Riley didn’t die right away. Sam didn’t talk about it, except once he told Steve, who didn’t get it.
Sam walked into Bucky’s room and went cold from his chest to his fingers. Then he turned to call Steve. Then he remembered Steve was dead.
Bucky walked in too, eventually, and found Sam sitting on his bed. Sam didn’t notice him come in, hadn’t noticed anything in a while, hadn’t even noticed where he was sitting. Bucky knelt between Sam’s legs and put his hand on Sam’s chin to hold his face still and studied it for a while, so Sam noticed all of that. It was a little like waking up and realizing his blanket was a hibernating bear and praying the bear didn’t wake up too. Then he was noticing things, so he had to notice that his stomach was empty, and that his eyes were hot and his head ached, and that his right cheek itched, which was unfortunate since he was no way trying to scratch it with Bucky’s hand there.
“It’s not right,” said Bucky.
Sam gave up avoiding his gaze. Bucky’s face was flat, empty. By this time tomorrow he’d be able to mimic whatever expression he’d just memorized off Sam. “What,” Sam started, and nothing came out. He cleared his throat. He didn’t want to ask. “What’s not right?”
He was afraid it was about Steve and it wasn’t. Bucky said, “The room.”
“Shit,” said Sam, and laughed without meaning to; it burned coming up, like vomit. Bucky, this close, was huge and too hot and Sam had seen him crush guns and bones in the hand on his face. But he should have known, because Bucky didn’t use the word ‘right’ to mean anything but ‘correct.’ “No,” he said. “Is it what you want,” he should have said, or, “It’s right if it makes you comfortable.” But he gave up. He knew the answer Bucky wanted right then. “This isn’t how people keep their actual rooms.”
He’d thought giving Bucky a constructive task might help. Giving him control over his physical surroundings, other than the control that involved destroying stuff. Bucky had followed Sam home, but Sam wasn’t sure that constituted a conscious choice. In the two days since he’d told Bucky to make the room his, Bucky had found a TV and a cheap dresser with a shiny veneer and a cheap bedside table with a matching shiny veneer and two bland, muddy landscapes to hang on the walls. He’d made the bed with military precision using a bedspread that looked like upholstery. Sam reached over, slowly, without moving his head, and opened the bedside table’s drawer. There was a Bible inside.
“There’s no room for Steve here,” Bucky said.
Again Sam choked and had to drag himself back in the direction of the conversation Bucky was having. Which wasn’t about where Steve had slept when he was alive or how they remembered him now that he was dead. “No,” Sam allowed. “We’ll find you pictures of,” he started, but then he remembered Steve’s bedroom in his SHIELD-issue apartment, how it hadn’t looked that much better than a hotel room itself. “We’ll look at some magazines,” he decided. “And I’ll find you some of Steve’s stuff. His books, some art for the walls. People don’t… in our houses, we don’t really….” He gestured to the smeary trees and valleys, the faux-leather cover of the Bible. “We’ll get you a bookshelf.”
Bucky nodded. Sam rested his hand against Bucky’s wrist. It was easier than trying to take Bucky’s hand off.
Bucky was Sam’s responsibility because Sam had come home and Bucky had followed him. Because Steve was gone, so where else was Bucky going to go. Because Sam would have shot anyone who tried to take Bucky away, he was so sure Steve would have wanted Bucky here. Bucky started living in Sam’s house a few months after Steve died, without Sam having shot anyone, because Rhodes had reached across Bucky to hand Sam a file and ended up in the air with a metal fist around his throat.
Bucky had pulled a pistol and kept Rhodes between himself and any possible incoming bullets and waited for the shouting to die down. Rhodes made horrible sounds trying to breathe, which was hopeful, since Bucky could just have closed his fingers until there was no room for the sounds to escape. Sam said, “Bucky, you need to let him go,” and Bucky did. His face was empty then too right up until he dropped Rhodes and pulled another pistol and his lips curled lopsided and his eyes glinted, easy and scornful, at Natasha and Sharon and Barton. The expression bothered Sam in a few ways he could identify and another he couldn’t until Natasha got him alone and told him, “That was Rumlow.” Which wasn’t what was bothering him but at least he knew what it was, after she said that.
But Rhodes was okay. In return for that, Sam got Bucky. Stark couldn’t so much as look at either one of them but between Steve and the Rhodes thing he’d apparently decided that they deserved each other, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and somewhere in the real world he had a legal team making sure no one interfered with them getting just that. “Just, you know, keep him in earshot at all times in case he tries to strangle anyone again, since your superpower is cyborg whispering, and if he kills anyone new he’s definitely going to… well they’re going to try to put him in jail, so then he’ll add another foot to his rap sheet as he slaughters the incoming agents and we’re back to square one,” Stark said from behind welding goggles and the occasional welter of sparks, over a video call. He didn’t once look at the camera. That was fine by Sam, since it meant he could look at the camera and pretend he’d have been able to if Stark were looking back.
So Bucky was Sam’s responsibility and probably Sam should have been making sure he got three square meals a day, enough water, some sunshine. What was happening instead was akin to the opposite of that.
Sam never got around to trying to pry Bucky’s hand off his face. His stomach grumbled and Bucky dropped his hand on his own, and stood, and pulled Sam up after him. He propelled Sam into the kitchen and stood in the doorway. He kept standing there while Sam stared at the contents of the cupboard.
“What do you feel like?” Sam asked. It was mostly like talking to himself. He might have gotten more of a response from himself, actually, on a good day. These weren’t good days. “Tomato soup? Lentil? We’ve got some SpaghettiOs.” His stomach gnawed away inside him. “We need to get some food that isn’t canned.”
Only then he warmed up the lentil soup and took a bite and the thought of one more made his throat close. The emptiness in his stomach climbed up to his chest, but his throat wasn’t listening, didn´t open. He put down the spoon.
Bucky’s left hand closed around the doorframe. The whine of his arm increased in pitch.
Sam picked the spoon back up and finished the soup. Once he was done, Bucky left the doorway open and heated up another bowl for himself.
Steve had mentioned once that Bucky used to take care of him when he was sick. “Take care of you,” Bucky repeated, and then he kept saying it until Steve, a little at a loss the way people could be when they took something for granted for too long and then had to prove it, added, “Make sure I ate enough even if I didn’t really feel like it, that kind of thing.” So that was what stood between Sam and passing out the way he had once after Riley, that conversation.
“He’s the reason I made it today,” Sam said, and softened that blow to his own dignity and to Fury’s sense of propriety with, “on time. It’s like having a secretary. A really scary, invested secretary.”
“Good for him,” said Fury, “I’ll be sure and mark that down in the good behavior column. I’m sure it’ll all even out real soon.” Sam figured he could stop worrying about Fury’s sense of propriety.
There was a list of appointments on the refrigerator. Sam had missed too many of them in a row and mentioned it aloud. Now, most mornings, he woke up to Bucky standing at the end of the bed staring at him, unblinking. He followed Sam down the hallway to the bathroom and stood outside the door while Sam showered. He didn’t, after the first time, come into the bathroom, turn the water on, and try to remove Sam’s clothes. Sam didn’t, after the first time, stare into the sink for an hour instead of showering. The whine of Bucky’s arm had echoed off the tiles while he yanked Sam’s shirt unceremoniously over his head. The memory was plenty of motivation.
“He’s doing better,” said Sam. He took a sip of coffee and didn’t taste it. Fury had ordered coffee too, but he had yet to drink any. He never did. It was starting to bug Sam, like maybe Fury didn’t actually ingest food or beverages the way other mortals did. “He’s getting there. He decorated his room.”
“Wilson,” said Fury, “let me ask you something. When did I give you the impression I wanted to talk about Barnes? That man shot me. So long as he’s not killing the wrong people, I don’t give a fuck how he’s doing. He’s not my problem. You’re my problem. You need a ninety-year-old zombie to kick your ass out the door or you don’t buy the damn groceries, that’s my problem.”
“Okay,” said Sam. “I’m doing better. I’m getting there. I went to my sister’s.” He knew that sounded like it meant he was opening up and getting help. Mostly it meant he had put together a presentable front that day. His sister was comfortable with presentable fronts.
“Good,” said Fury, and sounded like he meant it. “We need you back on the team.”
“More than you need the Winter Soldier?” Sam said, sort of as a joke, and then heard himself. “Wait, why do you need me back so bad? You’ve got how many superheroes now and no emergency, you all can’t handle things without me?”
Fury leaned back in his booth and studied Sam. “Emergencies pop up,” he said. “Without a whole lot of warning. They’re inconsiderate. Superheroes, in isolation, are also inconsiderate. They only get helpful when they’re working together. Rogers had them working together. Well.” He nodded to himself. “Captain America had them working together.”
“Excuse me,” Sam said, very politely, and he went to the restroom and threw up.
When they found Bucky, he had acted normal, mostly, sort of. He had acted like a person, at least in front of Steve. Not even Steve thought he was okay, for all the effort Bucky put in, but he and Sam had both thought Bucky would get better over time.
After Steve died, Bucky acted another kind of normal. He picked a new mask and he stopped letting it slip in front of Sam. For about a week, he smiled so wide his eyes crinkled when Sam came into a room. He hummed while he made dinner and laughed at the jokes on TV a half-beat too late. He wore primary colors and beiges and left his dirty socks on hotel floors. He read all the brochures about local attractions in tiny convenience stores. When he wasn’t driving he read up on the late twentieth century with a tiny frown, and sometimes put a hand on Sam’s knee and read a sentence aloud. He sat near Sam at meals and jostled Sam’s foot with his or nudged his elbow into Sam’s ribs. He leaned into Sam when they sat on the end of a hotel bed to watch TV. Sam hadn’t realized how much he and Steve used to touch in front of Bucky until it wasn’t Steve he was touching. One morning Bucky leaned past Sam to grab the coffee pot before Sam could pick it up and said, “On your left,” and pecked Sam on the cheek, which Steve had only slipped up and done once in front of him, while reaching past Sam to grab the coffee pot before Sam could pick it up and saying “on your left.”
