Sam Wilson woke gasping.
He sat up, feeling the tears; wet and cold on his cheeks. His heart pounded hard and violent in his chest; a rhythm as loud in his ears as the RPGs were in the desert.
He’d watched Riley fall. Again. Like it hadn’t been over four years since that fateful mission in Afghanistan. It was like his brain couldn’t let go of that scene and had to plague him with it over and over, ruining his sleep.
Sam sat on the edge of the bed, hands over his eyes. His tears made his palms wet. His breath was still hitching in his throat, the sobs trying to work themselves out even as he kept them behind his teeth. He wasn’t going to lose it. Not tonight.
Riley was dead. He’d taken a hit from an RPG head-on like the grenade had his name on it. He’d been finished before his body had even smashed into the rocky ground. Sam had watched it happen and then been sent to literally pick up the pieces.
Sam shuddered at the memory. There’d be no more sleep for him tonight. He stood and took the few steps from his bedroom to the kitchen and got a beer out of the fridge, twisting off the cap with shaking fingers. The alcohol was cold and bitter against his tongue; almost instantly soothing. He forced himself to pay attention to every sip: the chill of the liquid as it entered his mouth; the sharp coolness as it went down. He cleared his mind of everything but that simple task. Sip, swallow, repeat, until his heartrate slowed and he no longer felt like he was going to puke.
Being mindful was a technique he taught the other veterans that came to his support group at the V.A. It was a way to bring themselves back from whatever memory was squeezing them in its brutal grip. But he never encouraged them to use alcohol.
He grimaced as he took another swallow, pretending he didn’t feel guilty that he’d started drinking after his nightmares again. He’d promised Melinda and Maria he’d stop; and he’d done great for a while. But September was a bad month for those type of promises.
I’ll stop at one, he told himself. He had a group to run at the V.A. that afternoon and they were counting on him. And he couldn’t call in sick. Not again. Not if he didn’t want Maria to ask him about it
For a moment he thought about telling Maria about Riley. Or sharing his story with the vets in his group. Talking about it, and having other people validate how shitty it was, could sometimes help. He always encouraged his clients to talk about whatever it was that had happened. But he immediately dismissed the idea. No one came to group to hear the therapist’s shit.
Sam sighed heavily and sat down on his couch, beer bottle still in hand. It was just after 4 a.m., another night where he’d be getting less than six hours of sleep. At least he was used to it. He keyed up Netflix and started flipping through the categories, before choosing an innocuous cooking competition. Riley used to brag about what a good cook he was. He’d invited Sam home to his family’s place in North Carolina after their tour was over, with promises of Southern hospitality and even better barbeque. Sam had been looking forward to it, had even promised to make a pie or something as a contribution. And then Riley had been blown out of the sky.
Sam got up and fetched himself another beer.
“You look like shit.”
Sam raised one eyebrow as he turned to the person who'd spoken. “Don’t hold back now.”
Natasha Romanova laughed and came towards him. Today she’d pulled her copper-red curls back into a ponytail, which hadn’t prevented some tendrils from escaping and framing her face. She was dressed in a loose-fitting grey sweater over a pair of slim blue jeans, and as always, she looked beautiful enough to make a man catch his breath. Sam knew he’d done it more than once. Her eyes, green as a tropical ocean, met his. “Seriously, Sam, aren’t you sleeping?”
She’d been volunteering at the V.A. for a while now, and had never actually been one of his clients, but he was pretty sure her time in uniform wasn’t easy, either. He, and the rest of the world, had seen her fight actual aliens last year. He wasn’t going to dump his shit on her. He shrugged, keeping his voice light. “You know how it is. What brings you here?” he added quickly before she could pursue the topic. “I thought you were on a mission?”
Natasha had disclosed that, when she wasn’t an Avenger, she still worked for some super-secret government organization that sent her into the field from time to time to do things she couldn’t talk about in countries she wouldn’t name. Sam could respect that, he just wished he could share more of her burden. “It went quicker than expected so I thought I’d drop in.” She smiled, and Sam had to remember to inhale. “Thought I’d come see you before you missed me too much.”
“I barely noticed you were gone.” He grinned at her. His heart flipped that she’d come in to see him, just a little.
She rolled her stunning eyes. “Liar.”
“You’re just in time though.” He indicated a small pile of three cardboard boxes that he’d found in the staff office when he’d entered. “Someone dropped off more used items for the veterans.”
“More garbage, you mean.” She made a face. “I hate wasting time with all this junk.”
“Some of its useful,” Sam said half-heartedly. “And you know anything useful will be used.”
“You know I can just ask my boss to donate stuff if we need it.” She was referring to the infamous Tony Stark, who Natasha was employed by in in some capacity. Sam didn’t really understand how all of it worked, considering he couldn’t imagine Stark Industries needing someone with Natasha’s skill set. But it wasn’t the first time Natasha had offered up her boss’ money for the V.A. and their veterans.
“And if we have someone in dire need, I may just do that,” Sam promised. “But I’m sure these used items will be good for now.” He opened one of the boxes and started unwrapping the newspapers wrapped around what was inside.
“Dibs on a silicone spatula,” Natasha said as she joined him.
“I’m not sure there’s anything that modern,” Sam mused. So far all he’d found were odds and ends he’d expect to find at the back of a flea market. Even the newspaper everything was wrapped in smelled old and musty. He put aside a set of three glasses that reminded him of ones he’d seen in his grandmother’s house. A package of bandages from the late nineteen-eighties he threw in the trash.
“Who keeps this kind of stuff?” Natasha frowned as she dropped a badly-worn pair of shoes into the garbage, followed by an equally worn pair of socks.
“One man’s trash…” Sam muttered. The further down he went in the box the older the objects became. “What’s this?”
Natasha took it from him and turned it over in her hands. “It looks like an ammunition pouch.”
“Doesn’t look like any kind I’ve seen. It’s leather.” It was dark brown and stiff from disuse. Nearly half of it was covered in a large, dark mark. It looked like the material had been stained with something.
Natasha shrugged. “It’s really well made. It would be nice attached to a belt. If you could get the stains out.”
Natasha’s smile was coy. “Now, why would I need an ammunition pouch?” Sam laughed and took the pouch back and put it on the desk.
He pulled out another newspaper-wrapped item. This was a metal tin with an opening mechanism like a sardine can. It had words embossed on the front that identified it as a first aid packet, issued by the U.S. Military. Half of the tin was covered in something that looked like badly applied dark brown paint.
Natasha took it, her eyes narrowing as she inspected it. “Is that blood?”
“Well, this stuff got interesting real fast,” Sam said grimly. He took it back from her and rubbed at the black stain with a fingernail. It flaked off. He grimaced and put the tin down on the table.
Natasha plucked another item out of the box. It was a book, smaller than a modern-day paperback with the binding on the short edge instead of the long edge that Sam was used to. The title was Treasury of Science, by Harlow Shapley, which was printed in old-fashioned script across a cover made of thick card in a garish green colour. There was a red stripe along the bottom and an image in black and white of what must have been the original book. White letters on the red stripe told the reader that the book was ‘condensed for wartime reading,’ and there was a paragraph explaining that the book had been created for the armed forces and wasn’t for sale.
