The first lead is the Smithsonian because the place has cameras and of course they find the footage of the Winter Soldier—more Bucky than not these days—with chin fuzz and a baseball hat walking through the exhibit. He’s still favoring his human arm, Sam notices. They do sweeps, they ask bystanders and security guards. Nothing.
He sits in a coffee shop across the street while Steve draws on the napkin. Sam is unsurprised to see it’s Bucky’s face.
"Man, you have it bad," he says.
Steve shrugs but is not embarrassed. Sam is beginning to realize that Steve Rogers does not embarrass easy. It must be all those years of being tiny. He must have been the butt of every joke.
He claps him on the shoulder when they stand, giving him a tiny squeeze on the tail end. Just enough of a touch to let Steve know he has a friend.
When they leave the coffee shop, Sam catches a glimpse of shimmer—like sunlight off metal—in the reflection in the glass window.
Sam makes Steve pay for all pizza. No way can Sam afford to keep a supersoldier fed on his savings.
But he’s willing to call it in, make sure there’s no pineapple (because that offends Steve), get the door and spare Steve the moment when the delivery guy geeks out over Captain America. Sam’s a nice guy.
So he’s handing over the wad of bills—the twelve boxes balanced on his hip like a baby because seriously, Steve eats a crazy amount—when he catches another glimpse.
There’s metal and a streetlamp. Just a brief reflection.
He calls Steve and Steve runs into the street calling Bucky’s name.
He’s long gone, though.
Steve folds in a little into himself but he’s not a small guy, not anymore, and he can only fold so much before Sam would start to cry or something equally embarrassing.
Sam pulls him into a hug and Steve drops his head into the crook of his neck with a sigh.
"Want to draw Bucky in the margins of your notebook some while I get plates?" he asked, waving in the direction of the pizza boxes.
Steve huffs a small laugh and says, “yeah.”
Similar things happen. Sam always spots the glint of light, Steve runs blindly forward, and Bucky is always gone.
So it’s a bit of surprise when Bucky hops onto the laundry machine Sam is using in a laundromat. Sam squeaks.
Bucky gives him a look.
Sam finishes folding the pair of boxers in his hands, places them in the basket, and has remembered how to breathe by the time he turns back to Bucky.
"Yes?" he asks. "D’you need something?"
"The thing about Steve," Bucky says, scooting a bit further back on the laundry machine so his legs dangle off the side. He looks so very human, so very normal. “He’s strong and tough, don’t get me wrong. Nobody stronger. But he’s got these soft spots.”
"Yeah, I got that," Sam said, batting one of Bucky’s legs to the side to get to his laundry.
"You have to watch them," Bucky said, lifting the leg out of the way. "Watch the soft spots. He doesn’t know how."
Sam pulled out a pair of jeans and started to fold them. “You know you’re one of them, right?” he asked. “A soft spot, I mean. Probably the biggest one.”
"I thought you’d—" he started to say. He sighed and pushed back the hair from his forehead. It was shorter but still greasy. "I thought you’d get it. Get him.”
Sam put the jeans in the basket and folded his arms. This shit was ridiculous.
"I do,” he said sternly. “And he is at the Starbucks down the block probably doodling your face and writing ‘Steve Barnes’ in with hearts right now.”
"Seriously. So many drawings of your face. I had to give him a drawer in my bureau for them. He has very few clothes, but so many drawings of your face.”
"Look, there’s no reason for you to be—" Bucky said angrily and then stopped himself. He took a breath and continued. "Just. Don’t make this about—just."
He really did look helpless in the conversation…for all that a dude jacked to all hell and with the sort of murder behind his eyes you only get from copious amounts of murder could look helpless.
"If you think he’s going to be happy without you, you’re crazy," said Sam as directly as possible. "He’s not going to stop looking, he’s not going to stop pining, and only you can fix this."
Bucky looked down at his hands. One was gloved. It was a sunny spring day and one of his hands was gloved.
"He shouldn’t—that’s not," he said. "He deserves better. He should want better.” The human hand flexed, clenched and released. “You should want better for him. That’s your job now.”
Sam sighed. “Man, I’m just the dude’s friend and he’s in pain. I see an easy solution. Don’t know about anything else being ‘my job.’”
"You’d better," said Bucky, all menace suddenly. "It’s what you do when you’re—when Steve trusts you like that. You look out for him because he doesn’t know better for himself."
And, yeah, Sam had seen Steve walk silently through the back door behind Bucky a couple second before but he was a soldier. He could keep his eyesight where it needed to be to get the job done.
"Maybe I know better than you, Buck," Steve said.
Again, Bucky jack-rabbited before Steve could take another step. He slammed through the front door, the cheerful little bells almost knocked loose.
"So that could have gone better," said Sam.
Sam wasn't particularly surprised to see Bucky the next time he was out without Steve.
"I didn't explain right," Bucky said, sounding all sorts of New York and not at all like a Russian killer.
