Chapter 1: Shift
My Book Report
by Sam Wilson
For my book report I chose The Star-Spangled Man by Martin Everett, which is the story of Captain America and his friends the Howling Commandos. My mom says that the reading level is a little advanced for the fifth grade but I love Captain America and his friends and I read everything I can about them.
Captain America used to be a skinny kid named Steve Rogers. He lived in Brooklyn (which is in New York) and they wouldn’t let him join the army because he was too small. But Steve Rogers wanted to join his best friend and fight Nazis in Europe. His friend’s name was James Barnes but for some reason everybody called him Bucky, I guess because people gave each other weird names back in World War Two. So instead he volunteered for an experiment run by a very smart man named Abraham Erskine. The experiment was successful and Steve Rogers became the only successful super soldier in history. That was when everybody started calling him Captain America.
Finally the government let him go to Europe, where Captain America rescued his friend Bucky Barnes and the rest of the Howling Commandos from Hydra, who were kind of like Nazis. Captain America had lots of cool friends. I like Gabe Jones because he’s like me and he showed everyone how to respect him back when people maybe didn’t do that as much as they should have, at least according to Mr. Everett in his book. Other than Captain America, my favorite though is probably Bucky Barnes, even though he has a weird name. He and Captain America were best friends and they were a great team together. They were always there for each other.
Of course my book ends kind of sad because Captain America dies and so does Bucky Barnes. But I like that Mr. Everett tells us what happened to the other Howling Commandos and they all seem like they lived pretty cool lives after what happened. I always feel a little sad when I get to that part of the story because I have always wanted to meet Captain America and his friends because they did so many amazing things and they are my heroes. But I still think that Captain America did what was right in the end and I am proud that he could make those decisions, especially after his best friend died. He is still my favorite and that is why I chose to write my book report on him, even though it is a grown-up book.
One year, eight months after Siberia
A fly buzzed next to his ear; irritably, Sam swatted it away, keeping the binoculars steady with his other hand. The sun ground down on his shoulders like a hand. He was soaked with sweat.
He was sitting on the roof of a shabby little building pretending to be a hotel in a town with no visitors. Somebody had painstakingly planted a little row of colorful plants by the front door. Sam’s eyes kept being drawn downwards: the crumbling building, the dust-choked street, the tiny garden.
He was looking again now. Scowling at himself, Sam focused again on the warehouse across the street, scanning each cracked or shattered window. The glass was so dirty that he couldn’t see specifics, and any gaping holes had been covered with canvas. That was a clue. The way that the locals carefully avoided walking on that side of the street was another.
Sam took out his disposable phone and typed in a number.
“Hey,” Steve said. “What’s the situation?”
“Looks like a good bet.” Sam scanned the windows again. Evidence was thin on the ground, but his gut told him that this was the place. “The windows are a mess and they’ve covered up any holes, but why bother doing that in a town this small? Everything looks boarded up but there are tire tracks in the dirt heading towards the back of the building.”
Steve deliberated for a moment. “Okay. This factory here is dead, in more ways than one. Go check it out. I’m on my way, but it’ll take me maybe half an hour to get there from here.”
“Roger that.” Sam put the phone back in his pocket and double-checked the guns hidden beneath the bag on his back. He knew as well as Steve did that they might not have thirty minutes, not with guys like this—guys that the late Brock Rumlow had supplied a couple of years before. If they were smart, and everything pointed in that direction, then they would still have some of the weapons that he’d gotten them.
Sam climbed down off the roof, keeping his profile as small as possible as he lowered himself slowly to a sheet metal awning and from there to the ground. Then he walked around to the front of the building, casual like he belonged here, and ambled off down the street, away from the old warehouse with its shuttered eyes. He still didn’t think it was blind.
He hoped that maybe a cart or an old car would drive by and he could slip across the road in the dust, but nothing happened. All he could hear were the reedy cries of insects, the occasional brush of dry, hot breeze in the grass. He couldn’t even hear any dogs. He looked back at the small garden in front of the hotel, his neck prickling.
He crossed the road, faster than he would have liked, his nerves jingling. He ducked into the brush on the other side and circled around the small buildings there, looking for the back of the warehouse. The little branches scratched his arms, his hands. His shirt clung to his back. Sam wished again, like he had often wished since the Raft, that he had an earpiece, one that connected him to all his teammates. His friends. His friends, who had his back.
But Wanda and Clint were in South America, Scott back in the states, Natasha somewhere in the Czech Republic. He hadn’t seen some of them in months, not since the last time he was in Wakanda, where King T’Challa graciously gave them elegant rooms and clever conversation, and Steve sat by a glass coffin in a cool, clean lab and spoke to his friend who could not hear him.
Sam would miss Wakanda.
He crouched down behind a dry, prickly bush and looked at the back of the old warehouse, pushing aside thoughts of air conditioning and real mattresses. He could see the tire tracks more clearly now—big, wide wheels, sunk deeply into the dirt where it had blown up against the building. They had trucks, trucks carrying heavy loads. Someone was definitely using this warehouse, and they had left one of the loading bay doors at the back up, just wide enough to admit a person.
“Okay, Cap, now would be a really good time to show up,” Sam muttered to himself. But it hadn’t been thirty minutes yet, and Steve would be able to sense this atmosphere a mile away. He’d have to figure out a way to get in without being noticed—like Sam probably had been by now.
He gritted his teeth and darted from his bush to the side of the building. He might be a wanted criminal, he might not have the official title anymore, but Sam Wilson was still an Avenger, and Avengers stopped the bad guys even when they stood a good chance of getting hurt.
Surprisingly, nobody shot at him. Sam pressed flat against the crumbling cement for a moment, calculating the distance from here to the open door. He pulled one of his guns free from its hiding place and ran for it, keeping low as he skidded around the corner, ran past the two closed bays, and slid under the open one like he was making a home run.
The loading bay was dark—the lights were off, or maybe they didn’t have electricity in the first place—but he could still make out the huge, canvas-sided truck through the sunspots. Sam scrambled under it and just lay there for a minute, breathing.
What the hell, he thought. These guys were good, too good to just let him waltz in. Not unless they had something on hand, a weapon powerful enough that it could take him out easily so they weren’t afraid to let him do what he wanted.
Then why haven’t they used it before?
No. Something about all of this wasn’t right.
When his eyes had adjusted, Sam got out from under the truck. Something crunched under his boot. He looked down automatically: glass shards. He looked up: broken driver’s-side window, the man still inside, slumped against his seatbelt. There was blood all over his face, but he was still breathing.
“What the hell?” Sam said out loud. His quiet voice was strangely muffled, even in this large space.
He took out his second gun.
The hallway out of the loading bay was just as dark as everything else. He stepped over three crumpled bodies on his way through, each one alive, though they were bleeding and one of them seemed to have suffered multiple blows from a piece of rebar that had been left lying on the ground. There was a fourth mercenary in the doorway; he had evidently become acquainted with the crappy door itself, more than once. It was like Steve had come through while he was figuring out how to cross the street and taken everybody out, except Steve wouldn’t lie about thirty minutes.
Sam stepped through the doorway into the warehouse proper, raising his guns and scanning the darkness. The only light came through the canvas patching the holes in the windows. It illuminated a mess of high-tech equipment; a couple of unfinished, scary-looking bombs; a dozen or so scattered, unconscious bodies; and one person sitting on the workshop table in the center, his left wrist gleaming.
“The hell took you so long?” Bucky Barnes asked.
Sam’s chest turned over from nerves to exasperation so fast that it almost made him dizzy. “Aren’t you supposed to be frozen?” he said, not lowering his guns. He eyed the shiny wrist suspiciously. “And where’d you get another arm from?”
“T’Challa,” Barnes said, like that explained everything. He got off the table, tapping a bloody steel pipe against his real shoulder absently. “I had you pegged on that rooftop an hour ago. Is this the kind of operation you’re running these days?”
“I’m not running the operation,” Sam said pointedly. “Seriously, how the hell are you here?”
Barnes shrugged. “Drove.”
Sam’s fingers twitched on the triggers. “You’re gonna have to forgive me if I’m not inclined to accept that on faith.”
Steve’s psychotic brainwashed terrorist war criminal friend tapped the pipe against his shoulder again and then dropped it. He reached under his jacket with the inexplicable metal hand.
“Hey,” Sam said sharply.
“Please,” Barnes said, cold and annoyed, and he pulled out a book: red, probably leather, with a star in the middle.
“Are you shitting me,” Sam said, which seemed like the only reasonable response.
Barnes flipped through the pages and then held it out. “Please,” he said again, only this time Sam couldn’t read his tone.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Sam put one of his guns into the back of his pants and took the book. Somebody had hand-written a list of pronunciations on a different sheet of notebook paper and slipped it in as a kind of bookmark. This was handy, since Sam didn’t know any Russian.
“I can’t prove it to you unless you say them,” Barnes said.
“This is fucking ridiculous,” Sam said, but he did, doing his best to read the list and keep his gun trained on him at the same time.
Barnes flinched at the words, turned his face slightly away, his flesh hand knotting into a fist. But he didn’t move, just stood still and listened, and when Sam had reached the end of his piece of notebook paper, he continued standing still. Then he said, “Fuck you, I’m my own man,” and grabbed the notebook back, so fast that Sam actually got a paper cut.
“So, what,” Sam said, tasting the cut with his tongue until it stung, “His Highnesses’ scientists found a way to undo the programming?”
“Four months ago.” Barnes stared down at the red cover. “Took ‘em two months to make it stick. Then they hooked me up with this—” he waved his new metal arm “—and I left before Mr. Secretary could send in the Avengers.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. He swallowed. “We read about that in the papers.”
“T’Challa got off clean, so far as I know. He told me to tell you guys that he’ll help again when he can, but it may not be for a while.”
For a guy who liked to dress up as a cat to fight for justice, T’Challa was one of the most stand-up people Sam knew, and he knew a lot of them. The man standing in front of him right now was not on that list.
“I’m gonna burn this fucking thing,” Barnes announced. He bent the red cover between his hands until it creaked in protest. “But I knew that Steve would just take me at my word. I thought you’d want proof.”
“Damn right,” Sam said.
Just then, somebody took the opportunity to kick in the front door, which had, in fact, been boarded up from the inside. The door skidded across the floor and Steve Rogers leapt into the room, dusty and tanned, with a pistol in one hand. “Sam, are you,” he started to shout, and then stopped short. “Bucky?” he said, like he thought maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him.
Barnes threw the notebook into Sam’s chest, forcing him to fumble his gun to catch it. His eyes were fixed on Steve.
“Hey, Stevie,” he said, and kind of twitched his arms out to his sides. Steve apparently took this as confirmation and encouragement, because he was across the warehouse in a flash and pulling Barnes into a bear hug. Barnes let him—even hugged him back, a little, both sets of fingers curled into Steve’s shirt.
“I’m fine, by the way,” Sam said loudly.
“Because I did all the heavy lifting,” Barnes said into Steve’s shoulder.
Steve laughed at them, sounding a little choked up. He let Barnes go, at least to arm’s length, and said, “What happened?”
“T’Challa,” Barnes said again. “He kept his promise.”
“I checked,” Sam said, partly just to get Steve to look at him. He held up the notebook. “Looks like His Highness did a proper job.”
“You brought that with you?” Steve demanded, whipping back around to stare at Barnes.
“It doesn’t work anymore, Steve,” Barnes said. “That’s the point. I brought it along to prove it. Now I wanna burn it.”
By all rights, the look Steve gave that notebook should have set it on fire in Sam’s hand. He was a little surprised when it didn’t.
Steve looked away again, though, like he had to force himself, and set his eyes back on Barnes’s face. “I don’t know how to even begin to thank him for this,” he said, overwhelmed, choked up again.
Barnes shrugged; he didn’t have an answer either. He hadn’t looked away from Steve, not once, and now he smiled a little, a quirk at the corner of his mouth. Sam noticed that he’d allowed his right hand to rest on Steve’s forearm.
For a second, it was like he stood outside himself, watching himself watch Steve Rogers get his best friend back, and he was shocked at the jealousy that punched through him. He hadn’t thought that he was that shallow.
Two years before Washington, DC
“Dude,” Riley said, crashing into the tent at god knew what time of the morning, “dude. Sam. Sam! You won’t believe it. Wake up!”
“Mmmwake what?” Sam said, forcing his eyes open and half sitting up, his heart dancing polka in his chest. We’re getting called out, he thought. He could get dressed in his flight gear in three minutes flat, he just—
“The paper just came in, man, and it’s just—” Riley flailed his arms around, apparently at a loss for words to describe it, whatever it was, and shoved a newspaper into Sam’s chest. “I practically had to bite someone to get a copy. It’s a brawl out there, man.”
This seemed like an exaggeration, because Sam couldn’t hear anything in particular going on outside, but he obligingly picked up the paper and squinted at it.
CAPTAIN AMERICA ALIVE! the front page of The New York Times screamed in forty-point font, complete with a grainy black-and-white picture of a man in a patriotic uniform holding a shield, and a color photograph of that same man looking lost at the back of a press conference.
“Is this the National Enquirer?” was the first thing Sam thought to say.
“Isn’t it crazy?” Riley said, not bothering to answer this. “I mean, super messed up, but kind of crazy, right?” He said crazy like he meant cool. He shook his head at the paper. “Apparently the ice just froze him when he crashed or something and all they had to do was thaw him out.”
Sam stared at the blond man in the color picture: his hands limp at his sides, his back ramrod straight like he thought he might fall down if he didn’t have something to prop him up. He finally found his voice. “Everybody he knows is dead,” he said, thinking of his stack of Captain America books at home.
“Yeah,” Riley said. “Like I said. Messed up.”
One year, nine months after Siberia
When he was younger, Sam used to daydream sometimes about meeting Captain America and the Howling Commandos. He had watched every TV show and read quite a few books, so he knew what they all really looked like, even Steve Rogers before the serum. He had been so tiny. That was part of what made the whole thing so cool: that even the little guy could become something great.
Steve in real life was a lot like how Sam had imagined him, except for his side helping of sass and that he was a lot more hotheaded than the books and TV shows made him out to be. The other difficult part to reconcile, at least at first, was that Steve in real life was Steve in real life, and he seemed to like Sam immediately.
Barnes, though. Sam used to get offended, sometimes, on his behalf when he watched the TV shows that made him out to be just a kid. He’d seen the real pictures; he knew what the real Bucky Barnes looked like, and he was not a kid. He was a war hero. He had Steve’s back in the days when nobody else did. He died trying to save the world, and he was just a normal guy.
Occasionally, on that long, long trip from Mozambique towards the Czech Republic, Sam reminded himself that he’d never known the real Bucky Barnes, and probably never would. Maybe he would have liked the version from seventy years ago. But as things stood, he knew this Bucky Barnes, and this version was a serious pain in the ass. He spent half of his time monopolizing Steve’s attention by talking—and he was much more talkative these days, at least around Steve—or listening intently to his stories, and the other half of his time monopolizing Steve’s attention by getting really quiet and writing in a separate little notebook that he kept with him at all times.
Sam felt like a shitty person for spending so much time hating a guy who had been through some of the worst hell imaginable, but then Barnes would do something annoying or find some new way to undermine Sam’s position in the group and it became hard to feel guilty again.
Steve didn’t seem to notice. He was actually over the moon, his eyes shining, a new bounce in his step. He smiled at everything. He was so delighted to have them both with him that it didn’t seem to occur to him that everything they said to each other was part of a lengthy and thinly veiled fight.
The latest variation on this theme took place on the train from Rome to Florence. All three of them were wearing some kind of hat and glasses. Sam got the sunglasses, so he thought that he had won that one. Steve looked like a college-aged yuppie studying abroad in a disguise that came Natasha-approved; Barnes somehow managed to pull off “EU resident” and “drifter” simultaneously, which didn’t surprise Sam at all.
He had also managed to involve Steve in an extended recollection about their time in Italy in 1943 in a way that pointedly excluded Sam. “Do you remember when—” was the typical lead-in.
“—Dum-Dum took all that fancy wine from that estate outside Rome?” he said now, turned towards Steve so that all Sam could see was a curtain of long, dark hair and the earpiece of his fashionably gray fake glasses.
Steve laughed, loud and bright. “Oh, god,” he said. “And it got too heavy to carry so we—”
“—just had to drink it all, yeah,” Barnes replied. “We couldn’t just leave it.”
“It was some quality stuff,” Steve told Sam, the biggest grin on his face. Sam was nastily pleased to see Barnes’s own weapon turned against him. “Best we’d ever had, anyway. We couldn’t afford anything like that back home.”
“Reminds me of the time Riley and I came back to the states on leave,” Sam said, pouncing on the opportunity. “We taste-tested every damn brewery in Virginia and got a good start on Maryland before we had to go back. It was really hard for us to get any alcohol at all overseas.”
“You’ve hardly told me anything about Riley,” Steve said softly. He didn’t seem to notice how Barnes had gotten quiet and sullen again, probably because this was Barnes’s default mode. Sam still felt victorious: Steve usually paid all sorts of attention to his crazy friend. Steve’s reaction made sense, because he hadn’t really seen Barnes in over seventy years, but it was still annoying.
For some reason, Sam’s thoughts slid from the way Barnes blatantly tried to claw that attention away from Sam as much as possible. He thought about Riley. He usually didn’t, because the thought of him was hard to stomach. “I kind of talk around him,” he said now. “We didn’t even meet until they started testing the suit, but it was like we’d known each other for years.”
Steve’s eyes were serious and very kind. “Instant connection,” he said.
“Yeah.” Sam swallowed past the lump in his throat. He tapped his fingers against his thigh to ground himself. “He was a real goofball. High energy, you know. That first night, after we met, he dragged me to what he called an ‘underground poker game.’ We wagered little candies, sewing kits, stuff like that, no money or anything, but he’d act like he was playing the high rollers at Monte Carlo.” He smiled. “I kicked his ass that first time.”
“You good at poker?”
“Not really. Riley was just terrible. He sucked, but he handled it like a joke. He said that he was just lulling us into a false sense of security, learning our tells.”
“Steve’s good at poker,” Barnes said, but not quite like he was trying to take over the conversation.
Steve shot a look at him. “No, I’m not, Buck. I can’t play cards to save my life.”
“That’s bullshit,” Barnes said bluntly. “You always cleaned us out.”
“It’s probably because everybody thinks you can’t lie,” Sam suggested. Somehow the idea of this seemed to fit: noble, slightly innocent Steve Rogers, the guy everybody ignored because they thought he was too honest to win a card game.
“His luck is beyond ridiculous,” Barnes replied. “We’d play our hearts out and somehow he’d have a royal flush, lay it down at the end like he didn’t know if it was any good or not.”
Sam made a show of studying Steve, who had opened his mouth to protest. “Lemme guess, you just look serious and worried all the time? Great poker face.”
“Oh, the best,” Barnes said. He might have been smiling a little, but he still had his face turned away from Sam, so it was hard to tell.
“Captain America: champion poker player,” Sam said. “Who knew. You could play the Vegas circuit.”
“I can’t play cards,” Steve protested weakly.
Sam and Barnes had both laughed at him before they realized what they were doing. Barnes shot a quick glance at him, wary and edging back into territorial. The gray frames of his glasses made his eyes burn blue.
“Don’t you remember that bet you made with Morita?” he asked, in an obvious grab for sole ownership of Steve’s attention that Steve himself didn’t notice, and they were crashing back through the annals of the Howling Commandos’ Italian Adventures almost before Sam had processed what just happened.
He was pretty pissed, enough that it didn’t help to remind himself that he was hearing stories that probably nobody left alive knew, little stories of men at war that should have been lost decades ago. A younger Sam would have killed to be able to sit here and hear this. Present-day Sam was sure that he needed to find a way to rein Barnes in—and fast.
One year, ten months after Siberia
It shouldn’t have been surprising that Clint was the first one to bring it up. He had a habit of just saying the things that everybody else was thinking. “That’s my real superpower,” he’d said to Sam one night after the Raft, when they’d had too much to drink and too many memories to forget. “Anti-bullshit. It’s like anti-magic or anti-matter or something, but, you know, I just say it like it is.”
Clint and Wanda had reached Natasha two days before Sam and the Super-Soldier Club arrived. They reported successes in Nicaragua and Chile and a draw in Brazil. “Vis showed up,” Wanda explained, subdued, looking at her shoes.
“We got away before he could find us,” Clint reassured them. “It’s okay. Nobody blew up.”
Wanda was still staring at the ground. When Steve turned away to confer with Natasha, Sam saw Clint squeeze her arm gently. Her answering glance was shy and grateful.
Clint and Wanda’s near-familial relationship was heartwarming; the news that Vision had followed them to Brazil was not. It had been nearly two years since that disastrous day in Russia, the one that Steve had told Sam about when they were all safely back in Wakanda, exhausted and worn to the core. Tony Stark had not forgotten.
“I think he kept the phone,” Steve said sometimes. Sam was pretty sure he needed to hear the reassurance of it aloud. “He doesn’t hate us, not really.”
Looking at Barnes now, as Steve reintroduced him to Clint and Wanda, he wondered how long that would last.
The safe house in the Czech Republic was dingy and a little small for six people, but it had three solid exits over land and a dirty skylight for Wanda. This wasn’t even to mention the hidden compartments that Natasha had constructed under the floorboards, each one packed to the gills with weapons and tech. It was probably as safe as they’d ever be in Europe.
It had two bedrooms. One was more like a closet, but somehow Steve had managed to cram a bunk bed into the tiny space. The other room had two twin beds and some weird trundle bed thing that Wanda found at a thrift store. The sixth person took the broken-down couch in what was the kitchen when somebody was cooking and the living room when they weren’t. They had all agreed that Natasha and Wanda could take the tiny closet if the rest of them cycled through the remaining spots.
Clint was on the couch the night that Barnes vanished. Sam came out of a dream and thought that he heard someone getting up out of that weird trundle bed, gears whirring and clicking; then there was nothing, and when he surfaced again a few hours later, the bed was still empty.
Sam sat up quite suddenly, his heart thumping in his temples. He listened. Steve was out cold in the other bed, sprawled on his stomach with his pillow half over his head. Sam didn’t want to wake him until he knew for sure where Barnes had run off to. Steve worried too much about him as it was.
He climbed out of the creaky bed as quietly as possible, creeping out a gap in the doorway and into the narrow hallway. The door to Natasha and Wanda’s closet was still shut and the tiny window at the end of the hall looked like it hadn’t been opened in at least a decade. He turned to the kitchen/living room instead.
Clint was a lump on the couch, curled up so tight inside the sleeping bag that Sam couldn’t even see his hair. He went into the kitchen half of the room—empty and spooky in the dim moonlight filtering through the skylight—and looked around, even though he already knew that Barnes wasn’t there. The guy was good at lurking in the shadows and being creepy, but not that good.
Sam put his hands on his hips and did a few breathing exercises. God damn it. God damn it. Had he really ever burnt that stupid book? How could they know that he wasn’t under somebody’s control right now? Goddamn but he was a liability, a loaded gun that could go off if you looked at it wrong, and somehow they’d left a weapon like that lying around.
It would tear Steve apart to know that Barnes had gone wrong again.
The little window over the sink squeaked open. Sam jumped a mile and bit down on his own tongue to stop himself from swearing—too loudly, anyway. “Shit!” he said.
“Jesus, calm down,” Barnes hissed. “It’s just me.” He somehow maneuvered himself through the window, over the counter, and onto the cracked tiles, which was, frankly, impressive. Sam didn’t know that somebody with that many muscles could bend like that.
“Where the hell were you?” Sam demanded. It almost made him madder, knowing that Barnes was the sort of person who would go out the window when there was a perfectly serviceable back door not two feet away.
“Walking,” Barnes said, which was just the most typical non-answer that Sam very nearly gave in to the urge to choke him to death.
“For hours?” he said instead. “In the middle of the night?”
Barnes waved his left arm in an arc over the sink. His hand flashed in the moonlight. He had a snotty, textbook-perfect duh look on his stupid face.
“You know what?” Sam said, so mad he couldn’t see straight. He pointed at Barnes’s arm like he was trying to stab it. “That is some fucking bullshit, right there. That is why people invented sleeves and gloves. So that they can go walking outside during the day and still hide their shiny metal fuckoff arm.”
“Oh, and you would know, would you?” Barnes said, frigid as fucking Siberia.
“Yeah, actually. I feel like I have been enough of a mature adult to call myself an expert on how clothing works.”
Barnes’s hands clenched into fists, his arm whirring and humming, ready for a fight. His eyes burned. “You’d better fuck off before I’m tempted to use my ‘metal fuckoff arm’,” he said, in a way that made it abundantly clear that he already was.
Sam held up his hands and backed away one step, very theatrically. “Just like the other three times, then?” he asked.
“Well,” Clint said from the couch. He drew it out in his mouth like taffy and watched, one eyebrow arched, as they flinched away from each other.
Sam put his hands down. Barnes crossed his arms across his chest, like a sullen, overgrown child.
“Sorry we woke you,” Sam said. He glared at Barnes, satisfied when he wouldn’t look back, instead staring fixedly out the window.
Clint completely ignored this. “Steve know about this?” he asked, waving one hand in their general direction, just in case they decided to play dumb.
Neither of them answered. Barnes was still acting like there was something fascinating about the crumbling fence outside. Sam started to feel like a scolded kid, and also a little resentful of Clint’s anti-bullshit powers. Obviously he had no real understanding of the situation.
“You seriously cannot just wander off,” he said to Barnes, deciding to pretend that Clint wasn’t there until he made his point.
“You don’t trust me,” Barnes said bitterly, now mostly to the faucet.
“Why should I?” Sam asked bluntly.
“Dude,” Clint said.
“You think I’d let them take me again?” Barnes demanded, turning around on Sam fast and getting in his face. He used every inch of his height to make himself as threatening as possible. “If Stark found me, I’d be dead. If someone else found me, I’d be dead, because I’d kill myself before I let them use me again.” He said each word like he meant them to be a slap. “I’m never hurting Steve,” he said. “Not again.”
“Seriously, do I need to call Steve in here?” Clint asked. “Because, like, I know this house is super shitty, but I kind of like how we mostly don’t have to worry about dying while we’re here.”
Barnes stepped back slowly, still glaring.
“Okay,” Clint said, drawing out the vowels. “So am I reading this right? You do know that Natasha goes walkabout sometimes at night too, right?”
“Natasha is probably the most capable person I know,” Sam said quickly.
Clint nodded. “Okay, true. But that guy”—he pointed at Barnes—“could catch even her. Despite the, uh, metal hand issue, I’d say that him successfully vanishing for however long that was, before it took the UN to flush him out, proves that he can be trusted to walk around and not get caught.”
Barnes shot Sam this horribly superior look.
“Dude,” Sam protested.
“Of course,” Clint said ruthlessly, cutting him off and speaking to Barnes now, “I don’t really think you’re all right there in the head, man. I’ve been there,” he said, when Barnes’s face shut down. “Back in the day, Thor’s dick brother got into my head and fucked shit up. I talked it out with a therapist for a long, long time. I’d send you to one except you’d probably get arrested or something and Steve would flip.” He sighed. “So. You’re right. And you’re right. But this right here?” He waved his hand between them again. “That is some bullshit. It’s like you guys never learned to share or something.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” Sam said, even though he was afraid that he did.
Clint rolled his eyes. “Whatever. You’re both jealous. You’re both Steve’s best friends, but who’s the best friend?” He snorted and scrubbed a hand through his hair, which was already a mess. “Who cares? I don’t think Steve does. God, you’re giving me a headache.” He flopped back down onto the couch, which squealed like it was about to break in half.
They stood silently in the kitchen for a moment. Sam felt Barnes glance at him, but he didn’t look back.
“Also, if you could leave, that would be great,” Clint said to the ceiling. “It is impossible to sleep with you two staring at me. Please go away.”
They went, Sam leading and Barnes trailing along behind. Sam stopped; the hallway was too narrow for Barnes to pass him, so he had to wait while Sam turned and looked up at him, squinting in the dark.
“What were you really doing?” he asked, very quietly.
Barnes’s face was in shadow; it was impossible to tell what his expression was. Finally, he said, “I killed a man here, few blocks over. He was supposed to be alone. I hadn’t quite finished and his wife came home with the kids. I think they came back early from vacation.” He was silent for a long time, long enough for the initial wave of nausea in Sam’s stomach to retreat a little. When he continued, his voice was so quiet that Sam had to strain to catch it. “No witnesses. That was the order.”
Sam swallowed. It sounded very loud in the dark hallway. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
“Wasn’t it?” Barnes said. “It was my hand that snapped those kids’ necks. It was so easy. God, they couldn’t have been ten.” He sounded exhausted.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Sam repeated. He remembered what he’d thought earlier, standing in the kitchen, and something curdled inside him. “You were just a weapon,” he said. “It wasn’t you. You were just the gun. Somebody else pulled the trigger.”
“Guns kill people,” Barnes said, wry, like he’d heard somebody say it and he was parroting it back.
“People kill people,” Sam corrected. “The gun’s just the how.”
Barnes didn’t reply. He just shook his head, half denial and half like he was trying to get the murdered family out of his mind. He pressed the heel of his real hand to his temple. “I’m done now,” he said quietly, and Sam let them back into the room, where Steve was still asleep, apparently unaware that they’d been gone in the first place.
Two years after Siberia
Then Sharon broke up with Steve.
It was, as far as Sam could tell, a mutually agreed breakup. He’d had a couple of them himself that involved a lot more tears and throwing things, and Sharon knew a lot of secrets that could have done a lot of damage.
“She won’t tell anyone anything,” Steve told them one day over breakfast—himself, Wanda, Clint, and Sam at the small table, Natasha and Barnes by the stove—because Sharon’s defection endangered more than just himself. This was also the first anyone had heard about it—Sam had gotten good enough at reading Barnes’s tells to see, with one quick glance, that Steve hadn’t even told him. “This is just a very serious commitment, and she feels that she can do more good elsewhere.”
“Shit. Sorry, man,” Clint said, ever the plain talker.
Wanda put her hand on Steve’s forearm.
Natasha got him a new cup of tea.
“You need us to do anything?” Sam asked. It was the only thing he could think of. He tried not to make it sound too gentle.
“I think we should blow one of our smaller hideouts, give her something to take back to Tony,” Steve said, pretending like he wasn’t a little heartbroken by focusing on logistics. He had ignored everybody’s gestures in a way that wasn’t like him; perhaps he thought, if he acknowledged them, that he wouldn’t be able to keep control of himself. “That’ll make things more genuine. She’s too good an agent, somebody will take her back if she can prove herself.”
“She swears she won’t say anything?” Natasha asked. Sam realized, startled, that she was pretending not to be hurt by this too. She had liked Sharon.
“I will keep an eye on her for a little while, if you would like,” Wanda offered. “I can read intentions, I will see if she means to keep her word. Scott can help me. He is over there already.”
“That’s right, Scott will help,” Clint said. “Him and his friends. I mean, not that I think Sharon is lying to us, but that way we’ll have warning just in case something goes wrong.”
Natasha nodded. She went back to the teakettle and fiddled with the handle, her fingernails perfectly manicured, even in this situation. “That would probably be best,” she said. “And I think you’re ready to take lead on a mission, Wanda. You’ve earned it.”
Wanda startled, then flushed with pride. She sat up a little straighter in her chair. “Thank you,” she said, doing her best to ignore Clint waggling his eyebrows and elbowing her in the ribs.
“If that’s what you think we should do, Nat,” Steve said finally, with some difficulty. He still managed to smile warmly at Wanda. “It’ll be dangerous, but I know you can handle it.”
Wanda turned, if possible, even pinker.
At the end, Barnes moved from the sink and stood behind Steve’s chair. He squeezed his shoulder roughly with his flesh hand. He didn’t say anything, just sort of quirked his lips when Steve looked up at him.
“Yeah, well,” Steve said. His eyes were a little damp. “Thanks, you guys.”
“Her loss,” Barnes said, in that gentle way he only had with Steve.
“Buck,” Steve said. He almost sounded exasperated.
“I’m just saying,” Barnes said. He didn’t let go of Steve’s shoulder. “If she can’t see a long-term commitment with Steve Rogers as worth it, then it’s her loss.”
Steve glared at him. Some of it was true irritation at Barnes’s attack on his only-recently-ex-girlfriend. Some of it was gratitude that Barnes was taking the blunt, obnoxious approach, giving voice to some of those thoughts that Steve was too good or too down on himself to ever say out loud.
“You know, man’s got a point,” Clint said.
“All right, that’s enough,” Steve said roughly. “Sharon’s still on our side, even if she’s not with us anymore.”
“We should let Scott know what is happening,” Wanda said to the room at large, tactfully taking the pressure off of Steve.
“And transportation,” Clint added. “We’ll have to figure out transportation. Nat?”
Natasha made a thoughtful noise and abandoned the teakettle. “Okay. Come with me to the data point, then, and we’ll give Scott an update and figure something out for Wanda.” She had insisted on locating any internet-capable devices in a separate location, so they couldn’t accidentally alert anyone to the true safe house.
In moments, the three of them were gone: Clint and Natasha as a young couple seeing the sights, Wanda as a university student on her way to class. Somehow, the house seemed quieter without them.
Steve hadn’t moved from the table. He was drinking Natasha’s cup of tea very slowly, tracing the ring of moisture left on the wood with one finger.
Barnes was hovering, and quite obviously at that: he kept anxious watch on the back of Steve’s neck, fiddling with the glove over his metal hand. He’d peel it partway back, exposing shining silver, then tug it back down, as precisely as possible; he’d take it off completely, attempt to put it on his other hand, then put it back on. When he started biting at the fraying cuffs, Sam knew it was time to take action.
“Steve,” he began.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Steve said immediately. He’d been prepared for the ambush.
“You know how Sharon is,” Sam said anyway. “She doesn’t want to be defined by anyone except herself.”
“I know,” Steve said.
“This isn’t like before, Stevie,” Barnes said around a mouthful of glove, clearly trying to be helpful.
Steve snorted. “What, you mean like every other time?”
Sam knew enough about Steve’s history—about their history—to tell that Barnes only barely managed to bite back a nasty comment about Sharon and almost every other girl in Steve’s basically nonexistent dating history. He ended up saying nothing.
“He just means that this—well, it’s just that we’re all in a difficult situation here,” Sam said, taking a stab at backing Barnes up, at defusing that tension in Steve’s voice. “You more than most. It’s a lot to handle.”
Steve just grunted. He took another sip from the chipped mug, although he’d been working on that for so long by now that Sam was pretty sure it had to be empty.
“It sounds like she’ll be neutrally on your side.” Sam could see how much it cost Barnes to say that. He made a face at the floor like he’d tasted something bad.
“You could use a neutrally positive force over there,” Sam added. “Tony has no voices of reason left.”
“She’s kind of like Peggy that way,” Barnes said. “You never could tell her what to do either. Always did what she thought was right.”
“And she helped found SHIELD,” Sam reminded everyone, which he was sure wasn’t necessary, but he felt like it needed to be said. “Look where it got her. Sharon can do a lot of things now that she couldn’t before, when she was so tied with us.”
“Look, I get it, okay?” Steve said. “I already know all of this. I respect her decision. I’m fine with it.” His hackles were up, though, the ones that he’d worked so hard to hide in front of the others. Steve was angry, and weirdly defensive. “I just don’t get why you two are being so nice to each other about it. Is this what it takes to make you get along?”
Barnes flicked Steve on the ear with his real fingers, expression set. “Steven Grant Rogers,” he said.
“You’ve been fighting this whole time,” Steve said, that anger still simmering just under his skin. “Don’t think I didn’t notice.”
Sam licked his lips. His chest was all knotted up. “We’re working on it,” he said as calmly as possible. “Steve, you should’ve said something.”
“Obviously I just hoped that you guys would stop being so childish about it.”
“Who’s being childish now?” Barnes retorted. He flicked him again, and this time Steve tried to swat him away, twisting in his chair to fend him off. “Haven’t seen you like this since you were as big around as a twig,” he went on relentlessly. “So tiny you couldn’t do anything with that stupid temper.”
“Oh, I can do something now,” Steve snapped.
“And I’ll kick your ass,” Barnes snapped back. “Me and Wilson here. We’ll beat some sense into you.”
“Seriously, Buck? I could take you both.”
“Yeah?” Barnes shrugged his metal shoulder, the gears whining to life. When he swung it, like he was calibrating the movement, it sang a little, a familiar sound that Sam hadn’t heard in years. “Threaded with vibranium, pal,” Barnes said. “T’Challa doesn’t skimp. I haven’t tested it out yet, but I’m thinking he knows his stuff.”
“You think I don’t know your moves by now?” Sam asked while Steve was busy looking startled. “This is a one-two team, Cap. You don’t stand a chance.”
Steve stared at the two of them in astonishment. He blinked and suddenly started laughing, darker than the bright ones that he’d pulled out when Barnes came back, but real and sounding more like the Steve that Sam was used to than the one that had been sitting at the table since this morning. He laughed and laughed until he had to cover his face and sit quietly for a minute.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, ragged and thin. “I’m sorry. That was horrible of me.”
Sam and Barnes looked at each other at the same time, a quick bolt of eye contact. Sam was pretty sure they were both saying thank you.
“Hey, man,” Sam said, reaching out to pat Steve’s arm. “I’ve been there a time or two myself.”
“You do remember that time on Insight C, right?” Barnes asked. He leaned against the back of Steve’s chair, protective, a wall of dark hair, broad shoulders, and multiple layers.
“That wasn’t you,” Steve said immediately, still into his palms.
“Well, kinda,” Barnes said. “There always were times I wanted to punch you in the face.”
Steve laughed once, a laugh that was really more like a sob. “Vibranium, really?” he said at last.
Barnes grinned. “T’Challa thought you could use something as a sort of replacement for the shield,” he said. “He’s probably working on an actual replacement as we speak. You should’ve heard him wax poetic about that thing.”
“What, he develop an appreciation for it when Steve kept hitting him?” Sam asked.
“You want the symbolic lecture or the practicality lecture?” Barnes said, quirking one eyebrow. “I have them both memorized. I’m as good as a tape recorder.”
“Oh, man!” Sam groaned theatrically, covering his eyes. “And you were so convincing with the hoodie and the youthful face! Way to give away your age, dude!”
Barnes blinked, startled and confused. “What?”
“People haven’t used tape recorders for decades. Man, Hydra must not have made with the modernizing, huh?”
“Yeah, because that was real high on their list of priorities where I was concerned,” Barnes said, rolling his eyes. Sam could tell that he was secretly amused.
Steve had taken his face out of his hands to watch them, his eyes red and wet. He was smiling a little. He looked much better, in a weird, backwards way, than he had this morning. “Don’t look at me, Buck,” he said when Barnes did exactly that. “I was still listening to records.”
“Vinyl’s making a comeback, though,” Sam told him. “The tape recorder thing, though? Not even hipsters use those.”
“Guess you’re the old man now,” Steve said to Barnes, still with the slight smile.
“Okay,” Barnes said agreeably. “Then one of you young sprightly fellas can do the dishes, while I go avoid aggravating my winter joints and listen to tapes in my tape player.”
Steve laughed for real, that bright thing, and Sam found himself joining in. For a moment, he realized that it was kind of great, sitting in a dingy kitchen in a (probably) safe house with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, having just helped one of them through a breakup and the other tell a joke.
Goddamn, Sam thought, delighted. He was practically an honorary Howling Commando.
Two years, two months after Siberia
Natasha had a mission, but she had also received a mysterious message at the data point, and she was pretty sure it involved Bruce Banner and Tibet.
“Go,” Steve told her immediately. “Go, Nat. We can handle this.” He smiled and hugged her close. It was a sign of her fondness for Steve and how overwhelmed she felt that she let him do it. “If you find him, will you promise me to let us know you’re safe before you go?”
“I promise,” Natasha said. She pushed him away so that she could look him in the eye. “But who knows, Rogers. Maybe I can bring him back on, this time in a strictly advisory capacity. Maybe I’ll bring him back with me.”
“If anyone could, you can,” Steve said. “But please, just… choose the option that will make you happy.”
She looked briefly stunned and then got her expression under control. “Understood,” she said, and smiled. “Captain.”
She allowed Sam and Barnes to say goodbye to her, and promised to send a message to Clint, who still wasn’t back from escorting Wanda back to the United States. Then she packed her bag and left, and the three of them went to Albania instead.
This time, Sam insisted on bringing earpieces from Natasha’s stash under the floorboards. “Don’t you remember how annoying it was to have to call people constantly?” he said to Steve. “And the reception in Mozambique was terrible.”
Steve barked a laugh. “All right, fine, you’ve made your point. I’ll grab some.”
So that was how Sam got to sit on the roof of a crappy hostel, looking through binoculars at the steady trickle of people down below, with Barnes saying into his ear, “Steve, you might want to think about getting out of there. There’s a car here that I don’t like the look of.”
“ETA?” Steve asked, brisk and efficient as always. He was in the also pretty crappy laboratory across the street from Sam, looking through the filing cabinets. The lab, Natasha had informed them, had been linked to several batches of drugs in the European club scene. Instead of psychedelic visions or pretty colors, though, these drugs apparently induced euphoria and then murderous, foaming-at-the-mouth psychosis.
“Couple of minutes, tops.” Barnes was a street over, up on the tallest building for blocks. Sam had never seen a better example of Soviet architecture in his life.
“Keep me posted,” Steve said. Clearly he wasn’t done looking yet.
Sam turned his binoculars briefly to the lab’s windows, which were at least much easier to peer through than the ones in Mozambique. He couldn’t see Steve, but he couldn’t see any other movement in the building, either.
He redirected his focus to the street below. A dark blue van was edging its way around the corner, trying to force pedestrians to get off the crosswalk without actually running anybody over. This seemed like a strangely considerate gesture for a bunch of drug dealers who didn’t appear to care that their product made its users bite people, but Sam could see why Barnes had pegged it as suspicious.
“I can see the car now,” he said. “Cap, I think he’s right. Better safe than sorry.”
“Which direction are they approaching from?” Steve did not sound urgent or hurried.
This wasn’t a yes, certainly, I will be leaving right now, which Barnes took immediate issue with. “I thought we said no narrow escapes,” he said.
The blue van continued to creep through innocent civilians. The driver really was being considerate. Too considerate, almost—the street wasn’t that busy, surely the van could have been more aggressive and still been well within the bounds of common decency.
The back of Sam’s neck prickled.
“Something’s definitely off here,” he said. “Grab what you can and get out of there. They’re approaching from the west, very slowly. Barnes, you see anything else on the other streets?”
“Nothing like a creepy van,” Barnes said bluntly. “I’ll look again. Steve, will you listen for once and please leave?”
“Courtesy, Buck?” Steve asked, teasing. “Is it really that serious?”
“Yeah, you’re a real riot, Rogers,” Barnes retorted. “Laugh it up a—”
He broke off so abruptly that at first Sam thought his earpiece had died. He raised an automatic hand to touch it, like that would do any good.
“Bucky?” Steve said.