It was difficult to read, because the book was also coated in blood, so thickly that the pages had been stained red and stuck together. Sam swallowed. “This was some soldier’s stuff, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Natasha agreed. “And probably not a modern one, if these items are anything to go by.” Her eyes were on the bloody book in her hands.
“Vietnam?” Sam asked.
“Older,” she said with certainty.
“World War Two?” Sam asked, incredulous. “Why would they give this shit to us?”
“Who dropped it off?”
“No idea. It just showed up here. Kamala might know.” Kamala was another volunteer. She was a young university student who volunteered in between classes. If the individual had left a name, she’d probably have it. “I’ll ask.”
“They might not know what they’ve left here,” Natasha said. “There was a lot of crap on top.”
“Probably not,” Sam agreed. There were only a few items left near the bottom of the box, but there were still two more full ones they hadn’t even touched. He turned to look at the book that Natasha had carefully placed by the bloody ammunition pouch and first aid tin on the corner of the desk. Three items all covered in blood. An obvious testament to the last moments of their owner. It was far too easy for Sam to imagine a soldier bleeding out in some ditch, the pages of the book soaking up his blood as he lay there, dying. Like—
Riley weaving through the air. The RPGs blowing up around him in balls of fire and greasy black smoke. One hitting him square in the chest before he could turn. The spray of blood and gore as the grenade exploded. Riley’s dismembered body hitting the ground like a stone.
He shook his head to dispel the terrible image. Riley was dead. He and this unknown soldier were both dead. But Natasha was alive and sure as fuck didn’t need him falling apart right in front of her. He forced himself to take one deep breath, then another, until his heart was under control and he didn’t feel quite so ready to throw up.
Natasha was eyeing him, her big green eyes holding a mixture of curiosity and sympathy. “Let’s wait to go through those other boxes,” she said casually. “I hate seeing so much blood before lunch, anyway.”
“Right?” Sam chuckled even while the idea of lunch made his stomach roll. But he could’ve kissed Natasha for her compassion. The thought of even touching those other boxes right now made cold sweat break out on his temples. “I have group to prepare for, anyway.”
“And I should do something about the state of this office.” Natasha wrinkled her nose, hands on hips, as she surveyed the disorder around her. She picked up the bloody items and went to put them back into the open box. “First thing I’m going to do is throw these—”
“No! Don’t!” Sam put out his hand to stop her. She turned to look at him. “You can’t throw them away,” he said, face heating at his outburst.
“—Into the storage room,” Natasha finished. “I wasn’t going to just toss them in the trash.”
“Yeah. Of course not,” Sam tried to grin. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She put her hand on his arm, and if he’d been anywhere near his normal self, he would’ve relished every second. “We’re all here because we have a history. I get it.”
“Thanks. Thanks for understanding.”
She shrugged, an impossibly graceful movement of her shoulders. “I get it,” she said again. She picked up the three items and gently put them back into the cardboard box.
“Wait,” Sam said. She turned to look at him, hands still on the items. “I’d like…I mean.” He licked his lips, unsure where he was heading with this. Normally he was so sure of himself, and yet first dreaming of Riley and now these bloody items had completely wrecked his cool.
“Do you want them?” Natasha said, like it was the most normal thing in the world for him to want to keep antiques stained with someone else’s blood. She pressed them into his hands.
“Thank you,” he said. Carefully, he put the book and the tin into the ammunition pouch. They just fit. “It’s just that they belonged to someone, you know?” He couldn’t meet her eyes.
“They need to be treated with respect,” Natasha agreed. “I wonder who he was?”
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “But I hope he didn’t die alone.”
Sam knew he’d been distracted and not on his game at work that day. Luckily the Universe had taken pity on him and his group members had all seemed to be in good spirits and didn’t need much help. He felt bad for not being one-hundred percent there, but he couldn’t shake the disequilibrium he’d been dealing with since he opened the box. He just hoped he hadn’t become Pandora in his own story and the items in the box hadn’t just unleashed a torrent of sorrow on his world.
He glanced at where he’d put the three blood-stained relics on his coffee table and took another swig of his beer. He’d been home for a couple of hours, but this late in September day turned to night quickly and any heat from the sunlight was gone by dark. Normally he’d have left some lights on in preparation for the sudden onset of dusk, but today hadn’t been a normal day. Now he was sitting on the couch surrounded by shadows. The only light was the soft glow of the television and the light he’d left on in the bathroom at the top of the stairs.
I should eat, he thought to himself. He’d grabbed a beer as soon as he’d come home, then another mere moments later. He was now on his third in one evening when usually he didn’t drink three a week. His sponsor would not be happy with him. He wished he could find it in himself to care.
A solider had died and no one remembered him.
The proof was sitting right in front of Sam, killing him with it’s certainly. How could someone have possibly given away these items if they’d known the man who’d died owning them? If he’d had anything of Riley’s…
Sam slammed down hard on that train of thought. Riley had been blown up. Obliterated by the grenade that hit him. There had been hardly anything whole left for Sam to hold on to. Not even his dog tags had been salvageable. There was nothing…
“Stop it.” Sam put his fists against his temples and squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to breathe through it; tried to focus on the moment of his lungs, but he couldn’t get the images out of his head. Riley swerving to avoid one RPG after another, Riley falling—
“Stop it!” Sam pressed against his temples, hard enough to hurt. The pain helped and he was able to get his breathing under control. “You’re okay,” he exhaled. “You’re good. You’re fine.” Feeling marginally calmer, he opened his eyes.
There was a man standing on the other side of the coffee table, backlit by the light of the television.
Sam let out an inarticulate noise and threw himself back and over the couch, instinctively falling into a combat roll on the other side. A moment later he was up in a fighter’s stance, breath harsh and heart pounding as he stared at where the man had been standing.
There was no-one there.
“The fuck?” Sam did a slow 360 of his living room, eyes seeking out anything man-shaped in the dark shadows. There was nothing. He stood, ears straining, but he couldn’t hear anything but the muted noise from the television and the jagged sound of his own breath. He was alone.
Sam grabbed one of the larger knives from his kitchen and carefully made his way upstairs to his bedroom, turning on the hall light as he went. There was no one the room, or under the bed, or in his closet. There was no one in the guest bedroom, or behind his shower curtain or in the linen closet. It took a minute, but he managed to psych himself up to check the basement, which was also thankfully intruder-free. By the time he’d checked his kitchen and the closet by the front door, he was sure that there was no intruder anywhere in his house. There was nothing to indicate that someone had appeared in his living room minutes before.
“Jesus.” Sam wiped his face with his hand. His heart rate was slowing even as he felt the jittery after-effects of too much adrenaline in too short a time. He went back to the couch and grabbed his beer, drinking deeply. The cool rush of alcohol made him feel marginally better, and he thought longingly of the other seven beers in the fridge. But he wasn’t going to do that. He’d fought too hard for sobriety after Riley died and he’d come home to a world that thanked him for his service but didn’t understand what it had cost him. His sponsor wanted him not to drink at all. He knew he could handle it normally, but he didn’t seem to be handling it tonight. Things must be bad if he were hallucinating strange men in his living room when he wasn’t even drunk.
