to Bucky as living proof that people could persevere? HYDRA had taken Bucky and hammered him into the Winter Soldier, taking the goodness in him and doing their best to drown it. Bucky had been kept out in the cold for so long, had more reason than most to stop trusting the world. Understood how it was easier to give into that kind of hell, let it crush you down to nothing, but instead he was clawing his way back. And of course the truth of that, the goodness in Bucky that wouldn’t quit, brushed up against Sam’s heart, made things lighter – in spite of it all, made things easier.

Of course it made him smile to see Bucky smile.

Sam, with his stubborn heart like a horse, trying to tug himself towards the truth. He peeled back the knee-jerk reaction, closed his eyes for a moment. Thought about Bucky loving him, and felt his heart slide just a little.

Shit.

It was like finally walking over the crest of a mountain and seeing the valley below. Realizing what had been there the whole time, and he just hadn’t realized. He leaned over in his seat, rubbing his palm against his forehead. Shit, shit, shit.

Sarah was right. He hadn’t been honest with himself.

He stood up then, looking across the back yard and towards the bayou beyond, the coffee left in his mug probably cold by now, and felt about a hundred different feelings jostling for their say within him. Guilt winced along the edges, because ouch, he’d been leaving Bucky hanging for a while, and embarrassment, because again, he was really just that stupid. Surprise, because how would he have ever seen this coming, for the guy who’d jumped on his car and smashed a metal hand through the windshield to rip out his steering wheel while he was driving on the highway? But overwhelmingly there was a warm, blossoming feeling, a flower that was finally able to bloom with the sun’s light turned upon it.

Bucky loved him, and – he realized now – he loved Bucky, too.

He walked back into the kitchen. Sarah was sitting at the table, reading through the news on her tablet and balancing a piece of toast over an empty plate. Upstairs, he could hear the sounds of his nephews moving around. It wouldn’t be long before Cass was at that age where it would take a crowbar to get the boy out of bed before noon, but for now he and AJ were both still excited to be up and awake on a summer morning.

“I thought you were making eggs,” said Sam.

“I did,” replied Sarah, not looking up from her tablet. “I left some for you, they’re in the pan on the stove – probably a little cold by now.”

“You could’ve told me they were ready,” said Sam, grabbing a plate and turning towards the stove top.

“And interrupt your thinking?”

“Ha ha. You know I can think and eat breakfast at the same time?”

“Didn’t want you to strain yourself,” she looked up. “But let me know if they’re too cold, I can eat them and make more – the boys’ll be down soon anyway.”

“Don’t be crazy, I’m going to eat them,” said Sam, who’d already scooped the remaining eggs onto his plate and was moving to sit down at the breakfast table. “And I can feed the boys when they come down.”

“Wow,” said Sarah, smiling. “Okay.” She wrinkled her nose slightly. “But then you’re gonna take a shower, right?”

Sam narrowed his eyes at her, and she grinned and turned back to whatever she was reading.

Sam chewed his eggs – yeah, a little cold – and felt a calm that had been missing since he first saw the way Bucky looked at him when he knew Sam wasn’t watching. There was a bright surety within him, of things finally settling into place, finally making sense. He was going to pick up Bucky from the airport later that day, and this time there wasn’t a stale, guilty dread hanging around the thought. Bucky was flying down to see Sam, and Sam, at last, knew what he wanted to say.

xxx

Bucky Barnes was the lightest traveler Sam had ever met, and that was saying something. He could comfortably pack a backpack for a weeklong trip, and he’d barely brought more than a toothbrush when he and Sam had headed off to Berlin to first talk to Zemo.

So it was amusing to meet him in the terminal at MSY, carrying more baggage than Sam had ever seen him with before: the usual backpack, plus a stuffed duffel bag and, most notably, a pet carrier in his right hand.

“I didn’t know you were bringing your cat!” exclaimed Sam, walking over towards him.

“Well, if I’m here for the weekend,” said Bucky, surveying the terminal. Sam imagined his little reformed-assassin brain was going into overdrive trying to assess everyone coming and going.

“Don’t you have a neighbor to watch your cat?”

“Ms. Petrovskaya feeds her if I’m out,” said Bucky. “But I wasn’t going to ask her to watch her all weekend when I could just bring her.”

Sam squatted down so he was at eye level with the pet carrier. Inside, an extremely fluffy white and gray cat stared back at him with huge blue eyes that didn’t not remind Sam a little bit of Bucky.

“Well hello, Miss Frodo,” said Sam.

“It’s just Frodo.”

