It starts in Paris.
Sam's been on the search with Steve for a month now, just about. Trail started in DC, left the States within a week, went cold as soon as Bucky hit Europe and then popped up again, just obvious enough to be deliberate.
“Do you think he wants us to follow him?” Steve asks for the fiftieth time, staring morosely at some Monet in the Musée d'Orsay, and Sam nudges his shoulder.
“He wouldn't have left these breadcrumbs if he didn't,” he points out, “come on, it's like you said. Clues you'd pick up but nobody else would, the CIA isn't even looking close to here, you gotta trust your instincts.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and scowls at the painting. Sam frowns.
“It's not good?”
“It's Monet,” Steve says, and reverts back to brooding silence.
On the way out, half a dozen Japanese tourists get between them. Someone bumps Sam, mutters an apology in easy French. Sam doesn’t even glance up.
He only finds the keycard in his pocket when he's alone, much, much later.
He’s not sure what to expect. The hotel is beautiful, very quiet, on the rue de Lille in the 7th arrondissement, and Sam finds his way upstairs to the room. Hesitates before sliding the keycard into the lock.
When he pushes the door open, he thinks at first the room is empty. It’s unlit except for the late afternoon sun flooding in through the window on the opposite wall, and Sam blinks, looks around, blinks again. Bucky is standing in the far corner, gun held loosely in his metal hand. Sam raises both hands, steps inside. Kicks the door closed, hands still in the air.
“You don’t gotta,” Bucky says, “don’t—” and flicks the safety back on, sets the gun down on the table under the window. “Don’t worry,” he adds. Tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “I’m not. Him. You don’t gotta.”
“Okay,” Sam says, still cautious, and takes off his jacket, drapes it over the back of one chair. Puts his hands in his pockets, and just looks at Bucky for a minute or two. “Steve doesn’t know I’m here,” he says, and Bucky nods once.
“Figured you’d be smart enough for that.”
“You know who I am,” Sam says, a question in his voice. Bucky shrugs.
“You're Sam. We've met. Well, not technically.”
“It's complicated,” Sam offers, and Bucky smiles, wry.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Complicated. You could say that.”
“Barnes—” Sam starts. Bucky frowns. Shakes his head. He's looking into the middle distance, shoulders tight.
“Just Bucky. I'm not him, either.”
“Bucky,” Sam repeats. Bucky lifts his gaze to Sam's face, slow. Shoulders falling like it's an effort. When he makes eye contact, Sam glances away. Catches his breath, looks back at Bucky. Bucky is very still.
“Bucky,” Sam says slowly, “did you steal a Monet?”
“Nah,” Bucky says. Grins crookedly. “Steal a Monet, you’d have to be a real professional, right? Practically a ghost.”
That doesn’t rule you out, Sam thinks, and watches Bucky’s face. Bucky holds eye contact just long enough for it to be deliberate, although everything he does seems deliberate right now, action carefully chosen even where Sam doesn’t understand the meaning behind it.
“You mind if I smoke?” Bucky asks, paper pack of cigarettes in hand, and Sam shakes his head.
“No,” he says, “go ahead,” and then adds, conscientious, “the hotel might, though.”
“Right,” Bucky says, “sure, yeah,” and crosses to the window, cracks it open, lights a cigarette. He smokes slowly, face all angles and shadows in the setting sun, and Sam is struck by just how goddamn handsome he is. It’s not something he’d really noticed while being kicked off a helicarrier, but damn.
“I’m gonna—” he says, careful, aware of the gun on the table even if it’s not being aimed at him, and gestures at the minibar. “If that’s okay?”
“Oh, shit,” Bucky says, “go ahead, I was gonna offer you a fuckin’ drink. Kinda hard to remember this shit, you know?” He’s wry about it, a little mocking, and Sam gives in, rolls his eyes as he pours himself a whisky over ice. Bucky smiles wider, as if he was hoping to get a rise and Sam’s reaction was just what he wanted, and Sam holds up the miniature bottle, tips his head to the side.
“You want one?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, considering. “Sure. Why not. No ice for me. There’s a joke in there but I can’t be fucked figuring it out, you get the gist.” Jesus Christ this is not what he expected, Sam thinks to himself, but he pours the whisky anyway, crosses the room, sets the glass down on the table. Sits down on the edge of the bed and sips his whisky. It’s good. This is a nice hotel room. He looks at Bucky, at the room, the window. Bucky stubs out one cigarette and lights another, sips a mouthful of his drink, raises an eyebrow at Sam and throws back the whole thing in one swallow. Sam can’t help but watch the way his throat works, the movement of his Adam’s apple. It’s distracting. He swallows another mouthful of his own drink, clears his throat.
“Steve looked at this,” Sam says, gesturing to the painting (a Monet there’s a goddamn Monet just sitting in this hotel room, propped up on that mediocre imitation baroque writing desk). “Stared at it for like a half hour.”
“Yeah?” Bucky asks, with what could be studied nonchalance or could be actually not giving a shit. “He like it?”
“Said, it’s Monet,” Sam tells him, and watches Bucky react fractionally. “I don’t know whether with Steve liking something has got anything to do with it, really.” Bucky twitches like he’s amused, blows out a mouthful of smoke.
“He still eat his oatmeal with no sugar on top even though he fuckin’ hates it plain?”
“Sugar’s two bucks a pound, Sam, that’s daylight robbery,’” Sam says with feeling, and Bucky actually laughs.
“I thought,” he says after a while, taking a drag of his cigarette and somehow holding the smoke in even as he speaks, “he might like it. I dunno. We talked about coming to Paris after the war. Seeing all the shit he studied when he could afford to pay for art classes. The Nazis took ‘em all, rumor was, but we figured they had to be around somewhere.” He breathes out, wreathed in smoke, and chews his lip. “Never did get to. I just thought. He might.” Glances down at the butt of his cigarette, nothing but a glowing stub between metal fingers, and reaches for his empty glass, drops it in, watches the coal extinguish. Sam waits in the lengthening silence, and Bucky squints critically at the painting. “It’s different than I thought it’d be,” he mutters. “Can’t remember how. Just. Different.” Looks up at Sam, then, and his face shifts slightly, sharpening into something alert and cautious. “You should go,” he says, “it’s late. Steve will. It’s. Late.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “yeah, I should—” and swallows the last of his whisky. Bucky watches him the whole time, shadowed and unmoving, and Sam supposes he should feel unnerved. He doesn’t. He just—
“Don’t,” Bucky says, voice dark and still and quiet, “don’t tell Steve you saw me,” and Sam shakes his head, gets to his feet.
“Bucky,” he says. Glances at the painting again, and at Bucky, his right hand resting close to but not touching the gun on the table. “I like it. The painting.”
“Yeah?” Bucky asks, and tilts his head to the side, cheekbones catching the light shining in from the street. “You do?”
“It’s,” Sam starts, and reaches for the right words. “Subtle. Peaceful. I like how it makes me feel.”
“Yeah,” Bucky murmurs, thoughtful. “It does that, doesn’t it.” Sam pulls his jacket on, is almost to the door when Bucky speaks again. “Hey Sam,” he says, easy and conversational like they’re friends who’ve just caught up over a drink. “Go see the l’Orangerie before you go.”
“Worth seeing, huh?”
“I think so,” Bucky says. Frowns a little, and tilts his head, and smiles, very small. “I like it.”
Sam follows Bucky’s advice. Takes Steve, ignoring all his protests about moving fast before they lose their lead, and when he gets into the first oval room, the long paintings glowing out from every wall, water lilies as liquid and gleaming as the day Monet painted them, he understands what Bucky’s talking about. I like it, Bucky had said, and Sam wonders whether it’s the first personal opinion he’s allowed himself in seventy years.
He finds a note in his pocket afterwards. Is hardly even surprised. Even a ghost would have trouble stealing this, it says, written in neat block capitals on the back of a postcard from the gift shop.
When he looks closer, the address is filled out. Piazza de Trevi, and Sam knows where they’re going, even before Bucky drops a breadcrumb Steve can follow.
They go to Rome, to Tangier, to Málaga. Le Havre. Tripoli. As far east as Minsk, and then Bucky reverses course, surfaces in Prague. It’s an exhausting goose chase, except that it’s not. Bucky's absent in Rome but he shows up at the Musée de Carmen-Macein in Tangier, shoulders tight as he examines Picasso and Braque. Sam puts together the pieces, finds him again at Málaga’s Museo Picasso. Wonders what he’s thinking. Whether he’s as fractured as these paintings seem to be.
“I took Bucky to an exhibition like this,” Steve says. “November ‘39, down at MoMA. Dragged him along. Guernica, god, I was furious and inspired all at once. Wished I could paint like that, the immediacy of it all. The sheer fucking horror. Couldn’t believe they’d done that, bombed a civilian town, and our government still didn’t enter the war. Bucky probably heard me yelling for weeks.”
“Maybe he remembers,” Sam says, “maybe that’s why—” and Steve smiles, wistful and hopeful and pained all at once.
“Maybe,” he says, non-committal, and Sam catches sight of a ghost disappearing swift and quiet through a distant doorway.
“There was a painting,” Bucky says much later. Sets a paper grocery bag down on the side table in the hotel room. “Like that. Like those, but. It made me—” He waves his hand, abstract. “Remember. Upsetting.”
“Steve says he took you to an exhibition,” Sam offers. “In New York, before the war.”
“Nah,” Bucky says, “it’s not a Steve memory. Or maybe. I dunno. Shit overlaid over older shit. Fuck, that’s gonna bug me now.” He picks up the paper bag, unpacks its contents. Smoked sausage, bread, cheese. A jar of olives, a bottle of wine. “You hungry? I am. It’s nice, eating when you want. Took me a while to get used to it again, though.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, slow on the response. “Yeah, I could eat.” Sits down, takes a glass of wine from Bucky. Eats an olive. Some bread and cheese. Bucky drinks his wine, stares into the middle distance. Taps his front teeth like he’s thinking.
“The UN,” he says, “why would it have been—”
“The Guernica tapestry,” Sam says, “used to hang outside the Security Council room,” and Bucky blinks in sudden recognition.
“Yeah, that’s it,” he agrees, “that’s fuckin’ it. Pierce had me on stand-by for an assassination. I saw the tapestry. Fucked the mission. Took ‘em three hard resets before I was clear enough to be re-programmed.”
“Who were you supposed to assassinate?” Sam asks, and Bucky shrugs, metal shoulder rising and falling.
“Some guy,” he says vaguely. “Some UN official. Said there were no WMDs in Iraq. Pierce wanted him dead for that.” Sam freezes. Jesus Christ, Bucky. “It didn’t matter, in the end,” Bucky adds. “Whether he died. Whether he lived. Whether there were WMDs. We live in a post-truth society, that’s what Pierce… All that matters is how you sell it. Manipulate public opinion through fear. We can win a war without ever being right. Start a war without ever needing an enemy. It’s never really about the winning, anyway.” He eats a bite of chorizo, grins at Sam. “Thanks for helping me figure that out,” he says easily, “it was really fucking with me, not knowing how I knew it.”
Sam feels punched with it, this casual dropping of bombs given the same relevance as remember how Steve’s a cheapskate about sugar, yeah. History re-writing itself as the infiltration clawed its way right to the top. He’d known, of course he’d known—so there’s a non-zero chance the Winter Soldier shot JFK, Steve had said, scowling at the files—but knowing is different than hearing it like this. Just a mission, for Bucky. An assassination with no context. A war still ongoing. The last fifty years of history laid bare. It’s difficult to comprehend.
Le Havre is the Musée Malraux. A collection of Impressionists almost as good as the Orsay, and Sam makes a bet with himself when he finds the hotel room key.
He loses the bet, or maybe he wins it. Not sure which. Bucky grins at him, unrepentant, and Sam sighs. Sits down to look closer at the painting. Bleak and soft and luminous, all at once. The deep blush of a winter sky, the long planes of ice and snow. Sam understands why Bucky chose this one.
“You don’t like it?” Bucky asks. “I like it. Soleil d'hiver à Lavacourt. Maybe I should have weird feelings about that much ice, I dunno, I ain’t a psychiatrist.”
“You can’t steal things just because you like them,” Sam tells him, feeling innately that this is a losing battle, and Bucky cocks his head to the side, considers Sam very thoughtfully.
“Really,” he says. “I’m stealing you, aren’t I?”
“Are you?” Sam says. “From who?”
“Steve,” Bucky shrugs. “Your country. Your family. Whoever’s got a claim.” Sam shivers, involuntary. Rolls his eyes.
“It’s hardly stealing if I’m choosing to come.”
“No,” Bucky agrees. “No, I suppose it’s not. Steve might not see it that way, though.”
“Yeah, well. I'm guessing from that you still don't want me telling Steve about this,” Sam says, questioning, and Bucky blinks.
“Steve,” he repeats. “No. Don't.”
“Okay,” Sam says, and Bucky looks at him seriously.
“It's difficult for you,” he says. “Not telling Steve. It makes things difficult for you.”
“Well, I mean, he's my best friend,” Sam says, “and he'd give anything to find you right now. I feel bad lying to him, yeah.”
“Steve,” Bucky says again, and pauses like he's thinking for the right words. “Has. Expectations.”
“Yeah, that's true,” Sam agrees, and Bucky makes eye contact, twitches his fingers.
“If I attacked you,” he asks, “what would you do?” It's a non-sequitur, the kind Sam is getting used to. Bucky's conversations are sometimes oblique, talking around something Sam's not sure the shape of.
“Why don't you try?” he suggests, and Bucky frowns, shakes his head like he's frustrated.
“If I attacked you. What would you do.”
“Seriously,” Sam tells him, “try it,” and Bucky hesitates for a minute before reaching for a knife. Sam flips the widow's bite taser up from his wrist, flicks it at Bucky's arm, presses the kill switch. Watches the circuits spark.
“The redhead gave you this,” Bucky says, thoughtful. Touches flesh fingertips to the little round button. His metal arm hangs deadweight from the shoulder.
“Natasha,” Sam says, and Bucky frowns again.
“Natashenka,” he says. “Маленькая балерина.”
“You trained with her,” Sam says, questioning, and Bucky blinks. Blinks again.
“Дрессировать,” he says. “No. I trained her.” Goes silent like he's thinking more about the question. “She would have known, in Odessa. I didn't shoot to kill. She wasn't my target.”
“And in DC?”
“She shot me in the face,” Bucky shrugs. “Like I said. I trained her.”
There’s nothing Sam can say to that. Thinks about Natasha’s face pale and resigned in the back of the STRIKE team van. Holding pressure to her shoulder, her blood on his hands. We’re two sides of a coin, he and I, she’d murmured later, and Sam hadn’t understood. Isn’t sure he understands, even now, but he’s getting there.
“What would Steve do, if I attacked him,” Bucky asks, abrupt, and Sam looks him in the eye.
“You know what he would do,” he says, “he'd let you,” and Bucky nods.
“That's why,” he says, with finality. “Expectations.” He pries the widow’s bite off his arm and tosses it back to Sam. Squints down at his forearm. “I have to repair the microcircuitry. How steady are your hands?”
“I'm a medic,” says Sam. “Or, I was. So, pretty steady.”
“Good,” Bucky says. “You can help.” He tugs his shirt off one-handed, muttering under his breath. Rotates his left arm all the way from the shoulder, and the servos whine like it’s rebooting. “In my backpack,” he says. “There’s a toolkit,” and Sam reaches for it, digs past notebooks, a couple bars of candy, a sweatshirt.
“You sure—” he says, and Bucky shrugs, motions him closer.
“Come on. I won’t bite.”
You might, Sam thinks, and pulls his chair closer anyway. Up close Bucky smells like sweat and hotel soap, cigarette smoke, a faint trace of warm metal and oil. It’s not unpleasant. He hums under his breath, looks at Sam and then back down at his arm.
“Third panel down. Get the screwdriver under the edge, there’s a lip. Should just lift right up.” Sam takes a deep breath. Flexes his fingers, opens the toolkit, takes out the tiny screwdriver. Hesitates before he reaches for the panel, and Bucky laughs.
“Don't worry. There's only a thirty percent chance I'll have a memory glitch and throw you across the room.”
“Reassuring,” Sam says, and shakes out the tension in his hands, bends in closer. “Okay. What do you need?”
“Get that panel up,” Bucky says, “I’ll figure it out from there. I don’t exactly know the schematics, right.”
“That seems frustrating,” Sam says. Lifts the panel. Bucky laughs again.
“You got no idea. They didn’t want me repairing myself, is the thing,” and Jesus, that just sums up Bucky right there, doesn’t it.
It’s slow going, the repair. Sam’s aware of the crick in his neck, the close proximity. Bucky’s arm like he’s human and weapon all at once. He’s under no illusion Bucky couldn’t take him down even with the arm out of commission.
“I’m left-handed,” Bucky says, “did you know that?”
“I thought nobody was left-handed in the 1930s,” he says, squinting at the panel. Bucky laughs out of the corner of his mouth.
“Yeah, the nuns smacked my knuckles with a ruler so many times it was probably a good thing they turned it metal in the end,” he says, and bends in closer, his forehead pressed against Sam’s. “No, there, see?” he adds, points with his little finger at a spot about half an inch to the left. Sam shifts the tip of the screwdriver, pauses for Bucky to nod. “Yeah, right there, that’s the place. Unscrew it, sweetheart, that’s right. Just needs a little solder.” Sam dabs the solder, switches the screwdriver for the miniature blowtorch. Bucky blows hair out of his face.
“They taught me how to write again,” he says, abrupt and conversational all at once. “Hydra. Once I had this on. For a while they wanted written mission reports and my chicken scrawl wasn't good enough. They figured out the problem. Taught me again. Good for practising fine motor skills, the scientists said. Holding something like a pen without breaking it. Never be copperplate, but it's good enough.” He looks closely at the circuits. Wiggles his fingers experimentally. “That's it, you got it. Just close it up, no problem.” Waits until Sam's finished, reaches over to touch the seam of the panel with his flesh fingertips. Stares into the middle distance. “They switched to verbal reports after a while,” he says like he's remembering. “No point having the Asset think enough about the mission to transcribe a report. But the handwriting. That stuck.”
He watches Sam set the tools back into the kit, carefully precise. Blows the strand of hair away again in a quick gust of breath, runs his metal fingers through it. Scrapes it back from his forehead like he’s evaluating whether it’ll tie up.
“Fuck, I’m hungry,” he says eventually. “Put those back in my bag, would you? And grab those candy bars, I bought ‘em for us.”
“Oh, you bought them,” Sam mutters, but he does it. Passes Bucky one, unwraps the other. They’re Kinder bars, milky and gritty-sweet with sugar. Not bad.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, grinning very sharp, “I only steal what I can’t afford.” Licks a smudge of chocolate from his bottom lip. “Of course,” he adds, “I’m mostly running on Hydra money, so I guess it’s all stolen, one way or another. You like these? I like ‘em. Brought them back from Italy.”
“Yeah, why were you in Rome? We didn’t see you.”
“I wasn’t,” Bucky says. “Just a starting point. Wanted to see if you’d follow me, I dunno. You got there too late, though. I was already gone.”
“In 1980,” Bucky says, “a neo-fascist group bombed a railway station in Bologna. A massacre. Blamed on Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, but they always denied any involvement.”
“Oh,” Sam says, “and you—”
“I got no fuckin’ clue,” Bucky says flatly. “Maybe. The sixties through eighties, Italy was pretty… the Years of Lead, they called it. Neo-fascists, Marxists, anarchists, it was a goddamn mess. If Hydra were involved, there’s no way to know now, except—”
“Except you have a feeling.”
“Except I got a feeling,” Bucky agrees. “You probably heard of the strategy of tension, right. Cold War tactics. Agents provocateurs. False flag terrorism. They’re not fuckin’ wrong, only it wasn’t exactly governments doing it. Wanted to know if it was me, is all.”
“Who knows,” Bucky sighs, “who fuckin’ knows, Sam.” Stares at the painting, the soft brushstrokes, eyes flat like he’s not seeing it. “You should go,” he adds, “I can’t steal you for good,” and when Sam leaves, Bucky is still looking at the painting like maybe it has the answers he can’t find.
While Sam and Steve are still in Le Havre Natasha gives them a call.
“What, you come all the way to Europe and don't visit me?”
“Where are you at the moment?” Steve asks. Puts her on speaker, sets the phone down between him and Sam on the bed.
“Brussels,” Nat tells them. “Consulting for NATO.” Her voice is tinny through the phone speaker, not as husky as Sam remembers. He watches Steve frown.
“You said you'd blown all your covers,” he says, “what are you doing for NATO?”
“Turns out they're interested in briefings about Hydra,” Natasha says, and Sam can just imagine her shrugging. “Consulting as myself, it's an interesting time.” Of course that's not strictly true, Sam thinks. Natasha’s playing a role even when she's not. Natasha Romanov, mouthing off on Capitol Hill. Briefing generals on how to fight an asymmetrical terrorist organization that's grown in the shadow of something bigger.
“Got something for you,” she adds. “I'll forward you the files. You're still running that encryption, right?”
“Gee, I don't know,” Steve says, rolling his eyes. “Shucks, Nat, this new technology,” and she snorts with laughter.
“Okay, smart-ass. What's your boy doing in Libya, anyway?”
Steve stares at Sam. Sam back at Steve. Steve's freckles are coming out; he's spent more time than usual in the sun. They sit outside when they're not following Bucky through museums, as if they both need the openness of the sky. Wind in their faces.
“Could be a Hydra thing,” Steve starts, doubtful, and Natasha says something dismissive in Russian.
“It's not a Hydra thing. He's in Tripoli, or headed that way. I'd go look myself but I'm kind of tied up here at the moment. Bureaucrats. You know how it is.”