The gunshot cracked over the fairly quiet streets, loud, one-two in quick succession. Sam immediately grabbed one of his own guns as the people on the street below startled and scattered, running for the shelter of the nearby buildings. Someone screamed.
The blue van responded by finally stomping on the accelerator, careening through the crowds toward the laboratory.
“Steve, get out of there, now!” Sam yelled. He got up on his knees and directed his binoculars toward the tall, crumbling apartment block.
“Bucky?” Steve said again. The teasing tone was gone.
“Steve, fucking listen to him!” Barnes said, really fast, getting it out like speaking was a distraction that he couldn’t afford. Sam could see dark figures darting around on the rooftop, but they were all wearing dark clothing and the rooftop wall partially obscured them.
The gun went off again, three-four. Suddenly one of the dark shapes detached itself from the others, vaulted onto the lip of the wall, and jumped without hesitation onto the roof of the building next door, an easy four-story drop.
“Okay, everybody pull back to the meet point,” Sam said. “Barnes, can you make it?”
“Steve, are you leaving?” Barnes demanded, breathless and winded, probably from that landing. At least he was still talking.
“I can meet you on the street,” Steve said immediately.
“Get away with the documents!” Sam said. “I’ll get down on the street.” He scrambled to his feet, shoved the binoculars into his bag, pushed the gun into the back of his pants and covered it with his shirt. “Seriously, Steve, they’re getting out of the van, just make sure they don’t catch you!”
“I’ll meet you at the apartment,” Barnes promised. He still sounded like he’d had the breath knocked out of him. “Go!”
Sam took the stairs to the bottom level of the hostel two at a time. A good number of pedestrians had forced their way through the doors and now huddled in the tiny reception area and the narrow hallway towards the rooms at the back, those nearest the windows peering through with wide eyes.
Sam did his best to pretend that he was a confused tourist. He stood on the bottom step and craned to see over their heads, looking to see what was going on out on the street. He could see the bumper of the blue van. It looked like it was just sitting there.
“On the street now,” Steve reported. “Buck, are you sure—”
“Yes,” Barnes said.
Sam nudged his way through the crowd, struggling to remember how to say “excuse me” in Albanian. He drew a blank. Most of the people were still craning towards the front of the building, though, and didn’t seem to mind too much that he was heading in the opposite direction. Others were going that way too, blank-faced, the kind of fear that had become a constant companion.
It was times like this that made it hard to continue. What was the point, when they could never make any real difference for people like these? For the frightened townspeople in Mozambique?
You can’t save everybody, Sam reminded himself in a voice that sounded like Steve’s.
He held the back door for a young mother, her arm clamped firmly around the shoulders of her son. She walked past him without seeming to see him. The two of them went one way, and Sam looped around another, heading back towards the tiny apartment that Natasha had procured for this mission before she left.
He saw a couple of police cars drive by, sirens screeching, but they didn’t slow or even seem to look at him twice. They were focused in the direction of the crumbling apartment building.
Nobody had spoken over the comms in a while, but now Steve said, “I’m at the apartment. Where are you guys?”
“Nearly there,” Sam said, keeping his head turned away from the street so that people wouldn’t see him talking to himself. He walked slowly, thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack. Just a tourist.
Barnes didn’t answer. You couldn’t answer immediately all the time, though, not when you were trying to be stealthy, so Sam wasn’t worried. He could tell that Steve probably was, even though he didn’t say anything, but Steve could wait another five minutes.
He turned the corner, into the little alley where the stairwell of their apartment opened up, and found that Barnes had beaten him there and was slouched against the wall, his head tipped back. His eyes were closed.
“Taking a breather?” Sam asked him, walking a little faster now that he was so close. He fiddled with his earpiece a little, turning it off again.
“Something like that,” Barnes said, without opening his eyes. He was holding himself very strangely, his metal arm dangling and the other draped awkwardly across his chest, half-hidden beneath one of his many layers.
Sam’s footsteps stuttered. His heart leapfrogged. “Dude,” he said. “Hey, you okay?”
“May need your help on the stairs,” Barnes said. “I’m just—a little dizzy.”
“Okay,” Sam said. Up close, Barnes was paler than usual; he looked clammy, his shaggy hair sticking to his forehead. “Yeah, all right, I can do that.” He had to be holding his real arm like that for a reason, so Sam grabbed the metal one, maneuvering it up and over his shoulders. It was shaped like an arm but it was hard, unyielding, heavier than a real limb should be. “What happened? What are we looking at?”
“Gunshot,” Barnes reported. He opened his eyes and slowly lurched off the wall. He put a lot of weight on Sam’s shoulders, but he stayed upright. “It’s okay. Just blood loss. And the jump, that probably wasn’t a good follow-up. But it’s okay.”
He did not seem okay, but Sam didn’t argue the point. He got the door to the stairs open and the two of them inside. They went up slowly, and Barnes hissed through his teeth once or twice. His coat, pressed between them, was wet.
Steve had been so patient. Sam hadn’t wanted to freak him out, have him running down the steps and causing a huge fuss, possibly catching someone’s attention. But Barnes was getting heavier by the step and Steve could probably drag him up to the fourth floor a hell of a lot faster.
He turned the earpiece back on. “Hey, Steve?” he said, careful not to sound freaked or anything, because that might set Steve or Barnes off.
“What is it?” Steve asked immediately. He sounded like he was halfway to a panic attack as it was.
“Apparently it’s not a big deal,” Sam said, “so don’t freak out. I just need your help getting your buddy here up to the apartment. He’s a lot heavier than he looks.”
Steve didn’t respond. For a second, Sam wondered if this was because he was losing his shit in the apartment, but it turned out that Steve just couldn’t be bothered with follow-up questions and was already coming down the stairs. He had been pretending not to be Steve Rogers, but even the hipster glasses and the hat couldn’t hide how white his face got when he saw them.
“Just need your help getting to the apartment, that’s all,” Sam said in his most soothing, it’s all good voice.
Steve nodded, tight-lipped. He took Sam’s place, Sam ducking out from under Barnes’s arm and Steve shouldering it instead, looping his arm around Barnes’s back.
“Whoa,” Barnes said. He sounded drunk. “I am really okay.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Steve said. He sounded excessively sober and maybe a little pissed.
They made it up to the apartment quietly, though, which was all they really needed, and Steve edged them through the door without having to loosen his grip on Barnes or reposition them, and then lowered him down onto one of the rickety wooden chairs that came with the place. Sam got his first glimpse at Barnes’s face since they’d started up the stairs and didn’t like how pale he was, how glassy his eyes were.
“It’s okay,” Barnes said for about the millionth time, focusing on Steve, who was throwing the contents of his duffel bag all over the room to find the first aid kit. “Just stop the bleeding and I’ll be fine in a few hours.”
“That does not look ‘fine’ to me,” Sam said, because somebody needed to say it.
“Functional, though,” Barnes said. “It’ll heal up all right.”
Steve came back, their finely tuned kit clutched in his hand. He crouched down and started tugging at Barnes’s clothes. “Let me see,” he demanded.
In the end, it took Steve and Sam together—Barnes was more of a hindrance than a help—to get Barnes’s coat and zip-up hoodie off his metal shoulder so that they could even see where he had his hand clamped. His skin was wet and red with blood; his clothes were soaked with it. The only reason he hadn’t attracted attention was that his coat was black.
He’d been shot twice in the left side: an apparent through-and-through and a deep graze just below it. “Wasn’t expecting ‘em,” Barnes said. “They sent some of their druggies up. I let myself get distracted. It’s my fault.”
“Shut up,” Steve ordered. “Stop talking. That has to hurt.” He bit his lip; he stared at the wounds, unable to tear his eyes away. “We need to figure out how to get you to a hospital.”
“I’m not sure we can do that,” Sam said in a low voice. He was thinking about Barnes’s metal arm, about how that would be kind of impossible to hide, about how Tony Stark would surely find out.
Steve glared at him, so heated that Sam wanted to flinch back, but Barnes said, “He’s right, Stevie. ‘Sides, it’ll all be okay. I told you. Just stop the bleeding.” He paused to catch his breath, and then continued, suddenly sounding like he was in pain, like he was tired, “I’ve had worse. I don’t scar easy.”
Steve’s hands clenched into fists, but he wasn’t glowering at them in particular now. He took a deep breath and very obviously boxed up that anger and set it aside for later. “Okay,” he said. “Then we stitch them up. Sam, help me get these shirts off.”
One of the things about Barnes was that where Steve was so clean-cut and tidy, his best friend never seemed to wear anything less than three days’ worth of stubble and that long hair and about sixteen layers of shirts and sweaters and coats. He hadn’t been wearing a Kevlar vest, but Sam was still actually a little surprised that the bullets had gotten through the sheer amount of clothing that Barnes had on.
Sam had also never seen Barnes with all of that off. He was clearly built—you could tell that even through the shirts and sweaters and coats, so that wasn’t exactly a surprise. The arm, though. That looked like it had been welded on, and the way it moved when he breathed was weird and fairly horrible to look at, probably just because Sam wasn’t used to it.
He did notice, because his brain was trying to avoid watching heaving machinery, that T’Challa had redone the star on Barnes’s shoulder. Now it was red, white, and blue, one layered neatly over the other.
“The pain pills in there?” Sam asked Steve, who was rooting around in the first aid kit for the right needle.
“Yeah.” Steve pulled out the bottle and tossed it to him. He left bloody fingerprints on the neat white label.
“I’ll get a glass of water,” Sam told the room in general. He went to the tiny kitchenette and looked in the cabinets for a glass. He could have sworn that they had some, but the cabinets were empty except for some food they’d stashed up there. Finally, he thought to actually look in the sink, where all of the breakfast dishes sat, including the three mismatched glasses. He quickly washed one, using the crappy hand soap from the windowsill, filled it with water, set it on the counter. He turned to check on their progress as he shook a couple of pills into his palm.
Steve was focused on the long gash. As best as Sam could see over his shoulder, he’d already neatly tied off the first half of the through-and-through. His hands were steady and sure, fingers braced against Barnes’s ribs.
Barnes didn’t think anyone was watching him, or he was exhausted, or the blood loss had gotten to him. Probably all three, Sam thought. In any case, he hadn’t checked his expression, and he was staring at Steve and Steve’s hand on his skin with unmistakable longing.
Sam turned around as quickly as he could while still being stealthy about it, feeling horribly like an elephant blundering around in some secret grove. He turned the faucet on again just to be loud, then picked up the glass, even though it was already full, banged it against the side of the sink, and filled it up more. When he turned around again, Barnes had his face under control, and Sam could give him the pills to pop and then the glass to swallow them down with.
“Stop moving,” Steve said without looking up.
“Just the pills,” Sam said. This seemed like a fairly stupid response to him, but neither of them seemed to notice.
Steve did have to push Barnes around in the chair to get to the hole in his back. To stop himself from thinking, Sam found the bandages and medical tape among the now-completely-disorganized first aid kit, which now looked almost as though Steve had thrown the contents all over the floorboards and then stuffed them back in, as haphazardly as possible.
“Go wash your hands first,” Sam told Steve when he snipped off the final knot and reached for the bandages. “Germs, dude.”
“Oh. Right.” Steve scrambled to his feet.
Sam supposed that he could have put the bandages on himself, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Barnes and his I don’t scar easy, or the way he’d looked at Steve. “Drink more,” he said, pointing to the glass that Barnes was still holding in his hand. “You have to replace those fluids.”
Barnes dutifully drained the glass. Sam took it back to the sink when Steve was done and made a big show out of waiting for the water to get cold again. This didn’t take as long as he made it seem, but he managed to miss most of Steve carefully taping the bandages into place. He still felt like he was intruding on something intensely private, and hoped that neither of them noticed that he felt that way.
Luckily, Barnes didn’t seem up to noticing much of anything at the moment. He drank several more glasses of water while Steve found some spare clothes for him—even the waistband of his jeans was soaked with blood—and then they temporarily locked him in the bathroom to change.
“We should get out of here as soon as possible,” Sam said to Steve, collecting Barnes’s ruined clothes in a pile. “I’ll look into Natasha’s exit strategy, see if I can find a way to move it up.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Steve said. He was still staring at the bathroom door, but his brain seemed to be working on other things, because he added, “I passed a used car lot on my way back. Might be able to get a ride cheap there, drive back to the safe house that way.”
“Oh, speaking of,” Sam said, remembering why they were here in the first place, “what did you get from that freaky lab?”
Steve pried himself away from door-watching and went to find the trendy hipster bag that Natasha had picked out for his disguise months ago. It was a sort of leather messenger satchel, but the shoulder strap tightened enough that it fit snugly against Steve’s body and he could run with it. He opened the main pouch now and showed Sam the files and tiny little cassettes stuffed inside. “Patient records and formulas, mostly,” Steve said. “I don’t know how complete it is, but it’ll get us a starting point. We might be able to smuggle the formulas to Interpol through T’Challa. They’ll have better resources for this.”
Barnes opened the door and listed up against the frame. “Is that what we got?” he asked. He was making a valiant attempt at keeping his eyes focused on them. He’d refilled the glass in the sink and took another drink.
Steve held out the bag so he could see. “We’ll find some way to stop them,” he said. Sam got the feeling that these particular drug dealers would be stopped regardless of whether or not Interpol ever got involved.
“Look, Wilson.” Barnes pointed into the bag with a shiny finger. “Tapes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a tape player?”
“Yeah, you’re real funny,” Sam said, deadpan. He hid his relief that Barnes could joke. “You’re a riot. You should get your own stand-up act.”
“I try,” Barnes said. He listed more dangerously against the doorframe.
“Okay, enough,” Steve said firmly. He shut his fashionable bag and set it aside, grabbing Barnes and towing him over to one of the three, cot-like beds in what passed as the bedroom. He sat Barnes down, hands solidly on his shoulders. “Take a nap. Sam and I are going to find a way out of here.”
“I’ll be functional again in five or six hours,” Barnes said, like this was good news.
“Take a nap,” Steve repeated. It was only when he turned away that Sam could see his anger and pain, probably at the way Barnes said “functional” and how he had an exact timetable, because that made Sam feel fairly sick too.
It was only when Steve turned away that Sam spotted Barnes’s longing again, quick and sideways, like the draft through a cracked window.
This was more than he’d bargained for. But now was the time for figuring out an escape route back to the Czech Republic, not contemplating how this complicated their weird dynamic. Sam imagined putting these revelations in a box and the box on a high shelf somewhere, and went to make some phone calls to the dealer that Steve remembered, while Steve sat at the tiny coffee table and plotted their retreat, carefully poised to hear Barnes if he ever called for him.
Two years, two months after Siberia
Steve, armed with his hipster disguise and his nice smile, got them some fast food from a gas station and brought it back to where they’d parked the car. The rest stop had advertised a scenic view, and Sam, staring at the green-sided mountains in the distance, thought that, for once, a gas station pullover wasn’t exaggerating.
Barnes, more or less fully recovered from being shot three days ago, had wandered off, but at the moment Steve didn’t seem inclined to look for him. He sat down next to Sam on the bench and handed him a hamburger and a soft drink. He carefully set a similar collection of food on his other side.
“I also got us some of these donuts,” he said, holding up a little brown bag before placing it with Barnes’s stuff. “Pastries here are pretty good. Maybe even at gas stations.”
“Donuts are always good,” Sam said. He took a bite of his hamburger. It was just like all European hamburgers—somehow just not quite right. He was suddenly homesick, in that way it sometimes snuck up on him, and took a hasty drink of soda. He hated wondering when (or if) he would ever get home again, especially in a place like this, with a view like that.
He kind of thought that Steve had noticed, but he seemed to sense that he shouldn’t say anything. He was good at the quiet stuff. Good at listening, good at being there.
“They just sort of pop up, don’t they?” Sam said. He took a break from eating to look at the peaks, really study them. They were old, still majestic, but they lacked the sharp teeth that Sam had seen in newer ranges. These mountains were elegant. Beautiful. “There’s nothing, and then just—bam.”
“It is very pretty here,” Steve said, his voice subdued. He made a slight face. “I don’t mean to imply that it’s—not far that way,” he said, pointing, “was where Hitler had his summer home. Berchtesgaden. And not too far that way”—he pointed across the mountains in the other direction—“is where Schmidt’s headquarters were.” He was quiet for a second while Sam put ‘pretty mountains’ and ‘Nazis’ together, and then added, “Bucky fell off a cliff over that way too.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Sam said.
“Don’t be,” Steve said immediately. “The Alps are very beautiful. I’m glad that everyone can appreciate them now.” He opened up the bag of donuts and offered it to Sam. “Tell me if they’re any good.”
“You trying to poison me, Rogers?” Sam asked, obediently reaching in to take one out. They were round and flat, each shaped slightly differently from the others, and the dough was still slightly warm. He took a bite and made an obscene noise.
“I take it that it’s not poison,” Steve said, grinning. He tried one too.
Five minutes later, Sam said, “Barnes’ll be fine with just one, right?”
“We won’t tell him,” Steve promised. He did fold up the bag and place it back on the bench, though, like he was trying to remove the temptation to go back on his word.
Barnes came jogging back then, windblown and looking fairly cheerful, both for him and for a guy who had bled quite a lot not so long ago. “What are you two sniggering about?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Steve said, a distinct waver in his voice. Sam tried to drink and not laugh at the same time.
Barnes eyed them suspiciously, but Steve added, “I got you some food” and distracted him. He dropped down to sit between them and accepted the boxes that Steve handed him.
“God,” he said. “This hamburger is kind of terrible.”
“Right?” Sam said with feeling, too startled to think twice about speaking up.
“I got a hamburger from some random place while I was still in DC,” Barnes said. He was talking to the hamburger in his hands, picking at the bun with his gloved metal hand. “Don’t think I’d eaten real food in decades by that point. It was so fucking good. I ate hamburgers until I threw up. The ones over here just aren’t the same.” He sounded wistful.
“I feel you, man,” Sam said. “Minus the throwing up. I would rather not feel you there.”
Barnes laughed. It was brighter, more expansive than his usual snorts. Over his shoulders, Sam could see Steve staring at him, eyes bright. “It’s pretty here,” he remarked. “I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it last time.”
“Maybe sometime when we’re not saving the world we can come back and appreciate it,” Sam suggested. “They have the best donuts here. Seriously, dude, try that donut.”
Obediently, Barnes tried the donut. His eyelids fluttered. “Oh god,” he said, in what was very nearly a moan. He must have been messing with them, though, at least a little bit, because he added, “You ate the rest of these, didn’t you? That bag is awfully crumpled for only having one donut in it.”
Sam kept his face straight, but Steve spluttered and gave the game away.
“I cannot believe you are some kind of poker prodigy,” Sam said to Steve, which just made him splutter more.
Barnes elbowed Steve in the ribs—gently, because it was his metal arm. “I have the worst friends,” he said, mock-sadly. “I just keep picturing you two sitting here, eating all of these delicious donuts without me—”
“Buck!” Steve said, pushing him; Barnes pushed him back. They were both laughing now. Steve managed to get Barnes in a headlock, mainly because Barnes was still holding the donut in his other hand, trying to keep it safe, and Steve said, bright with joy, “Sam, get him!”
It was like they were on the battlefield, but silly and light and fun. Sam managed to wrest the donut away (“Tag team, Stevie, really?”). Then he theatrically settled back to watch the action, sucking his soda through the straw. They would’ve been more evenly matched, he knew, if they weren’t in a semi-public place and also not internationally wanted criminals.
As it was, Steve had the upper hand. “I feel even more betrayed now,” Barnes said, voice muffled against Steve’s ribs, when he finally surrendered. “In the back, Wilson?”
Sam shrugged. “Self-preservation,” he said. “And those donuts are damn good.” He sucked his drink dry.
Steve grinned at Sam and took the opportunity to ruffle Barnes’s hair, despite his complaints, before letting him go. “I can buy more,” he offered.
“Nah, it’s okay,” Barnes said, trying to smooth his now even more untidy locks. He was so preoccupied that he didn’t seem to notice how Steve watched his efforts with something that had turned into fond pain. “I’m trying to watch my figure.”
“There’s only half left,” Sam said. He had no idea what was up with those two right now, but just like he didn’t want to contemplate homesickness in front of the Alps, he didn’t think that an Austrian gas station was the best place to hash out… whatever this was. He offered the remnants of the last donut to Barnes in an effort to distract everybody. “Seriously, dude, I think your washboard abs can stand one measly pastry.”
For some reason, Barnes looked surprised by the offer. Or possibly the comment. It was a little hard to tell. He stopped fiddling with his hair and took the donut back from Sam’s hand. “Thanks,” he said awkwardly.
Steve started collecting their garbage, tucking everything neatly back into the bag that it had come from. He was a very tidy-minded man. “We should probably get going,” he said. “Buck, think you can finish that in the car?”
Barnes’s mouth was full of donut, so instead he flashed Steve a gloved thumbs-up.
“The hamburgers here are so weird,” Sam said when Steve was gone. It felt like a peace offering.
Barnes glanced at him, his pale eyes assessing. “The apple pie is pretty good, though,” he said, like he was accepting the olive branch.
Sam didn’t quite know what to make of this. “Okay?”
“I remembered that it’s Steve’s favorite,” Barnes explained. He shut the lid on his half-eaten hamburger and collected everything in his lap. “Couldn’t remember what it tasted like, but he used to go nuts about it.”
“So, wait,” Sam said, fighting back a wide grin and mostly failing. He felt like he always had when he found some new, great thing to tease Riley about, like his terrible fear of pigeons or his sucktastic poker skills. “You’re telling me that that’s an actual thing? Steve loves apple pie?”
Barnes frowned. “Uh, yeah. Why?”
“Seriously, dude,” Sam said, actually starting to laugh now. “Captain America loves apple pie? That’s on the trading cards! Captain America, born on the Fourth of July, loves apple pie and liberty—”
Barnes was starting to get it. He smirked and tried to hide it with a cough. “Look, all right, you don’t believe me, we get him some apple strudel when we get back. I can’t believe you guys haven’t noticed.”
“He’s probably eating the pie in secret,” Sam said. “Like a heroin addict. Hiding the unfinished ones under the bed or behind the wall.”
“Don’t be stupid. He would finish the whole thing in one sitting. No such thing as leftovers.”
“The crazy thing is that Natasha hasn’t sniffed him out yet,” Sam said. “Usually she’s the one who figures out everyone’s dirty secrets.”
“What is it with today and desert?” Barnes gathered his leftovers into his arms and stood up. “First the donuts, now this.”
It was a neat evasion, but Sam, who had probably actually beaten Natasha to this particular secret, could see straight through it. He really didn’t want to get back into that, though, not with Steve’s imminent return, so he said, “Dunno, man. I think those donuts might have had something in them, keep you coming back for more.”
“Donuts made with drugs,” Barnes said. “That sounds about right.”
“Donuts made with drugs?” Steve repeated, demonstrating that ability he had to be alarmingly sneaky for a guy who looked like Steve Rogers. “Do I even want to know?”
Barnes looked at him seriously. “Just that you should probably be careful at your annual drug screening.”
Steve laughed and rubbed his head again; Barnes’s attempt at evasion was somewhat hindered by the fact that his arms were full of food. “None of those anymore, remember?” he asked.
Barnes just glared at him and juggled the food to try and fix his hair again. Considering that it hung down to his shoulders, completely lacking any hint of styling, his efforts were doomed to failure. Steve still watched him like it hurt.
Sam dove for the keys in Steve’s hand. “Hey, man, you should let me drive,” he said. “I bet the roads around here are fantastic.”
“Yeah, but the car is terrible,” Steve replied. He did let Sam wrestle the keys from him. “Got it at a junk used car dealership in Albania, remember?”
“You’re the one who won’t let us use any good cars,” Sam said, which was not technically true. Clint and Natasha had vetoed anything but used, nondescript models when they first set up the safe house in the Czech Republic.
“I miss motorcycles, personally,” Steve said. “All right, let’s go. If we’re going to do this circuitous route, we should do it properly.”
“I do miss that couch,” Barnes said sarcastically, and allowed Steve to punch him lightly in the shoulder in retaliation.
Two years, three months after Siberia
The cute little bakery a few blocks down from the house had apple strudel in the window when Sam walked by, so he bought one and brought it back. He didn’t think that Barnes was lying about Steve’s love of apple pie, but twelve-year-old Sam wanted to see this fact in action and present-day Sam kind of wanted to laugh a little. And if Steve really did like it that much, then it was a win-win-win, as far as Sam was concerned.
Sure enough, when Steve noticed what he had bought, his eyes lit up. “That looks good,” he said.
Barnes was slouched on the broken couch, apparently taking a break from writing in his black notebook by pulling his hair out straight so that he could inspect the ends; at this, he caught Sam’s eye, and they both had to look away fast before they started laughing.
“I’ve been kind of on a dessert kick since those donuts,” Sam said.
“Donuts made with drugs,” Barnes said in an undertone, and for some reason this made Sam want to laugh again.
“I am going to regret introducing you two, aren’t I,” Steve said, not sounding like he really regretted it one bit.
It was starting to look like that might someday be the case, and Sam’s stomach got all fluttery. On the one hand, on that hypothetical someday, he would officially achieve his childhood dream of becoming friends with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, and tiny Sam’s head would explode. On the other hand, there were still times—fairly common times, too—when Barnes was difficult to deal with and Sam didn’t actually like him very much, and it was hard to see those times going away. On the third hand (not that Sam had three hands), there was obviously some weird thing between Steve and Barnes, and while Barnes’s half of the equation made sense, Sam couldn’t figure out where Steve stood on the issue, if he was even aware of it at all, and that thing had all kinds of potential effects on all kinds of things, none of those effects certain or even good.
“Probably,” Sam said, much more flippantly than he felt, and set the pie on the table. “But seriously. Pie. It was still warm when I picked it up. I’ve been smelling it the whole way home and I am starving.”
Steve practically leapt for the plates and silverware. He had been a lot less serious and agonized since Barnes came back, and now he could let himself be childishly excited over apple strudel.
And he really did love it. He had three slices, even though that last one was really just because Barnes snuck it onto his plate while he wasn’t paying attention, too busy listening to Sam’s story about his disastrous eighth grade field trip. It really was a pretty good story, involving a clown, a teapot, and the most recent edition of People Magazine, and Sam had lots of practice telling it, so he wasn’t surprised when Steve just dug into the new slice without noticing what he was doing.
Barnes only ate a little bit, but that seemed to be because he was preoccupied with watching Steve enjoy his pie when he didn’t think anybody was looking. He’d probably never seen it happen anywhere outside his memories. Studying this thing like this made Sam wonder how the hell he was the first one to notice, which he thought he must’ve been. Natasha would have taken Steve aside and started making inquiries if she knew.
But Barnes was completely obvious with his devotion, and Steve had done so many ridiculous things over literally decades to save his friend that Sam was surprised that there didn’t seem to be some kind of neon sign hanging over their heads. Sure, he used to be a counselor, but surely the universe would pick somebody better to sort out this tangle.
Except that it was kind of looking like he might be it, with Natasha off to find Bruce and Clint and his anti-bullshit powers presumably still making their way back from the US and Wanda and her mindreading occupied keeping an eye on Sharon.
“Look, just don’t be hiding the rest of it under the bed or anything,” Barnes said, watching Steve finally push his plate away, looking guilty about the amount of pie he had hogged. “Don’t make Sam sit you down and have a conversation about addiction.”
“Yeah, the counter would be fine,” Sam said, hoping that Steve wouldn’t take Barnes’s strange comment the wrong way. He wished he could feel less like Barnes was reading his mind somehow.
Steve just smiled sheepishly at the scattered pieces of crust on his plate. “Guess I’d forgotten about it. I haven’t had apple pie in a long time.”
This seemed kind of weird until Sam remembered how Barnes had brought up apple pie in the first place: solely in the context of Steve. Maybe that street went both ways, Steve and Barnes and the past and a world long gone.
“There’s a bakery just down the street, you know,” he said gently.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve said.
Barnes set his plate in the sink and went back to the couch, where he’d left his notebook. “You remember when Mrs. O’Leary gave us that pie as a moving-in present?” he asked, toying with the elastic band that kept the covers shut.
“She had this old family recipe,” Steve explained to Sam, his eyes lighting up. It didn’t matter whether the memory was happy or sad—it always helped him, talking it through with Barnes. “She wouldn’t share it with anybody. She went to our church and her pies were the crown jewels of the socials.”
“She made the best apple pie,” Barnes said. “But that one was my favorite.” He smiled at them, distant, and left, for once using the front door.
Steve picked up the rest of the plates and forks, a tidy-minded man to the last. He only looked a little like he wanted to chase after Barnes and make sure that he was okay. “I wish you could’ve known him then,” he said abruptly.
“Who?” Sam said, too startled by the sudden arrival of this topic to follow it for a moment. “Oh—” He didn’t know what Steve would want him to call him: Barnes or Bucky. He ended up saying neither.
“He was a real chatterbox,” Steve said. It was his turn to be a little distant. “But he could charm most people into forgiving him for it. Sometimes I’d just sit there and wonder why he wanted to be friends with me, of all people. I wasn’t the right size for anything, and he always cared about what he looked like, how he wore his hair. He could’ve picked anyone. I know I was difficult at times, but he just…” He shrugged, suddenly running out of words.
“Sometimes we can’t choose,” Sam said. He remembered Riley dragging him to that underground poker tournament, walking away afterwards still laughing and talking, and falling into his bunk that night feeling content and at home for the first time since landing on foreign soil. He remembered the guy running so fast past him that it almost didn’t seem real, talking to him afterwards and realizing that there was a connection between Sam Wilson and his childhood hero.
“I guess,” Steve said, his eyes still looking into the distance, maybe at a Bucky Barnes that didn’t really exist anymore. “I want him to understand that it’s okay,” he said, in that same abrupt way that he’d introduced this subject. “He doesn’t have to try—he’s still that person. Not even Hydra could take that away. But we—you and me—we’re not who we were a few years ago, either.”
“True.” Sam forced himself not to look around at the dingy kitchen, because Steve was still focused on something else and looked like he might still be ready to talk.
“So I know that sometimes he’s hard to—” Steve stopped and frowned, frustrated. “I don’t want to say ‘deal with’,” he said, unhappy.
“I get what you mean,” Sam said. He could see through to the end of Steve’s uncharacteristically circumspect conversation, now.
“All right,” Steve said, still not looking too thrilled with his own word choice. He got himself oriented again. “I guess I want to thank you for being as patient as you have been. I know that you don’t entirely approve, but it means a lot to me, and I think that it means a lot to him, too. So. That’s it.”
“Look,” Sam said. He felt a little bit guilty about making this conversation necessary in the first place. “You don’t have to thank me. I’ve seen a lot of PTSD in my day, even if it wasn’t close to what he has to face. He’s trying really hard. I think it really helps him, having you here. I know that you think that you, I don’t know, needed him more than he ever needed you, but maybe you should consider all this as proof that you were wrong. He wasn’t breaking out of Hydra control by remembering anybody else, Steve.”
Steve looked down at his shoes. He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms. “I’m just happy that he’s here,” he said, slightly raw. It didn’t seem to matter to him that everybody else knew this already.
“Well, I haven’t known him too long,” Sam said. Considering that a good chunk of his experiences had been with the Winter Soldier, Sam thought that this was truer than he’d ever admit to Steve. “But I think he’s happy that he’s here, too.”
Steve smiled at him. It reminded Sam of the way he’d looked when he’d come to visit Sam at the VA, thousands of years and thousands of miles ago. “And you?” he asked.
“And me what?”
“Are you happy that you’re here?”
They were back at the hamburger in the Alps. Sam had been hoping that Steve had just set it aside, but apparently he’d been saving it up. He was waiting now, but not in a way that made Sam want to rush to an answer.
Instead, he took a beat and thought about it. He thought about American hamburgers and his old apartment and the VA and a normal life where he didn’t have to duck from safe house to safe house, never sure if they were safe enough. He thought about saving the world and doing the right thing and helping people when you thought you should and Steve and Natasha and Clint and Wanda and Scott and even Barnes.
“This is my home,” he said finally. “After Riley died, I came back home, started working with other vets, just trying to help. I was pretty good at it, I think, and helping other people put their lives back together makes it easier to ignore how yours still has deep cracks in it, you know?”
Steve nodded. He probably knew better than anyone.
“But here, it’s like…” Sam paused, trying to think of the right way to phrase it. “It’s like all our cracks fill in each other. We’re like that Japanese pottery that Clint read about on the internet, where the broken pieces of the vase are glued back together with gold. If I leave, I’ll just be back to my broken pieces, without you and Nat and Tic Tac and everybody else holding me together. This is so much better. I wouldn’t leave.”
“Not even for a proper American hamburger?” Steve asked, joking but not dismissive.
Sam huffed a laugh. “Not even for one of those. Two hamburgers, though? With large fries and a chocolate milkshake? Sorry, Cap, you’re history.”
“Already am,” Steve said cheekily. “According to Secretary Ross, anyway.”
“Secretary Ross is an asshole, and someday he’s going to piss off somebody too big to handle,” Sam said, blunt. He didn’t dwell on the Raft very much, but he remembered Ross’s slimy satisfaction very clearly.
“He already can’t handle us,” Steve pointed out. “It’s a start.” He turned around and got the faucet running, leaving two fingers under the stream, waiting for it to get warm. “Thank you, Sam,” he said, soft and sincere. “For Bucky. And for staying.”
“At this point, I don’t think you could shake any of us,” Sam said. “Not even Natasha.” The way she’d looked at Steve when he put all his hopes on her happiness made Sam think that they hadn’t seen the last of her. Natasha had so few people in her life; she wasn’t about to let go of any of them.
“We should probably make a trip to the data point again, see if she’s sent anything.”
“Yeah, or Clint,” Sam said. “He’s way overdue.”
“I think he was sneaking visits to his family,” Steve said, reaching for the soap. “But yeah, I haven’t heard anything in a while.”
“We could call Bar—Bucky,” Sam said tentatively. “He’s already out there. He could stop by before coming back.” At some point since their argument in the kitchen, the night Barnes snuck out to go stare at a house that once contained a murdered family, he had started carrying one of the disposable phones with him when he went wandering. He hadn’t bothered telling any of them this at first, which seemed to completely negate the purpose of the phone, but eventually he had, of course, come clean to Steve.
“Great idea,” Steve said, distracted by getting piecrust off the plates. “I think one of the phones is still out in the bedroom.”
Sam went down the hall and found the boxy phone sitting on the dresser in the twin-beds-and-weird-trundle-thing room. He still remembered how to text using the number keypad.
hey cap wants you to check out the data point on your way back, he typed. check for anything from natasha or clint.
He put the phone in his pocket and returned to the kitchen to help Steve finish cleaning up. They had settled down with some books scrounged from a flea market before the phone jolted against his hip.
Two years, three months after Siberia
No word from Natasha, but Clint was due back in Warsaw in three days. Steve left to go meet him, driving their Albanian getaway car and carrying a list of books and games that they thought he might find there. Steve went because he could speak Polish. Barnes also spoke Polish, but sending him to get Clint by himself was laughable.
So Steve went to Warsaw, and Sam and Barnes stayed behind to mind the nest. The first night was kind of awkward, mostly because they seemed to have nothing to say to each other, but Sam started on a new book and Barnes sat at the kitchen table, scribbling in his notebook. He tugged at his hair absently with his left hand, the tiny hum of machinery like white noise.
Sam never showed any outright interest in the notebook. It was obviously very private. He only ever looked out of the corner of his eye, in quick glances, when he had something else to plausibly occupy him.
Barnes had found some little color-coded, plastic-y sticky tabs, and he used them meticulously, according to a system that only he knew: red, green, and blue bristled from the pages. There were things taped inside, too; the notebook needed the elastic band to keep itself shut. It was small enough that Barnes could hide it under his coat. He hid it somewhere when he wasn’t using it, but Sam didn’t know where that was. He didn’t particularly care. This was Barnes’s self-prescribed therapy, and he was very dedicated to it.
The next day, Sam went out to buy groceries. He liked to look at the open-air markets—buy local and all that—and just wander up and down the aisles, checking out things that he knew he probably wouldn’t buy. Some of the vendors knew him, and they struck up conversations in their fumbling English and his fumbling Czech, getting a lot of their meaning across with facial expressions and hand gestures. They liked teaching him new words, and he liked learning. It was nice, being seen as an ordinary American expat, just having normal conversations with normal people about everyday things.
This was a facet of his own self-prescribed therapy. Sam felt lighter when he left, even though his bags were considerably heavier. On his way back, he thought of something that might make the next day or so without Steve easier, and he walked a few streets over to the bakery where he had bought the pie.
The owner’s pretty, brown-haired daughter helpfully bagged up a handful of donut pastries, smiling up at him shyly.
“Thank you,” Sam said to her in Czech, meeting her eyes. She blushed and handed the bag to him, purposefully letting their fingertips brush.
Sam walked away grinning. Sure, it would never go anywhere, but it was good to know that he still had it.
When he got back, Barnes was nowhere to be seen. His coat was still hung up on the hook, though, so he couldn’t have gone anywhere. Sam looked around surreptitiously as he set the bags down—Steve would be so upset if Barnes got kidnapped or something—but the bathroom door was shut. He relaxed.
They had limited storage space, but Sam prided himself on his geometry skills, and after a bit of fiddling he had everything tucked away just so. He was just closing the cabinet doors, feeling rather accomplished, when Barnes called, strangely tentative, “Wilson?”
“In here,” Sam shouted back. He put the bag of donuts on the counter.
There was a pause. “Could you come here for a minute?”
This couldn’t be leading anywhere good. Sam rubbed his hands together and went down the hall. The door to the bathroom was now ajar, just slightly, but Sam couldn’t see anything behind it. “What’s up?” he asked.
Barnes didn’t reply for a minute. Finally, he said, “It’s—” His voice dipped: “I need your help.”
“Okay,” Sam said, taken back to that moment in Albania, Barnes leaning against the wall, blood soaking his side. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Barnes hesitated for another second, and then he yanked the door open, fast, like ripping off a band-aid.
He had tried to cut his hair, using the pair of scissors from the kitchen. The result was. Well.
He was flushing, too, and tried to hide it by swiping his flesh hand across his face. “I know. Stupid, right?”
“You’re not bleeding,” Sam said. “I count that as a win.” He leaned up against the doorway and coaxed Barnes into turning in a circle so he could see the full extent of the damage. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can probably fix this. Or at least get it to a place where a barber can fix it. Hand me the scissors.”
Barnes dutifully gave them to him, his face turned slightly away. He was probably regretting hacking away at his curtain of hair right about now.
“Sit there,” Sam ordered, pointing to the folded-down toilet seat, and again Barnes did as he was told. Sam stood next to him and decided to start with the sides. He snipped carefully at Barnes’s dark hair. It was surprisingly soft.
“I’m sick of it,” Barnes muttered to his knees. His hands were clenched in his lap. “They just let it grow out, they didn’t care. I should’ve done something about it sooner. I just look—” He stopped.
Maybe this was a good sign. A glimpse of the old Bucky Barnes, horrified at his unkempt appearance. Sam hadn’t noticed at first, he was so distracted by the uneven job Barnes had done to his hair, but he had also shaved—his cheek was smooth when Sam brushed against it accidentally, trying to trim around his ears.
“What were you going for?” he asked, careful to stay neutral, politely curious.
“Like—” Barnes’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “Like it was before.”
“Okay.” Sam could approximate that, at least until Steve got back. Steve might know how to get the style exactly right. “We might want to look into going to a professional at some point, though. I’m not exactly a barber.”
“You’re doing better than me,” Barnes said, bitter. It was directed at himself.
Sam was pretty sure that the old ‘40s style was shorter at the back and sides and slightly longer on the top, enough that Barnes could do that three-quarters part if he wanted. He gave himself some wiggle room, not cutting too close too soon. These scissors weren’t the best and he didn’t want to screw up. He wanted to do this right.
He stepped back for a second to scrutinize what he had done so far. “Look in the mirror and tell me how we’re doing,” he said.
Barnes dragged his fingers through his newly shortened hair, studying himself critically. He looked so young without the stubble and the shaggy hair.
Sam had one of those dislocating moments where he remembered that Steve and his friend had been born before World War I shut down, that they’d grown up listening to the radio and wearing suspenders and, apparently, newspapers in their shoes, whatever those were even for. Sam hadn’t wanted to ask Steve before, with Barnes sleeping in the ice, but now he could. Now, Steve wouldn’t go pained and distant, because Barnes would be there to remember with him.
“I think a little shorter all over,” Barnes said. “Start there.” It was just the two of them today and Barnes trusted him enough to specifically ask him to fix his haircut. He wasn’t likely to get a better chance.
“Okay,” Sam said, and then: “You’re in love with Steve.”
In the mirror, Barnes very definitely panicked in the two seconds it took him to pull his expression back into place. He tilted one eyebrow. “What the hell makes you think that?” he asked, cold and edging into offended.
“Please,” Sam said. “Nobody cares about that anymore. People have learned a thing or two since the ‘30s. Also, you’re obvious.”
Barnes glared at him in the mirror, that old ice-cold fury, and then crumbled. He pressed both of his hands to his face. “Shit,” he said, walking that ragged line between tears and exhaustion.
“Sit down,” Sam told him gently. He put a hand on Barnes’s human shoulder and urged him back onto the toilet lid. He started trimming the hair at the back of his neck again, cutting it shorter like Barnes had asked. “Albania really cleared things up,” he explained. “I’ve been trying to decide how to bring it up ever since.”
Barnes dropped his hands back into his lap. “Did you tell anyone?”
“Are you going to tell Steve?” he pressed.
“No,” Sam said again. “That’s not my job.” Really, he still wasn’t clear on how this wasn’t an open secret already, but he didn’t bring that up. He combed through Barnes’s hair with his fingers, trying to judge the length.
Barnes relaxed. “Thank you,” he said.
Sam gave him a look, though there was no way Barnes could have seen it unless he had eyes in the back of his head; he was still studiously looking away.
“Look, man, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he began.
“I’m not ashamed,” Barnes interrupted defensively.
“I wouldn’t be ashamed of Steve,” Barnes insisted. “Never.”
“Of course not. He’s Steve.”
“Yeah. He’s Steve,” Barnes echoed. He didn’t say anything else for a few minutes, as Sam tried his damndest to get his haircut even on the sides. “I don’t really remember me,” he said, like he was starting in the middle of a thought, “it’s mostly him with me in the periphery. Like I had more important things to pay attention to than myself.”
Sam had suspected this, a little, ever since Barnes remembered apple pie in terms of Steve’s enjoyment of it, orienting himself around that memory when he barely knew who he was in the first place. “He took a lot of looking after, though, right?”
Barnes snorted. “Well, you’ve met him,” he said. “Imagine him just like that except tiny, and still picking the same stupid fights. Only difference now is that he’s the one who hits harder. And he has more people looking after him these days,” he added, strangely tentative, like this was another olive branch. “He has a whole team watching his back.”
“We try,” Sam said dryly. He knew that Barnes knew how futile their efforts were, at times.
Barnes’s laugh had a very slight tinge of hysteria to it. Sam wasn’t sure if it was related to Steve’s supernatural ability to get in trouble or his feelings for Steve in general, and Barnes didn’t elaborate. Sam could tell that he was done talking.