“Welcome to Louisiana, I hope you had a nice trip down.”

Frodo opened her mouth and responded with the sweetest little meow that Sam had ever heard. He looked up at Bucky with a wide-open can you believe she said hi back smile, and Bucky furrowed his brow.

“She’s not usually that talkative.”

“Takes after her dad I guess,” said Sam, straightening up.

“I hope the flight didn’t stress her out too much,” said Bucky, holding up the carrier so he could peer inside himself, and now that Sam had done the necessary self-reflection and soul-searching, he could admit that seeing Bucky look in at his cat with only the most genuine concern was actually bordering on adorable.

“She’s just being polite,” said Sam.

“Maybe,” said Bucky, looking unconvinced. He lowered the carrier and looked around again. “Alright. Can we go now?”

“Sure – you want me to grab anything? This is the most shit I’ve ever seen you with.”

“Most of it’s hers,” said Bucky, “And I’ve got it, thanks.”

“Hers? Your cat’s?” asked Sam, beginning to lead them back out in the direction of the airport parking lot. “How much does she need for a weekend?”

“I don’t know, Sam, maybe she needs her bed?”

“You brought a whole damn cat bed on the plane?”

“The hotel I booked doesn’t have cat beds.”

“So you figured you would bring a cat bed. Plus your cat. For the weekend.”

“Yeah. That’s what I figured.”

“Okay,” said Sam, smiling. “And how was the flight for you?”

“Fine.”

Sam glanced over at Bucky. He could see the familiar tension along Bucky’s shoulders, his head bowed slightly down and his mouth set in a line. He looked like he was bracing himself, as though he was preparing to shoulder through a whole weekend of torture when really, it was just a weekend of interacting with Sam. Two things which were maybe indistinguishable to Bucky at the moment.

Well, Sam was going to fix that.

They dropped Bucky’s things in the bed of Sam’s truck, and Bucky got into the passenger seat with the cat carrier balanced on his lap. Sam smiled over at Frodo, who was lying down comfortably in her carrier, one little front paw poking out from under all her fur.

“She is cute,” said Sam, turning on the truck’s engine. “Miss Frodo.”

“Just Frodo.”

Sam grinned as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Did you read those books in 1937 too?”

“Those didn’t come out until the 50s,” said Bucky. “So, no.”

“Got it. So I’m guessing you read them later.”

“Well HYDRA wasn’t exactly unfreezing me for any book clubs,” replied Bucky. He eventually added, “I read them while I was in Wakanda – Steve sent them to me. He thought I’d like them.”

Sam remembered now – not those books, specifically, but how Steve would occasionally send letters, sometimes small packages to Wakanda. Wasn’t always easy to manage while they were doing their best to lay low, but of course Steve Rogers would take the time to send a fantasy series to the country that his best friend had just been thawed out in.

Sam imagined Bucky, sitting in some beautiful green part of the country far outside of Birnin Zana, with that awful long hair and reading The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a peaceful idea.

“And?” asked Sam. “Did you like them?”

“Yeah,” said Bucky.

“You seen the movies?”

“No – Shuri told me about them. She said they were good, but sort of racist, but then she said that’s how most of Hollywood is anyway.”

Sam nodded to himself. “Yeah, not wrong.”

“I like sticking with books anyway,” said Bucky. “Everything else – is so different. Books kind of stayed the same.”

“So what I’m hearing is, you don’t want an e-reader for Christmas, because you’re the one of those weird types that likes to ‘feel the physical page,’ huh?”

Bucky snorted at that. He opened the door of the cat carrier with his left hand, and reached in to scratch under Frodo’s chin. Sam watched out of the corner of his eye, and wondered how much, if anything, Bucky could sense with that hand. Judging by the soft purring coming from the carrier, Frodo liked it at least.

It was too hot to have the windows down, but they had them cracked just a little all the same, the hot air rushing in against their faces. It was a pleasant drive – or at least, it was for Sam. And probably for Miss Frodo. Bucky was silent again, and when Sam glanced towards him he saw Bucky’s focus was directed solidly out his own window, away from Sam.

He could have told Bucky then, driving in his truck along the highway in this little piece of Louisiana that was turning gold in the evening sun. But there was a proper way to do these things, or at least that was how Sam felt about it – and, okay, maybe he was the slightest bit nervous himself, in that way that anyone would be before carving up their heart and offering it up like here, this is yours, actually.

“Hey,” said Sam, “So, I know you’ve got the hotel, but how about we grab dinner tonight? I know a spot on the way, we can pick something up and you can come over to the house for a minute.”