“Natasha,” Steve says. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get in touch the next time you're back home, would you? Maybe we'll even be in the same city together.” In the background Sam hears the pop of gunshots. Steve doesn't even have to say anything; his frown deepens and deepens and Natasha laughs. “Yeah, you got me. Not quite the kind of consulting I implied. I am in Brussels, though. Technically it's NATO business, even.”
“So long as you're using your powers for good,” Steve says, carefully lighthearted, and Natasha laughs again. The rill of it bubbling up quick enough that Sam knows it’s genuine.
“Never anything but, I promise. Let me know what you find in Tripoli, okay.” The line goes dead, and Steve's phone buzzes a minute later with a file transfer. Intelligence briefings, surveillance video stills. Satellite imagery. Natasha sharing everything she's got, just to help them out. Sam's kinda touched.
Getting into Tripoli is still a shit-show.
It’s reeling from a civil war and a goddamn NATO military intervention. The US Embassy is on the verge of suspending diplomatic operations, the State Department issuing travel warnings all over the place, and it’s pretty much about to be taken by the Dawn of Libya militia. The airport is closed. The ports are closed. The borders are basically closed. Times like this, Sam fucking hates his life.
“You can’t come,” he tells Steve, sitting in a cafe somewhere along the coast of Tunisia and staring out at the Mediterranean gulf, “you’re gonna stay right here and not get yourself captured and executed in a world-wide broadcast, Jesus Christ,” and Steve sighs like he knows Sam’s right but he doesn’t like it regardless. That’s too bad, because Sam doesn’t like it either, would just as soon not follow Bucky into a fucking war zone. Libya. For fucks sake, Bucky.
He’s in a hotel in the old city, easy enough to find, and when Sam lets himself in Bucky pours him a cup of coffee, strong and black and only a little bitter. There’s no chair; Sam sits down on the bed, drinks his coffee. Catches his breath. Bucky looks bemused, a little curious.
“You’re determined, huh,” Bucky says, “didn’t expect you,” and Sam shrugs.
“Got a lead. Figured I should chase it up.”
“You know you only gotta follow me if I tell you to,” Bucky says, and Sam frowns.
“Yeah, have you ever met Steve? That's not gonna happen, man.”
“Ain't that the fucking truth,” Bucky sighs. Holds up the coffee pot, and Sam shakes his head.
“Nah, I'm good. Thanks, though.”
“You made Steve stay behind,” Bucky guesses. Sam nods, and Bucky's mouth turns to a flat line, assessing the situation. “Because he's Captain America?”
“Not exactly low profile, no.”
“Don't treat yourself as expendable in comparison,” Bucky murmurs, so quiet Sam almost misses it. “Real easy to make that mistake, pal, take it from someone who knows.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “okay,” and Bucky makes eye contact, holds it for a long and breathless pause. “Why are you here, anyway,” Sam asks, breaking the moment, and Bucky twists his lip a little.
“No art, right. Well, I mean. Of course there’s art, I’m not a fuckin’... no, sweetheart, I’m here for the other thing. Put together the fragments. Figure out what’s real. What they made me do.”
“What did they make you do,” Sam says, quiet, and Bucky presses his fingers to the soft wood of the windowsill. Digs his fingertips under a loose splinter. Looks out at the medina below.
“Fifth of April 1986,” he says, precise like he’s reciting a mission report for a handler. “Libyan agents bombed a nightclub in West Berlin. Stasi intelligence files to prove it. It’s all on the record.” He makes eye contact with Sam, his face flatly expressionless. Bites his lip. “Files can always be altered,” he adds. “The truth is. Malleable. The bombing doesn’t matter. What matters is the result. Cause and effect. Consequence.”
“Jesus,” Sam mutters. “I remember this. I was just a kid. Reagan, right? He bombed Tripoli in retaliation?”
“Operation El Dorado Canyon,” Bucky says. “Airstrikes. UN condemnation. Pan-Am Flight 73 and 103. Crises of diplomacy, destabilization. The slow and inexorable slide of US foreign policy into what would later become the war on terrorism.” He pauses. Smiles, bloodless and cold and unamused. “Hydra is very good at achieving its goals.”
“What did you…”
“I don’t know,” Bucky shrugs. “Maybe I planted the bomb in that nightclub. Maybe I brought down Flight 103. Maybe I did none of it, maybe I was on ice the whole time, who fuckin’ knows. The bombing doesn’t matter. All that matters is the consequence.”
“And yet,” Sam says, “you're here.”
“Well,” Bucky says. “It'd be nice to know, is all.”
He stands at the window a long time. It’s how Sam pictures him, when he’s not around: Bucky silhouetted against a window frame, all the planes of his face in deep contrasts of light and shadow. The daylight fades into dusk, a long-falling dark, and Sam switches a lamp on, looks at the book Bucky’s left on the bed. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s a colored tab sticker marking his place.
“It’s good,” Bucky says, catching Sam’s glance. “Practically could have written it myfuckin’self. Is it true about Dresden? The fire-bombing?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “It’s true.”
“Jesus,” Bucky mutters, “history written by the fuckin’ winners, huh. Lemme guess. They didn’t call that a war crime.” There’s a noise, sudden, in the distance. The bass-deep boom of an explosion, and the lights flicker before dying entirely. Sam blinks in the sudden darkness. Hears Bucky swear under his breath.
“They’re bombing the edges of the city,” he says, “probably a substation. The hotel manager said it happens pretty regularly. Gave me some candles, if I could just find them.”
“What,” Sam jokes, “Hydra didn’t give you night-vision along with that arm?” and Bucky snorts with laughter.
“Yeah, very fucking funny, Sam Wilson. Ow, shit, that’s gonna leave a bruise.” Sam can hear him shuffling around, a couple more thumps as he bumps against furniture. Feels his eyes begin to catch up, make out vague areas of definition in the dark. Bucky lets out a triumphant noise. Strikes a match, flaring bright, and then he’s lighting a candle, dripping melting wax into a glass to stand it up. Lights another, sets them on opposite sides of the room. In the flickering candle light his eyes are clear and grey.
“You might have to stay the night,” he says, glancing at Sam, and Sam shrugs.
“Figured I would.” He didn’t figure anything of the sort, but there’s no fucking way he’s gonna try driving out in the middle of the night right after a bombing. He had enough of that in Afghanistan. Got out for a reason. “You mind sharing?”
“With you? Nah,” Bucky says. Bites his lip like he suddenly wants to say more and is thinking better of it. “Not like I’ll sleep, anyway. Go on, you take the bed.”
“I just drank a cup of coffee so thick you could stand a spoon in it,” Sam points out, “you’re gonna have to put up with me awake a bit longer,” and Bucky’s eyes flash. It’s intimate, in the candlelight. Like they’re the only two people in the world.
They don't go to bed that night. Bucky reads, frowning at the page. A candle flickering at his elbow, casting a pool of light on his book. Sam watches him, and Bucky must know, must be aware of the attention, but he ignores it or allows it. Sam's not sure which. He lies down, stretches out. Cat-naps, just a little, when his eyes begin to feel scratchy and too-big in his face. Wakes just before dawn.
“You drive here?” Bucky asks without looking up, as the sky begins to lighten, and Sam clears his throat.
“Yeah,” he says. “A Jeep. Borrowed it in Tunis.”
“Okay,” Bucky says. Marks his place, closes the book. “Want anything before we go?”
“No, man, I’m good,” Sam yawns. Washes his face with cold water, watches Bucky tuck a gun into the back of his waistband and pick up another, a sniper rifle fully assembled, from under the bed.
“Handgun,” Sam says, “it’s not exactly legal,” and Bucky grins very sharp.
“Neither am I, pal. Neither am I.”
When they get down to the street, Bucky slides into the driver’s seat without asking. Takes them along the coastal road, the Mediterranean gleaming achingly blue on their right and the desert hazy as the sun gets higher. He drives fast but not dangerous, smooth and carefully controlled. Sam puts on a pair of sunglasses, fiddles with the radio until he finds a station playing jangly Arabic pop. Props his feet up on the dash. It’s oddly pleasant.
“You hungry?” Bucky asks, glancing sideways. “We’re just about in Zuwarah, we could stop and get something to eat. Breakfast.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees, “that sounds good.” He’s noticed how Bucky has put on weight, these last few months, shoulders and waist thicker than they used to be, and has suspicions about how irregular food might have been when he was in Hydra’s possession. If Bucky’s offering food, Sam doesn’t turn it down, just on general principle. Bucky had been too goddamn thin, all hollow cheeks and skin sallow with lack of sunlight. He looks healthier here in the sun and the warm salt breeze. They buy a bag of fruit, dates and oranges. Pastries from a bakery cart, savory bourek filled with soft white cheese and chopped mint.
“Fuck, those are good,” Bucky says, eating one-handed as he drives. He has flakes of phyllo pastry caught in the stubble on his chin, and Sam laughs before he can help himself. Reaches out and brushes it away. Bucky grins at him. Squints at the road, eyes crinkling at the corners. Just the barest indication of crow’s feet, and Sam wonders again how young Bucky Barnes really is.
“Ugh, I wish I had sunglasses. Or goggles, they’d come in handy.”
“What’d you do with the, uh…”
“The Winter Soldier gear? Burnt it,” Bucky says. “Except for the weapons. Get down, fuck.” Reaches out, shoves Sam down low in his seat just as a bullet shatters their windshield. Sam grabs his gun, wriggles around to see what’s going on.
“ISIL, probably. Might be Dawn of Libya. Tuareg militia are too far south to be this close. Shit.” Bucky swears, swerves the Jeep to avoid another burst of gunfire. “Swap seats with me, you gotta take the wheel,” he tells Sam, and Sam scrambles over him to get into the driver's seat. Briefly feels the heat of Bucky's body underneath him, Bucky’s hand on Sam’s hip.
“Don't panic,” Bucky says, “when you see me do what I'm about to do, okay,” and reaches back with his left arm to grab the rifle from the back seat. Aims, eyes narrowing, and fires. Winter Soldier precision: the front left tire on the pursuing truck blows out, and then the right, and Bucky lowers the gun, glances sideways at Sam.
“Why would I panic,” Sam says, “that seems like a real sensible course of action for you to have taken.”
“I didn't kill them,” Bucky says like he's looking for Sam's approval. “I don't do that anymore.”
“Yeah, dude, I know,” Sam says, and looks from the road to Bucky. Takes one hand off the wheel, touches his shoulder. “It's cool.”
“Okay,” Bucky says. Takes a breath, lets the tension release from his shoulders. “Okay. Hey, are there any more of those pastries?”
“You are the weirdest person I know,” Sam tells him. “I think the bag fell under the seat. You want back at the wheel?”
“Nah, you can drive for a bit,” Bucky tells him. Digs under the seat until he finds the bag of bourek and maamoul, crams a whole date cookie in his mouth. Kicks his feet up onto the dash. “Kind of nice, being a passenger like I’m an honest-to-god human.”
“Oh my god,” Sam sighs. “At least clear the rest of the glass out of the windshield, would you.”
“You got it,” Bucky agrees, and knocks it loose with his metal hand.
Steve’s in Gabès, last Sam heard; Bucky leaves in Medenine like he doesn’t want to be in the same city as Steve just on general principle.
“Might go north,” he tells Sam, squinting into the sun. “You ever been to Pripyat?”
“I’m assuming that’s your idea of a weird joke,” Sam says. “I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, “yeah, darlin’, I’m sure you will.” Slams the door of the Jeep shut, melts away into the crowd before Sam’s even stopped looking.
Bucky doesn’t go to Pripyat, thank fuck. Ghost town, Sam thinks, it’d be fitting in some terrible sense, but although he’s willing to ignore State Department warnings, driving into a radioactive exclusion zone is a step too far. He shows up in Minsk, instead, and Sam and Steve follow just like they have everywhere else so far. Their motel is awful. Sam showers in a bathroom that’s all brown tile, pulls on a clean t-shirt. Brushes his teeth, looks at how Steve is sitting on one of the narrow twin beds staring bleakly at the Hydra file that started all this.
“Steve,” he says, “stop looking at that, man, it’ll only make you mad.”
“I just wish I understood,” Steve says, “what he was doing, that’s all.”
Sam looks at him a moment longer. Makes a decision. Sits down next to him, takes the file out of his hands.
“When you were playing catch-up with the world,” Sam says, “you ever read about the Lockerbie bombing?”
Steve frowns, sharp and unhappy. “Probably,” he says, “but… Sam, I know I got a good memory, but seventy years of history, that's a lot to take in. I'm assuming it has something to do with Libya. That’s Gaddafi, right?”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “Gaddafi, maybe. A bomb in a plane, blew up over a Scottish village. Libya paid reparations but never took direct responsibility. There was chatter. Conspiracy theories. I think…” He doesn’t finish. Makes eye contact with Steve, tilts his head. Steve doesn’t miss the implication.
“Did he tell you? That he did it?”
“No,” Sam says. Carefully eliding the truth. “He didn’t tell me.” It’s not like we catch up for coffee and a friendly chat, except that we do. We did. “But I saw enough of what he’d been piecing together. I think he’s trying to figure it out. Lot of places Hydra might have involved themselves, the last fifty years.”
“Fuck,” Steve says, “fuck,” and bends over, rests his elbows on his knees, lowers his head until Sam can’t see his face. “It’s not his fault,” he says, muffled, “it’s not his fucking fault,” and Sam knows that and Steve knows that. Sam touches Steve’s shoulder, palm flat. Slides his hand up to the back of Steve’s neck and leaves it there for a moment, feels Steve shudder like his breathing is wrecked.
They trace Bucky from Minsk to Košice. To Kraków. “Might go to Rouen,” he says in Prague, as if he’s nothing but a tourist making idle plans, and Sam makes a face.
“You were just in Le Havre a month ago,” he points out, “you couldn’t have gone up to Rouen while you were in the area, instead of going all the way to fucking Libya and then back around via the Eastern bloc?”
Bucky stares at him.
“I was?” he says. “Oh. I was. You’re right. That would have been. Sensible.”
“I’m just saying,” Sam tells him, “I could have done without that particular episode.”
“Couldn’t we all,” Bucky sighs. “It was fun before the gunfire, though,” and that’s true, for a particular value of fun.
He thinks Japan must be deliberate misdirection. How or why is Bucky going to Hiroshima. Is it a mistake? Some kind of false trail? And then he looks it up. Googles Hiroshima art gallery. The museum website is in English, crisp and precise. The paintings in the possession of the Museum comprise modern European paintings, concentrating on those by French Impressionists. Bucky’s nothing if not consistent.
It’s still a mistake.
“Jesus,” Steve says, “Jesus,” and stares up at the dome, the skeleton of concrete and wire. Sam forgets, sometimes, that this isn’t just background to Steve, that he didn’t grow up knowing, the kind of abstract stuff everyone learned in high school history. World War Two unit, the Pacific theater, turn to page 203 in the textbook. Write an essay on the use of the atom bomb in bringing the war to an expedient end. Justify it through the absence of a full-scale ground invasion. US and Soviet aggression predicting the rise of the Cold War. The arms race. It's a lot to catch up on, Sam guesses.
“You know they made me out of vita rays. A miracle of the atom, Christ. I was only ever one of the weapons Stark made,” Steve says, and swallows, and swallows. His jaw tight. “When I took down the Valkyrie, I thought I was saving the world from these weapons. Turns out I was only saving us from the Hydra version.”
“Your shoulders ever get sore?” Sam asks, and Steve blinks. Stares at him in confusion. “It’s just, carrying around the weight of the world like that, seems like they must get to aching after a while.” Steve ducks his head, blushes in embarrassment. Smiles, rueful, and then laughs out loud.
“Yeah, okay, that was particularly self-indulgent,” Steve sighs. “I dunno, Sam, it’s just… it feels too big to take in, you know? All this shit I woke up to, some days, it just…”
“I know. Come on,” Sam says, “Steve, come on, there’s an art gallery here that’s supposed to be good.” Quit taking this on so mournful, he means, stop thinking about the past, stop beating yourself up for shit that’s none of it your fault. And underneath that all, come on, Steve, I got Bucky waiting for us here.
They take the streetcar; Hiroshima is charming in a way Sam doesn’t expect, modern and quaint all at the same time. The art museum is a long, low white building in the middle of a park, still and peaceful and full of light, and Steve goes very quiet as he contemplates each piece.
“Renoir,” he says, absent. Touches his fingertips to the edge of the frame, drifts on to the next one, and the next. Stands in front of a Modigliani, dark and somber and shadowy, for a long time, and then even longer when he sees a Degas. A dancer, a woman with dark hair, face tilted away, the line of her bare shoulder delicately lit against the sketched-out background, and Sam’s seen enough photos of Peggy Carter to know who Steve’s thinking about. Apparently Steve’s just in a mournful mood today; Sam leaves him to it.
It’s Sam who finds the Monet. Matinée sur la Seine, all lilac and peach and indigo, the faintest smudges of lemon-yellow, and tucked behind the frame, a paper crane folded in soft mulberry paper. Bucky’s capitals as carefully written as ever, but the ink from the pen has bled and feathered until each letter is soft-edged.
The hotel Bucky has chosen is a lot nicer than the no-frills business hotel Sam and Steve are staying in. Sam thinks it’s deliberate. Something nice, just for him. Perhaps Bucky enjoys the luxury.
This one is a traditional room, tatami mats on the floor and minimally beautiful textiles everywhere. One painfully exquisite vase, a single chrysanthemum stem. A Monet, propped carefully against the rice paper window frame.
“You gotta stop,” Sam sighs, and Bucky shrugs.
“Thought it might make up for the, y’know. War zones and the Eastern bloc. The problem is you’re following me everywhere, see. If you’d just take my fuckin’ hints when I want you there and stay put otherwise, it’d be a lot nicer of a time for you.”
“Good to know,” Sam says, “I’ll just tell Steve that, shall I?” and Bucky smirks at him.
“You want a beer?”
“Hell, why not,” Sam agrees. Bucky gestures at the cans, sitting on the dark wood low table.
“No minibar,” he says, “but I got these at the vending machine down the street. Japan’s helpful, that way. Gimme one, would you?”
Sam passes him a beer. Sits down on the floor, stretches out, presses the cool aluminium of the can to his forehead. Dealing with all Steve’s postwar ennui, it’s given him a headache. Bucky slides open the door; the room faces onto a private garden, all moss and dripping water. A bough of maple leaves, crisp-edged against the light. The noise of the city is muted, the moon full and very bright. It’s so beautiful Sam hurts a little just looking.
“I went to that museum,” Bucky says. Drinks his beer. “I like museums. They got my face in one, you know that? Right there in black and white.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Yeah, I know.”
“Kind of out-of-date on the information, though,” Bucky says, and laughs, wry and a little bitter. “What’s that thing people say. ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Probably pretty embarrassing for the historians, huh,” Sam agrees. Sips his own beer, swallows it cold all the way down.
“I went to that museum,” Bucky says again, sliding suddenly sharp in the way he does sometimes. “They got a display. Steps of a bank, nothing but stone. Some guy was sitting there, right? When the bomb went off. Bleached the stone, it was so hot, and he just. Disappeared. All that’s left is the shadow where he was sitting.” He stares into space, face very still, metal fingers picking at the label of his beer like he’s not aware he’s doing it. Closes his eyes and opens them again, looks at Sam. “That’s what… I wonder, sometimes. If that’s all I am. The shadow left after an explosion.”
Apparently it’s time for both the super soldiers in Sam’s life to get bleakly introspective. Figures, Sam thinks, and suddenly, desperately misses his old life. His mom, his sister and his baby niece, the way it feels to have somewhere to settle. Not living out of fucking hotel rooms. He misses it all, a knot in his chest, and thinks, something’s got to give here.
“We should go home,” Sam says to Steve the next morning, “it’s been, what, five months? Six? I gotta sort my shit out, man, I’m still on a leave of absence from work, my mom won’t talk to me for a hundred years if I don’t visit soon.” And it’s doing you no good, he thinks, you gotta let this go, Steve. Steve sighs, shoulders rising and falling. Makes a face, sets his jaw.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay.”
Home is apparently New York, not DC. Sam’s fine with that; he goes to his mom’s, gets told off for having up and disappeared even as she’s cooking a pan of cornbread, a fresh batch of fried chicken, all his favorite things made just the way he likes them. Marisol flings herself all over Sam as soon as she discovers he’s home, all newly arms and legs. When he’d last seen her she was three and a half, still just a baby, and here she is nearly five, demanding that Sam take her to the park, show her his wings, why didn’t he bring her back a present if he was on vacation so long, huh.
“I wasn’t on vacation,” Sam tries to defend himself, “Marisol, honey, I was working,” and she just fixes him with a skeptical glare. Trina smothers a laugh, and Sam sighs, submits to it all.
“You’re gonna have to work up to being her favorite uncle again,” Trina tells him, and Sam frowns.
“I’m her only uncle.”
“Even so,” Trina shrugs. Hugs Sam tight. “It’s good to have you home. Are you gonna stay?”
“Maybe,” Sam says. Thinking, no. Thinking, I could stay put until I get another hint, maybe. “I gotta talk to Steve about it.”
“Oh, Steve,” his mom says, her voice full of implication like she’s got about five thousand words to say on the topic of Steven Grant Rogers, and in the end Sam invites Steve round for dinner just to save himself the trouble of listening to the full speech. Steve is clearly shell-shocked but breaks out the big guns, in the form of the Captain America smile and ‘yes, ma’am’ deployed at periodic and deeply strategic intervals, and by the end of dinner Darlene is kissing him on the cheek, sending him away with a casserole dish full of leftovers and a full goddamn pan of late-summer peach cobbler.