He snipped a couple of rogue strands and said, “Okay, that’s about as much as I feel comfortable doing. Look in the mirror.”
Barnes braced himself against the cracked sink with his metal hand, the elbow locked like it was the only thing keeping him upright. He combed his fingers through his hair, swiping the fringe across his forehead. Sure enough, he was searching for the three-quarters part. Standing there like that, clean-shaven and with short hair, he looked just like the Bucky Barnes from the history books, the one glued to Captain America’s side, grinning up at him. The only difference was that this Bucky Barnes wasn’t smiling.
“All right,” Bucky decided. He put both hands on the sink. “Thank you,” he said to his knuckles. “You did a good job.”
“It’s hard to cut your own hair,” Sam said. “I wouldn’t try to give myself a buzz cut. Hard to see everything.” He held up the scissors. “I’ll put these back.”
Sam left him there and returned the scissors to their drawer. He puttered around in the kitchen for a few minutes longer, until he heard Bucky grab his coat and go out the front door. He took one of the donuts from the bag and ate it sitting down at the kitchen table, not looking at anything in particular.
Two years, three months after Siberia
In the dark, after he got back, Bucky said from the other bed, “I think I used to be better at controlling it. It’s so hard now.”
“Who says you have to control it?”
“You think I want to give him one more thing to—?”
“I don’t think Steve would be judgmental about it.”
“How many things does he have to forgive?”
“He doesn’t think any of that requires forgiveness, man. It wasn’t you.”
“The gun again?”
“Yeah. He wouldn’t care. It’s you.”
“Yeah. It’s me. This one is me.”
“That’s not what I—”
“Good night, Sam.”
Two years, three months after Siberia
Steve and Clint got back before lunch the next day, Clint strung out from flying for over a day in cargo planes and then driving straight back to the safe house from Warsaw. Steve, of course, was fine. He could go for weeks on nothing but catnaps.
“Is it weird to say that I missed this place?” Clint said loudly as they came through the front door.
“The couch has certainly missed you,” Sam said, getting up to clap him on the back. “It’s calling your name.”
“It’s the ultimate bachelor pad,” Clint said dreamily.
“Found some of those books you were looking for,” Steve said, holding out a couple of paper bags for Sam to take. He was smiling a little, clearly happy to have Clint back with them. “And an old edition of Monopoly.”
“Oh, god, no,” Clint said. “You want another civil war? When you want to break the team up again, we play that game. Never again, man, never again.”
“Where’s Bucky?” Steve asked. He was playing it off as a casual question, but he kept craning his neck, trying to see if Bucky might be hiding in the hallway or in one of the corners in the kitchen.
“At the data point. He’s checking for anything from Nat. So,” Sam said to Clint, herding him into the kitchen and sitting him down at the table. “What did you guys get up to back in the good old US of A?” He found the bag of donuts and handed one over.
“I saw Laura and the kids,” Clint said. He eyed the donut speculatively. “They’re doing good. Scott’s mentor, Hank Pym, he’s made sure that they’re safe and comfortable. Apparently his Stark grudge is a mile wide and he was happy to assist any fellow victims.” He took a bite of the donut and made an embarrassing noise.
“How’s Sharon?” Steve had stopped looking for Bucky. He stood very still.
“Fine,” Clint said. “Wanda’s in place. Took her a bit to get settled—Sharon’s at some big international security company, they take precautions—but she’s all right now. She’s well-positioned to keep an eye on the Compound, too, and she’s confident that she can keep herself hidden. Scott, Hope, and T’Challa are her backup.”
“Hope?” Sam said.
“T’Challa?” Steve said.
“Didn’t you hear? T’Challa’s on a diplomatic mission to the US. He’s flipping Ross the bird on his home turf.” Clint took another bite of the donut. “Hope is Dr. Pym’s daughter, Scott’s girlfriend,” he said with his mouth full. “The hell is in these things?”
“Drugs,” Sam said.
“That would explain it.”
“Well, we’re glad to have you back,” Steve said in his Captain America voice, sincere and serious.
“Glad to be back,” Clint said. “It was a good vacation, but I knew you guys couldn’t hack it much longer on your own.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, we’re totally helpless.”
Nobody heard the front door open, but suddenly Bucky was there. He was wearing fewer layers today than normal, and his slightly leaner physique and totally different hairstyle threw Clint into Intruder Mode. He had a knife out of who knew where faster than Sam could blink, and then he processed Bucky’s face and stopped.
“Whoa,” he said.
Steve turned fast when Clint reacted, but he stopped almost immediately. He looked like he thought he was seeing a ghost. “Bucky?” he said.
Bucky dragged a self-conscious hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he said. “I got sick of it. Uh, Sam helped me.”
Clint turned to Sam, one eyebrow raised. He mouthed, Sam?
Steve had that look on his face again. It was a common one around Bucky, especially when he did something unexpected that proved, to Steve at least, that he was still the guy he remembered. It was in the neighborhood of the kind of happiness that makes you cry. “You look good, Buck.”
Bucky’s answering smile was shy and pleased. “Thanks.”
“Okay, I have no idea what happened to you in the last since I saw you,” Clint said to Bucky, “but you actually look like a real human person right now.”
Bucky touched his real hand to his heart. “Truly, Barton, you know how to flatter a fella.”
“Aw, shucks,” Clint said. He stuffed the rest of the donut into his mouth and stole the bag from Sam so he could have another.
Steve slung an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “So what did you two get up to while I was gone?”
“Besides makeovers?” Clint asked with his mouth full.
“Shopping,” Sam told him, straight-faced. “And then we gossiped about all of you, trading rumors.”
“Sounds like a pretty exciting couple of days,” Steve said, grinning down at Bucky.
“Something like that.” Bucky glanced at Sam and then ducked out from under Steve’s arm. “I think I have something,” he said, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. Sam recognized it as a sheet torn from his notebook. “‘Not ready to leave yet,’” he read. “‘The big guy may want to talk to you, captain. Stay close.’” He held the paper out to Steve.
“Natasha,” Steve said. He took the sheet and read it for himself.
“You guys have impeccable timing,” Sam said to Clint. Hearing from Natasha made him both lighter and more anxious: lighter because she was okay and she might be coming back, and anxious because maybe she wouldn’t and he’d have to say goodbye.
“It’s a telepathic link, for your information,” Clint said. He was eyeing the paper covetously, and Steve obligingly handed it over.
“It wasn’t from an address that I recognized, but that sounds like her,” Bucky said. “Why would Banner need to talk to you? Steve?”
Clint snorted, scornful.
“What?” Bucky demanded, halfway between offended and genuinely curious.
“Are you kidding?” Clint asked. “You? Of all people? Look, Bruce doesn’t like people, he doesn’t like authority. He doesn’t want to come back into a scenario like last time, where he just gets used as a weapon. But Bruce knows that Steve always keeps his promises, and Nat knows that your buddy here can inspire undying loyalty in about five minutes.”
“Hey—” Steve protested.
“It’s true,” Sam said, cutting him off. “Seen it myself, man. Hell, I lived it.”
Steve looked anguished. “I didn’t mean—” he began.
“Steve, shut up,” Bucky said. “Please don’t tell me that you’re still this dumb about this.” He turned back to Clint. “She hopes that Steve can talk Banner into coming back too?”
“Sounds like it.” Clint set the paper on the table and smoothed the edges. Maybe he, too, was just now allowing himself to hope. “You’d better hang around here, Cap. We’ll check the data point every day. She’ll send more if she can persuade him to talk to you and let you know where to meet them.”
“Anything she needs,” Steve promised. He still looked a little upset, mostly at himself.
Bucky noticed too. “Hey,” he said gently. “It’s not you doing anything on purpose. It’s just you being you.”
Steve set his jaw and didn’t reply.
“Seriously, Cap,” Clint added. “Not even Laura hates you for taking me away.”
“Did you see anything else while you were there?” Steve asked Bucky in a wildly transparent attempt to turn the conversation away from himself.
After a long, knowing look, Bucky let him do it. He shrugged. “Maybe. Something might come up in Paris but I’d give it another day just to make sure. Our source didn’t seem too confident.”
“Cool,” Clint said. “Then if you gentlemen don’t mind, I’m going to take a power nap before I break my face on the tile in here.” He touched Natasha’s message one more time and then got up.
“Yeah, we’d hate to see your face ruined,” Sam said.
“I’ll have you know that the ladies love this face,” Clint said lightly. “I’m looking to keep it that way.” He took another donut with him when he left the room, heading for one of the beds in the back.
Bucky waited a beat, and then said, “What is it with you and giving my donuts away to other people?”
“I was going to let you eat some last night!” Sam protested. “But then—” (but then Bucky cut off his hair and they talked about his deep feelings for Steve and how he was afraid of how Steve would react and—) “—I decided that we should wait until everybody was back, because otherwise there would’ve been no donuts left.” It sounded a little weak, even to him, and he put on a confident expression to cover for it.
Steve gave him a strange look, but Bucky, who knew very well what Sam had refrained from mentioning, blurted out, “Denying me my revenge, then, huh? Come on, Wilson, hand one over.”
Sam obediently reached into the bag. “I don’t know if I should do this,” he said, trying to make it into a joke so Steve would stop looking at them like he knew they were covering for something. “You’re the only one of us who still has a chance to just say no.”
“Just say no to what, pastries?”
“No, it’s—drugs. Just say no to drugs. It was a campaign or something. Keeping the youth of America away from crack houses.”
“I thought we agreed that I wasn’t the youth of America?” Bucky said. His hand was still outstretched, waiting. “I can play your words back on my tape player, if you want.”
Sam groaned and gave him a donut. “One of these days we’ll teach you and Steve all about modern popular culture.”
“I got a pretty good start,” Steve said defensively.
“Then we’ll just continue your education,” Sam assured him. “Your friend here’s the one who needs the most help.”
Bucky rolled his eyes and took a bite of the donut in lieu of answering. He went back to the hall, shrugging out of his coat to hang it back up. Steve very definitely studied his new (old) haircut while he was turned away, or at least that’s what Sam assumed he was looking at. It was either the now-exposed skin of Bucky’s neck or the line of his shoulders, which were, admittedly, clearer than usual, because he was only wearing two shirts instead of five.
Whichever it was, Sam thought that Bucky should re-examine his stance on how Steve would react if he said something. Sam had a lot of evidence, if he could ever get Bucky to listen: Steve’s recurring, completely insane plans to save him whenever he was in trouble; Steve’s casual touching, which he did far more with Bucky (and to a greater degree) than with anybody else; Steve’s appreciation now, which Sam personally thought went a bit beyond “my best friend is finally looking more like himself” and into “my best friend looks super fine” in a way that Sam struggled to see as strictly platonic.
Steve also tended to do the thing that he was doing right now when Bucky turned back around, which was pretend that he had only been looking sort of casually in his direction. Sam couldn’t tell if he knew he was doing it or not, because he never looked resentful or embarrassed about it, like Bucky did when their positions were reversed.
“So you guys want to play Monopoly or what?” Sam asked. “Clint’s asleep, he doesn’t have to participate.”
Steve and Bucky glanced at each other. Steve grinned. “Okay,” he said. “You’re on.”
Two years, four months after Siberia
It turned out that Steve and Bucky were ruthless at Monopoly, and Sam was hopelessly outmatched. Clint watched, amused, from his perch on the couch, and only said, “I told you so” to Sam when he came over to take a breather while Steve reorganized a couple of his properties to include hotels, Bucky sorting his money into neat stacks. Sam was convinced that he was only doing so to mock his own pitifully small piles.
The game nevertheless took a few days to shake out, mainly because, even once Sam had given up, Steve and Bucky stubbornly refused to stop before a true victor was declared. They were slugging it out over the railroads when Clint and Sam left to go check on the data point.
“That game was made to break up families,” Clint said as they walked down the street. “Laura banned it in our house.”
“They seem to be doing okay,” Sam said.
“Yeah, well, they’re nuts. Barnes literally almost succeeded in killing Cap and they’re still okay. Speaking of,” Clint said, turning on Sam, “you two seem to be awfully chummy lately.”
Sam shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “He’s not so bad. Usually.”
“He let you cut off that horrible mop?”
“Like he said, he got sick of it,” Sam said. “He tried cutting it himself but that’s really hard to do.”
“No kidding,” Clint said thoughtfully. They walked quietly for a few minutes and Sam kind of hoped that the moment had passed—Clint’s anti-bullshit powers could kick in at any moment, and who knew what he would figure out—but Clint had been away for a while and the last he’d seen, Sam and Bucky had pretty much hated each other. He was curious. “So what happened? Did Steve talk you guys into being friends?”
Sam snorted. “Not really. Honestly, it was the hamburgers here. Well, before that, he got shot and I had to carry him up the stairs, but really it was the hamburgers. He thinks they taste weird here too.”
“That’s because they do,” Clint said bluntly. “European hamburgers are fucking weird.”
“You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard,” Sam said. “But anyway, that happened, and we sort of talked about some stuff, and mostly he’s pretty okay. Anyway, Steve’s obviously over the moon to have him here, so at some point we have to work it out, you know?”
Clint held out a hand like he was presenting something on a platter. “I wasn’t going to say I told you so,” he said.
“Except for how you just did.”
“Eh, you say potato,” Clint said dismissively. “Whatever. I’m just saying that it was super awkward and you’ve apparently maybe graduated to calling each other by your first names now. Or that shitty nickname of his, anyway.”
“I have always wondered about that one,” Sam said, thinking that maybe one day, if he was brave enough, he could ask Bucky how they got Bucky out of James Buchanan Barnes. And also why his parents failed so spectacularly at naming their child after a president. That one had always confused him too.
The data point was in a tiny little apartment on the opposite side of the river. Natasha had installed a powerful computer on a simple desk and set up some storage for written reports, newspapers, USB drives, anything left over from old missions or things that they might need for new ones. Clint sat down at the desk and booted up the computer while Sam wandered around, peering out the murky windows at the streets below.
“This Paris thing might be legit,” he said now, clicking through their encoded email system. People could send in tips, and apparently this source was persistent. “I need to get to Zurich anyway. Maybe you guys could drop me off.”
“Why do you need to go to Zurich?”
Clint didn’t answer immediately. He drummed his fingers on the desk and scrolled through their list of Google alerts. “I can’t really say,” he said finally. “I don’t want to make you lie to Cap.”
Sam straightened up. “That doesn’t sound encouraging.”
“It’s nothing bad. All right? He’d just argue with us and we agreed that this is something that we have to do.” He turned around in the chair to look Sam straight in the eye. “T’Challa agreed,” he said. “We’re not going to hurt anyone.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better? When I’m still not supposed to tell Cap?”
“It’s for him,” Clint said. “He’ll never do it himself and he’d try to talk us out of it. This is something we have to do, Sam. You’ll understand afterwards. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re lying to him.”
Sam’s pulse throbbed in his throat. “Then why did you even bring it up?”
“Because you deserve a bit of a head’s-up,” Clint said bluntly. “I don’t want to take a chance with Barnes. Either he’d agree with us or he’d run right to Cap, and I can’t take that risk. The rest of us are agreed. T’Challa has been a big help.”
It was true that T’Challa was probably the most levelheaded person here aside from Steve himself, so it was slightly reassuring to hear that he was involved and apparently willing. Sam still didn’t say anything.
“Zurich is the end point for extraction,” Clint said. “You’ll probably get to meet Hope. But I swear, Sam, this is for Cap.”
Sam sighed through his nose and ran his hands across his face. “You’re trying to help him?”
“You know how he gets about helping himself sometimes. Only time I’ve ever seen him selfish is with Barnes.”
That was definitely true. “All right,” Sam said. “You’d better not make me regret this, Barton.”
Clint grinned, relieved. “Oh, trust me, man. It’s going to be awesome.” He turned back to the computer. “Still no word from Natasha,” he said. “I’ll take down some of this info about Paris. Cap’ll probably have to stay here but you and your new friend can go, get in some guy bonding time. Maybe this time you can get your nails done.”
“Shut up, man,” Sam said, with a little heat. “He got sick of it. Hydra just let it grow, they didn’t care. I bet nobody cut it in seventy years.”
“I know that.” Clint looked back over his shoulder at him, expression unreadable. “Steve can’t look away from him now,” he said, and Sam couldn’t tell whether he knew or not. His voice didn’t indicate anything one way or the other.
“He does look very different now,” he said, which was the truth, and which would hopefully not trigger Clint’s anti-bullshit powers.
“Oh, yeah,” Clint said. “That haircut could not get any more ‘40s. It reminds me of Cap’s from when I first met him, just after he woke up.”
Sam hadn’t known Steve then, but he had seen the pictures. “You know, it’s very strange,” he said dryly, “them being from that decade and all.”
“I’m just saying,” Clint said, clicking around on the screen and reaching over to turn the printer on. “He may not look like the Winter Soldier anymore, but he matches that photo exactly. You know what I mean. The one that they show on TV every time they blame him for something blowing up.”
“You want to talk him into changing it again? Be my guest.” Sam let his tone imply that Bucky wouldn’t listen to Clint about anything, much less his hair.
Clint held up his hands in surrender. “All right, fine, forget I said anything! It’s the jet lag talking. Time zones are a bitch.”
They watched the printer spit out pages in silence, collected them and tucked them in Clint’s backpack, and then went to the grocer’s so that they could feed two super-soldiers instead of just one. Selecting ingredients seemed to calm Clint, too; some of the tension in his shoulders eased away while he tested apples for ripeness.
“So,” Clint said, still sorting through the vegetables. “What are you feeling: sunflower seed salad or apple slice salad?”
“Honestly? Somebody else doing the cooking will be great, so I don’t really care.” Steve was well-meaning but sometimes hilariously inept and Bucky was apparently still convinced that boiling everything was the right way to cook food, so Sam did a lot of the hands-on work when nobody else was around. He preferred his meals unburned and tastier.
“Both, then,” Clint decided. “Laura has all sorts of awesome salad recipes. I think I can remember them.” He started grabbing things like lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers and stuffing them into their basket, looking pretty pleased with himself.
This upbeat mood even lasted through their long, confusing search for salad dressing, which turned out to be located in some random corner of the store, next to a tiny selection of household cleaning supplies. Sam snagged an extra bottle of window cleaner while they were there.
They didn’t talk much on the way back—just walked through the soft afternoon light and enjoyed the quiet, the normalcy of it. Clint had kept a small corner of normal for himself and then lost it, but moments like this still seemed to help him.
When they carried the groceries through the front door, Steve and Bucky were still at the table. Steve had gained some ground in the orange section of the board, but everything else looked pretty much the same.
“Hey,” Steve said, glancing up, out of what might have been a lingering look at Bucky, who was mulling over the board and not really paying attention. “Anything from Natasha?”
“Not yet,” Clint reported. He handed Sam the bag containing the window cleaner and started setting salad ingredients and cuts of meat on the counter. “But there’s some more about that possible Interpol leak in Paris and a little job in Zurich.”
“What’s in Zurich?” Bucky asked absently.
“Gunrunners,” Clint lied, so carelessly and effortlessly that Sam wouldn’t have been able to tell that he wasn’t telling the truth if he didn’t already know what the truth was. Not that he had the specifics, but he doubted that Clint’s plan involved gunrunners. “They’re my specialty.”
“Because of the bow?” Sam asked. “Trying to bring back the dark ages?”
“So says the man who used to use wings instead of repulsors,” Clint snarked back. “Face it, Wilson. You and me, we’re both callbacks.”
“Funny, Buck,” Steve said, grinning over at his friend, “I thought we were the callbacks.”
“Are we modern men now?” Bucky asked with interest, finally abandoning the board game in favor of the conversation. He shifted his elbows onto the table, smirking at all three of them. He’d shoved both of his sleeves back and the plates of his arm shone. “Didn’t Wilson just call us old yesterday, Steve?”
“You know, I think I remember that too,” Steve said, mock-thoughtfully. “Although I am getting forgetful in my old age. That must be it.”
“Must be,” Bucky agreed gravely.
“Wow,” Clint said. “It’s like you think you’re funny. Don’t respond,” he told Sam. “It’ll just encourage them.”
Steve smiled, wide, and then, to Sam’s amazement, busted out the fist-bump that Sam had taught him a year ago. Bucky met it quite happily. Clearly, Steve had shown him how to do it at some point while Sam wasn’t around.
“Oh my god.” Clint covered his face. “This is a crazy dream. Wilson, I don’t know how or why you did this us, but I blame you, so please, fix this. I’m going to cook dinner or something.” He turned away and muttered, deliberately loud enough for them to hear, “Captain America knows how to fist-bump, what.”
“You’ve blown his mind,” Sam told them both; he felt that half of the shock rightfully belonged to Bucky, with his old-school haircut and metal arm. He pulled out a chair and sat down to study the board. “How much longer is this going to go on?”
“As long as it needs to,” Steve said.
“There can only be one winner,” Bucky added.
They looked very serious about it. Sam sighed. “All right, Highlanders, monopolize away. But this time we are moving that board to the coffee table during dinner. We can’t all fit on that couch.”
“Spoilsport,” Bucky said good-naturedly. He drummed his metal fingers on the table. “Right. Steve, you’re going down.”
“Wanna bet?” Steve asked.
“Sure. Five Euros to the winner?”
“I’m insulted, Buck. Ten.”
They shook on it, and then Bucky finally got around to rolling the dice. Shaking his head, Sam left them to it, and went to see if Clint needed his help.
Two years, four months after Siberia
Bucky lost the bet.
“All right, all right!” he yelled the next day after several hours of increasingly desperate plays, throwing his hands up into the air. “I give up! You win!”
Steve beamed and scraped all of the fake money across the table to his side, pushing it into a big, messy pile. Some of the hotels and Steve’s own dog figurine were caught up in the cascade of multi-colored bills, but he didn’t seem to care.
By this point, Sam and Clint had been hovering in the couch section of the room, pretending to read or research or do anything useful, all while silently marveling at Steve’s ruthless, methodical destruction of Bucky’s assets. Steve might look wholesome and innocent, but this was just a reminder that you did not expect to win against Steve Rogers, not even if you were Bucky Barnes.
“Holy shit,” Clint said in amazement. “You’re insane.”
“I believe you owe me twenty Euros,” Steve told Bucky cheerfully, ignoring Clint completely.
Bucky sighed. He looked sadly at his little metal shoe. “We had a good run,” he said to it, then got up and left the room, presumably to dig through his things for his money stash.
Steve basked in the glow of his victory for another minute, then finally acknowledged their presence and turned in his chair to face them. “So what’s all this about Paris?” he asked.
Chapter 2: Malfunction
Paris, red tabs in a notebook, conversations with beer, and a phone call in a stairwell.
Two years, four months after Siberia
Steve stayed to wait for further instructions from Natasha. Clint came along to hitch a ride to Zurich on his mysterious, Steve-related, not-gunrunning mission. Sam and Bucky went to actually deal with the problem in Paris.
Clint drove, then Sam drove, then Clint drove some more. Bucky sat in the back seat, quiet like he hadn’t been for weeks.
“The last thing we need is a traffic camera taking a picture of your face,” Clint told him bluntly.
For some reason, Sam also doubted Bucky’s ability to drive in a calm, straight line; he imagined him handling the wheel as brutally as he fought, which was efficient but not subtle or slow, and he didn’t like the picture that would paint to the cops. He had no factual basis for this theory since he had never seen Bucky behind the wheel of anything, but Hydra had actually driven him to the assassination attempt on the causeway in DC and he kind of assumed that they had their reasons.
Bucky didn’t argue with them. He just climbed into the back and sat there, very still and very quiet—almost creepily so—while Clint maneuvered their car out of its tiny garage and drove away.
Sam would have been worried, but he thought that he knew what this was about. Steve’s absence felt strange and wrong to him, too.
“See you all when you get back,” Steve said to them before they left. “I might have Natasha with me by then.”
(“Keep an eye on him,” Steve said to Sam on their last trip to the data point. “I want to go myself, but I can’t. Natasha needs me here.”)
“You’d better, or I’m going to have a word with her,” Clint said. “This is like phone tag and it’s kind of annoying.”
(“I got used to being a team again,” Steve said with a self-conscious smile. “I wouldn’t ask, it’s just—I don’t want him getting hurt again.” He could be talking about Albania or that train in the Alps or anything in between. It didn’t matter.
“Yeah, of course,” Sam said. “Of course I’ll try to keep anything from happening.”
Steve’s relief was a physical presence in the room. “Thanks. Thank you. I wouldn’t ask—” he said again.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Sam interrupted. “You don’t have to thank me. We’re cool. We talked some stuff out, and it’s fine. I’d do it anyway, even if you didn’t ask me to. I know that he’s the one that needs the support structure the most. Okay? I want him not hurt as much as you do.”
Steve didn’t look—surprised, exactly. It was hard to classify what he felt. Some of it was relief, and maybe a little bit of shame for doubting Sam’s dedication, and more of that combination of sadness and joy that followed Bucky around everywhere. He didn’t try to express any of this in words, just nodded. “I’ll miss you two,” he said instead.)
“I’ll be sure to let her know,” Steve said. His smile was clearly manufactured, but everybody kindly refrained from pointing this out.
“Do I need to start a car game or what?” Clint asked now. He was in the passenger seat and bored out of his mind. “This is the worst family vacation ever.”
“Not sure it counts as a family vacation if we might get shot at,” Sam said dryly.
“Clearly you never met my family,” Clint said. “We were lucky if we got out of a reunion without blowing up the house.”
“I thought you grew up in the circus,” Bucky said, puzzled. He sounded like he thought that somebody had lied to him. These were also the first words he’d said in nearly five hours, so Sam took this as a good sign.
“You ever met carnie folk?” Clint asked, twisting in his seat to look back at Bucky.
“I don’t—no.” In the rearview mirror, Sam saw Bucky frown. “We went to a lot of carnivals, though.”
“Maybe carnies were different back in the days of yore,” Clint said like he seriously doubted it. “Anyway, there were a lot of big personalities in my family and not enough room to swing a cat. Everybody liked drama, and their idea of drama was lions jumping through flaming hoops.”
“I always liked my family reunions,” Sam said. “I’m an only child, so it was cool and new to play with my cousins. I was about the middle of the pack, age-wise, so they couldn’t even reject me.”
“Was it like those family reunions you see in movies?” Clint asked. Sam thought that he might even be genuinely interested, under his façade of sarcasm and disinterest. “You know, cake, hot dogs, sparklers, running around in the grass all night?”
“Pretty much. One time, when I was in college, we went to the beach instead. I think my cousins and I snuck out and got drunk when our parents weren’t looking.”
“That’s the kind of reunion I’m talking about,” Clint said. “I can get behind that.” He had relaxed back into his seat, but he twisted around again. “What about you?”
“Me?” Bucky said, startled, a little confused at being included in the conversation again. He shifted uncomfortably. “No. We didn’t really—my dad was an only child, I think, and my mom fell out with her side of the family. We didn’t have the money to go anywhere anyway.” He rubbed at his metal shoulder. “I don’t know about my sisters,” he said. “Maybe they did stuff like that when they grew up.”
“What, you never checked it out?” Clint asked, almost harshly blunt.
“Hey,” Sam protested.
“No, I never checked it out,” Bucky snapped. “They’re all dead, and my nieces and nephews and their kids are probably just lucky they didn’t end up with our last name. I’m not gonna put them in danger. What the hell do you think I am?”
Clint shrugged, unconcerned. “You just seem like a real mother hen to me. Clucking over Steve, clucking over your kid sisters. I was wondering why you’d ignore them now, but that makes sense.”
“Clucking,” Bucky repeated. He couldn’t seem to decide whether to be furious or not.
“Hey, I was a carnie, not dead.” Clint rolled his eyes dramatically. “I’ve read books about you guys, too. Sam and Coulson don’t have a monopoly on Cap fanboyishness.”
“That doesn’t seem like it’s a real word,” Sam said, in part to distract Bucky from what Clint had said about him.
It didn’t work. “Wait, what?” Bucky said. At least he was edging more towards bewilderment than anger at the moment.
“I didn’t get a chance to go to that museum exhibit,” Clint said to Sam. “I was in Afghanistan. How about you?”
Sam shrugged, feeling a little self-conscious. He was very aware of Bucky sitting directly behind him, staring holes into the back of Sam’s neck. “I thought it was fine,” he said. “They had a lot of stuff. Steve stole his uniform back from there.”
“For real?” Clint said, even though he had to have known this already, and laughed. “That guy,” he said fondly. “Everybody thought he was some law-abiding paragon of virtue.”
“He just does what he thinks is right,” Bucky said, back on the comfortable ground of Steve. “And he’s pretty much always right about what ‘right’ is.”
“Whoa, hey, no changing the subject.” Clint pointed at him with an accusing finger. Pushing straight past Bucky’s shocked expression, he said, “I’m pretty sure this wasn’t in that museum, though, and it’s been driving me nuts for—since I first learned about you guys, actually. So I’m gonna ask right now: what on earth were your parents thinking? What the hell kind of name is Bucky?”
Bucky waited a beat. “That’s it?”
“That’s not enough?” Clint demanded. “That is just too weird, man.”
“It’s not weird,” Bucky said defensively.
“Actually really kind of is,” Clint said, still in that blunt way.
“Just old-fashioned,” Sam put in fast, trying to salvage Bucky’s feelings.
At first, Sam thought that Bucky would be too upset to answer Clint’s question, but he said, “I’m not much of a James.” He made a slight face, as though James and himself rubbed strangely in his head. “My family moved on to my middle name pretty quick. I’ve been Bucky my whole life.”
“I hate being called Samuel,” Sam offered. “It’s just been Sam for as long as I can remember.”
“Nicknames are weird,” Clint decided, settling back in his seat. “Natasha made me read a bunch of those long Russian novels—War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, that set. I think in the end I made note cards for each character because they had, like, their full name, and then they had a couple sets of nicknames that never seemed to have anything to do with their actual name, and so I would think that there were twice as many characters as there actually were. She laughed at me so hard afterwards.”
“Oh, I remember that,” Sam said sympathetically. He remembered Crime and Punishment from high school—good book, in his opinion, but a lot to take in all at once.
“Yeah. But hey, whatever, right?” Clint bounced back out of his Russian-literature-induced gloom quickly. “So, now that the awkward questions are over with, which car game do you want to play: the alphabet game, where we find all the letters of the alphabet in order on signs and things, or a really tame version of twenty questions?”
“Alphabet game,” Bucky said immediately.
Sam was mostly exempt from participation because he was driving, and attempting to look for the letter D by trying to read road signs and the sides of trucks just made steering the car harder. But it kept Bucky and Clint occupied, and by the time they made it to Bern and dropped Clint off—he would be making his own way across Switzerland to Zurich—the three of them had run through the alphabet three and a half times.
“Try not to die and stuff,” Clint said, gathering up all his things from the foot well. Bucky wordlessly handed him another bag that he’d thrown into the back seat. They were idling in an IKEA parking lot, and how Clint planned to get anywhere from here, Sam had no idea. “Glad you worked out your… whatever that was,” he said, waving a hand between them.
“We did it just for you,” Bucky said, sarcastic. He put on his killer face and voice: “Now get out of my seat.”
“Yeah, all right, keep your hair on,” Clint said. He climbed out, arranged his bags so he could hold onto them securely, and set out across the parking lot at a brisk walk, apparently confident and relaxed.
In another moment, Bucky took shotgun. He shoved the chair back and buckled himself in, pleased. “This is a first,” he said. “Or a first since you guys wouldn’t even let me drive my own car in Africa.”
“That thing was a death trap,” Sam said, pulling back out of the parking lot and making his way towards the highway. “I can’t believe that it got you all the way to Mozambique from Wakanda. The only smart choice was to trade it in with some money for an off-roader.”
“You could let me drive now for a bit, give you a rest,” Bucky offered, only semi-seriously.
“Uh, no,” Sam said. “I don’t trust you around the stove, much less a car.”
Bucky didn’t seem too concerned with this rejection. “When you’re exhausted at the end of this trip, you’ll only have yourself to blame.” He drummed his fingers on his thigh and looked out the window. “K,” he said, pointing at a truck screaming by in the other lane.
“If we play that game one more time, I may actually shoot you,” Sam said feelingly. He did think that three and a half times was more than enough for one trip.
“Do you want to sit in silence or are you like Barton?” Bucky asked. The question sounded genuine, like he really cared about what would be better for Sam.
Sam thought about it for a minute. “Give me some blackmail,” he decided.
“On Steve. Surely there has to be something.”
Bucky considered. Looking at him out of the corner of his eye, Sam could tell that he was happy to be back on his favorite subject. “I think he used to be afraid that I’d stop being friends with him,” he said. “He thought I was much cooler than I actually was. But about a year after we met, this kid named Arnie moved into our class, and me and him sat next to each other. Steve got so jealous that we got along all right that he thought up this elaborate sabotage operation where he passed notes to people and started rumors and somehow snuck a frog into Arnie’s bag, and by the end of it he’d almost ruined Arnie’s schoolyard career when the athletic kids adopted him and he got moved to a different desk in class.”
“See? Look, it’s stuff like this,” Sam said before he could stop himself. “I don’t know why you think that Steve will flip out if you—”
Bucky’s face shuttered. “Are we talking about this again?”
“Yes, we’re talking about this again,” Sam said in exasperation. “I have an outside perspective, okay? So I think I’m seeing this a little bit more clearly than you are. You have to admit that all of the stupidest, most boneheaded, or just plain selfish things that guy has ever done in his life have been directly linked to you.”
“That’s just because he’s Steve!” Bucky said. “You know how he gets about his friends, he’s—”
“You think he was starting schoolyard wars over me?” Sam demanded. “I mean, okay, granted, he’s not eleven years old anymore and he’s learned some new tactics since then, but do you want a list of all the crazy shit he’s pulled to save you or keep you?”
“Exhibit A: that story you just told me right this second, where Steve Rogers almost ruined some guy’s life just because he was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Exhibit B: that time he invaded Austria all by his lonesome so he could rescue you, even when he thought you were probably dead and he was also outnumbered about a million to one.”
“But there were other guys—”
“Don’t you even start. He didn’t know them from Adam.”
“You’re just. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”
“It is kind of impossible to blow taking on an entire Hydra base by yourself to save one guy out of proportion, because that is already so insane that you can’t go up from there. Unless you look forward on our timeline and count knowingly destroying your entire life and most of your friendships and everything you’ve ever known to save one guy, which is Exhibit D or E or F, I don’t know, I’ll get back to you on that one.”
“Why are you doing this?” Bucky asked, frustrated. His hands were clenched into fists and he stared fixedly out the front windshield. “Did I do something to make you hate me this much?”
“You’re really melodramatic, have I ever told you that?” Sam asked. If pressed, he would admit that there was a tiny bit of bite in his voice.
“He’s just like that because I’m all he’s got,” Bucky said, still staring out the window, not blinking at all. “I’m all that’s left of where he came from. It doesn’t mean anything. He likes quick, whip-smart dames like Peggy and Sharon who can punch a guy or shoot them in the head from a moving car. And it’s fine, all right? Stop pushing.”
Sam chewed on his tongue to avoid pointing out that Peggy and Bucky, at least, shared similar coloring, temperament, and shooting and punching abilities, so maybe the idea wasn’t as far-fetched as Bucky (and possibly Steve, though the jury was still out on that one) seemed to think it was.
But he let the subject drop because Bucky looked way too upset to be cooped up in a tiny moving vehicle while staring his crush in the face, and Sam really didn’t have time for those complications while they were on their way to a mission. From the glance Bucky snuck over at him, though, it was clear that both of them knew it was only a temporary retreat.
They spent the majority of the rest of the trip in silence.
Two years, four months after Siberia
So the story was that one Oliver Jackson, English-born Interpol chief stationed in Paris, got his hands on some information acquired from King T’Challa of Wakanda. It was a bunch of papers and cassette tapes, and it ultimately amounted to most of a formula for a highly addictive, extremely dangerous party drug. Jackson, unlike the drug’s original distributors in Albania, had his hands in a number of pies, including some chemical kingpins who helped fix some of Drug X’s bugs and sent it back out into the market. Jackson no doubt thought that he’d gotten away with it, except that a teenager in Lyons hacked into the not-so-secure email account of one of those kingpins and discovered the whole operation. The kid was maybe fifteen, played lots of video games in his room all day, and had an inherent distrust of authority, so he was reluctant to inform the police of his find. However, he did know that several no-longer-technically-Avengers were running around without the permission of the governments he was afraid of, and after some more time on the internet, he found their tip line and managed to send everything through. (He explained all of this in a series of emails to their secure address, evidently assuming that backstory would convince them to come help.)
Jackson lived in a nice little apartment on a quiet little street. Unlike many dirty cops, or at least the dirty cops that Sam knew from movies, he had restrained himself from buying a property with a view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. Just around the corner from his building was a cute little park with a statue of a man in heels and a wig in the center. At the moment, sitting on one of the benches, Sam had a good view of this statue’s pious expression and the pigeon sitting on his head.
The building across the street from Jackson’s apartment had an equally cute little coffee shop on the bottom floor. Young couples and students from a nearby university branch littered the tiny ornamental tables, talking and laughing and checking their phones.
Bucky was seated with his back to the wall, facing the front door of Jackson’s building. He had on the thick silver glasses, a light zip-up hoodie, and a pair of thin gloves, which was okay because it was a little chilly outside. He was pretending to read from a textbook propped on the table in front of him. Steve’s handy messenger bag sat by his feet. He seemed completely oblivious to the appreciative glances he was attracting from the two girls at the table next to him and the waiter, who kept coming back to see if he wanted anything else, which was the sort of service that Sam had never once gotten in Europe.
watch out, he’s going to leave you his number, he texted Bucky’s burner phone. They’d decided that the earpieces were too conspicuous for this kind of operation.
The problem was that Sam had forgotten to account for Bucky’s age and metal arm. Texting one-handed was probably a bit much to ask a ninety-year-old to perform without practice. Once he’d shaken the waiter off again, with a parting smile that Bucky clearly thought would communicate that he was fine and didn’t need anything else but would probably only encourage the guy to come back, it still took Bucky two minutes to reply with a simple: What are you talking about?
the waiter. he’s flirting. watch out for the girls at 10:00 too
Why? Think they’re agents?
- I think they think you’re hot
There was a long pause in the conversation when Bucky dropped his phone under the table and had to bend down to find it. The girls watched with interest.
This is an uncomfortable conversation, Bucky texted once he had it secured again, tossing it onto his textbook with emphasis when he was done.
Sam grinned at the statue. Victory tasted sweet.
Then he was back to business. get an idea of the front door combo yet?
I haven’t seen anyone walk by. Hold on.
Sam also had a book that he was pretending to read, so he flipped through it idly, half reading the words and half watching for when the pigeon would finally give up on Statue Guy and fly somewhere else. It was either comfortable or in love, because it hadn’t moved by the time Bucky called him.
“Hey, sweetie,” Bucky said, his voice light and warm.
Sam shot a glance over at the café before he could freak himself out too much. Bucky was smiling into his coffee and pretending not to notice the way that the waiter was definitely making a return trip. “Not sure that’ll work, dude,” he said. “He looks determined.”
Bucky deployed the laugh that he used sometimes with Steve. Intimate and loving were the words that Sam would use to describe it. “Just wanted to let you know that building management changed the lock codes, okay? You’re going to want to put in 5-5-1-7.”
“This is creepy,” Sam said, memorizing the numbers. “If you really want to shake him, you should blow a kiss at the phone or something. That would probably work in the movies.”
“Yeah, I’ll head up in two minutes. Pay your bill and get moving.”
“Mmm. Yeah, I’ll—” Bucky tilted the phone away from his mouth and looked up at the waiter. Sam thought he heard the tail end of an accented would you like—? To whatever it was, Bucky replied, “Just the bill, thanks. I’ve got to—yeah, I’ll be right there,” he said to Sam. “Love you.” He didn’t actually blow a kiss at the phone when he hung up, but his voice did the trick: poor Waiter Guy was crushed.
Sam had to turn away then so he didn’t split a gut laughing. He didn’t delight in Waiter Guy’s misfortune, exactly—although if he’d known what he wanted to get into, namely the Winter Soldier, he’d just marvel at his good luck missing the landing—but Bucky was pretty funny, not to mention a decent actor. No wonder he’d kept the world off his trail for so long.
He waited for exactly two minutes and then got up, checking his watch like he had an appointment. He left his phone tucked under the bench and the pigeon and Statue Guy to their own devices and wandered down the street, around the corner, past Bucky packing his textbooks into Steve’s man satchel, and up to Jackson’s building. He punched in 5517 and the door popped open with a buzz. He glanced at the little numbered slots next to him, just double-checking that Jackson was on the top floor.
The building was just as neutral and pleasant on the inside as it was on the outside. The stairs were narrow but carefully level and the banister had recently been repainted. They had an elevator but Sam didn’t use it; he wanted to give Bucky a bit more time to wrangle the check out of the poor waiter. He climbed the stairs with his hands in his pockets, looking like he belonged, knowing that he stuck out like a sore thumb and that Jackson probably had guys watching for just this eventuality.
They let him get all the way to Jackson’s door—3B. Sam knocked and called, “Mr. Jackson? Oliver Jackson?” He made himself sound nervous but resolute. “Hey, man, professional courtesy. I have something to tell you.”
There was a showy pause where nothing happened, like Jackson was surprised to see/hear him and had not in fact been watching him from security cameras the whole time. Then the door opened.
Sam was a little surprised to see Jackson himself on the other side: a hair shorter than Sam, dusty blond hair and cool hazel eyes. He was moderately handsome, and he held himself like a man of action. “Oliver Jackson speaking,” he said, his crystal-cut RP vowels just as showy as his earlier pause. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Riley Finch,” Sam said. He stuck out his hand a moment late, as though nerves made it hard for him to focus on the niceties. “CIA.”
“Professional courtesy indeed,” Jackson said with a slight smile. He stepped aside and held out one arm. He was wearing a subdued cardigan and corduroy pants that did not make him dowdy at all. “Please, come in, Mr. Finch.”
Sam came in, balling his hands into fists in his pockets. The door shut behind him with a very final-sounding click; like Bucky had suspected, the door was reinforced, possibly with steel. No way your average European door shut like that. The hinges were probably still weak, not that Sam could break through them with what he had on him at the moment. All he had was his book, his brains, and an emergency garrote that Clint had built into his watch. He went through the entryway and into the light, open sitting room, which was filled, just as their teenage informant had said, with several underground drug kingpins, their small entourages, and some of Jackson’s own guys. Sam let himself falter.
“Funny that you should find yourself here today, Mr. Finch,” Jackson said calmly from behind him. “Today, of all days.”
Sam took his hands out of his pockets. Everyone was staring at him. “Look, man,” he said. “I had no idea—okay, no, that’s not true,” he admitted, blurting it out in a rush. “You want the truth?”
“Do please enlighten us,” Jackson said. Sam didn’t turn to look behind him, but from the way everybody’s eyes flickered, he knew that this British asshole had a gun. “But first—” He didn’t say anything, but one of his guys standing against the (tastefully decorated) wall came forward and patted Sam down, very thoroughly. He was obviously a professional.