“It’s fine,” said Bucky, still looking out the window. “I’m not that hungry.”

“Did you eat on the plane?”

“No.”

“So you’re hungry.”

Bucky turned then, scowling at Sam. “I’m okay. You can just drop us off at the hotel.”

“So you can eat a vending machine dinner? I don’t think so. I gotta show you what you’re missing out on in Brooklyn.”

“I’ve eaten dinner here before.”

“Captain’s orders.”

Bucky settled back against his seat, glaring out the windshield. “Fine.”

Sam stopped at a small roadside spot, a pale blue shack that had Martin’s painted in faded red letters across the top and about four uneven parking spots out front. Sam knew Martin, and he knew this little shack well. It had the best kind of seafood – fresh, served humble and unassuming in a white carton container, nothing fancy because it didn’t need it. Bucky stayed in the truck with Frodo while Sam went in to pick up two shrimp po’boys. If Bucky didn’t like a po’boy from Martin’s then Sam would realize it had all been a huge mistake and have to put that boy on the next flight back to Brooklyn.

Sarah’s car was missing when Sam pulled up to the house, and he remembered now that she’d said something about taking the boys with her on some errands. He drove the truck to the end of the dirt driveway beside the house and turned off the engine. The grass looked gold in the slanted yellow sunlight, and beyond that the bayou water was glinting like silver. The idea came to him as he was looking at the water, so obvious he didn’t know how he hadn’t thought of it already.

“The heat’s not so bad now,” said Sam, even if they both knew it wasn’t entirely true. “You cool with a short walk over to the pier? We could eat on the boat – best way to enjoy a po’boy.”

Bucky gave Sam a look that seemed to communicate he’d rather Sam just pull his fingernails out one by one than keep doing this dinner, but what he said was “Fine” as he opened the door and stepped outside. He walked over to the back of the trunk and pulled out the duffel bag, then looked over at Sam.

“Do you have a room she can stay in? She hasn’t had a chance to stretch her legs since New York.”

“She can have mine,” said Sam, grabbing the food out of the back. “C’mon.”

He led Bucky into the house and upstairs to his room. Sarah had eventually taken the bedroom that had been their parents’, but Sam still had his childhood room. The striped blue wallpaper was the same, but everything else had gotten shuffled and changed around during the years. He watched Bucky looking around his room now, taking in the LSU pennant on the wall, the bureau he’d inherited from his father, his grandmother’s quilt laid out across his bed. Bucky looked over at Sam.

“She might get cat hair on your things.”

Sam shrugged. “I can deal with cat hair.”

“Okay.”

Bucky let the duffel bag slide off his shoulder onto the floor, then knelt down and gently placed the carrier on the floor. He opened the door and sat back on his heels, and a moment later Frodo poked her head out and stared around, wide eyes taking in her new surroundings.

“Hey girl,” said Bucky, rubbing his right hand under her chin. “Quick stop over.”

She allowed him to scratch her chin, then stepped out of the carrier. It wasn’t until she was standing in the room that Sam realized she only had three legs – her fur was so thick and long (and yes, was definitely going to get all over his stuff) that he hadn’t even noticed she was missing her front right leg when she’d been laying down.

So Bucky had adopted a shelter cat, and the cat was named Frodo and she had three legs. Maybe that made something in Sam’s chest feel some kind of way, maybe it didn’t.

It took another minute or so for Bucky to feel that Frodo was properly settled in, which included unpacking two small ceramic dishes and filling them with dry food and water. They went back downstairs, and Bucky scooped up the food while Sam grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, and then they made their way out back.

Bucky walked in silence beside him as they made their way over to the dock. It was Friday evening, and most of the boats had already come in by now. Sam waved hello to a couple of the folks they passed, but for once didn’t let himself stop and get caught up in a conversation that would leave dinner cold by the time he was finished talking. He was trying to be as light and casual as possible, in the hopes that Bucky would realize there was no reason to act like the evening would end with his public execution, but so far Bucky wasn’t getting the hint.

They reached the boat and settled in near the back. They each took a sandwich, and Bucky flicked the caps off of two bottles of beer with the thumb of his vibranium hand. Sam clinked his bottle against Bucky’s, giving him a nod and a smile, and Bucky gave him a sad little attempt of a smile in return.

It really was an excellent sandwich, but Sam didn’t know if he was even really tasting it. He was too distracted by the moment he was in, the sight and the feeling of Bucky sitting across from him on his family’s boat once more. There was such a solid rightness to it, a comfortable surety to the whole thing. Like yes, of course, this was where he was meant to be, this was where they were both meant to be.