Sam backed up and said, “Bucky. I need you to stop, man.” And he’d left the hotel room and when he came back Bucky had dropped the Steve imitation, and the older act he’d put on for Steve, and he was… this.
When Sam got back to the table Fury said, “I’m not gonna bring it up again for a while, but you know I’ll have to eventually, and you know Rogers would want it to be you.”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “But not yet.”
Fury nodded and added, “Especially not while you don’t even notice when you’re being tailed.”
“Oh, that.” Sam sat down slowly in order to keep track of his balance. “Kinda figured it went without saying.”
Fury waved out the window without looking. “Define ‘doing better,’” he said. “How’d the room decorating go?”
Sam wrapped his fingers around his mug. It was warmer than the coffee. “He just spent a year in hotels.”
“I had a friend with a pet snake, growing up,” said Fury. “He liked to say he’d trained it to sit on his shoulders. You know how ridiculous that is? He didn’t train it to do shit. He was warm, it was cold, that simple. It did what it was going to do anyway. It was a fucking snake.”
“Okay,” said Sam. “Well, he’s a fucking person.” It was the wrong thing to say, and he couldn’t think why. He felt like Steve would have wanted him to say it, though.
When Steve put a hand on Sam’s knee in the car and read something aloud from his book, it was something funny or sad or well-written. When Bucky did it the sentences were random, meaningless. Bucky had a good memory for recent events and Sam was grateful he didn’t read the same sentences Steve had.
Fury looked Sam over. “You need this time for yourself, fine. But I want you back when you’re ready, not when you stop worrying about a guy who’s doing as well as he’s ever gonna do.” He beckoned in the same direction he’d waved earlier, still without looking. “That said, I’m glad you’ve got yourself a secretary, because I need to ask you a favor and maybe he can help you out.”
The bench creaked when Bucky dropped onto it next to Sam. He slid his arm along the back, into Sam’s space, and Sam didn’t, in front of Fury, lean away. “What favor’s that,” Bucky said, and stole Sam’s coffee. He made a face when he tasted it and said, “Well that’s a tragedy. How are you drinking this?” He started tearing sugar packets open one-handed, other arm still along the back of the bench, fingers drumming a tuneless little beat.
“We have a Hydra captive who claims to be willing to talk to us once he’s talked to you.” Fury watched the growing amount of sugar going into Sam’s coffee with even less expression that Bucky usually wore. “He could definitely be lying, but he has enough information it’s worth a shot.”
Bucky smiled, wide and patently insincere. “Cute.” He shrugged and raised his eyebrows at Sam. “Could be fun, right?” Stark, Sam realized. This was Stark.
“I’m not clear on how this is a favor you’re asking me,” Sam said.
“No, he doesn’t want to talk to Barnes. I want Barnes there, in case this is more than a delaying tactic. He wants to talk to you.”
Brock Rumlow looked well for a man who’d spent an unspecified but probably illegal amount of time in solitary confinement. There was the piece where part of his face and one of his arms looked like the skin had been torn off and stuck back on inside out, but Sam had to give him this: He still seemed exactly as stable as he had in the Triskelion.
He looked up when Sam came into the half of the room on the right side of the creepy invisible wall, expectant, and then for a second Sam thought things were going to be actually normal—which was to say abnormal, which was to say the way things should be during a conversation with a guy who’d tried to kill millions of people in order to help a secret organization take over the world—because all the expression left Rumlow’s face and he just studied Sam’s, sort of the way Bucky did when he was memorizing. Sam thought maybe that was how Rumlow had fooled Steve and Fury and even Natasha for so long; maybe there was something missing from him and he could fill it in with a facsimile of whatever he needed, just like—
Not like Bucky.
And anyway that wasn’t it, because then Rumlow made a wry face, or half of one, and said “okay” to himself under his breath, because he’d only been checking for something and found it, or not found it. People did that. People looked blank in the seconds before they knew what was happening, and then they found out, and then they reacted. That was normal. So they were back to Rumlow being a regular dude who was maybe just very good at compartmentalizing, which sucked for Sam’s worldview.
Rumlow’s reaction when Bucky filled the doorway behind Sam was also normal. Sam felt Bucky come in, the displacement of air and the heat and how much space he filled, and Rumlow got real worried real fast, which gave Sam a certain amount of satisfaction.
“Heard you wanted to see me,” Sam said, and walked over to the bench on his side of the creepy not-wall and sat down. He kept half an eye on Bucky, because it would be pretty normal, he figured, for Bucky to try something. Sam didn't want to fight his way unarmed out of the basement of a SHIELD building. Back to square one. But Bucky closed the door behind them and stood there, unblinking, not quite at parade rest, watching Sam.
Rumlow looked back to Sam too, still worried and a little startled, like he’d found something new to be worried about. “Well, fuck,” he said, offended. “Did I figure you all wrong?”
Sam wasn’t sure he gave a shit whether or not Brock Rumlow was being tortured for information, but he was sure he’d give a shit in a few months because his conscience had never been a quiet monster, and he was sure he wasn’t letting Bucky get involved and he was sure he wasn’t getting involved. He felt a nasty, silty temptation in the back of his throat to at least let the man wonder a few seconds more, and at least it was a feeling other than blunt brute pain, but he shook his head right away. “You’re probably a great judge of character,” he said. “What do you want?”
Rumlow ignored the question and leaned back on his cot in order to get a better view of Bucky. It was a laborious process. He was either putting an equal amount of weight on both arms or going to some lengths to look like he was. “The hell is he here for, then?”
“We figured we’d make a day of it. Gonna go sightseeing after this, grab some lunch. He could have waited in the car, but there’s nothing to look at in that damn parking garage. What do you want?”
“Hey,” Rumlow said to Bucky, and raised his good hand to snap his fingers, all his weight on the arm that looked flayed. “You in there?”
Bucky looked at Rumlow, blankly, and then at Sam. For a second it passed as a normal blankness, like he just wasn’t sure what Rumlow wanted, but it kept going and kept going and Rumlow laughed.
“Christ, Wilson,” he said. “You’re not even letting him play pretend person? That’s cold. That is some cold goddamn shit.”
“Fuck you,” said Sam, and again, “What do you want?”
Rumlow lowered his hand and eased his weight back onto his good arm. “I hope you’re ready for this to wear off,” he said, and jerked his chin in Bucky’s direction without looking away from Sam. “The compliant act. You think he never picked a favorite before? And you’re not even letting him dress up like a real boy.” He whistled between his teeth. “It’s gonna be ugly when he gets sick of this.”
Sam laughed. It felt good. “Yeah, thanks,” he said. “You know I worked at the VA before this? I’ve had—sorry,” he added to Bucky, “—but I’ve had huge scary dudes decide I was their only exception before, and then realize they don’t actually have an exception. That happens, we’ll deal with it. Last time, now: What do you want?”
“Oh,” said Rumlow, “that. Got it, thanks,” and he smiled with half his mouth, the other half flat with scar tissue where it had been flat with scorn before DC happened, according to Bucky’s impression; and his eyes glinted, begging to be asked.
Sam was reminded of being a teenager and visiting his grandfather in the nursing home. The split sense of time working two ways in a room, as it crawled by for him and he tried to speed it up enough that he could go, and as it sped by for someone who couldn’t leave and who tried to stretch it so far it ripped. Habitual guilt reared its head, senseless but insistent. “Okay,” he sighed, “what? What did I give you? How did I spill a state secret by chatting about where I used to work?”
Bucky stepped forward. His arm whined. Rumlow looked less self-satisfied.
Bucky only shoved Sam between the shoulder blades the way he did to get Sam moving, which Sam could have stood for Rumlow not to see. He went along with it anyway and got up. “I’m glad you found what you needed,” he said with all the sarcasm he could lay his hands on. Bucky knocked on the door the way they were supposed to in order to be let out, so that was a step in the right direction. They’d been waiting in one of these cells once right after he came in, going through the formalities of taking in the Winter Soldier, and he’d stood and stared at the door for a while and then reared back and kicked it out of its frame. Sam and Steve had assumed he was scared, or at least bored. Sam wasn’t sure anymore.
Rumlow leaned forward and licked his lips. “No state secrets,” he said. “I just wondered if they weren’t lying to me about Rogers. Guess not. You’ve got a real honest face, Wilson, anyone ever tell you that?”
Sam hadn’t planned on going out to lunch, but once he’d said it, it sounded like a good idea. He realized part of why he hadn’t been going out was that he’d been worried it would bother Bucky, be too much for him. A lot of it was because he was worried it’d be too much for himself, but Bucky was in there too.
Bucky didn’t seem bothered. He sat on their park bench and watched Sam eat his hot dog for a while before he started his own, just like at home. He didn’t flinch when kids shrieked or when a teenager on a skateboard rattled past just behind them. His eyes tracked them and his head swiveled once in a while, but he didn’t act bothered. The colors and sounds and smells started to grind on Sam’s nerves after a while, but his nerves had had a long enough break.
The second when Rumlow found what he’d been looking for kept coming back to Sam, the satisfaction or resignation or whatever it had been. Bucky never looked like that. Bucky stared and stared, he memorized, but he never looked like he’d gotten what he was after.
“Bucky,” said Sam, and Bucky’s focus shifted onto him like something coiling to strike. Sam worked hard to think of this man as Bucky but he didn’t, he realized now, use the name out loud unless he wanted something. Like it was a bargaining chip. He set the uneaten half of his hot dog down on the bench and Bucky’s eyes followed it. “I’ll get another one,” Sam said. “Look, man. I didn’t—if you’re going to do the Steve thing. If you need to be him. I can’t be around that. But if there’s someone else you can be, if that’s easier, you know you can do that whenever you want, right?”