“I don’t have a wire,” Sam said. “It’s just me. I swear.”
The guy didn’t reply. He finished feeling at Sam’s ankles and stood up, nodding over Sam’s shoulder at Jackson. “He’s clean,” he said. “Doesn’t even have a phone on him.”
“I’m in the CIA,” Sam said to him, a small amount of bite in his voice. “Like I’d be stupid enough to bring a phone here. You can track people using SIM cards, you guys know that.”
“Very well, then,” Jackson said at last. “What did you come here to say, Mr. Finch?”
“My team got a tip a few days ago,” Sam said immediately, talking fast. “This guy says that he hacked into someone’s email”—he let his eyes linger on the guilty party, a skinny middle-aged guy from Marseilles who glared at him with his crazy eyes, and knew that the whole room had picked up on it—“and read some pretty incriminating shit. Seems to think that one of our own turned dirty, handing over secrets to make a buck. Says he trusts my team to get the job to get done because we’re not Interpol.”
“Is that so?” Jackson asked. Still nobody else had said anything. That was the creepy part. “The CIA?”
“You seen what the US government pays its operatives?” Sam demanded, pushing onward quickly. “Not enough to live in a city like this, that’s for sure.”
“What do you want, Mr. Finch?”
“What do you think? I kept the information out of general circulation. I want in. You let me in on this, nobody ever finds out about this meeting, and the CIA goes sniffing for Drug X down some other channels.”
“And if we don’t?” Jackson’s voice was soft; the barrel of the gun against the back of Sam’s head was hard. “What then, Riley Finch?”
Sam inched his hands higher. He’d been in enough firefights by now that his heartbeat only increased slightly and Para-rescue Riley Finch would have punched this sucker in the jaw, but CIA Agent Riley Finch’s hands would shake, and so shake they did. “Then the information is in an email that will get sent out to my colleagues in”—he tilted his watch slightly towards his face—“thirty minutes. You’ll all have to run. Maybe not all of you will get away.” He made himself sound like he was more confident than he felt.
The skinny guy from Marseilles growled and stood up. He said something very angry in rapid-fire French. Sam kind of regretted not taking that elective in high school.
“Hush,” Jackson said, and, amazingly, the skinny guy did, though he still glared between Jackson and Sam like he wanted one or both of their heads on a platter, or maybe on a pike. “Your colleagues,” he asked Sam, the gun perfectly steady on the back of his head, “would they include Captain America?”
Shit. They’d gotten here faster than he’d wanted. Sam’s Agent Riley Finch laughed nervously. “What are you on, man? Not every US agent met Steve Rogers, okay?”
“Mr. Wilson, let us be perfectly honest with each other,” Jackson said. His voice was chilling and Sam reminded himself that he’d seen scarier. “I am not stupid and I am not blind.” He pulled Sam’s ball cap off his head contemptuously. “And besides, several of my friends in this room have extensive experience with you and your colleagues.”
At his words, a small group of men sitting on the couch closest to the large windows stood up. Jackson’s apartment faced the green area tucked between this block and the next, not the street, and this pleasant, open space was a sharp contrast to the dark lines of their shoulders.
“Hail Hydra,” said one of these men, a horrible, punch-worthy smirk on his stupid Nazi face.
“You’re kidding me,” Sam said in his own voice, letting his hands drop a fraction. Jackson pushed his gun even harder into his skull. “You’re kidding me, dude. Hydra, really? One, you guys just can’t seem to recognize when the world’s collective fist is in your face,” he said to Hydra’s drug-dealing division. “You will never win, because you suck and everybody hates you. Recognize it and move on. And two,” he said to Jackson, trusting him to understand that, “Hydra, really? They’ll just screw up your little operation when they take time off to conquer Poland.”
He honestly couldn’t believe that they’d let him get through his little speech. The Hydra guys looked astonished and then angry, but then Jackson just laughed, like he’d never heard anything funnier than Sam, and they stayed against the window after all, glowering fit to kill. They weren’t the only ones with hands under their jackets, though, and okay, yeah, maybe this plan could’ve been thought through a little better.
“There is very little of interest in Poland,” Jackson said. “I can think of other places, though, other places that would bother you and your colleagues much more. You think you’re the only one with a bargaining chip, Mr. Wilson?”
Sam didn’t actually have a bargaining chip, but nobody acknowledged this.
“Now tell me the truth,” Jackson said, a trace of satisfaction in his icy voice. “What are you doing here all by yourself? You know that we have eyes throughout this building and you know that nobody will make it up here in time to save you.”
“Gosh,” Bucky said, leaning on the doorway that seemed to lead into the kitchen. “Wish I’d’ve known that before I put in all that effort.”
And Sam couldn’t believe they let him get through his little speech either, except possibly because they were so surprised to hear and see Jackson so immediately contradicted that they spent time being surprised instead of reacting.
Then the guy immediately next to Bucky went for his gun, Bucky hit him in the face with a frying pan, and everything dissolved into pandemonium.
Sam was faster than Jackson had been expecting, and he grabbed the gun and twisted it towards the floor. There were a lot of dull pops around the room as a lot of silenced guns went off at once, as well as the familiar reverberating hum of vibranium, several pained yells, the dull whang of a copper pan, and the sounds the skinny guy from Marseilles and his closest bodyguard made as Steve’s leather satchel knocked them and the couch immediately behind them onto the floor.
Ignoring the rest of the room, Sam focused on Jackson: wrestling the gun away from him, kicking him, forcing him to the floor, maybe hitting him once over the head with the gun. Jackson was pretty good, but Sam had fought (and fought with) better, and he won. He put the muzzle of the gun to Jackson’s forehead. Let him see how he liked it.
Bucky went through the rest of the room like tissue paper. They were dirty Interpol agents and chemical kingpins and mobsters and surviving Hydra members, but even their combined efforts couldn’t make the Winter Soldier blink an eye. The Hydra guys alone seemed to realize this—they made a break for it while Bucky was busy kicking the shit out of Jackson’s guys, and Sam turned around in time to see him grab Steve’s textbook-laden bag again to take one of them out, then vault over the only couch left standing to smash the second in the face with his shiny metal fist. He put the last guy, the one who had spoken up in the meeting, through the wall.
Jackson stayed on his knees, watching all of this with his face set. He didn’t say anything.
“Your timing is excellent,” Sam told Bucky. There were still two guys in the corner, one of them with balled fists and the other with what looked like a candlestick, but their resistance was laughable.
“Well, I wanted to make a grand entrance.” Bucky shoved his sleeves back to his elbows, very much on purpose, and the two guys got one good look at his arm and promptly gave up. The candlestick hit the carpet with a dull thunk.
“You were saying?” Sam said, looking down at Jackson with one eyebrow raised. He would, if pressed, admit to gloating a little bit.
“I didn’t think that the true Avengers would associate with terrorists,” Jackson said calmly. “But then, I was forgetting my history.”
“Rich, coming from you,” Sam retorted.
Bucky said nothing, but his arm whirred and hissed.
Sam grabbed Jackson by his shirt and dragged him to the last couch left standing. “Did you pay off building security, just in case something went wrong here?” he asked, keeping the gun pointed steady into Jackson’s face.
Jackson quirked one eyebrow. “No. I was foolish and chose to have a meeting like this in an unsecure building.” He spoke with a bare hint of sarcasm.
“You did,” Bucky said suddenly. “Cameras all over the inside, nothing on the outside. These windows,” he said, pointing. “You should address that weakness.”
“Yes, I was foolish,” Jackson said, once again calm and serious. “I assumed that nobody would be able to break into my building or the buildings opposite to gain access to the courtyard so that they could climb up the side and get into my apartment through one of the windows, all without being seen or heard. I admit that this was an oversight.”
“I’d put money on ‘stupid’, especially because we’re the ones that stopped the original manufacturers of your drug in Albania,” Sam said. “Not so clever, are we?”
A muscle twitched in Jackson’s jaw. “Oh, I heard about Albania,” he said softly. “Yes, I read reports from witnesses who were under the impression that someone got shot and still made a four-story jump to get away. My Hydra friends were most interested.”
“Bucky—” Sam began immediately, but Bucky, white-faced, did not listen or otherwise respond.
“They had some interesting modifications for our version of the formula,” Jackson went on. His eyes, watching Bucky, were mildly interested and nothing more. “Seems they have some experience with mind-altering drugs.”
Sam half-expected Bucky to punch Jackson in the face, but instead he walked away, jerky like a puppet, and pulled the Hydra agent out of the wall. He could have snapped his neck, smashed his face in; he just studied it instead, intense and focused, and then discarded the guy onto the floor. He went on to the next one, the one he’d punched, and did the same thing.
Sam had no idea what he was doing. “Bucky?”
Bucky ignored him. He dropped this guy onto the ground too. The last one, dazed from the impact of Steve’s bag, rolled over on the tiles in the kitchen and made a hazy attempt to get away, but Bucky seized the back of his shirt with that same implacable, mechanical movement and manhandled him around so he could study his face.
“You,” Bucky said, and his voice was terrible.
The Hydra guy made some sort of garbled sound that might have been Please. Bucky dragged him back into the main room, limp like a doll, and threw him onto the carpet.
“I know you,” he said. He stepped on his chest, hard. Pressed down harder. “I know you.”
This time the guy definitely said, “Please.”
“What the hell,” Sam began, not really expecting to have to finish that sentence.
“He was there,” Bucky said, voice shaking, all of him shaking. He was either on the edge of a breakdown or blowing straight past it. “He was one of the scientists. The technicians. He saw, he was—he—”
“Only a couple of times!” the guy said desperately, apparently not registering how this would sound.
Bucky stomped on him. Sam heard something crunch—a couple of somethings—and the guy let out a strangled howl. He tried to double up on himself, but that just made his broken ribs hurt more, and he finally fell back, tears streaming down his face.
“Dangerous,” he managed, evidently still scrambling for reasons. He wasn’t so high and mighty now: not so dangerous himself. “It was—too dangerous. They still needed—there were still—but you had to forget, it was too dangerous—”
“Forget my life?” Bucky asked. His face twisted. He didn’t seem to realize it, but he was crying too. “Forget who I am?”
“Forget him,” the scientist said. “You were always remembering—it was always a risk, they had to be careful. But he woke up, they found him—you would—it was too dangerous, they were afraid that you’d see Rogers and remember and—still missions to complete, Insight wasn’t ready—”
Bucky hit him. He dropped to his knees, his arm screaming, and hit him again and again, until the face he’d recognized was gone. Then he stayed where he was, hunched over, his metal arm hanging limp and his fingers knotted in his own hair. His shoulders heaved but he didn’t make a sound.
“That was enlightening,” Jackson said at last.
“You,” Sam said. He jabbed the gun at him and nearly poked him in the eye. “You say another goddamn word and I swear to Jesus that I’ll shoot you someplace you won’t enjoy.” He didn’t pause to see what dismissive face Jackson would make in response; he went around the couch immediately. “Bucky?” he asked, gentle. He ignored the blood and brains on Jackson’s cream carpet and he didn’t touch him. When nothing happened, he tried the nickname-of-a-nickname that Steve sometimes used: “Buck?”
Bucky stirred, sliding his human hand to hold the back of his own neck. His metal arm hung there like a dead thing, dragging the line of his shoulders askew. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” he whispered.
“Okay,” Sam said soothingly. “Let me deal with this asshole and we’ll bail.”
Bucky didn’t reply, but Sam hadn’t really expected him to; he turned away from his hunched figure and the leaking body on the floor and went back to Jackson, who somehow managed to look completely unimpressed.
“A gun isn’t designed to think,” Jackson said, tilting his head meaningfully in Bucky’s direction.
“What did I tell you?” Sam found a pair of handcuffs in the jacket pocket of one of Jackson’s own men, lying next to one of the side tables with a rapidly-swelling face. His control was tenuous at best (that goddamn gun metaphor) and the guy groaned in pain when Sam jostled him. “Shut up or I shoot you.” He got up and grabbed an ornamental metal chair from the corner. “Sit here,” he said, gesturing between it and Jackson with the gun.
Jackson seemed to sense that he was toeing a very thin line, and he did so without a word. He allowed himself to be handcuffed to the chair without trying to escape, and Sam suspected that he was more nervous around the loaded gun than he was letting on.
“You had eyes on me,” he said when Jackson was secure. “The feed from those cameras has to come into this apartment somewhere. It’s the only safe place for the computer monitors.”
Jackson had apparently decided to take ‘shut up’ to its logical conclusion, because he said nothing.
Sam didn’t really require his input. He left him where he was and went back around the couch again, where Bucky was still shrinking in on himself on the floor. “Bucky,” he said, careful not to approach him too suddenly or get too close. “Can you go scope out the rest of the apartment for me?” He supposed that he could leave Bucky to watch Jackson while Sam went looking for the computers, but getting Bucky up and moving and away from the dead body next to him seemed like the best option.
Bucky didn’t seem to hear him. He didn’t even twitch. The way he was bent over himself, Sam couldn’t see his face.
“Hey,” Sam said, “Bucky. Buck?”
Finally: “What?” Bucky’s voice still sounded all kinds of wrong, but at least he was talking. Sort of.
“My new pal over there probably has some computers lying around here somewhere. Could you go find them?”
“Oh.” Bucky was quiet for another thirty seconds, but just when Sam was starting to worry that he was shutting down again, he said, “Laptop or desktop?”
“Either. Both. I don’t really care. He’s too paranoid to just leave this stuff lying around. Don’t unplug anything, just come back and let me know when you find it.”
“Okay,” Bucky said. He got himself to his feet. He was holding himself very strangely, like his metal arm was dead weight, but he hitched it into the cradle of his other arm and went through into the kitchen, stepping over the remaining Hydra agents without looking at them.
“You wanna take this opportunity to name any names?” Sam asked Jackson.
“I’m sorry, am I allowed to speak now?” Jackson replied, raising both eyebrows in feigned shock.
Sam ignored this. “Interpol, as in genuine Interpol agents vetted by our source, will be coming here to arrest you and confiscate all your data once we make the phone call. I’m sure you’ll tell them everything anyway, but we would appreciate knowing, for example, how you arranged to get a look at that Albanian intel in the first place.”
Jackson shrugged. Sam really didn’t blame him for not saying anything; the destruction in the room aside, he had to know that the ex-Avengers didn’t kill or torture where they could help it. He didn’t have to spill his guts to them, and they wouldn’t get anything that the actual authorities couldn’t also get and put to better use.
Bucky came back into the room, still holding his metal elbow in the palm of his other hand. His face was a mask. “The smaller bedroom has been turned into a digital hub,” he reported. “The surveillance feeds are up on the monitors right now.”
“Are they being recorded anywhere? Tapes, anything like that?”
Bucky looked down at his feet. “Possibly. But the video mainly covers the front and back doors, the elevator, and the stairs leading up to this floor. The majority of the surveillance inside the apartment is audio only.”
“All right. Thanks.” They’d known that a takedown like this would expose that they were here in the first place, but it had been the most efficient, foolproof way to catch all of Jackson’s co-conspirators in one swoop. If Bucky was right about where the cameras were, then the videos only captured Sam’s face. “Can you turn off the cameras?”
“Without destroying them?” He sounded a little more like the Bucky that Sam knew now, the one who joked with him about overly flirtatious waiters. “Maybe.” He left again.
While he was gone, Sam tidied things up a bit. He put Steve’s bag over his shoulder and found Bucky’s thin gloves tucked neatly into one of the pockets. He pulled them on to move a few of the unconscious bodies, tying them together around table legs. He didn’t think that anybody would be moving soon enough to escape, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.
“Cameras are off,” Bucky called from down the hall.
“Well, Mr. Jackson, your boss is not going to be happy,” Sam said. He stepped away from the nearest groaning, still mostly-unconscious drug dealer and adjusted the strap on Steve’s bag. “I’d say that you’re fired.”
Despite his big mouth earlier, Jackson was certainly quiet now. He tilted his head, hazel eyes flat, but didn’t even make any aloof expressions. Possibly he was contemplating how utterly screwed he was.
Sam tapped two fingers to his forehead in a sarcastic salute. Whatever, he’d take it. He peeled off the gloves and handed them back to Bucky, who had reappeared in the room without anyone noticing. “Ready to blow this popsicle stand?” he asked.
With difficulty, Bucky covered up his shiny hand; his arm still didn’t seem to be working, or something in his head wasn’t working and had screwed up the connection. He shoved the other glove into his pocket and gathered his arm close to his chest again, supporting the elbow so that he could stand mostly straight. “Who even says that?” he said finally.
“In my head? Kids in diners in the 1950s,” Sam said. “I’ll make you watch Grease sometime. It’ll be great.”
Two years, four months after Siberia
They waited in the lobby until Waiter Guy went into the café to get something, and then they went down the street and around the corner, as casually as possible when there was some blood on Bucky’s shoes and he wasn’t walking quite properly. Halfway back to the car, they sat on a bench and Bucky called the police, his arm propped in his lap.
Sam didn’t know any French, but as far as he could tell, Bucky made a very convincing panicked Parisian. Sam could make out the address of Jackson’s building in the stream of rapid-fire exclamations, but that was about it.
“Think they bought it?” he asked after Bucky hung up.
Bucky just nodded. He dropped the phone onto the pavement and stomped on it a couple of times until it was a pile of vaguely electronic pieces. Sam threw them away in the nearest trashcan.
By the time they got back to the car, Bucky’s arm still wasn’t working. Sam had listened as best he could over the sounds of the city, but he couldn’t even hear any of the motors and tiny servos. It just hung there, and Bucky was quiet—no, silent—in the way he used to be after he’d first come back. This was worse than the car ride here, when he hadn’t wanted to leave Steve. He’d pulled back into himself; something that looked like him walked just slightly behind Sam, but Bucky wasn’t there.
But he was walking, he was moving, and Sam just had to get them out of Paris and back towards home and then he could deal with it. He told himself this over and over again, getting Bucky to buckle his seat belt, tossing Steve’s textbook-filled bag into the backseat, following every sign post and speed limit and rule of the road so they didn’t attract any police attention, letting the GPS lead him out of the city and away, away, away.
They were heading south towards Lyon, an hour or two from Paris, and Bucky finally stirred from his blank contemplation of the dashboard to say, in hoarse confusion, “Where are we?”
“Heading back home,” Sam said. He automatically checked the GPS to make sure that they were still on track. He knew that they were, but sometimes he got nervous on long journeys. “We left Paris a couple of hours ago.”
Bucky tugged the glove off his hand. The fingers twitched and moved, curling into a fist. The familiar tiny hum of machinery was a kick of relief. Bucky, frowning down at his hand, didn’t seem to feel the same way; he touched his knuckles with the tips of his fingers. Now Sam could see, in quick glances snatched away from the road, that there were dried, reddish-brown flakes coming off the shining metal.
“Did we get him?” Bucky asked, so slowly that Sam kept thinking that he’d lost track of the sentence.
“Jackson? We called the police on Jackson.” But Bucky’s confusion didn’t go away, and so Sam added, more slowly, “We handcuffed him to a chair and then you told the police where he was. He couldn’t have gotten away before they showed up.”
“Oh.” Bucky was still staring at his fist. He scraped some of the dried stuff off with his nail.
This was new. New and really, really concerning. “How much do you remember?” Sam asked carefully, keeping his eyes fixed on the road so he didn’t feel too pinned down.
Bucky tilted his head. He still wasn’t really looking at anything, not even the trees passing by the windows. He hooked his human palm around the back of his neck, the way he’d done in Jackson’s apartment. “Was that really his name?”
“Uh, what?” Sam looked over at him, fast, and thought that he seemed serious, from what he could tell from his profile. “Who? Jackson?”
“Riley,” Bucky said.
Sam couldn’t follow this conversation at all. “You know who Riley is.”
“Was his last name really Finch?” Bucky asked, now a little impatient.
“Oh.” Sam drummed his fingers on the wheel, looking both at the darkening road and a sun-bleached field in Afghanistan, and Riley yeah, go ahead, laugh it up Finch. “Yeah, it was. We used to laugh about it.”
“Because of the wings,” Bucky said, which wasn’t a question.
“Yeah. The joke was that I was the Falcon and he was some other random bird, a little songbird or something, but never a Finch. He was a Chickadee or a Cardinal or something. On the ground people sometimes called him Atticus.”
“It’s from a book,” Sam explained. “To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a great book. I’ll make you and Steve read it, if he hasn’t already—the film’s great too. Anyway, the main character’s father is named Atticus Finch.”
“Did he like being called Atticus?”
“Atticus Finch is great, so, yeah, he liked it. He was a real goofball sometimes but people respected him.”
“What happened to him?”
Sam glanced over at him again. “What, Steve didn’t tell you?”
“No. I don’t think so.” He was back to picking at the blood on his knuckles again. “He probably didn’t think he had a right to.”
“We were flying a night mission,” Sam said, the old, familiar words. He remembered the first time he’d said them, to a psychiatrist back on the base in Afghanistan. “He got hit with an RPG. He was—there was nothing I could do. It was like I was up there just to watch. There wasn’t even a body to bury, nothing to send back to his folks back home.”
Bucky did look over at him then, he could feel it. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Sam shrugged. “Doesn’t change what happened, you know? But thanks.” He checked the GPS again. Night was coming on fast and traffic was getting easier. “You gonna tell me, then?” he asked, because he couldn’t let this go, not when Bucky had been so out of it that he didn’t remember them leaving Paris.
“How much you remember.” Sam ignored his small noise of protest and pushed on: “Do you remember spying on the building to get the door code?”
Bucky rolled his head back against the seat and groaned, rubbing his real hand across his eyes. “Yes, of course.”
“Of course. Do you remember getting into Jackson’s apartment?”
“Do you remember—”
“I remember up until—up until—” Bucky seemed to choke on his tongue. He tried to force his way past it, his eyes squeezed shut, and finally said, “I don’t remember you tying him up or calling the police. Then I was here.”
Then the Hydra man who helped mess with his mind was probably associated with the break. Sam said, “This happen often?”
“It used to,” Bucky said, quiet and bitter, like the words tasted foul in his mouth. “In the beginning. I’d blink and I was somewhere else, somewhen else. What did I do?” he asked suddenly, dropping his hand. “Did I do anything?”
“No, you didn’t do anything,” Sam said quickly. Then he hesitated. “Unless you mean when you—”
“No, I remember him.” His hate was a tangible thing in the small car.
Sam waited; Bucky was restless, angry and hurting, and he was pretty sure that he could wait it out, and Bucky would tell him on his own.
Sure enough, Bucky burst out, “He had the—the—the nerve to say please? To me? After all they—they brought him in so I’d stop saying please!” His breathing sped up; his hands clenched convulsively. “They used drugs a lot at first, before they figured out how to make the electric chair work properly. But they don’t—the effects were always weird, they never knew exactly how anything would work. I didn’t know up from down but it went bad on them all the time, it was just—I don’t really remember what was really happening, it’s all mixed up and wrong and I know it’s wrong, I know I was just confused and didn’t know what was happening and what I was seeing wasn’t real or right or—or—sometimes I—what I saw was nicer than what was really happening, and I know that now, I know that what I saw happening was a lie—I remember that I thought that Steve was coming to help me but he’d disguised himself as one of my handlers because he was wearing a lifelike mask, and when it sort of burned off I realized that I’d just been peeling people’s faces off and there was no Steve under any of them. So they stopped relying on the drugs and started trying to find something else.” He stopped too, took a shaky breath. But then he went on, fast, the words spilling out almost faster than he could say them: “They told me that I was helping people, saving the world. I was a force for change. They told me I was saving people and I went and burned people in their homes and killed their families in front of them and the blood’s not on their hands, is it? It isn’t on his, even though he was there to make sure that there wasn’t anything left to wake up and wonder why the hell it was killing kids and pull over I’m going to be sick.”
Sam swerved over to the side of the road and slammed on the brakes. Bucky was out of the car before it had stopped moving; his door swung half-shut behind him.
He put on the parking brake and got out too, walking around the car with his shaking hands hidden in his pockets. The road around them was deserted. In the dying light, Sam could see Bucky crouched in the weeds, retching and heaving. He was trembling so hard that he could barely stay upright.
Sam knelt down next to him and didn’t say anything for a moment, until Bucky had stopped throwing up and started sobbing. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said, quiet but firm, “but it wasn’t your fault.”
“Fuckin’—‘course it, it—”
“It wasn’t,” Sam said. “You just told me yourself. They had you so out of your head that there was no way you were in control of what was happening.”
“D, doesn’t m-matter—doesn’t change what, what hap-pened.”
“I know it doesn’t. It doesn’t change what happened to them, and it doesn’t change what happened to you, either. But you have to understand that you aren’t the guilty one here.”
“You don’t underst-tand. You don’t,” Bucky repeated more forcefully. He staggered upright; almost fell over; righted himself and went back to the car, ripping open the back door.
Sam went after him, confused and concerned. Bucky was digging around inside Steve’s messenger bag, his face raw and red in the car’s interior light. He must have found whatever he was looking for, because he turned around fast and threw it at Sam’s chest. It was hard, with edges, and Sam fumbled it and almost dropped it.
It was Bucky’s notebook. Sam said, “What—”
“Read it,” Bucky ordered. “S-see if you still w-want—” He was still crying. He scrubbed angrily at his face and hissed, “Damn it.” He covered his eyes with his forearm.
“Hey,” Sam said, reaching out and grabbing his elbow. “Hey. Bucky. Sit down. Here, the door’s open, just—”
“D-don’t,” Bucky said, but he didn’t struggle when Sam pushed Steve’s bag unceremoniously into the foot well and sat him down on the edge of the back seat, half in and half out of the car. He hunched into himself, shaking and miserable, every breath a hiccoughing sob.
Sam pulled the passenger side door open again and sat sideways there, close enough to be company but not so close that Bucky would feel even more overwhelmed. He held the notebook loosely in his hands and wished that they had a bottle of water in the car. Bucky would have a nasty headache when this was all over.
“R-read it,” Bucky insisted again, voice muffled by his hands.
Reluctantly, Sam slipped off the elastic band holding the covers shut. The notebook immediately expanded like an accordion, fat with ink and tape and multi-colored plastic tabs. Sam had never, not once, intended to look inside it.
He tried to look but not really read, flipping through the pages so that he only caught bits and pieces of what it said. Bucky’s handwriting was strange, half print and half cursive; in the beginning, it was almost childish. Sometimes he filled whole pages with that same erratic cadence from his confession to Sam in the car, and other times there would be only a few terse bulleted statements.
The pictures, many of them probably printed from the data point back home, made the book so thick: propaganda posters from WWII (Steve pointing out at the viewer, I Want You!); posed solo photographs, men and women dressed their best (one man, in grainy black and white, seemed confused to find himself in front of the camera; a woman, captured in full 1970s color, smiled confidently from the cheap printer paper); print ads from the ‘20s and ‘30s, selling things like cigarettes and cookware; family photographs; buildings (only a few of them, judging by the dates scrawled in the margins next to them, had been photographed at the right time period); maps, both hand-drawn and printed, of cities and countries; and, as far as Sam could tell, almost every photograph or poster or trading card showing Steve Rogers that existed in any form online.
He’d reached the end, or at least the last page with anything on it—a few sheets under the heading PARIS, which was a jumbled, free-association account of the Howling Commandos clearing Nazis out of the city in 1944 and the Winter Soldier engineering at least one international conflict (blowing up an Algerian peace mission in 1956), as well as possibly drowning a man in his bathtub at some later date, though Bucky seemed confused about this and it was so buried under the twists and turns of the other two events that it was hard to pick out.
Sam wanted to stop. He was looking right through the top of Bucky’s skull and he didn’t know if Bucky would still want him to know these things when he pulled himself back together and got himself back under control. Sam was betting that he wouldn’t, because he knew that nobody else had been allowed to see this, not even Steve. Looking at that last entry, Sam could see how hard Bucky had been trying to not be this, to keep all those hybridized Paris missions locked up.
“I don’t want you to regret letting me see this,” Sam said quietly. He fanned through the blank pages at the end of the book with his thumb.
“I won’t,” Bucky said. Beneath the tears, it was hard to tell if he was just being stubborn or if he actually meant it. “I c-can’t let—won’t—” He stopped for a second to suck in a deep breath, then said, more coherently, “You’re more objective.” He laughed suddenly. It wasn’t a nice sound. “And you sa-saw… all that.”
“I definitely agree that you should probably talk about this to someone besides yourself,” Sam said. “I just don’t know if you really want that someone to be me.”
Bucky knew that he was talking about Steve. He laughed again, his arms curling around his stomach, like he was holding his guts in. He kept his face turned away from Sam, but it was impossible to hide how red and swollen it was. “You’re the only one who—who kept it straight. Me and him.”
“You and Steve?” Sam asked, confused.
Bucky shook his head violently. He dropped his forehead against the metal frame of the door with a dull thunk.
“Whoa, hey, don’t—”
“Me and him,” Bucky said. From the sound of his voice, a fresh round of tears was on the way. “Bucky Barnes.”
Sam’s immediate impulse was to deny it, and then he remembered what he’d thought, all those months ago, when Steve’s friend first came back: that he couldn’t be trusted, because Steve thought he was Bucky Barnes, but Sam knew that there was a gulf between 1945 and 2017, and he thought that while he might have liked the Bucky from seventy years ago, the one he had to deal with now was a pain in the ass.
(Then Sharon, then Albania, then the Alps, then the haircut, then—)
Sam flipped through the notebook again, more slowly. He still wasn’t reading the words, but now he focused on the pattern. The first red tab stuck to the third page, next to a man with a striking resemblance to Tony—his father, Howard. Bucky had chosen an old picture, from Howard’s days with the SSR. Sam didn’t recognize the woman in the color picture next to his, but Bucky had carefully labeled it, in his child’s handwriting: Maria Stark.
Red for the dead, obviously, and Sam was reminded of the way that Natasha occasionally mentioned the red in her ledger. There was a lot of red in Bucky’s notebook: a lot of frozen, smiling faces, details and accounts of their final moments on the pages next to them. The Paris entry didn’t have a red tab yet, but Sam knew it would get one.
The blue tabs were least likely to have a picture attached to them. Most of them were solid pages of writing or fragmented lists of impressions, and Sam read more than he meant to, trying to figure out what it was all about. He decided, his stomach curdling, that the answer was Hydra, drugs, and torture—everything about the Winter Soldier when he wasn’t actively killing people.
And the green, Sam supposed, was supposed to be anything pre-1945—the advertisements were given green tabs—but it read as a careful, adoring portrait of Steve Rogers, his best moments and his worst, specific fights he’d been in pre- and post-serum, exhaustively detailed descriptions of every apartment he’d ever stayed in, and Sam could see why Hydra never quite got Steve out of Bucky’s head: the green matched the red and the blue put together.
Bucky was silent. His cheeks were still wet, and he wiped at them repeatedly, but he had gone past the heaving sobs and moved on to something quieter. He still held his stomach with his left arm.
“I did agree with you in the beginning,” Sam said slowly. He turned the page and found a picture of the Howling Commandos. He knew them by heart: Gabe Jones and Jim Morita on either side of Steve, so they couldn’t be cropped out of the picture; James Falsworth and Jacques Dernier on Steve’s left, Dernier with his hand on Jones’s shoulder; Dum-Dum Dugan in his bowler hat and Bucky himself on the right, all of them dirty and war-torn but smiling. Sam looked closely at picture-Bucky’s face, and he knew him well enough by now to recognize when his smile was fake. He’d seen the real thing, once or twice, or at least something much closer to the real thing. “God, I hated you. I thought that Steve was being an idiot, letting you back in when we didn’t know the first thing about you anymore.”
“I know,” Bucky said, watery.
“And, of course, back in DC, I thought for maybe ten minutes that I was finally going to be someone’s best friend again, and you come back from the dead to screw things up.”
“And then I thought we’d never find you. I mean, I tried my best. I’m not that terrible of a person, and it meant so much to Steve. But I thought you had us beat. I knew that we’d never find you unless you wanted us to find you. And then Zemo calls the UN down on your head.”
“So yeah, at first, I agreed with you one hundred percent.” Sam touched the little green tab where it covered one end of the photograph. The following few pages were filled with the selected biographies of the rest of the Commandos, what Bucky had decided he wanted to remember about the lives his friends had lived after he and Steve were gone. He listed their career and personal achievements, the medals they received, how many children they had, personal anecdotes from friends, family, notable figures of the day. “I thought that you were somebody else who just happened to look like Steve’s best friend.”
“He doesn’t get it,” Bucky whispered into the side of the car.
“You know what, though?” Sam said. “I think Steve does get it. I think he gets it better than the rest of us did. He knew right away.” Sam held up the picture of the Commandos and waited until Bucky gave in to the urge to glance over at him in confusion. Then he pointed at picture-Bucky. “That’s the same smile you’ve been using for months, when you think you need to look happy but you’re not. This is you.”
Bucky looked slightly betrayed.
“No, hear me out,” Sam said. He shut the notebook and tilted it so that they could see the pages from the side, bristling with plastic tabs. “You’re right. That’s a lot of red. I know there’s more that you haven’t put in here yet, just like I know that some of the blue must be so mixed up in your head that you don’t even know how to put it into words. But for every red, there’s something green. You remembered all of this, even when they tried their damndest to make you forget. You remembered these people and you’re trying to make sure that they aren’t forgotten again. And you remembered Steve.” Sam opened the book to a random green tab, and sure enough, there was Steve as Captain America, smiling sheepishly from the front of a trading card.
“That doesn’t make me him,” Bucky protested. His eyes glanced off of Steve’s face and away again. “There’s—this whole thing, all of that, is between me and the guy he thinks I am. I can’t ever be—there’s no way back to—I tried, but I can’t. There’s too much in the way.”
“Here’s where you’re wrong.” Sam rested his aching arm on the back of his seat, keeping the notebook open. “You remember the day I got that apple pie for him?”
Bucky was startled. He nodded.
“Okay. So, first of all, you told us that your favorite apple pie you’ve ever had was from that church lady you guys used to know, but it wasn’t her apple pie in general, it was specifically the one she gave you when you finally talked Steve into leaving his mom’s apartment to live with you. Don’t think I didn’t notice that, by the way.” Sam paused to let Bucky be embarrassed for a moment, and then he went on: “You left before we were done, though, so you weren’t there to hear Steve thank me for being patient with you or whatever, because he was under the impression that I was only being sort of nice to you because of him. Which was bullshit, even by then. I’m sort of nice to you because I like you, and I think we’re friends.”
Bucky looked away. He rubbed his hand across his cheeks again, fast, even though his tears had slowed to a leak. “I think we’re friends too,” he said.
Sam only just barely fought down his grin; it was unexpectedly satisfying and exciting, to actually hear that out loud. But smiling like that wasn’t on the agenda for right now, and he got himself back under control. “Right,” he said. “Glad we’re in agreement. But my point is that he doesn’t care if you’re the same person. He just cares that you’re Bucky and you came back to him, and he’s so happy that you’re with him again that—you weren’t here to see it, obviously, but he was so grim and unhappy while you were gone or when he still thought you were dead. He’s so different now. He smiles a lot. He’s always been a fairly optimistic person, but now that optimism is just—it really lifts him up. You didn’t see him without you. He doesn’t care about any of this.” Sam waved the notebook around for emphasis. “He just cares that it’s you.”
The leak went back to a steady stream. “Then he doesn’t understand,” Bucky said miserably.
“Well, what about you?” Sam asked, casting around for another way to explain that, materially, nothing had changed. “What about when he got the serum? Did that make him not Steve anymore?”
Bucky turned back toward him at this, clearly scandalized. “Of course not!” he said.
“Even though he looked completely different?”
“Not completely,” Bucky said. “It didn’t really change what he looked like, except to make him—look, the point is, the serum didn’t change Steve, it just changed his body, and this—it changed whatever was inside of me.”
“How much do we have to change before we’re no longer ourselves? I’ve changed a lot. Maybe not as much as you or as much as Steve, but if I went back to when I was still in Afghanistan, with Riley, or even before that—I wouldn’t recognize myself.”
Bucky frowned at him. “You seem pretty steady,” he said, not like he was dismissing what Sam thought, but just observing that he thought that Sam was the kind of guy who could stay himself through losing a friend and becoming a superhero.
Sam shrugged. “It’s gradual, I think,” he said. “Maybe you are different from who you used to be. But I don’t think that changes the fundamental core of Bucky Barnes, and I don’t think Steve does, either. This book?” He held it up again. “That guy back there? They both make me think that they couldn’t ever get the real you to shut up. They wanted a gun, but instead they got you, and they couldn’t figure out how to get you to forget Steve completely and they still had to lie to you, while you were drugged out of your mind, and tell you that you were doing the right thing to even get you out the door. You turned on them all the time, otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to do any of those things.”
“They won in the end, though,” Bucky said. He sounded exhausted.
“All of Hydra versus you for seventy years?” Sam reminded him gently.
Bucky sniffed and huddled in on himself. He was quiet while Sam shut his notebook and put the elastic band on again. “Do you really think he doesn’t care?” he asked finally.
“I don’t think,” Sam said, firm. “I know. Ask him yourself. You should ask him, because when he tells you the same thing then you’ll believe it.” He held out the notebook and waited until Bucky uncurled enough to take it. “You should talk to him about that other stuff, too—”
“Oh, no,” Bucky said. “Not again!” He swiped the notebook through the air in a cutting motion. “How many times do I have to tell you that it isn’t going to happen?”
“At least once more, probably.”
“Why are you always bringing this up? I don’t want to ruin what I have, okay? It isn’t worth the risk.”
“You sure about that?” Sam asked. He raised one eyebrow before he could stop himself.
Bucky hesitated, and then said, “Yes”, quite fast, with a lot of emphasis on the word, as though to make up for his brief moment of silence.
“You want me to list my reasons again?”
Bucky made a very human-sounding noise of exasperation and pulled himself out of the car. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You’re so—so—”
“Intelligent?” Sam offered. “Dashing? Handsome?”
“Funny. No, not funny. So—okay. With. Uh.” Bucky’s face was already red from crying, but even with that and the darkness, Sam was still sure he was blushing. “That.”
“I told you. Times are changing. Also, it’s basically the best plot to a romantic drama film that I’ve ever seen. And,” Sam said, more seriously, “you’re both my friends and I want you to be happy. That’s why.”
“Oh.” Bucky mulled over this for a second. His tears had completely stopped. “I still don’t know that I can tell him,” he said, which was some slight forward progress from a flat no.
“But you should,” Sam said, “because—”
“Ugh,” Bucky said.
Sam held up his hands in surrender. “You ready to get going again?” he asked, gentle. It was some kind of miracle that nobody had driven by yet, and he didn’t want to push their luck farther than they had to.
“Yeah.” Bucky scrubbed his hand down his face one more time. “Yeah, let’s go.”
Sam went back around to the driver’s side and Bucky took his spot after fetching Steve’s satchel from the foot well in the back. He tucked his notebook safely back inside and left the bag cradled in his lap, his flesh fingers resting on the fashionably worn leather.
They drove in silence for maybe another thirty minutes before Bucky said abruptly: “You lied to me.”
“What?” Sam asked. His heart beat faster. He was worried that he’d said something wrong, that, horribly, he’d made things worse back there on the side of the road.
“You told me that if I made it obvious that I was dating someone else, Remy would leave me alone,” Bucky said, accusing.
“Who is Remy?” Sam demanded, totally bewildered.
“The waiter at that café.”
“You—what? You know his name?”
“He gave me his name and number. You said that he wouldn’t if he thought I was spoken for.”
“How in the hell did he do that?”
Bucky dug around in Steve’s bag and came up with the receipt. He held it out, and when Sam peeked at it, he saw that, sure enough, Waiter Guy had rallied from the disappointment of that phone call and given Bucky his digits.
“Dude,” Sam somehow said through his laughter. “You have game and you’re not even trying.”
“You lied to me,” Bucky repeated. He was smiling, though—faint, but not fake.
“Sorry. I didn’t expect Remy to be so determined. Poor guy.” Sam really hoped that he’d be that determined with someone who could actually return his affections. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but he had no idea what he was up against. Namely, the kind of love that could break through seven decades of brainwashing.
Bucky might not be ready to take the risk, but Sam decided that he would scope things out better on Steve’s end when they got back. He wouldn’t say anything—he wasn’t cruel—but there were questions he could ask and stories he could get that could probably get him the answer. He was already pretty sure that Steve was receptive, even if he didn’t know it (see: Exhibits A through Whichever), but it couldn’t hurt to make sure.
Two years, five months after Siberia
When they got back, though, Steve was already gone: Natasha had finally contacted him while they were in the middle of their Paris expedition, and he had left days before they returned. He didn’t say where he was going, exactly. His note simply said, I’m going to help Natasha.
So it was just Sam and Bucky again, but just Sam and Bucky felt a lot less uncomfortable this time around. Bucky was tentative and a little shy, after his breakdown on the side of the road, but his silences weren’t sullen and he didn’t actively avoid Sam’s company.
Sam left him at home when he went to check the news. The media blamed the Winter Soldier for all kinds of things, and Sam was nervous about the kind of coverage Bucky might get with something legitimate to attach to his resume. There was nothing major yet—just a couple of small, one-column items about Oliver Jackson’s arrest. Nobody mentioned anything about how he’d been busted, or what he’d done in the first place; Interpol, it seemed, was keeping a tight lid on this leak, at least for now.
They played a lot of cards and on their third night back Sam taught Bucky how to make Indian butter chicken, using their crock-pot and a recipe that Sam found online.
“I’ve never had Indian food before,” Bucky said. He was hovering anxiously by the counter, staring down through the crock-pot’s clear lid; the bright orange color of the sauce seemed to worry him.
“Never?” On second thought, this wasn’t so surprising. To reassure him, Sam said, “It’s incredible. They have some really awesome Indian places here—it’s spicy, but not too spicy, and really tasty. Actually, come to think of it, it’s the opposite of everything you’ve ever cooked for us.”
Bucky scoffed at him, but the slight insult was enough to get him to leave the crock-pot alone, and he joined Sam at the table. They were tied in a series of games of Egyptian Ratscrew, and Sam wanted to win.
“Hey,” he said suddenly, pausing his shuffling. “I know Steve can’t, but Czech beer is pretty famous—can you get drunk? They sell Pilsner at that tiny shop on the corner.”
“I don’t know?” Bucky said uncertainly. “I haven’t tried.”
“We’re trying,” Sam decided. He set the cards down and stood up. “We’re going to eat Indian food and get drunk. I’ll be right back.”
None of the ex-Avengers were big drinkers—rumor had it that Natasha had a small stash of vodka somewhere on the premises, but Clint was a lightweight and Wanda didn’t like what it did to her control. Alcohol was, of course, totally wasted on Steve. So while Sam knew of the little shop on the corner, he’d only seen its selection through the window. The short man behind the counter had a fluffy moustache and a big, friendly smile, and after some gesturing, a smattering of English and Czech, and lots of smiling, Sam walked back out with a good selection of local beers. Sam was a beer guy, and he figured that Bucky probably wouldn’t care.