Sam made himself finish half his sandwich before replacing it in its container. He took a swig of his beer, and looked out at the bayou around them. He loved the water for many of the same reasons he loved the sky, the way both things held hundreds of possibilities and promises. They were impossibly beautiful, in ways Sam didn’t think he’d ever really understand, but that was okay. Some things could only be appreciated, and every time Sam had a quiet moment like this, connected to the bayou, connected to the Gulf, he felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

“I really think this is the most beautiful place there is,” said Sam.

Bucky glanced up at him, then followed Sam’s gaze out over the water.

“Yeah,” he said, “It’s nice.”

Sam balled up his napkin and tucked it under his sandwich container, then stood up and crossed over to sit down again on Bucky’s left. Bucky watched all this with a wary expression, like an animal sensing danger on the horizon, but he didn’t move himself.

“I brought you out here because I wanted to talk to you, Buck,” started Sam.

Bucky didn’t react to that in any obvious way, his eyes now directed away from Sam.

“It’s nothing bad,” said Sam.

“Okay.”

“The truth is…” said Sam, searching for the words, the right way to say what he’d really been meaning to say. “The truth is, I wasn’t really being entirely honest with myself. I thought I was, but it turns out I was going off of some old assumptions. I didn’t realize that, maybe, I actually care about you the same way you care about me.”

He had hoped that might be the thing to get Bucky to react, to look at him, say something – do anything. But all he saw was Bucky’s jaw clench, his gaze still trained on the floor.

“You keep staring that hard you’re going to make a hole in my boat,” said Sam in a light tone. And when Bucky still didn’t react, Sam gently reached over and put his right hand on Bucky’s shoulder, his fingers resting lightly on Bucky’s neck.

Bucky started at that, finally turning to stare at him, his wide blue eyes communicating some new kind of barely subdued terror, and Sam felt his heart squeeze in his chest.

“Hey,” said Sam. He shifted his hand slightly, sliding his fingers through Bucky’s hair at the nape of his neck. “Is this okay?”

Bucky looked searchingly at Sam, opened his mouth, said nothing at first, and then, in a tight, quiet voice said, “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” said Sam, nodding slowly. “Do you want me to move my hand?”

Bucky just stared at him, as though imploring Sam to stop asking questions and just put him out of his misery.

“Okay,” said Sam again, leaving his hand where it was. “How about I talk?”

“Don’t see how I can stop you,” said Bucky in that strange voice. But at least he’d said something.

“The thing is, I got too used to flying solo,” started Sam, meeting Bucky’s gaze. “And I mean that in every way. I kind of felt like I had to be there for everybody else – and that’s not a bad thing, not necessarily. I like helping people. And – I mean, not to brag or nothing, but I’m good at it, you know?”

He paused for a moment. In the silence, he could hear the water lapping against the side of the boat, an owl hooting somewhere in the distance.

“Maybe too good. Sometimes it’s easier to help others than it is to help yourself. To try to look at others’ needs while ignoring your own.”

Bucky swallowed. His eyes went to the side, back to Sam, back to the floor.

“Do you know what I mean?” said Sam. Bucky wasn’t looking back at him. Sam waited a beat, then took a breath and plunged ahead. “I’m saying I need you, Bucky – I’m saying more than that, I want you, and – it kind of took me a minute to figure it out, but that’s what it is. That I really fucking need you, Buck, and you drive me up the damn wall but you’re the best man I know, and I don’t want you flirting with my sister because I’d rather have you flirting with me.” He searched Bucky’s face. “Assuming you’d take me.”

He waited, and then Bucky turned his head to look at Sam, with that face that gave up everything. Sam could see it all there, in Bucky’s barely parted lips, his searching eyes – confusion and disbelief, but more than that, a deeply guarded hope that was finally breaking through. All he did was look at Sam with those eyes, and Sam didn’t think he’d ever felt love quite like this before, some type of feeling like he was falling and flying at the same time.

“Hey, what’s going on in there?” asked Sam softly, leaning his face a little closer to Bucky’s. “Are the gears all broken?”

“Sam,” said Bucky, his name more of a breath than a word in his mouth.

Sam moved his hand up Bucky’s neck to gently cup the side of his face, his palm resting lightly against Bucky’s cheek. He could feel the stubble of the man’s permanent five o’clock shadow, the heat of his skin. There could be nothing ambiguous in the way he held Bucky, in the barest space between their faces and the way that Sam was looking at him.