The idea made him chuff out a laugh. “Get some food,” he scolded himself. He hadn’t eaten in hours, after all. Was it any wonder he was seeing things? He went back to his fridge and opened the door, leaning over to grab the Styrofoam takeout container that he hoped was Thai near the back. He stood and closed the door.
The man was there.
He had short, forties-styled dark hair that looked mussed by the wind. He was wearing a dark blue jacket with a pea-coat type collar, brown cargo pants and dark brown boots with leather gaiters. There was a left-handed brown leather holster with a pistol over his shoulder. The loops around the jacket’s waist where a belt would go were torn off. As was most of the sleeve where his left arm should be. Instead there was blood all over the left side of his jacket and his uniform pants, and a mangled stump dripping blood onto the clean laminate of Sam’s kitchen floor.
The man’s eyes were entirely black.
“Shit!” Sam cried and jumped back. His dinner hit the floor with a sodden splat.
The man didn’t move, only stared at Sam with those empty black eyes. His expression was one of resignation and pain.
It was his expression that caused some of Sam’s fear to dissipate. He knew that look; had seen it on countless veterans who’d come through the doors of the V.A. He’d even seen it on himself in the mirror those first few months after Riley died. It was the look of someone who’d been through something so horrible they didn’t know who they were anymore. It was the look of someone who’d lost themselves.
Although he’d never seen anyone with eyes quite like that.
“Look,” Sam said, voice creaky with fear, “I don’t know how you got in here, but I can see that you’re hurt. Let me call 911, get you some help. What do you say?”
The man disappeared.
“Shit!” Sam shouted; hand clutched to his chest. He whipped his head around, looking for where the man might have gone, but there was no sign that he’d ever been there. Even the blood on the floor had been covered by the spilled Thai food. It was impossible to know if it had actually happened.
Except, later that night, when Sam had cleaned up the mess and his fear had finally dissolved enough to let him relax, he had to pick up the bloody book he thought he’d left on the coffee table. Someone had pushed it on to the floor.
Sam called in sick the next day.
He’d gotten no sleep the night before. Even just closing his eyes had bombarded him with memories of Riley’s final moments. It was when he was reaching for his second beer before 11 am that he called his sponsor.
Melinda May was a no-nonsense woman who rarely smiled. She was as calm, cool and collected a person as Sam had ever met, and even after knowing her for over a year, he still found it hard to believe she was ever addicted to alcohol. But she’d been through some bad shit. First as a refugee from the Vietnam War, and then as a highly trained operative for some organization that she’d barely acknowledge. Her Chinese parents had chosen the wrong time to move to Vietnam, and she’d been born right in the thick of the conflict. She’d been only three years old when she’d arrived on American shores, sick, hungry, and missing her father, who had given up his life to ensure their safe passage. Even the thought of what she’d endured made Sam feel sick. Melinda was the strongest person he’d ever met.
She wasn’t pleased. “What do you mean you’re drinking?”
“You know I’ve never really stopped,” Sam reminded her as he shifted the phone against his ear. “I don’t believe in total abstinence.”
“That’s great in theory. How’s it working for you now?”
Sam winced at the pointed question. “Not so great, I guess?”
“There’s nothing wrong with social drinking, if you can manage it,” Melinda said. “But drinking on your own? That’s something else.”
“I had a stressful day,” Sam said defensively. “A beer takes the edge off.”
“And numbs you out. That’s why we drink. To numb ourselves so we don’t have to feel our emotions. It’s not a healthy way to cope.”
“I don’t think that’s what I was doing.”
“Sam.” Melinda’s tone was hard.
He winced. He thought back to the day before and how seeing the bloodstained equipment made him feel. How sad and helpless. He couldn’t deny it. “You’re right. I was.”
“I know,” she said. “So, what happened?”
Sam paused. There was no way he could tell Melinda that he saw…something in his house last night. He’d sound crazy. Crazier than normal, and he did not want to deal with that conversation. Besides, he’d already figured out that it was probably because he’d had more to drink than usual and no food. It was a trick of the eyes. That was all. But he still had to tell her something. “I got triggered at work, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Riley.” It mostly wasn't a lie.
“I’m sure it’s easy to get triggered talking to veterans all day,” Melinda said with a surprising amount of sympathy. “Want to talk about it?”
It was the same question she asked every time he mentioned Riley, and he knew that he was going to give her the same answer. “Not really, but thanks for asking.”
“It might help. Talking it out can make it hurt less.”
“Not talking about it is way easier!” Sam tried to laugh. “I’m okay, Melinda. Promise.”
“Okay,” Melinda let it go and Sam sighed in relief. “So, what are your plans for the rest of the day?” He knew she was asking what he was going to do instead of drinking.
“I thought I’d go for a run,” Sam said. “I haven’t lapped the National Mall in a while.”
“It’s a beautiful area,” Melinda agreed. “And then?”
“A shower!” Sam laughed for real. “I think I’ll read one of the novels you recommended. Maybe meet a friend for dinner?”
“Sounds like a good day,” Melinda said, and then, blunt as a hammer: “You going to be able to keep the alcohol out of it?”
Sam thought of the remaining beers in his fridge. He sighed. “I’m going to give them to my neighbour.”
“Good man. Call me as soon as you’ve done that. Then go for your run.” The order was explicit.
“Yes ma’am,” Sam said.
“Take care of yourself, Wilson.” She ended the call.
Sam put his phone down on the kitchen table and let his head fall forward, suddenly feeling every second of his sleepless night. He wanted to go take a nap, but that wasn't what he told Melinda he’d do. And he couldn’t face another nightmare. Hopefully running would tire him out enough that he’d have a dreamless sleep.
Which reminded him he was still in yesterday’s clothes. He got up to go get changed to drop off the beer and then go for his run. The main floor had an open concept from the kitchen to the living room, and his eyes fell on the coffee table as he stood.
The bloodied military equipment was still there, where he’d left it. A tragic reminder of a life cut short. Sam felt the sadness hit him right in the solar plexus. He didn’t have a clue who the soldier was who’d owned those things, but he mourned him just the same.
The run had done exactly what he’d hoped, and he’d had at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep and he felt almost human when he went into the V.A. the next morning. “Hi, Ms. Khan.” He winked at her. “How’s school?”
Kamala made a face. “I have three midterms over two days.”
He winced in sympathy. “That sucks.”
“It is what it is,” she said pragmatically. “The price I have to pay if I want to be a doctor.”
“I’m glad you still came in to volunteer,” Sam said. “Especially with that much work.”
She shrugged. “It’s usually quiet enough here that I can get some studying done, and I like helping. Speaking of, Natasha asked me to go through the other boxes.”
Sam couldn’t help grimacing as he thought about what other terrible objects the boxes might’ve contained. “What did you find?”
“Just a couple of things.” Her expression let him know exactly what type of ‘things’ she was referring to, and Sam just managed not to shudder at the idea of more blood-soaked possessions of the unknown soldier. “I put them in the second drawer of your filing cabinet.”