“It’s not,” said Bucky. He handed Sam his hot dog.
“Jesus,” said Sam, but took a bite. “It’s not what?”
“Easier,” said Bucky. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other.”
“Sure,” said Sam. “Sure. So why do you do it?”
“Why did you… who were you being for Steve?”
“That wasn’t a very good one. I didn’t have enough intel on Barnes. It was mostly pieces of other people. I could do better now. I found a bunch of video files and pictures and letters, plus Steve talked about him all the time.” He reflected. “I’m better at conversations, too. They’re stupid but I’m better at them and Barnes liked them. Too bad Steve died before I got better.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, for something to say, trying to swallow another bite. He was going to be sick. Bucky watched him choke it down, watched him grip the edge of the bench until the wave of disbelief passed and the wave of that blind blunt animal pain crested and settled back into his bones. “Listen, though.” He was going to have this out now. “Why is it too bad? Why did you want to pretend to be Barnes for Steve if you’re not? You know he would have cared about you anyway, right?”
Bucky shrugged again. “People are nicer that way. Steve liked me better than you like me because he didn’t notice when I fucked it up.”
“Shit,” said Sam. “Oh, man. Shit.”
“Maybe it’s just as well,” Bucky said. He nudged Sam’s elbow until Sam took another bite of hot dog. “I can’t be one person for long running and he was almost always around. He would have noticed eventually.”
“Look,” said Sam. “I really didn’t mean you can’t do it at all, ever. If you want to be Barnes or something, that’s cool. And you don’t have to do it all the time. I like you fine either way. Just… not Steve, all right?” He thought about asking that Bucky, while he was at not being Steve, also not be Stark or Barton. Then he considered that the more people he knew he eliminated, the more Hydra agents he was going to end up with, and he kept his mouth shut.
Bucky looked flat and he nudged Sam’s elbow again.
“Come on,” Sam protested, glaring at the hot dog, but he took another bite. He was setting a really bad precedent. “If you’re avoiding it because of me, don’t, is all. Have some fun or whatever, man.”
Bucky grinned, his face and body easing into sloping lines, and he leaned in and brushed the hot dog out of Sam’s hands to the ground. “You owe me another one and these are crap anyway,” he said. “Let me get you some desert or something, huh?”
“Yeah?” Sam marshaled a smile. “How you going to do that?”
Bucky patted his pockets and tried very hard to look horrified through his grin. (Bucky appeared to try very hard to look horrified through his grin. Jesus, Sam got tired just thinking about it.) “I guess you have to treat,” he admitted. “Looks like I left my cash at home.”
“Just this once,” Sam said. “You owe me big. We’re looking at five, ten dollars of debt here, Barnes. Maybe twelve if you’ve got your eye on the good ice cream.”
“Hey, fuck you, take it out of the times I saved your life. You think that came free? You’ve got a tab.” He leapt to his feet and hauled Sam after him with both hands, which was good because Sam wasn’t sure he’d have been able to summon the energy. But Bucky slung an arm over his shoulders and was easier to walk with him than it would have been to stop.
Riley didn’t die right away. Sam didn’t talk about it. He tried to tell Steve once—no. He did tell Steve. Steve knew. Steve just didn’t get why Sam was telling him.
Riley was torn up and burned and shredded, but mostly he was skull-split. It was a miracle he’d survived the fall, one of the doctors said. When Riley woke up the next day, in the bare bones of a medical center with flickering electricity and an unpredictable water filtration system, the doctor called that a miracle too. Sam couldn’t even get angry about the useless word the way he did for a decade once being a pastor’s kid finally backfired, because it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t like when people called hard work a miracle. Sam hadn’t saved him, careening back without performing even one of the four lifesaving steps because of the mortars and the RPGs and because he was sure he was lugging a corpse. The doctors and nurses and modern medicine hadn’t saved Riley. Riley wasn’t saved. He just lost half his skin in the blast and took a rock in the brain when he hit the ground and woke up anyway and that was a miracle.
Riley stayed awake for three days before they got a transport to a hospital and he died on the way, which was all right, because he would have died at the hospital if they’d gotten there. It was a miracle. Nothing real. Sam had watched Riley’s brain leak out over his ear. There weren’t enough bandages to stop the blood on his chest and legs pumping out and it never seemed to clot. He never slept, the whole three days, never passed out. He didn’t seem like he was in pain. A lot of other things, but not in pain.
Sam’s grandfather had Alzheimer’s and it was like that, the way Riley woke up. The things he said. Sometimes he called Sam ‘Lyle’ and talked about a pig farm where they’d met. Sam had never seen a goddamn pig farm and neither had Riley. Sometimes Riley sat in bed and stared at Sam with hatred Sam felt on his face like heat, and Sam was scared he’d say—Riley would have known sixty things to say to hurt Sam if he wanted to, just off the top of his head. But he sat there with his mouth shut like he couldn’t think of a single word. And sometimes Riley sat in bed and stared past Sam like he wouldn’t have cared if he did know who Sam was. That was what Sam tried to tell Steve. That the man they’d found acted normal around Steve but that it wasn’t Bucky acting that way. That this was what Sam saw when he lay in bed and couldn’t sleep, his grandfather and Riley with the faces and voices they’d used all their lives but it wasn’t them inside anymore. When his mom died Sam couldn’t believe it but at least she wasn’t still breathing and clutching his hand.
Sam had held Riley’s good hand on the flight to the hospital because he felt like he should, like he’d regret it if he didn’t. Riley had held his hand back and stared at their fingers like a puzzle he could have worked out if he cared to. His other arm looked like the skin had been torn off and stuck back on inside out but Riley didn’t even glance that way.
Sam held strangers’ hands, at bedsides and at demonstrations and at the VA, and it never felt like that, like something wrong working its way under his skin. He knew Riley. He did. He just didn’t know who was holding his hand.
He’d told Steve that, sort of. He’d said, “I was holding his hand when he died and Jesus, Steve, I wish I hadn’t been. I tried to pull away halfway through the flight and he wouldn’t let go. He was stronger than he was before he lost half his goddamn body. He just kept staring. He didn’t give a shit about me, about anything. There was nothing there.” Steve had been wounded on Sam’s behalf and he’d held Sam and he’d nearly cried but he’d had no idea why Sam was telling him, not once.
Sam let Bucky steer him and steal his wallet to pay for ice cream and hand him pieces of torn up hot dog bun to feed the pigeons, all smiles and solicitude like this was a first date. Sam was so grateful he’d never known James Barnes.
“That was a test,” said Natasha. “For the record.” They met in a second-hand bookstore. She had on a long black skirt and huge black glasses and so much eyeliner he kept getting confused about where to look to meet her gaze. She gave him a store-issued paper cup of hot water and fished a tea bag from the pocket of the green tunic layered over her skirt.
“What, showing up when you ask me to meet you at a place called Dia Bolic Books? Did I pass, or is being such a damn fool that I came here failing?”
“Hey. I chose this place very carefully. It has significant black patronage, so you’ll blend in.”
“Natasha.” Sam gestured to his plaid button-down shirt, and to the black girl a few aisles down, who was wearing a diadem with a pentagram on her dreads. “I appreciate the effort, but I need a Halloween costume.”
“Oh,” said Natasha. “Right. Drink your tea. No, the test was Rumlow, and it wasn’t for you. Fury wanted to see what would happen if he put Barnes in a room with Rumlow. You know he could have gotten to the guy if he’d wanted to.”
“It crossed my mind,” said Sam, who had covered Bucky’s back in a firefight more than once and had seen how he rolled through obstacles physical and electronic once he got going, and how little was left in his wake. “Well, good. So we know he’s not going to fly into a murderous rage at the sight of a former captor. He can confine that shit to where it belongs. He passed.”
“Mm,” said Natasha, and then she sipped her tea, and then she picked up a book and opened it.
“What,” said Sam.
“If you were Bucky,” said Natasha, “would you fly into a murderous rage at the sight of Brock Rumlow?”
“Sure,” said Sam. “In Bucky’s position, sure. But that’s not the only reaction to have. You wouldn’t.”
“Oh, no,” said Natasha. “I’d be very slow about it. No flying.” She sipped her tea again. “Drink your tea.”
“It hasn’t steeped,” said Sam.
“Oh. Right.” She read her book for a while. “It’s mint,” she said. “Your tea.”
“It smells great. I’m looking forward to it. Natasha, come on.”
“I get where he could be coming from,” she allowed. “I just don’t think he’s actually coming from there. I don’t get a read on him, Sam. I’m not saying I’ve never been wrong about someone, but really. I don’t read anything from him. It’s like he’s not even in there. Which would be fine if he weren’t living with you.”
“It’s still fine,” said Sam. “He’s figuring some stuff out. We’re decorating his room.”
“Great. Once it’s finished we can have a party and invite your sister over so she can get to know him.”
Sam sipped his tea. It just tasted hot. It smelled great, though.
“I thought you should know,” said Natasha.
“Thanks.” He put an arm around her and she pecked his cheek and nestled against him and his throat ached, she felt so real against him. Present. Even in a sloppy disguise she was there, all the way down to her bones. “Thanks for the tea, too,” he said. “It’s good.”
“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” she said.
“Yeah, back at you, Dia Bolic. You’re not running any missions like this, are you?”
“Like this, making stupid mistakes, or like this, with the glasses and the eyeliner?”
“Oh, is that what that is? I thought you stole Bucky’s old field makeup kit.”
“Stop it. No, I’m taking some personal time. Sort of personal. Well, not field work. I’m staying with Nick.” She had the same would-be casual pride in her voice his niece did when she mentioned Mrs. S praising her at school. She flipped pages in the book without moving her head from his chest. “Sorry I don’t come over.”