“Is this okay?” he asked again.

“Yes,” breathed Bucky.

Sam kissed him. It was just a matter of tilting his head forwards slightly, and Bucky was already moving to meet him, and then they were kissing on Sam’s boat at sunset, like it was always meant to be and should have been. Sam’s other hand was moving without thinking to rest on Bucky’s side, holding him close, and Sam was realizing yes, of course, this was what he had been missing, this was what he wanted. His mouth against Bucky’s, feeling Bucky smile against him.

“Shit,” said Bucky when they broke apart, his voice a little shaky now. He was still smiling. “You better not be fucking with me, Samuel.”

“Me?” said Sam, already moving forwards again. “Never.”

Never, because feeling his lips pressed against Bucky’s was somehow messy and slow and exciting all at once, that crazy cocktail of emotions that came with kissing someone new for the first time. He almost felt a little dizzy, shit – he almost felt like a teenager, realizing oh, there was a reason that this was what all the songs and movies were about, why everyone kept falling for the same shit and crooning the same tunes. Because being here with Bucky, both of them letting their mouths and hands and breath say everything else that words couldn’t quite get to, was so sublime.

The sun finally gave up and the sky became a deep, inky blue. Another hour and it would be full dark, the kind you didn’t get in DC or Brooklyn. They were sitting close still, heads bowed against one another. Sam was holding Bucky’s right hand in both of his, idly tracing over Bucky’s knuckles with his thumb.

“So you really weren’t never gonna say nothing, huh?” asked Sam softly.

“We had a good thing,” said Bucky, voice low. “I didn’t want to ruin it.”

“Well, look at us now,” said Sam, shaking his head and smiling up at Bucky. “Totally ruined.”

“Catastrophe,” agreed Bucky. He was silent for a moment, then made a harsh semi-laugh sound.

“What?”

“I was just thinking, that… if I owe Zemo for this – ”

“No,” said Sam simply. “I knew before Zemo.”

Even in the twilight, Sam could see the scrutinizing way Bucky was looking at him, trying to suss out whether Sam was just trying to assuage him with a kind lie.

“Really?”

“You remember the night of the GRC vote?”

Bucky nodded.

“So,” said Sam, looking at Bucky’s hand in his, “I saw some video someone took on their cellphone – from the end of the night, when I was talking to the representatives. But they got you in the shot, and…” Sam trailed off for a moment, not sure how exactly to explain this part. Best to just keep it simple, he thought. Honest. “I saw your face.”

Bucky frowned slightly, maybe trying to remember that night himself, as though if he thought about it hard enough he could recall what type of facial expression he’d been making.

“What?” asked Sam gently, getting Bucky to look back at him. “Don’t tell me you thought you were being stealthy about this whole deal?”

“Being stealthy kind of used to be my thing,” said Bucky. “It still sort of is.”

“Well, you mostly still are. And I’m okay with you being a little less than stealthy this time.”

Bucky smiled at that, that genuine, joyful, no-bullshit smile that he wore so soft and easy, you’d never guess the guy had spent over half a century as a brainwashed assassin. It made Sam fall apart a little, made him marvel at how much he loved being the guy that could make Bucky smile like that.

He didn’t really have anything to say for that. He let one of his hands drift back up along Bucky’s chest, sliding to the side of his face again, and Bucky leaned into it.

“So, I know you got that hotel – ” said Sam.

“Oh give me a break,” muttered Bucky.

“ – because I was going to say, we still have the couch. Could definitely get that set up again, still got the sheets and pillow and everything.”

“The couch, huh.”

“Yup. No charge.”

“Really tempting. But my cat likes a full size bed, at least.”

“I thought you already brought a whole bed for her.”

“She likes options.”

“Well,” said Sam. “Maybe I got some options.”

Bucky just grinned at him, a smile that was all teeth and yanked at the core of Sam.

“Come on then,” said Sam, but he wasn’t standing up or leaving himself. He just moved in again, his lips finding Bucky’s, and it was like an old song coming back to him, the melody suddenly remembered. This is how it goes, he thought, kissing Bucky while the frogs and owls and crickets chorused in the dark. This is how it goes.

 

It was late when they returned to the house, a small section of lights in the upstairs floor still on – Sarah, still up probably. Thankfully, she didn’t come out of her room to check on Sam’s arrival as he led Bucky up the stairs and towards his bedroom. He opened the door, and Frodo was waiting, allowing Bucky to get maybe two steps into the room before she was rubbing herself all over his legs, purring gently against him.