It was the drawer he never used and therefore would never have to look into. “Thanks.” He managed to give her a convincing smile. “I’ll have to take a look.” But definitely not today.
“No rush,” Kamala said. “it’s not like the guy who lost them is going to come looking.” Her eyes widened as she realized what she’d said. “Sorry.”
“About that,” Sam said, deciding it was past time to change the subject, “who dropped those boxes off?”
Kamala frowned. “Some white lady came in with them. I don’t know if I got her name.”
“Too bad. I’d like to return her stuff.”
“Do you really think she gave it away by accident?” Kamala asked. “How could she not know what was in them?”
“Only she can answer that question," Sam said. "Do you think you could find her name?”
“I can look,” Kamala said, but she didn’t sound hopeful.
“Thanks.” Sam smiled and went to his office.
The boxes had been removed, just as Kamala had promised, and Natasha had also used her magic organizational powers and now the office looked clean and tidy. Sam’s shoulders loosened. He sat down at his desk and opened his computer, ready to make notes for that day’s group counselling sessions.
There was a knock on the door. Sam looked up and smiled, beckoning the woman to enter.
Maria Rambeau returned his smile and came in. “This place looks nice.”
“Natasha’s work.” Sam leaned back in his chair. “How can I help you, boss?”
Maria chuckled and sat down on the chair opposite Sam’s desk. “How are you doing?”
The question, mildly asked, immediately had Sam on edge. “I’m fine. Why are you asking?”
“Yesterday was your first sick day that you’ve taken since you started your recovery,” Maria said. “And I’m worried.”
“Worried?” Sam tried to make his smile open and friendly. “Why?”
“Because I think you might be drinking again,” Maria said frankly. “Are you?”
Guilt and anger started a small war in Sam’s chest. “I got it under control.”
“So that’s a yes,” Maria sighed. “Sam, you know you can’t be counselling people if you’re struggling.”
“I’m not struggling!” Sam snapped. “Since when does having a few drinks mean I’m struggling?”
“I didn’t say it did,” Maria said gently. “But you know your history with alcohol abuse and—”
“It been a bad month, okay?”
“We all have those,” Maria started. “But—"
Sam cut her off. “Riley was born in September.”
Maria’s expression immediately changed to one of deep sympathy. “Oh, Sam.”
“It’s okay.” He shrugged one shoulder; tried to smile. “Month’s almost over.”
“Carol was born in June. The seventh.” Maria said. “That’s why I always take vacation then.”
Sam nodded. He’d heard the story of how Maria had watched Carol’s experimental plane disintegrate right in front of her. Carol had tried to eject, but the mechanism failed, and she’d burned with the plane. It was frighteningly similar to what had happened to Riley, but Sam had never told Maria that.
He had a sudden image of Riley’s body plummeting to Earth. “Probably a good idea.”
“One you might want to think about, going forward.”
Sam nodded again. It really wasn’t a bad idea. He looked at Maria through his lashes. “I’m not drinking. Not like that. I promise.”
“I hope not. Sam, you’re one of the best therapists we have. Our clients really relate to you. I don’t want them to lose you. I don’t want to lose you. I need you to deal with your shit.”
That made him mad. “I am dealing with my shit, Maria! I’m dealing every damn day!”
“Just like the rest of us,” Maria shot back. “Only the difference is, we talk about our shit. We don’t shove it down to the bottom of a bottle!”
Sam stood, stung by her words. He might’ve done that before, but he wasn’t drinking away his pain. He Wasn’t. “Is that what you think of me? That I’m so out of control that I’d come into work drunk?”
“That’s not what I said,” Maria backtracked as she rose from her chair. “But that’s what you did. And I’m worried you’re going to do it again.”
“Well, I’m not,” Sam said. “I don’t even have alcohol in my home.” He was suddenly inordinately glad that he’d listened to Melinda and given his beer away yesterday morning.
“I’m glad. I’m very glad to hear it. But you’re still not in a great place, Sam. We both know it.”
“I’m fine,” Sam said with gritted teeth.
“I just want you to talk about it. Talk about what happened with Riley. Please?” Maria put her hand on his wrist, her brown eyes pleading.
It was too much. “You’re a good boss, Maria. And a good friend. But I need you to let go of this.”
“No.” He shook her hand off. “Stop asking me to talk about Riley. I mean it, Maria. Keep asking and I’m going to leave.”
She nodded, looking anything but pleased. “Okay, I’ll stop. But not before I say this: You’re hurting, Sam. You’re hurting about Riley, and that pain won’t ever go away unless you let it. You hear me?”
“I hear you.” Sam crossed his arms. He felt wounded, raw. Like her words were poking into the deepest part of him. “But you need to hear me. I’m handling this the best way I can. Just like everyone else. And I do not want to talk about it.”
“Alright.” Her smile was tinged with sadness. “C’mere.” She opened her arms and he stepped in for a hug, letting her embrace him. “You matter to me, Sam,” she whispered against his ear. “Don’t you forget it.”
“I know,” he said, holding her tighter. “I won’t let you down.”
“You couldn’t if you tried.” She released him and Sam immediately missed her warmth. For a moment it had felt like everything was okay. She eyed him speculatively. “Go home, Sam. We can live without you today.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but then shut it. He'd felt okay when he came in, but just the short argument with Maria had left him shaky and off balance. The idea of trying to lead a group like this was insurmountable. “Yeah, okay.”
“Go home. Get some sleep. We can manage without you for a couple of days.”
He raised his eyebrows. “A couple of days?”
“It’s Thursday. Take today and tomorrow and just rest. You’ll be good as new for Monday.”
Guilt twisted in Sam’s stomach. “But who’s going to take my groups?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Maria said. “Just go home.”
“Okay,” Sam gave in. It was hard to think of leaving when so many people were relying on him, but then again, no one was irreplaceable. It made him think of the unknown solider who’d blood had stained the objects still resting on his coffee table. Had he been irreplaceable to anyone? Or was his death as forgotten as his equipment had been? Incredibly, the thought made tears burn his eyes. He wiped them as surreptitiously as he could, hoping Maria wouldn’t notice. It would be impossible for him to explain why he was suddenly crying for someone he’d never met.
Her eyes narrowed at him, but she didn’t say anything, just watched him pack up his things.
“See you Monday.” He waved to Kamala as he left. His smile dropped as soon as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. It was a beautiful late September day, with the sun dappling the sidewalk through the leaves of the trees, just beginning to change colour for Autumn. Riley had been born September twenty-first, on the Equinox between Summer and Fall. He would’ve been twenty-nine this year, had an Afghani insurgent not blown him out of the sky.
Sam thought about the soldier who’d died in World War Two, unnamed and unremembered. How old had he been when his life was taken?
Sam put his sunglasses on, hoping that they’d work to hide his tears.
The house was empty when Sam got home.
He sighed in relief, then laughed at himself for being relieved. The man he’d seen two nights ago had just been a figment of his imagination. He’d disappeared as soon as Sam had eaten a sandwich and gotten sober. He wasn’t real.
“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” Sam murmured to himself as he kicked off his shoes and hung up his jacket. He went to the kitchen and put his groceries into the fridge. Since he was no longer drinking, he thought it was probably a good time to fill the fridge with things he could actually eat. He was even looking forward to making the steak he’d bought for dinner.