“I hate you,” Sam grumbles, “how did you even do that,” and Steve eats another bite of cobbler very placidly. Offers Sam the spoon.
“Moms like me,” he says, his mouth full. Frowns like he’s remembering. “Except for Bucky’s mom. She thought I was a bad influence, I’m pretty sure.”
“She was right,” Sam agrees, giving in and taking the spoon, digging out a big bite. It’s crunchy on top, soft and fluffy underneath, peaches melting and yielding, and fuck Sam’s missed being home. They’re sitting out on the balcony of the Tower, side-by-side; apparently Steve’s got a floor there, something he’d failed to mention until now. It’s bigger than Sam’s entire house back in DC, and Steve clearly hates it, lives in one little sad corner like that’ll somehow make it better. “You talk to Tony yet?”
“Saw him yesterday,” Steve says, “he was working on something, told me to come back tomorrow.”
“You want to try again? Jarvis, is Tony in the Tower?”
“Mr Stark is in the lab,” Jarvis tells them, and Sam puts the empty cobbler dish down on the countertop, pulls Steve over to the elevator.
“Go see Hill,” Tony says, smudged with grease and wild-eyed like he hasn’t slept in three days, and maybe he hasn’t. Sam catches the expression of worry on Steve’s face; Tony’s clearly struggling with something. Just go talk to someone, Sam thinks, it’s okay to need help, believe me, I’m a goddamn VA counsellor. It’s not worth suggesting; Sam already knows Tony won’t. “Go see Hill,” Tony says again, “go on, get, I just gotta figure out this one thing, you’re distracting me, Rogers, your entire concerned-citizen face is putting me off.”
“Have you tried a Xanax in his coffee,” Sam asks Jarvis, and he thought it was impossible for Jarvis to sigh but apparently he can manage it. The noise he makes is so exasperatedly human that Sam blinks in surprise.
“Unfortunately the combination of non-corporeality and my programming prevents me from being permitted to do so. Miss Potts has suggested the same course of action on multiple occasions.”
“Well,” Sam says, “he sure needs something,” and Steve nods.
“Yeah,” he agrees, quiet. “It’s worse, since New York,” and that’s a bad sign, right there.
It’s almost midnight; they wait until morning to talk to Maria Hill. Sam crashes on Steve’s couch, wakes feeling better than he has after nights in some of the hotel beds they’ve stayed in. Being filthy rich has its perks, he thinks, and decides he’s gonna ask for a couch like this one if he ever joins up with the Avengers.
Maria is poised and unflappable as ever, but underneath it Sam thinks she looks tired, maybe a little worried. Things are going on, he thinks, things Steve should maybe have been here for. Something simmering under the surface.
“We need you,” Maria says simply. “Hydra is regrouping. Stolen Chitauri tech, and—”
“The scepter,” Steve sighs, looking put-upon. “Jesus, how long before we noticed that was missing?”
“We think Hydra moved it out of the SHIELD research facility after the Battle of New York,” Maria tells them, and Steve sets his jaw. He hasn’t been able to do anything about what Hydra did to Bucky. Hasn’t been able to fix it. Sam’s pretty sure Steve’s just decided he's gonna fix this, at least.
“I gotta stay,” Steve says later. “At least until Natasha comes home. I— shit, Sam, I want to go back after him again, but if he was gonna let me he’d have let me by now. You, though, you’ll…”
“Yeah, I’ll go,” Sam agrees, and very deliberately doesn’t think about what exactly Steve is saying. If he was gonna let me he’d have let me.
Bucky shows up in Madrid, or at least on the radar enough that Sam flies to Madrid. It turns out to be deliberate; Sam finds a hotel keycard in the Museo Reina Sofía, Room 206. Hidden carefully behind the frame of Guernica. Bucky’s nothing if not consistent, at least.
“Miss me?” Sam asks when he lets himself in. “I was only gone three weeks.”
“Nah,” Bucky teases. Smiles, sharp teeth. “I was actually able to get some shit done without worrying about you traipsing after me all over the damn place.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sam says. Ignores what Bucky might mean by ‘get shit done’, and just rolls his eyes. “I’d have brought you back some of my mama’s cooking, if I thought they’d actually let me get it on the plane.”
“Steve didn’t come with you,” Bucky says. “This time. It's just you. He sick?”
He doesn't sound anxious, or alarmed. Just curious, as if Steve and Sam are acquaintances he sees regularly enough to know their patterns. When it gets down to it, Sam supposes that’s true, in a way.
“Steve,” Sam starts, and doesn't finish. Bucky is peeling an orange, the scent of it sharp in the air, and Sam just stops and watches him for a minute. His fingers deftly pulling away the rind, the cloud of volatile oil misting up into his face. The juice running sticky and golden down his wrists.
“Goddamn,” Bucky laughs, and sucks metal fingers into his mouth, licks them clean. “That’s gonna be a mess for hours now it’s in the joints.” He eats a wedge, slow. Closes his eyes. “Goddamn,” he says again, appreciative, and peels off another segment, offers it to Sam. Sam reaches out, takes it. Bites into it, feels juice drip down his chin.
“Yeah, ‘s good,” he agrees, and Bucky grins, soft.
“You’ll give me shit if I talk about how we got one orange a winter, but, y’know, we did only get one orange a winter.”
“The poor little match girl, that’s you,” Sam says, wry, and watches Bucky’s eyes crinkle in amusement. Sam licks his lip, tries to catch the juice he can feel sitting wet in the dip of his lower lip, and sees Bucky’s gaze suddenly go sharp and a little hot, narrowing in on Sam’s mouth.
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s me.” Picks the knife up off the table and flips it absently, skimming sharp over his fingers, and Sam can’t look away. The blade catches the light, gleams even in shadow. The movement of it, it’s mesmerizing.
“You—” Sam starts, and doesn’t know how to finish. His throat is dry. Bucky reaches for another orange; there’s a string bag of them on the table, like he stopped by the fruit market before arriving at the hotel. Maybe he went out just to buy it. Sam has no idea what Bucky does when they’re not here in these liminal spaces together.
“You want some more?” Bucky asks, and Sam nods, watches Bucky score the blade down the rind and into the flesh. Lifts the knife to his mouth, licks it clean, sets it down on the table and digs his thumbs into the orange to pull it apart into two neat half-globe segments. It’s a blood orange, vivid crimson shading almost to black, and the juice stains Bucky’s fingers dark and startling.
“Well,” he says. “Ain’t that a thing.”
“Steve's a soldier,” Sam says, returning to their previous conversation all at once. He’s picked this habit up from Bucky. Sideways sliding from one topic to the next, shift-changes and reversing. Disjointed and compelling all at once. Sam finds himself thinking that way more often, these days. Steve’s a soldier, as if that'll explain why he's not here. Maybe it does. Steve's on a mission, Steve has a mission, Steve is a mission, and here Sam is watching Bucky break the orange into smaller pieces. Blood-dark juice all over his hands, the crescent of his nails. “He can't forget.”
“No,” Bucky agrees. Passes Sam a slice of orange, looks at his hands. “When you're a soldier, you don't forget. You remember it all.”
“Do you?” Sam asks, and Bucky looks up, blinks rapidly in a flutter of lashes. Bites his lip.
“No,” he says. “Not me. I forget and forget and remember again. They did… You know what they did.”
Yeah. Sam knows what they did. What Bucky did. Forgets, every time Bucky licks his lips or laughs or calls Sam sweetheart like he's forgetting to be surly.
Summer slides into fall, inevitable. Steve's busy, now, busy with Natasha and Tony, trying to keep the team together. He sounds exhausted more often than not. Exasperated, maybe, but with Tony in the mix that's always been true. Sam goes to Malta. Comes home. Thessaloniki. Comes home. Sofia. Comes home. Loses track of which timezone he's in. Unpacks, wondering why he bothers. He's lost a shirt somewhere. Thinks about it, a dark red henley forgotten under some anonymous motel bed. It's not nice enough to bother trying to find, but he misses it, just the same. It was soft. Comfortable.
He visits Steve whenever he’s home. Spends hours going over the intelligence Natasha collates, catching things Steve’s missed. Giving a second opinion even though he’s not technically an Avenger. It’s not like there’s anyone even nominally in charge aside from Steve; Tony just pays the bills, as he reminds anyone who will listen.
“Fury keeps pointing us to new Hydra bases,” Steve tells him through a mouthful of pizza. Leans forward, pushes the box to the side so he can grab one of the files. “Oh, jeez,” he mutters. Rubs at the pizza sauce stain on the corner, and Sam snickers.
“How are you not using digital files by now? And don’t tell me you don’t know how, I know you can, that’s how Nat sends us everything.”
“Mostly I do it to piss off Tony,” Steve admits. Offers Sam the last slice of pepperoni, and Sam thinks about it for a minute, takes the slice. It’s hard to get good New York-style pizza in Europe, honestly. “He practically gets a nose-bleed every time I use something analogue after he’s spent hours setting us all up with the latest digital option, it’s fucking hilarious to watch.”
“Oh my god,” Sam says, “you troll,” and Steve smirks around his pizza crust. “Okay, what’d you want to show me with that intel?”
“Well, it’s just…” Steve says, and folds it open, flicks to the middle. “You see here? You got experience reading Hydra files. I feel like they’re referring to something but I can’t figure out what.” Sam leans in, reads the section Steve is pointing to. Hums under his breath.
“Yeah, you’re not wrong, that feels like I should recognize it. Hell if I know why, though. Let me think about it. How’s it going, anyway? Other than annoying Tony just because you can?”
“Enh, you know. Can’t complain. You want to join us?” Steve asks, and Sam frowns before he can catch himself. It’s not the first time Steve has asked. “Alright, no big deal. Offer’s on the table, though. It’d be good to have you on my six.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “yeah, it’s not— It’s not a no, Steve. Just. Not right now, okay?”
“Of course,” Steve agrees, “yeah, that— yeah. Sure.”
Sam falls asleep on Steve’s couch again that night. Wakes, three in the morning, suddenly knowing why that file is so familiar.
“Hey, Steve,” he murmurs. Doesn’t even need to get up; Steve’s hearing is good enough Sam knows he’ll hear it from across the apartment even though it’s about huge enough that getting to the bathroom feels like trekking across Siberia. Steve opens his bedroom door, stumbles out like he’s half asleep. Blinks at the light.
“What is it? Whassamatter? Bucky show up again on the alerts?”
“No,” Sam says, apologetic, “nothing like that, it’s just… you still got those old Hydra files from when Schmidt and Zola were doing experiments with the Tesseract, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, expression suddenly sharp. “The original files are in storage somewhere, but SHIELD digitized all the Tesseract research when Dr Selvig started work on Project PEGASUS, give me a minute.” He pulls them up on the tablet, hands it to Sam. Sits down next to him on the couch as Sam flicks through the scanned files. It only takes a few minutes to find the one he’s looking for.
“This is the one,” Sam tells him. “After we started looking. I, uh. Asked Nat if she had access to these, the original Hydra files from back in the day. Wanted to familiarize myself with them so I knew what the hell you were talking about every time you went down memory lane. Read that and tell me it doesn’t sound the same.”
“You’re right,” Steve agrees, “shit, you’re right. They’re using the scepter to make weapons.”
“Not just weapons,” Sam points out, “this line talks about subjects,” and Steve sighs very heavily.
“Don’t you just hate always being right about this shit,” he says. Sighs again. “Thanks, Sam. This is helpful. And, uh. Think about the other thing too, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Sam tells him. “Of course.”
He’s still thinking about it when he’s on the plane back to Europe. When he’s in Zagreb. Venice. Constanța. Ankara. It sits and sits in the back of his mind, and he never has an answer, at least not one Steve wants to hear.
Bucky forgets things, sometimes. Forgets conversations, gets tripped up over where they've been, what they’ve said, whether it was Sam or Steve who was there in an event half-remembered.
“Have I told you this before?” he says, in the middle of a story about Steve trying to bake a birthday cake, and Sam nods.
“In Venice,” he tells Bucky, “we were eating gelato. Yours was cinnamon. You said it reminded you.” Bucky and Steve save for three weeks to buy enough butter, Steve gets flour stuck in his hair, Bucky trades kisses for apples from the gal at the grocery store. Sam laughed so hard he cried, and Bucky smirked around the plastic spoon in the corner of his mouth, and Sam had wished, that night, that he could call Steve up on the phone and give him approximately five hundred years of shit for it. None of Steve’s stories are ever this good.
“Right,” Bucky says, “yeah, the ice cream,” and goes silent, touches his fingertip to the table. Sam bites his lip.
“Tell it to me again?” he asks, “I want to hear the punchline, I remember it being hilarious.”
The ending of the story is different this time.
Steve dropped the cake. Shit, it went fuckin’ everywhere. We ate it off the floor, Bucky had said in Venice, three weeks worth of butter, I ain’t wasting that.
Don’t forget the kisses, Sam had replied, grave, and Bucky had stared at him for a long moment before cackling with laughter.
“Steve fell asleep,” Bucky says this time around. “Turned out he was incubating the ‘flu and didn’t know it. When I got in it was burned black. Ate it anyway, told him it was delicious. Steve told me I was an idiot but he fuckin’ made it, right. Made it for me.” He pauses, stares into space, frowns like he’s thinking hard. “It was so bitter my mouth tasted like ash for a week.”
Perhaps it’s a different cake. Two stories, confused into one. Perhaps they never baked a cake, perhaps Steve never got sick, perhaps they baked it together and ate it, sweet, laughing and young and as yet unshadowed by war. It’s impossible to know the truth. Steve drops the cake, or maybe Steve burns the cake, it doesn’t matter which.
“You ever eat apple cake?” he asks Steve the next time he’s home. Let’s go out to eat, he’d said, I’ve been in Europe too long, man, I need a burger, and now they’re in a diner, Steve’s knees knocking against his every time Sam moves. The air smells like deep-frying and the tabletop is plastic, smudged with grease, and Sam glances at Steve’s face, looks down at the menu like he’s just thinking about what to order. “I got a sudden yearning for a slice, my mom makes it real good.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “once,” and doesn’t elaborate at all.
Sam makes it home for Christmas. Calls Mary-Beth at the DC branch of the VA, apologizes for having been gone so long.
“It’s okay,” she tells him, “I already hired someone to replace you. Let’s face it, Sam, we both know you’re not coming back any time soon. How long before you join the Avengers for real, huh?”
It’s a question that keeps coming up and keeps coming up. Sam’s never got the right answer.
“How’s Avenging?” he asks Steve in late January, calling long-distance from Dubrovnik, and hears Steve’s breath gust out in a long sigh.
“You know, it’s fine. I just got back from Sudan. Some scientist reverse-engineering that stolen Chitauri tech.”
“Hydra. Sure would be nice if a few more rats did go down with the ship, you know?”
“I hear you,” Sam agrees, and there's a long pause, the phone line buzzing between them. “I'm headed to the Netherlands, tomorrow. Got a lead in Amsterdam.”
“Well, say hi for me if you see him,” Steve jokes, the same thing he's said every time, and Sam laughs. Bites his lip. Feels the unspoken truth heavy in the back of his mouth.
“Hey, Sam, you think any more about that offer?” Steve asks then, and it's Sam's turn to sigh.
“I dunno, Steve,” he says. “It's not… Come on, man, I'm not a super soldier.”
“You got wings, though,” Steve says, “experience fighting Hydra, I trust you, you'd be an asset, Sam, I swear. Just think about it, okay?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Yeah, Steve, I'll think about it. I am thinking about it, I promise.”
It's not that he doesn't. It's just. Joining. It leaves his chest aching. Steve has expectations. He lies awake for too long. Eyes feel gritty the next day. Has never felt less like spending an afternoon in a fucking art museum.
The keycard lands in his pocket, same as always. It's a goddamn date is what it is.
“I went to the Rijksmuseum today,” Bucky says, conversational, and Sam smiles, can’t help it.
“I know,” he says, “you put a keycard in my pocket, remember? Figured you’d show up there. I swear to god, you’re like some alley cat drawn to fine art and the potential for a really spectacular heist opportunity. You get a chance to actually look at the exhibits, or were you too busy lurking in the shadows and following me around?”
“I saw enough,” Bucky shrugs. Tears open a candy bar, snaps it in half, offers Sam the bigger half. “They got a real nice Rembrandt collection. The Night Watch is probably a bit too big to work in your apartment, though. Anything else you like?”
“You can’t steal a Rembrandt for me,” Sam says, and Bucky sighs dramatically.
“You never let me have any fun,” he complains, sprawling on the bed and chewing his half of the chocolate. “What about a Vermeer, then?”
“No thanks,” Sam says. “Vermeer is so… I don't know. Tight. Precise. It's so constrained it makes me feel claustrophobic. All that interior shadow.” Bucky squints at Sam thoughtfully for a bit. Smiles like he's figured something out.
“You like the open sky,” he says, “like when you're flying,” and Sam shrugs.
“Yeah,” he says, “I guess I do.” Bucky props himself up on his elbows, squints at him like he’s hearing something in Sam’s voice.
“You look tired,” he says, “you sleeping enough?”
“Are you?” Sam counters, and Bucky makes a face.
“I do okay. Seriously, you should take a nap or something. Ain’t no point in a bed this nice if you don’t appreciate it.” Tucks his hair behind his ear, grins at Sam. “Unless you’re down to fool around? You never know, I figure I gotta ask. Could get lucky.”
“You’re in a good mood today,” Sam says, and gives in, lies down on the bed next to Bucky. It really is comfortable, he thinks, and lets his head fall back against one of the pillows. Hands Bucky back the uneaten chocolate.
“What, I can’t be in a good mood?” Bucky says. Shoves the rest of the candy into his mouth, frowns down at Sam. Despite the flirting he's very carefully maintaining the boundary of personal space between them, and Sam can’t tell whether it’s for Bucky’s benefit or his own. Perhaps Bucky’s picked up on how Sam’s sometimes jumpy around him. Perhaps he just doesn't like to be touched.
“Historically,” Sam says, closes his eyes and then opens them again, looks thoughtfully at Bucky, “there’s not much of a precedent for it. If I’m being honest with you.”
“Fuck you,” Bucky says, “I’ll have you know I was chipper as fuck before Hydra started giving me electroshock through my goddamn face,” and Sam feels himself flinch. Doesn’t look away, and Bucky winks. “Nah, I’m fucking with you, I grew up in the Depression, for shit’s sake. What's eating you, sweetheart?”
“I just—” Sam says. Sighs. “Steve wants me to join the Avengers.”
“Is there a problem with that?”
“That shit is his world, not mine. I dunno. I got out for a reason.”
“You were a soldier and then you retired,” Bucky says, and Sam nods. “A chance to get out. You came back for him?”
“Well, someone had to follow your crazy ass,” Sam says lightly, “and now… Steve’s back on Avengers duty. Hunting the rest of Hydra and shutting them down for good.”
“And you,” Bucky says, touches his fingertip to Sam's forehead, “are on Barnes duty. Tracking me down.”
“Don't I know it,” Sam agrees. “It's okay. It's the only way Steve can pick up the shield and not feel like he's letting you down.”
“Steve would keep on looking for me if it kills him,” Bucky says, sounding nothing so much as pissed the fuck off. “Do you think you’ll join?”
“The thing is,” Sam says, “the soldiering aside, it’s kind of difficult to continue a missing persons case if I’m part of a team on official business. So. I don't know. When Steve needs me.”
“He doesn’t need you now?”
“I think he needs me here more,” Sam says honestly, opening his eyes. Bucky’s looking at him, clear and intent. “I gotta ask. You know I only find you on purpose. We both know I’m taking the hints.” Bucky keeps gazing at him, eyes very blue, and Sam takes a breath. Thinks about the question. “Why do you keep running? You could settle somewhere. You could disappear.”
“Maybe,” Bucky says. “Yeah, maybe. When you stop looking for me, perhaps.”
Sam is very tired. Feels himself slip without resistance into sleep. When he wakes up, Bucky is gone. Just a note on the pillow, his precise capitals. SEE YOU NEXT TIME.
The next time, in Calais, Bucky doesn't recognize him at all.
“Why are you here,” he says, wary and uncertain. Eyes flicking from Sam’s face to the door. “I don't— why are you— who are you.”
“I’m Sam,” Sam says. Moves carefully. “Bucky, it’s okay. We know Steve. You know Steve, right?”
“The man on the bridge,” Bucky says. His voice sounds small and rough. “Steve. I. I read about him in a museum.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees, “yeah, he was— you went to the museum, huh?”
“I was there,” Bucky tells him. Takes a deep breath. “In the. On the wall. My face. I was there. They said I died but I didn’t, I didn’t die, why would they say I died when I didn’t. Did I fall into the ice with Steve?”
“No,” Sam says. Sits down, and doesn’t know what to tell him. How unstable Bucky might be right now. They’ve known each other almost a year and it’s never been like this.
“I woke up and I didn’t know,” Bucky whispers. “Everything’s— I didn’t know, there’s no mission, I— I fell. I fell into ice but not with Steve. I fell into ice and they froze me and, not with Steve, I hit him and he fell, I—” He shoves his knuckles up against his mouth, lets out a very small whimper. Backs up until his shoulders hit the wall behind him. “You weren't in the museum,” he says, “I didn’t see you in the museum. You didn’t fall.”
Like I was up there just to watch, Sam thinks, and shakes his head.
“No, man,” he says instead, quietly. “I didn’t fall.” Takes a deep breath, holds for four, releases for eight, hoping Bucky will mimic the rhythm. Watches Bucky’s eyes get less panicked, and then he’s sliding down the wall, curling up, pulling his knees up to his chest. Still looking at Sam, his blue eyes wide and ringed with dark, dark lashes.