“I get it,” said Sam. “I really, really get it.” Her hair didn’t smell like anything, which was weird for Natasha, who usually smelled like something very specific although rarely the same thing for long running. “Nat, do you have any pets?”
“With my lifestyle?” She snorted. “I just can’t seem to find a way to have it all. I do have something, though. You have to promise not to laugh. Clint gave it to me.”
“I haven’t killed it yet, so it’s a really good fit for me.”
“I promised, didn’t I?”
She kicked his shin preemptively. “It’s a spider plant.”
He laughed. It felt good.
“In my ample free time,” said Fury, “I read an article the other day. Did you know the elderly are less likely to be depressed if they have a dog than if they have a cat? Seems there’s just a special something about having your affection returned reliably, in understandable terms.”
“Yeah?” Sam set a plate of pancakes down in front of Fury. “You thinking of getting a dog?”
“Shit, Wilson, I’m thinking I’ll be lucky to make it to ‘elderly.’ Watch your tongue.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” said Sam, and handed over the maple syrup and the butter dish.
“Hey,” said Bucky from the doorway, voice friendly, hair damp from the shower, face dead cold. Then he smiled, reached past Sam for the coffeepot and sat on the counter to pour himself a mug. “What’s the occasion?”
“The occasion is breakfast,” said Sam, half-checking Fury for a reaction to this version of Bucky. He worried about how Bucky would feel looking back on this in a couple years if he was better by then, if he’d think Sam had been wrong to okay him walking around playacting someone he wasn’t once he really was someone else, and there was nothing like the boss over for breakfast to spike that concern to a peak. “How many pancakes you want?”
“All of them,” said Bucky, and smiled, and didn’t quite laugh. He didn’t ever quite laugh, now that he wasn’t being Steve.
“The occasion today is breakfast,” said Fury. “I was hoping you could fill me in on what the occasion was in Sokovia, March 1958.”
“For fuck’s sake,” said Bucky.
“I take it you remember that one.”
“I don’t have to remember it, they never shut up about it.” Bucky folded one of his legs up onto the counter and swallowed half his coffee. “Christ, sir, it doesn’t even matter, does it? I mean it wasn’t anybody important.”
“I’m in favor of the wholesale slaughter of Hydra agents as a general rule,” said Fury. “They piss me off too. But I admit I’m curious about Genadiya Sadovskaya.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow and shrugged. He took the plate of pancakes Sam handed him and rolled one up, plain, to eat with his hands. “She was nice. I liked her.”
“I’ve got my hands on a report that says you didn’t like her all that much. They found her in three different pieces.”
“Well,” said Bucky, grinning around his pancake, probably a pitch-perfect Bucky Barnes grin if they’d been talking about anything else, “she stopped being nice.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Sam, and dropped his own plate onto the table from enough of a height to get a dramatic clatter. “If this isn’t useful information about an assassination or the location of a base or some shit, we’re done. We’ve got no idea what he went through or why he did what he did and you’re not interrogating him over my breakfast table.”
“The fact that he eats every morning at your breakfast table is exactly why this is useful information,” said Fury, unmoved, and took a bite of pancake. It was gratifying to see even if it was meant as a gesture of defiance.
“It’s puerile,” said Bucky, and stood up slowly and crossed his ankles and held his coffee mug in one hand. He gestured with it a little as he said, gentle and familiar, eyes bright and never leaving Fury, “Honestly, now. It’s a campfire story. It keeps the troops in line, but it’s about as relevant as a National Enquirer exposé at this point. Besides, we both know why Rumlow is so anxious that you hear it. You’re accomplishing nothing and you’re letting him distract you.”
Sam was watching Bucky, trying to figure out who the hell this was supposed to be. Then he looked at Fury, and then he said, “Bucky, cut it out.”
Bucky did. He lapsed back and ticked into stillness and his face drained to blank. He finished his coffee, though.
Fury took a minute. He ate another few bites of pancake. “This is good,” he said.
“Glad you think so. It’s my mom’s recipe.” Sam ran a hand over his face. “You need to leave, man. This was a shitty position to put me in.”
Fury looked startled, and considered Sam’s face, and then he nodded. He pointed at Bucky. “Don’t do that again.”
Bucky swung back into motion, grabbing the coffee pot, face coming alive and sullen. “Nossir,” he muttered into his second mugful.
“I’ll be right back,” said Sam, and followed Fury onto the porch, where he said, “What the fuck? I’m sorry about what he just pulled, but come on, man. They were torturing him, of course he lashed out at some point.”
“He lashed out,” said Fury, “at several points. That was just the most spectacular point. I don’t care about the general lashing out. I hope he got a whole shitload of those fucks. I do care about Genadiya Sadovskaya, Vitaly Azarov, and most recently, Michael Bailey, whose head was found in the Potomac a week after the Helicarriers went down. We have yet to locate the body. I care because, and I’ve verified this independent of that lying piece of shit Rumlow, the Winter Soldier was really goddamned fond of all three right up until he killed them, and for a man known for his efficiency, these were not efficient kills.”
Sam felt queasy and would sooner have shot his own right foot off than show it. “Sounds like those were personal,” he said. “Like he felt betrayed or something. I’m trying to think why that would be.”
“The fact that Brock Rumlow suddenly can’t run his mouth long enough about how much danger you’re in,” said Fury, “frankly makes me think you’re right. This is a waste of time Rumlow’s dreamed up, those three pulled some stunts and got what was coming to them for it, the whole thing.”
“Good,” said Sam. “Same here.”
“Another article I read recently,” said Fury, “was about wild animals running into humans. The position taken by the article was that we’re being unfair calling animal attacks ‘unprovoked’ when we have no idea what constitutes provocation to, say, a rattlesnake. We can’t. We don’t have a clue what the fuck goes on in their heads.”
“Are you actually reading these?” said Sam, and pictured Natasha poring over JSTOR, feeding notes into Fury’s phone.
“You should be reading these,” said Fury, and turned to go down the stairs. “You should be reading up on people who try to keep wild animals as pets. End up having to put down a perfectly good python because it had to live in an apartment with a two-year-old.”
“I’m not keeping anything,” said Sam. “Anyone else tries to take him away, though, and we’re gone.”
Sam’s conscience reared its ugly head. “About Rumlow,” he said. “And the other Hydra goons. Have they been charged with anything? They getting a trial?”
Fury looked over his shoulder. “When you’ve got stars and stripes on your outfit you can bawl me out for that shit, Wilson,” he said. “I plan to listen harder this time around, if that helps.”
“Fuck,” said Sam. “Fuck.” And he went back inside.
When he woke up the next morning Bucky was sitting cross-legged on his bed, which was new and alarming.
“Jesus,” Sam said, and sat up, and didn’t grope for his gun on the bedside table.
“You can ask about Genadiya Sadovskaya,” said Bucky, who wasn’t Bucky, who was emptied out. “I won’t be mad.”
“No,” said Sam, and lay back down. Who the fuck was he kidding. Sam could hold a pistol 24/7, but if Bucky decided to kill him, the most Sam could do would be to take the guy’s other arm with him, and he couldn’t even do that because of Steve. “I guess you wouldn’t be.”
“I don’t remember Vitaly Azarov,” said Bucky. “And they fabricated reports all the time, especially about me. But Sadovskaya and Bailey, those were me. Probably some other ones too, even if Azarov wasn’t real.”
“Okay,” said Sam, and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes instead of covering his ears. “Why? Do you remember?”
“In Sokovia,” said Bucky, “things were uncomfortable. That was when I decided next time I’d make people like me. Nobody there liked me. It was so uncomfortable all the time there wasn’t any point behaving, except Sadovskaya snuck me chocolate, so I did what she said. Everyone was very impressed with her. It worked for both of us. Then I finished the mission and cryo wasn’t ready because the power was out so she started telling me to do stuff just for fun. I got sick of it. After that people told the story a lot, and they never made me that uncomfortable again.” He tugged Sam’s hands down from his face. It was like an out-of-body experience, Sam’s arms moved so easily and so independently of him. Bucky looked down at him. “It was pretty bad stuff she had me do for fun,” he said. “Steve wouldn’t have minded that I killed her.”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Sam said. He’d seen what Steve did to a couple Hydra agents involved in the Winter Soldier program.
“Are you mad?” Bucky leaned in further. There was nothing on his face but his eyes darted over Sam’s for signs. It occurred to Sam that Bucky probably knew his expressions better than anyone else, better than his dad or his sister did. They hadn’t made an aggressive study for future use, after all.
“No, Buck, I’m not mad,” Sam said, which was true. He felt heavy, mostly. “You want to come here?” He doubted whether Bucky found contact comforting, strictly speaking, but maybe if they were in here together Sam didn’t have to get up and shower and eat.
Bucky shrugged but then he swung his legs around and lay down on his side. He put his left arm over Sam’s waist and his right arm under Sam’s neck. His face was still drained empty but the position was specific and immediate and Sam had the creeping feeling there was a third person in the bed. He didn’t ask. Bucky’s arm ticked, hot through the sheet. Sam didn’t want to ask this either, because what if the answer was terrible, and god, what if it wasn’t, but he said, “What did she make you do?”
Bucky looked over at him, slowly. He smiled a Barnes smile and said, “Never mind.”
Sam nodded. It felt like Bucky’s arm was getting heavier on top of him as it cooled but Sam hadn’t breathed easy in half a year anyway. He thought about the slow way Bucky had watched that kid skateboard out from behind them, and the immediacy of his attack on Rhodes, and how he’d kicked the door in at SHIELD the first time and not after that. “Hey,” he said. “Did Rhodes—” scare you, he almost said. “Startle you. When you grabbed him, was it because you didn’t see him coming or something?”