“Hey you,” said Bucky, leaning down to pick her up. He smiled down at her as she happily resettled in his arms. “Change of plans.”

“You’re staying at Chez Wilson tonight,” said Sam to Frodo. He offered up the back of his hand to her nose, since it was about the only thing he knew cats seemed to like, and she sniffed it lightly before rubbing the top of her head against his hand.

“I feel like I’ve been chosen,” said Sam, giving her a little scratch behind her ears. It couldn’t be denied, she was unbearably soft.

“She’s usually shy,” said Bucky. “So I guess you kind of have.”

“She must be an excellent judge of character.”

“Sure.”

Maybe Bucky’s therapist had been onto something when she passed on this cat requirement. At the very least, it was doing a lot for Sam to see the fondness on Bucky’s face as he looked down at this furry little cat in his arms.

They got ready for bed. When Sam came back in from the bathroom, Bucky was sitting on the edge of his bed in his boxers and a t-shirt, ever-present dog tags hanging from his neck and Frodo still lying on his lap. It wasn’t like Sam hadn’t seen him dressed down before – things like personal space and privacy were usually some of the first casualties when it came to fighting a war, not to mention all the locker rooms they’d been through. But it made him pause for a moment, to consider the sight of Bucky Barnes sitting in his bedroom, on top of his grandmother’s quilt.

Bucky caught him looking, and tilted his eyebrows at him. Sam shook his head.

“Nothing,” he said, as though Bucky had asked him a question. He was down to his boxers himself, and walked over to drop off his clothes in the laundry hamper in the corner. He turned back to Bucky.

“Do you sleep with it on?” Sam asked, nodding at Bucky’s arm. It was the kind of question he probably wouldn’t have asked if Bucky wasn’t about to be sleeping in Sam’s own bed with him. Bucky looked down at it, flexing the metal fingers on his left hand, and gave a slow nod.

“Usually,” he said. “I don’t know, is that…”

“It’s cool,” said Sam, who figured that was a conversation for way, way later. “Just, uh – maybe you have a sweater or something?”

Bucky looked at him.

“Your arm’s kind of cold, Buck.”

“Oh.” Bucky looked to the side, frowning. “I don’t… I just have my jacket.”

“Alright alright, hang on,” said Sam, walking over to his closet so that he could dig around in a plastic bin near the back. “Okay – here we go.”

He walked back over to Bucky and handed him a chunky purple LSU sweatshirt. He hadn’t worn it in a while, and it had always fit just a tad too big on him, which was all the more reason to lend it to the metal arm guy. Bucky shook it out and looked at it with a slightly critical eye.

“It’s purple.”

“Purple and gold, baby,” said Sam. “Go tigers.”

“Very purple.”

“Well we’re going to bed, not the Met Gala.”

Bucky didn’t say anything to that, just stood up to tug on the sweatshirt, and it occurred to Sam that unless the Winter Soldier had been sent to assassinate someone in the middle of the Met Gala, Bucky probably didn’t even know what it was.

Bucky looked down at himself, his face skeptical, and Sam grinned.

“Hey, I think you really pull it off.” He looked behind him for a moment, to where Frodo had curled up in her cat bed in the corner, and asked her, “What do you think, Miss Frodo? He looks good, right?”

“Okay,” said Bucky, but there was the slightest hint of a smirk. They both stood there for a moment, looking at one another, and then Sam stepped forwards, put a hand on Bucky’s side and kissed Bucky gently. There was barely any pressure to it – it was a small kiss that lasted a long while, and Sam hoped that Bucky felt what he was trying to say in it. This isn’t a mistake. I’m glad you’re here, I want you here.

“Let’s go to bed, man,” murmured Sam. “I’m tired.”

Bucky nodded against him. They climbed into bed, Sam turning off the bedside lamp and making sure the covers were good and tucked around the both of them, before settling on his right side so that he was facing Bucky. It had been a long time since he’d shared his bed with someone for the night, but Bucky’s weight beside him was comforting. He really did feel tired then, the good kind that came on at the end of a long day, knowing that sleep wasn’t going to be giving him the cold shoulder for once.

Bucky had his right hand stretched out between them, and Sam brushed it with his left. Bucky already had his eyes closed, but Sam saw the way the corner of his mouth curled into the barest smile. Sam drifted off thinking that peace looked good on Bucky, the lines across his face appearing fainter, his breathing even as he fell asleep in Sam’s sweatshirt in Sam’s bed, lying beside Sam. Steve’s final request came back to him then – check in on him, he’d said. You don’t have to be his best friend.