“You did fall,” he slurs. “I kicked you off something high high up and you fell.”
“Yeah,” Sam murmurs, “but I’m okay,” and Bucky nods.
“We all,” he says. Leans his head back, muscles going slack. “We all fall, one way or another,” and Sam says nothing. Just watches Bucky slide into sleep, one second at a time.
Sam stays in Calais a few days. Thinks about heading home again, and just as he’s about to book a flight his phone pings with a new set of intel from Natasha. Lausanne, and Sam deletes New York from his destination in the online booking. Flies to Switzerland instead.
“Sorry about last time,” Bucky says. Gazes out at Lake Geneva like he’s not quite seeing it. “It was a bad day. I get ‘em sometimes. Everything scrambles, I gotta take a while to sort it all again. Probably a mistake going to Calais through Bruges, I started getting all mixed up between now and seventy fuckin’ years ago. Wrote myself a note, though, so next time might be easier.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “okay.” Glances at Bucky. “Why Lausanne?”
“I dunno. Neutral ground. Wanted to try raclette, I guess. Oh,” Bucky says like he’s remembering, “I got you a present.” Leans over, unzips his backpack, pulls out a thick manila folder. It’s neatly annotated with colored sticker tabs, Bucky’s careful capital letters, and Sam takes it. Spends a couple minutes flicking through it.
“Everything I could gather on Hydra while I was trying to work out myself, yeah,” Bucky shrugs. “I dunno. Merry Christmas. Sorry it’s kind of late.”
“Fuck,” Sam murmurs, “thanks, man. What do I tell Steve about where it came from?”
“You tripped and fell and it appeared in your bag,” Bucky suggests, “shit, I dunno. A concerned citizen. Tell him it’s from me and he’ll just make that stupid fuckin’ face, you know the one.”
Sam does. Knows exactly the face, the big puppydog eyes. Bucky gestures up at the mountains on the other side of the lake. The Alps, white with snow this time of year.
“They’re pretty, huh. You know, nobody knows exactly where I died. Where I fell. We were in the Alps, I remember that much, but even Hydra didn’t keep a record of where they found me. I can find all that. Every scrap of intel, and I can’t find where I fucking died. Maybe Steve’s the only one who remembers.”
“He doesn’t,” Sam says, his throat tight. “He said, if he remembered he’d have gone there already.”
“Well,” Bucky says. Stands up. “We were on a moving train, I guess. Even Steve is only human. Good luck with that file, Sam. Hope you can read my handwriting.”
“Yeah,” Sam replies, “thanks, Bucky.” Looks at the Alps for a long time after Bucky has left. Lake Geneva so blue it’s the exact shade of a clear summer sky.
The file turns out useful. More than; they put together the pieces with the intel Fury has, the kind of thing Fury feeds them without ever telling anyone where it comes from. Sam trusts him, he does, it’s just. It’d be nice to know, is all, he thinks, and immediately feels like a hypocrite. A concerned citizen. Steve had made the face with big sad eyes anyway, like he knows or suspects Bucky’s involved in some way. He’s involved in every way, really.
Steve leads the Avengers in a mission straight to a Hydra research base while Sam’s busy spending the weekend taking Marisol to Disneyland, a Christmas promise he can’t put off again.
“You’re coming to the party though, right?” Steve asks, and Sam laughs, shifts the phone to his other ear, wipes ice cream off Marisol’s cheek.
“Yeah, of course I am, I wouldn’t miss it. Tell me all about the mission when I get back, huh?”
It’s still kind of weird visiting Avengers Tower. That question hanging over him—will you join, will you follow, you want to be part of the team?—and despite everything, he hasn’t made up his mind. He pushes it down. Asks Steve about Sokovia.
“Yeah, we recovered the scepter. Some more Chitauri tech, nothing good. I'd say I'm glad Hydra’s moved on from playing with the Tesseract but they just can’t help themselves, can they.”
“And what’s happening to the scepter now?” Sam asks, because Steve’s bitched at length about the shitshow of Project PEGASUS, SHIELD acquiring the Tesseract and promptly harnessing it for idiot weaponry and portal tech nobody was adequately prepared for, culminating in a mess New York’s still rebuilding years later. SHIELD’s not around anymore, but Sam’s willing to bet there’ll be someone around just waiting to use that power.
“It’s in the lab. Tony and Bruce mentioned wanting to take a look at it before Thor takes it back to Asgard.”
“Right, okay,” Sam says. “Sounds like a hell of a fight, sorry I missed it.”
“If I had known it was gonna be a firefight, I’d have called you in,” Steve says, sincere as ever, and Sam nudges his shoulder.
“I'm not actually sorry, I'm just trying to sound tough. I'm very happy chasing cold leads on our missing persons case,” Sam tells him. Thinks about Bucky falling asleep. Writing himself a note. DON'T KILL SAM. Is Sam very happy? It’s difficult even to answer that in his own head. “Anyway, I had my own mission. You know I was in Disneyland, Marisol would have straight-up disowned me if I’d cancelled that again, never mind losing my ranking as favorite uncle.”
“Yeah, yeah, I can’t believe you went to Disneyland without me,” Steve laughs. Leans on the mezzanine balcony, looks down at the crowd below. Sam spots Natasha, over at the bar. The gleam of her hair in the artfully low light, and he wonders which version of Nat she’s playing tonight.
“You find a place in Brooklyn yet?” Sam asks, because every time he’s come home, Steve’s made faces about his floor in the Tower. Too big, too new, hell, maybe he just wants a place he can call his own. Somewhere away from all of this.
“I don't think I can afford a place in Brooklyn,” Steve replies, wry the way he is whenever he talks about the cost of things in the future. It’d be charming if Sam didn’t know Steve’s basically got more money than sense and still won’t put sugar in his coffee because it costs too much.
“Well, home is home, you know?”
He doesn't miss how Steve stares at him for just a beat too long. His careful lack of expression. “Yeah,” Steve says, “yeah,” and sips his drink. Swallows, thoughtful, and Sam remembers Bucky’s face in profile, the planes of it against shadow and light. The way Steve looks right now, it’s just the same.
Half an hour later Sam’s phone buzzes and he ducks off behind a pillar, pulls it out. A hit from Interpol, Paris, and Sam knows he's gotta work fast to get there in time.
He finds Steve. Touches his elbow, pulls him aside. Watches Steve's face go through a series of subtle emotions, and Jesus, Steve's covering something here but Sam doesn't have time to figure out what it is. A dynamic with Tony, maybe. It's gonna have to wait.
“Steve,” he murmurs, leaning in close, “I know this isn’t the greatest time, but…” Angles his phone so Steve can see the shot. Bucky, on a security camera feed, and it’s deliberate, of course it’s deliberate, it’s always deliberate when it comes to Bucky. Ripples in the water.
“Shit,” Steve mutters. “You should— I mean, if you—”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “of course, yeah. I'll take a jet now, if that's all good with you.” Touches Steve's shoulder. “Have a good time, man. Enjoy the party.”
“Shit,” Steve says again. Winces. “I invited you here to have fun, fuck.”
“You think he knows that?” Sam asks. “Perhaps he's trying to ruin my night.” Grins crookedly at Steve just the way Bucky would. “Don't worry about me. I'll have a ton of fun chasing our ghost around Paris. Go talk to Thor, Steve, I bet he's got something that can put you on your ass.”
“You know, I bet he does,” Steve agrees. Reaches out like he's gonna touch Sam's cheek, maybe, and cuts the gesture short, crosses his arms over his chest. “Have a good flight, okay. Text me your details when you're there.”
“Will do,” Sam says, and heads up to the flight deck for a Quinjet.
Maria Hill calls him while he's still on the plane.
“Don't turn around,” she says, “don’t come back, but—”
There's been an incident.
An accident. A mistake. Tony, making decisions he shouldn't, and the Avengers are scattered, the Tower in ruins for the second time. The fucking scepter, Sam thinks, and wishes he was wrong.
Steve doesn’t call. Too fucking busy, maybe.
Sam goes to Paris anyway. What the fuck else is he gonna do? Not an Avenger, he'd said no and said no, he was perfectly happy to work their missing persons case and all its cold leads, and here he is now, on a missing persons case and his missing person is sitting right across the room from him, frowning at the CNN breaking news they're both watching in silence.
First, South Africa. Johannesburg, the kind of destruction that could only ever be the Hulk, and Tony trying to take him down. Making it worse. Then Seoul, hours or days later. Sam doesn't know. Time doesn't seem to matter right now. The only noise in the room is the television commentary, and then Bucky makes a frustrated noise, gets up, walks out. Sam doesn't move.
Bucky comes back half an hour later with a bag of takeout, grease-spotted. Passes Sam a burger, curls back up next to him on the bed. Pressed against Sam at the shoulder and hip and thigh. They eat, still silent. Bucky screws the bag into a ball when they're done. Flings it at the trashcan and misses, something Sam knows is deliberate, and hands Sam a paper napkin. Goes to the minibar, comes back with the scotch and the vodka.
“Which one?” he says, voice low, and Sam shrugs, wipes his mouth.
“Scotch, if there's ice.”
“There is. Get it yourself if you want it.”
“Whatever,” Sam mutters, and takes the miniature bottle of whisky, cracks it open. Watches Bucky down the vodka in about three long swallows. Jesus, how long has it been since they’ve slept, Sam wonders, and rubs his eyes with his knuckles, feels the grit. Drinks his scotch, goes to the bathroom and washes his face. Looks at himself in the mirror like maybe something will have changed in his own expression.
BBC NEWS, Hill texts him, THEY'RE IN SOKOVIA, and when he changes the channel, everything changes again.
The city is falling.
The city is rising up and falling and Steve is there, Steve is getting punched by robots that look way too much like the shit Stark’s been designing, Steve is there and Sam catches the flashes of his red white and blues in the high-definition footage streaming in over every network.
They watch and it's like maybe they're watching Steve dying, except he's not. He doesn't. The city falls into the rubble of an explosion and Steve is still there, wiping dust from his brow. Tireless among the refugees on the deck of the helicarrier. Shoulder to shoulder with Nat, jaw set. He's frowning, sharp and wounded. An expression Sam knows. Bucky knows.
“That little shit,” Bucky says, resignation in his voice. “Always gotta be throwing himself into danger. Tell me I remember that right.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “Yeah, you got that one.”
“Such a goddamn pain in my ass,” Bucky mutters, and turns off the television. Looks sideways at Sam, and then he's leaning closer, cupping Sam's cheek with his right hand. The servos in his arm hum. His palm is rough-callused and warm against Sam's skin.
“You gonna kiss me or what?” Sam asks, and it's like it breaks a dam, Bucky's mouth crashing against Sam's so hard it bruises. They're both breathing hard, clutching at each other, the adrenaline of watching Sokovia fall from the sky still thrumming under their skin, and Sam bites Bucky's lower lip hard just to hear the sound he makes.
“Jesus Christ,” he hisses. Shoves Sam back against the bed. Sam grabs his hair, pulls him down on top of him, kisses him again. Bucky's lip is bleeding and he’s panting for breath, touching Sam like he’s not sure he’s allowed, like he hasn’t touched anyone in about a thousand years. Sam knows the feeling, gets his knee up between Bucky's thighs and feels Bucky rock down against him.
It's half a fight and half the kind of sex that's edged with desperation. Sam tastes the vodka on Bucky's breath, scratches him hard enough to raise welts. Rolls and rolls again like they're grappling, Sam on top and then Bucky and then Sam again, Bucky's hands tight on Sam's hips. Sam kisses him and bites and kisses again. Feels rather than hears Bucky whimper, a quiet noise in the back of his throat, and suddenly all the fight bleeds out of him until he's touching Bucky soft, his hands tender and careful, watching how Bucky's eyes widen.
“Bucky,” Sam gasps. Traces his mouth along Bucky's jaw, lips stinging just a little with the sandpaper-roughness of stubble, and kisses his throat, tastes his skin and his sweat.
“Oh, Jesus, Sam,” Bucky gets out, reverent. Tugs at Sam's shirt, pulls it up and over his head. “Jesus Christ, sweetheart, you got no idea—”
“You should fuck me,” Sam suggests, and watches how the blue of Bucky's eyes gets eaten up by black.
“Oh,” Bucky says, and “Sam,” and then they’re naked together, warm skin and blood-hot metal, and the tenderness in Bucky’s voice bleeds through again and again as he sinks in slow and deep. It feels so good Sam can’t breathe with it. Chest tight like his ribs are cracked.
When Bucky comes, his eyes are wet. Lashes spiky with tears, and Sam pretends not to see. Kisses his temple, his cheek, the crease at the corner of his eye, and Bucky draws shuddering breath, and moves his hips, pushes that last inch until Sam is coming apart underneath him.
They lie together in the bed for a long time without speaking. Bucky’s hands on Sam’s skin, and if he closes his eyes he can hardly tell which one is metal. It’s cold, though. Just a little. Just enough to notice.
“Have we ever done this before?” Bucky asks afterwards, and Sam feels the tension as he waits for the answer.
“No,” he says. Touches his fingertips to Bucky's shoulder, just where he wants to kiss him. “This is the first time.”
“Oh,” says Bucky, and he's frowning, chewing his lip, “I thought maybe we—”
“No,” Sam says again. “We never.”
“Oh,” Bucky says. “Okay.”
That's the last time Sam sees Bucky for over a year.
At first he thinks Bucky’s just dropped back under the radar. He does that, every couple of months. Lets himself fade into the crowd, deliberate, until he surfaces again and puts out a hint just big enough for Sam to follow his lead. Sam’s never been under any illusion about the fact that he only ever finds Bucky when Bucky wants to be found.
He didn't factor on the fact that he would stop looking.
“You gonna join?” Steve asks, carefully casual like he doesn’t want to push too hard, “It's just, Sam, I need you,” and Sam nods.
“Yeah,” he says for the first time, “okay, yeah. Yes. Let me— let me sort my shit out, huh? I gotta cancel my lease. Find an apartment, shit, that’s gonna be fun.”
“I still need an apartment too,” Steve says. “We could. Uh. You need a roommate?”
“You're gonna want to live in Brooklyn, aren’t you,” Sam sighs. “And don’t tell me you can’t afford it. That joke was only funny once.”
They find a place in Greenpoint. A pre-war walk-up, two bedrooms, huge windows that let in softly serene morning light. Far enough away from Vinegar Hill that Steve’s not turning every corner and remembering being punched in that alleyway, sitting with Bucky on that stoop. Sam packs up his house in DC. Unpacks in Brooklyn, discovers a life again that he’d put on hold while he was following Bucky across Europe, into war zones and art galleries and beautifully quiet hotel rooms. Steve drags a broken armchair in from the street, stacks a pile of bricks to prop it up where it’s missing a leg. Just shrugs when Sam raises an eyebrow, like, come on, Steve, you can’t buy new things? Maybe he can’t. Take Steve out of the Depression but you can’t take the depression out of Steve, perhaps.
It’s a pretty comfortable armchair, actually. Sam curls up in it every evening, reads while Steve sketches. Their apartment is cluttered with Steve’s art supplies, Sam’s books. Marisol’s drawings on the fridge.
“Show me your wings, Uncle Sam,” she says every time he comes over. “Show me how they work.” He’s always in the wings when she draws him. Uncle Sam, wings so large they slide off the edge of the page, and Mister Steve, holding his shield up high. A crisply five-pointed star on his chest. “Look, you have a friend,” she tells Sam one day. “His name is Redwing.” When Sam’s next in Tony’s workshop for upgrades, he pulls out the drawing and Tony draws up schematics. A drone, not a pet. Part of Sam’s gear, just like the armor in the wings. Sam takes Redwing to the park anyway, the next weekend he’s got time off training drills, and Marisol is effervescently delighted in the way only a five-year-old can be. It’s. Nice.
He comes across Slaughterhouse-Five while unpacking. Puts it on the shelf with only a small pause.
Months go by; Tony buys the compound, the New Avengers Facility, upstate New York. Converts it from an abandoned government research base, adds a lap pool and a shooting range and half of Ikea’s home furnishings. It’s comfortable. “A home away from home,” Steve says, only half sarcastic. They keep the apartment anyway. Sam feels, maybe, like this is home. Ignores the ache in his chest that shows up whenever it’s cold, whenever he hears someone speaking French or smells the scent of an orange, tastes a cheap candy bar. Drinks scotch. There are no hints. No alerts from Interpol, nothing in Natasha’s surveillance reports. It’s like Bucky stopped existing at all.
It’s been eight months since Sokovia. Since Paris.
It's been eight months, and there's been no sign of him. No ripple, not a single sighting, and Sam pokes at it like an ache in a tooth. Maybe, he thinks. Maybe you'll disappear. When I stop looking. You want to give me a hint, here?
The air feels like rain, one of those raw-boned and cold February days. The ugliness of early spring, and Sam hunches into his coat, looks up at someone’s lit-up apartment window, and thinks, out of nowhere, I’m in love with him.
It comes on like a fever, like shivers running down his spine, cheeks hot and head suddenly pounding. I’m in love with him, he thinks again, and again, and is so incredulous he stops walking for a minute. The person behind him smacks into him, shoots him a dirty look. Sam apologizes, rote. Steps out of the flow of foot-traffic and squints up at the sky.
The first drop of rain lands on his cheek, and he thinks, again, Jesus fuck I am in love with James Barnes, and shoves his hands in his pockets, starts for home.
It changes nothing. He’s in love with a ghost, a man who doesn’t exist. Who maybe never existed. It changes nothing, he tells himself, and tries to believe it.
The next day they get a distress call from Ukraine. It’s not Bucky. It was never going to be Bucky.
Their first team mission is easy. Sam doesn’t know what he was expecting, really. They’ve trained together, tactics and attack patterns, until the team dynamic is solid, and with all the upgrades Tony keeps making, the mission hardly lasts the afternoon. In some ways it’s reassuring to know that fighting Hydra and a brainwashed assassin on a goddamn helicarrier with basically no backup isn’t the usual, but with that as a baseline, even a giant robot pieced together from the scrap trash of Ultron kind of feels just a little dull. It’s fine. It’s easy. Still just clean-up crew from Sokovia, Sam thinks, and tries not to resent it. This is what he signed up for, he knows that.
He knows that, he thinks again, and doesn’t think about what might have been.
Tracking Rumlow is harder, but Sam and Steve have experience with this. They trace him across Europe to Africa, and it’s like a nightmarish version of what Bucky could have been. Hydra-trained agent turned mercenary for hire, big guns, doesn’t care about collateral damage. He’s calling himself Crossbones now, like he’s some fucking comic book supervillain.
“You know,” Sam sighs, “I really hate this guy,” and Steve pauses as he’s flicking through the shots of the latest carnage. Tilts his head to the side.
“To be fair, at least this was Hydra,” he says. “Looks like he set up an arms deal to lure them out.”
“Revenge,” Natasha says. “That’s his motive. Which means we’re next, you know that, right?”
“He hates us more than anything,” Sam agrees. “Shit, we’re the ones who dropped the Triskelion on him. Where are we going? Lagos?”
“That’s where he’s based,” Steve says, “looks like he’s putting together a crew for another mission. We’ve got to be there to take him down before they get whatever they’ve been paid for.”
They’re a good team. The mission in Lagos should have been simple.
It should have been. Wasn’t.
“He said he was there,” Steve mutters, “he said he— he was there, Sam. When they— when Bucky— they put his brain back in a blender, he said,” and covers his eyes for a minute. Rubs his palm down his jaw, wiping away sweat and dust.
“He was just messing with you,” Sam tells him, and doesn’t believe it. Puts away his own feelings for later. For until he can pretend they don’t matter at all.
They’re still reeling from Lagos when Tony shows up with Secretary Ross in tow. Or maybe it’s the other way around, Sam doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. The Sokovia Accords are every decision Sam didn’t want to make, writ large. If he signs, who’ll give the orders? The UN? A list of people with power the government wants to control, that’s never ended badly before now.
“He has a Congressional Medal of Honor, which is one more than you have,” Rhodes says, and shit, Sam likes Rhodes. Respects him. But Sam remembers the Harlem Terror. Remembers sitting in the mess hall in Afghanistan, watching the news along with the rest of his unit. General Ross sent the Abomination straight into Harlem, only streets away from Sam’s mom. Dangerous, Ross says, but the Avengers aren’t the ones here trying to create weapons any way they can.
The argument is beginning to get heated when Steve’s phone buzzes. He looks down at it, goes white, leaves the room abruptly. Sam glances at Natasha. Watches her tilt her head. Go after him, go on. He takes the hint. Not Bucky, surely, or Sam would have-
It’s Peggy. Who the fuck texts someone for news like that, Sam thinks to himself, furious on Steve’s behalf. How cruel can you be. Steve’s shoulders are drawn in tight, head bent, neck vulnerable and bare, and he’s breathing hard, clenching his hands into fists. Staring, unseeing, at the stained concrete of the stairwell.
“I should have been there,” he says, “I should have been there, Sam, fuck,” and draws a shuddering breath. His eyes are the softly wet blue of forget-me-nots, lashes clumped with tears, and Sam touches Steve’s shoulder like he has a right to. Pulls him into a hug and feels all Steve’s muscles go slack as he slumps heavy against Sam.
“I’m sorry,” Sam says. Thinking about loss. His dad, his grandma. Riley. The inadequacy of words in the face of grief. “Fuck, Steve, I’m so sorry.” Steve tightens his grip on Sam. Releases, steps back, wipes his eyes.
“I have to go,” he murmurs, “it’ll be in London. She told me— it’ll be in London. Where we would have…” and Sam catches the exact moment Steve’s face crumples into mourning.