But even with his stop for groceries, it was still too early for the evening meal. Maybe he could use the time to read a few more pages of the book Melinda had suggested. It was a fun adventure novel that required a healthy dose of suspended disbelief to get through, but it was captivating and required no brainpower whatsoever. Sam smiled at the idea of continuing the story. He went to the couch and sat down, picking up the book from the coffee table.
The bloodied book from World War Two was on the floor.
Sam paused, heart ticking. He knew he’d left the book tucked safely into the ammunition pouch with the first-aid kit. He remembered distinctly picking it up off the floor two nights ago and putting it out of sight. There was no way it should have fallen.
He picked it up, feeling its hard edges and strangely comforting weight in his hands. Except for its age and the blood, there was nothing about it that seemed sinister or even strange. Maybe I knocked it and didn’t notice, Sam thought. It was probably his fault the book was on the floor. There was nothing supernatural about it. Even the book’s title seemed ordinary and boring. Whoever this soldier was, he was either a nerd or had gotten the short end of the stick when books were handed out. Who would’ve wanted to read A Treasury of Science, anyway? It made Sam curious as to what was written inside.
Gently he tried to pry apart the pages. They were stuck fast with dried blood. If Sam applied any more effort, he’d end up destroying it. He opened his laptop that he’d left on the table, typing in ‘how to remove dried blood from paper.’ The first article he found wasn’t very helpful, but the gist was to use water, but not too much. Sam grabbed the book and went to the kitchen, filling a basin with cold water. He found Q-tips in the bathroom and return to the kitchen, where he started the painstaking process of gently daubing the edges of the paper with just enough water to loosen the blood and let him open the book.
It was an arduous, time consuming task, and dusk had fallen when he threw away the last stained Q-tip. He was finally able to get the pages apart, which brought the concern that he’d just exchanged one issue for another by wetting the pages to the point of damage. But now the book could be opened, and what this ‘Treasury’ might hold could actually be discovered. Sam turned over the cover.
There was a letter that had been folded into a small rectangle and placed between the cover and the frontispiece of the book, written on old-fashioned airmail paper that felt fragile in his hands. He unfolded it carefully, cautious of the age of the paper and how it had been tightly folded for over seventy years. He straightened it out on the kitchen counter, smoothing the paper with the palm of his hand. He focused on the cramped cursive that barely followed the lines of the paper, and began to read.
I probably shouldn’t start the letter like that. Just spring my feelings on you all at once. But this is Valentine’s Day, so fuck it. Here’s your first Valentine.
Every day that passes I realize how dangerous this gig really is. I’ve thought about dying a lot since we got out here. Probably more now than I did when I got captured. That was rugged as hell, but this? Going out on these crazy missions, not knowing what we’re going to find and wondering if we’re going to make it back… well, it’s made me realize that I need to tell you how I feel. Even if you don’t feel the same way. Even if you hate me for it.
I don’t want to die without you knowing. I’m not afraid to die. Not at all, and certainly not by your side. But I am afraid to die without telling you how I feel. I love you. I think I’ve been in love with you since I first saw you, fists swinging and nose bloody when we were kids. Do you remember that, doll? Remember how I pulled that Archie kid off you when he was pounding the snot out of you? Remember how you told me that you had him on the ropes? I think about that a lot. Especially now when you’re so different from that little kid. But you’re the same to me, darling. You might be bigger on the outside, but inside? You’re still the bravest, dumbest punk I know. And I think you’ve figured out by now I’d follow you anywhere.
I’ve been wracking my brains for a way to let you know that wasn’t going to get us both into a heap of trouble. Maybe I’ll give you this letter next time we’re on leave. Maybe I’ll just tell you some night when it’s just you and me and we’re finally alone. Maybe someone will give you this letter after I’m dead. All I know is that I need to tell you because I can’t keep it secret any longer. I love you. From the bottom of my heart and with every particle of my being, I love you.
Tomorrow is one of our craziest missions yet, so I should probably get some sleep.
I love you. (I can hardly wait to say it to your ugly mug).
Sam covered his mouth with his hand, heart breaking. Whomever this J.B.B. was, he’d obviously died before he’d gotten the letter to this nameless ‘darling’ he loved so much. Sam wondered who J.B.B. might have been: where he’d served, and how his life had ended.
It was now full dark outside and Sam turned on the kitchen light, thoughts still on the tragic letter sitting on his counter. He wondered what it would be like to love someone that much and never get the chance to tell them. He wondered what the unnamed ‘darling’ would’ve said if she’d received the letter. Had she felt the same as the man who wrote it? Did she spend the rest of her life missing J.B.B. and what could have been?
There was a movement in Sam’s peripheral vision.
Slowly, Sam turned his head, his heart thumping in his chest.
The man was back. He looked equally as bad as he did before; arm torn off and clothing soaked with blood. The bright kitchen lights small dots reflected in the black space where his eyes should have been. It was as endless and as vacant as staring up into a starless sky. The lines around his empty eyes were tight with pain.
Sam swallowed down the lump of fear. “Hey.”
The man looked at him, no iris or pupil visible in the complete darkness of his eyes.
He’s a ghost, Sam realized. It felt like a cold fist squeezing his chest, forcing all his air out between icy fingers.
The ghost was still looking at him. Eyes a blank space and face full of pain.
“My name’s Sam,” Sam said, voice shaking. He gestured towards the letter. “Is this yours? Because it was hidden in the pages of a book. This book.” He lifted up the Treasury of Science, for the ghost’s inspection. A muscle twitched in the ghost’s jaw, but there was no other reaction. “We found your things in a box that was dropped off where I work.” Sam couldn’t tell if the ghost cared about what he was saying, but he couldn’t stop himself. “We didn’t know where to return them.”
The ghost ignored Sam and turned to look at the living room. The edges of his body were unfocused, like he wasn’t entirely there. He turned back, expression confused and maybe even frightened. His mouth tightened before he suddenly barred his teeth, each one coated in blood. Sam shrank back against the counter.
“What do you want?” he whispered.
The ghost disappeared.
“Fuck!” Sam gasped. His heart was tripping in his chest like a trapped animal. There was a ghost. A fucking ghost in his house. His house was haunted.
And he didn’t have a fucking clue what he was meant to do about it.
“Your place is haunted?”
Sam had called Natasha first thing in the morning after a brutal night, and to Sam’s gratitude and relief she’d agreed to meet him for brunch. They were now sitting on a patio that was only slightly chilly in cool sunshine of late September.
Natasha looked incredible as usual in her light sweater and dark blue jean jacket. Just seeing her had almost made Sam forget the events of the previous night. Almost. He grimaced. “Looks like.”
“Wow.” She took another bite of her waffle and chewed thoughtfully.
“I’m sure the stuff we found has something to do with it.”
“Most likely,” she agreed. “You probably would’ve mentioned it already if a ghost had appeared before now.”
Sam laughed, mostly out of relief from how readily she’d believed him. “Most likely. But I have no idea what to do.”
“You looking for an exorcist?”