“Rhodes isn’t vindictive, superpowered, or easily panicked,” said Bucky. “I could have used Barton but Rhodes worked out first. I’d have used the Widow but I was keeping the mess to a minimum so you wouldn’t be mad.”
“Used them,” said Sam, “for what.”
“Nobody’s going to get near me at meetings anymore,” said Bucky.
That conversation made it awkward when Barton showed up later in the week. He breezed in, handing Sam a box made of thin white cardboard on his way. “Hey,” he said. “I’ve been deputized. I didn’t call ahead, but I brought baked goods, which is almost as good as manners.”
“Who deputized you?” said Sam, and closed the door behind him because getting rid of him seemed harder to accomplish. “Nat or Fury?”
“Natasha. Well, so maybe Fury at some point up the line. What a teacher’s pet.” He took the box back from Sam. “Not that I’m jealous.” He opened the box and ate one of the cookies. “How you doing?”
“Better once I get you a plate.”
“I mean,” said Clint, following Sam into the kitchen and dropping into a chair. “I’ve never been invited to live in Fury’s apartment, is all.”
“Barton,” said Sam, and handed him a plate. “You have a wife and three kids. You’re gonna move them all into Fury’s apartment?”
“Not all of them. I can lose a couple kids. You want one? The little one’s pretty cute still.” He grinned and waved over Sam’s shoulder. “Hey, Barnes.”
“Afternoon,” said Bucky, and came up behind Sam and locked one arm over Sam’s shoulder and the other around his waist, which continued the trend of new and alarming. It also made Clint’s eyebrows go all the way up. Bucky ignored this and snagged a cookie, which he shoved into Sam’s hand, and then another, which he shoved into his own mouth. “Is this about Avengers stuff?” he said.
“Nooo,” said Clint. “Just… um, cookie stuff.”
“Okay,” said Bucky, and let go of Sam, which to Sam begged the question of where that had been going if it had been Avengers business. “Want something to drink? We’ve mostly got lemonade. I bought it three times in a row.” He smiled and knocked the side of his head with his knuckles. “Freeze-fried.”
Clint laughed uncertainly and looked at Sam with something short of panic.
“Oh,” said Sam, realizing Clint had never actually seen Bucky do this for more than a gesture or an expression at a time. “So uh, Clint, Bucky’s doing… a lot better. And most of the shopping. You want lemonade?”
“Sure,” said Clint. “Cool. Thanks.”
Bucky frowned at him for a second, then dropped the expressions and body language and went blank. He still got and poured the lemonade, which was weird to watch, like some kind of tiny domestic haunting. By the time he set the glass on the table, he was being someone again; his movements were fluid and his face was quiet, content. When he sat down he leaned forward with a small smile and his elbows close to his body. “Drink up,” he said, voice low. He rested his chin in his hand and waited, watching but not the way he did when he was memorizing, just fond. “You’ll need the energy for when you trip trying to walk down the stairs and chew the last cookie at the same time.”
Clint went pale. He drank the lemonade quickly and said, “Hey Sam, can I talk to you for a second? Alone?”
Sam sat down too. “You know what,” he said, “let’s just do this together. I’ve had a couple private conversations with Fury and you always hear them, Bucky.”
Bucky sprawled back into Barnes, a heel on the seat of his chair, one elbow jutting toward the center of the table, and grabbed another cookie. “I don’t always hear them. Sometimes I lip-read them.” He looked pointedly at Sam’s cookie. It was peanut butter, which made it easy for Sam to put it down on the table with an equally pointed look back.
“Hey, same,” said Clint. “Okay, sorry if this is awkward, but was that Natasha? Were you just being Natasha at me?”
Bucky looked offended to be asked. “Yes. You like Natasha. You’re welcome.”
“Great,” said Clint. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Was that Natasha,” said Bucky. “I can do a fucking great Natasha.” He ate his second cookie and glared at Sam’s.
“It was a beautiful Natasha,” Clint said. “Really. That was very nice of you. Who, um, who are you being exactly to be nice for Sam?”
Bucky’s eyes narrowed. “Barnes, mostly,” he said, while being Barnes still, which made Sam a little dizzy. “What’s it matter? Sam said I could.”
“So that, in between there, the way you usually are—last I knew—that’s, you know, real,” said Clint.
Bucky leaned back in his chair and shifted his deepening glare from Sam’s cookie to his face. “Do I have to answer this? Don’t you outrank this clown?”
“Hey,” said Clint, without anything approaching actual offense, and then, “Wait, do you outrank me? No, never mind, look, as a friend, I’m just saying. I get it’d be more comfortable to hang out with, but is it good for him to, ah, let him do this?”
Sam had the first long laugh he’d had in months. It was a little hysterical, sure, but it left his sides hurting and he’d missed that kind of hurt. “I swear,” he said as soon as he could, because Clint was genuinely concerned, it was decent of him to look out for Bucky, “I swear to god, Barton, I’m not pressuring him to be Barnes or taking advantage or anything. Cross my heart.”
Bucky grinned wide and his eyes sparkled and he said, “This clown,” and shoved Clint’s shoulder with his metal hand but caught him before he fell out of his chair. His voice was low when he said it, a little too gentle like his Natasha impression and a little toneless like when he wasn’t being anybody at all. Sam tried to keep smiling, tried not to hope that the mix meant it was real.
Riley didn’t die right away and even before he lost half his brain through a hole in his skull, he was sometimes an asshole. He got in these moods for a few hours at a time where he said everything that came into his head, and everything that came into his head was crude or cruel or, probably, both. Sam was intimately aware that Riley could say sixty terrible things to him off the top of his head because Riley had proved it, maybe twice a year. He talked about these spells like something he couldn’t control, which was as true as it needed to be, and he talked about them like they weren’t him, which wasn’t true at all. He had the same Louisiana drawl and he flushed just as easy with every strong emotion. He scraped his fingernails over the pad of his thumb and went yards out of his way to pet every single dog he saw. He had the same smile, whether he was being an asshole or not, and when Riley smiled one side of his mouth stayed flat with something that looked—even on good days, which were most days—like scorn.
Sam consciously made one of his worst decisions and went to see Rumlow again.
He spent the climb down the stairs and through the warren of corridors thinking about what bullshit his excuse was. He’d told himself at some point along the line that he was going to make sure Rumlow was being humanely treated. Unless SHIELD was hitting Rumlow in the face with blunt objects, Sam wasn’t going to be able to tell how he was being treated. He could ask Rumlow straight out whether or not he was being tortured and still not know. It’d make all the sense in the world for Rumlow to say no even if he was, because they’d be monitoring the conversation; it’d make all the sense in the world for Rumlow to say yes even if he wasn’t, because then he’d have a hold on Sam.
Another hold on Sam. “I just wondered if they weren’t lying to me about Rogers.”
“You want me to leave,” said Sam before he sat down, “bring Barnes up just once.”
“Sick of talking about that brain-dead freak anyway.” Rumlow was at least leaning against the wall behind his cot instead of on his arm. Sam wished he’d cover it up because Jesus did it look like Riley’s had. “Narrows our circle of mutual acquaintances right the hell down, though,” said Rumlow.
Sam looked at his hands, hanging in his lap. “Yeah,” he said eventually, “it does.”
“You know his deal with jumping off things,” said Rumlow. “That didn’t just pick back up when he had you around to swoop in and save his ass. He ever tell you I one time caught him with a goddamn grappling hook? He weighed a fucking ton, too. Didn’t think about that, though. Just jumped out the window in pursuit. What a fucking asshole. He tell you that story?”
“No,” said Sam to his hands, “he never did.”
“Well settle in, because it’s a good one. He must’ve gone twenty stories straight down. Goddamn miracle I didn’t drop the rope.”
The people who mentioned Steve by name around Sam were Fury and Bucky. Fury, who Sam knew had loved Steve, talked about him like a calling. Bucky, who Sam knew had—
Bucky talked about Steve like Sam was trying not to use Bucky’s name, like a bargaining chip.
Sam put his elbows on his knees and folded his hands over the back of his neck and listened to Rumlow talk. Rumlow, perfectly harmless on the other side of the creepy invisible wall, talked. Sam looked up when it sounded like Rumlow was smiling and usually he was.
Sam lost track of time, but that happened to him a lot recently.
He got home and knew he’d probably go back. He felt lighter than he had in months, like he’d been carrying every single memory of Steve alone until today and now half of them had shifted off his shoulders. He sat down in the living room and stared at the blank TV screen and thought about calling his sister, but she’d want to come over and he wasn’t sure that was a great idea. He thought about watching one of the old Hannibal Lecter movies to impress upon himself how fucking stupid he was being. He tried to remember fighting Rumlow in the Triskelion, how angry he’d been, how revolted, but he could only remember that Steve had been alive.
Bucky came home a little while after Sam did. He put a foldup container of Chinese takeout on the coffee table and folded his arms and stood there, silent, watching.
Sam felt guilty enough about Rumlow that he started eating right away. “We didn’t talk about you,” he said. “I wouldn’t listen to that crap, Buck, I swear.”
“He talked to me about Steve sometimes,” said Bucky. “Not by name. He thought it was funny. I didn’t get it.”
Sam nodded. “Jesus,” he said. He knew. He did know. He considered the fact that he wasn’t hungry, but that it was time to eat, and he was halfway through a container of lo mein because the Winter Soldier was staring at him with his head to one side and his eyes dead and his arm humming. “Listen,” he said, and almost said Bucky but stopped himself. “Could you do me a favor?”
“Sorta worried I’ll go back there one of these days. We need—we can’t let Fury just keep the Hydra agents indefinitely. We do need to do something about that. But no more shooting the shit with Rumlow for me, okay? Just… maybe don’t let me do that anymore.”
“Okay,” said Bucky.
And that was another of Sam’s worst decisions.