Back at the safe house, they drank beer and played cards and waited for the crock-pot to ding. (It was starting to smell really good.) Bucky decided that the Pilsner was “not bad.” “Did we ever tell you about the time in Austria in 1944 when we stole that Nazi commandant’s private beer reserve?” he asked.
Sam tried to remember. He was halfway through his second bottle and he was starting to get a little tipsy. “I maybe heard about some stolen wine in Italy in ’43,” he said. “I think you told us that one on our way here from Africa.”
“I said a lot of things on our way here from Africa,” Bucky said, frowning. “I can’t remember what it all was. This was a separate time, though. The commandant was supposed to hold firm before the Allied advance, but instead he packed his wife and his manservant into his car and they all drove away. Left everything in his fancy mansion behind, and we were the first ones to get there.”
“I’m beginning to think you guys spent the whole war drinking stolen alcohol,” Sam said.
“No!” Bucky said. He finished his third beer—he was really packing them away; he kept taking sips whenever he didn’t have something else to do with his hands—and set it gently on the floor next to his other bottles. “Well. What were we supposed to do, just leave it there?”
Sam laughed at him. “I think you said that last time, too,” he said. He was a lot more willing to smile about it now than on that train in Italy, all those months ago.
“I said a lot of things,” Bucky repeated. He was starting to look a little shy again. “I’m sorry,” he said to his cards, held carefully between shining metal fingers. “I was nervous and jealous and I wished you weren’t there. I was rude.”
“It’s okay. Don’t apologize.”
“But I am sorry.”
“Seriously, man, I spent that whole trip wishing you would choke and die. I think we’re even.”
Bucky smiled at him, a quick flash, embarrassed but real.
“You were rude, though,” Sam said, because he knew that Bucky would smile again.
He did. “My ma would be so disappointed in me,” he said. He leaned his chair back on two legs to snag one of the local craft beers off the counter. He could pop the caps off one-handed, which was pretty impressive—certainly more impressive than his one-handed texting skills. “‘James Buchanan Barnes, is that how I raised you?’” he said in falsetto.
“Sounds like she was a tough lady,” Sam said, grinning.
Bucky didn’t pretend to smile, which Sam chose to see as progress. “She died before the war,” he said. “Not too long after I finally persuaded Steve to get out of his old apartment. He was stubborn about it, wanted to get by on his own. I don’t know if she told him anything. Neither of them ever said.”
“It was cancer. There was nothing they could do.” He drank some more beer. “She got us all set up as best she could. My sisters got most of the money because they’d need it more. We were all okay.” He didn’t sound sad, just distant. “Seems like so long ago now,” Bucky said.
“A different world,” Sam said, thinking of suspenders and radio programs and newspapers in shoes and those advertisements in Bucky’s notebook.
“Did you really read all of those things about Steve?” Bucky asked, like this was something he’d been meaning to ask.
“What things about Steve?”
“The things that Barton was talking about in the car, like the museum exhibit.”
“Oh.” Sam took a drink and was glad that his blushes didn’t really show. “Yeah. I was Captain America’s biggest fan when I was little. Don’t laugh!” he said quickly, even though Bucky didn’t look like he would. “But you guys were awesome, all right? I watched all the TV shows and read a lot of books about it. One time I did a book about Steve for a report in elementary school. God, I wish I had access to all my stuff,” he said, laughing himself at the memory. “It’s probably still in storage back home. Captain America and the Howling Commandos were my jam, dude.”
“The whole team, huh?” Bucky was definitely smirking now.
“Yeah, the whole team. But if I’m remembering correctly, I spent most of my essay being sad that you died and then Steve died, you two being BFFs and my heroes and all.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Bucky said, somewhat nonsensically, obviously torn between being embarrassed and being amused.
“I used to—did you ever read the old comic books?”
Bucky’s face twitched. He downed some more Pilsner.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sam said. “I used to get so mad on your behalf. I would give lectures to the other kids when we played Captain America. ‘Bucky Barnes wasn’t a kid, in fact he was older than Captain America by about a year, it says so in this book I’m reading so we have to include him, we can’t leave him out because he’s not a kid! He wasn’t lame like in the show!’”
Bucky almost choked on his beer. “I am glad to hear that you defended my honor,” he said, coughing.
“Anytime, man,” Sam said, quite pleased with himself.
“I wonder what they’ve done with all that now?” The amusement slid right off Bucky’s face. He took another drink, trying to hide his sudden mood shift.
“All of what? The shows?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Now that the—the kid is—” He waved his arm, vibranium plates reflecting the light.
Sam stopped short and thought about it. What about the shows? They would have been weird once Steve came back, but they were probably downright anathema now, when Bucky Barnes was a war criminal and a terrorist, when Steve was wanted by the UN, even if he didn’t face much outright censure. What about the books, like the ones that Sam grew up with? “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t actually think about it.”
Bucky had apparently also jumped onto Sam’s train of thought, because he said, “What about Steve? What are they saying about him?” He sounded much more concerned about the state of Steve’s reputation than his own.
“The public doesn’t really seem to be on board with this whole Hunting Captain America Thing,” Sam said quickly, trying to reassure him. “They don’t talk too much smack about him.”
“But Stark is—he’s technically a criminal now,” Bucky argued. “Are they gonna let that slide? It’s not fair. He was just—Steve was probably right, because he’s always right, and we’re running around all the time cleaning up where the official Avengers can’t or won’t go. And he’s in trouble for that?”
“He chose you,” Sam reminded him. “There were times where he could have turned back or made things easier, but each time he chose you.”
This brought Bucky up short. His eyebrows drew together.
“I’m not blaming you,” Sam said. “I’m just saying. He chose you, and he never second-guessed that choice for a second.”
Bucky sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his human fingers. “Steve’s an idiot.”
“You already know my stance on this,” Sam said. He toyed with the cards in his hand. He realized that they’d completely forgotten about the game.
“I already know that you’re seeing things that aren’t there,” Bucky muttered. He set his empty bottle on the floor.
“I did see what was going on with you,” Sam felt compelled to point out.
“Yeah, I screwed up, and you won’t let me forget about it!”
“Clearly you never actually forgot about it, so I don’t know why you’re blaming me.”
“You’re making this harder than it needs to be.”
“You’re making this harder than it needs to be,” Sam said. “I get that it’s scary, and I get that you’re still in this—this mode from back in the day, but—”
“—but deflecting and—”
“—deflecting and burying it isn’t the healthy way to deal with it.”
“You done?” Bucky asked, nostrils flaring. “Because I’m done.”
Sam was abruptly very tired of Bucky always shutting this down when it was obviously very important to him and gnawed away at him when he thought nobody was looking. “No, I’m not done,” he said. “You showed me that notebook. You trusted me with that. So you have to trust me when I say that it’s filled with how much you love him. You’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle but it’s impossible. Maybe back then you had a better handle on it, but honestly? I think you’re fooling yourself when you say that. I know you don’t remember everything, but that notebook tells a different story than the one you’ve been trying to sell me. You don’t have to lie. Trust me on that.”
Bucky wasn’t looking at him. He was staring in the general direction of his small cluster of bottles, his cheeks red. “I’m not lying,” he lied through gritted teeth. “It’s just this bad because I—I imprinted on him like a baby duck.” He was so focused on getting Sam to leave him alone that he didn’t seem to notice that he’d admitted that it was bad. “I was so confused,” he said, aiming for confident. “He was the only constant. That’s when it got out of hand.”
“Uh huh,” Sam said, not bothering to hide his skepticism.
“It’s the truth,” Bucky insisted.
Sam let it go momentarily, because the crock-pot had started beeping and he’d remembered that he had backup in the form of multiple unopened bottles of beer on the counter. Bucky was so relieved that he immediately volunteered to cook the instant rice, which Sam let him do only because he could time it and keep him from screwing it up.
“It’s really orange,” Bucky said when Sam ladled out the chicken ten minutes later. He eyed his plate doubtfully.
“The orange makes it taste better,” Sam told him. “Seriously. Just try it.”
“Everything should be orange,” Bucky said happily, after three plates and a very clean fork. Sam had no idea where he was putting it all, because he’d gone through at least one more beer while he was at it, and he still wasn’t showing any ill effects. “Has Steve tried Indian? Steve should try Indian.”
“I made Steve try Indian,” Sam said. He felt pleasantly full and tipsy. He was nursing another bottle and only pretending to sip from it, hoping that Bucky would be encouraged to take another (ideally, without throwing up). “I have to say, he handled the orange better than you did.”
“I take back everything I said about the orange before.”
“It’s better from an authentic restaurant. We’ll track one down sometime.” Sam hauled himself out of his chair with a groan. “I can’t take any more of this wooden chair bullshit,” he said. “The couch is better than this.”
Bucky apparently still felt cheerful and industrious, because he cleaned up and stored all the food while Sam was getting settled. He left the dishes in the sink, grabbed another couple of beers, and dropped down on the opposite end of the couch, which creaked alarmingly.
“We should replace this thing,” Bucky said. He pulled his legs up onto the cushion so that he was as small as someone as big as he was could possibly be.
Sam did not understand him at all. The most he could do was slump against the back of the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table. “I can’t figure out how they got it in here in the first place. It’s too big to fit through any of the doors.”
“Maybe they built the house around it,” Bucky suggested.
“That seems impractical.”
They were quiet for a while, long enough for Bucky to finish another bottle. It was a companionable silence, though; Bucky had either forgiven Sam for his attempted just-tell-Steve-you-love-him intervention earlier or the Indian food had driven it completely out of his mind. Or—and Sam kind of hoped that this was what was going on—he was starting to get tipsy, and happened to be a happy drunk.
“So,” Sam said, deciding to figure out if this was the case. “You feeling it yet?” He pointed at the latest bottle, just in case Bucky didn’t know what he meant.
“Maybe,” Bucky said, squinting at it. He could have just been gauging how much was left.
“You’ve had, like, ten of those things,” Sam said.
“I think tipsy is probably the most I can manage,” Bucky said thoughtfully. “The commandant’s stash didn’t do much for me and the others were passed out. Except for Steve, obviously. Before the serum, he’d fall over or throw up after about half of one of these. He didn’t handle his liquor well. And then afterwards, nothing really happened. He didn’t try too hard, though. Too many bad memories from before, I guess.”
“He told me that, after you fell off that train and he thought you were dead, he tried to get drunk and found out that he couldn’t.”
Bucky glanced over at him. Sam couldn’t tell if he was suspicious or not.
“One time Thor gave him this stuff from Asgard,” Sam added, hoping to cover for it. “That didn’t do anything either. Dr. Erskine sure knew his stuff.”
“I tell him not to do anything stupid and he runs off to become an experiment,” Bucky said, aggrieved. “He comes walking up a few months later—surprise! Couldn’t even write a letter to say, by the by, this doctor is going to inject me with something that may kill me, I’ll let you know how it goes!”
“Really?” Sam asked. He was a little surprised. “He didn’t write you a letter?”
“Well, if he did, I never got it, and he sure acted like there was no way I could have known.” Bucky sighed and tilted his head back so he could stare at the ceiling. The ceiling was not actually interesting, as anyone who had slept on the couch could testify.
“He probably didn’t want to worry you.”
“I was already worried. He could get into fights just going around the block to buy the newspaper.”
“It takes a special kind of talent.”
“He’s an idiot,” Bucky said. He definitely sounded fond, rather than exasperated.
“He’s been up to it since he was a kid, then?” Sam asked.
“His ma used to get so mad at him. She was worried already that he’d drop dead of a common cold and he’d come home from school with two black eyes. Steve’s a real hellion, don’t let anyone tell you different.”
“But you were there to keep an eye on him.”
“Nobody really saw it, when he was tiny like that, but—he’s so—there’s a purity to him that you can’t help but follow. He got you, he got me, he got all of us. I would’ve followed him to the ends of the earth.”
“The end of the line,” Sam said, remembering something Steve had told him, once, about the Bucky he’d known before.
“Exactly.” Bucky set down his empty bottle like a full stop. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “The end of the line.”
“Never will be, I imagine,” Sam said.
Bucky nodded. “Never,” he echoed.
“You saw what he was right away, though,” Sam prompted. “Even when he was little.”
“He didn’t know what to do with me at first,” Bucky said, with a small, rueful laugh, “But yeah. Yeah, always.”
“Didn’t know what to do with you?”
“I think I was a little overbearing. And he wasn’t used to other kids being nice to him, so he thought I was just trying to trick him. But I brought him around in the end.” There was a little bit of the boy that Bucky had been in his voice: proud of his efforts and pleased with their result, in the form of his new friend, Steve Rogers.
Sam held out his fingers like he was framing a picture. “And so history was made.”
“It’s still weird to—I knew that he was meant for more, but this is. Not what I pictured.”
“If you said you saw this one coming, I’d call bullshit,” Sam said, meaning Steve with the serum, the near-death experiences, decades lost one way or the other, coincidental meetings, this safe house here, all of it.
“Definitely not.” Bucky was looking for another beer. He couldn’t seem to believe that he’d already drunk all the ones next to him, and he kept sorting through the empty bottles like a full one might magically appear.
“When did you figure it out?” Sam asked, going for the gold.
“Figure what out?” Bucky craned his neck to see the rest of the alcohol still on the kitchen counter. “I don’t want to get up,” he said in what was almost a whine.
“How you felt about him. I don’t mean as a friend.” Sam took a casual sip of his drink.
“As a—” Bucky stopped short and stared at him. He was almost insultingly surprised. “I underestimated you,” he said. “Twice in one night?”
Sam shrugged. “I want to know, if you’ll tell me. I thought maybe the happy feelings from the beer and the orange food would make you feel better about it.”
“Nothing will make me feel better about it.”
“Nothing? This is definitely the worst feeling in the world and you get absolutely nothing from it? No warmth whatsoever?”
“Of course I—why do you think I came back?” Bucky demanded. “If I was as selfless as Steve, I’d have stayed away, because I only put you all in more danger by being here. But I’m stupid and the idea of keeping away forever hurt so bad that I—it’s stupid, all right? I want him here all the time. I’m selfish.” He spoke with a dull, ugly anger; Sam might have been personally worried, once upon a time, but he could read Bucky well enough now to tell that it was all directed inward.
“What you just said is the only stupid thing about it,” Sam said firmly. “He’s so happy to have you here that it just about killed him to let us go to Paris without him. The only reason he stayed here was because he promised Natasha.”
“He’s selfless,” Bucky muttered.
“Barton was telling me that the only time he’s ever seen Steve be selfish is with you,” Sam said. “And he has anti-bullshit powers, so you can be sure that it’s true.”
“He has—wait, what?”
“He told me that it’s like anti-matter or anti-magic, but he just tells it like it is,” Sam explained. “Like when he called us out for acting like idiots that night you snuck out.”
Bucky processed this for a second and then looked horrified. “Do you think he—?” he blurted out.
“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “He didn’t say anything to me, but… it’s hard to tell.” Some of Clint’s comments had been suspicious, but surely his anti-bullshit powers would have just made him come out with the truth, and he hadn’t. So maybe he’d seen the blindingly obvious and realized how far gone Bucky was over Steve, or maybe he couldn’t see it because this had always been the case and so there was nothing new to pick up on. Sam had no idea.
“This was such a bad idea,” Bucky said miserably. He dropped his forehead onto his knees, his arms keeping his body bundled tight.
“Would it be so bad if people knew?”
“Yes. It’s not supposed to—I wouldn’t do that to Steve!”
“The whole reason that Steve isn’t here right now is so that he can help Natasha get Bruce back.”
“That’s different,” Bucky said.
“How? They’re teammates. The way Clint talks about it, they understand each other in ways that the rest of us don’t. She’s willing to leave with him if that’s what he wants and he’s willing to consider staying if he sees that’s what she wants.” Sam waited, but when no reply was forthcoming, he said, “You’re scared. I get it. But you’re spending so much time being scared about this that I think it’s making it harder for you to stop being scared about everything else, too.”
“I’m not scared,” Bucky said into his knees.
“Then why won’t you talk about it? All you ever do is shut it down. Maybe I’m not an expert,” Sam said, “maybe I’ve never been there. But I was a counselor and I’m a damn good listener, if I do say so myself. I’m not gonna judge. Just let it out. You’ll feel better, I promise.”
Bucky made a noise that was theoretically a laugh and tipped his head back to study the ceiling again. His eyes were red but he hadn’t started crying. “That’s like asking me when I first started understanding words or knew how to tie my shoes,” he said. “The actual moment passes by and you don’t remember it.”
Sam wasted a second wondering what the hell he was talking about, then realized that Bucky had, for once, answered a direct question about his feelings: when did you figure it out?
Bucky didn’t wait for Sam to put two and two together. He just kept talking. “People used to think that he was—you know. Because he was so skinny and an artist and all that, so they’d draw conclusions just because he looked the part. Nobody ever suspected me.” He frowned at nothing. “Although it was only really ever him. I still thought that I could probably get married someday, put it off as—not a mistake. He’s not a mistake, don’t ever think that he’s a mistake.” He was starting to get agitated again.
“I don’t think that,” Sam said, quiet to reassure him, but understated so he didn’t get in the way.
“Okay. Because. I don’t know. I knew that it wouldn’t be—like that with anybody else, but at first I figured that I’d be okay and I could handle it. He had no idea. He didn’t have any other friends so he didn’t know if I’d been acting strange towards him. I tried not to, but I suppose I might’ve. Sometimes it was hard to know what was the normal thing to do and what was just me getting all tied up in knots.” He sighed and said, “He said he was waiting for the right partner. I guess he found her. I hated her. Carter was a good agent—a great one—and under other circumstances maybe we would’ve—I don’t know. I didn’t want to give her a chance. I hated that she was allowed to—I mean, I know why, and I wasn’t ever going to, but I hated looking at it. Everybody loved him.”
Bucky stopped and seemed to struggle for words, old resentment stirring under his skin. He glared at the ceiling.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed,” Sam said at last.
“I told you, I’m not—”
“I know you’re not ashamed of Steve. You’re ashamed of you.”
This got Bucky’s full attention. He looked like the breath had been knocked out of him.
“And you shouldn’t be,” Sam said. He managed to catch Bucky’s eyes and hold them. “There’s absolutely no reason. You hate yourself for the things that Hydra made you do and you hate yourself for something that you can’t possibly help. Hell, as far as I can tell, being in love with Steve just means you have good taste. The whole world pretty much agrees that he’s a great guy.”
“You’re just friends with him,” Bucky said, accusing.
“But I’m not you, and my relationship with Steve is not the same as your relationship with Steve.” Sam took a drink. The beer had gotten warm. “And besides, as much as I recognize that he’s attractive, guys just don’t do it for me.”
Bucky flushed a dull red. He looked away.
“Stop it!” Sam said sharply; Bucky jumped. “Just—stop. I know it’ll take time, but maybe you can try, this once, believing me when I tell you that it’s all fine and you’re a good person and it’s okay to just be you.”
The expression on Bucky’s face made his frustration perfectly clear.
“Then let me tell you what I see. I’ll give you a starting point.” Sam maneuvered himself so that he was facing towards Bucky on the couch, rather than the room at large. From the way Bucky looked at him out of the corner of his eye, he dreaded this more than a physical attack. “All those years ago, you stood up to bullies and you believed in your best friend with everything you had. Everybody else threw him aside because he was physically weak, but you knew that he was the person you’d follow for the rest of your life. You followed him back into a war that had already almost killed you, so that you could fight the same people who tortured you. When they caught you again and did everything they could to make you forget that you stood up to bullies and fought for the little guy, you kept on remembering, one way or another, and in the end, even though there was hardly anything left of yourself, you still remembered Steve, because you loved him and you’d follow him anywhere, and they couldn’t take that away. You put everyone else’s wellbeing first and decided that you needed to go back into stasis, even though you hated it, until somebody could make your head safe. And then you came back to follow Steve again, even though you knew that we didn’t trust you and being around him would cause you a lot of pain, and you’ve been saving lives and sticking up for the little guy. Because that’s who you are.”
Bucky didn’t say anything. He was fighting back tears, hugging himself like he was trying to hold his guts in.
“You’re not selfish,” Sam said. “You’re not stupid. You’re not any of those things you say about yourself. I know that. Steve knows that. The others will know that too, once they’re actually around you for any period of time. You’ve made a ton of progress since we met back up again in Mozambique, more than I ever would have expected in such a short period of time, especially considering what you’ve been through. So please remember what I said and know that I’m relatively objective about this, and see yourself the way I do. Or, better yet, the way Steve does, because he adores you.”
Neither of them said anything for a while. Bucky snuffled and repeatedly swiped the back of his flesh hand across his cheekbones. Sam finished his beer and left the bottle propped against his thigh, turning it occasionally to give his fingers something to do.
“You don’t have to be so nice,” Bucky said at last, his voice scratchy.
“I’m not being nice,” Sam said firmly. “I’m being honest. You and Steve, you’re a hard act to follow. There’s a reason you two were paragons of heroism and friendship. Honestly,” he said, hoping for a bit of levity, maybe a little unexpected truth, “I’m relieved that you love him in a non-platonic way, because I would lose the just-friends competition spectacularly.”
“Oh,” Bucky said, stranded somewhere between horrified and reluctantly amused, which was better than being offended or angry.
“This is the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, Sam, you might have had a small chance!’” Sam’s imitation Bucky had a high-pitched voice and, weirdly, a near-Southern accent.
Bucky gave him a strange look, but he rolled with it. “Well, I’m not a very good liar,” he said, and wasn’t that the truth.
“I’m wounded,” Sam declared. He managed to get himself off the couch and standing. “You’ve wounded me. I was going to get you another beer, but I think I won’t now.”
“Cruel,” Bucky sighed, rolling his head back on the couch. Sam couldn’t tell if he was pretending to swoon or if he was just tired.
“Karma,” he corrected. “It’s called karma.” He put his empty bottle with Bucky’s small colony by the kitchen table and brought a few more back with him to the couch. “We are going to regret it if we pass out here,” he said, the couch whining as he dropped back down.
Bucky held out his hand for a bottle. The heavy glass clinked against his fingers. “I’m not going to pass out,” he said. “So it’ll just be you. I’m not carrying you into the bedroom.”
If Bucky were Riley—and Riley, admittedly, had never been nearly a hundred, traumatized, or hopelessly in love with his best friend, which would have been weird, considering that was Sam—he would have said something like: Kinky! or But I’d bet you’d carry Steve. Even the alcohol didn’t make him dumb enough to say that.
Instead, he said, “Please at least nudge me over so I’m lying down, because I’m going to have a crick in my neck like nobody’s business.”
“I can probably manage that,” Bucky said.
Two years, five months after Siberia
Sam did not have to sleep on the couch, because he called it a night after one more beer. When he got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, Bucky was asleep in the other bed, curled up into a tiny ball.
They had a late start the next morning—Sam had a slight hangover that kept his routine slow, and Bucky had nowhere to go anyway. He occupied himself with washing the leftover dishes from last night, holding them gingerly in his metal grip. Somehow they owned exactly one dishwashing glove, which worked for Bucky but nobody else.
Finally, Sam figured that he had coddled his head enough, and he got his things together for a trip to the data point. “Maybe we’ll get some word from Steve,” he said.
“Or Barton,” Bucky said. He set another plate gently in the drying rack. “I didn’t think gunrunners would take this long.”
He was probably anxious to watch Clint himself to see if he knew anything. But they hadn’t heard anything from Clint since they dropped him off at that IKEA in Bern, and now that Bucky mentioned it, yeah, his silence was strange.
“He’s probably seeing the sights,” Sam said, since he had no idea what Clint was actually doing. “But yeah, I’ll check. Want me to pick up anything from the store?”
Bucky didn’t have any ideas, so Sam left with vague plans to visit his friends at the market afterwards, see what looked good. They already had leftovers for dinner, but maybe a desert or a nice side dish would come in handy. It was a miracle that they had anything left at all, after Bucky got at it last night.
It was cool and slightly cloudy outside, but Sam still enjoyed it—still enjoyed getting out and walking around like a nobody. He felt sorry for Bucky, stuck indoors until this Paris thing blew over (if it ever blew up in the first place; news sites were definitely his first priority when he got to the computers).
The disposable phone rang in his pocket when he was halfway up the stairs to the data point. Sam fished it out. “What, change your mind about what you want?” he asked, still cheerful from the walk.
“Sam?” Wanda asked, frightened and tense. “Sam, is that you?”
Sam stopped walking. His heart throbbed. “Wanda? What the hell? Are you back in—”
“Listen to me, I don’t have much time,” she interrupted. “You have to run. Get everybody out of the house, it’s not safe—Stark is there, he knows, he’s tracking everything from the data point! You have to run!”
He glanced up, like he could somehow see through cement to the tiny apartment that Natasha had set up to be safe. “Wanda—”
“He’s trying to trap you! If he knows where the data point is, he’ll find the house. Sam, you have to run now.”
He hung up on her. His hands were perfectly steady as he found the number to the other disposable phone, the one that was still back at the house, the one that Bucky would hopefully (oh please oh please oh please) hear ringing.
Nothing happened. He called again.
On the third ring, Bucky picked up. “What?” he said.
“Run,” Sam said immediately. “Get out of there, Bucky, run. Stark’s here. He’s tracking the data point. You need to leave now.”
“Where do I meet you?” Bucky asked.
“I’m already at the data point. You need to get out of here before he sees you!”
“Where do I meet you?” Bucky repeated, very precise.
“For the love of—” Sam began, exasperated. “He will kill you.”
“Then I don’t meet you here. We can—maybe Austria? Nobody knows about that gas station. We can go there.”
The odds of both of them making it to Austria were tiny, but Sam didn’t bother to protest. “I’ll let the others know. Coded. Please, you need to go now.”
“Okay,” Bucky said. Then there was a dial tone.
Sam shot off a hurried text to the number that Wanda had called from, international usage rates be damned: tell steve we’re thinking of the hamburgers. He dropped his phone on the ground and stepped on it a few times. He swept it into a corner with his foot and went back down the stairs, fast but still (hopefully) casual.
He hardly had anything on him—a few korunas, enough for a small shopping trip at the market but not enough for a sudden getaway. If Tony was here—
If Tony was here, then the UN and Interpol and every self-respecting member of the world media couldn’t be far behind, and even Bucky hadn’t managed to evade their combined efforts for more than a day or so. They didn’t stand a chance.
Think positive, think positive, Sam told himself. He went back out the front doors into the dull afternoon light, trying to walk like the nobody he’d felt like twenty minutes ago. He thought ahead: go to the market, only instead he’d try to blend in, chat like he belonged, and all the time make his way to—where?
He’d been a soldier, damn it—he hadn’t been trained in espionage, like Natasha and Clint and Bucky, who might stand half a chance of getting to the Austrian gas station by himself. Every other extraction plan he’d followed since he became a fugitive had been laid out by someone else.
Panic. That was what was making it so hard to think. Sam went around the block, following the tail end of a small group of chattering teenagers. Think, Wilson, think. Okay, new plan, because the vendors at the market knew him and they’d see that he was freaking out: go in the opposite direction and lose himself in the heart of the city, then steal a car or find a train to somewhere else, anywhere else.
Problem with Option A: He didn’t actually know how to steal a car, beyond hoping that it was unlocked and the keys were tucked under the sun flaps. And he couldn’t exactly rent one, because, as previously mentioned, he had no money.
Problem with Option B: There would be other people on the train who would probably have data plans and therefore access to the internet and the inevitable news articles, and reporters might actually plaster his face all over their articles this time. Then he’d be recognized and arrested. The only thing the train plan had going for it, honestly, was that he’d seen Jason Bourne get away with it in The Bourne Supremacy.
This left him with Option C. Option C was looking increasingly likely, whether he tried for it or not—get caught by Tony/Interpol/the UN/whoever, dig in his heels, and be enough of a problem to cover for Bucky’s escape. Sam would end up back on the Raft, probably, a Raft reinforced against Captain America, and he might eventually get released. Bucky faced life imprisonment at the very least; Sam didn’t think that even Europe would balk at the death penalty for the Winter Soldier.
If Tony didn’t just blast him first.
At that moment, like Sam’s thoughts had summoned him, Sam caught a red-and-gold blur out of the corner of his eye. Iron Man, clear as day, circling the building with the data point.
The teenagers squealed to each other, pointing. One of them took some pictures with his phone. Sam split from the group and ducked down an alley, wishing that it was somehow yesterday and he was still arguing with Bucky about orange food.
He turned a few corners, but he was already kind of lost. Not for the first time, he thought about how much he missed his wings—it was so much easier to be not lost when you could just skip the winding roads. It didn’t help that, beyond the market, he hadn’t actually done very much exploring here, and with the apartment building out of sight, he had no frame of reference.
Maybe lost was good. He could be random, unpredictable.
He took another turn, hoping for a real road, with cars on it and everything, and found himself in a little courtyard, peaceful, quiet. A couple of bikes leaned against the building to his right, and a kid’s soccer ball lay abandoned by the door to another.
No, lost sucked. There was no way he could get to Austria if he couldn’t even find his way out of this block.
Whoosh—clunk. The red-and-gold blur resolved in front of him, just as flashy as he remembered. Tony stood up from his three-point landing (showoff) and said, like they were just running into each other on the street, “Oh, hey, Wilson!”
Sam wished that he had his faceplate up so he could punch him. “Hey, man,” he said.
“Long time, no see!” Tony said brightly. Sam wasn’t fooled: he was bright, flashy, hard and brittle under the shine. “Outlaw life suits you. What’ve you been doing, yoga? I’ve been trying that out—I started a couple of months ago—”
“That would be a week ago, sir,” said Tony’s suit, in a tinny brogue.
“—a week, a month, who’s counting? Last week was such a long time ago!” Tony shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head at Sam. “Where were you a week ago, Sam?” That hardness peeked out, cold and angry.
“A week ago?” Sam asked. He pretended to think. His heart was pounding hard in his throat, but his head felt clearer. Option C it is. “Sorry, my life’s not as interesting as yours. I was here a week ago, checking out the sights. There’s this really interesting antique place by the river and I was trying to decide—old table or old clock?”
“Old table,” Tony said. “Obviously. Then you can put stuff on it.”
“Like drinks, sir?”
“Oh, funny, you’re hilarious, you’re—I’m cursed with sassy AIs, Sam, what do you think I should do about that? You’re lucky you’re hot, FRIDAY. No, but that’s weird,” Tony said to Sam, taking a step forward, clunk clunk, as tall and threatening as he could be, which was—pretty damn, when Sam was facing it. If Bucky hadn’t given him so much practice all those months ago, he might have shrunk back. “Because a little birdie told me that you were in Paris a few days ago.”
“A few days ago?” Sam said. “You should have said, man! A week ago I was here, but yeah, I took a trip to Paris. Apparently it’s a highlight on the European tour and I didn’t want to miss out.”
“I didn’t bring a date, if that’s what you’re asking,” Sam said. He was listening for any approaching police officers—Iron Man couldn’t possibly operate in a city for very long without attracting attention—but there was nothing. The courtyard stayed empty. “I know it’s the city of romance, but—”
“Okay, let’s cut the bullshit,” Tony said, and he was done playing now. He stomped closer and, in a pretty ballsy move, retracted his helmet. He looked basically the same as he had the last time Sam had seen him—older, with more lines around his eyes and mouth, but the same stupid beard, the same anger burning just under the surface. He was the Tony from the field at the airport, not the Tony from the Raft. “I know you went to Paris, and I know you brought—I know he was with you. Forensics alone would’ve told us that.”
“Jackson was manufacturing drugs,” Sam said. “He was working with Hydra, Tony.”
“And you’re working with the Winter Soldier!” Tony shouted. “You’re—”
“Bucky Barnes,” Sam interrupted. “I’m working with—”
“Bullshit,” Tony snapped. “I saw what he did in Paris. It’s a lot harder to pass a crushed skull off as a car accident when the guy’s brains are all over the carpet. He murdered someone in front of you, Wilson, and you’re still—”
“He was Hydra. Jesus Christ, Tony!” Sam yelled, drawn back to Bucky’s malfunctioning arm, his hysterical sobs on the side of the road. “Did you read that bastard’s bio, huh? Did you?”
“So you’re judge, jury, and he’s the executioner?”
“Stop twisting my words, that’s not what I—”
“It doesn’t matter what that guy did. We’re in the business of saving lives, not taking them.” Tony paused for half a second, triumphant, and then blazed on: “That thing you’re harboring—”
“Do not call him a thing,” Sam said. His ears were ringing, and whatever was in his voice was enough to make Tony stop talking. “Don’t you dare.”
Tony rallied in a way that didn’t exactly take back what he had said. “He’s a killer, Sam. He’ll never be anything else. Have you read the list of names?”
Sam had, but probably not the way that Tony meant. He’d seen the notebook, the red tabs; he’d seen the faces.
“There’s one more on there now, and because you can’t do your job, there’ll be another and another and another.”
“Do my job,” Sam repeated, flat.
“Yeah. Stopping the bad guys.” Tony’s eyes were piercing. “Tell me where he is.”
“I don’t know,” Sam said immediately.
“He left with you. He came back here with you.”
“Seriously, where are the cops?” Sam asked. He craned his neck to see over Tony’s red shoulder. “Why isn’t Ross smirking at me right now? I thought he’d want to arrest us personally.”
“Stop changing the subject.”
“I’m not changing the subject. You didn’t tell them you were coming, did you?” Sam’s heart surged—for Bucky, not himself. He was already screwed. “Do they even know we’re here?”
“They will,” Tony threatened. “Rhodey’s ready to bring in the cavalry.”
Now Sam really was diverted. “Rhodes? He doing okay?”
“Yeah, I—he insisted on coming,” Tony said, a little uncomfortable. “The suit’s not perfect, but he’s ready to—he’s tired of being the diplomat. Now answer my question, Wilson. Where is Barnes?”
“What are you planning on doing with him if you find him?” Stall, Sam reminded himself. Bucky was fast, he could be heading out of the city right now.
“I wanna have a little chat,” Tony said flatly.
“I thought we were about arresting bad guys, not killing them,” Sam said. Stall, stall, stall. Bucky would be fine. He had a head start on Ross, on everybody. It might be enough. It had to be enough.
“Okay. Fuck it.” A panel on Tony’s right arm snapped out. He detached a pair of fancy handcuffs, shining and powered by a blue light. They must have been linked to the suit, because they flew on their own and snagged Sam’s wrists, locking them securely together.
It hurt. Sam gritted his teeth; he’d have bruises later. “Kinky,” he said, because Tony was right: Fuck it.
Tony completely ignored this. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “Jackson was chatty. He knew that Interpol had enough evidence to lock him up for a very long time, and he rolled over like a bitch. He’s smart, I’ll give him that”—Tony made a slight face, like this was distasteful to say—“because he knew that as soon as I realized who had been involved I’d be there to check it out, and he saved the best piece of information for me. I talk them into reducing his sentence and he gives me the Winter Soldier.”
“You made a deal with him?” Sam said incredulously.
“Your pal killed my mom. I’d do more to find him than just make a deal with some psychopath like Jackson.”
Sam had been afraid of that. He also regretted not smacking Jackson around a little more while he’d had the chance.
“Basically it boiled down to something about Albania, his more fascist associates got a bit too personally invested, blah blah blah, Jackson investigates, figures out how the information was sent to his superiors in the first place, backtracks it, and boom—he has an IP address.” Tony smiled at him. It wasn’t a nice smile. “And here I am! And here you are! I was hoping for our friend, but I guess he’s afraid of his face being in the newspapers, hm?”
Sam said nothing.
“Here’s the deal, Wilson,” Tony said. “I made a deal with Jackson, I’ll make a deal with you. I think you’re a better person than Jackson, so I won’t even lose any sleep over it. You tell me where I can find my mom’s murderer, and I talk Ross into letting you go back to the States. There’ll probably be some supervision, but it’s no Raft. The Winter Soldier is a bigger fish than the Falcon, everybody knows that. Even Ross won’t push back on that trade.”
Sam said nothing.
“You keep up the silent act, don’t tell me where he is—but he’s around here somewhere and he won’t get far, so you’d only be buying him a few hours, a day at most. Then he pays for my mom and everybody else he took from their families, and you go back to the Raft, and there’s no chance that Steve Rogers can save you this time.”
Sam said nothing.
“Make a choice, Wilson. You can go home or you can go to prison. Either way, Barnes doesn’t make it out of this country. Tell me.” Tony’s eyes were burning. He looked a little crazy. “Where. Is. He.”
Sam thought about real hamburgers, and he thought about the terrible ones in Austria that he would never have again. He knew what his choice was, had known it from the moment Wanda called him in the stairwell.
So Sam was going to say nothing, and he was going to make Tony waste time calling the police or whatever he planned on doing to place Sam under official arrest, and he was going to be as difficult as possible to delay Tony for as long as possible. Then Bucky might make it to Austria, where somebody could pick him up and take him to Steve. Sam wouldn’t be responsible for separating them, not again.
He set his jaw, and Tony fumed, and there was finally movement besides them in the courtyard—for a second Sam thought it was one of the residents of the buildings around them, who were either all at work (what day of the week was it?) or sitting tight in their homes wondering what the hell was going on—except that, unless one of the residents chose that moment to commit suicide, nobody could drop from the roof of the building behind Tony and live.
Tony’s suit must have warned him, because he whipped around fast, his hand coming up. He fired a repulsor blast, a mean one, definitely aimed to disable.
The air rang with the familiar hum of vibranium. Bucky had blocked the blast with his arm; his sleeve disintegrated, but the arm itself was fine, the plates moving and locking, like a living thing. He was also fine, despite dropping four or five stories to the ground.
Bucky was also here. Sam’s chest turned over from nerves to exasperation so fast that it almost made him dizzy. Because. What the fuck.
“Speak of the devil!” Tony said, too bright. Falsely bright. “Why didn’t you say, Wilson?”
“Look, Tony, he—” Sam began, moving rapidly from exasperation to anger to terror, all almost too much to deal with.
“I thought I was going to have to turn this city upside down to find you,” Tony said to Bucky, putting Sam on complete disregard.
“Tony! It wasn’t—” him, Sam tried to say. Wanted to say. Knew wouldn’t do any good.
“I was going to be lenient with you, Wilson, because you’ve been very helpful, but you need to have a sense of the moment and you’re really just kind of ruining everything right now, so—”
“Stark,” Bucky said. “Let him go.”
“Did you just interrupt me?” Tony asked in disbelief. “You just interrupted me.”
Bucky was not impressed. “You don’t care about him. The Falcon’s a smaller fish. You wanted me, and here I am.” He spread his arms. Sam really wished he wouldn’t. He was making himself too good of a target. “Let him go.”
“You cut your hair,” Tony said, squinting at him. Bucky was wearing a hat, but the lack of shoulder-length tangle was noteworthy. “This is actually—well, I mean, first of all it was super terrible, so there’s that. But I was looking through some of my dad’s old stuff—you remember my dad—anyway, he had all of these pictures from the war and his days with SHIELD, and he was always shuffling them around to make new albums, because I guess he didn’t have something better to do with his life, like, oh, anything else—so he had all of these private photographs that never made it into the public record because he was too busy geeking out about them or whatever, and I found this one a couple of months ago and I thought you’d enjoy it—FRIDAY, you know the one I’m talking about—”
Tony raised one arm and twisted his wrist. Sam flinched and Bucky jerked back slightly—not as calm as he seemed, then.
“—oh, please, like I’d skip show and tell. There!”
The suit had a projector built into the underside of the wrist. The image was semi-transparent and to Sam it was backwards, but he’d been used to this kind of tech when he was an Avenger and it only took him a moment to remember how to see it now.
It was a picture, like Tony had said, black and white, grainy like photographs were back then. Two men stood close together, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. One was Tony’s father—beaming fit to burst, obviously very pleased with himself. He wore a fashionable suit with the sleeves pushed up and his hair looked like it had been electrocuted.
Bucky was beside him, smiling too. This one was real. His hair flopped over his forehead with the perfect, famous Bucky Barnes curl, the one that was so faithfully reproduced even in the TV shows. He had on his army dress uniform, so this was after the Hydra factory but before the Commandos started their missions. His left arm hung casually across Howard’s shoulders.
They stood in front of a gun lying on a table. Howard pointed at the scope, which did look more advanced than others from the time. He’d probably put it together himself.
“He was so proud of these stupid pictures,” Tony said, poking his dad’s face with one gleaming red finger. “When he could be bothered to tell me a bedtime story, it was always Captain America this, Bucky Barnes that. He wanted so bad to go back to the glory days. He recognized you in a second even though nobody knew a goddamn thing about you anymore.”
“He didn’t seem like the type to settle down,” Bucky said distantly. He was pale. He stared at the picture, memorizing it.
Tony snorted. “Yeah, he sucked as a dad. Everybody thought he was so great, but he was really just a terrible person. But I still—I still wish I could say goodbye.”
Bucky looked away from the picture. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry won’t bring them back,” Tony snapped. He’d calmed down looking at the picture, in a weird way; it was noticeable now that he was winding up again.
“They died because of you.”
“Yes,” Bucky said bluntly. He didn’t shy away from it. “I wish that it didn’t happen, but that won’t bring them back either.”
“You don’t know anything about it. You don’t know anything.”
“Maybe not.” Bucky’s eyes flickered to meet Sam’s. “I just did what they told me. I was their—their weapon. A gun. It wasn’t me.”
For a second, they all thought that Tony might shoot him right there. “Oh, I see,” Tony said, when that frozen moment was over. “My mistake. I thought you were the one who crushed my dad’s skull and choked my mom to death, but I guess I was wrong.”
“How’d you build that suit in the first place?”
This threw Sam and Tony for a loop. “What?” Tony said. “What’s that have to do with anything?”
“Steve told me,” Bucky said. “You were captured in Afghanistan and you built it to escape.”
“Again, at the risk of repeating myself to those among us with a functioning knowledge of current events: what’s that have to do with anything?” Tony was getting mad again. (Madder.)
“How long did they have you? Three months? Four?”
“Four,” Tony said. “I spent four months in that cave. They wanted me to build—this missile thing. It doesn’t matter.”
“You didn’t want to build it,” Bucky said, certain. He’d spoken to Tony maybe once and Tony had spent most of that encounter trying to kill him, and he was still confident that Tony Stark would never build a weapon for terrorists. “But they made you. Or they tried to make you. What did they do to you?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Tony exploded. The picture fizzled and he stalked closer, his heavy boots clonking on the pavement. Bucky had a metal arm, but Tony had a metal everything, and his everything shot lasers.
Despite all of these extremely valid reasons to run, Bucky stood his ground. He wasn’t afraid. “They had you for four months. They had me for seventy years. I wasn’t even—by the time they sent me out I wasn’t even me anymore.”
“Seventy years. You should have died.” Tony’s anger and pain were making him mean, lashing out at whatever he could reach. “I would have killed myself.”
Bucky’s eyes died. He was Bucky and then he was the shell from Berlin. “What makes you think I didn’t try?”
Sam’s stomach turned. He swallowed hard. Wanted to go back and kill that bastard in Paris himself.