Sam raised his eyebrows as he took a sip of his coffee. “You know one of those?”
“I know a lot of people. Just say the word.” She took another bite.
Sam’s mind immediately went to an image of a man in robes holding a cross towards a demon-possessed woman writhing in agony. He thought of the ghost, and how much pain he already seemed to be in. He shuddered. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Natasha paused in the process of feeding herself more waffle. “You feel sorry for this ghost!”
Sam shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not like I feel sorry—”
“No, you do.” She put her fork down. “Sam, he’s already dead.”
“I know that!” Sam snapped, then winced in apology. “It’s just. He looked like he’s been through hell already, you know?”
“With the blood and the missing arm? Yeah, you said. Okay, so we won’t exorcise his ephemeral ass.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “So, what’s his unfinished business?”
“His unfinished business?” Natasha repeated. “Ghosts usually hang around for a reason.”
Sam hadn’t known that, but it made sense. Why else would someone delay going into the afterlife unless there were still things they had to do on Earth? He thought a moment before frowning. “I have no idea.”
“Well, we know he didn’t appear before you brought that stuff home,” Natasha prompted.
“I did find a letter.”
Natasha’s head tilted. “Oh yeah?”
“It was folded up under the cover of that science book,” Sam explained.
“The American Service Edition?”
“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “The dried blood on the pages kept the book from being opened so no one found it. It was a love letter.”
“A love letter?” Natasha said, shocked. “To whom?”
Sam Shrugged. “There’s no name. He just calls her ‘my darling.’ He wrote it as a confession of his feelings for her, but then he died before it got sent. I don’t think she ever found out.”
Natasha picked up her coffee, holding it in both hands. “That’s really sad.”
“And you think this ghost wrote the letter?”
Sam was about to say 'yes', but paused. “I thought so, but now that you’ve asked…no. I’m not sure.”
“Maybe he’d been the one to receive it.”
Sam let out a low whistle. “That letter was written by a man!”
Natasha shrugged. “I’m sure he wasn’t the first gay serviceman we’d ever had.”
Sam was sure of that too. “That’d be a huge risk though, him carrying it around like that.”
“All of war’s a risk. Maybe, surrounded by all that death, he didn’t want to hide how he felt anymore.” Her expression made it clear she was speaking from personal experience.
Sam put his hand on her forearm. “I’m sorry for whatever loss put that look on your face.”
“Oh.” Natasha gave a laugh that almost didn’t sound fake. “I was just thinking of a friend. He…he died during the battle of New York last year.”
She was referring to the craziness that was an actual alien invasion over the Avengers Tower in downtown Manhattan. Sam hadn’t met Natasha then, but when she walked into the V.A. for the first time, he recognized her immediately as the woman with the bright red hair and the tight black suit who'd been kicking alien ass and taking names. He also recognized a fellow veteran who needed somewhere safe where she would be treated like a real person and not as a member of the Avengers. It wasn’t long afterwards that they became friends.
“That was a real shit show. I remember watching it on TV and thinking it was fucking awful. Can’t imagine you having to live through it.”
“It wasn’t great.” Natasha smiled weakly. “But it’s in the past now. So.” She took a deep breath.
“And you can’t forget the reappearance of Captain America!” Sam tried to lighten the mood. “Now there’s someone who looks way too good for his age!”
Natasha laughed for real this time. “You’ve never seen him in pleated pants. Your ghost?”
Sam immediately switched the subject back. “The only identifying information were the initials, ‘J.B.B.’ on the letter. But if he didn’t write it…”
“We don’t know if he did or didn’t. But either way, those initials might give us a clue as to who he was. As will those items.”
“Wouldn’t they be standard issue? I’d have thought that thousands of soldiers would’ve received them.”
“Yes, but maybe not those exact items. Military supply changed throughout the War, and there were only certain books published for the armed forces at certain times. We can use those items to narrow down when he might've served, and even where.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “You know a lot about World War Two supplies.”
“It’s a hobby.” Natasha grinned. “We can also use the description of the uniform you saw him in to help us find him. Blue and brown do not sound like regular issue.”
“Do you think what I saw is accurate, though?”
“I doubt the ghost changed clothes,” she said sardonically. “But what would be easiest is if there was only one solider with the initials J.B.B. who died in action.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Sam said.
Natasha shrugged again. “Stranger things have happened.”
Sam groaned in frustration and closed his computer.
The National Archives had digitized every list of dead and missing soldier from World War Two for every state in the Union, and then put the pages up on their website for anyone to access. It was an awesome collection of names and dates, and he really appreciated the huge amount of effort it must have taken. Except that Sam had no idea as to where this mysterious J.B.B. had originated, so finding the right name in a list of thousands was like finding a needle in a haystack. He’d spent hours going through the ‘Bs’ of every county of each state, writing down the names of every soldier who matched the initials J.B.B.. He’d been at it for over five hours, and had only gotten as far as Louisiana. He had very little to show for his efforts.
“I could really use some help with this,” Sam muttered to the empty room. There was no response.
He picked up the ammunition pouch and turned it over in his hands, wondering who had used it. Thanks to Natasha’s suggestion, he’d looked up what American soldiers were issued, and to his surprise he'd found that leather ammunition pouches weren’t part of the list. Everything the average enlistee received was made of cloth or canvas in one of three unappealing shades of olive drab. Only the boots were made of leather, but they were black. The leather munitions pouch, combined with the blue and brown uniform the ghost was wearing, strongly indicated that whoever he’d been, he certainly hadn’t been average.
The bandage tin was from when the U.S. first entered the War in 1941, which meant that the ghost was probably one of the first draftees sent for training after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of that year. The Treasury of Science had been issued in December of 1944, and the letter was written in February. While the letter didn’t have a year, it made sense that whoever wrote it had done so after that book was received. It pointed to the ghost having died sometime around February of 1945. Maybe the day after the letter was written. It was heart-rending to think that he’d survived the vast majority of the War only to die in the last few months.
Having a basic timeline didn’t really help much. Sam still had no clue who this strange soldier was. Why didn’t he have a regulation uniform to go with the items that were regulation issue? Why had he been given a cooler, and probably more expensive, uniform than anyone else? It didn’t make sense. Unless…
Sam sat up on his couch as an idea hit him. He and Riley hadn’t had regulation issue, either. When they’d been chosen for the EXO-7 program their regulation uniforms had been replaced with newer, cooler, and a lot more expensive, equipment that enabled them to use the robotic wings with alacrity and skill.
Was it possible that this unknown soldier was also part of some elite or experimental unit that required different gear to achieve their objectives?
He opened his computer and pulled up Google before pausing in thought. What would they have called a unit like that in World War Two? He decided a direct search would be the best. “Elite American Units of WW2,” he murmured as he typed the words into the search bar and hit enter. Within milliseconds the page was populated with answers, the majority of them about Captain America and his Howling Commandos. The first listing was a page from the Smithsonian Museum just a few miles up the road.
Sam grinned as he clicked on the link. He vaguely remembered learning about Captain America’s exploits with his special forces team in high school. He was never much for history, which is why the Howling Commandos had slipped his mind, but now they seemed like a good place to start. The page loaded and Sam started reading through the information.