Sam only knew Peggy a little. Bucky told him a story, once. The Howling Commandos had been in Calais, three days leave before the next mission. Bucky at a loose end by himself.
“Found myself in a queer bar,” Bucky had shrugged. “Hell if I know how it was still standing, the whole goddamn town was bombed to fuck by that point, but I wasn't complaining. Kind of a struggle for me to get drunk by that stage. The shit Zola gave me—”
“Steve's the same. Can sink a bottle of whisky and it doesn't touch the sides.” He did, Sam had thought, drank the bar dry, the night you fell. Did nothing but burn, he said.
“Well,” Bucky had said, “I gave it a good try, anyway. Caught the eye of this French Resistance fighter. Told me I was pretty. Asked if I’d like to be dressed up prettier, stockings and lipstick and all. Pretty as a fuckin’ picture.” He’d laughed softly. Let his lower lip creep between his teeth like he’d known Sam was thinking about the idea of it, Bucky in lipstick and lingerie. His big dark eyes, softly falling hair, full lips.
“You gotta understand,” Bucky had said, wry. “I'd have sucked his dick without needing any dressing it up. But if panties and stockings and rouge were what he needed to fuck me through the mattress, hell, I wasn’t complaining. Anyway, I lost track of time, right. Was supposed to report back at oh-eight-hundred the next morning, woke up in a stranger’s bed and had to run just to make it back to the base in time.”
“Oh my god,” Sam had wheezed, “you did the walk of shame through a bombed French village, what the fuck.”
“Pal, there was no shame about it, believe me. Wasn’t walking, neither, not with how late I was. Made it to the mission assignation, just Steve ‘n me and Agent Carter, and they both turned around at the same time. Looked me up and down, and shit, I looked a damn mess and probably smelled it too. Still wearing stockings and a fuckin’ garter belt under my uniform pants, for shits sake. And all she said was, that shade of lipstick doesn’t suit you, Sergeant. Perhaps a different red next time, hmm? Shall we get started? I had to wait hours before we finished the mission prep. Looking so pretty in my fucking dress uniform. I swear to god, Steve was closer to dying about it than I was.” He’d wiped his eyes with laughing so hard, sighed a little. Smirked at Sam.
“I gave her the stockings,” he’d added. “Pre-war silk, almost new. Nice seams down the back. Waste not, want not, I guess. Anyway, that was the last time I saw Agent Carter. Unless they tried to have me kill her, y’know. Seems like something they’d have done, but hell, I must have fucked it up. I’m really not a very good assassin when it comes down to it.”
Seems only right she lived and we never did, Bucky had said, later. Always thought that’s how it’d end. Kind of hoped Steve’d be there with her, though.
The funeral is in London. Steve’s a pallbearer, jaw tight with grief. Sam aches just seeing him. Bumps his knee against Steve’s, and Steve grabs Sam’s hand under the cover of their suit jackets, grips it hard like he’s struggling to keep himself afloat. Sam knows the feeling. That desperation, in the days after Riley had died.
“Natasha’s gone to Vienna,” Steve says at the wake, frowning just a little. A permanent crease taking up space between his eyes. “Probably starting the signing round about now. She hoped I’d come with her. Even if this wasn’t… even if Peggy hadn’t gone when she did. I wouldn’t have.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “yeah, I know.”
“You didn't regret getting out,” Steve says, questioning. A thread of desperation in his voice like he's afraid he's making the wrong choice.
“Hell no,” Sam tells him. “Hell no, man. Here’s to retirement.” Sips his whisky. Remembers Paris. Can’t not.
Sam hears the news and it’s like— it’s a bomb, it’s a bomb, Bucky bombed the goddamn United Nations and Nat is there and did Bucky know Steve wasn’t? Did Bucky know Sam wasn’t? Was he aiming for them, was he killing three birds with one stone, Sam is the bird and Bucky is the stone and the bomb and the killing blow all at the same time and there he is right there on tv, sharp jaw just the way Sam remembers it when he’d mouthed kisses against the tender skin just below.
That’s all I am, Bucky says, the shadow after an explosion, and Sam can’t fucking breathe.
He should go to Steve. Steve needs to know, Steve needs to know, this is— but he takes a minute anyway. Five. Finds the bathroom, locks the cubicle door, leans back against it. Deep breaths, hold for four, release for eight. We all fall one way or another. Sam kissed him and Sam stopped looking and Bucky bombed the goddamn UN, that’s what this equation comes down to.
“Fuck,” he whispers to himself, “fuck,” and washes his face, dries his hands. Stares at himself in the mirror until his face settles impassive again, goes to find Steve.
Knowing will break Steve all over again, he thinks, a bomb when he’s already barely pieced together, and knows that wherever Steve goes, he’s gonna follow.
The Sokovia Accords are clear about it. Enhanced individuals no longer have authorization to cross international boundaries at any time they wish.
“You sure about this?” he asks Steve, “it’s just, the people that shoot at you usually wind up shooting at me.” That sums them up, really. A neat little encapsulation of how they work. Of course Steve is sure. There’s never a moment where he’s not. Carter passes them the tip-off, barely a head start but a place to begin, at least, and for a moment it could almost be a year ago, two, Sam and Steve following Bucky around Europe in a fun game of is it a Hydra memory or an art gallery this time around.
It’s not. It’s a shitty apartment in Bucharest, and they’re here illegally, only a few minutes ahead of the armed response team who’ve been given shoot-to-kill orders. Bucky might have bombed the UN or he might not but he deserves a trial, at least.
“I'll take the roof,” Sam says, and Steve just nods, Steve doesn't know there's any reason why Sam would have any skin in this game, but Sam can't look at Bucky's face right now. He listens on comms instead.
You’re Steve. I read about you in a museum.
That little shit, Sam thinks, it’s been two goddamn years and he opens with that, after telling Sam stories about their many and varied histories for months on end. Steve likes Picasso. Steve’s shit at baking. The man on the bridge, I read about him in the museum.
Perhaps it’s a bad day. Scrambled, like Bucky had said, and no notes written to himself. YOU KNOW STEVE. DON’T KILL HIM. Perhaps he’s just lying.
Steve has expectations, Sam remembers Bucky saying. The light touch of his fingers to Sam’s forehead. Against his will, Sam understands why he’d lie.
He understands, but that doesn’t mean he’s not pissed the fuck off when Bucky takes off running. When someone in a panther outfit shows up and promptly kicks all their asses. When Bucky drops a fucking overpass on them just to escape.
“So,” he says, “you like cats,” and ignores how Steve tries to talk him down. He thinks he’s warranted a little side-eye, even if the guy is both royalty and one of the most beautiful people Sam has ever seen. It’s an uncomfortable flight from Bucharest to Berlin.
The glass cage is— Jesus, they’ve got Bucky in it and his face, his fucking face, Sam looks and then can’t bear to. Jaw set, face mutely resigned. Sam sees how he glances up and then down, jolts just a little with the current keeping his arm disabled.
“This is what making things worse looks like,” Natasha tells Steve, and Steve shrugs. Ever the optimist.
“He’s alive,” he replies, and then of course that’s the cue for things to get worse again, because that’s just the way it’s going right now.
It’s not Bucky that’s hitting him but it’s Bucky’s hands, Bucky’s face, Bucky wearing Sam's goddamn shirt stretched tight across the broad plane of his shoulders, and for a second all Sam can think about is how Bucky had sunk his teeth into his lower lip in that moment when he'd finally pushed into Sam. How they'd been joined, blood-hot, and Bucky had pressed his mouth to Sam's shoulder, gasped out wordless wrecked and joyful. The feel of his lips, his breath warm on Sam's skin. The soft blush of a winter sky, in delicate brushstrokes.
When Bucky goes for the gut punch, it’s almost a relief. If I attacked you. What would you do. Sam doesn’t have the taser disk, can't disable the arm the way he did so easily in that hotel room. The way Bucky let him do, he realizes, and Bucky grabs him by the throat, the face. Throws him across the room.
You let me open you up and repair you, he thinks, dazed, and tries to stop remembering.
The way he laughs when he looks at Steve, Christ, Sam’s heard that a hundred times. Seen that small crooked smile. The way his eyes go dark and distant as he remembers something, a story that always hurts more than it should, and Steve’s face lights up, and fuck, fuck, Sam’s heart aches.
“Just like that, we’re supposed to be cool?” he asks, and Bucky’s eyes flick to Sam, sharp and wary and assessing. Looks at him for longer than Sam wants. Don’t, he thinks, don’t, Jesus, any minute you’ll grin at me. Wink a little, call me sweetheart.
That wasn't me, in Vienna, Bucky said, I don't do that anymore, and that's true, that's probably true, but Sam feels like he can't forgive him anyway. It's not about Vienna. It was never about Vienna.
Bucky takes the backseat of the car without saying a word. Just slides in, stares out the window like he doesn’t want to make eye contact with anyone. Ignores Sam entirely for the first hour of the drive.
He acts like he doesn't remember. Did you forget, Sam wants to ask, did you— have we ever done this before.
If Bucky doesn't remember it, it's like it didn't happen, maybe. Perhaps Sam needs to forget.
“Barnes,” he says, deliberately distant, and tries not to think about how he’d gasped Bucky. How his name tasted in Sam’s mouth. The way Bucky’s eyes had gone wide and soft and tender.
Have we done this before? Yes, and it was a mistake. Yes, and you don’t remember. This was the first time. The last time. No, you don’t remember, you forgot, we’ve never done this before, I don’t do that anymore, no, I won’t move my seat, no. No.
When Bucky thinks Steve isn’t looking, his face does a particular thing. Goes sullen and challenging, almost glowering, his lower lip jutting out. It’s an expression Sam recognizes, every time Bucky had mentioned Steve in the context of the current and not the past. Steve would keep on looking for me if it kills him. Glaring like it might singe his eyelashes. Sam’s willing to bet money on it that all Bucky wants is to be left the hell alone.
Honestly, Sam knows the feeling.
Steve kisses Sharon Carter, and Sam can't help smiling. Sees the ghost of a smile on Bucky's face, and fuck how it hurts. The smile of someone who wants to disappear again. Steve won't stop looking for me even if it killed him.
Steve glances back at them. Ducks his head, embarrassed, and Bucky snickers, just a little.
“You know,” Sam says, catching Bucky’s gaze in the rear view mirror, “he eats his oatmeal plain even though he hates it that way? It’s nasty.”
“Still?” Bucky asks, and laughs under his breath. “What a fuckin’ martyr.” Shakes his head a little, and looks at Steve, laughs again. “You told me that once, right? You told me—”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “I did.”
He’s still in love. It hasn’t gone away.
It’s been a year, a fucking year, and it hasn’t gone anywhere at all.
“What the hell is that,” Bucky says, sounding exactly as bemused as Sam remembers, and Sam laughs, just a little.
“Everyone’s got a gimmick now,” he says. Catches how Bucky grins. They fight together as if they’ve trained for months, Bucky creating a distraction for Sam to swoop in. Could be on a team together for how easy it is. Maybe he remembers Sam’s fighting style from when he tried to throw Sam off a helicarrier. Maybe he watched footage of the Avengers in that shitty little apartment in Romania. He’s had a lot of time to learn about Sam.
Sam still has bruises in the shape of Bucky’s fingers. Feels them, aching, on his jaw.
The spider kid goes to knock Sam off the balcony and Bucky takes the hit, carries them both over. They land hard, all the air knocking out of Sam’s lungs, and for just a moment all he can remember is that quietly beautiful hotel room in the middle of rue de Lille, the way his chest had gone tight with everything he was feeling. How Bucky had looked at him like he was a miracle unfolding.
“I hate you,” Sam sighs, everything aching, and Bucky just turns his head to the side, grins crookedly.
“Nah,” he says, “I don’t think you do.” His eyes are sharp and very blue, ice-blue, and Sam wants to look away. Doesn’t.
“Get me out of this shit,” he says instead, and Bucky rolls over with a groan. Unsheathes a knife and starts cutting through the webbing, pushes himself to his knees.
When he bends over Sam, careful with the blade, Sam closes his eyes for just a moment. Listens to Bucky breathe. Bucky traces the edge of his thumb along Sam's jaw, and Sam opens his eyes. Rolls to his feet.
“Come on,” he says, tired, pushing it all down until he can swallow it bitter and ignore the way it burns. “Come on.”
“Yeah,” says Bucky, slowly, and sheathes his knife. Follows Sam without another word.
This is it, Sam thinks, this is the last chance he has to make a choice.
Don't treat yourself as expendable in comparison, Bucky says, far off in memory, and Sam folds it away.
“Go,” he says, and doesn’t regret it, even when the cell door closes. Even when the first punch lands.
The first thing Sam does when Steve comes for him is call his mom.
“Sam,” she says, “oh, Sam, baby, I thought—” and Sam can't tell whether she sounds shocked bad or joyful, whether the tears he can hear are I thought you were dead or something else. Sam's throat closes up with the guilt and grief of it, the idea that maybe someone from the government knocked on her door. I'm sorry, ma'am, we regret to inform you… and all of his fears about being permanently fucking disappeared suddenly feel a lot more real.
“They didn't tell you?” he asks, “Steve, he didn't—”
“That nice man Nick Fury,” she tells him, “he showed up days before the other men. Told me not to believe a word. I tried, honey, I didn't want to think you were…”
“Oh, mom,” he sighs, “mama, I'm so sorry,” and blinks back his own tears.
“What do you think you're doing, huh,” she says, sharp with relief. “Starting fights in European cities you got no business being in. Getting arrested. And now you're a fugitive from justice, that's what I'm hearing.”
“They were gonna kill him for something he didn't do,” Sam tells her, “I couldn't just do nothing, mama,” and hears her sigh.
“Yeah, that's how I raised you,” she agrees, “you always did have a bleeding heart for white boys and their problems, baby. When are you coming home?”
He doesn't know what home looks like, is the thing. This isn't amnesty, this is refuge, Fury coming through with a retreat hidden so well not even Steve knew it existed, and he thinks longingly about his old apartment in DC, how he'd packed up and let his lease expire so he could move back to the city. Closer to Steve, closer to the Tower, closer to his mom and his sister and her baby girl. Just a drive away from the compound. It feels like a hundred years ago.
He goes to find Clint when he gets off the phone. Clint looks up at him without seeing him. Blinks, drags a hand over his face. His eyes are wet.
“Hey, man,” he says. “What's up?”
“You think you could tape my ribs?” Sam asks, knowing Clint will understand why it's not Steve he's asking. Clint glances at Wanda. Checks her pulse, lays the back of his hand against her forehead like he's testing for fever. As if she's a little kid sick with the flu. Sam wasn't there, but Steve told him about the farmhouse; in that gesture he suddenly sees the father Clint must be. How he takes care of his kids, gentle and careful.
“Yeah,” Clint says. “I can do that.”
“Talk to Laura?”
“And the kids, even. God. I thought I might never—” He cuts himself off. Tightens his jaw, clears his throat. Sam nods. Feels it like a knot in his own chest.
“My mom is mad as hell,” he says, only half-joking, and Clint laughs wetly. Reaches for the roll of medical tape Sam's holding, and doesn't look away as Sam pulls off his shirt, stiff and wincing at the tug of it. “Three on the left, right here,” Sam tells him, pointing at the worst of the bruising, “and I think these two are cracked at least.”
“With the blaster,” Sam says. “When Rhodes…” and Clint nods like he understands.
“You can't leave ‘em taped too long,” Clint mutters. “Nat's always telling me.”
“Yeah, it's not the preferred treatment anymore,” Sam says, “believe me, I know. Trained medical professional right here. I'll manage. Just until they heal a bit.” Just until it stops aching every time I breathe, he thinks, just until I can rest, just until I know we're safe, and braces himself for the sting of it.
“Breathe out,” Clint says. “This is gonna hurt.”
“Doesn't it always,” Sam agrees, rueful, and it does, it hurts, it fucking hurts, but at least it's a clean kind of pain.
“Where's Barnes?” Sam asks when he's got the energy to hear the answer, and Steve's face shutters.
“I didn't want to leave him behind,” Steve says, much later. A glass of bourbon in his hand even though Sam knows it'll do nothing for him except burn, all the way down. “He's got to be allowed to make his own decisions. He's got to. And I couldn't— not with you where you were. I wasn't gonna leave you, Sam.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “Yeah, I know, man. You came just as soon as you could.”
“Not soon enough,” Steve says, and he doesn't touch Sam's cheek but his glance, the way he winces at the bruise, it's enough. Sam can see it, all the guilt and regret layered deep down into Steve's bones.
“I'm okay,” Sam shrugs, and he isn't. He's not okay at all. His ribs hurt. His face, his cheekbone. Every time he closes his eyes he sees Riley fall all over again. The face Bucky had made just as his fingers wrapped tight around Sam's throat. But he'll be okay, is the point. He's gotta be okay, somehow. He can open the door and step out into a world where the horizon stretches out to meet the sky, and maybe that's enough. Steve frowns, that crease between his eyebrows going deep and razor-sharp. Sips his bourbon. Sighs, and looks at Sam's face for an uncomfortably long stretch.
“Give me that,” Sam sighs, “it's wasted on you,” and grabs the glass out of Steve's unresisting hand. Steve just watches him drink, eyes flicking from Sam's mouth to his throat, tracking the way he swallows. It burns and it burns, the liquor and how Steve's gaze is on him, both. Sam thinks Steve would give him anything, right now, and maybe Sam wouldn't just be taking if he leaned in and kissed him, bourbon honey-sweet on both their breath. Maybe they'd be giving and taking, both, trying to forget something else. The chill of cryo, the seeping cold of an underwater prison. The way Bucky had cupped Sam’s cheek, so long ago.
“You hear from Carter?” he asks instead, sitting back in his chair, and sees Steve set down whatever it is he's feeling. It only stings a little, to make this decision. Protective. He knows for damn sure Steve's not what he’s looking for.
When he wakes up the next morning it's with a brutal hangover, the kind that sits just behind his eyes and in the pit of his stomach. He makes it to the bathroom, achingly bright white tile. Throws up. Washes his face, and throws up again, ribs aching and aching.
Brushes his teeth with one of the new toothbrushes in the vanity cabinet. Dry-swallows three Tylenol and feels them catch in his throat, drinks a glass of water and then another. He feels taken apart. Flayed raw and useless.
He considers going back to bed. Thinks about food, and is hit by a wave of nausea followed by the kind of hunger he hasn't felt since Bucky didn't set off that fucking bomb in Vienna. Finds the communal area, a kitchen space so similar to the New York facility he almost laughs, and Steve glances at him. Pushes a mug of black coffee across the counter without a word.
“Thanks,” Sam mutters. Swallows it, scalding, and gazes at Steve over the rim of the mug. “Breakfast?”
“Sit down, I'll make you something,” Steve offers, and Sam almost laughs again.
Steve burns the bacon. Scrambles rubbery eggs. Scrapes the char off the toast, skimps on the butter like there's a shortage. “Fuck you're terrible at this,” Sam complains, eating anyway, and Steve smiles like it's a compliment.
“Bucky used to say exactly the same thing,” he murmurs, and Sam glares at him across the table.
“I'm not cleaning out that egg pan,” he says, and Steve shrugs. Sam could ask him for anything right now, probably. The guilt sitting heavy on his shoulders, and he's trying to look after Sam because he can't do it for Bucky, that much is clear.
Sam doesn't want to be looked after. He just wants to go home. Doesn't know where home is anymore. It's not here, in this soft and anonymous island more like a luxury retreat than a safehouse. He knows that much at least.
He untapes his ribs a couple days later. Spends a lot of time sleeping, or pretending to. A lot more time reading on the beach, dark glasses on against the glare of the sun. Clint sits with him sometimes. He and Scott play drinking games, gamble with beach shells as stakes. Even Wanda makes it into the daylight eventually, the dark hollows under her eyes fading. They all look bruised. Nobody mentions it.
“Do you want to talk?” Steve asks, “about what they—”
“No,” Sam says, and slides back on his sunglasses. Closes his eyes.
When he sleeps, the sound of the ocean washes soft into his dreams. Some nights he doesn't even wake up.
Most nights, he does. Never screaming, just breathing hard, ribs aching where they haven’t quite healed. Riley dies a hundred times. A thousand. Rhodes falls and Sam’s left holding the RPG that shot him down. And then Bucky, never speaking. Just grabbing Sam with hands that are too violent and too tender all at the same time, like Sam’s subconscious has it tangled together and can’t work it loose. God, Sam is tired.
Steve spends a lot of the time on the phone, pinching the bridge of his nose and using his most disappointedly stern Captain America voice. Apparently it gets results.
“Tony got his lawyers involved,” Steve says, about three weeks into their impromptu beach therapy group slash forced vacation. Sits down heavily next to Sam. “Negotiated a deal. You, Clint, Lang. You’re free to go home, so long as you sign the Accords or retire. Honestly I think the government’s pretty embarrassed over the mess.”
“What about you?” Sam asks, and Steve sighs, shoulders slumping.
“Deal doesn’t cover me,” he says, wry. “Tony’s still kind of… Tony about the whole situation. Wanda and I, we’re gonna stay put for now. Government won’t grant her citizenship right now, and like hell I’m gonna let them put her anywhere like the Raft.”
“I can stay,” Sam says, loyalty winning out over the complex snarl of his own anger and hurt, “it’s cool, man,” and Steve touches his shoulder.
“No,” he says, quiet and earnest, eyes very blue, “go home, Sam. One of us can. Your family misses you. You deserve a break from all this.”
What Sam deserves is more complicated. He doesn't even try to unpack it.
He thinks, maybe, their apartment will be ransacked. Government agents in heavy boots, rifling through their shared life. Burning Sam’s books, Steve’s art.