“You failed,” Tony said nastily. “And now you kill and kill and kill.”
Bucky reached inside his jacket, so fast that Tony didn’t have time to raise his arm all the way. He came up with something flat and black, and threw it with unnerving accuracy, straight at the arc reactor in Tony’s suit.
Tony fumbled it, caught it. Somehow didn’t blast anyone. He stared down at the notebook in his hands in confusion. “What the hell?”
Bucky, what are you doing?
“That’s not everybody,” Bucky said quietly. “I haven’t had time for everybody, and they wouldn’t fit in there anyway.”
“What the—is this scrapbook time? Is that what this is?” Tony turned the notebook around in his hands. “I didn’t bring my craft scissors.”
Bucky had been fairly calm this whole time, but now he snapped to life. His glare was one of the truly impressive ones that he had perfected as the glowering Winter Soldier. “You have no idea,” he said, looking at Tony with mounting dislike. “You think that just because you’ve—you saw that one tape, that you understand everything I did? Everything they made me do? Your parents are the least of it—your dad was so smart, sure, but he had no idea what was going on right under his nose, he blabbed about that serum to the wrong people and even at the end he had no idea what was going on. Howard and your mother didn’t even die because they knew too much. He could have saved me and he didn’t notice. He just sat there, like your precious mother just sat there when—”
He didn’t get any farther. Tony’s faceplate slammed into place and he was there in a flash. His suit could analyze patterns, a couple of years ago—maybe it had gotten better, maybe it could figure out Bucky’s speed just from their brief encounters. He grabbed Bucky by the throat, hard, jerking him close, snagging his metal wrist in his other hand when he tried to push him away. Bucky’s human fingers clawed uselessly at the metal fist closing around his throat.
Sam staggered forward, too late, too far away, his arms handcuffed together. Helpless. All he could think was that Steve would never know.
It was like he was there just to watch.
Something popped, like a circuit overloading. With a sad, dying whirrrr, Tony’s suit went dark, slumping, arms falling limp. Bucky gasped and started coughing, covering his mouth with his forearm. He shoved the suit to the ground.
Sam stopped running and stared. “Um,” he said.
Bucky waved at him to shut up. He crouched down by Tony’s side and dug his vibranium fingers into the arc reactor, tearing at the plates around it until he could get a good grip. He ripped it out, looking strangely satisfied, and crushed it. The blue glow died. He was still coughing.
Sam had no idea what was going on, but Tony was somehow disabled and Bucky wasn’t dying, and this seemed like it was in the neighborhood of a miracle. He didn’t know what to think. His chest was numb.
Wheezing, Bucky scrambled to his feet and came over to him. His neck was inflamed and his face red. He steadied Sam’s arms with his free hand and crushed and twisted the handcuffs until he could get them off. Sam would have more bruises, but he was free.
What the hell? Sam mouthed.
Bucky shook his head. He still had a firm grip on Sam’s arm, and he used it to drag him back down the alley he’d come from.
“Wait, your notebook!” Sam blurted out. He looked back behind him, but he couldn’t see it on the ground. Tony might have fallen on it.
Again, Bucky shook his head. He breathed like he was having a terrible asthma attack.
Sam gave up. He didn’t know what to think anymore, but even with Tony down for the count, they were still in serious trouble. He could contemplate Bucky’s obscure motives later.
Bucky hustled him over a few streets, then finally let him go. He went up to a rusty little Peugeot and jiggled the door, which immediately opened.
“Is this your car?” Sam asked flatly. He figured that he’d hit a surprise plateau sooner or later, and then this whole ‘running for our lives’ thing would get easier.
Bucky just glared at him. He gestured around the car and tried to say something, but it came out as a squeak, and he immediately started hacking again.
“Okay. Just—please don’t suffocate.”
The Peugeot may not have been Bucky’s, but he’d certainly stopped here before rushing off on his suicidal mission to get Sam away from Tony, because Steve’s fashionable messenger bag sat in the passenger seat. As soon as Sam picked it up, Bucky took it away from him; he dug around inside for a second and came up with a second coat. He tossed the ruined jacket into the backseat and shrugged the other one on, hiding his arm.
Sam peeked inside the bag. Besides the backup coat, Bucky had packed wads of Euros and korunas in plastic zip-lock baggies, a couple of their fake passports, energy bars, and a hat and sunglasses that Sam figured were for him. He put them on as Bucky pulled away from the curb.
Bucky behind the wheel was slightly alarming—he took corners too sharply and his foot was either all go or all stop, so Sam was constantly slamming forward against his seatbelt or backward against the seat. “What are we doing?” he asked, catching Steve’s bag when it tried to fly towards the dashboard. “They’re going to be after us any second.”
“Speed,” Bucky said. His voice vanished on him halfway through the word, but Sam got the gist.
“The car or us in general?”
Bucky pointed between them: in general.
Sam thought about this for a moment while they lurched through traffic. He no longer had any idea where they were, but he thought that Bucky was heading out of the city. “Tony never told anybody that he was coming here,” he said. “Except for Rhodey—Colonel Rhodes. The police aren’t prepared.” When Bucky nodded, he added, “So we get out of the city as fast as possible and just keep on pushing, hope they can’t catch up?”
Exactly, Bucky said with his palm flipped over like a platter.
Sam studied him: his tense shoulders, hands tight on the wheel, eyes fixed unblinking on the road ahead. “You don’t think that we can shake them.”
Though Bucky didn’t make a point of responding to this, Sam could see the answer for himself. The odds of them successfully evading all forms of law enforcement and vanishing somewhere safe were tiny. They wouldn’t get very far on their own, no matter how good Bucky was.
You’d only be buying him a few hours, a day at most—
“We need to go to Austria,” Sam said. “I thought—you were supposed to go straight there, so I told Wanda—she called me, I have no idea how she knew, but she found out somehow—to tell Steve about the hamburgers. They’ll be looking for us there. We just have to get to that gas station and then, with any luck, the others will be there to get us out. That’s our only chance.”
Bucky glanced over at him and then nodded. He darted into another lane and changed directions, presumably to a faster route towards Austria. The dark marks on his throat coalesced into a distinct handprint.
Chapter 3: Convergence
Run or die.
Two years, five months after Siberia
They pushed the Peugeot to its limit on the highway. Bucky was careful to keep more or less with the flow of traffic, but he handled the wheel like it was a knife or a metal pipe, and Sam knew that they were more suspicious than a little rusty Peugeot should ever be.
Pulling over just to switch drivers seemed just as dangerous, though—they were an hour or so into their headlong rush towards Austria, and Tony had certainly been found by now. Ross probably knew, and if he didn’t right this second then he would any minute. Czech forces were most likely already in pursuit.
Sam cycled through the radio stations, listening closely to the radio broadcasts. He heard a couple of references to Iron Man (Tony Stark, he heard more than once), but there was nothing about Sam Wilson or James Barnes, so nobody had said anything to the media. The drivers around them weren’t a threat yet.
He vacillated wildly between unreasonable hope and total despair. Sam waited for his emotions to even out, for his brain to accept that this was his new situation and start trying to actually deal with it, but so far—no luck.
“How the hell did you do this for two years?” he asked, scanning through the radio channels again. “This is—this is nuts. It was so much easier being the guy chasing, not the guy being chased.”
“’S different with… everyone looking,” Bucky said in a cracked whisper. “When I was…” He lost a couple of words, probably hiding, they, and were, and finished, “…not coordinated.”
It still sounded terrible, regardless of whether he only had most of the world’s governments looking for him instead of all of them working together. With Natasha’s safe house, Sam had thought that he really was safe. He figured that she knew what she was doing, and just being careful wasn’t the same as running.
This? He wasn’t emotionally prepared for this.
Bucky glanced at him. “Breathe,” he said, which was annoying, considering that his own breathing was still labored.
“It’s okay,” Sam said, horrified that it had come to this. “Really. I just wasn’t ready for this when I woke up this morning.” He fiddled with the radio dial. He wished that Bucky would stop looking at him with icy eyes gone soft. “I’ll be all right soon.”
“Thank you.” Bucky watched the road, but his attention was very obviously on Sam. “You protected me.”
“You do realize that he was probably going to kill you, right?” Sam said. Some of the anger was coming back, which was at least better than numb confusion. “I told you to run and you found us anyway!”
“Wasn’t gonna leave you.”
“I would have been fine! Tony wasn’t going to hurt me.” Playing in front of his eyes, on a loop, Tony grabbed Bucky’s throat, squeezed hard. “You shouldn’t have come and you shouldn’t have talked to him. He could have killed you!”
“Any longer and he would’ve crushed your windpipe,” Sam snapped. “It’s a miracle that his suit broke down when it did.”
Unexpectedly, Bucky smirked. “EMP,” he said. “Fried it.”
Maybe this, finally, was the point where he’d stop being surprised. “Did Natasha pack some under the house or something?”
“T’Challa.” Bucky wiggled his metal fingers at the road in front of them. “He built… in the arm. But Stark, his suits… very advanced, so he said… get as close as possible. Touching is best.”
Tony grabbed Bucky’s throat, squeezed hard, and caught his left wrist in his other hand to keep him from fighting back. And before that—his victims tore Bucky apart; he would never say things like that, especially to a family member, especially about Tony’s mom, who hadn’t done anything wrong.
“You goaded him,” Sam realized. “So he’d grab you.”
“He never would’ve let you go,” Bucky said simply, like that was the only reasoning that mattered.
This was all the evidence anyone should ever need to prove that Bucky’s stupid heroics had survived Hydra intact. Sam was equal parts furious and touched. Bucky had risked his life to save Sam, but Sam had been willing to give up his freedom to save Bucky, so maybe he couldn’t really judge on the stupid heroics part. Also, they were probably only temporarily on the lam, and Bucky might still die and Sam might still be arrested.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Sam muttered. He ignored Bucky’s confused glance and spun through the channels again. He didn’t catch any breaking news bulletins.
“What happens, happens,” Bucky said, careful. His eyes flickered between Sam and the semi that he was probably going to try to pass. “You can only control your resp…” His voice went again. He cleared his throat, thick and painful. “Response to it,” he said.
Sam wanted to be mean, but he stopped himself. He took a beat and examined himself: scared, anxious, totally inexperienced. He reminded himself that he wasn’t helpless and the situation wasn’t completely hopeless.
So he let out a breath. “I know. I’m working on it.”
“You’ll be fine,” Bucky said, casually confident. “You’re steady. Sam.”
“Give me a tangible crisis and I’ll be great,” Sam said. He wasn’t even kidding. He’d been fine when he was facing down Tony. He spun the dial again randomly, and there, finally, he heard an excited announcer speaking in rapid-fire Czech, well beyond Sam’s ability to understand.
They both caught the important buzzwords, though: Avengers Tony Stark James Barnes Sam Wilson Barnes Barnes—
“Shit,” Sam said.
Bucky’s hands were so tight on the wheel that it creaked. He eased his grip slightly. “Now for the fun part,” he said.
Two years, five months after Siberia
Bucky decided that the Peugeot would probably be safe for a bit longer—he’d stolen it from one of the immediately surrounding streets, which would make it easier for Tony and Ross and whoever else was on this to figure out exactly which car they’d driven off in, but that couldn’t be helped, and in any case he was reasonably confident that it had not been driven in some time and the owner might not notice right away.
“Speed,” he insisted. “Speed’s more important.”
More than ever, Sam wished that they could somehow instantly switch seats, but if stopping had been dangerous before, it was infinitely more so now. He had to sit calmly, Steve’s bag clutched close to his chest, and continuously tell himself that people were not staring at them, that if someone glanced into the window they were not immediately seeing that they matched the descriptions circulating on the radio, and that nobody actually listened to the radio anymore anyway, so probably nobody was even looking for them in the first place.
“Don’t turn like that,” he said.
“You drive very… violently. How did you get to Romania? Did you drive?” Sam didn’t think that could be possible, because Bucky’s driving skills plus the general aesthetic he’d had back then would have equaled immediate police intervention.
“Train,” Bucky said. He looked like he was trying to translate ‘violently’ into specific things to avoid but wasn’t sure how. “Mostly.”
“Don’t jerk the wheel around,” Sam advised. “Try to keep it smooth.”
“There’s only a quarter of a tank left,” Bucky said a short time later, during which his driving had marginally improved. If they ever got out of this, Sam would teach him how to drive like anything but a trained killer.
They couldn’t exactly stop for gas. “So we ditch it, find something else.”
“We need a decent-sized town first.”
Sam could see the reasoning: somewhere big enough that they could hide in the crowds until they found a vehicle of some kind.
They got their first real scare a few miles farther down the road. Another car had been pulled over, probably for speeding, and they had no choice but to pass by the flashing lights. Sam held his breath and stared straight ahead, but the cop didn’t notice them. Maybe they hadn’t tracked down the Peugeot lead yet.
Bucky got off the highway at the next exit. “We just need something new,” he said. “Then the highway will be safer.” His voice was improving, ever so slightly, as the minutes ticked by—he still sounded horrible, so hoarse and cracked that he could only manage a whisper, but he could get through full sentences now.
“They can’t see you,” Sam said, looking him over. “Nobody can see you. They’ll recognize your face and those bruises are—we don’t have a scarf to cover them up.”
“A scarf’s terrible in a fight,” Bucky said. “Too dangerous.”
“I’m not suggesting that we get one.” Sam’s heart beat fast again, but his head was clearing up. “What we might have to do is have you drop me off somewhere, you go and get rid of this thing, I take Steve’s bag and the money and figure out some new wheels for us, and then we meet back up somewhere else.”
“Okay,” Bucky said, after only a second’s pause. “You’re right. That’s probably the best option right now.”
“Yeah. I know I’m right.”
“I’m a—what did Tony call me?”
“You’re the little fish,” Bucky said, a tiny smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
“Yeah. The thing about the little fish, though, is that it can hide in the shadow of the big fish until everybody forgets about it.” Sam put more confidence in his voice than he really felt; in a strange way, pretending to feel better made him feel better, at least a little bit.
“If you say so. I wish we had some safe phones.” Bucky drummed his flesh-and-blood fingers on the wheel, his brow furrowed.
“We’ll be fine. It’s our response that matters, right?”
A quick flicker of blue eyes in Sam’s direction. “Right.”
It didn’t take them too long to find a town that Bucky deemed large enough. It was cute; for the most part, it had been spared ugly communist renovations. Sam could see why a series of newer suburbs had sprung up around the town center—this place had character.
Bucky pulled the Peugeot into an empty cul-de-sac outside downtown and let the engine idle. “Rent something,” he said. “It’s not the easiest but it’ll be the fastest. Give them one of the fake passports. I’ll get rid of this. Where should we—? There,” he said, answering his own question. He pointed out the windshield. “That church spire. It’s not downtown so there’ll be fewer people.”
Sam found it on the horizon. “Okay. I can track that.” He sorted through Steve’s bag quickly, finding one of the passports that Natasha had made for him and tucking it into an inside pocket in his jacket. He’d never used it before, so hopefully it wouldn’t leave something for Interpol to track, not right away. “Give me an hour?”
Sam touched two fingers to the brim of his baseball cap and climbed out of the car. He slung Steve’s satchel across his chest, watching as Bucky pulled out. The turn he made back onto the main road was definitely smoother than before.
He played a genial, confused tourist to a family walking their dog, explaining that he and his friends wanted to take a drive through the countryside, but he’d totally forgotten to grab a brochure from the hotel lobby. Did they know where he could rent a car for the day?
They were happy to oblige, and two rights and a left later, he found himself in front of a Hertz. Suddenly, Sam felt totally competent and capable—he could handle Hertz. The yellow sign was just so familiar.
He went into the little lobby. There was a TV on the wall, but it was playing a rerun of NCIS. Sam chose to take that as another good sign.
“Hey there!” he said, giving the two desk agents a sheepish wave.
He explained the situation again: tourists, friends, countryside drive, day rental please? He’d propped his sunglasses up over his hat so he would seem even friendlier and more harmless. Yes, he hoped his demeanor said, I am not being currently hunted by every law enforcement agency in Europe and also the Avengers.
“Of course!” said the girl behind the desk. She spoke very good English and didn’t seem to think that he was suspicious at all. “How many of you are there?”
“Four,” Sam said. “We don’t need anything big. A sedan or a compact would be just fine, I’m sure! It’s just so beautiful here and we want to see as much as we can. I know you have to accept that you can never see everything when you go to Europe, but we want to try our best!”
“How long are you here for?”
“A couple of weeks. We’re going to Poland after this—Warsaw.”
“Oh, Warsaw is lovely!” the girl said. “I went there with some school friends, we had a fun time. I have a Skoda Citigo in the lot currently, if that is all right? It will seat all four of you and it is our cheapest option right now for just a day.” She named the price.
They wouldn’t be winning any races in that car, but nobody would expect them to try and escape in a compact, either. The small fish was the one to get away. “Sounds perfect!” Sam said. “Thanks so much. You’ve been so helpful.”
The girl beamed.
Timothy Bendon filled out his information and provided a driver’s license and passport for the girl to look at, and thirty minutes later, he drove out of Hertz’s lot in a little green car. In a step up from the Peugeot, the Skoda was in perfect condition.
He really hoped that the NCIS channel didn’t show news reports in between episodes.
He made it to the church spire without being arrested, which was about as much as he could have hoped for. Sam parked the car on the side of the street and waited, trying to look casual, not like his nerves built with every minute that Bucky didn’t show. He turned on the radio and fiddled with it; he couldn’t tell if there was anything new. He heard Bucky’s name several times, his own only once.
He understood Bucky’s longing for phones. How was he supposed to know if anything had happened? What would he do if Bucky never showed up?
“Breathe, Wilson,” he commanded himself. “What happens, happens. There’s nothing you can do.”
The church itself sat in a quiet little square. Sam occupied himself with watching people walk by, wondering what they had done today, what they were going to have for dinner. He realized that he was starving—he hadn’t eaten anything since he left the house, hours ago now. He’d skipped lunch. He dug around in Steve’s bag until he found one of the energy bars that Bucky had stashed in there.
Eating it kept him busy for a bit, because he didn’t want to get anything on the seats and it was intent on crumbling away every time he took a bite. It was stupid—they were planning to attempt to evade the long arm of the law in this green thing—but he had been trained for years to never trash a rental car, and it turned out that the habit was hard to break.
One last group of people trickled through the square and away again; it was empty. In a flash, Bucky was opening the door and squeezing himself inside. “Ugh,” he grumbled, wrestling with the seat adjustments, his knees crushed against the console, and for some reason, this sudden switch from Sam’s mounting anxiety was the funniest thing he’d ever seen in his entire life, and he dissolved into semi-hysterical laughter.
“I’m s-sorry—it’s so—” He could barely talk. Sam pointed at him, so ridiculously oversized in what now truly felt like a clown car, and collapsed over the steering wheel. His cheeks stung and there were tears in his eyes. “Jesus Christ,” he wheezed. “Jesus H. Christ.”
Bucky took the granola bar out of his hand. Sam’s ribs hurt so much from laughing that it took him a minute to recognize that Bucky had put his heavy metal palm on his spine. He didn’t say anything, just held the remains of the bar and rested steady against his back.
It took a couple of minutes, but finally Sam could sit up properly. He wiped his eyes. “Holy shit,” he said, through residual giggles. “Sorry.”
Bucky gave the bar back and retreated to his side of the car. “Laughing isn’t so bad,” he offered. “I’m a screamer.”
Sam was unpleasantly reminded of the roadside in France—not so long ago, though it felt like millennia. “Yeah, please don’t,” he said. “People would notice.”
“You okay to drive?”
“I feel so much less conspicuous with me behind the wheel,” Sam said, almost apologetically.
Bucky shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “Get back on the highway. We can’t lose any more time.”
Sam couldn’t agree more. He shoved the last of the energy bar into his mouth and put the car in gear.
Ten minutes out, a pair of police cars zoomed by in the other lane. They didn’t look at the Skoda, but they were definitely heading back towards town.
“Where did you hide that car, exactly?” Sam asked. He actually felt fairly calm about this new, potentially disastrous development. Having the steering wheel between his hands gave him something to do, something to take charge over, and his head stayed clear. Maybe the laughing fit had helped too.
“Parking structure,” Bucky said, twisted around in his seat to watch the police cars disappear around the corner. “They can’t have found it yet.”
“Maybe they found you on the security cameras.”
Bucky was almost offended. “I mapped out where they all were. They didn’t see me.”
“Then maybe it’s something else and we’re just paranoid.” Sam really hoped that it was something else and they were just paranoid.
“Play it safe,” Bucky decided. He settled back into his seat, tugging at his coat, trying to get the collar to stay flipped up against his neck. His eyes were blank. Sam chose to believe that he was thinking, not panicking. “Don’t go on the highway. They’ll expect that, and if they’ve found the car already—we need to look like we’re not in a hurry.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Sam said. “Where do you want me to go?”
“Head”—Bucky checked the angle of the sun—“southwest. Generally. We’ll take secondary roads.”
Sam put on the turn signal and took the road to the next town over. If the Peugeot was already blown, then it couldn’t possibly take them very long to figure out that Sam had walked into Hertz and rented this little green car. They’d get a license plate number, everything they needed to put out an APB or whatever they called them here in the Czech Republic.
“What do we do if they catch up to us?” he asked, still feeling that almost eerie calm. He hadn’t been in an outright, life-or-death firefight in so long that he’d almost forgotten what it was like, knowing that you were going up against people who knew who you were and what you were capable of, and that you had totally lost the element of surprise and they had you so outnumbered that it wasn’t even funny.
“Try to evade them. Run away.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
“Ideally, it works long enough for us to ditch the car and figure out something else.”
“Okay. But what if it doesn’t? I just—I need to know so if it happens I’m not waiting on instructions or whatever.”
“If we can get enough distance on them, we get out in a populated area and try to be invisible, lose them that way. It might work, it might not.” Bucky’s fingers drummed restlessly at his thigh; he caught it, stopped by curling his hand into a fist, nails scraping on denim. “If it doesn’t work,” he said, “or if they catch us in here, then you need to step as far away from me as they’ll let you.”
“There’s no distancing me from this, man,” Sam said with a slight laugh. “I made it quite clear to Tony where I stood on this.”
“Last time, they weren’t planning on taking me alive,” Bucky reminded him. “It’s the smart thing to do. I don’t know if the plan’s changed, but—”
“Then I get in the way,” Sam said. “They won’t shoot both of us, they’re not—”
“It’s a risk, Sam,” Bucky said, talking right over him. “An unacceptable risk. The safest thing is—”
“If we were about the safest thing, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place,” Sam said pointedly, possibly to both of them.
“I can’t have you on my conscience too,” Bucky said. “I can’t. Just in case, can you just—can you promise me to keep your distance?”
He was getting himself all worked up again, and that was something Sam definitely didn’t need right now. He sighed. “Fine.”
“You promise?” Bucky pressed, in his worn-thin voice.
“I promise to keep my distance if they corner us. That good enough?”
“Yes. Okay.” Bucky went on a bit, but he was obviously talking to himself: “Yes. Good.” Then he went on, louder, or as loud as he could be with his damaged throat: “Anyway, if we’re surrendering and not a threat, that’s safest.”
“Well, it won’t happen anyway,” Sam said, aiming for cheerfully confident. “It probably wasn’t the car.”
“So we’ll be fine for a while longer. We can switch cars again after we get over the border into Austria.”
“We don’t have that much farther to go, right?”
Bucky seesawed his hand. “Not too much farther to Austria, anyway,” he said.
“Okay,” Sam said. “So. We’ll be fine. We’ll be out of the Czech Republic before you know it.”
Two years, five months after Siberia
Forty-five minutes later, still within the borders of the Czech Republic, the hammer came down.
Sam was stopped at a light, a couple of cars behind him. They were in a nebulous gray area between towns, where it wasn’t technically a city center but there were still a number of houses and businesses.
By this point, Bucky had fetched Steve’s bag from the back seat. Sam couldn’t tell whether he was doing it for reassurance or because he thought they were going to have to bolt any minute now, and chose to believe the former. Bucky might never see Steve again; it was perfectly reasonable to clutch something that Natasha had bought for him to his chest.
“Go,” Bucky said suddenly.
Sam jerked his eyes back to the light. It was still red. “But—”
“Sam, go now,” Bucky said, his eyes fixed on the rearview mirror.
Sam looked too. A police car was creeping up behind them in the line, cautious. The lights and the siren weren’t on, but Sam’s gut screamed that the people inside had seen them, that they knew or suspected, and maybe they had backup or maybe they were just making sure, and this, right now, was the only window they were going to get.
He floored it, jerking the wheel hard to the right, and dove out into the intersection, which was steady but not busy; the car coming up behind him honked, a long blare of horn. Somewhere behind that, Sam heard the siren start up.
“City center,” Bucky said, pointing at a sign as they flashed past. “We need to get—”
“I remember!” Sam took another turn, this one less reckless—he had a green light—he had some idea, probably nonsense, that zigzagging would make it harder for a lone police car to see where they were going. Not that this car would be alone for long, if it even was now. He could still hear the siren.
Cars up ahead were stopped for some reason. Sam leaned on the horn himself. “Come on!” he said.
“They’re not going to move,” Bucky said. “Go over to the right, you can squeeze past that parked car—”
Sam saw what he meant. He revved the Skoda’s tiny engine and went around the car in front of him, squeezing between it and the car at the curb. Bucky’s side mirror was a casualty (crunch) and the driver next to him honked, but then he was past, driving through the parallel parking spots and around the corner.
There was a lull in traffic here, and Sam pressed down hard on the accelerator. Sure, he still wasn’t going very fast—at least, not what he considered very fast; after chasing Steve and Bucky and T’Challa through that tunnel in Romania, he was certain that Bucky could run faster than this car could go within city limits—but he thought he made pretty good time, all things considering, even when he could see flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Handfuls of pedestrians on the streets were staring as they drove past.
Another police car screeched onto the road in front of them. He could hit the brakes, but then he’d have to reverse to get to another turn and the cars behind them could catch up. Sam floored it and swerved around the cops, scraping their front bumper with his fender—but then they were past and the car turned into an unexpected roadblock, slowing down its friends.
“You said I drove violently!” Bucky said. He grabbed the handle over the door when Sam took another corner with the same too-tight curve that he’d told Bucky to stop doing.
“This is a car chase!” Sam said. “I’m allowed!” He jerked the wheel hard to the side to get around a sedan trying to get out of a parking spot. Traffic was getting thicker ahead again, and as far as he could tell, they still weren’t out of what he would consider the suburbs.
“Sirens will slow them down more. Get in the thick of it! Use other cars to hide—”
“Okay, okay, got it!” Sam sped up and slipped into the queue, willing the other drivers to see them as a slightly dinged yet totally innocent compact car. Through the windows, he could see a few of the passengers looking around curiously for the police, but the cars kept moving forward, and the Skoda moved with them.
“We’re not going to make it much farther,” Sam said. “Assuming that this works.”
“Just a bit farther,” Bucky said, tense. He was looking at the signs around them again, scanning fast. “There’s a historical district—up ahead, to the right. Might be tourists.”
“What about the car?”
“We park on the side of the road, I don’t know! We need to try to get closer and then look for a place to ditch.”
Sam thought of something. He pulled his sunglasses off and tossed them on top of Steve’s bag. “Put those on.”
“Do it! You’re too recognizable right now.” It was edging toward late afternoon and the sun was sinking—within a few hours the sunglasses would be pointless as a disguise anyway—but they were all they had to break up the lines of Bucky’s face.
Bucky did as he was told. He looped the strap of Steve’s bag around his chest.
The cars in front of them were starting to slow, and Sam thought he could see flashing lights. “I’m going now,” he said. He managed to get into the right lane by cutting in front of a large SUV; this one seemed too startled to honk. Thank God for small favors, Sam thought.
He veered over onto the nearest side street. There were more pedestrians here—not as many as he’d hoped for, but maybe enough. Another car was in front, going under the speed limit. Sam wanted to honk but didn’t dare.
“He’s going to take that spot,” Bucky said, pointing up the street. “Get past him somehow and take the next one you see. Leave the keys in the ignition.”
The car slowed even more and then stopped. It began to edge into the spot, far more slowly than any driver in the history of automobiles had ever tried to parallel park. Sam’s back got tighter and tighter, his hands tensing on the wheel, and the instant he thought he had enough room, he zoomed around the car’s back end, driving much faster now down the street. Maybe, if they were lucky, that car would serve as a roadblock too.
Sirens everywhere. People were definitely looking around curiously.
Sam saw the free spot at the same moment as Bucky said, “There!” He roared over to it and threw the Skoda into the space, haphazard and sloppy, but didn’t bother to correct it. He was out of the car almost as fast as Bucky, slamming the door behind him.
He went around to join Bucky on the sidewalk, and they set off immediately. Sam’s whole body was jangling, his heart throbbing, but his head was still clear. He wanted to run, to walk as fast as he could, but he understood that they could only go just slightly faster than the other people around them.
“Where are we going?” he heard himself ask, like he was asking what store they wanted to stop at first.
Bucky might have been looking at civilians, the area around them, signs; it was hard to tell behind the dark aviators. He didn’t answer at first. He had his hands in his jacket pockets, his shoulders hunched to keep the collar up around his throat. Sam could still see the black mark of Tony’s palm around his Adam’s apple, turning to yellow and green at the edges.
One minute of silence turned to two turned to three, though, and eventually Sam asked again, “Where are—“
“I don’t know!” Bucky burst out. Luckily, his voice was still too quiet for anyone to hear. He took a deep breath and visibly let the stress roll off his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said, much more calmly. “We have to be surrounded by now, or near enough to it. Let me think.”
Sam thought too. He was back at Option C. “You could make it by yourself, though, right?” he asked.
“No,” Bucky said instantly. “We talked about this. We’ve been over this.”
“Sam, I swear to God—”
“What about Steve, huh?” Sam demanded, going for the throat. “You want him to lose both of us at once?”
Bucky hesitated. “He—he might not have to,” he said, obviously scrambling. “Just let me—”
A commotion behind them cut him off. They both looked back. People moved aside, murmuring to each other and looking worried, and through the crowd, parting around them like the Red Sea, came a pair of police officers. One of them was talking into her radio; their eyes roved fast through the crowd, scanning faces.
There was nowhere to go. There weren’t enough people shopping to let them hide in the crowds. Moving now would just draw the inevitable attention to them faster. Even Bucky was frozen, immobile at Sam’s side. For a second, that unreasonable hope from earlier this afternoon surged back to life: maybe the sunglasses would obscure Bucky’s face enough. Maybe the police weren’t really looking all that hard for the Falcon. Maybe.
The two cops looked at Sam and Bucky. Sam and Bucky looked back. The woman holding the radio met Sam’s eyes and he knew that she knew who he was.
The world blurred. He thought maybe it was shock, the first jolt of panic before his training kicked in and he could focus again, but then he realized that the police were shouting from farther away than they had been before and that Bucky had grabbed him and started dragging him through the crowd, fast. He stumbled on the uneven stones, got his feet under him again. He ripped his arm from Bucky’s grip.
They ran together through the crowd. Some people rushed to get out of their way while others stood almost still, maybe in shock, maybe in confusion. Sam saw more than one phone out, taking photos or videos or who knew what of the situation, and for some reason he could only think, with the long arm of the law hot on his heels and the Raft beckoning: Kids these days.
He pushed past a frozen woman holding a canvas shopping bag. Bucky was farther ahead, leaving a gap behind him like the wake of a ship. He had longer legs and he was faster anyway, much faster. Sam wished that he’d keep going, that he’d run as fast as he could, but he knew he wouldn’t. Go, just go.
He took Bucky’s wake, under the assumption that people would stay out of the way, and sprinted to catch up. He could hear shouts behind him. He spared a thought to be glad that Bucky took Steve’s bag—it would be harder to keep up with that too. His legs jounced on the stones, a blur of staring faces rushing by on either side.
They had reached a sort of plaza. Sam slowed slightly, trying to spot Bucky in the now-chaotic streets—people were scattering everywhere, and even though the crowds weren’t huge, it was confusing—and something crashed into his side, taking him straight down to the ground. The impact knocked the breath out of his chest. He wheezed; he felt like he’d been kicked by a horse.
A tall, strongly built man pinned him to the ground. He was saying something, but Sam couldn’t put the words together right now. He wore a uniform and a silver pair of handcuffs glinted in his fist.
Sam struggled to catch a breath. He didn’t know what to do: fight, surrender. The policeman’s partner was approaching at a run over his shoulder, pulling out a gun. Sam couldn’t make up his mind.
Just as suddenly as the policeman had tackled him, he was gone again, picked up and heaved away. Sam watched him land, hard, much farther away than anyone his size could reasonably be thrown. He skidded. Bucky stood over Sam, feet planted firmly, waiting for a counterattack.
Sam started to get to his feet, but in the next instant, Bucky had slammed him back down again, crouching over him. The big policeman’s partner opened fire, and Bucky blocked it with his arm. Over the sudden, screaming din of the civilians, Sam could hear it ringing.
Bucky left him and went to deal with the gun, his steps methodical and terrifying. Sam blocked him out; he could handle himself. He finally scrambled to his feet.
The big policeman was getting up too, but he looked shaken. It would take him a couple of minutes to recover and get back into the fray. Of more immediate concern was the second pair approaching at a run, darting through the crowd—the radio woman and her partner who had spotted Sam in the first place.
Sam took them at a run, hoping that a frontal assault would confuse them enough to delay their draw time. And while he wasn’t as fast as a super-soldier, he was pretty physically fit, and adrenaline made him fly.
Maybe they were confused; maybe they’d only been ordered to open fire when under extreme threat; maybe they were only allowed to attempt to put holes in internationally wanted terrorists. Whatever the reason, the woman, who was in the lead, hesitated when she pulled out her gun.
Sam felt kind of bad about hitting a woman, but he did it anyway—punched her in the face and knocked her down, then got the gun away from her. He backed away immediately, pointing it between her and her partner, who had his gun out too. He looked tense and scared.
“Just stay there!” Sam yelled at them. He kept backing up, stealing quick glances over his shoulder. The crowds had mostly cleared away from the center of the plaza. He could see a nice square, fancy buildings, a wrought-iron railing and a pedestrian bridge over a river, and a mess of people lying on the ground behind Bucky, who was already pelting back over to him.
He had lost the sunglasses somehow and there was an already-scabbed cut on his cheek, but otherwise he seemed fine. “Give me that,” he said, and grabbed the gun from Sam’s hand.
The remaining bystanders screamed again, cowering back against the buildings behind them. Radio woman was back on her feet, pushing people behind her and pointing them towards exits, while her partner edged forward, determined. A few of the conscious officers from Bucky’s efforts were making similar movements.
“What are you going to do?” Sam asked in a low voice. “We’re screwed. We can’t hurt them.”
“I know.” Bucky aimed and a puff of dust and grit spewed between the feet of radio woman’s partner. He froze. “Everybody stay where they are!” Bucky yelled as loudly as he could.
Nobody moved. They didn’t seem to know how far they could push him. These were just beat cops, but professionals couldn’t be far behind them.
“Do you trust me?” Bucky asked quietly. His voice cracked from the strain of shouting.
“Yeah. What are you—?”
Bucky grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him off. Sam lost his balance and grabbed at him with a muffled curse, but Bucky didn’t slow. He was going too fast for comfort; while Sam scrambled, he heard another gunshot, a few more panicked yells.
“What did I say?” Bucky screamed. He was going to lose his voice again after all this, Sam could tell—
There were some steps, which Sam tripped over, but Bucky hauled him bodily over them, legs dragging, casually displaying how strong he was, how dangerous he was. His grip hurt, it was so hard. He heaved Sam upright and put the gun against his head.
The police officers had made some progress across the square while Sam had been falling down, and now they crouched in tight clusters, watching them with wide eyes. Sam let himself be wide-eyed too, like he was terrified and confused. He raised his hands to try and push Bucky away but he shrugged him off, hard.
“Take one more step and I blow his brains out,” Bucky threatened. The only reason anybody could hear him was because the plaza was now so quiet. “I’ll pull the trigger. Stay back!” Radio woman’s partner really was determined, but he stopped again when Bucky glared at him.
“Please, man,” Sam said. His voice shook. He wondered suddenly if this was Bucky’s escape plan or Bucky fabricating an alibi for Sam.
Bucky didn’t answer. He walked them backwards, still holding the gun to Sam’s head, and the cops approached very slowly. They were still well below the steps onto the bridge.
“Hold your breath,” Bucky said into his ear, barely a puff of sound.
He handled Sam like a rag doll, which was good, because Sam could barely process what was happening—Bucky had a gun to his head and then he didn’t, they were on the bridge one minute and then they were on the railing, and the next second they were in the air and falling, because apparently this was a thing one did in this crazy ordeal that was Sam’s life: jump off of bridges and potentially drown to avoid the police.
Bucky took the brunt of the impact with his back, which had to have been his intention, the way he’d thrown them off. Sam didn’t have much brain space to contemplate this, however, because the back of his head hit Bucky’s metal shoulder and everything went fuzzy for a while.
Splashes of color through the water like an impressionist painting.
Breaths of air, once in a while, though not as often as he wanted them.
The peace of it, even though his head hurt.
Two years, five months after Siberia
By the time they climbed out of the river, after many more waterlogged minutes than Sam would ever care to count, the sun was definitely setting and Sam was definitely chilly.
“As escapes go, this one could be better,” he said, allowing Bucky to pull him out of the water and onto a dock of some sort. The dock was attached to an abandoned warehouse, because of course it was.
Bucky offered him a small smile. “Still going, though,” he said. He sounded almost as terrible as he had when they’d still been in the Peugeot.
“I know. Gimme a sec.” Sam braced his hands on his knees and breathed for a moment. Sure, he was cold and wet and they were probably lost and had no car, but he was also not in jail right now, and this warehouse had no night watchman to call the cops on them. He sighed and straightened up, rubbing a palm across his face. “Sorry. I’m better now. Thanks for the quick thinking back there.”
“Not much time,” Bucky said. “They know about where we are.”
“Still, you’ve probably delayed some of them with looking for dead bodies instead of us. Thanks.”
Bucky raked his wet bangs out of his eyes. “We need a new plan.”
First, Bucky wrung out their coats while Sam took stock of what they still had and what might still be useful. They had both lost their baseball hats in the water somewhere, so their disguises, such as they were, were now completely destroyed. Steve’s bag had survived, strapped securely to Bucky; even though the faux leather was waterlogged and possibly ruined, it was still useful. The passports were a lost cause, so Sam tossed them back into the river. The money, safe in plastic baggies, got repacked, as did the energy bars.
Some residual fuzziness lingered in the corners of Sam’s aching head. He rubbed at the back of his skull absently and chewed at one of the energy bars. He hoped that some fuel would make his body less cold. “I guess we have two options,” he said slowly. “Figure out a way to keep pushing on or break into that place and stay the night, then figure out a way to keep pushing in the morning.”
Bucky brought Sam’s jacket back and sat down on the grass too. He accepted an energy bar and ate the entire thing before he responded. He winced slightly when he swallowed. “I think we need to keep going,” he said, folding the wrapper up into a precise square. “Staying put is suicide. Going is suicide, but it’s our only chance.”
Sam checked his watch to see how long they’d been in the water—sooner or later, somebody would think to look downriver—but it was dead. He left it on, though; the garrote was about the only weapon they had. “You really think we still have a chance?” he asked.
“That’s good enough for me,” Sam said. “It’s not like they can throw us in prison any harder.”
“Not necessarily,” Bucky murmured. Apparently his coat was still too wet for his tastes, because he pulled it off again and twisted it. His left arm was the same color as the inside of the energy bar wrappers.
“We’ll never know unless we try,” Sam said with forced lightness. “What about wheels? Renting something probably isn’t going to work a second time.”
Bucky shook his head, still focused on his jacket. “Speed’s the key. We’ll have to steal something and hope that the darkness will help cover—” His chin jerked up, brows pulling together. His eyes moved fast, flickering over their immediate surroundings.
“What?” Uneasy, Sam did the same, but he couldn’t see anything. The yard between the warehouse and the river looked the same as it always did.
“I thought I heard—” Bucky broke off again and got up, pacing to the bank and down a bit, craning to see both ways.
Sam folded up the rest of his bar in its wrapper and tucked it into Steve’s bag. “We should go,” he called, standing. He picked up his jacket and squeezed it between his hands, debating whether he would be chillier with it off or with it on, with the lingering dampness. He folded it over his arm for now; he’d decide in a minute. He grabbed Bucky’s too.
“Yeah, good idea.” But Bucky didn’t come back right away; he lingered where he was, listening or looking or who the hell knew what. His clear agitation was pushing Sam past uneasiness into outright nerves, and he fumbled grabbing Steve’s bag.
He straightened up fast. “Hang on,” he said. “I hear it too.” It being something that sounded kind of like an airplane engine or—Sam’s stomach hit his toes—like Tony’s repulsors. He looked up, fast, scanning the skies, and could maybe see a fast, dark shape against the orange sunset.
Crushed between déjà vu and sheer bloody panic, Sam yelled, “Run!” He somehow had Steve’s bag across his shoulder, though he had no idea how that had happened. He started towards Bucky, who was at last retreating from the riverbank—retreating while simultaneously waving Sam back. He stopped short in confusion. “Dude, we have to—”
“Split up!” Bucky ordered. His dark bangs stood out like a shout against his white skin. “Two at once is harder, you understand?” A point, which, while all well and good, was immediately rendered moot when there was a bang and Bucky was knocked flat to the ground with a cry of pain and shock.
Sam started towards him automatically, still lugging all of their things. He was caught in a loop: Riley and the RPG, Bucky and Tony’s chokehold, Bucky and this, whatever it was. They were still at some distance from each other and it truly was starting to get dark, but he could see that Bucky was still moving: in little aborted twitches, crumpled in the grass. His breathing was fast and hard, wheezing through his damaged throat.
“Bucky?” Sam yelled. “Bucky!” He dropped the coats and almost left them before he thought that they might be useful as bandages or something, so he went back. The roaring of repulsor jets was getting louder, but at this point—at this point they were done. Running would make no difference. And maybe he could still keep Bucky alive.
So he wasn’t watching Tony approach. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He set off again, faster this time, with less stunned stumbling, and finally skidded on his knees next to Bucky, looking for blood, looking for big gaping holes. He was all knotted up on himself, twitching almost uncontrollably, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, but he didn’t seem to be bleeding everywhere, and Sam was on the verge of grabbing his metal arm to move it out of the way when he noticed the small, circular device just above the elbow joint. It crackled rhythmically with electricity, the blue showing in a pulse through the tiny joints in its case.
“Don’t touch it,” warned a familiar voice. “It packs a mean punch, Sam.”
Rhodes hovered over the river. The silver suit was sleeker than it had been—Tony had gotten at it, then, fiddling and modifying, and Sam didn’t want to think about how many modifications it had taken to keep Rhodes flying in a straight line—but the big mean gun over the shoulder was pure War Machine, and somehow, despite everything, Sam found himself smiling at it.
Then Bucky made a soft, agonized sound low in his throat, and Sam remembered where they were and what was happening.