A picture scrolled up, and Sam’s eyes widened.
It was him. The man with the dark-hair and strange uniform. The one who’d appeared as a ghost in his home. The second-in-command for Steve Rogers. His friend since childhood. The author of the letter.
James Buchanan Barnes.
It was on his fifty-seventh circuit of pacing around his living room when the ghost showed up.
“Oh, hey,” Sam said to him. He looked the same as before: windswept and bloody. Only now Sam knew the ghost was an image of how Barnes must have looked after his last mission in the Alps. When he’d fallen from a speeding train and been smashed to death on the rocks miles below. As usual, the ghost didn’t respond, only looked at him with those unnatural black eyes.
Sam cleared his throat. “I know who you are. You’re James Buchanan Barnes.”
The ghost’s expression didn’t change. He just kept watching Sam with those peculiar eyes.
“You were a marksman and the sergeant of the Invaders from nineteen-forty-three to forty-five,” Sam continued, purposely using the terminology Barnes would’ve been familiar with. There were no snipers in WWII and the Howling Commandos were known as the Invaders until after the War ended.
The ghost blinked. A slow, eerie movement. He still said nothing.
“Maybe you’ll remember the name of the other Invaders?” Sam tried. It was unnerving being face-to-face with such a silent creature, especially knowing that it was something long dead. He had no idea if he was helping the ghost or not. He had no idea if he’d end up being the reason for even more blood on the ghost’s pointed teeth. “Timothy Dugan? You nicknamed him Dum Dum when you guys were prisoners in that Hydra POW camp in Kreischberg. That’s where you met the rest of them. Jim Morita, James Falsworth, Gabe Jones and Jaques Dernier? Does any of this sound familiar?”
The ghost blinked again. Sam didn’t know if it was significant or not.
“You nearly died in the camp,” Sam continued, then winced at his choice of words. “But you didn’t! Because you were rescued by your childhood friend, Steve Rogers.”
“Steve?” the ghost repeated. His voice sounded like the cracking of ice. A puff of frigid air followed his words and Sam shivered.
“Yeah, Steve!” Sam jumped on the topic, both terrified and thrilled that the ghost had reacted. “Your best friend since you were kids. He got a special serum and ended up being Captain America. Do you remember?”
“Steve,” the ghost said, as mournful as a cry. His expression morphed into one of such pain that Sam felt it viscerally in hic chest.
“Steve’s still alive—” Sam started.
The ghost disappeared.
“I can’t tell him that.”
“Why not?” Sam raised his hands in frustration. He and Natasha were walking through Constitution Gardens and talking about the ghost Sam was now sure was James Barnes.
Apparently, Natasha didn't agree.
“Because we don’t know for sure, Sam!” Natasha gestured with her coffee cup. She was wearing another sweater, white this time, and she’d pulled her sleeves over her hands for warmth. “Where’s your evidence?”
“You mean, the fact that he looks exactly like Bucky Barnes? That evidence?”
Natasha’s lips thinned. “That’s not evidence.”
“Are you kidding?” Sam stopped and faced her. “He’s wearing the same clothes. We have his blood-stained stuff. The fact the only thing he’s said is ‘Steve’—”
“That’s not evidence!” Natasha repeated. “Sam, all you have is your description of something in your house that only you’ve seen!”
Sam bobbed his head back. “You think I’m lying?”
“Of course not.” Natasha waved the hand holding the cup in a dismissive gesture. “I’m sure you’re seeing exactly what you say you’re seeing. But I’m not the one you need to convince.”
“You think Captain America will need convincing.” It wasn’t a question.
“Steve Rogers will think that you’re trying to take advantage of him and using his dead best friend to do it,” Natasha said pointedly. “And it will take evidence, real evidence, to convince him otherwise.”
“What about the bloody equipment?” Sam asked. “Isn’t that evidence of something?”
“It’s evidence that someone donated bloody equipment from World War Two to the V.A.. There’s nothing about it that definitively shows that it was Barnes’.”
Sam opened his mouth to argue but then shut it. “I thought no one else but Barnes had leather munition pouches.”
“No one except for the rest of the Howling Commandos,” Natasha said wryly. “Their uniforms were all custom-made by Tony’s father, Howard Stark. For sure Barnes wasn’t the only one with leather pouches instead of canvas.”
Sam couldn’t argue that because he hadn’t checked the photos of the other Commandos’ uniforms. “Well, damn.” He jammed his hands into his pockets and fell into step beside her. “Think I can get the ghost’s picture?”
That made Natasha laugh. “That, would definitely be evidence I’d show to Steve.”
“But what about the letter in the book?” Sam said after a moment. “Would Steve recognize Barnes’ handwriting? It was signed J.B.B.”
“There is that,” Natasha agreed, going quiet as she thought about the contents of the letter. “Do you think he knew? That he’d never get to tell her how he felt?”
“Like he had a sense that he was going to fall from that train? He wrote that he thought she might get the letter after he was dead. So, who knows?”
Natasha’s gaze drifted over the grassy pathways. The usual bright flowers had turned with the coming of Autumn, dulling their colours and shading the park with a sense of melancholy. She wrapped her arms around herself, cup still in her hand. “I’d hate to die with that kind of thing left unsaid.”
“Me, too.” He licked his lips, heart pounding. There would never be a better time for him to tell her how he felt. “Natasha?”
“No, Sam. Letter or no letter, we really can’t tell Steve until we know for sure.” She frowned at his expression. “Wasn’t that what you were going to ask me?”
“Oh, yeah,” he lied. “I was hoping you were going to change your mind.”
“Not likely. I’m very protective of Steve. He’s been through too much to have to deal with a ghost who may or may not be that of his best friend.”
“Okay. More evidence. I’ll see what I can do.” Sam sighed, more for missed opportunities than the ghost’s missing identity.
Natasha bumped his arm with her own. “We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”
All Sam wanted to do was to take Natasha in his arms, but he just bumped her back instead.
Sam waited until dark before he took out the letter.
He forced himself to sit on the couch, fidgety and nervous as he waited for Barnes. Even though the ghost hadn’t done anything worse than startle him, it was still incredibly unnerving to have him show up so unpredictably and covered in blood. It made Sam wonder if those wounds hurt. He hoped to hell they didn’t. It would’ve been bad enough to suffer them the first time, let alone for all of eternity.
He immediately thought of Riley, and how quickly he’d been killed, just milliseconds between Riley being alive and then dead. Sam had always assumed the explosion had been so fast Riley was dead before he even knew he was dying. But seeing Barnes, injured and bloody, made Sam question his assumption. Was there a ghost of Riley wandering the barren expanse of the Afghani desert, lost and in pain?
Sam squeezed his eyes shut against the image. His memories of what happened to Riley were bad enough without adding this new layer of horror. Natasha had said that ghosts appeared when the person had unfinished business from when they were alive. Riley had been so happy. His whole life had been an open book with sweetness and light on every page. It was impossible to imagine that he died with enough regrets to pull him out of the grave. Sam had to believe that.
Fuck, he wished he had something to drink.