Sam woke up the next morning disgusted with himself, but the kind of disgusted that got him out of bed instead of keeping him in it, which was an improvement. Jesus Christ, he should have at least asked Natasha—maybe she didn’t talk about Steve because she thought Sam wasn’t ready, not because she wasn’t. He should have asked Fury. He should have called Tony goddamn Stark before he went crawling to Rumlow.
He should have asked Bucky, but he pictured Bucky talking about Steve like he missed him and not being sure whether it was a skin he slipped on for Sam, and he thought, too, he could get Riley’s smile back from Bucky if he wanted, and he thought about telling Barton he wasn’t taking advantage. It might even make Bucky some version of happy, right now, if Sam asked for something like that, but in a few years Bucky might be better—different—and feel another way about it.
Or, he thought when he got to the living room, Bucky might be different now. He’d moved the couch and coffee table out of the way and was, slowly, expressionless, practicing the steps to what looked like a ballroom dance. For a second Sam thought what was weird about it was seeing the Winter Soldier dancing, and then he realized what was weird was seeing the Winter Soldier practicing. He’d never seen Bucky do anything he wasn’t already an expert at, at least in his own opinion.
“You want some music, man?” he asked, in an attempt not to picture Bucky sitting in front of a mirror practicing other people’s expressions. It was sort of an endearing image, but he suspected Bucky would disagree.
“Music,” Bucky announced, “is distracting.”
“Sure,” Sam laughed. “Makes sense. It’d get in the way of keeping the beat. I’ll call you when I’ve got breakfast.” He paused in the doorway to the kitchen and said, “I was thinking about asking my sister over.”
“Okay,” said Bucky.
“Yeah? You want to meet her? You don’t have to stay if you don’t.”
Bucky stopped turning and his arms went to his sides. He stared past Sam, and then at Sam’s face. “I want to meet your sister,” he said.
“Oh,” said Sam. “Good.”
Bucky kept staring, and then said, “Where do I go if you die?”
Which was, objectively, the creepiest thing he’d ever said to Sam, probably. But Sam had had this exact conversation with his parents when he was six and had his three-year-old sister hanging heavy on his conscience. “Well,” he said, “where would you want to go?”
Bucky shrugged. “I knew Steve wanted me with you. I don’t know where you want me.”
Sam sat down on the couch. It was against the TV, facing out into the room. The view was strange. “Steve thought you’d be, you know, safe and happy with me. Is there anybody you think you’d be safe and happy with, if I died? Barton maybe? Fury?” He remembered that Barton had kids and Fury had SHIELD a couple seconds late.
“Not Fury,” Bucky said. “I like him but he’s Natasha’s. And I like Natasha but she doesn’t like me.” He stared another second and then said, “Thor, maybe.”
“Sure,” said Sam. “Thor. I’ll let him know. Natasha’ll come around, though.” He stood up and started back toward the kitchen.
“They didn’t use me for protection detail very often,” said Bucky. “I never lost anyone when they did, though. Not once.”
“Good to know,” said Sam.
So that was a good day, and the next day looked like it was going to be a repeat up until Fury called. Sam slept well and woke up alone and got out of bed on his own. He came into the living room and Bucky was dancing, although significantly less slowly and not expressionless. He grinned when he saw Sam, and held his hands out.
Sam smiled but said, “Let me get some coffee first, man. Even awake I don’t know this dance.”
“We’ll do one you know.” Bucky kept his hands out and said, “Sam,” still grinning, but he did this thing with his eyebrows and Sam got how this guy had kept Steve Rogers at least partially in line for a couple decades. Sam didn’t see how Bucky could have known about that expression from posed midcentury pictures or how Steve could have described it, and maybe it wasn’t really Bucky’s at all. He took Bucky’s hands.
Bucky pulled him very close and folded both arms around Sam’s waist, which wasn’t, Sam was pretty sure, proper waltzing form. He put his head on Sam’s shoulder, which he was slightly too tall to do comfortably, and swayed without doing any actual dance steps. Sam was starting to worry this was going in a direction he absolutely couldn’t deal with when Bucky said, low, against Sam’s neck, “They’re not going to be able to prove it was me.”
“What?” said Sam.
“Fury will know,” Bucky said, too quietly for any bugs to pick him up, probably, and if there were cameras no one was going to read his lips with his face hidden like that. “He won’t prove it though.”
Sam’s cell phone rang. From Bucky’s pocket, which seemed about right at the moment. Bucky handed it over without letting go of Sam or moving his head; he did let Sam get an arm free to take the phone and answer. “Yeah?” said Sam. He’d have been a really shitty spy, but he had enough morning rasp in his throat to cover anything else.
“Since you were the last person to exchange a civil word with him,” said Fury, “I thought you should know that Brock Rumlow is dead.”
Sam nodded. “How, uh,” he said, “how did he die?”
“Cyanide pill,” said Fury. “Which is funny, because Hydra stopped using those in the 40s, and despite your suspicions to the contrary, he was in fact getting medical care, including dental. He didn’t even have a false tooth to hide that shit in. We would review the footage of his cell and see where he got it, but the camera shorted out for ten minutes.”
Sam rested his forehead against the top of Bucky’s head. “Oh,” he said, for something to say.
“That asshole was never going to give us anything useful,” said Fury, “and the thought of going up against Stark’s lawyers gives me a headache. Tell Barnes he did me a goddamn favor.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Sam, whose sister was a lawyer.
“Good. You know what else you have no idea about? Pet snakes. That friend of mine, he’d get real cozy about how his snake liked him best, how it’d let him hold it most days but other people it’d usually glide off. It was used to his scent or some shit, is what that was. Hell, it was probably used to smelling him on its food. Didn’t make them friends. It was, as I believe I’ve mentioned, a fucking snake.”
“Did you ever actually have this friend?” said Sam. He took a deep breath and tugged at the arm still trapped against his body. Bucky let go.
“I don’t answer personal questions about my childhood,” Fury said.
“So no, is what you’re saying.”
“I might bring up my childhood on my own. You don’t know. I just don’t answer questions about it.”
Sam wrapped his free arm around Bucky’s back. “Sorry about Rumlow,” he said, although he wasn’t sure to whom. “Bring something to pass on Thursday. It’s polite.” He hung up the phone and said into Bucky’s hair, “I’m not mad.” He tried not to worry about how true that was, about how mostly he was relieved because shit, of all the people Bucky could have killed. “Don’t do that again, though, okay?”
Bucky didn’t say anything for a few seconds, during which Sam’s worry increased exponentially. “Don’t do which part,” said Bucky.
Sam made double-sure his lips weren’t visible either. Bucky’s hair felt soft and brittle against Sam’s mouth and it smelled like oranges. Sam made several mental notes: to get better shampoo, to check the house for bugs, and to consider working for people who wouldn’t bug his house. He thought that, if he didn’t have Bucky confirming it, he’d have had to worry that Fury was telling him Rumlow had died so he could make the man disappear into another cell in another base where there wouldn’t be anyone opposed to holding him without charges. “The unarmed prisoners part,” said Sam.
“Okay,” said Bucky.
Riley didn’t die right away and Sam didn’t talk about it but he would have told his mom if she’d been alive. She’d been a paramedic and she knew how long death could take. She told Sam and Sarah all the time that death was a process, not an event.
And there was her father. The home had been sure he was going to die, once. By then he couldn’t speak, or walk, or eat on his own. He developed pneumonia, and they thought that was it. Sam and Sarah’s mom made them come sit with her, with him, to be there when he left. They stayed for two days and nights, waiting, and then they had to go back to work and school and their grandfather died a few weeks later. Their mom was there when he died. She was asleep.
For the three days before Riley died, the three days he didn’t sleep or pass out, Sam didn’t sleep either. It was a bad decision. By the end he was hearing Christmas carols that weren’t playing, his vision kept smearing, and every single smell, diesel and applesauce and antiseptic, made him nauseous. Sometimes when he thought he’d tell someone about Riley, he changed his mind because he couldn’t swear to how much of it had been real. Maybe the electricity hadn’t flickered. Maybe it only took two days. Maybe no one called it a miracle.
It was just as well Steve didn’t get it when Sam tried to tell him. Steve got his best friend back before he died.
Sam went running on Wednesday because he knew his sister was going to ask, and he wanted to be able to say he’d “been running” even if that was true only in the strictest of terms. He knew himself well enough to know that this wasn’t a great sign, the word games, but also well enough to know that running at all was a good sign. He’d take what he could get.
Bucky didn’t lap him every ten minutes, which Sam figured was due more to his desire to keep an eye on things than on lack of ability. Bucky ran heavier than Steve, and his left foot came down differently than his right, so they might have chiropractic visits in their future. Sam ran differently than he had before he spent a couple years on the road and then months barely able to move, though, so they probably evened out there too.
When Sam stopped being able to tell himself ‘just a couple more steps’ and believe it, he slowed to a walk he couldn’t totally feel and said, “I gotta ask you something.”
“Yeah, what’s that?” Bucky looked at him and said, “Oh,” and toed his sneakers off. “You too.”
“Why—” said Sam before he realized. “Man, this SHIELD thing is not working out for me,” he said, and did as he was told. They left their shoes sitting by the side of the trail and Sam could, at least, feel himself walking now; tree roots and bits of gravel on stocking feet were hard to miss. “Those are some nice sneakers,” he said mournfully. “They better be bugged just to make this worth it.”
“If they get stolen I can get them back.” Bucky checked his face. “Without killing anybody.”
“Yeah, speaking of that.” Sam wiped his palms dry against his sweatshirt. “I wondered, uh.” “There are no prisoners with Hydra.” “Did he take the pill himself? I mean, did you just hand it over?”
Bucky didn’t quite laugh. “Fuck, no. He was sure you were coming back, why would he kill himself? He had an out. If I’d given him something slower he might’ve used it in front of you, so you had to get him out or watch him go. He might not have minded that. He was pretty hail-Hydra.” When Sam didn’t respond to that fast enough he said, all concern, still Barnes, “Sorry, should I have lied? I’m not all that good at it yet. I usually just don’t answer.”