"So explain it right," said Sam. He put down the avocado he was holding. It wasn't ripe anyway.
"The thing about Steve," said Bucky. "Is that he thinks the world is full of decent people and that people do good things."
Sam waited for the catch, but Bucky seemed to think he'd gotten to the point. Sam picked up a different avocado.
"Not seeing it, man," said Sam.
Bucky sighed. "That's wrong, is what I'm saying." He plucked an avocado from the pile and tossed it to Sam. It was, of course, the perfect one.
"Still not seeing it," said Sam, a little sing-song-y. "Do that trick with the tomatoes." He pointed at the tomato display an aisle over and pushed his cart over to it. Bucky followed.
"Steve thinks everybody is salvageable," Bucky continued. He picked two tomatoes and handed them to Sam. Perfect again. Sam didn't know what part of Russian murderface required the ability to pick the optimal vegetable from an assortment, but it worked for him.
"I don't think he does," Sam pointed out. "I think it's just you."
"Nah, man," Bucky said--and, geez, dripping with Brooklyn. He also couldn't hide the small smile. "He's always been like that. Bully punches him in the face in a back alley and he tries to buy the guy a drink the next day. Says it's water under the bridge."
"Was it, though?" Sam pushed the cart further, towards the lettuce. Bucky hung back a second and Sam looked over his shoulder. He looked confused. "Was the bully salvageable? Was it water under the bridge?"
Bucky frowned. "Sometimes, yeah, Sometimes he just got beat again."
Sam put a head of iceberg lettuce in his cart and Bucky pulled it back out.
"This shit is pure water," he said. He handed him a bag with "spring mix" written on the side. Sam quirked an eyebrow but left the bag in the cart.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. When Sam reached for a can of soup, Bucky slapped his hand away.
"From scratch or not at all," he said sternly. "Don't act like you don't have the time."
Sam had to wonder what the hell his life had become.
Bucky disappeared a few minutes later, just as Sam was thinking of pointing his cart towards the register.
The next time Bucky showed up, Steve was off jogging alone because Sam had sprained his ankle during a fight with some Hydra agents two days before. Sam was sacked out on his own couch, minding his own business. He made sure Bucky knew that part.
"I'm not even a little bit up in your business right now," he said. "I haven't been doing a damn thing."
Bucky shrugged and sat next to him on the couch.
"How's the ankle?" he asked, looking a bit too intently at it for Sam's comfort level.
"It's sprained," said Sam.
"So it hurts."
Bucky suddenly had the remote in his hands but Sam was absolutely, 100% sure he had been sitting on it. He switched the channel to baseball. It was enough with Steve and his goddamn Dodgers, now this.
"I'll have you know that this is my house and my TV," Sam pointed out.
"You have terrible taste," said Bucky. "You don't even watch the game with Steve." He fixed Sam with a glare, but Sam had been on the receiving end of that glare enough times that he was building up a tolerance.
"That's definitely not part of my job," he said. "That is so thoroughly your job it's not even funny."
"Shaddup," said Bucky.
Bucky came by three more times to change the channel to baseball. Sam was vaguely aware the season had started before, now he was watching almost every fucking game.
The third time, Bucky pulled a bunch of vegetables out of Sam's fridge and made a salad. He handed it to Sam.
"You need more vegetables," he said.
"Jesus christ," said Sam, but he took the salad.
He was complaining about the olives and Bucky was explaining about "authentic Greek salads" when Steve walked in. Steve froze for a second. Sam laughed out loud at the big saucer eyes he was giving Bucky, afraid to startle him like he was a wild animal.
But Bucky just held out a second bowl of salad.
"You need more vegetables too," he said. "And eat your goddamned tomatoes this time."
Steve nodded, clearly trying to make his eyes communicate all sorts of harlequin devotion. Bucky frowned down at the cutting board.
"Bucky wouldn't let me buy canned soup," Sam announced.
"From scratch or not at all," Steve said mechanically, barely registering what Sam had said.
"Yeah, he said that too," Sam agreed.
Someone did a thing in the baseball game on the screen. Both Bucky and Steve turned to watch, both opened their mouths to say something, and both stopped themselves.
"Was that good?" asked Sam. "Was that the team you guys like?"
Seriously. Fucking baseball.
"Like a touchdown or whatever?" he asked, playing dumb. "Was that a touchdown?"
Bucky and Steve started speaking simultaneously in loud, vehement voices. Steve went the route of "America's pastime" and the "long, proud history of baseball" and Bucky was ranting about how no one had respect for the old traditions these days.
Yeah, this could work.
He slept on the couch the first night. Sam knew because he put the goddamn spare blankets out for him and watched him lie down.
He didn't need them the next night, though.
Sam didn't ask.
He did complain loudly the next time Steve left a sketchbook out with Bucky's naked ass painted in intimate, loving detail.