“What is it?” he demanded. He looked back down at the little circle, still crackling under its chrome skin. “What’s it doing to him?”
“There’s some long scientific explanation, but it’s basically a neural inhibitor.” Rhodes sounded slightly amused, and Sam could very easily picture him as the bored recipient of Tony’s long scientific explanation. “Keeps him quiet.”
“What, by causing horrible pain?”
“It won’t kill him, Sam, and we both know that it’s not enough to take out that arm.” Rhodes sighed. “We thought up a lot of contingency plans in the past couple of years.”
“Take it off,” Sam said. “Take it off, Rhodey. If Tony wants to kill him, he’ll have to—”
“Tony’s not here,” Rhodes interrupted. “And he’s not going to be here. He’s stuck in Prague.”
“They’re really going to waste one of the best assets at their disposal?” Sam asked skeptically. “I don’t believe you.”
“He broke the Accords, Sam,” Rhodes said. “If he’d finished the job, maybe it would’ve been hand-waved, but he set you two loose and now Ross has to clean up his mess. I’m here,” he said, tapping his chest plate with one finger, “to make a trade.”
“Let me guess,” Sam said, and he was so exasperated at all of these deals and trades that he totally forgot how his heart was hammering, “you finish Tony’s job—kill him, arrest me—and everybody goes home?”
In response, Rhodes flew over and landed on the bank. He walked up to them, slow and stiff, a little awkward, but walking, and Sam was so conflicted between happiness-sadness-fear-anger that he ended up feeling mostly nothing at all.
He scrambled to his feet and got in between Rhodes and Bucky. “You can’t kill him,” he said. “Tony said a lot of boneheaded things to me but he was right that we save people, not murder them.”
“Look, Wilson,” Rhodes said, beginning to sound a little annoyed himself. He stopped a few feet away but he still loomed over them. “I’m not going to kill him. He comes with me and Ross gets to have his trial. Tony’s… he’s irrational about this, so someone has to make the right call, which is letting the courts figure out to do with him.”
“They’ll crucify him!”
“Courts rely on evidence, Sam, they won’t come to a conclusion that’s not—”
“It’s a witch hunt!” Sam said loudly. “Nobody can charge the people they want to so they go after the next best thing. Listen to me, Rhodes, he doesn’t deserve to be strung up for something that wasn’t his fault!”
“It isn’t your place to decide that,” Rhodes said, sharp and final. “There’s a lot of evidence, Sam. That’s what will decide what happens to Barnes—not you, not me, not Tony.”
Sam shook—with impotent rage, not fear. The only piece of evidence that told the whole story was Bucky’s notebook, and Sam was pretty sure that was with Tony, who would never hand it over. “You wanna arrest us?” he spat. He stuck out his arms. “Arrest us. You have to have something on you that’ll lock him up without hurting him like that.”
Rhodes didn’t do anything immediately, and then his faceplate slid back. He looked the same, except that his eyes were older, more tired. His eyes had lived more than two and a half years of time. He looked into Sam’s eyes with them and said, “You can go.”
“I won’t stru—what?” Sam said. He couldn’t have heard right.
“I still think that the Accords were the best decision,” Rhodes said, and the weariness from his eyes spread across his whole face. “I won’t step outside them. But I understand that sometimes we can’t respond to situations because they happen too fast or they’re too small. I’ve had nothing to do for years, Sam, except read up on what people thought you guys were up to. You can do a lot more good out here than inside the Raft.” He looked down at Bucky; when Sam glanced over his shoulder, he saw that Bucky’s eyes were half-open, unseeing. “You shouldn’t get caught just because of him.”
“So—what,” Sam said, “I just walk away and you tell everyone to stop chasing me?”
“I’ll tell them that I didn’t see you,” Rhodes said. “I just found Barnes.” He met Sam’s eyes again. “You’re doing good out there, Sam,” he said. “I don’t approve of all of it or most of your methods, but I can accept our limitations and understand that you fill in some of the gaps. You and Cap and the others, I think you still know what’s right and what’s wrong. So go.”
“I just walk out of here,” Sam said.
“And Bucky stays?”
“I’m taking him straight to a secure facility.”
“Until he goes to trial, anyway.”
“Then the courts decide,” Rhodes said, like he thought that this was comforting, or at least a consolation.
They’d never let him out. They might not execute him, but he’d be locked up for the rest of his life. Sam looked down at him, staring sightlessly at the grass in front of him, the disk on his arm gleaming in time with his small convulsions, rhythmic, perfectly timed.
So this was Option D.
Sam crouched down by Bucky’s side, his back to Rhodes. “Steve will never forgive you. Any of you.”
He heard Rhodes’s faceplate slammed back into place. “Steve’s completely blind about Barnes.”
“They’re best friends, man,” Sam said. His left arm was propped on his thigh, against his stomach, and he fiddled with the watch on his wrist for a second, flicking the hidden catch. He carefully unspooled the garrote. “You’d do the same thing for Tony. Hell, you’re doing it for him now, saving him from Ross.”
“Tony hasn’t killed anyone, Sam,” Rhodes snapped.
“Almost did, though. Would you still have stuck up for him if—?”
“He didn’t, and he won’t,” Rhodes said firmly. “That’s what friends are for: stopping you from doing the stupid stuff that’ll ruin your life. Steve already let this guy ruin his life. Are you going to let him ruin yours, too?”
“No,” Sam said, holding the garrote stretched tight between his hands. “No, I’ve had enough of the life-ruining for one lifetime.” After all, this could be his very last chance. He couldn’t walk away, so might as well go out with style, and hope that if, by some miracle, this actually worked, Bucky’s arm wasn’t broken and his brains would unscramble fast enough to figure out what to do with it. He made as though to get up, moving so that his body blocked Rhodes’s view of Bucky’s left arm entirely, hooked the garrote fast over the lip of the chrome disk and yanked back towards himself, hard.
The shock that ran through the garrote wire turned his fingers numb. Sam yelped, dropped the garrote, and said, “You didn’t say the whole arm was electrified!” His hands were on fire.
“I told you,” Rhodes said dangerously, his suit whirring to life—when Sam turned to face him, he had both arms raised, bristling with weaponry, but the big gun over his shoulder stayed pointed up. “I told you not to touch it, it packs a mean—”
His suit made a weird whining noise, like a hard drive failing, and they both looked immediately to Bucky; he hadn’t moved, but there was a black mark on his arm where the disk had been, and he was back in his own eyes.
Rhodes tried to shoot him, but something had gone wrong with—maybe it was a laser—he reached over to trigger it manually, and Sam dove for Bucky, grabbing at any part of him he could reach (the collar of his shirt and his right wrist) and half-dragging, half-carrying him closer to Rhodes, who had made a mistake when he landed on solid ground.
The suit whined some more and then slumped sideways, listing dangerously. It wasn’t broken, it wasn’t dead, but something vital was gone, and Sam was afraid that Rhodes would topple right over. (Did he want Rhodes to fall over? Did he want him to at least stay upright, with the suit supporting him?)
Bucky noticed too. “Stop,” he managed, slumping so badly in Sam’s grip that he almost had no choice but to stop and put him down. He was too heavy and unwieldy. “I can’t. It’s not—it’s not fully online—” He put his head between his knees and breathed.
It didn’t seem to matter that T’Challa’s EMP wasn’t operating at peak capacity. Rhodey wasn’t going anywhere. The newest systems, the trickiest, the most vulnerable—those had probably been the first to go, most likely including whatever system Tony had put in place to help him walk. Sam just hoped that his comms were long gone too.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the helmet. The light behind the eye slits had gone out. “I do think we’re doing good out there, but we includes him.”
The other two didn’t say anything to this. Rhodes probably didn’t want to embarrass himself by shouting to be heard through the thick plates of the helmet. Bucky’s head was in the crook of his human arm, and he was shivering, bone-deep, wracking shivers like he’d been left outside in a snowstorm all night.
“Shi—” Sam stopped himself. He crouched down and hesitantly put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder; he didn’t shove him off. Sam saw that he was biting his sleeve, possibly to keep himself from screaming. I’m a screamer. He tightened his grip on his shoulder and stayed there, just touching through his palm, until Bucky’s shaking eased and he let go of his sleeve with a wet breath.
“Okay?” he asked gently.
Bucky nodded, a quick jerk up and down. His face was only slightly damp, and he hastily scrubbed at it with the hem of his sleeve. “Okay,” he said. It didn’t sound like a permanent okay, but the gaping holes had been temporarily shored.
“We can’t just leave him standing there.” Sam eyed War Machine, leaning dangerously in the soft soil at the water’s edge, almost as brightly silver as Bucky’s arm.
“I guess not,” Bucky said, subdued.
“No. Do you think you can drag him?” Sam pointed up the bank a little bit, away from the edge of the water. The river couldn’t rise that far in the time it would take someone to find him. “Maybe there?”
Bucky stood slowly, studying Rhodes, the place Sam had pointed to, the distance between them. He kept shrugging his left shoulder, the servos whining; maybe he was calibrating it. “Won’t know until I try,” he said. He sized Rhodes up again and then went to his side, hooking his right arm across his shoulders. His metal arm and shoulder would take most of the weight. “Could you—kick his feet a bit or something, he’s tall—”
Sam hurried over and pushed at Rhodes’s legs. The circuits down there must have been mostly fried, because once he persuaded the knees to bend, the whole suit started to crash to the ground.
With a grunt, Bucky managed to keep it from falling. He staggered under the weight of all that metal, but he kept his footing, and he stumped over to where Sam had suggested without pausing. Sam grabbed Steve’s bag and their coats from where they were scattered and followed.
Rhodes hit the ground again with a series of dull thuds, despite Bucky’s efforts to ease his fall. The suit made some more dying-computer sounds, so maybe Bucky’s arm was working better again.
But then Sam thought about the field outside the airport in Germany, Rhodes trapped on his back in his suit. “Take off the faceplate,” he said. “Please.”
To his credit, Bucky didn’t protest. He leaned down, dug in his fingers, and pried it off.
There was maybe some relief on Rhodes’s drawn face. “Thanks,” he said, not entirely grateful but not entirely resentful, either.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, not entirely seriously but not entirely lying, either. “But we have to go.”
Rhodes’s eyes flickered between them. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Sam.”
“I do,” Bucky said in his place. He pulled his coat from the crook of Sam’s arm and shrugged it on. “Let’s go.”
Sam followed without question. He adjusted the strap on Steve’s bag but decided not to put on his own jacket, not just yet. Bucky walked purposefully, panic attack bottled up tightly; he looked all too ready to pretend that Rhodes had only been a minor setback.
All the same, Sam glanced back once, just before they rounded the corner of the warehouse and vanished from view—Rhodes, left to lay on his back, staring at the gathering dark.
Two years, five months after Siberia
Neither of them felt the need to talk around the fact that this was their last chance. Sam could feel that their luck was just about out; he couldn’t see how they could possibly escape from another situation like that. There were no more convenient rivers and the next arm of the law would most likely just blow Bucky’s head off rather than try to deal with more metal arm-induced complications.
“Speed,” Sam said.
“Speed,” Bucky agreed. “Reckless speed. The darkness will help.”
So: gun it for Austria, breaking speed limits all over the place, and trust to the night to hide their identifying features. It was a plan that relied more on blind luck than Sam would have wished, but he couldn’t see any other options.
“As soon as they find Rhodes, they’re going to comb this area with a fine-toothed comb, looking for any stolen cars.”
“We steal two,” Bucky said. “One to actually take to Austria, and one to distract them. We hide the second one somewhere and hope that it takes them a few hours to find it.”
“I don’t actually know how to steal a car,” Sam felt compelled to tell him.
“You’re a fugitive. You should know how to steal a car.”
“You think you’re real funny, Barnes. How about this: when we get out of this, I’ll teach you how to drive like a normal person and you teach me how to steal a car.”
“Let’s not get too optimistic,” Bucky said. From the tone of his voice, he was ever so slightly amused. He got back to business fast, though: “It doesn’t matter. I’ll run ahead and find something.” They were on the outskirts of town, where luckily there was just about nothing going on. The warehouse wasn’t the only abandoned building around here. “Keep walking more or less in a straight line. I’ll be back.” He vanished into the gloom in that creepy way he had, where he was there one minute and gone the next.
Sam stopped to put his jacket on. They had walked for maybe fifteen minutes to get this far, and he had a chill that was half thanks to the river and half to nerves and general exhaustion. He felt like it had been approximately seven hundred years since the Indian food last night. He was alone, in the dark, and that just made things worse.
This or the Raft, he reminded himself, not that he really needed reminding, and kept trudging forward, hands shoved deep into his pockets.
It seemed like an eternity of walking slowly, attempting to stick inconspicuously to the shadows, if such a thing was possible, but at least he hardly saw any people; everybody was probably at home by now, and this place didn’t seem like it had much of a nightlife. It felt worn-down and tired, showing only hints of its former self; at the moment, Sam most definitely sympathized.
His spirits lifted slightly when a dull green car of ambiguous make and model pulled up beside him. “This thing the real one or the distraction?” he asked when he climbed inside.
“The distraction, I think.” Bucky wound around a few streets and then pulled over. He unbuckled his seatbelt. “The river’s over there,” he said, gesturing to their right. “Follow it down as best you can. I’ll find you with our real ride and we’ll figure out where to get rid of this.”
This seemed like a vague plan at best, but Sam didn’t argue. He switched seats, again missed the moment where Bucky stopped being right there in front of him, and set off into the dark.
It really was dark—the headlights on the ambiguous car didn’t work very well. After ten miles or so, Sam was glad that this wasn’t their primary getaway vehicle, because part of the seat back was collapsed and his spine started aching. That, and the brakes didn’t do their job properly, and Sam thought that brakes were fairly essential, all things considered. He didn’t want to crash into a wall, fleeing from the police, all because stomping on the brake did basically nothing.
“The ride is terrible,” he muttered to himself. He jerked the steering wheel wildly from side to side, and the car only drifted vaguely (and belatedly) in that direction. “Look at that! You’re damn well right, Barnes, this is the distraction. You’d better find something better. I don’t think we could do seventy in this thing. They’ll laugh all the way to Berlin.”
The commentary helped distract him, and he had soon driven out of the city limits and back onto the main road. He saw a few other cars, but they all ignored such an obvious non-entity, and he didn’t run into any cops, and Vision didn’t suddenly swoop down out of the night sky to vaporize him, which Sam figured was about as much as he could reasonably hope for.
Despite the numerous discomforts of the car, exhaustion began to set in hard. Sam turned on the cheap radio, twisting the dial, looking hard for something to listen to. There were several Czech stations, but he didn’t know enough of the language for the words to keep him awake.
Like a miracle, Journey floated out of the speakers: Streetlights, people, livin’ just to find emotion, hidin’ somewhere in the night—
Sam rocked the guitar solo with beats of his fingers on the steering wheel (don’t stop believin’). He’d never been a big Journey fan, but this was a taste of home, and he sang along until the song ended, and to ACDC and Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan after that, singing to keep his sluggish brain moving, leaning forward to give his back a break.
He saw a few more cars over the next twenty minutes, but none of them stopped or pulled up alongside him. What eventually did—and this was a shock—was a sleek black motorcycle, built (barely) for two, but that was definitely Bucky driving it, his whole head hidden by the helmet.
“Motorcycles!” Sam said out loud, still in the singing mode. He snapped his mouth shut fast, even though he knew that there was no way Bucky could have heard him.
Bucky waved at him and sped ahead; Sam followed as best he could, mouthing along quietly to the words now, his fingertips still twitching on the wheel. The motorcycle led him down some side streets, quiet and deserted, the houses mostly shut up tight. Here and there, he could spot lights on through the blinds, but it all seemed so distant and strange. He glanced at the warm lamp-glow like it belonged to a star burning billions of light years away.
Finally, the taillights on the motorcycle glowed red, and Sam slowed to a stop behind it. The street here was deserted too, dark in a way that suggested emptiness, even though the building in front of them—not quite house, not quite business—had what had to be a FOR SALE sign attached to its side.
Bucky knocked down the kickstand and swung off, leaving the helmet on the seat. He went up to the garage door—it was a decently-sized garage too, more than big enough for the car if there was nothing inside it—and bent down by the lock. In the dim glow of headlights, Sam couldn’t see what he was doing, but in a moment he pushed the door up, revealing the empty space inside.
Sam pulled inside and killed the engine. He opened the door and clambered out, unaccountably stiff. The night seemed very quiet without the music, but he did discover that the ambiguous car had one feature to recommend it: heating. The temperature had definitely taken a dip since Bucky had put him in it.
“A bike, really?” he said. He grabbed the chain and helped Bucky pull the garage door back down.
Bucky shrugged. “It’s fast,” he said. “Small. We can walk it if we have to.”
A motorcycle was an even more absurd choice of getaway vehicle than the Skoda had been. “I don’t even want to know where you got it,” Sam said, eyeing its sophisticated curves.
“It came with two helmets, luckily enough.” Bucky’s voice was flat enough that it was difficult to tell if he was being sarcastic or not. He dug around in one of the saddlebags attached to the back and handed the second helmet to Sam.
He held it between his elbow and his body as he wrangled Steve’s bag into a tighter fit. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this thing. Austria or bust.”
“Austria or bust,” Bucky echoed. “I’m driving this time.”
“You’re allowed to drive a motorcycle violently. I’m pretty sure it’s a requirement.”
Even in the dark, Sam caught Bucky rolling his eyes. Then he put the helmet back on, obscuring his face completely.
Sam followed his lead. The padding pressed against his skin and the tinted visor made it harder to see anything, but that was all right; in a weird way, that reminded him of his goggles and his wings. He felt pretty comfortable with the whole idea up until he realized that he’d have to climb on the bike behind Bucky and hold on to him to avoid falling off, and then he almost changed his mind.
“I know we’re a lot closer than before, but this is taking things a bit far,” he said.
“You want to stay and get arrested, be my guest,” Bucky replied with a bite of impatience.
There was nothing he could do. Sam sighed and got on, finding the little footrests first. Then he gingerly put his arms around Bucky’s waist. He was burning hot, even beneath his slightly damp clothes. “We never tell anyone about this, understand?”
Bucky didn’t bother to reply. He put up the kickstand, started the bike back up, and pulled back out onto the main drag.
The wind was cold, Bucky still took corners too sharply, and when there were open stretches of road he floored it—or whatever you called it when it was a motorcycle and not a car—Sam wasn’t thinking very clearly at the moment. He slowly became aware of his headache again; the close fit of the helmet pressed against the tender spot on the back of his skull.
He closed his eyes, hoping that total darkness would help his headache a little. It was easier to forget the motorcycle this way too. With his eyes closed, the motorcycle gone, no car surrounding him, he pretended that he could fly again, and that was more of a comfort than anything else.
The night took on the unreal sensation of a dream. He was flying, and at some point he opened his eyes when they stopped and Bucky shook him; they walked for a while, but time seemed unreliable and he had no idea if he was dreaming or if he had been dreaming or what was going on, but he had reached that plateau of surprise and just rolled with it. They got on the bike again, and Sam was much less reluctant to grab Bucky this time. If he hadn’t been asleep before, he certainly would be now. He felt severely jetlagged. He had seen enough of combat stress to know that sometimes he needed to sleep, and sleep hard, if only for a little bit, and then he wouldn’t be okay, exactly, but…
Yes, Sam thought hazily, functional seemed to do nicely, and then he passed out.
Two years, five months after Siberia
Sam woke up still on the motorcycle, with a terrible crick in his neck from the way his head had been angled. He sat up slightly, pulling away from Bucky’s back, and rolled his tongue around inside his mouth, which felt cottony and unused.
It was still dark, with maybe a slight lightening to the sky that suggested that they were closer to very early morning than the middle of the night. The motorcycle was still going, though more slowly at the moment; they were passing through a town. Sam squinted at a sign as they went past, and felt a pleasant jolt when he recognized the language as German.
Well, they’d plainly made it to Austria, at least. Now that he was here, Sam could admit that he’d never actually thought that they would get this far.
Wide awake now, he searched for more clues as to where they were, and suddenly wondered if anyone had gotten their message about the gas station, understood it, and arrived—or would arrive—to whisk them off to the next stage of their grand escape. All the blind luck in the world wouldn’t save them if that wasn’t the case.
They stopped at a light, and Sam took the opportunity to ask, “Where are we?”
“Ravelsbach,” Bucky said, which meant nothing to Sam. He clarified by adding, “We’re going around Vienna. I’m just heading west, I don’t actually—I slept through part of that car ride from Albania.”
“Oh.” Sam thought for a second. “Follow signs towards Salzburg. I can direct you from there.”
On they went. They were still in the middle of their reckless rush; even though Sam was awake enough to appreciate their situation now, he didn’t panic. His nap had brought his emotions back to an even keel, it seemed, and he thought idly that if they were arrested now, even Ross would have to be impressed at the progress they’d made.
They rejoined the highway; Bucky apparently thought that speed was worth the risk, and Sam was inclined to agree with him. They needed to get to the gas station. If someone was there to get them, then they could get away that much sooner. If no one was, then it didn’t matter much anyway.
The motorcycle blended in with very-early-morning traffic, which wasn’t much, but Sam thought that the bleary-eyed drivers around them had bigger concerns than one more vehicle on the road beside them.
Bucky showed no signs of tiring, even though he’d been up late last night and done all the work getting them through the river. He remained as solid as ever, his grip firm on the bike’s handlebars. Aside from his brief collapse after Rhodes, he had handled this whole ordeal with a remarkably clear head, and Sam made a mental note to tell him so, regardless of whether they made it to the gas station or not.
Eventually he settled into quiet watchfulness, like he was waiting for the mission to officially start, lulled into that anticipation that was almost like calm by the regularity of the pavement under the motorcycle’s wheels. His whole lower body was numb by now, but he didn’t feel the pain yet. He watched the occasional police car amble by, their lights off, but didn’t panic; Bucky didn’t either, and the cruisers left them alone. They weren’t looking for the motorcycle, not yet, and maybe they still thought that Sam and Bucky were trapped in the Czech Republic. He vaguely thought that Bucky had made him walk earlier to get across the border.
The hour kept the roads clear and they made very good time. On the approach to Salzburg, Sam started giving directions—mostly pointing—based on the route he remembered them taking from Albania, the circuitous route meant to throw off any pursuers. He’d been the one to fiddle with Natasha’s exit strategy; it hadn’t felt so big or so easily screwed up at the time, maybe because he knew he was only slightly altering an expert’s recommendations.
He was so focused on getting each turn right that it was a shock to look up properly and see the mountains dimly in the distance, the gas station just down the stretch of road, lit up against the night. If there was someone manning the counter inside the wide windows, Sam couldn’t see them at the moment, but Bucky slowed the bike to a crawl and crept around the edge of the parking lot anyway.
He turned the engine off, and the sudden silence rang in Sam’s ears.
In disbelief, he slid off the bike. He bit down hard on a curse, grabbing hard at his thighs to brace himself; his legs were numb and it was hard to stand. He could tell that he was going to hurt a lot later. Sam hobbled into the grass and went to stand by the bench where they’d eaten those hamburgers, however long ago that was, and pulled off the helmet to set it down. His head was sweaty and the cool breeze sent a chill through his whole body. He found that he didn’t mind too much.
“We made it,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d actually make it.”
Bucky joined him. Even he was slightly stiff when he walked, and he’d taken off his helmet almost immediately too. His hair stuck to his forehead. “Me neither.”
“You did a great job of hiding it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Bucky said, nearly fond. He rubbed at the back of his neck and rolled his head around his shoulders. “We took turns propping each other up.”
“You got us through the river.”
“You outran the police getting us there, though.”
“It was your idea to rent the Skoda in the first place.”
“Only after you suggested that we split up.”
“You fried Tony and Rhodey’s suits,” Sam said, which he thought neatly summed up the matter.
“I wouldn’t have been able to if you hadn’t gotten that thing off,” Bucky pointed out.
“Look, man, we both know that I wouldn’t have gotten out of the city by myself in the first place.”
“Yeah, well,” Bucky said. “You kept me from losing my head on our way here, so I guess we’re even. It was much more difficult and so much easier having someone there.” He held out both hands, palms up, like he was weighing something between them.
“It still may not matter,” Sam said. “There’s no one else here except for some gas station clerk person, who could be calling the UN on us now.”
“Mmm.” Bucky did not seem too concerned with this. Perhaps he was also in the grip of this strange euphoria, where just getting this far was a gold-medal achievement in and of itself and capture seemed, in the moment, a distant concern.
“We made it,” Sam said again, an uncontrollable grin splitting his face. “Dude, we actually made it.” He held out one fist; Bucky bumped it gently with his own. “Goddamn, I almost want them to show up so we can rub this in their faces.”
“Guess I shouldn’t have come, then?” a familiar voice called from the edge of the trees, several dozen feet away, and Sam almost threw his helmet in that direction before it registered that—
“You son of a bitch!” he said, as loudly as he dared, and hurried across the field to meet Clint, his aching extremities completely forgotten. Clint sauntered out of the trees, all in dark clothes with his blond hair hidden under a knitted hat, but as Sam got closer, he could see how relieved he was, and he allowed Sam to pound him on the back, repeating, “You son of a bitch” until he could add, “Why’d you wait so long, man?”
“Hey, I wasn’t going to get in the way of that touching moment there,” Clint said, punching Sam on the arm. “I am not a moment-ruiner, Sam. I may have shed a tear.”
“You scared the hell out of me.”
“Okay, so maybe I am a bit of a moment-ruiner,” Clint conceded. “I couldn’t help it. Perfect opportunity.”
They’d been walking back towards the bench, where Bucky had collapsed, apparently not caring that he’d just spent literally hours on a motorcycle. His helmet dangled from one hand between his legs. He looked up at them when they got close; where relief had lifted Sam up, giving him a burst of new energy, it had knocked Bucky flat. He didn’t seem to have anything to say.
“In all seriousness,” Clint said, looking between them, “you scared the hell out of me. It’s been a long day and you wouldn’t believe the meltdowns I’ve had to put up with. We all thought you were goners more than once.”
“So did we,” Sam said. “So can we go? Now?”
“Yeah, I have a car back there.” Clint jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “We need to move that, though,” he said, nodding at the bike.
“I figured,” Bucky said.
Clint looked at him strangely. “Are you sick?” he asked. “What’s wrong with your—is that—what happened?” He sounded shocked and truly concerned, leaning closer for a second to squint at the dark bruise around Bucky’s throat.
Bucky waved him off. “Later.”
“Right, fine. Just get back on the road. I’ll take Sam with me and we’ll catch up to you, find some place to hide it in the woods or something. It’s a black BMW.”
Bucky tapped two fingers to his forehead in a salute and went back towards the bike immediately. Clint towed Sam in the other direction, back into the trees; Bucky was pulling out of the parking lot by the time they made it.
It wasn’t a far walk, and Sam and Clint didn’t have much to say on the way. Sam couldn’t see a thing, it was still so dark, but the forest seemed oddly tame and he only stumbled a few times. They came out the other side to find the black BMW, as promised, pulled off on the side of the road. It was long and sleek, crouched by the bushes, and Sam was delighted to see that it had tinted windows.
“It’s T’Challa’s,” Clint explained, unlocking the doors with a subtle, refined beep-beep.
“Yeah, you can thank him when we get to the airport. Get in the back, I want to pretend to be a limo driver.”
This certainly wasn’t the real reason, but Sam didn’t protest. He slid into the expensive interior and relaxed for the first time in what felt like years. He pulled off Steve’s bag and dropped it into the middle seat. He didn’t feel at all tired.
Clint got them back onto the road. They caught up to Bucky quickly, and Clint flashed his lights to catch his attention. They went down the road a bit farther, and then Clint pulled over and got out. Bucky walked the bike into the trees, Clint rearranged some bushes, and then they came back. Clint made Bucky get into the back too, and Sam realized that they were both still holding their helmets.
“Guess we don’t need these anymore,” he said, rubbing at a smear on the shiny plastic with his thumb.
“I hope not.” Bucky swapped his helmet out for Steve’s bag, his fingers digging deep into the battered faux leather.
“Where are we going?”
“A private airport an hour and a half from here,” Clint replied. “Which is fine, because our plane won’t even get there for”—he squinted at the clock on the dashboard—“well, we don’t want to get there early. They’re flying back from Latvia right now.”
“What’s in Latvia?” Sam asked, startled.
“Natasha, Bruce, and Steve. Wanda and the others went to get them as soon as they touched down in Zurich.”
“I thought that—ah—Wanda was shadowing Sharon Carter,” Bucky said, sitting up slightly.
“Yeah,” Clint said, clearly not following.
“What does Sharon Carter have to do with gunrunners in Zurich?”
“Gunrunners?” Clint repeated blankly. He realized his mistake a second too late.
“So it wasn’t gunrunners,” Bucky said, accusing.
“Well, look, I’d tell you,” Clint said quickly, “but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It’s a pretty great surprise, okay? And Scott and Wanda planned this whole thing and—we did it for Steve.”
He had obviously cottoned on to the fact that Steve was the magic word for Bucky, who sat back again, tightening his grip on the bag in his lap. He was still suspicious, but he was reconsidering his position, and Sam stepped in quickly to distract all of them; he thought that it was a little rude to conduct an inquisition on their rescuer after a bare five minutes in the car.
“I know it’s a long shot, but do you have any food in here? All I’ve eaten since breakfast yesterday was two energy bars.” His stomach wasn’t growling, but now that he was relatively safe and able to focus on it, he couldn’t ignore the hollow, piercing pains. They’d done a lot of crazy stunts on not many calories.
Clint grinned. “No food in here, but I might be able to help,” he said. “What’s all this about hamburgers? Wanda sent me your message and I had to figure out how to get ahold of Steve before we knew what the hell it meant—or, well, enough to get the address of this place.”
“European hamburgers,” Sam said. “I think I—” He wasn’t sure if Bucky wanted to know that they’d talked about him behind his back, so he stopped in the middle of reminding Clint that he’d mentioned this to him, somewhat vaguely, just after Bucky cut his hair. “They taste really weird. We had them here.”
“Then I am about to make your night,” Clint said. “I can’t believe you didn’t think of McDonalds, Wilson. You want a real hamburger, you go to McDonald’s.”
“The golden arches?” Sam was torn between amusement and incredulity: he hadn’t had McDonalds in years, even before he became a fugitive.
“Trust me. I’d probably have to get you McDonald’s anyway because this is Europe and nothing except American fast food chains are open at this time of night, but at least now I know I’m doing you a favor.” Clint sounded very pleased with himself.
Bucky drew in a breath, probably to resume the attack, but Sam managed to catch his eye and he stopped. “Dr. Banner is coming back?” he asked instead.
“I don’t know what Nat and Steve said to him, but it worked, whatever it was.”
Natasha was coming back. That’s what Clint said and Sam heard. Sam found himself grinning and didn’t stifle it. He’d missed her, her dry commentary and competence and pretty smile. He’d missed all of them. With that same sense of disconnect that he’d felt yesterday afternoon looking back on the beer and the Indian food, he sat here now, on the other side of the hopeless situation that they’d faced not an hour ago. He was tipsy on relief and joy.
“That’s great,” he said. “I can’t wait to get to know him better.” He’d met Banner very briefly at the party where Ultron was born, before he left to go chase down another useless lead on the man who had been Bucky Barnes.
He got lost in another disconnect there, between the Sam Wilson on that day and the one here now, and almost before he knew it Clint was pulling into a drive-through, the golden arches glowing above the small building. Now he knew why Clint had insisted on putting them in the back: so that anyone who talked to him through the driver’s side window was less likely to get a look at their faces.
Clint spoke very good German, and he could be quite charming when he put his mind to it. Even though it sounded like he ordered half the menu, the girl in the window didn’t seem to mind the hassle. Sam could hear her voice through the open window, cheerful and remarkably alert for this hour. Eventually, she handed a couple of brown paper bags through to Clint, who set them in the empty passenger seat, and then three large drinks. It all smelled amazing.
“You got enough to feed a small army,” he said, reaching forward to grab one of the bags.
“Anything we don’t eat, the guys on the plane will, I guarantee it,” Clint said with a shrug. “It’s an investment. I got ten Big Macs—everybody loves the Big Mac—and a bunch of fries and she said there was ketchup in there somewhere. I also got Coke,” he added, pointing to the drinks in the cup holders up front. “Pass me some fries and I’ll trade you.”
“No fries, no drink, huh?” Sam fished out a cardboard container of fries and handed a Big Mac box to Bucky.
“Damn straight.” Clint accepted the fries and gestured to the drinks with his elbow, settling the fry box in his lap. “Straws are probably in one of the bags somewhere.”
They weren’t in the one that Sam had grabbed. He shoved a handful of fries into his mouth—crunchy, salty, still warm from the fryer, and possibly the best thing Sam had ever eaten in his entire life—and snagged the other bag to look inside. He found the three white tubes and put one in each cup, taking a big drink from his. God, it was good. He couldn’t tell if he was just starving or if he’d really been craving junky fast food. Maybe it was a bit of both.
Bucky had already demolished his first burger, but he kindly gave Sam the next box. Sam popped the lid and looked down at the achingly familiar bun and patty combo, feeling a similar combination of fondness and security to standing in that Hertz with NCIS playing on the TV in the corner.
The Big Mac tasted just like he remembered. “McDonald’s,” he said with his mouth full, unable to stop himself. “I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I didn’t remember it.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Clint said, crunching on fries. “Yeah, it’s fast food, but the whole point of a fast food franchise is for the food to taste basically the same no matter where you go. It’s the ultimate comfort food.”
He’d turned his anti-bullshit powers on food. Sam wasn’t surprised.
Talking seemed mostly like a waste of precious burger-eating time, but Sam turned to Bucky after finishing his first Big Mac. “So? What’s the verdict?”
Bucky quirked one eyebrow and took a drink before he answered. “Not bad,” he said, but Sam could tell that he was low-balling on purpose.
“Better than that stuff,” Sam said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder as he spoke. He searched around in the bag for another box.
“That’s not a fair comparison. I know it was labeled as a hamburger, but that’s just semantics.”
“So you’d disqualify it from the competition because it was only technically speaking a hamburger—”
“Right. It had bread and lettuce and ham—although—wait,” Bucky said, peeling back the bun on his current Big Mac and glaring at the patty like it had betrayed him. “It’s beef, right?”
“Yeah, what’s that about?” Clint said from the front seat. “Ham is pigs. If there’s ham in this hamburger I’m going to—”
“Maybe the hamburger is from Germany?” Sam suggested. “Like, it was invented in Hamburg or something and then they added the –er to the end for… reasons.”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said thoughtfully.
“Wikipedia will know,” Clint said. “I’ll look it up when I’m not driving.”
After that, they didn’t have much time for talking. Left to his own devices, Bucky ate three burgers and three portions of fries. Sam had two and one box of fries. Clint accepted a Big Mac when Sam passed him one and they collected the leftovers in one bag to take on the plane with them.
On the plane. Sam felt a sudden surge of excitement, his heart speeding up. Here in the car with Clint was one thing, but on T’Challa’s plane with all of his friends was a whole new level of safe. And he’d get to see Natasha, Wanda, Tic-Tac, Steve—
Clint’s phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and propped it between his ear and his shoulder. “Yeah?” He stayed quiet for a moment, listening, and then said, “Yep, everything’s all set on this end. Same time, same place?” Another pause. “Okay. See you then.” He hung up and slipped the phone back into his coat pocket. “They just landed,” he said.
“How much longer?” Sam asked, leaning forward so that he could see the clock, not that this would actually help him in any way. He did find out that it was 3:57 in the morning.
Clint, meanwhile, glanced at the road signs. “Fifteen minutes, tops.”
A lot could go wrong in fifteen minutes, as he and Bucky had found out repeatedly on their long trip here. Sam’s nerves had been calm for a while now, but they came back in force—he more than half-expected Tony or Rhodes or somebody to come swooping out of the sky to catch them on the final stretch. Their whole journey through Austria had been remarkably trouble-free, and Sam suddenly couldn’t see how that could keep on being the case.
They were going to get caught before they reached the airstrip, and then Clint would be locked up too and it would be lucky if T’Challa’s plane took off fast enough to save the rest of them. Some of his earlier exhaustion crept back over his shoulders—and his earlier headache.
Clint did not seem bothered, and if Bucky was thinking along the same lines, he didn’t show it. He hung on tightly to Steve’s bag, but he’d been doing that ever since he finished eating. Every so often his hands would clench and then relax.
It seemed like a miracle to Sam’s fatalistic thoughts, but he spotted signs for an airport (the ubiquitous airplane silhouette) and Clint took the correct exit without being suddenly surrounded by cops and helicopters and Secretary Ross himself. The airport itself was almost completely dark at this time of night; he wondered if T’Challa had woken the staff out of their beds or if they kept a skeleton crew there at all hours. He didn’t actually know anything about private airports.
The airstrip lights were on, though—it was dark enough that he could see them clearly, even from the car—and some of the windows in the main building were lit up. The five or so hangars were hulking shapes in the dark. T’Challa’s plane was dark too, next to one of those hangars, but its outline was sleek and clean and Sam could see its wheels by the lights on the underside.
Clint drove the car through the gate in the chain-link fence, which someone had thoughtfully left open, and went to park next to the hangar, cool and calm as an actual limo driver. Sam was closest to the plane, so he got a good look at its various lights as they powered back on; they’d been seen.
Still in disbelief that they were really here, Sam got out of the car into the cool night air, clutching the McDonalds bag in one hand. T’Challa’s plane had a very sophisticated set of steps that unfolded from the door when it was swung down, and warm golden light spilled out of that gap as it got wider.
Steve tumbled out to the ground almost before the steps were fully in place. Even in the bad light, Sam could see that he was pale with stress. He fairly flew over to Sam and pulled him into a crushing hug; they could have been back on the Raft again after Steve got the cell doors open. Sam hugged him back briefly, hampered slightly by the McDonald’s bag.
Quickly, Steve stepped away, pushing him back to arm’s length. “I was worried,” he said, a little sheepish.
“If it makes you feel any better, I was worried too,” Sam said. He was pleased when that made Steve laugh.
“I leave for a few days,” Steve said, working hard to make a joke in return, but it fell apart under him almost immediately. “Sam, I’m so sorry, I—”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Sam interrupted. Of course Steve would find some way to feel guilty about this, of course he would. “They would’ve found out where we were the minute we took out that dirty Interpol agent in Paris. It’s better it was just the two of us.”
That reminded Steve, or gave him permission to look around like he’d wanted to. Sam looked too: Bucky had come around the car and was just standing there, Steve’s bag dangling loosely from one hand. He looked knocked flat again, like relief was exhausting.
Sam got out of the way and Bucky took his place immediately, dropping the satchel on the ground and barreled into his own crushing hug. They held each other for longer than Sam and Steve had, and when Steve stood back to see him better, he didn’t go as far and kept his hands on Bucky’s shoulders.
“Buck, I,” he began, strangled, and then his whole body tightened in concern. He’d spotted the bruises. “What—?” He reached out to touch Bucky’s throat with the tips of his fingers. “Are you—?”
Bucky flinched back, planting his metal palm against Steve’s sternum to get him a full arm’s length away. It was so sudden and unexpected that they all jumped, and Steve let his arms fall limply to his sides, shock warring with worry and hurt on his face.
“Does it hurt?” Steve asked after a moment, in his quietest and most non-judgmental way.
Bucky didn’t reply at first. His eyes flickered all over Steve’s face and he breathed fast and shallow; he didn’t take his hand off of Steve’s chest, keeping him at bay.
Clint sidled up next to Sam, just as intent on what was going on in front of them, but worry creased his forehead. It occurred to Sam that he might be worried that Bucky might snap and attack Steve—he had no evidence that this was the case, but he bristled anyway, and automatically started drafting an angry response: How dare you, he’d never hurt Steve, they got all that stuff out of his head, and anyway you heard what he said to me in the kitchen all those—
“I thought I wanted to be like you,” Bucky said to Steve, focused so completely on him that he seemed to have forgotten that Sam and Clint were still there. “I thought it would be best for everybody, but I can’t, Steve, I can’t do that.” He was desperate, pleading for Steve to understand something that was eluding everybody except Bucky himself. “I tried but I don’t—I don’t want—” Words failed him entirely; he struggled with them but nothing else came out.
Devastation swept across Steve’s face. He ducked his head fast, studying the pavement between his shoes, but Sam saw it. He knew they all saw it. “I understand,” he said, but in the face of this his ironclad composure slipped, and they could hear how he really felt.
“Damn it, Steve, that’s not—!” Bucky burst out, frustrated back into speech, and then gave up. He relaxed his rigid arm, came close, tipped Steve’s chin up, and kissed him.
Sam’s brain ranged from Whoa! Zero to one hundred with no warning! to banners and confetti. He glanced fast at Clint, who blinked quickly, but that was basically the extent of his reaction; his face remained pretty much the same.
Steve’s hands came up to hover around Bucky’s waist, but that seemed automatic, and he didn’t have time for much else before Bucky broke the kiss and backed away out of reach.
“You always wait too long,” he explained, winded and pleading again. “I couldn’t—I’m—that’s it,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to say.” He had gotten himself within reach of the satchel again, and he snatched at it blindly. “That’s it,” he said again. He set off toward the plane, leaving all of them gaping in his wake.
Well. Sam and Clint were gaping, maybe a little. Steve stared out at nothing, his arms still half-raised. He looked like he was connecting a lot of dots all at once. Abruptly, he snapped back into the present, spun on his heel, and called, “Bucky!”
Still some feet from the plane door, Bucky turned around. From the expression on his face, he expected the worst, especially when he took in how fast Steve was walking. He started to say something, but Steve reached him first, pulling him close to kiss him back.
Bucky jumped and dropped the bag. Steve just held him closer, though, and they stood like that for a moment. Sam thought that he could see Bucky’s fingers curl into Steve’s shirt, by his ribs.
Clint was definitely trying to catch his eye by now, though, so Sam let him. He tilted one eyebrow in a silent question: Did you see this coming?
Sam let his grin speak for itself, because he was pretty sure that the confetti and cakes and ticker-tape parades with banners saying SAM WILSON WAS RIGHT came through quite neatly that way.
In the distance, he heard Steve ask quietly, “Okay?”
“Uh,” Bucky said eloquently. “Okay. Yes.” He laughed. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed. He stepped away from Bucky and picked up his satchel from the pavement, swinging it over his shoulder with the ease of long practice. “We should go,” he called to Clint and Sam, still standing by the car. His face was a little flushed but otherwise he was his normal self.
“Good idea,” Sam said, giving him a thumbs-up. He trusted Steve to understand all the levels of that gesture.
Wanda poked her head out the door. “Are we leaving or not?” she asked. She was pretending to be strict but a smile kept breaking through. She beamed at Sam when he looked at her.
“Yes,” Steve said, and went up the stairs past her.
“Who do I give these keys to?” Clint asked. He held up the BMW’s keys in front of him like an offering and eventually gave them to Wanda.
Sam followed him up to the plane. Bucky was still standing there, looking stunned. He blinked at Sam and said, “I didn’t expect that to happen.”