It’s not. It’s just the same. A chipped mug sitting on the kitchen counter, the armchair with a broken leg and a stack of bricks holding it up. A layer of dust blanketing everything, and Sam drifts through it, hesitant to touch. It feels like a life he’d left so long ago. It was only a couple of months.
One of Steve’s sketchbooks is lying on the kitchen table, and Sam picks it up, flicks through the pages. Drawings of Europe: a bridge, a fountain, the window of a building. Children in a park. Sam, sitting in a cafe, the dip and curve of his lips smudged in carefully like Steve had used his finger to trace the shape, and Sam again, standing. Looking at a painting, hands in his pockets. A series, like Steve was doing figure studies in a gallery. Sam, Sam, Sam. Sketched out in quick lines, just the slant of his shoulders, the curve of his head.
The next drawing is more detailed. Sam, looking at a painting, his face in shadowed profile, and behind him, at his left shoulder, Bucky. Baseball cap pulled low, shoulders tight, close enough to Sam that he could reach out and touch. Close enough that Steve knows, for sure. Sam can see it in every pencil stroke.
He’d never asked. He’d never said a goddamn word. Fuck, Sam thinks, and puts the notebook back on the table. Reaches for the stack of mail he’d brought in from the box, begins to sort through it. Dropping outdated circulars into the trash, setting aside old bills to take care of later. Their cable got disconnected. He’s probably not gonna bother reconnecting it.
There’s a postcard most of the way down the pile. Dog-eared, a water stain on one corner. Sam glances at it idly, goes to flick it aside. Looks again. The print is a Monet. Water lilies, a reflected sky. A postcard from the l’Orangerie gift shop. He turns it over, heart thumping.
The back has only two words in the message field. Carefully printed capitals, the letters shaky on the downstroke. Familiar handwriting written in an unfamiliar hand.
DID WE? it says, and the return address is in the rue de Lille, 7th arrondissement. The hotel where they met. Where they’d circled back to again and again. Where they watched Sokovia fall in such bright high definition color.
It’s postmarked two days before Sam got out of the Raft. A day before Bucky went back into cryo.
“Fuck,” Sam says under his breath, and then again, louder. “Shit. Fuck. Fucking goddamn.”
It takes him an hour to notice the surveillance van parked across the street. Two hours to deal with all the mail, their old bills — no rent, thank fuck, Steve bought the place outright with his back pay, but the power’s due to be disconnected next week and the water bill’s two weeks overdue, shit, they really should have set up auto-payments. Another hour to clean the fridge out, the leftover noodles he was planning to eat before they got the call to Lagos. Freezer-burned green beans, a quart of frozen soup his mom gave him at least a year ago. He starts writing a grocery list. Thinks about making himself a cup of coffee.
There’s no milk in the fucking fridge.
And then suddenly the house is too quiet, too still, too closed-in, and he has to— he’s got to get out, he’s got to run to something or from something he doesn’t know he just knows he’s got to leave.
His crappiest sneakers are still thrown at the bottom of his closet. All the fancy gym gear is back in the compound but he’s got an ancient t-shirt from the 2012 Potomac River Run and an old pair of sweatpants and it’s enough, it’s enough, Jesus Christ he’s not a superhero anymore. Just a guy going for a run like any minute Steve fucking Rogers might pop up on his left.
The air is cold, the sky gray and raw, a shock to the system after weeks of nothing but skin-warm sky and water so softly blue it made Sam’s chest ache a little with the easy beauty of it. He doesn’t bother to stretch, just takes off along the pavement. One block into the next, and then the next, the wind coming in cold off the East River, and then the light is dimming and his muscles burn and he’s run seven miles, eight, he’s all the way down in fucking Red Hook and the first drops of rain land on his cheek and he grinds to a halt, breathing ragged. Bends over and rests his elbows on his knees. He’s damp with sweat and the rain starts coming in harder, dark on the pavement, and there’s a burning stitch in his side.
“Fuck,” he mutters to himself, “fuck,” and turns around, begins to walk back the way he came. He’s soaked through in minutes, shivering a little. Picks up his pace just to keep the chill away. Glares at the surveillance team.
“You know,” he says tiredly, “the least you could do is give me a damn ride home.”
Nobody replies. The van trails him all the way back, just obvious enough to be deliberate. He guesses this is his life now. There are worse things.
That night he lies in bed and can't sleep, head aching with how he wants to. Drifts off finally and wakes from a nightmare that has him screaming for the first time. He remembers all the old tricks, back when he went through this the first time. Chamomile tea. A hot shower. A white noise app, the sound of summer rain hissing soft with the occasional roll of thunder like a warm and gentle storm. It's already raining. It doesn't help.
He visits his mom the next day. Same apartment, and Sam traces his fingers over the markings on the kitchen doorway, Sam and Trina at 3 and 5 and 7 and 12, 14, 21. Marisol at 4 and 6, her name scrawled carefully and decorated with purple butterflies. Feels like home, for the first time in so long his eyes sting. His mom’s hug is even better.
“When did you get home?”
“Yesterday,” he sighs, “mama, don’t—”
“It’s okay,” she says. Hugs him again, pats his cheek. “Baby, it’s okay. You want something to eat? I made mac and cheese.”
She fixes him a plate piled high and he eats, barely tasting it. Knows she’s worried, the way she looks at him, and wants to tell her don’t, I’ll be alright. I’ll be just fine.
He looks worse than when he came home from Afghanistan, he overhears her telling Trina on the phone. Something happened, honey, I don't know what.
Something happened. That's true. A lot of things happened. Years ago, months ago, weeks ago. Piling up. Sam wonders where he could have gone different. Which choices led to here. If he'd ignored the asshole running laps in DC. If he'd said no to Captain America. To Bucky. To Tony.
If he'd taken the hit meant for him, Rhodes would be walking right now.
Trina and Marisol show up just as he finishes eating, and Sam’s selfishly glad his bruises have healed on the outside at least. Doesn’t need them worried.
“Uncle Sam,” Marisol says. “Uncle Sam. Will you take me to the park? Show me your wings, you promised.”
“I don’t have them anymore,” he tells her. Lets her climb onto his knees and rest her head against his shoulder.
“But why?” she asks, screwing up her face, and Sam sighs. Doesn’t know what to say. “Did they break?”
“No, honey, they didn’t break. I just don’t have ‘em.”
“You should ask Mister Tony to make a new set,” Marisol says, decisive, “so you can fly, alright,” and Trina clears her throat. Glances at Sam.
“Honey, stop bothering your uncle, okay? Sam’s tired.”
“Why are you tired?” Marisol asks, and it’s just another question Sam doesn’t know how to answer anymore. They took the wings away. They were only ever property of the US government, anyway. Cold as a prison cell.
When he leaves his mom sends him home with another pan of mac and cheese, wrapped carefully in tinfoil to keep it warm. He hasn't gone grocery shopping, he realizes the next morning. Reheats it in the microwave, eats it straight from the pan sitting at the kitchen table. The apartment echoes with emptiness. Steve's notebook still opposite him. He doesn't touch it. Reaches again for the postcard, looks at the words without seeing them.
Tony blasted off his arm, Steve had said, and Sam thinks about that. The fine mechanics, how the servos had hummed under the metal skin. Bucky smelling always of oil and warm metal. Letting Sam open him for repair.
I'm left-handed, did you know that?
He'll have to learn again, Sam thinks. A third time. If he ever-
When he wakes up. If he ever wakes up. When they give him a new arm again.
Days go by. Weeks. He visits his mom again and takes Marisol to the park and talks with Trina about starting again at the local branch of the VA. Has a beer with Scott, starts reading three different books and doesn’t finish any of them. Thinks about calling Steve half a dozen times.
He feels— untethered, is the thing. Drifting through the world like a ghost. Just the shadow left after an explosion.
Do you know what I should do? he thinks about asking the agents assigned to him. Where I should go? Stitching his life back together should be easier than this, surely. He came home from a war and put himself together. Levelled out. Riley fell and Sam was up there just to watch and he came home, took off the dogtags, got out and got back in. Captain America needed him, and Steve’s a refugee from his own state, and Sam is still in love with some asshole who doesn’t remember him. Remembers too much and too little at the same time.
His own government stripped him of his wings and put him in a cell.
One afternoon Natasha shows up at his door with a carry-bag of Chinese takeout. Egg rolls and lo mein and orange chicken, and she tilts her head to the side, raises her eyebrows, and Sam holds the door open wider, lets her in.
“You look about as good as I feel,” she says, honesty like a gift, and Sam shrugs, takes the bag from her, lays the food out on his coffee table, watches Nat kick off her shoes and make herself cosy.
They eat straight from the cartons, trading halfway through. Comfortably silent in the last golden glow of the evening, dust motes drifting and catching the light.
“You talk to Clint?” he asks, eats another bite of noodles, and she shrugs, deliberately easy.
“Took the kids to Disneyworld the other day,” she says. “It was never… there was never a question, for us. We’re good.”
“Okay,” Sam says. “Good. I'm glad.”
“You talk to Steve?”
“When he calls.”
“Right,” Natasha agrees. “Yeah, he’s keeping in touch, huh.” Eats one last bite of chicken, puts down the container, wipes her mouth. “So,” she says. “Let's talk about you and Barnes.”
“What about me and Barnes?” Sam asks. Watches Natasha tip her head to one side.
“Three quarters of the leads you got were from my intel,” she says like it’s obvious. “Barnes is good at disappearing, sure, but you’re a soldier, not a spy. Half a dozen different times at least the two of you showed up on my radar together. And there’s this.” She reaches into the pocket of her shirt. Pulls out a leaf of paper, torn down one edge like it’s been ripped from a notebook. Hands it to him.
YOU KNOW SAM. RUE DE LILLE. DON’T KILL HIM. HE ONLY FINDS YOU WHEN YOU WANT TO BE FOUND. Sam’s breath gusts out like he’s been punched. A blow straight to the solar plexus.
“He had notebooks,” he says. Touches the handwriting without thinking about it, realizes only belatedly that Natasha must be evaluating every bit of his body language like she’s been trained for. Natasha nods.
“This was the only mention of you,” she tells him. “I thought there’d be more, maybe. I think he was protecting you.”
“He said, once,” Sam starts. Has to swallow and start over. “He has. Bad days. Said he wrote himself a note so he’d know for next time. You didn’t tell Steve.” Natasha shrugs like that’s not important.
“The truth is a matter of circumstance,” she tells him. “I knew you were involved. Deeper than you were telling Steve. I think he probably knew that too, on some level. He trusted you, I trusted you. It was… leeway, of a sort. Figured maybe you’d be the best to bring him in. I guess that’s a moot point now.”
Sam guesses it is. Bucky’s back in cryo, made that choice. Protecting them all, or thought he was. He holds the sheet of paper out to Nat, and she shakes her head, so he puts it down on the coffee table. Looks down at it, back up at Natasha. She drags her knuckles over her eyes, brings them away smudged with flaking mascara. She looks tired, in the fading light. Nails bitten short.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m tired,” Sam says, and then, after a pause, “I’m retired. Like Clint.”
“I wasn't talking about Avenging,” Natasha says. “What are you going to do about Bucky?”
“I don't know,” Sam tells her. “I… I don't know. I don't even know if there's anything there.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Nat says, dismissive. Uncurls herself from his couch. “Come on, we’re going over to Williamsburg, I want to eat cake.”
They walk over, in the chill of twilight. Natasha curls her hands into her sleeves, tugging her cuffs down. Piles her hair up inside a knit cap, tucks one hand into the crook of Sam's elbow. Leans in against him closer than she ever has, like she's letting herself be soft just for a little while.
“This place is so aggressively hipster my teeth hurt,” Sam complains. Pokes at his sweet potato pie soft serve. Natasha grins, all teeth.
“I know,” she agrees placidly. Eats a bite of cake, stares into the middle distance. The rest of the cake is boxed up beside her; somehow Sam can’t imagine her taking a cake home. He’s never seen her house, he realizes. She never lived in the compound, just showed up every so often to needle at Tony and plan missions and drink approximately a thousand cups of shitty black coffee, sitting up on the highest balcony with Clint. He wonders where she lives now, what her life looks like. Is it as fragmented as his? The Accords scoring a line right through it? He blinks, eats another mouthful of soft serve. It’s unfairly good, he thinks, scowling at it, and Natasha smirks like his reaction is predictable.
“I used to take Steve here and watch him slowly implode. He can eat a whole cake by himself, though, once he gets over the outrage of actually enjoying things.” She licks frosting off her spoon, smiles a little wider. Her mouth is stained pink and yellow from the artificial food coloring in the funfetti, a smudge of frosting on her upper lip. “In DC they got a milkshake topped with red white and blue sprinkles, he really hates that.”
“You bought it for him every time,” Sam guesses, and Natasha laughs until she cries.
Sam snags a bite of her cake. It’s good, he admits. Of course it’s good. Natasha makes these choices so deliberately, it couldn't be anything but.
“Eat your ice cream before it melts,” she tells him, and in the end they eat it together, fighting over the last marshmallow.
She gives him the cake when they leave. “Take it home,” she says, kissing him on the cheek, “I’m not gonna eat it,” and Sam stares at the cardboard box she’s foisted into his hands.
“What the fuck am I gonna do with a whole cake, huh?” he asks, and she shrugs like it’s not her problem.
“Leave it out for your surveillance team,” she suggests, and that’s such a dick move he’s actually tempted for a minute. He takes it to his sister’s the next day instead. Feeds Marisol cake until she’s bouncing off the walls and Trina is glaring at him.
“I'd yell at you if it wasn't the first time in weeks you actually look like my brother,” she tells him, and Sam takes a deep breath. Thinks about it.
“Yeah,” he says after a minute or two. “You know, I even kind of feel like that guy, too,” and she smiles. Pats him on the shoulder.
He leaves his mom's and doesn't go straight home. Travels into the city instead, heads to the fifth floor in MoMA. Different paintings, but he could almost be back in the l’Orangerie, the water lilies hazy and dream-like. Dark water, soft sky. Colors he didn't know he knows. He sits down. Takes a deep breath. HE ONLY FINDS YOU WHEN YOU WANT TO BE FOUND.
Sam found Bucky and lost him and found him again a hundred times. Perhaps it's not too late. He's not lost, just…
You know where he is.
What are you going to do? Natasha asks him, and Sam asks himself, and comes up with no answer.
When he gets home, the note is still on his coffee table. The postcard on the kitchen table. Sam picks them both up, holds them together. Lets himself think, for the first time in a long, long time, about Bucky’s mouth, his eyes, his hands reverent on Sam’s skin.
Yeah. They did. They did, and it wasn’t a mistake. The first time, the last time, it happened and Sam remembers it even if Bucky doesn’t. Doesn’t regret it, even with everything that came after.
We did, he thinks, and pulls Slaughterhouse-Five off his bookshelf. Tucks the note and the postcard inside, and slides it back on the shelf, fingers brushing the spine.
Steve comes home like it’s inevitable.
It’s probably inevitable, really. America can’t exile Captain America forever. Too fucking embarrassing, for one. It’s not like Sam’s been following the news—the opposite, he turns it off whenever he sees it—but some things he can’t miss. Ross has been demoted in the aftermath of the political posturing; apparently overseeing a multiple-country superhero clusterfuck followed by a prison break-out isn’t great for optics. They’re keeping the Accords, no way around that. Registration is turning into a powderkeg just waiting for sparks. Xenophobic terror groups like the Watchdogs springing up everywhere, gaining access to the registration list, hunting down Inhumans, shit, it’s exactly what Sam expected. He only ever put on the wings; these new enhanced people, it’s not something they can take off at the end of the day.
Steve still doesn’t sign. Won’t sign.
“I’m retired,” he says, all seriousness, and all Sam can do is nod. Steve Rogers has never stepped down from anything in his goddamn life, he thinks, and wonders how this is gonna play out.
“What about Wanda?”
“Living with Clint and Laura,” Steve says. “Non-participant civilian. Her choice. Made her citizenship a condition of my return. Guess there are still some perks of being Captain America, huh.”
“You hear about SHIELD?” Sam asks, and Steve sighs.
“Yeah, I saw the announcement. It’s hardly even a surprise at this point. Guess SHIELD never really falls.”
“Guess not,” Sam agrees. Stares at Steve’s sketchbook. He hasn’t moved it since he got home. He should ask, he knows. Doesn’t. “Come on, let’s go eat,” he says instead. Takes Steve to the Sichuan place just to watch him turn red and start sweating. Punishment for saying he’s retired, maybe.
“You’re an asshole,” Steve tells him, “you knew this would happen, didn't you,” but he keeps eating the hotpot anyway like maybe he likes the burn. Sam sips his water. Smiles at him. In this moment, at least, it’s nice to have Steve home.
It only takes a couple of days after Steve gets back before Tony shows up. Another inevitability, maybe. A showdown between the two of them, hopefully involving less collateral damage than Leipzig and less emotional devastation than Siberia. The conversation is tense, spiky, neither of them willing to soften an inch. Sam ignores it completely until Tony says something snide about loyalty and aims it at Sam, and then Sam has to take a breath and bite back every possible response, because what the fuck does Tony know.
“You're welcome, by the way,” Tony says, smugly arrogant and defensive and pretending like he’s not pissed off all at once, and Sam stares at him.
“You're— for what? What could you possibly have done that would would require me to be grateful?”
“I dunno, a little thanks is in order, maybe. My phalanx of lawyers got you a pardon. You'd still be—”
“I'd still be where, Tony?” Sam demands. “Still be in a prison cell? The Raft? Your lawyers didn't think to mention that while they were vetting the drafts of the Accords, huh? And don't tell me they weren't. You're a businessman, you'd never sign a contract without understanding every fucking bit of fine print. How many months did you sit on that one before springing it on us with three days notice?”
“I thought I was doing the right thing!”
“You always think you're doing the right thing,” Sam says, too tired even to yell. “You thought asking me was the right thing, huh. And I told you. You know what Ross did, after you left. How they tried to get it out of me.”
“Sam—” Steve starts, sounding cored through, and Sam waves a hand, stares at Tony.
“You know what it's like to be waterboarded while your ribs are broken?” he asks. Hears Steve draw a shuddering breath. Tony just stares back at him.
“Yeah,” he says, “I do,” and Sam nods.
“Afghanistan, huh. You know, I saw you there. On that tour. Selling new weapons to help us win the goddamn war.”
“I was trying to do—”
“The right thing, yeah, yeah, I know. So was I. Telling you where Steve went. As a friend, fuck. And now Barnes is—”
“He killed my parents!”
“They killed his first,” Sam says, voice level. “He can't remember, did you know that? His mom's face. He can't remember it. Her voice, her smile, the last thing she said before he shipped out. They wiped him so clean that it's never coming back. Tell me that's not murder.”
Tony takes a breath like he's winding up to reply, and Sam shakes his head. Glances at Steve, picks up his keys.
“I'm gonna stay at my mom's tonight,” he says. Works hard to keep his voice even. Steve nods. Doesn’t say anything, just watches him go. He knew, he must have known, he must have seen it in Sam’s face already, but-
They’ve just never said it out loud before now, is all.
When he comes home the next morning, Steve is sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of oatmeal. Sam can tell just by the set of his shoulders that he’s miserable. Feels a surge of complicated frustration and affection.
“You know,” he says, “I think they’ve tripled that surveillance detail since you got back, man. Maybe don’t walk around in your boxers the next few weeks.”
“Or maybe I should,” Steve counters, grinning like fighting the pettiness of being assigned a surveillance team by giving them an eyeful is the best idea he’s heard in months, and Sam laughs. Pours himself a cup of coffee and leans back against the kitchen counter.
“Apartment’s still standing, so I assume you and Tony settled your differences like adults,” he says, sipping his coffee, and Steve goes sober in an instant.
“Wasn’t much left to talk about,” he shrugs. “Jesus, Sam, you never… I wouldn’t have asked it of you. You know I wouldn’t.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, “I know. Don’t eat yourself up about it. I can see you doing it, Steve.”
“What am I supposed to do,” Steve asks, “forget about it?”
“Would you just…” Sam sighs. Looks at Steve for a minute. “Would you just put some sugar on your fucking oatmeal for once in your goddamn life.”
“Sugar’s two bucks a pound,” Steve replies, and Sam can’t tell whether it’s a reflex reply or Steve fucking with him, but he reaches for the sugar bowl anyway. Sprinkles a pinch of it on his breakfast, eats another mouthful of oatmeal. “Okay, yeah, you got me. It’s better.”
“I know,” Sam says, and looks in the pan on the stove, knowing Steve always makes like a quart at a time. Grabs a bowl from the pantry, spoons himself out a serving and sits down opposite Steve. Blankets his oatmeal in brown sugar and chews a mouthful, slow and thoughtful. Knows Steve is watching him.
“I think I’m gonna travel,” Sam tells him. “Not sure where. It’s not doing me any good, being home, I gotta go clear my head.” Being home when you’re home, Sam means. Doesn’t say it. It’s not like he was doing super great before Steve got back, if he’s being honest with himself.
“Okay,” Steve says, cautious. “Yeah, sure. Is it… Sam, is it Bucky?”
“Christ,” Sam sighs. “Steve, I— how long, man? Did you know about Bucky and me?”
“When you were in Europe,” Steve says. Pauses for a long moment. “I dunno. I don’t know what it was, I just saw… I saw the two of you, once or twice. Bucky passing you a message, maybe. Was there… is there? A Bucky and you?”
“I don’t know,” Sam tells him. “There was, maybe. Once. Now, I don’t know.” He expects Steve to be upset, maybe. To frown, to demand more information, to know what Sam knows about Bucky. Steve doesn’t. Just nods like it makes sense. Smiles at Sam, and his careful lack of reaction, his setting aside of his own emotions to prioritize Sam for once, it’s enough that Sam’s willing to volunteer more.