What would Steve say now, Sam wondered as he slowly fell towards sleep. Somehow, he didn’t actually think he’d be surprised.

 

Sam woke up the next morning with Bucky stretched halfway across him. Specifically, he woke up with Bucky’s face pressed against his shoulder, his right arm stretched protectively across Sam’s chest. At some point during the night, Sam had probably rolled onto his back, and Bucky had ended up rolling along with him, like a boat following the tide.

It was early morning, judging by the faint light that was pressing in against the curtains. He could check his phone for the time, but that would have involved reaching to the far end of his bedside table, the downside of which would be displacing the super soldier who was resting comfortably against him. And Sam didn’t really need to know what time it was anyway, it wasn’t like he had anywhere to be other than right here.

He lifted his hand to run it gently through Bucky’s hair. It was nice, watching the morning filter in and listening to the bird sounds from outside, stroking Bucky’s hair idly. Eventually Bucky shifted under his hand, and Sam felt more than heard Bucky sighing against him. He stopped moving his hand then, letting it rest threaded in Bucky’s hair, and Bucky tilted his head up so that he was looking at Sam.

“Hey,” said Sam.

“Hey,” said Bucky, his voice still scratchy with sleep.

Sam watched Bucky’s eyes drift across his face, lingering by his mouth before glancing back up to meet Sam’s gaze. There was the barest hesitancy in it, as if he were still waiting to see whether Sam might say ha ha never mind, get out of my bed now!

So Sam moved his hand in Bucky’s hair, said “Come here,” in a low voice that was almost a growl, and pulled Bucky towards him.

It was as though all Bucky had been waiting for was the final signal from Sam, that last confirmation in the early morning light. He rose to meet him, his mouth warm against Sam’s, and it was like some dam had been broken, some powerful current flooding through the both of them. Bucky’s kisses were wide and open, his tongue licking against Sam’s lips, like all he wanted was to inhale all of Sam. And Sam was okay with that, Sam was more than okay with that, sinking his other hand into Bucky’s hair as he tried to pull him impossibly closer.

Bucky obliged by rolling fully on top of Sam, and Sam groaned at his weight, the way Bucky was pressing his hips against Sam’s and yeah, Jesus, it was good. There was a real heat to their kissing now, something almost criminal to how Bucky caught Sam’s lips between his teeth, his breath coming in hard. It had been a long time for Sam, and god – it must have been a really long time for Bucky, and Sam couldn’t think about that right now, not with Bucky stretched out on top of him. He had his right hand braced on the pillow beside Sam’s head, his left hand coming to rest lightly along Sam’s rib cage, and Sam tilted into it, because the cool vibranium felt good against his hot skin. Bucky got the message, pressed his hand firmer against Sam while he dragged his mouth to kiss him along his jaw, and Sam hissed pleasurably against the snap of cold.

He thought he felt something land on the bed, but he was distracted by what Bucky’s tongue was doing against the skin where his jaw met his neck, and didn’t think further about it until something large, white, and extremely furry was immediately in his face.

Meow!

“Oh my god,” said Sam, turning his face away so he didn’t inhale a full tail of cat fur. Bucky pulled away quickly then, sitting back on his heels and looking a little as though he’d just been punched hard in the head. His cat was sitting firmly on Sam’s chest now, and meowing loudly up at Bucky.

“What time is it?” muttered Bucky, still looking a little out of it.

“I don’t know, six? Six thirty? Is your cat asking?”

“Oh, shit,” said Bucky. “Sorry Frodo.”

“Sorry Frodo?”

“Yeah, we’re an hour behind – it’s past breakfast time.”

“Oh my god,” said Sam again, falling back against his pillow. “Okay. Feed your damn cat.”

“Now she’s just my damn cat, huh?” asked Bucky, but Sam could hear the terrible grin in his voice.

“Come on you,” said Bucky, and Sam felt him step off the bed, taking the still-meowing Frodo with him. Sam concentrated on the motion of his ceiling fan, considering the cold shower qualities of suddenly having a cat jump in his face. He could hear Bucky rummage around in the duffel bag, a bag that Sam now knew was entirely full of cat things.

“Hey, Sam?”

“What?”

“Do you have a can opener?”

Sam propped himself up on his elbows to look over at Bucky. Bucky was a sight, standing at the foot of the bed with his face flushed and his hair flying in every direction, wearing Sam’s sweatshirt and cradling his cat in his left arm. It looked like she was gnawing lightly on his vibranium thumb.