“I did,” Sam said, letting himself sound as smug as he felt. “I am going to take the opportunity to say: I told you so.”
“Well,” Bucky said, but he couldn’t honestly refute this, so he retreated back into slightly dazed silence.
Sam grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Is this a rescue mission?” Wanda scolded them, but she was still smiling, so Sam hugged her when he got to the door.
“Thank you,” he said in a low voice.
“I’m just glad that I got to you in time.” Wanda squeezed his forearm and waved him in so that she could throw her arms around Bucky. Sam had to try really hard not to laugh at Bucky’s bewilderment; he patted her awkwardly on the back, evidently not quite sure what to do with her.
All three of them had to squeeze out of the way of one of T’Challa’s attendants, the BMW’s keys in her hand. Then Sam got his first good look at the inside of the plane.
It was designed with that understated elegance that Sam had come to associate with Wakanda: obviously expensive but flaunting it only in that chump change couldn’t possibly buy leather seats that soft and in that perfect cream, or the calming natural lights hidden into the cleverly-fitted faux-wood interior. The seats were arranged in groups of two or four, with tables bolted to the floor between them. Sam could glimpse a galley area at the back with what looked like a very expensive kitchen.
The people in the plane took up most of his attention, though. Scott Lang bounced up almost immediately, just as scruffy and twitchy as he’d ever been. He pounded Sam on the back. “Hey, man!” he said. “That was—holy shit, dude. We were freaking out the whole way here.”
“I told you that watching the news wouldn’t make things any easier,” said the woman sitting next to the chair that Scott had just vacated. She stood up smoothly and smiled slightly at Sam. Her dark hair was cut in a chin-length bob and she stood like a fighter. “Hope Van Dyne,” she said, sticking out a hand for Sam to shake. “I haven’t had the pleasure.”
“Sam Wilson,” he said. Her grip was firm and dry. “So you’re the famous Wasp we’ve been hearing so much about.”
Hope smiled modestly, but he could see that she was pleased.
Natasha came up next, giving him a rare true smile. Sam was slightly surprised when she hugged him too; she usually wasn’t very demonstrative, not outside the parameters of a cover and a job. “You had me concerned for a minute there,” she said, which Sam took to mean that she’d been worried sick.
“I had someone looking out for me,” he said lightly. “I missed you, Nat.”
She let him have another true smile. She was very happy, then. “Sam, I think you met Dr. Banner?” She produced Banner as if out of thin air: a rumpled man, his glasses askew on his face.
Banner hunched his shoulders and shrunk in on himself. Sam recognized the symptoms of someone trying to appear smaller than they really were. Banner stood firmly by Natasha’s side, though, his body oriented towards her. “Maybe for ten seconds,” Banner said with a sheepish smile. He held out a hand for Sam to shake. “I’m not much of a party person.”
“Nice to meet you again, then,” Sam said, smiling at him to show that he wasn’t a threat.
Behind him, the door shut with a slight hiss. Banner’s eyes flicked to it; his expression tightened for a moment, until Natasha let her fingers brush against the back of his hand, and he let the tension drop from his shoulders. Trying to push away the moment, he looked over Sam’s shoulder and said, “Bruce Banner.”
“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky replied, sounding slightly surprised.
“Oh,” Bruce said. He almost smiled for a second. “No, I know who you are.” He must have read something on Bucky’s face—Sam couldn’t turn around fast enough to see—because he quickly added, “Yeah, big fan. I had a Bucky Bear.”
Sam could see Bucky’s face now; he blinked, nonplussed, and looked to Sam.
“They were a thing,” Sam explained. “It was a teddy bear, but—I dunno. I never had one.”
“Huh,” Bucky said, obviously unsure how to handle this piece of information.
The speakers came to life. They were so high quality that at first Sam thought the person speaking was in the room with them. “Please resume your seats for takeoff,” the polite, accented voice said.
There was some confusion as everyone tried to do this, and Sam found himself facing the last member of the party: King T’Challa himself, calm and gracious. “Sam, Bucky,” he said warmly. “It is a pleasure to have you both on board.”
“Thank you,” Sam said, for both of them. “I don’t know how—thank you. We never would’ve made it without you.”
T’Challa waved one hand. “Think nothing of it.” He gestured them to a couple of empty seats and sat across from them. He was dressed casually in a pair of dark jeans and a black V-neck sweater. “It was the least I could do.”
“You put yourself at risk,” Bucky said.
The king frowned at him, ever so slightly. “Do you require some medical attention?” he asked. “My attendants are all quite—”
“No, thank you,” Bucky said shortly. “It’s just a bruise.”
“He can talk now,” Sam told T’Challa, hoping to reassure him that Bucky was healing steadily, at least. “It was much worse yesterday.”
T’Challa inclined his head and didn’t push. They sat in silence as the plane accelerated and then leveled out, rising into the air.
Sam’s heart lifted at the same time as he was pushed back into the seat—this was it, they were free. Wakandan technology would keep the plane hidden. They had officially escaped Tony and Rhodes and Ross and the UN and every other person who had been looking for them over the past day. He breathed out and his head thumped against the back of the seat.
“We will take sanctuary in Wakanda,” T’Challa said. “After Secretary Ross’s last visit, I have made sure that there can be no extradition from within my borders. My people fully support this.”
“Thank you,” Bucky said, and Sam could tell that they both found the words inadequate.
T’Challa smiled. “My father would have approved,” he said. “There are some principles to which a people must stand firm, or else lose all claim to dignity. This is justice, and I will not compromise on justice.”
Luckily, before Sam or Bucky had to think of something else inadequate to say to this, the plane had leveled out enough for Scott to leap back out of his seat, too wound up to stay where he was. “Okay, so I know you guys have a story that we’d all like to hear,” he said, nodding at them, “but it’s just going to have to wait, because I’ve been sitting on this for literally hours and I think we could all use a pick-me-up after what we’ve just been is that McDonald’s?”
Sam realized that he was still holding onto the takeout bag. “Yeah, you want some fries?” He held it out over the aisle.
“I do!” Wanda said eagerly. She snatched the bag from Sam’s hand with her powers and opened it up over her lap. She crunched into a handful of fries with her eyes closed.
“Okay,” Scott said, regrouping. “Yeah. So—what was I saying?”
“You’re trying to tell us what we were all up to these past few months.” Clint leaned his chair back and crossed his arms over his stomach. All that was missing was a tub of popcorn.
“The thing that wasn’t gunrunners,” Bucky muttered.
Clint heard him. “I was kind of a gunrunner,” he said, sounding quite pleased with his new job title.
“Whoa, whoa, hey, no spoiling!” Scott said, waving his arms around. “I want to start at the beginning! You’re skipping ahead!”
“And you’re not getting anywhere,” Hope pointed out, dryly amused. “Wanda contacted us,” she began. “We were dealing with some big-time crooks using small-time methods—”
Scott, grinning, helpfully held his thumb and his finger about a centimeter apart.
“—and she wanted to know if we could help her with something similar.” Hope’s eyes, lingering on Scott’s antics, betrayed just how much she liked him.
“I had an idea,” Wanda said shyly. She covered her mouth with her fingers until she finished chewing. “I had it a while ago but there was no opportunity to do anything about it. But then I was watching Sharon”—her gaze flickered to where Steve sat with Natasha and Bruce—“and I thought it was worth asking the experts if they thought it was plausible.”
Expert, Scott mouthed, pointing at himself.
“Experts in what?” Sam asked. He couldn’t stop himself from smiling—Tic Tac was contagious.
“Extraction,” Hope said briskly, at the same time Scott said, like he was narrating a movie trailer, “Heists.”
“Clint told me about what they did at CrossTech,” Wanda explained. “So I knew Scott and Hope were our best chance.”
“She’s a true mastermind,” Scott said, beaming at Wanda. “She had most of the plan figured out before we even got there.”
“It would be tricky with just the three of us, though,” Hope said, “especially because we wanted to escape here afterwards.”
“Sharon was never going to betray us,” Wanda said to the plane as a whole, not really disguising that it was a comment directed at Steve. “She wanted out, but she is not a traitor. I knew that within a couple of weeks. So we were always going to run.”
She’d stayed longer than that couple of weeks, then, to plan and carry out this mysterious heist. Wanda Maximoff: a woman of many hidden depths. “What were you stealing?” Sam asked, fighting back a laugh. “The Declaration of Independence?”
“That’s the big reveal, man!” Scott said. “Wanda got in touch with Clint and told him what we were planning, and he figured out how to contact T’Challa.”
“Who was more than happy to help out,” Clint said.
“I had been trying to think of another way to deal with the precise problem that Miss Maximoff has so cleverly solved,” T’Challa said. “Her solution was both more practical and symbolically superior.”
At that, Bucky shot him a sharp glance, eyebrows pulled together, but the conversation crashed on around him and Sam didn’t have a chance to ask.
“They were our getaway drivers,” Scott said cheerfully. “We were like Ocean’s Eleven! Or Ocean’s Five. Maximoff’s Five? What do you think is—”
“The diplomatic trip was the perfect cover,” Hope continued. “T’Challa brought the plane and a few other items and we were more or less ready. We waited for Clint to get in position in Zurich and then it was a matter of waiting for the right moment.”
“At first, we thought it was lucky that Stark and Rhodes left,” Wanda said, more subdued.
“Stark?” Steve said, speaking up for the first time. “What does—did you raid the Compound?” Always tactically minded, he’d gotten there before the rest of them.
“I think I know why,” Bucky said quietly, and if Scott had been disappointed at Steve’s intuition, it was nothing to the look on his face now. “You stole back the shield, didn’t you?”
“That’s,” Steve began, but either Scott’s desolate expression or Clint’s grin clued him in to the truth, and he shut up fast. He sucked in a quick breath like he’d been punched.
“Holy shit you did,” Sam blurted out, his chest rising on a bubble. “You did, you—why didn’t you tell me?” he said, twisting around to look at Clint. “Dude, I would’ve given you two thumbs up, ten thumbs up—”
“How did you know?” Scott whined, turning the full force of his thwarted reveal on Bucky. “Clint said he never told you!”
“I’m a tape recorder,” Bucky said seriously.
Nobody seemed to know what to make of this—Scott actually looked at Hope like she might understand—but Sam suddenly started laughing. It was a much nicer giggle fit than the one in the Skoda. That was when he knew that everything would be all right. “The practicality lecture and the symbolic lecture, huh?” he said.
“I wondered if T’Challa was going to build a new one,” Bucky said to the rest of the plane. “The only thing better than a new version is the right one.” His cheeks were twitching, and after a moment he gave up and allowed himself to smile, full and real. It transformed his face. “That’s great,” he said. “That’s brilliant.”
“You would never get it for yourself,” Wanda told Steve. She held herself hesitantly, like she was afraid that his shock would turn to disappointment in her. “But I thought—we all thought, obviously—that you are worthy of it. We wanted you to know,” she took a deep breath, “that just because Stark says something doesn’t mean it’s true, even in his own mind.”
“Security was—weird.” Scott had finally forgotten about his non-reveal, and now he looked at Steve earnestly. “Tony Stark knows that we’re with you. He could have made that vault impenetrable, but this was much easier than the CrossTech job.”
“He didn’t lay out a red carpet, but he left holes,” Hope added. “He had to know that it was possible for us to get in.”
Steve stared at them. “I made a deal,” he said finally. “If saving—if all of this”—he waved vaguely around the cabin—“means I’m not worthy to carry that shield, then it’s a trade I’m willing to make. A shield is not worth—any of you.” He’d regained some of his certainty, his firmness as he said it.
Sam was quite sick of trades and deals, and he’d opened his mouth to say so when Natasha suddenly butted in.
“But that’s exactly why you should have it, Steve,” she said, leaning forward to rest her hand on top of his. “That choice proves it.” She smiled at him when he looked at her, pure Natasha, no acting. “You put people first, always. You protect them. And that’s exactly what Howard Stark designed that shield to do. You know it, we know it—even Tony knows it, as stubborn as he is.” Her smile slipped towards sadness. “I guess he can let go of his ego after all.”
“Bucky Bear may have ruined the big reveal, but this is still pretty cool,” Scott announced. He pulled something from his pocket, turned it over in his palm, then hit it with one of his little flying disks. The shield popped into view, just the same as it had been all those long months ago, down to the scratches T’Challa’s claws had gouged in the surface. Scott held it out. “I believe this is yours, Captain America.”
Steve looked at each of them in turn, bewildered by the level of belief and trust implied by this gesture. Sam remembered Bucky’s voice—please don’t tell me that you’re still this dumb about this—and made sure that, when it was his turn to meet Steve’s eyes, all of his own respect and fondness showed. He hoped that a little of the just take it or I’ll hit you made it through as well.
Bucky got the last glance, and Sam made sure that he wasn’t looking when it happened; he was on the edge of that secret grove again, and he’d rather not be the elephant this time around.
Bucky’s silent communication was either very persuasive or simply the period at the end of the sentence. Steve got up, said, rather choked up, “Thank you, everyone,” and took the shield from Scott’s hands.
It seemed like there was a tiny explosion on the plane, even though nobody clapped or even cheered much or did anything cheesy like that. But the building tension snapped like a rubber band, and that, if nothing else, felt like it lightened the whole plane. Even T’Challa grinned like a child.
“Ah-ah!” Scott said, holding up an admonishing finger—forestalling what, who knew. “I’m the fairy godmother today and I have one more gift to bestow.” He ruined his grand delivery somewhat by frowning and saying, “Bestow, right?” He shrugged, pushing the momentary confusion away, and turned to meet Sam’s eyes.
“Wait a moment,” Sam said, his heart thundering fast. He didn’t dare to hope—but there was Steve with his shield—
“Never let it be said that I forget a bro, bro,” Scott said solemnly. He put something else on his palm and in a moment, like the fairy godmother he claimed to be, he was holding Sam’s wings, hugging them to his chest to keep from dropping them.
Sam jumped to his feet. “You didn’t!” he said. He rushed over and Scott obligingly gave him the jetpack. Sam ran his fingers over the straps, the metal contours, the goggles thoughtfully tucked against the underside. To his surprise, he found that he was near tears. “Hell, Tic Tac,” he said. “I didn’t get you anything.”
“Ah, well, I owed you,” Scott said. “You know, for that whole—uh, you know. That thing. That I am talking about.”
“You’re the best fairy godmother,” Sam said. “You should put that on your business cards.” His wings were awkward to hold tight in his arms, but he didn’t plan on letting them go any time soon. As soon as they landed in Wakanda—he pictured himself putting the jetpack back on, unfurling the wings, flying, truly flying, for the first time in years.
“When did you get all this?” Natasha asked, turning around in her seat to ask Wanda.
“We waited until we were sure that Stark and Rhodes were gone.” Hesitantly, Wanda held out the McDonald’s bag to Bruce. They studied each other for a moment, and then Bruce took a handful of fries for himself. “The actual theft took less time than we were expecting because of the holes in Stark’s security, which turned out to be very lucky.” She reached up to run a hand through her hair and stopped short to dust the salt off her fingers. “Vision found me.”
Clint swung his chair into an upright position with a thunk. “Vision found you? Wanda?”
“It’s all right,” she insisted, sticking her chin out. “I could have stopped him if I wanted to. But he had a message for me.” She dusted her hands together again, almost absently, like she’d forgotten that she’d already done it. “He didn’t try to stop us, even though he could have, because he knew right where I was. Somehow he found out where Stark was going and why, and he came straight to me to let me know. He said”—her voice trembled slightly—“that there were some consequences that he couldn’t bear to see. He didn’t want to hurt me any more.”
Sam wondered if Vision had come to some conclusions about his feelings for Wanda during their long separation. It had been a day for romance—and for some reason, that almost made Sam laugh again. To stop himself, he said, “That’s how you knew. I was wondering.”
Wanda nodded. “I called the first number I could think of. I just hoped that it was on and near someone. Then we finished packing up the plane and left for Zurich as fast as possible. T’Challa thought that the jet would be the best option for a final escape.”
“We will land in Wakanda in a couple of hours,” T’Challa informed them. He stood up. “Much as I can appreciate French fries, I also have more refined options available here.”
The consensus on food was a resounding yes, so T’Challa went to the back of the plane to prepare it or order some assistants to prepare it or whatever, followed closely by Banner, who Sam suspected wanted a legitimate reason to pace. Natasha followed him with her eyes, but trusted him enough to leave him alone.
Steve took T’Challa’s empty seat, carefully setting the shield down next to him. His fingers lingered briefly on its smooth edge. “I don’t know what to think about today anymore,” he said.
“Me neither.” Sam hesitated, then finally decided that he’d look silly cradling his wings in his arms for the rest of the flight and put them in the empty seat across from him, flopping back down next to Bucky with a sigh. “Honestly, it stopped feeling real around—maybe that Hertz Rent-A-Car in Brno? Or maybe after you threw us off that bridge?”
Steve’s eyes tightened. “I was worried you were,” he began, but didn’t have the strength to finish that sentence.
“If I’m gonna be honest,” Clint said, clearly bored with just eavesdropping on their conversation, “I think I had the hardest job today. Really!” he insisted to three incredulous stares. “You two just had to run around as fast as possible, but I had to figure out what the hell that hamburger clue even meant, find a way to contact Natasha as fast as possible and persuade her to join us immediately, reroute this plane all over Europe without raising too many red flags, and deal with Captain Panic here when you two came over all suicidal. It’s hard work!”
“Really puts our suffering into perspective, doesn’t it, Sam?” Bucky asked, with just the barest quirk of one eyebrow.
“I thought that getting away from the UN and the Avengers was hard, but now I see that we had it easy.”
“Probably one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a while, in retrospect.”
“I don’t even know why I try,” Clint said. He pointed between Sam and Bucky with an accusing finger. “I regret ever telling you guys to get along, because you’re a menace.” Then he grinned and gave them a thumb’s-up. “Thank god for teamwork,” he said, and loped a few rows down to sit with Wanda, Scott, and Hope, who were demolishing the last of the Big Macs.
“Are you all right?” Steve asked Bucky quietly.
Bucky rubbed at his throat. “I’ll be okay. It probably looks worse than it is.”
Given that the edges were starting to turn all sorts of colors, this was quite possible. “You sound a lot better now than you did at first,” Sam said, to reassure Steve the way that he’d reassured T’Challa.
Steve didn’t drop it, though. “What happened?” he asked; this seemed to be just for appearances, though, because he almost immediately followed it up with, “It was Tony, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t really his fault,” Bucky said. He was restless, wouldn’t look at anyone.
“He tried to kill you, Bucky! How can that not really be his fault?” It was a miracle that Steve could speak at all through that clenched jaw. “If he ever comes near you again, I’ll—”
“I goaded him, all right? I said some terrible things. I don’t blame him. Steve.” Bucky kicked Steve’s ankle, jolting him out of the anger spiral. “I know you refuse to admit it, but I did those things, Steve.”
“It wasn’t—” Steve said mutinously.
Bucky cut him off. “Regardless, it was my hands that did it, and he has a right to feel the way he does.” He rubbed at his throat again. “I left the notebook behind.”
“The one you’ve been working on?” Steve asked, hesitant, and Sam remembered that Steve didn’t actually have a concrete idea of what was in it.
“If he reads it, he’ll know my side of things. If he still wants to—after that, then he’ll at least have most of the information.” Bucky let his head rest against the back of the seat. “Honestly?” he said, voice cracking slightly. “I’m just tired.”
“I had my catnap,” Sam said. He didn’t want to get in the way of the soft look on Steve’s face, so he got up and stretched theatrically. “I’m going to go see what T’Challa has in his kitchen back there. Watch my wings.”
“I will,” Steve said.
“I mean it, Rogers! Don’t let them out of your sight!”
Steve laughed at him. “I think I can manage that.”
The circle between the Indian food last night and now complete, Sam felt confident enough to say, “I think you need to sit right here”—he pointed at his own now-empty seat—“so they’re right in your eye-line.”
“You don’t trust me?” Steve asked, playing innocent despite the flush working its way up his neck.
Sam glanced pointedly at Bucky, who was right in Steve’s current eye-line. “I don’t trust you not to get distracted, Rogers, and this plane is full of thieves.”
“Last thing I ever do for you, man!” Scott yelled, to general laughter.
Bucky shot Sam horrified looks that strongly implied please and no and why are you doing this to me and I trusted you, but Sam knew that he’d get over it and he would personally feel a lot better if those two had a chance to start a conversation. So he held firm, ignored Bucky, and raised his eyebrows at Steve, who did move over to sit next to him.
“If anyone touches those wings except me, smack ‘em,” Sam ordered, and then went to join Banner and T’Challa in the galley at the head of the ticker-tape parade.
“Do you have any alcohol?” he asked, and T’Challa obligingly poured him an excellent Scotch.
Somewhere Over Africa
Two years, five months after Siberia
Exhausted by the late—or, rather, early—hour and the stress of the last twenty hours, the loud, celebratory atmosphere eventually calmed down into something much quieter. Somebody dimmed the cabin lights to a low, pleasant glow, and things just got sleepier from there.
From the door to the galley, armed with another glass of Scotch, Sam could see Wanda and Scott dozing while Clint and Hope played a vicious round of cards. Banner and Natasha talked quietly, their hands laced together; Banner seemed to have forgotten that he was on an airplane. T’Challa had vanished, possibly to take a turn piloting his own jet.
Bucky was out cold, his head tipped against the fuselage. He was so exhausted that he’d relaxed from his hedgehog curl into a sprawl, feet jammed under what had been Steve’s seat. Steve was still awake, watching him. Sam noticed that he’d allowed his right hand to rest on Bucky’s metal forearm.
Sam wandered over, the ice in his glass clinking gently, and moved his wings so that he could take a seat. “Hey,” he said quietly.
“Hey,” Steve echoed, just as softly. He shifted slightly, like he planned on moving away from Bucky, but then left his hand where it was. “Are you okay? I didn’t get a chance to ask.”
Sam waved it off. “I’m a professional, Steve, I’m fine.” A little shaken, maybe, but he couldn’t see that lasting very long. He changed the subject. “I don’t want to push, so just tell me if I am, okay? I was going to ask you about this, actually.” He nodded at Steve’s hand. “We were going to have this huge conversation after you got back with Natasha. I guess you already answered a lot of my questions, though, huh?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. He rubbed at the back of his neck, where a flush was gathering. “I guess I did.” He pinched a small fold in Bucky’s sleeve between his fingers, linking them together; he wasn’t backing off. “You might have noticed that I’m really slow when it comes to this kind of thing,” he said, complete with small, self-deprecating smile.
“It’s occurred to me once or twice, yeah.”
“It’s nerve-wracking and—risky,” Steve said, like he thought that the odds were 90-10 of him being rejected at any given time. This was insane, of course, but Steve didn’t seem to realize that. “And anyway, our lives are complicated, and I didn’t want to—I wasn’t sure that—he’s very important to me. I wanted the time to be right.” He frowned. “Not that I ever know when the right time is.”
Sam wrestled back the urge to laugh. “If it makes you feel any better, man, he acted like he was fully prepared to die before saying anything. He was completely unreasonable about it, Steve. I had evidence and everything but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Look, Steve. Neither of you were subtle. Exhibit A: that random kid whose life you almost ruined because he sat next to Bucky in class.”
Steve’s flush extended past his neck. “He told you about that?”
“As I recall, there were nasty notes and a frog involved.”
“Not one of my finest moments,” Steve said. He fidgeted like he wanted to hide his face but his integrity wouldn’t allow it. “I’d almost forgotten about that. That was such a long time ago.”
“I have more recent examples, if you want,” Sam offered, though he was sure that Steve got his point and probably knew better than he did what those examples were.
“I’m slow,” Steve said again. “It didn’t even occur to me until after we found out that he was alive. I suppose I should be grateful. Those years would have been even more awful if I’d—anyway.” He rubbed at his forehead, looking over at Bucky’s slack, sleeping face—he really was tired; he hadn’t stirred once at their quiet conversation. “It was actually something I said to Natasha about shared life experience. For some reason I was thinking about it, I don’t remember why, when we were all hiding out in Wakanda after I got you guys out of the Raft, and then it was like I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially because Bucky was….” He rubbed the material of Bucky’s coat between his fingers absently and smiled. “Even I can tell that I had been avoiding thinking about it before.”
Sam remembered Steve finding ways to disappear to Bucky’s lab. He had snuck there once or twice himself, just to check on Steve, and watched him sitting on a stolen tech’s chair, leaning forward across his knees, just talking. Sam never eavesdropped; he didn’t like the influence that Bucky wielded, even unconscious, so he never stayed outside the door very long.
“I didn’t want to push too hard, though, or… presume too much.” Even Steve had noticed that Bucky would do pretty much anything he asked him to. “But he’s so much stronger now than he was a few months ago. I always believed that he would—but he’s gotten so much better.”
There was a difference between much better and actually better, a difference that was Bucky in the grass by the side of the road, fallen through one of the holes in his head. “There’s still a long way to go, Steve,” Sam said gently. “But he was terrified of how he felt about you, and he’s faced up to that and won. That’ll help. And don’t be afraid to ask—you’re the one he really wants to talk to, and trust me, if he’s not ready to speak, he’s a pro at shutting the conversation down.”
Steve let go of Bucky’s sleeve to grip his arm instead. He met Sam’s eyes. “I don’t know how to thank you, Sam.” He was finally over implying that Sam only looked after Bucky out of a sense of obligation. Now he sounded like a soldier’s loved one speaking to the trusted therapist.
“He’s a pain in the ass, Steve, just like you,” Sam said fondly. “I guess he’s kind of grown on me. Our ragtag bunch of misfits always has room for one more.”
“I don’t know if ragtag is the word I’d use,” Natasha said. Sam hadn’t seen her walk up. She leaned her hip against the side of Steve’s chair and rested one hand on his shoulder. “Some of us are quite fashionably dressed.”
“Bruce doing okay?” Steve asked, craning his neck to look up at her.
“He’s cautiously excited about T’Challa’s labs.” From the quirk of her eyebrows, she was quoting Banner directly. “I think he’ll be very excited once he gets a look at them.”
“I heard them talking in the kitchen,” Sam said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “I couldn’t understand one word in ten, but they seemed happy enough.” Banner had even looked vaguely cheerful, the first time Sam had ever seen that expression on his face.
Natasha ducked her head slightly to hide her adoring smile. She flicked her hair out of her face and when she looked at Steve again, she was mostly her usual self—softer, perhaps, but under control. “You should have told me,” she said, squeezing Steve’s shoulder. She nodded at Bucky. “Actually, I should have realized, but still. We’re all very happy for you.”
“Thanks, Natasha,” Steve said softly.
“All?” Sam took a sip of his Scotch.
“This plane does have windows, Sam.” At the horrified expression on Steve’s face, Natasha actually grinned. “I know public displays of affection make you very uncomfortable, Steve, but you did get the news out quite handily. Wanda laid down the law with our more, ah, tactfully challenged friends, but I wanted to let you know now.” Natasha squeezed Steve’s shoulder again. “Congratulations.”
“Just gonna say right now, not to brag or anything,” Sam said, because Steve looked like he needed a minute to process this, “but I totally called it. I am the matchmaking king.”
“Well, I’m glad to know that I left my crown in capable hands,” Natasha said with her familiar playful smirk. She pretended to toast him.
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” Steve said. “But thank you, Nat.”
“When I left,” Natasha said, “you told me to choose the option that would make me happy. It’s a big deal that I got everything I wanted, right?”
“Of course it is!” Steve said earnestly. “I don’t think I’ve seen you happy like this.”
“Well, then. I rest my case.” She smiled around at them all—even Bucky, who was still asleep—patted Steve’s shoulder lightly, and went back to Banner.
Sam finished off his drink and checked his watch for the time. Then he remembered that the watch was broken and that he still had to thank Clint for the emergency garrote. “We must be almost there,” he said.
“Must be.” Possibly bolstered by Natasha’s words, Steve abandoned the slight deniability of his hand on Bucky’s arm in favor of lacing their fingers together, metal and flesh.
This, finally, woke Bucky up. He surfaced from the bottom of the ocean, blinking at them blearily, suffering from that same adrenaline-induced jetlag that Sam had felt earlier. “Sorry?” he said.
“We should be landing soon,” Steve told him. “You don’t have to stay awake.”
Bucky stared at him. He took in Steve’s proximity, their hands, the general feeling in Steve’s eyes. “Steve?”
In response, Steve tipped their foreheads together. “You’re okay, Buck.”
Bucky indulged in the contact for a moment. His eyes started to drift shut, and then he jolted. “Sam?”
“Right here,” Sam said, waving. “We made it, dude.”
“Right,” Bucky said. “We made it.”
Sam grinned at him and said, “Finally.”
Two years, ten months after Siberia
The first place Sam and Natasha went when they got back was the kitchens; T’Challa’s head chef had a soft spot for her king’s most infamous guests, and she was always happy to feed them their favorite dishes. She seemed convinced that they all needed a strong dose of mothering, and not even Bruce was standoffish enough to resist. One of the big reasons Natasha had felt comfortable enough to go on this weeks-long mission with Sam was that she trusted Aleia to look after Bruce, and Bruce to let her.
Today, Natasha had spicy pork wrapped up in a soft flatbread and Sam devoured two bowls of the best chunky chicken-and-corn soup that he’d ever had.
Staying in Wakanda semi-permanently had a lot of perks—Aleia and her food, of course; real beds instead of broken couches or weird trundle beds; full-sized rooms instead of closets; and the opportunity to wander around outside as much as they wanted, because being recognized did not immediately equal arrest. Sam was a pretty big fan of all of these things.
T’Challa, meanwhile, was a pretty big fan of justice, but also of the way that the constant threat to Wakanda’s vibranium reserves had quickly abated once people figured out that the Black Panther had a serious amount of backup ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. This helped all of them feel less like bums living on T’Challa’s couch.
“Your Bruce has made great progress on his project,” Aleia was saying to Natasha now. “I do not exactly understand what happened, but it sounds as though something either unexpectedly worked or failed terribly, and he was very excited. I have sent meals to him at regular intervals—he gets so absorbed in his work and forgets to eat, I am sure you’ve noticed—”
“Yes, it’s one of his many quirks. Thank you for making sure that he ate—did you get him to try this? This is excellent, Aleia.” Natasha wiped a smear of juice off her plate and sucked it off her finger. She wasn’t letting anything go to waste.
“I will send you up with a plate for him. He hasn’t had lunch yet.” Quite pleased with that solution, Aleia turned to Sam. “The soup is good, yes?”
Sam’s mouth was full; he nodded and gave her a thumb’s-up. He forced himself to swallow and said, slightly choked, “Always is.”
“Yes, I thought you could do with some soup after being on the road for so long. You both look exhausted!” She tutted and disappeared across the bustling kitchen, returning a moment later with a small basket full of round, flat pastries, each lightly dusted with sugar. “These were for your hungry friends,” she said to Sam, looking at him sternly, as though he had any control over what any of his friends did. “They come here, they eat half my kitchen, and they do not take care of themselves when they aren’t here! I am left to feed them while I can, yes, Sam?”
“Uh, sure,” Sam said, not sure who she was talking about. He couldn’t even discount T’Challa—she fussed over him in the exact same way.
“Your Steve and your Bucky, they will listen to you,” Aleia said. Sam couldn’t help but notice that she had put Steve and Bucky in his possession as surely as she’d put Bruce in Natasha’s. She put the pastries down by his elbow. “With their metabolisms, they need more calories, understand? It is not healthy to do this eat nothing, eat everything, not sleep very much thing that they are so fond of!”
Sam hadn’t seen Steve and Bucky very much in the past few weeks, but he doubted that they were as irresponsible as Aleia made them sound. “I’ll tell them to eat,” he promised. They’d eat these sweets for sure.
Satisfied, Aleia made another one of Natasha’s pork flatbread sandwich and put that at her elbow. Then she left them alone and went to tend to the rest of her empire. She supervised the kitchens as a whole, which fed everyone who worked or visited within the palace, and prepared all of the king’s meals herself. She still found time to wish them a good day as they left, Natasha holding the plate and Sam the basket.
Bruce’s lab was technically in the basement, but because the palace was built into the side of a mountain, his large main room still had windows overlooking the valley. Clouds had moved in while Sam and Natasha were in the kitchen, and rain pattered gently on the glass—deep, misty jungle on one side, sterile white and chrome on the other.
He worked in the basement because that had made it easier to build a secure room next door, just in case things got to be too much. It was also the reason why there wasn’t really a door into his lab—Bruce, or anyone else, could exit whenever they wanted to. He’d never had to use the safe room, but it was there.
At the moment, Bruce bent over a microscope. He had a set of about a dozen slides on the table next to him; he was going through them one by one. Natasha couldn’t take her eyes off his broad, white-coated shoulders and graying hair, storing the sight away for the next time they’d have to be apart.
Bruce straightened—maybe he smelled the food—and turned around. He saw Natasha and his whole body brightened; he stood straighter, less slumped. “’Tasha,” he said, almost breathed, and crossed the room quickly to pull her into his arms.
Sam grabbed the plate from Natasha’s hand and stepped back, looking around the room so he wasn’t staring. It looked like every other Wakandan scientific laboratory that he’d seen: highly advanced and almost terrifyingly modern. Sam wasn’t a scientist himself, so he didn’t know what most of the things in here did, but they looked very fancy and impressive, so he was pretty sure that they did whatever it was as efficiently as possible.
He turned back. Natasha and Bruce had stopped kissing, but they hadn’t stepped apart. Natasha allowed herself to be vulnerable for another minute, her head pillowed on Bruce’s chest, murmuring something in Russian; Bruce looked like he was letting himself have a similar luxury, his face in her hair.
Natasha let out a long breath, relaxing completely, and then moved away far enough to grab both of Bruce’s hands in hers. “Aleia told us that she’d been feeding you,” she said, smiling.
Bruce startled and looked around. He clearly hadn’t noticed that Sam was there at all. “Oh, hey, Sam,” he said now.
“We brought food,” Sam said, lifting up the plate. “Well, actually, Natasha brought food for you, I’m supposed to bring food somewhere else. Where should I put this? I don’t want to screw up your experiment.”
“I can take it.” Reluctantly tearing himself away from Natasha, Bruce took the plate.
“I’m not staying,” Sam reassured them both. “I was just wondering, actually—do you know where Steve and Bucky are? I’m supposed to deliver these.” He waved the basket.
“I do, actually. Steve’s teaching him how to throw the shield. I was going to take some measurements—Steve seems to naturally know how and where to throw it to make it bounce around so accurately—but there has to be a science to it.” He shrugged. “Then I got distracted by my experiment.”
“He’s been threatening to do that for a while.” Promising, rather—Sam didn’t know why Bucky had been so shy about taking him up on the offer, but evidently he’d gotten over it. “Where are they?”
“The gymnasium on the third floor, I think.”
“Cool.” Sam saluted Natasha. “Don’t have too much fun,” he said, and left them alone to soak up each other’s company. Natasha had missed Bruce much more than she’d let on during their trip.
He took the elevator up to the third floor because he was lazy and had already done more than enough mission-related acrobatics lately. His muscles were readapting to the wings and he ached a little, in a pleasant way. The pain reminded him that he was back in his element; he felt a little like a missing limb had re-grown in the middle of the night.
The third floor had three wings, appropriately enough, and the gymnasium that Bruce had mentioned was in the one built back into the mountain. There were a few rooms down here, but they didn’t have windows, so they were often empty.
To keep the noise down, the gymnasium was set off from the hallway by a sort of anteroom, and the two sets of doors were basically soundproof. They were all glass and chrome, like most doors to public places in the palace, so Sam paused for a moment, looking through them before entering.
Bucky did have Steve’s shield on his left arm, so they presumably were in the middle of practicing—though right now they were in the middle of something else, holding each other close, Steve’s hands spanning Bucky’s back and Bucky’s fingers in Steve’s hair. His other hand was possibly at Steve’s hip, but the shield was in the way so it was hard to see.
Sam put his back to the wall and ate one of the pastries. He deserved it, especially once he discovered that they were as good—maybe better—as the donuts from that stupid gas station. He was getting really good at ignoring PDA right next to him; he was a little surprised that Steve and Bucky would risk it in a semi-public place. He hadn’t thought that they were that physically comfortable with each other yet.
Then he remembered what Aleia had said and snorted.
But he had missed them in the weeks he was gone, so he thought that he was perfectly justified in demanding some Sam Time. Maybe he’d ask Steve to teach him how to throw the shield, too, or at least let him try it, just once.
Resolved, Sam went through the first set of doors and pretended to trip, yelling, “Goddamn—!”
They’d relocated themselves by the time Sam got to them. Sam was actually pretty impressed: they hardly looked suspicious at all.
“Sam!” Steve called. “Welcome back! Everything go okay?”
“Not hurt, are you?” Bucky added.
“It’s like you have no confidence in me,” Sam said good-naturedly. “Nah, man, everything went smoothly. Nat and I had it covered.”
“We did some running around too,” Steve said, gesturing between them. “We didn’t have any problems.”
“Probably means something terrible is about to happen,” Bucky said. “No way our luck is this good.”
Sam laughed. “That why you’re practicing with that thing?” he asked, pointing at the shield.
“Steve says I throw it like a Frisbee.” Bucky was probably pretending to be hurt by this. Probably.
“Threw it like a Frisbee,” Steve corrected. “You’re a natural at this, Buck—you have to see,” he said to Sam, grinning like a lovesick fool, which was just the truth. “He can throw it harder than I can because of his arm—go on, Buck—”
“Yeah, all right.” Bucky shifted the shield so that he was holding it by the edge, then wound back and hurled it across the gym. It hit the floor, bounced into the wall, ricocheted against the ceiling, back against the floor, and straight back into his palm. The shield normally hummed after a trick like this, but Sam swore that this time he could see it vibrating.
“You really have been practicing,” he said in amazement.
Bucky smirked at him. “Yeah, what did you think we’d been doing?”
Sam chose not to answer this. “Can I try?” he asked. “I know I won’t be able to do that, but—hey, if you let me, I’ll let you have these.” He held up the basket. “They’re from Aleia. I’ll let you guys be the judge of whether or not they’re better than the ones we had in Austria.”
Steve laughed. “Trade,” he said, waving between them, and Bucky handed over the shield.
Captain America’s shield. He was holding it, actually holding it, and even though he’d known Captain America himself for years now, the tiny Sam in his head died and went to heaven.
“It’s light,” he said, weighing it in his hand. For its size, he could lift it fairly easily with one arm.
“It’s vibranium,” Steve said. “Twice as strong as steel but half the weight.” He sounded like he was reciting a set of memorized specs. “Actually, T’Challa took a look at it and he says that this vibranium didn’t come from Wakanda—it’s from a different deposit somewhere else. The chemical composition isn’t the same.”
“Huh.” That seemed to suggest that Howard Stark hadn’t used stolen vibranium to craft the shield, then. Sam fitted the straps around his arm and took a moment to feel like a total badass. “What do you do, just throw it?”
“He does,” Bucky said with his mouth full. He swallowed to be polite. “Look, Stevie, you gotta be more technical than those metaphors you were using with me—just let it fly off the tips of your fingers, let it guide itself, the wind’ll tell you where to throw—”
“That’s not what I—Bucky, that’s not—”
“It was,” Bucky said to Sam. “Imagine you’re throwing a bullet from one of your guns somehow. Like in that movie you made us watch, what was it—”
“Wanted,” Sam said. He squared his feet and took the shield by the edge just like Bucky had. He laughed suddenly. “This is going to go well.”
“You won’t know the weight of it until you throw,” Steve said encouragingly.
Sam steeled himself and aimed for the spot on the floor that Bucky had hit earlier. He threw with all his strength; the shield flew through the air like a discus, a crooked, wobbling discus, and actually, to his total surprise, flopped to the ground next to the target.
“Wow, I didn’t expect to get that far,” he said. “It’s really well balanced.”
“Howard knew what he was doing.” Steve jogged to the shield and brought it back, gave it to Sam again. “Try again. You’ll get the feel for it.”
So Sam tried again—and again and again—and Steve accepted a pastry when Bucky offered.
“That’s pretty good,” Bucky said, watching Sam’s latest attempt fly in a straight line to clatter against the floor. “You have good aim.”
Sam swung his throwing arm in a circle, wincing. He rubbed at his biceps. “Yeah, but not the muscles for it. Ow.”
“If you practice, your arms will get used to it,” Steve said as he came back with the shield. “You won’t be able to throw it for as far or as long as we can, but you can give someone a nasty surprise.”
Sam squinted at him, but Steve didn’t lie. “Really?”
“Really,” Steve said firmly.
This more than implied more time with the shield—more time feeling competent and cool and like a total badass, at least lingering in the same time zone with the likes of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. “I should bring you guys pastries more often,” he said.
“Drugs are addictive,” Bucky said. He looked sadly at the empty basket in his arms. “Now where am I going to get my fix?”
“Aleia downstairs,” Sam said. “She’ll feed you sweets until you explode. She’s convinced you two aren’t eating enough. Or sleeping enough,” he said, in a pointedly non-pointed way, and felt very smug when Steve and Bucky wouldn’t look at him or each other.
“Anyway,” he continued, when he decided that he had pretended to be oblivious for long enough, “I can’t take any more of that today, I’m beat. I probably won’t be able to move tomorrow.”
“You deserve a break.” Steve touched the edge of his shield, then went to the small pile of things in the corner that they’d apparently brought with them—Bucky’s hoodie (to go over his long-sleeved shirt), a small bag that seemed to contain a couple of towels and maybe a few other things. “We can watch a movie. What was next on your list?”
“Lord of the Rings, remember?” Bucky said.
“Hell yeah,” Sam said. “The weather outside is perfect. Let’s grab some snacks from Aleia, though—this is a serious marathon. We can’t go in without supplies.”
Aleia shot Sam some very approving glances while Steve and Bucky scavenged for enough food to feed a small army—he’d apparently done just what she wanted—and then they trooped up to the closest room, which happened to be Steve’s. They really had been out: most of Steve’s things were still in his bags.
Sam slouched in the armchair and put his feet up on the coffee table. “Do you guys know the basic plot behind Lord of the Rings?”
“We read The Hobbit,” Bucky said. He’d placed himself carefully on the far side of the couch. “That’s related, right?”
“Yeah, but we’re not watching those movies. I just—no. But—okay, you know what, it explains itself pretty well, we should just start.” Sam found the remote to the glass monitor—sometimes Wakanda was so like the Compound that it gave him the creeps—and cued up The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the middle of the hobbits’ flight to the ferry, Steve sat up quite suddenly. “Wait, stop it,” he said.
Sam fumbled the remote and finally managed to hit pause. The room fell silent, and Sam was just about to ask what was wrong when he heard it too: a tiny buzzing.
“What is that?” he asked.
Steve didn’t answer. He actually vaulted the couch and crouched down next to one of his unpacked bags, digging in the pockets.
Sam and Bucky exchanged bewildered glances.
“Steve?” Bucky asked.
Steve surfaced, holding a small black flip phone in his hand. He opened it and slowly pressed it to his ear. “Tony?”