“He told me a story, once,” Sam says. Thinks carefully about which of Bucky’s stories to share. You burned a cake, he thinks, and dismisses it. Too sad for a moment that's already fraught. “About how he showed up to a mission briefing in lipstick and a pair of stockings and garters under his uniform,” and Steve’s eyes light up with the memory.
“Oh my god,” he says, scandalized all over again by something that happened seventy years ago. “He never told me about the stockings, Jesus Christ, that little shit.”
“He gave them to Peggy,” Sam says, and listens to Steve laugh warm and bittersweet.
It takes him a couple weeks to settle on the idea of travelling, even though he’s the one who brought it up. Doesn’t really know where he’s gonna go, what he wants to see. Not here, he thinks, and then, contemplating it further, an open sky, that’s all.
“You could take my motorbike,” Steve says. “If you want,” and Sam grins at the thought, just him and a motorbike and the highway stretching out in front of him.
“I’m not looking to reenact On The Road here,” he says. “It’s cool. I’ll fly, probably. Just a regular citizen now.”
Before he leaves he takes a couple of days to drive down to Virginia. Buys a bunch of sunflowers and heads to the cemetery, sets them down on Riley’s headstone. Spends a long, long time sitting there, arms wrapped around his knees, until he stretches and stands up and feels his legs give out, prickling with pins and needles. It feels like forever ago and no time at all that he and Riley were wheeling around the Afghanistan sky, whooping with laughter. Egging each other into ever more dangerous stunts just for the sheer adrenaline-rush fun of it. Fuck, Sam misses him.
He flies to Arizona first. Thinking of Riley and Afghanistan has him remembering the desert, and it's not the same, of course it's not, but it's similar enough. The heat of the sun and the arch of the sky overhead, limitless pale blue stretching out to the horizon. It makes him wish, painfully, for his wings.
He avoids the tours, goes to Antelope Canyon anyway. Too beautiful not to see, so beautiful he aches with it. Down in the canyon, the pink stone, ribbon-like and shot through with light, it’s heart-breakingly lovely. Sam stands in beams of sunlight until he feels washed in it, clean and golden.
He spends weeks hiking. Nevada, California. The Mojave ageless and unforgiving and glorious all at once. Heads out into Death Valley, the salt flats of Badwater Basin. Gets caught in a rainstorm in Joshua Tree, a sudden flash of water drying up just as quick. It soaks him to the skin and he stands in it, face tilted up to the sky. If he’s crying, well, nobody can see the tears through the rain.
A month in, Steve calls him on the burner phone Sam agreed to carry, the one that maintains something ridiculous like nine days of battery life and connects regardless of where in the world he might be. That international superhero life not quite leaving him behind just yet, maybe.
“Surprised I have reception,” Sam says anyway, “I’m kinda remote out here. What’s up?”
“I’m going back to Wakanda tomorrow,” Steve tells him, and Sam blinks.
“They’re waking Bucky up?”
“Fury and T’Challa discussed it,” Steve says. “Came to an agreement. Wanda’s been working with T’Challa’s lead neuroscientist. Dr Khanyiswa. Brain scans, figuring out what Wanda can achieve when manipulating memories. They think they might have a workable plan to solve the programming. Once they clear it, we'll move back to the Maldives safehouse, look at options for repairing… I mean, if he wants it repaired. It's up to him.”
“They got some pretty good prosthetics experts in SHIELD,” Steve says. “I get the impression it's kind of under the radar. Not the level of SHIELD that's just gone public. You know how Fury is. Always with the secrets, I guess that's just… I can't blame him, shit, I'm one of those secrets now, or Bucky is. I gotta be grateful. Anyway, Dr Khanyiswa said I should be there, when he wakes up. Someone familiar.”
“That makes sense,” Sam agrees. Thinks about waking up, cold and alone. The face Bucky had made when he unfolded back into consciousness, his arm caught in that vice. “I hope it works. Keep in touch, okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and falls silent. Sam can hear the question he’s not asking. He doesn't reply.
He works his way down through Central and South America. Wonders whether his name sends up an alert every time he crosses a border, whether he's still being tracked around the world. He's lost the surveillance detail but he's not gonna believe just yet he's lost their interest. Enhanced individuals no longer have authorization to cross international boundaries at any time they wish. He's not enhanced, these days. Just a private citizen trying to find something he's lost.
He doesn't know quite what it is that he's lost, or where he might start with finding it. Spends two days on a beach in Belize, but it's too much like that island in the Maldives. Too beautiful, too achingly melancholy. He goes to Guatemala, down through South America. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia. Months passing, and Sam can’t quite settle anywhere. Hops a flight from Chile to Australia, heads out into the desert—the outback—for a few days. It’s raining, soft and cloud-like, and Uluru is streaming with waterfalls, red sandstone darkened until it shines blood-dark.
“Not often you see it when it’s raining,” the guide says. Staring up at it, the spray misting wet on his face, Sam feels oddly like crying. Mourning for something, though he doesn't know what.
From Australia he bounces over to New Zealand, spends two months working on an organic farm. It’s very small and very quiet and very easy, the southern hemisphere summer slow and lazy. Nobody recognizes him, or if they do they don’t mention it. It’s been months since Sam last strapped on the wings. Months since he last saw Bucky. He thinks about it, still. Perhaps right now Wanda’s successful in loosening that fucking trigger from his head. Clearing it out. Is it like collapsing a dam? Memories flooding in? Or has it sat inert and deadly, unnoticed until someone said the words in just the right order?
Are his own memories like that, he wonders. He hasn't woken from a nightmare in months. Recovery stealing over him, slow like a tide washing in. He knows the trauma isn’t gone. Might trigger, unpredictable, catching him unaware, and all he’d be able to do is ride it out the same way he always has, always does.
Thanksgiving comes and goes, a holiday unobserved at this end of the world. Christmas, and Sam calls his mom, his sister. Steve. His body expects snow, and instead he's on a beach, learning how to run across black iron sand burning hot enough to blister. Throwing himself into the freezing blue gulf of the Tasman, water straight up from Antarctica and salt drying crisp on his skin.
This summer is gentle compared to DC. Still and dry, no sweltering humidity. Sam finds himself getting restless staying in one place too long, moves south on the recommendation of the other backpackers. Avoids Nelson, Queenstown, the tourist traps still buzzing with the late summer rush, and heads out instead into the west coast of the South Island, remote and achingly gorgeous. Sits looking at a glacier all luminous blue ice and remembers, suddenly, how he'd wanted to visit Iceland as a kid. It's ridiculous to fly there from here. One end of the world to the other.
He books the flight.
It's over thirty hours of flying, two days of non-stop travel, when he finally stumbles off the plane, dead on his feet. Queenstown to Auckland to LA, a connection to New York, Icelandair to Reykjavík. Sam doesn’t know what the fuck he was thinking. He finds a hotel, collapses down into bed. Sleeps for what might be two hours or ten, wakes disoriented and so jet-lagged he can hardly remember his own fucking name, let alone figure out what the noise is that’s coming somehow from the floor.
It’s his phone, tangled in his jacket pocket, and he reaches clumsily for it, fumbles it into his hand without ever opening his eyes.
“Oh, shit, did I wake you?”
Steve. Why is it Steve. What’s. Wrong.
“‘s fine,” he manages, “sorry, I’m just… I was dead asleep, mostly. What is it, man?”
“Bucky’s gone,” Steve says, and it takes a minute for Sam to click properly. Still half-asleep, struggling up out of dreams he can’t quite remember, and Steve’s silence stretches out until Sam hears the meaning in the words.
“I dunno,” Steve sighs. “Europe, maybe. South America. A beach in Fiji. Gone. Sat me down and said he loved me, he’d always love me, I’m his best fuckin’ friend and I should never forget that, but that I have. Expectations.”
“Oh,” Sam says, “fuck, Steve, I’m sor—”
“No, it’s okay,” Steve says, and maybe it even is. He doesn’t sound as hollowed-out as Sam expected he might. Perhaps he’s mellowed, this last year.
“What are you gonna do now?” he asks. Swings his feet out of bed, bends over and rests his elbows on his thighs. Takes a deep breath. Steve laughs a little.
“Go home, I guess. Figure it out from there.”
“Where’s home? Brooklyn?”
“You know me,” Steve says, “home’s home,” and Sam smiles. “What about you? Where are you at the moment?”
“Iceland,” Sam tells him, “Reykjavík,” and hears Steve laugh again.
“Iceland, huh? Midnight sun? What’s that like?” Sam squints at the window, the soft half-twilight visible at the edges of the curtain.
“Weird,” he says, “it’s weird, mostly. I dunno, I’ve hardly seen it yet.”
“Last I heard from you, you were in New Zealand. Tired of travelling yet?”
“Not yet,” Sam says. “Maybe soon.”
“Is it about Bucky?” Steve asks, too insightful, and Sam drags a hand down his face, closes his eyes.
“Yes,” he admits. “No. Man, I don’t know. Give me time.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, “of course. Take care of yourself.” The line buzzes a little just before he hangs up. Sam stares at the phone, at his hands. Blinks again, yawns. He’s awake now. Might as well get up. Might as well figure out what he’s gonna do from here.
He books a ticket before he can talk himself out of it. Reykjavík to Paris, leaving in six hours, and then gets up, goes to the bathroom. Looks at himself in the mirror and rubs a hand over his jaw. He’s grown a full beard in the last couple months, isn’t sure about it. He’ll make a decision later, he thinks, and turns on the shower. Stands under the stream of water and tries to think about nothing at all.
In Paris he pays for a room in a hotel. Same hotel. Same room. It’s sentimental, he tells himself, it’s stupid. But.
It’s a nice hotel.
He goes to the Orsay first. Paintings familiar by now, like seeing a friend's face for the first time in a long while. Something loosening in his chest, and Sam takes a deep breath. Sits in the l'Orangerie for a long time. Leaves the keycard tucked behind the biggest painting.
When Bucky opens the door, Sam has a moment of vertigo. Roles reversed, Sam sitting in a room waiting like Bucky did so many times. Playing a part, although there's no gun resting on the table. How long has it fucking been since they first started this.
Bucky pushes the door open, steps inside. Looks at Sam, bites his lip like he's tentative.
“Steve said—” he starts, and Sam takes a deep breath.
“Shut up,” he says, “Bucky, just— shut up,” and Bucky blinks, closes his mouth. Tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. Sam exhales. Stands up. He's always been a couple inches shorter than Bucky, realizes it now again when he finds himself looking up into Bucky's face. Bucky's eyes are wide, expression uncertain. Sam guesses it's natural. They haven't seen each other in a long time.
“You haven't cut your hair,” Sam says. Touches his fingers to Bucky's temple, slides them slowly through the wavy hair. Past shoulder-length now, soft, a little messy from travel. Feels his fingers catch, just a little, on the tangles.
“No,” Bucky agrees. “You grew a beard.”
“I'm not sure about it,” Sam tells him. “Might shave it off.” Touches Bucky's cheek, his chin. “How much do you remember?” How much of me. What was real. Have we ever done this before.
“It started here,” Bucky says. “Finished here. I know the noise you make when I kiss you right here.” He brushes his thumb against the pulse point in Sam's throat. Smiles, a little crooked. Sam closes his eyes.
“You remember all of it,” he says, and Bucky curls his fingers around the nape of Sam's neck.
“Yeah, sweetheart, I do.”
It hardly feels real. Sam’s still in that dream-haze of long-distance travel and jetlagged exhaustion. Perhaps he’s asleep on a long-haul to LA, somewhere across the Pacific. Perhaps this is all wistful dreams in a hotel in Iceland. Bucky leans in close until Sam can feel the heat of his body. Doesn’t kiss him, just presses his forehead to Sam’s, holds him steady for a long moment. If this is a dream, Sam thinks, heart thumping, it’s a good one.
That night they sleep side by side. Bucky’s left arm is outstretched, matte fingertips barely brushing Sam’s hip. Sam sleeps deep and dreamless, stirs awake just before dawn. Lies still a minute listening to Bucky’s breathing, the slow inhale and long soft exhale, then gets out of bed, goes to the wet bar to pour himself a glass of water. Drinks it standing at the window looking out at the slowly lightening sky.
When he gets back to bed, Bucky is blinking awake. Yawns, and props himself up his elbows, reaches for Sam’s glass of water and drinks. Holds eye contact over the rim of the glass, eyes grey in the half-light.
“Hi,” he murmurs, soft, and Sam smiles. Sits down and reaches out, cups Bucky’s cheek, feels the light rasp of his stubble against his palm.
“Hi,” he says, and breathes in. Bucky grins, crooked. Tilts his face into Sam’s hand.
“You gonna kiss me, or what?” he asks, and it’s all Sam’s been waiting for.
It's like they're learning about each other all over again. Sam pushes Bucky down into the soft hotel bed, amazed at how Bucky lets him. How he goes pliant and breathless just at Sam's very first touch. Sam's body still remembers the threat of violence, bruises livid on his jaw. Before that, and deeper, Bucky careful with his hands, gentle and desperate in equal measures. Have we done this before?
Yeah. They did this right here as a city crumbled and fell.
This time, there's no desperation. Sam knows now what Bucky knew then: that he would leave. That Bucky would disappear. It wasn't a mistake but it was a farewell as much as anything else. This is a welcome. A coming home into each other's bodies, and Sam watches Bucky react, watches him slide open and wanting and vulnerable.
“Oh,” he says, “Sam,” and looks and looks, eyes wide and mouth falling open in shock and pleasure and joy.
They spend days in bed. Ordering room service, drinking the minibar just for the fun of it. One late afternoon Sam looks again at his beard in the mirror. Touches his cheeks.
“You got a pair of clippers?” he asks, and Bucky rummages in his bag, holds them up triumphant. Sam takes his time shaving. Reshapes the hair along his jaw until it's as crisp as it used to be, just a line framing his mouth and chin.
“Oh,” Bucky says like he's surprised, “there you are,” and yeah, there Sam is. Here he is. Vanished and found again, right where he used to be.
“You gonna cut your hair now?” Sam teases, and Bucky shakes it out into his face, tosses his head, gives Sam a sultry look through his eyelashes.
“Nah, you love it,” he says, and that's true, Sam does. Especially loves it now that it's soft and wavy, shot through with blond where it's sun-bleached from hours and hours of sitting on that same Maldives beach. Sam spends long hours just threading his fingers into it, gripping tight and pulling to hear the noises Bucky makes. Soft little gasps like he can't help it, tilting his head back into Sam's touch and baring the line of his throat, and Sam loosens his grip, strokes through and tugs again and again. Watches Bucky come apart in slow increments of time beneath him.
Bucky's new arm is carbon fiber, smooth dark grey. No star, no external plating. It makes no noise at all. Sam keeps expecting the soft whine of the servos, the hum and whirr of mechanics. Instead it's silent, warm when Bucky touches him. Gentle as skin.
“Was it difficult?” Sam asks. Props himself up on one arm and traces from Bucky’s shoulder to his wrist and back up, the scarring at his collarbone. Did it hurt?
“A little,” Bucky says, and Sam knows what that means. A lot. It hurt a lot. “It's wired into my spine. Took a lot of work to keep the neural connection. It wasn't so bad.”
“Sounds pretty bad,” Sam says, and Bucky shrugs, his left shoulder rising and falling smooth and quick.
“They treated me like a human. That helped.”
“And the programming,” Sam says, “Steve said…”
“Yeah, they stripped that shit right out,” Bucky agrees. “Nothing in here but me, now. Doesn't feel any different, but I know it's gone.” He leans in. Touches carbon fingertips to Sam's chin, tilts his face up for a kiss. It's a little proprietary, like he's laying claim, and Sam cedes it up, gives himself over to Bucky's kisses and his touch. Sinks into it, dreamlike.
“I liked your beard,” Bucky murmurs softly against Sam's throat. “I like you better like this, though.” Sinks his teeth in just hard enough to make Sam gasp and arch into it, sweat-slick. Sam likes them best like this. This easy and breathless stillness. The world ceasing to exist beyond this one beautiful room.
“You want to go anywhere else?” Bucky asks him lazily the next morning. “I mean, I'm happy to stay here the rest of our lives, but the hotel might get weird about it eventually.”
“How do you feel about Iceland?” Sam says, and Bucky laughs a little under his breath.
“Iceland? Infiltrated an air base in Keflavík once, but otherwise I got no strong feelings on the matter. Why?”
“That’s where I was,” Sam tells him, “before I heard…”
“Oh, did I interrupt your vacation?”
“Well,” Sam says, “kinda,” and Bucky laughs harder.
“Fuck it,” he says, “sure, why not. Let's go to Iceland, sweetheart. Ain't like I got anywhere to be in a hurry.”
They don't. They don't have to be anywhere at all, and Sam lets time spin out meaningless around them until all he knows is the taste of Bucky's skin, the shape of his body against Sam's, every expression he makes when he looks at Sam wondering like he can't quite believe they've made it this far.
In Iceland they rent a car just for the sake of being able to drive. Spend nights in tiny hotels, days on coastal roads looking out over the sea. It’s almost midsummer, bright nights and blazing sunsets that go on for hours, rolling straight back into a sunrise.
“No northern lights, huh,” Bucky says, lying on the hood of the car with his arm stretched out, Sam’s head pillowed into his shoulder. Looks up at the sky with a little wonder, maybe. “Guess we’ll have to come back in winter sometime,” and Sam thinks about how he’s escaped winter this year. Summer to fall to summer again, the sun forever soft and warm on his face.
Iceland is full of waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss, Skógafoss. All of them misting with rainbows wherever the sun hits them, set into cliffs vivid green with moss. It’s ridiculous, Sam thinks, it’s beautiful and ridiculous, and catches Bucky making a face half surprise and half amusement.
“What is it,” he asks, twining his fingers with Bucky’s, and Bucky shrugs, squeezes Sam’s hand.
“Nothing,” he says, “it’s just. I’ve never been here as anyone except myself. Kind of unusual, I guess they didn’t have much use for the Asset somewhere this peaceful. ‘s nice.” He drags Sam into the cave behind the waterfall then, kisses him up against the damp rock wall. Sam has mist in his eyelashes, sparkling in his vision, and whenever he looks at Bucky he fractures into a million refracted pieces.
Oh, he thinks, that’s right, I’m in love with him, and feels all the years contract around them into this one shining minute.
They drive from Seljalandsfoss to Flúðir in the softly unending golden evening light of the Icelandic summer. Find what they're looking for with no trouble. It’s a natural swimming pool, thermal-heated, steam rising up from the surface of the water, and Sam can’t think of anything better.
“Oh,” Bucky says as he steps into the water, sounding a little surprised, “oh that’s good,” and sinks down until he’s up to his chin.
“Your hair’s getting wet,” Sam tells him, and Bucky sighs. Sits up, looks appealingly at Sam. “Okay, fine, I’ll tie it up for you, get over here.” He can’t even pretend to be mad, really. Strokes his fingers through the damp hair, twists it into a top-knot and takes the hair tie Bucky offers him. “Better?”
“Much,” Bucky agrees, and pulls Sam down into the water, tugs him in until Sam’s back is pressed against Bucky’s chest, his head tilting back to rest on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky brushes his fingertips down Sam’s side. Kisses his temple, nuzzles his cheek against Sam's.
“Did you miss me while I was gone?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Yeah, I missed you.” It's easy now to be honest. A small gift.
“I missed you,” Bucky whispers. “Every time. I missed you.”
“You left,” Sam tells him, “you disappeared,” and feels Bucky frown.
“After Sokovia. I knew Steve would need you more than I had a right to. I wanted to keep you. Wouldn't have been fair, though.”
“What about me?” Sam asks, hearing the unhappiness in his words. The complaint he hasn't been able to voice until now. “What about what I need?” Bucky makes a reassuring noise. Presses his face into the curve of Sam's neck.
“Oh, sweetheart. You got me now. I promise.”
“I thought you didn’t remember me,” Sam murmurs. Sleepy with the warmth and how Bucky is touching him, and god, it’s so easy to be truthful. To bare all this.
“In Bucharest? Berlin? I thought… well, I thought, the way you were, you didn't want to remember. And I'd spent a year on my own, remembering all that fucked-up shit without you even there to ground me. Figured you thought it was a mistake. Didn't want to ask otherwise. Telling myself the memory of it wasn’t reliable, it was easy enough to do.”
“It wasn't a mistake,” Sam tells him. “But this is better.”
It is better. It's easy. Complicated and uncomplicated all at once, like their years together and apart have come into more than the sum of their parts. Like they're making promises without voicing them out loud.
When they get tired of Iceland they hop a cheap flight from Reykjavík to Oslo, spend the day wandering the city. In the Museum of Contemporary Art Bucky looks at Munch with detached interest until he reaches The Scream. Stands in front of that, eyes glazed like maybe he's not seeing it, for a long, long time, and then turns to Sam, bites his lip.
“That's what it feels like,” he says, “isn't it.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “Yeah, that's what it feels like,” and it is, it is, a bleakly voiceless cry of pain, unheard, while the world burns. That's what it feels like, right there.
It's taken Sam no time at all to adjust to sleeping beside Bucky every night. The weight of his body in the bed, his breathing, the way he flings an arm out until his fingertips are just brushing Sam's hip or thigh or ribs. They fall asleep apart, gravitate towards each other in the night. Wake up overheated, skin sweat-sticky where they're pressed against each other. Bucky's hair curls into damp tangles at his temples, the nape of his neck, and Sam breathes him in, salt air clinging to warm skin.