“No,” Sam said quickly. “Thanks for telling me the truth.” He was back to having Brock Rumlow’s death square on his conscience, which was doubly uncomfortable in that he was relieved by the fact of it in isolation. He’d forget the man was dead and then he’d remember and for a second he’d breathe easier, if anything, and then in the next second he’d remember how he’d died and that it was Sam’s fault and the vice tightened back up on his lungs and the weight dropped back into his stomach. “For next time, though, unless we’re… I don’t know, in battle, when I ask you to do something? I probably don’t mean kill someone.”
“I know,” said Bucky.
“Good. All right.”
“No, I knew when I did it.” Bucky stopped walking and stood with one hand on his hip and his chin down like he was being Barnes but his eyes had gone flat and watchful. “You didn’t say not to,” he added, and at the start of the sentence he sounded sullen and by the end he didn’t sound like anything at all.
Sam nodded and bit down on his tongue and finally said, “Do I need to start specifying not to kill anyone I don’t want to see again? Because that’s… I’m gonna slip up on that one, man.”
“It made sense to get rid of him. It won’t make sense to get rid of everyone you don’t want to see again.” He dropped his arm, raised his chin, pieces of Barnes flaking off. “You didn’t tell me not to but I knew you wouldn’t like it. You’re a good person. Steve said so. He said even when you went into the Air Force it was to rescue people. I know killing unarmed people without orders isn’t good.”
“So—” Sam started. He hated that way of talking about what he’d done overseas, the lie of it compared to how it had worked out, and Steve knew that but they’d both told a lot of white lies to Bucky especially at first. He started again, “So why did you do it? Were you—was it because it was him?”
Bucky shrugged. “Rumlow was nice to me mostly. But not really nice, like Bailey. Michael was so nice I got mad when I realized. I don’t care about Rumlow. ” His eyes narrowed, which at least was an expression. “I don’t have to stay with you.”
Sam was over-aware of his bare feet. They were the least of his disadvantages. Not even technically a disadvantage, in that Bucky had bare feet too. He’d taken off his socks as well as his shoes. His feet were pale and Sam could see veins and bones in them. “No,” Sam allowed. “You don’t.”
“You couldn’t stop me leaving.”
“No,” Sam said. “I couldn’t.”
“No. They wouldn’t blame you—” Bucky shook his head and when he stilled he was grinning, the charming kind of embarrassed that stole all the sting from being embarrassed in the first place. “Not that great at conversations after all. I mean.” He stopped smiling and being charming and being embarrassed and being anything. “Hurting people doesn’t bother me. Steve said it did before. It doesn’t now and even he knew that. I want—” He looked past Sam’s shoulder like he had when they talked about Sarah. “I want to stay but only if you want me to. They burned Barnes up and I’m not him. Hurting people doesn’t bother me and I’m not always going to do what you’d like. If I stay that’s who’s staying. If you want.”
Sam looked down and there was gray creeping up the sides of his socks. He was afraid he’d look up and Bucky wouldn’t be there. He’d chosen this—when he helped stop Insight, when he went to find the Winter Soldier, when he kissed Steve. He’d chosen it over and over. If he stopped to change directions now he wouldn’t start again. He’d managed it twice before, and he couldn’t now. He was too damn old. He was too in love with a dead man and he was too attached to a man who’d spent seventy years barely better than dead. “I want you to stay,” he said, and then he could look up.
Bucky hadn’t disappeared, was right there still, huge and metal-armed and barefoot. But his face was all wrong, miserable and exhausted, so drawn he looked sick. Sam recoiled. He hadn’t in his adult life reacted this way to anyone’s pain, with the desire to get away, like sorrow was contagious and if he could just retreat far enough he’d be safe. Bucky raised an arm and said, “You want to come here?” Sam realized who Bucky was being and he laughed and it burned. Then he had to hug Bucky so he wouldn’t think Sam was laughing at him. But that was all right. Bucky held him so tight his heels left the ground, and that was all right too.
When their grandfather was dying or at least they thought he was, Sam and Sarah got along. They’d been in a cold war since Sarah turned eleven and figured out that the difference between how she and her best friend were treated in school was money, or since she turned twelve and figured out how to make their parents feel bad about it, or since she turned thirteen and figured out how to use a few key purchases to pretend she had money too as long as she wasn’t seen with any family members. Sam had done the sibling thing to do and gotten too defensive of their parents, who could handle a pre-teen child all right on their own. But in the nursing home for two days straight Sam was on her side and it was them against the world again because neither of them wanted to be there.
Their grandfather had stopped calling them by their parents’ names and then stopped whispering to their mother to get these thieving children out of his house and then stopped yelling at them and their mom and the nurses for kidnapping him or turning him in or poisoning him or whatever it was that day. By the time they spent two days and nights with him, he’d stopped doing anything but stare and neither of them believed he knew they were there at all. He didn’t move. The nurses tried to stave off bed sores. Sam and Sarah tried not to see and waited to be allowed to leave and if death was a process it was taking too long. The old man’s breaths rattled and paused until it was all Sam could hear but they didn’t stop.
At the funeral Sam stayed with their mom while she cried. Sarah started crying too but disappeared for the rest of the day, and it was one of the last times Sam saw her cry at all. When she and her husband took a break thirteen years later was another. She came over to Sam’s apartment sobbing and gasping for air. By the next week Charles had moved back in and when Sam mentioned it a year after that she acted like she didn’t know what he was talking about.
Sam had avoided his sister meeting the most important people in his life for years now with the handy excuses of being hundreds of miles away or saving the world. He’d done this because in 98% of all possible situations Sarah’s self-control was iron-clad, and 1% of the other possible situations was ‘famous people with legal problems.’
“I just think it’s such a shame,” she said. She was holding Natasha’s hand, which Sam had never seen anyone do. “The ingratitude is galling. You’ve saved so many lives. If they ever bring formal charges against you, I hope you’ll think of me.”
“Okay,” Sam said too loudly, and pushed the cheese platter closer to Sarah in case she’d consider eating rather than dwelling on the dubious legality of his friends’ pasts. “Thanks. We’re all very grateful.”
“Keep this,” Sarah said, unruffled, and handed Natasha her card. “If there’s anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“That’s really great of you,” said Sam, while Natasha stared at the card. “Especially considering you didn’t feel this way last I knew.”
“Sam,” Sarah said, smile going fixed. “I’m not sure our personal disagreements are relevant right now. That’s more of a family issue.”
“Sure.” Sam ate some cheese and resolved for the eighth time in the past ten minutes not to fight with his sister in front of the Black Widow.
“Thank you,” Natasha said, “for the offer.” She turned the card upside down and looked at it with her head tilted to one side.
Sarah brushed her impeccably straightened hair over her shoulder with an equally impeccable manicure. Sam refused to give in to the urge to check whether his fingernails were clean. “I’m only being helpful,” she said. “You know I just won the Lithfield case.”
“Congratulations,” said Natasha dryly, and she took some cheese.
“Didn’t he, you know, do it?” said Sam. “It seemed like he did it.”
“He was found not guilty,” said Sarah through her teeth, her smile unwavering.
“Good,” said Bucky. He was sitting cross-legged in Sam’s widest armchair, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands. He’d been Barnes to greet Sarah but then dropped to the edge of being nobody again. Mostly he looked at Sarah with an expression Sam would have called ‘rapt’ if he’d had to call it anything. Fortunately this jibed with Sarah’s concept of how the traumatized should behave, and had spared him a lecture on her competitive rates.
“Oh,” said Sarah. “Thank you.” She waited and, when no more congratulations were forthcoming, turned to Sam. “So! You look good! Have you been running?”
Sam nodded. “How’s Zoe?”
“She’s doing well in school.” Sarah crossed her legs at the knee. She was wearing heels, at an informal get-together of five people. She was probably just as annoyed that he was barefoot at a party with co-workers. “She misses her uncle.”
“What did he do?” said Bucky. Sam had rarely heard him inflect a question like it was an actual question before. He reached out and pushed the cheese plate back toward Sam. “The case you won, what did the guy do?”
“Allegedly, he—” Sarah looked at Sam. “Is this all right to talk about? Can he hear this?”
“Knock yourselves out. I’m gonna get the iced tea,” Sam said, and fled with Natasha close behind him. Once they were in the kitchen she put a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter, eyebrows high. “I warned you,” he hissed.
“You didn’t, really,” she protested.
“I did, you just thought I was being an asshole about my poor innocent sister.”
“I might have thought you were exaggerating.”
“See, this is why you get stuck with the stealth stuff. I’m always honest.”
Natasha’s smile twisted, then disappeared. “I’m happy to meet her, though.”
He almost reached for her hand, and then remembered he’d just been irritated with Sarah for doing the same thing. He clasped her shoulder instead. “Thanks. You know you owe me now, right? You have to introduce me to the spider plant.”
Her face lit back up. “I’d have to bring it here, Nick’s address is top secret. But….” She pulled her phone from a pocket in her aggressively cheerful sundress and thumbed through whatever security protocols a superspy used before turning it to face him.
Sam tried to think of an appropriate response to the picture, as a friend and co-worker, and settled on, “Wow.”
“Behind me,” she said. “The cleavage is for when my phone gets hacked. It’s a distraction.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” He looked again. It was, as far as he could tell, a very healthy spider plant on a very attractive stand. “Looking luxuriant,” he said.
“Shut up.” She was pleased.
Sarah looked pleased, too, when they got back to the living room. “A few of the points were technicalities,” she said modestly.
“But you won,” said Bucky. He held out a piece of cheese in Sam’s direction.
“I did.” She stared at Bucky’s hand. “Sam, are you eating all right?”