“Are you serious?”

“I had one in her carry on, but security confiscated it.” Sam gave him an incredulous look, and Bucky shook his head. “Yeah, I know.”

“Can’t you just use your arm?”

“For a can of cat food?”

“Yes?”

“Is your hand shaped like a can opener?”

“There’s one in the kitchen,” said Sam, flopping back against the pillow. “Drawer next to the sink.”

“Thanks.”

Sam regarded Bucky. “You going to take long?”

“Why?” Bucky grinned. “You need me back here for something?”

Sam shook his head. “Go feed your cat.”

Bucky left the room, looking far too smug for a man who was wearing an oversized purple sweatshirt and carrying a very fluffy cat and a little tin of cat food. Sam lay back down again, ready to sink back into the warm embrace of his bed for a few more minutes, only to find that his bed had suddenly lost a lot of its appeal sans one mouthy World War II vet.

“Fine,” sighed Sam to himself.

He rolled out of bed, threw on a shirt and tugged on a pair of sweatpants, and headed downstairs. It was past six, so either Sarah was actually sleeping in today – a miracle – or she had picked up on some context clues and was therefore sleeping in with a purpose – more likely.

He found Bucky in the kitchen, crouched down on the floor beside his cat. Frodo was busy eating her breakfast, her tail swishing happily behind her – evidently, Bucky had found the can opener. Bucky was petting her back lightly with his vibranium hand and sounded like he was murmuring something to her, though it was too soft for Sam to catch it. He looked up as Sam approached and gave him a small smile. Sam nodded back at him.

“Can you feel her?” asked Sam after a moment. “With your vibranium hand?”

“Not exactly,” replied Bucky, “I mean, I know I’m petting her – it’s like a pressure thing. I can’t feel her, but, I think she likes it.”

“Well, that’s sweet,” said Sam. “You want coffee?”

Bucky looked up at him, his expression almost sly. “I thought I was supposed to hurry back?”

“We got all morning,” said Sam, turning towards the coffee pot. “Plus, if I don’t make it now, Sarah’s going to make it later, and she always brews it way too strong.”

Bucky laughed behind him. Sam didn’t care, he was man enough to know how he liked his coffee. If he wanted it the way Sarah did, he’d just chew coffee grounds.

He got the coffee going, and when he turned back around he saw that Bucky had straightened up. He was leaning back against the counter across from Sam, an unfamiliar, almost blissful expression upon his face, and Sam realized all at once that he did know this expression – he’d just never seen Bucky actually looking at him with it, mouth curved into a soft smile and some impossible mix of pride and humility reflected in his eyes.

“What,” said Sam, but it wasn’t a question.

“Nothing,” said Bucky, with that sweet, early morning grin.

“You just like watching me make coffee?”

“Maybe.”

“Or you really just like checking me out?”

“Maybe I just like looking at you.”

That threw Sam, more than anything else Bucky had said so far. This gentle admission that Bucky was willing to trust him with, that simple truth.

“Wow,” said Sam, his voice fond. “You’re going to be a whole new kind of pain in my ass, aren’t you?”

“I’ll try to make it worth it,” replied Bucky, and he pushed off lightly against the counter to walk over towards Sam.

“I hope so,” said Sam, “Because I never saw myself settling for a white boy from the 1940s named Buchanan, you know?”

Bucky laughed lightly as he stopped in front of Sam, resting his hands gently on Sam’s hips.

“That’s just my middle name.”

“So?”

“Good point,” murmured Bucky, his metal thumb brushing underneath the hem of Sam’s shirt to rest along his skin. “Guess I’ll have to try really hard.”

“Oh, now he’s smooth?”

“I don’t know if Steve ever told you,” said Bucky, his face close, “But I used to be a real ladies' man back in the day.”

“You mean 1943?”

“Yeah.”

“Well Buck, in case you didn’t notice, I’m not a lady.”

“Oh,” said Bucky, voice low, “I noticed.”

Sam closed his eyes as Bucky moved in to kiss him, letting his world become simple sensation. The wooden floor beneath his feet, the smell of coffee in the air, the counter against his back. And the gentle pressure of Bucky’s fingers on his skin, the intent behind Bucky’s mouth on his, kissing him so sweetly as if this was all there was to it. Like the sea and the sky, love had its own horizon, its own invitation towards a new land you’d never been to before. And maybe Sam hadn’t imagined he’d be charting this course with Bucky Barnes, but in the kitchen that morning, his fingers light along this good man’s cheek, he didn’t see how it could ever have been anyone else.