“Let's buy a car,” Sam says, impulsive the next morning, watching Bucky smoke a cigarette surreptitiously at the window. “I'm sick of planes,” and Bucky shrugs.
“Sure,” he agrees, “okay,” and Sam wonders if there's anything he could ask for that Bucky wouldn't give him.
They don't rush, buying a car. Lazy about it just like they're lazy about everything right now, a vacation stretching out infinite before them, but by late morning they've got a cheap car, a road map, Bucky in the driver's seat. Sam remembers Libya, suddenly. The strange joy of that coastal road, wind in his hair and sun on his face. Trusting Bucky with a car, with a gun, with letting Sam brush pastry off his face, and maybe that had been the start of it. Maybe before then. He was in deep before he'd known it at all.
“Where do you want to go next?”
“You ever been to Giverny?” Sam asks, and Bucky stares at him.
“Jesus, pal, we were just in Paris,” he points out, “we couldn’t have gone up to Giverny while we were in the area?”
“Guess you’re right,” Sam agrees, “that would have been sensible,” and passes Bucky the road map. Bucky sighs, spreads it out in front of him.
“Christ, I was expecting, like, Stockholm. A drive up around the Baltic. That would have made sense. This is still punishment for Libya, huh,” he mutters, and Sam smirks.
“You did make me follow you into a war zone,” he points out. “Come on, we can take the ferry from Larvik across to Denmark and drive from there.”
“That’s like a twenty hour drive,” Bucky complains, “can’t we just fly,” and Sam settles more comfortably into the seat.
“We bought this car,” he says. Gives Bucky the kind of look he's beginning to learn Bucky can't resist. Bucky mutters under his breath. Looks at the map again.
“You’re lucky you’re so damn cute,” he tells Sam, and starts the engine.
Sam falls asleep somewhere in Denmark, listening to Bucky hum quietly along with the radio. It's raining, warm and heavy summer rain slick on the highway and blurring the gray-green countryside into nothing but Impressionist smudges of color. The glass of the windows dripping, steamed up with their breath, windscreen wipers beating in a steady rhythm that lulls Sam’s eyes closed. When he wakes up, it’s dark and they’re still driving, the orange lights of the highway sliding past in soft blurs of neon. The car is like a little bubble of silence, warm and gentle, and Sam blinks, tries to get his bearings.
“We’re in Germany,” Bucky murmurs, “just past Osnabrück,” and Sam nods, looks at Bucky’s hands on the wheel, has a sudden sense-memory of Bucky touching him careful and reverent and tender. Abruptly and desperately wants to be in a bed with him. He wants this so much now and it's a surprise every time when he gets it, like he's spent years and years not-having and now it's here, within reach, whenever he asks for it. Love right there for the giving and taking. He yawns. Covers his mouth. Reaches for the map and finds where they are.
“Let’s stop in Cologne tomorrow,” he suggests, “take a couple of days, we’re in no rush,” and Bucky smiles at him, slow and tender.
“No,” he agrees, “I suppose we’re not.”
They find a hotel for the night, the concierge half asleep at reception. Sam's suddenly awake, sharp, caught up in wanting, and he pulls Bucky into the bathroom. Strips them both off, turns the shower on high until it's needle-like with the pressure, prickling them all over and making Bucky yelp.
“What's up with you?” he asks, “Jesus, that's hot,” and Sam bites at Bucky's lip, kisses him filthy-hot the way he knows now that Bucky loves.
“Do me up against the wall,” he says, “come on, baby, don't you want to?”
Bucky growls under his breath. Picks Sam up, and Sam wraps his legs around Bucky's hips, braces his shoulders back against the tile.
“I ain't fucking you,” Bucky says, low and urgent, “not here, not in the shower, shit, sweetheart, we got no slick, it'll take too long,” and gets one hand around Sam's dick, squeezes hard. “Come for me here and I'll take you to bed,” he continues. “Eat your pretty ass until you can't move and then if you ask me nice I might fuck you, that sound good to you?”
Fuck yes it sounds good, Bucky's dirty talk is something that always gets Sam so good he's painfully hard in an instant. The bathroom is thick with steam and Bucky is stroking Sam fast, relentless, thumb pressing against the most sensitive spot and dragging like he knows exactly what it's gonna take to get Sam coming apart the quickest. Bucky’s been driving all damn day but Sam wouldn’t know it, the way he follows through on his promises. Gets Sam into bed, kisses slowly down Sam’s spine, the curve of his ass, before apparently dedicating himself to making Sam cry with how good everything feels.
“You’re killing me,” Sam groans as Bucky sinks slowly, slowly in, “Bucky, Jesus, you’re killing me here.”
“What do you need?” Bucky asks him. Kisses the sensitive spot behind his ear, thrusts his hips shallowly. “Anything you want, darling, you got it.”
“I want—” Sam gasps, fingers clenching in the sheets. “Fuck, I want—” Bucky’s had him on the edge for what might be twenty minutes or two hours and he feels like every touch is so much he might die and Bucky just keeps teasing, fuck, giving him never quite enough to let him come. Time’s stopped around them.
“Don’t you know? Anything you want, Sam, come on, lemme give it to you.” And there it is, Sam thinks, there’s his answer, shit, the power of it, it’s overwhelming.
When they finally make it to Giverny, it’s exactly and painfully as beautiful as Sam expected. It’s raining, not torrential but wet enough that they’re almost alone in the gardens. Everything is gray and soft, smudged with color, clumps of irises everywhere, and Sam stands at the edge of the lake, looks out over the ruffled surface. The water lilies, rain-wet, petals flushed or softly white. Thinks of the l’Orangerie, the gallery in MoMA. That water-stained postcard. DID WE?
What are you going to do?
He’d looked up the symbolism of water lilies once. Sitting in an internet cafe in Bolivia, emailing his mom, Mary-Beth, his old buddies from the Air Force, and suddenly thinking of Bucky in that hotel in rue de Lille. I like it, Bucky had said about the l’Orangerie, a room filled with water lilies on every wall, and Sam had wondered.
The internet had had a lot to say about optimism and peace, rebirth, renewal, and Sam had thought, figures. Closed his email, moved on. Now, here, in this old garden and increasingly damp, Bucky’s chin resting on his shoulder and his arms around Sam’s waist, Sam thinks again about it. Green shoots unfurling after rain, a garden renewing itself year on year. Allowing himself to like something just for the sake of it, just because it’s beautiful. Just because he wants it, nothing more than that.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Bucky murmurs, and Sam jumps, startled. Glances back at him.
“No, I just…” he starts. Chews his lip. “Nah, you’re gonna think it’s sappy.”
“I’m standing in the rain looking at a garden for you,” Bucky tells him. “I’m willing to increase the offer right up to a euro, alright. Two euros.”
“It’s nothing,” Sam laughs, “it’s— no, it’s just. I love you, is all. That’s all.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, soft and surprised. Eyes widening. “Sweetheart, god, I love you too. You know that, right?”
Sam knows that. Has known that, for a while. Since Paris, somewhere in time. It’s still good to hear.
“We could buy a house here,” Bucky suggests. “If you want.”
“Well, we gotta have somewhere to put the Monets,” Bucky shrugs, like that's the deciding factor, and Sam opens his mouth to reply. Has no words. Thinks, suddenly, about waking up to Bucky in their own bed and not hotel sheets. Coming home to him, night after night. Knowing where Bucky is not because of intel or following a lead but with a sweet certainty that he's home.
“Yes,” he says, breathless with it. “Yes, yes, but— shit, how are we gonna afford it?” Bucky smirks, very slow. “Wait, are you still stealing from Hydra funds? I thought SHIELD and the Avengers managed to freeze all their accounts.”
“Sure, the ones they know about,” Bucky shrugs. “Sweetheart, don’t worry about it. Let’s just say we got enough to live the rest of our lives without any problems and leave it at that, okay? Jesus, I kind of feel like we’re owed a little reparation, here.”
That's true enough even for Sam, really. Jesus, the shit he's been through in the last couple years, and then Bucky, well. If a house in the north of France is gonna help, Sam's pretty sure he'd do almost anything to make it happen.
It barely takes a week for them to find a house someone is willing to sell for what Sam considers an outrageous number of euros. It’s a neat little cottage in Saint-Marcel, tiny rooms and a huge rambling garden out the back that Sam immediately and fiercely loves and defends from Bucky’s black thumb with everything he’s got. Within a month they’ve knocked down half the interior walls until it’s airy and open, constantly in a state of half-finished repair and chipped plaster Sam says is broken and Bucky calls artful, and within six weeks they’re firmly established within the village as les Américains. Outsiders, of course, but accepted nevertheless. Bucky speaks flawless, heavily accented French, making filthy jokes with all the old men at the local bar. They eat nothing but fresh bread, too much good cheese, ripe tomatoes and blackberries and basil straight from the garden. Spend days in bed, warm linen that smells of their skin, Bucky smoking cigarettes at the open window. Sam feels so happy he wonders if it’s shining off him. If everyone can see it.
“Newlyweds, huh?” the woman in the fromagerie asks, eyeing them up, and Sam’s about to deny it. Doesn’t.
“Yeah,” he says, “oui, newlyweds,” and that seems about right.
Bucky gets the paintings out of storage. Sam doesn’t ask; Bucky doesn’t explain, but one day they’re in a crate in the living room, ready to be sorted through.
There are the Monets, of course, three of them. Paris, Le Havre, Hiroshima. There are others too that Sam didn't know Bucky took. Picasso, Renoir, Rothko. A dreamy-soft Degas, an Yves Klein rectangle of intensely pigmented cobalt blue.
“Shit,” Sam sighs, “we’re just never gonna be able to have house guests, huh, we've got the biggest collection of high profile stolen art in Europe.”
“Whatever,” Bucky shrugs, “you knew all along I wasn't exactly legal,” and Sam supposes that's true. Their house floods with color, canvases everywhere. They argue good-naturedly over where to hang everything. The Degas in this room or that, whether to put the Klein and the Rothko in their living room. Picasso in the hall, shadowy in subtle grays and ochre, and the Hiroshima Monet in their bedroom.
“Why not this one?” Bucky demands, holding up Winter sun at Lavacourt, and Sam looks at him seriously.
“It's bleak,” he says. “Upsetting.”
“You're not even the one who was held on ice in Siberia for seventy years,” Bucky says, “maybe I imprinted on it, huh.”
“You're such a little shit,” Sam tells him, unable to be anything other than fond. “Hang it in your study if you like it so much, then.”
“It looks good with the Renoir,” Bucky decides, “I'll put them in the kitchen.”
Art conservators would probably be appalled by it, Sam thinks a little guiltily. They're careful, of course, but not in the way a gallery would be. Living with priceless artworks like they're just part of the household, no protective glass or velvet ropes separating them. Photos of Sam's family hanging on the same wall as Impressionist and postwar masterpieces, and Bucky gets into the habit of stroking the frame of the Monet as he gets into bed, touching it gentle and affectionate like maybe he loves it almost as much as he loves Sam.
Sam doesn't hang up the Monet from the Orsay. Rests it on the mantle for days like he's considering it, the field of poppies and the warm blue sky, and he can tell Bucky is waiting for him to make a decision. Making no suggestions himself.
“We should send this one to Steve,” Sam says eventually, touching the frame with careful hands. Bucky comes up behind him, rests his chin on Bucky's shoulder. Slides his right hand up under the hem of Sam's shirt, just a little, until his palm is resting on the bare skin of Sam's hip. The way he touches Sam is faintly possessive, especially when Sam mentions Steve. Sam's noticed. Perhaps he should mention it, but if he's telling the truth, he kind of likes it. Bucky laying claim, like Steve can't have Sam back a second time.
“Yeah? You think so?”
“It's where it started,” Sam says. “You stole it for him.”
“But you like it,” Bucky says, as if that's all that matters. Maybe it is. Sam laughs.
“Yeah, I do, but…”
“Alright,” Bucky shrugs. “Let's do it.”
He packages it up carefully. Sends it via courier. Sam watches Bucky write the address label, STEVE ROGERS. GREENPOINT, NYC. Bucky's handwriting is just the same as it used to be. A little lighter on the downstroke, maybe. The pen held steady and careful in a matte carbon fiber hand.
“What?” Bucky asks, glancing back at Sam. “What?”
“Nothing,” Sam says, “it’s just— I like your handwriting, is all.”
“You do? It's so boring, shit, you have no idea how long I tried for cursive.”
“No,” Sam says. “I like it.” Bucky leans back then. Pushes Sam flat on his back on the floor, lifts up his shirt. Kisses him, soft, right over the dent where that one rib never healed quite right.
“You do, huh,” he murmurs. Presses the tip of the pen to Sam's skin, draws a slow and careful line. Starts writing. Sam props himself up on his elbows to see, and Bucky pinches him. “Stay still,” he tells Sam, face serious with concentration. Lower lip caught between his teeth. The pen scratches lightly over Sam's chest, halfway between ticklish and painful. Sam's breath catches in his throat.
I LOVE YOU, it says. I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU, each letter crisp and perfect, and Sam reaches for Bucky, pulls him in. The pen skitters off in a long crooked line down Sam’s side, an L unfinished, and Sam kisses and kisses him until Bucky is flushed and gasping, eyes big and dark and unfocused.
“You know that's a fucking Sharpie,” Sam tells him, “it's not gonna wash off for days,” and Bucky traces his fingers over the writing, smiles like the sun rising.
“Good,” he says, pleased with himself. “It'll remind you.”
“You remind me,” Sam says, “I don't need a note on my ribs to tell me.” Not really minding, when it comes down to it. He's got Bucky's love written into his skin. Sinking, tender, into his heart.
Steve calls Sam a few days later sounding deeply confused, perhaps a little disapproving.
“Sam,” he starts, “did you send me a Monet?”
“Nah,” Bucky says, lazy. “It's a fake. Where would we get a Monet from, huh?”
Sam glances meaningfully up at the painting hung above their bed, glowing radiant in the golden light of the afternoon, and Bucky just rolls his eyes.
“Why don't I believe you,” Steve sighs. Sam imagines him pinching the bridge of his nose, frowning sharp at the painting. He touches Bucky's naked back. Traces his fingers down his spine.
“The point is, do you like it?”
“It's Monet,” Steve says, exactly the same fucking tone, except now he adds, “yeah, I— of course I like it, but why's the return address in Normandy?”
“We bought a house,” Sam says, blithe and smug. “Come visit us sometime.”
“You bought a house,” Steve repeats, “you know what, I— I don't even know what I expected.”
“Sam's mine, now,” Bucky tells him. Smiles, eyes big and gray, and brushes a kiss to Sam's shoulder. “You can't have him back.”
“Jesus, Buck, you don't gotta lay claim like that,” Steve says, but Sam knows Bucky does. That he's got to take hold of this with both hands and hold on, like maybe it'll slide elusive away otherwise. “Well, shit, if that's the way it is, I'm turning your bedroom into a studio, it's got better light than the living room. I only held back because I figured you might want it back one day.”
“Go ahead,” Sam says, magnanimous in his happiness. “Hang up the Monet in there, it'll look great.”
“I thought you said it was a fake.”
“Oh yeah. A really good copy, whatever.” Bucky grins at that, conspiratorial, and Sam smirks back at him, pictures Steve's put-upon face.
“You're full of shit, both of you. Jesus. Okay, fine, thank you for the painting. Hell, it's not even my birthday and you're still one-upping Tony.”
“How'd we manage that? He finally give you back the shield?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, maybe a little pissy about it. “In true Tony style, you know how he is, but I guess the important part is he's trying. Still not back on the team, since I won't sign, but we'll see.”
The painting is probably worth literally more than the shield, but Sam’s not kidding himself about the relative importance. It means something that Tony’s returned it. Makes him hopeful for the future of things.
“Steve,” he says, serious. “I’m glad. You don’t have to do anything with it you don’t want, but. I’m glad.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, soft. “Yeah, me too. Okay, I’m gonna go throw out all your stuff.”
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Sam tells him, and Steve laughs.
“Fine, I’ll ship it to you. Normandy, huh? You’re predictable, Buck.”
“I like it here,” Bucky says, wounded. “It’s nice. Good sky.”
Steve hangs up, still laughing, and Bucky turns to Sam. Smiles very sly.
“You were right about sending it to Steve,” he says, in a voice the most full of shit Sam has ever heard. “It’s gonna piss him off and delight him in equal measures for months, holy shit.”
“That’s not why I suggested it,” Sam protests. Throws his hands up in defeat as Bucky pushes him back into the bed. “It’s not, I swear to god. Not all of us are as dedicated to chaos as you, Christ.”
“Whatever,” Bucky says, “you love me, pal, no going back,” and Sam does, it’s the truth, Bucky’s seen right to the heart of him.
In September Bucky begins to get an expression like he’s planning something, maybe. A secret he’s holding back, a tiny half-smile playing at the corners of his lips. Sam lets him keep it, knowing it’ll come out sooner or later.
The weather’s beginning to get colder; all Sam’s things from the States arrive, boxed up very neatly and labelled only a little passive-aggressively in Steve’s flawless cursive, and they put the quilt Sam’s grandma made onto the bed, curl in a little closer against each other. Bucky has painfully cold feet which he’s constantly trying to press against Sam’s calves, and Sam pretends to hate it. Doesn’t. Buys him fluffy socks anyway, and winds up wearing them himself every evening, ignoring the soft faces Bucky makes at him.
“It’s your birthday tomorrow,” Bucky says one morning, his lips brushing the nape of Sam’s neck, and Sam shivers, pulls the blankets up higher. Feels Bucky press himself up against the line of Sam’s back, wrapping himself around Sam as if he can keep him warm.
“You put your feet anywhere near me, James Barnes,” Sam warns, but he’s soft-hearted, can’t even finish the sentence. Bucky just laughs, his breath gusting over Sam’s skin. Slides one hand down Sam’s side, along the top of his thigh.
“It’s your birthday,” he says again, “you know what that means,” and apparently what it means is Bucky cooks Sam crêpe Suzette for breakfast, roast chicken and cornbread dressing for dinner, won’t let him do a single thing that’s not lying around luxuriating the whole damn day while Bucky waits on him hand and foot.
“You know, I could get used to this,” he teases, stretching full-length on the couch so Bucky has no choice but to lie on top of him, and Bucky nips at his throat, teeth just grazing hard enough to make Sam gasp.
“Don’t push your luck,” he mutters. Ties his hair back, loose and messy, and slides down between Sam’s legs, bites softly at his hipbones, unbuttons his jeans. “This is a birthday blowjob,” he adds, like he’s got to make that clear, and Sam wriggles a little underneath him.
“Oh yeah? What exactly makes it different from a regular Tuesday blowjob?”
“You’ll see,” Bucky says, smug, and proceeds to suck Sam’s dick for about the next hour, slow and teasing. Building him up to the edge and bringing him back down until Sam feels like he’s going out of his damn mind with how good it is, Bucky’s mouth, holy shit Sam might die right here and now and it’d be a beautiful fucking death.
“Nope,” he manages afterwards, slurring, boneless with endorphins, “nuh, you got me, I can’t move,” and Bucky picks him up, carries him upstairs to bed. Sam’s too overwhelmed even to complain about it the way he usually would, just lets Bucky strip them off, tuck them into bed. Falls asleep to the sound of Bucky’s heartbeat, and wishes, content and loved all the way through to his bones, that he could return to this moment forever just to live it one more time.
When he wakes up the next morning, it’s to an empty bed; he flings his arm out, touches nothing but cool sheets.
“Bucky?” he calls, still half asleep. Doesn’t get a response, but breathes in and smells coffee brewing, hears Bucky fucking around in the kitchen. Rolls onto his back, rests his arm over his eyes to block out the morning light. It’s suspiciously early, he thinks. Bucky is not a morning person. There is a surprise brewing.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Bucky says, the scent of coffee intensifying, and Sam cracks open one eye to discover Bucky in nothing but a cable-knit sweater and boxers. It’s frankly a good look, although Sam’s pretty sure the weather is getting too cold for this shit. He’s not exactly complaining.
“Hello, yourself,” he murmurs. Works his way up to almost-sitting, and reaches out, touches Bucky’s bare thigh. “You got something against wearing pants?”
“I dunno,” Bucky says, “I could probably find some stockings and a garter belt if you’d be into that,” and Sam briefly loses all coherence at the idea. Chokes on his coffee, and catches how Bucky smirks like he’s pleased.
“Come here,” Sam says. Pulls Bucky back into bed, and drinks his coffee while lying mostly on Bucky’s shoulder the same way they do every morning. Blinks at the light filtering bright and clean through their curtains, and slowly, slowly becomes aware of a new addition to the room.
“Bucky,” he says slowly. “Bucky.”
“Tell me you didn’t steal another Monet.”
“Happy birthday,” Bucky says, easy like it’s nothing at all, and Sam pinches his knee.
“You can’t steal Blue Water Lilies for my birthday,” Sam says, outraged and overcome all at once, because Bucky did, and here it is, two meters of dreamy Impressionist perfection filling up their bedroom wall just where Sam will see it every time he wakes up.
“You like it?” Bucky asks, lips brushing Sam’s temple, and Sam nods.
“Yeah,” he says, “yeah, I do like it. Thank you.”
“Cool,” Bucky says, “it’d be kind of awkward to return it, you know?” and Sam laughs until his ribs hurt. Glances back at Bucky, and at the painting again. The sky, good fucking god, it’s all reflections on indigo water and Sam can imagine the sky anyway, the soft brightness of it, the delicate unfurling of morning. It’s sketchy at the edges, unfinished, perfectly imperfect, and Sam has never loved anything so much in his life. Has spent hours staring at it, year upon year, tired and hopeful and heartbroken and repaired again, and of course Bucky knows that. Has known that about him since before he knew Sam at all.