“Sure,” said Sam, and took the damn cheese.
“How many of your cases have you won,” said Bucky.
“Well,” said Sarah. “I don’t want to say ‘all of them,’ but it’s close.”
“Good,” said Bucky.
The front door opened. Sam had never been so relieved to see Nick Fury, maybe not even on those occasions when he was doing things like piloting a helicopter that saved Sam from a forty-one-story drop. “Nick,” he said, grabbed the platter of salsa and chips on offer, and handed it to Natasha. “We’ll be right back.”
“The hell, Wilson,” said Fury once they were up the stairs. “I bring something to pass to be polite and the first thing we do is run out of the room?”
“I don’t think you’re going to like my sister anyway,” said Sam. “She and Bucky are discussing the best technique for unhinging their jaws to devour their prey right now. Plus I need to ask you something.”
“Sure,” said Fury. “While we’re up here, I want a look at the infamous room.”
Which was all right, since it implied he hadn’t seen it yet over a hidden camera.
Bucky’s room, now, was an improvement on the hotel replica in that it was honest, although not in that it made Sam any more comfortable. There was a mattress, on a box spring and under sheets because Sam had insisted. There was a gun locker. On one side of the room, that was it. On the other side was a bookshelf filled with Steve’s books and records but no record player, and knickknacks Bucky had appropriated from around Sam’s house, and an antique cookie tin filled with pictures of Barnes and letters from Barnes. The wall behind the bookshelf was plastered with every retrievable piece of art Steve had owned. On that side, that was it. If Sam stood in the center of the room he felt off-balance, like one side was heavier than the other and the floor was tipping, though he was never sure in which direction.
“Huh,” said Fury. “Homelike.”
“Yeah, it makes him happy. Listen, I need to ask you, do you give Natasha shit about her spider plant?”
“What? Why the hell would I do that?”
“Well, it’s alive. She’s invested in it. It doesn’t give a fuck about her, or you, or anything but getting its plant food and some sunshine. That kind of thing seems to bother you a lot.”
“All right, Wilson,” Fury said, unimpressed. “Natasha’s spider plant, short of some ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ bullshit, isn’t going to unhinge its jaw and eat anybody.”
“Because it doesn’t have a jaw. It doesn’t look like it should care about things, so it doesn’t bug you that it doesn’t. If I had this theoretical pet snake, it wouldn’t ‘return my affection’ the way a dog would. But I would have chosen to get a damn snake, not a dog. So, if I had a pet snake, I would need my boss to relax about it and trust me.”
Fury looked even less impressed. “You’re not the one I don’t trust.”
“Fine, so trust the snake to be a snake. I’m warm, it’s cold, we’ve got a system. Or don’t trust either of us, but the discussion about it is over. We’re a done deal. I’m not rearranging this room again, it was hell getting that bookcase up.”
Fury’s chin sank and his eyebrows went up. He didn’t look convinced. But he said, “All right. If you say so.” And that was about the best Sam could have hoped for.
They got back to the living room and Bucky’s gaze flickered over them and then he smiled and said, “Sarah got a woman off even though there was video of her committing the crime.”
“Yeah, I remember that one,” said Sam.
Natasha did something too graceful to be called waggling her eyebrows at him. “It’s a pretty impressive story.” Sarah preened.
Sam hadn’t noticed Bucky get up, but he was abruptly there and had an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “Was it Avengers business?” he said, nodding at Fury.
“Nah, man, nothing serious.”
“Okay.” He let go and retreated one step and watched Sarah advance on Fury with her card already out and for all of it he wore Bucky Barnes’s smile.
Riley didn’t die right away and mostly if a rescued soldier made it twenty-four hours then they’d made it for real. Death was a process that took too long to get by modern medicine. ‘Mostly’ wasn’t always, though, and even if they made it sometimes they thought they wouldn’t, and either way, dying or not, sometimes they wanted the person who’d gotten them out to sit with them. So if the hospital was close enough and he hadn’t been called away, Sam sat with them, and then they died or they got better. He held their hands and they held back tight and talked with their eyes wild or tired. Riley said he hated doing this, said if he’d wanted to be in Mortuary Affairs he’d have joined the Marines like his older brothers, but he stuck a strip of tape inside his ruck and tallied the marriage proposals he got while doing it. When neither of them could sleep he told Sam how happy he’d have been with every one of them if he’d accepted, how with this one he’d live in London and be a bigshot investment banker and with this one he’d live in rural New England and raise horses and five kids.
Sam didn’t mind waiting with them. His grandfather was the last time he’d minded; it had dislodged the same aversion it had cemented in Sarah. He could sit with people in pain and let it touch him without flinching, which someone had to do. It got to be a habit, waiting for one process to end or for another to begin, because they’d die or they’d get better but it had to be one or the other. Mostly they got better, maybe without a limb or with scars or without their sight or hearing but they did get better. They turned one corner or the other and he left.
The morning after the not-really-a-party Sam and Bucky went running, and then Bucky watched Sam eat half his eggs before he started his own, and then Sam said, “Hey, where’d you get the letters and stuff, anyway?” Because he’d been assuming a museum, but the more he thought about it, he hadn’t heard about anything being stolen and couldn’t imagine Bucky getting them back through legal channels.
Bucky hadn’t been anyone all morning and he didn’t start now, just said while still eating mechanically, “Barnes’s attic.”
Which didn’t—even if Bucky had decided Sam’s attic was his, there sure as hell weren’t any Barnes family heirlooms up there, so—Sam stopped eating and he said, “Bucky, are you—do you mean Rebecca?”
“Yeah, her,” he said with the same indifference in his voice as when he talked about Rumlow.
The youngest Barnes sibling was still alive and living at home, albeit with twenty-four hour care. Steve had talked to her on the phone right when they found Bucky. He told her they’d visit when Bucky was doing better and stared wide-eyed at Sam while he said it, like he knew he was lying, and said it anyway like he knew it was the only thing to say, the only kind thing.
Bucky seemed sad about it at the time but wouldn’t go see her, didn’t seem to comprehend that it was an option, with how blank his face went every time Steve suggested it. Except Sam had seen a lot of that blankness since and it didn’t actually indicate lack of comprehension.
“Did you talk to her?” Sam asked. “When you got the letters and—did you see her?”
“Sam,” said Bucky, gently, face gone pitying, and he put his right hand on the table in between them. He waited for Sam to take it and then he stroked the back of Sam’s hand with his thumb and said something in Russian. He shook his head and switched to English. “No, I didn’t see her. Don’t be silly when you know better,” and wagged a finger, and then he reached over and patted Sam’s cheek. Then he brightened. “I remember Azarov,” he said.
“Yeah?” said Sam. “Was he a schoolmarm or something?”
Bucky laughed, dropping back into Barnes, and said agreeably, “Well, he was condescending as hell, but I was at maybe forty percent capacity because someone fucked up the defrosting, so it wasn’t like I minded, at first.” He squeezed Sam’s hand and said, “You get this isn’t any realer than Azarov, right? I don’t care about Rebecca.”
“You might someday,” said Sam, because it felt like he should. “You might regret not seeing her before she dies.”
Bucky shrugged. “I’ll talk to her if you want,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste the time before, but now we’re not doing Avengers stuff anyway.”
“Sure,” said Sam. “Sure. Let’s… let’s decide later.”
“Okay,” said Bucky, and ate some more eggs, and didn’t let go of Sam’s hand. After a minute he added, as if in consolation, “I like your sister.” Sam nodded, because he believed that was as true as it needed to be, even if it was delivered in a dead man’s voice, even if he didn’t know what it actually meant. Bucky liked people and he got mad and he mostly didn’t want to be seen doing things he hadn’t mastered, and Sam didn’t know what any of that meant except that the man he worked hard to think of as Bucky might not be James Barnes anymore, but he was someone.
Sam’s family used to have two parallel running jokes about their professions. Sarah and their dad thought it was funny that Sam and Darlene had jobs that allowed them to save someone and then walk away while Sarah and Paul had jobs that required them to stay for the long haul. Sam and Darlene thought it was funny that Sarah and Paul thought that was funny, given Sarah and Paul’s level of emotional involvement and availability. Then Darlene died, and Sam got a job as a counsellor, and half the family divide crumbled off.
Bucky put his metal hand over Sam’s, too, and his arm hummed and then went silent as it stilled. Even his hand was heavy.
“I remember Rebecca,” he said. “A little bit. But I’m not her brother and I’ll only pretend for her if you tell me to. She’s not important.” He watched Sam’s face, clinical. “You asked me to stay. You said you liked me fine either way and you said you wanted me to stay.”
“Yeah, man.” Sam dropped his free hand on top of Bucky’s. He and Steve hadn’t said it in so many words but they both knew they’d spend the rest of their lives together and with Steve gone this was what that meant, and anyway Sam didn’t have to understand Bucky to be attached to him. “Neither of us is going anywhere.”
Bucky nodded and pulled his left hand back so he could finish his breakfast. He said, “You’re going to need me when you go back to the field, you know. That costume is a tactical disaster.”
“I thought I was already over budget on you saving my life.”
Bucky smiled very sweetly, apparently slipping into Azarov, because he bopped Sam’s nose with a metal finger, which was abnormal even for him. “I didn’t say you were over budget, I said you were running a tab. Big difference.” He grimaced. “You might’ve saved mine a couple times too. I guess it evens out.”
“That’s good of you. Really generous.”
“We are, though,” Bucky said. “Going back in the field.”
Sam pushed his plate away, crossed his arms, leaned on the table, and it delayed his having to answer by maybe six seconds. “Yeah, we are. Kind of where we live now, huh. This is just a vacation.”
“Okay,” said Bucky. “Good.” His grip on Sam’s hand tightened. Sam, for lack of anything better to do, squeezed back.