The craving crept thick and heavy up his spine. It would be so easy to walk to the store on the corner and buy a bottle of Jim Beam. The taste was fine, but the 40% alcohol was really what he bought it for. It meant he could drink himself into oblivion with only half a bottle.
He had to stop thinking about it.
I should call Melinda, he thought. But he picked up Barnes’ letter instead.
There was something about it that had been bugging him since he’d first read it. Something that didn’t quite fit with his mental narrative of a feisty young woman waiting for Barnes to return home from overseas.
He re-read the part where Barnes described his memory of the unknown woman being beaten up by some guy named Archie when they were kids. While it was hard to imagine a girl in the nineteen thirties getting into a fist fight with a boy, Sam was sure it hadn’t actually been that unusual. The stories his grandmother had told him about her girlhood weren’t all sugar and spice, after all. It made sense that a girl who wasn’t afraid of bruising her knuckles would’ve been the type to turn Barnes’ head. So that part wasn’t confusing.
He kept reading, heart breaking a little with the sad futility of the unsent love letter.
There were a couple of sentences that caught his eye, one near the middle and one right at the end: You might be bigger on the outside, but inside? You’re still the bravest, dumbest punk I know. And, I can hardly wait to say it to your ugly mug.
Sam tilted his head as he read them, turning the words over in his mind. Was it common for a young man to call a young woman something like ‘dumb punk,’ in the forties? He doubted that it was ever considered cool to call women ugly. He remembered calling Riley things like dumbass and shithead with great affection, and he knew that Riley had called him some choice things as well. But never in his life had he ever called a girlfriend any names like that. Even in Basic, the women hadn’t been called dumb punks or ugly. It might’ve been sexist, but the guys were always ruder and cruder with each other than they were with the women they fought with. Maybe things were really different seventy years ago, but Sam couldn’t imagine any time or place where calling a woman those type of names would get a guy a woman’s love and respect.
The ghost appeared.
Sam startled. “The fuck, Barnes!”
Barnes just looked at him, eyes still barren and as black as night. His arm was still a torn and bloody mess, as were his blood-soaked clothes. He looked like he was hurting and infinitely sad.
“Hey.” Sam lifted the letter he’d been reading. “Is this your letter?”
Barnes dropped his gaze to the paper. It was impossible to know if there was a hint of recognition in those strange eyes.
“Who’d you write this to? What was her name?” Sam tried. Barnes had said ‘Steve’ before, after all. Maybe this woman would mean enough to him that he’d say her name, too.
But Barnes said nothing, just continued to stare at the letter, exuding sadness.
Sam tamped down on the flare of frustration. “Who was she?”
Barnes didn’t answer. Blood dripped off the stump of his arm, leaving big, dark red splotches on Sam’s carpet.
“Are you in pain? Do you need help?” Sam threw up his hands. “You’ve got to give me something!” The ghost blinked his unsettling eyes but remained silent.
“Why are you here?” Sam demanded. “You’ve been appearing almost every night since I brought this stuff home and I still don’t know why!”
The ghost was beside him between one heartbeat and the next.
Sam cried out and fell back onto the couch. Fingers reflexively closing around the letter. Barnes loomed over him, teeth bared and red with blood. Sam knew he was brave. His participation in the EXO-7 program was proof enough of that. But he had never been more frightened. “Please, don’t kill me Bucky,” he whimpered.
The ghost moved back, confusion flickering through his empty eyes. “Who the hell is Bucky?” His voice sounded broken and cold, like ice underfoot.
Sam sat up. “You. You’re Bucky. James Buchannan Barnes. Steve Rogers’ best friend.”
The ghost actually staggered, falling away from Sam. His edges became even more indistinct, like whatever was allowing him to exist in the land of the living was changing its mind. “Steve,” the ghost moaned, voice full of pain, and then he was gone.
“Steve?” Sam repeated. His heart was still trying to climb out his chest through his throat, but an idea had struck him. Gently, he smoothed out the wrinkles he’d put in the letter and re-read it again, and then again, and then a third time. “Holy shit,” he breathed. He knew who was meant to have received that letter.
He just hoped they would believe him.
The ghost didn’t appear for the rest of the weekend.
For all that Maria had given him time off, he was still exhausted and tense when he came in to work on Monday. A lack of sleep, combined with oppressive thoughts of Riley’s mutilated corpse hadn’t done much for his mood, but Sam wasn’t willing to take another day off work. Maria was worried enough as it was.
He said a perfunctory good morning to Kamala, went straight to his office, and started in on the work he’d missed on Thursday and Friday. It looked like Maria had covered his groups for him, and she’d left pages of detailed notes on what the participants had said and different directions to incorporate going forward. Her notes were interesting and insightful, and he found himself drawn into the work.
There was a knock on the door frame, and Sam looked up to see Natasha smiling at him, take-out cup of coffee in hand. “Hey.”
He smiled back, heart lifting at the sight of her. “Hey.”
She handed him the coffee and a pastry in a paper bag. “Thought you might be hungry.”
As if on cue, his stomach rumbled. He took the offered items gratefully. “What time is it?”
“A little past noon. You’ve been busy.” She came in and shut the door behind her.
Sam chuckled. “Apparently. I’ve been researching Maria’s ideas for the groups. They’re pretty fantastic.”
“That’s why they pay her the big bucks.” Natasha slid into the chair beside him and stretched out her legs until their ankles were touching. “So, any more ghost sightings?”
The thought of the deceased James Barnes brought back some of Sam’s bad mood from that morning. “Yeah.”
She raised one red eyebrow. “And?”
Sam leaned back in his chair, thinking about the last time he saw Barnes. “He asked me who the hell Bucky was, for one.”
“Really? That’s weird.”
“I know, right?” Sam agreed. “And he called for Steve. Again.”
Natasha sighed. “You know that’s not proof.”
Sam glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “What if I told you that I think Barnes wrote the letter to Rogers?”
Natasha sat up. “What?”
“Remember how I said I thought the letter had been written by a man? Well, when I re-read it, I think it sounds like it was written to a man, as well.”
“And you think this man is Steve?”
“Steve is the only name the ghost has said.”
“Besides not knowing his own, apparently,” Natasha muttered. “but it’s still your impression of things. Nothing I could bring to Steve.”
“You could bring the letter to Steve!” Sam sat forward. “Let him decide if it’s proof or not!”
Natasha paused for a moment before shaking her head. “I really don’t feel comfortable doing that. It doesn’t seem right to tell Steve that the maybe ghost of his best friend, who might have written him a love letter, has been hanging around the home of a guy he’s never met. How will that help anything?”
She had a point. “What about all the unfinished business?” He asked after a moment. “The reason you said that ghosts happen at all?”
“You think his unfinished business is the letter?”
“It makes sense. He died before he gave the letter to Steve. Maybe that’s why he’s still around?”
“That’s so sad,” Natasha whispered. She wrapped her arms around her waist, visibly shaken at the idea.
Sam wanted to do nothing more than pull her into his arms, but he settled for rubbing her shoulder instead. “I think Steve should know. To help them both.”
“But what if we’re wrong?” Natasha’s eyes were wide with concern. “It seems so cruel to do that to him.”
Sam wasn’t sure if she meant Steve, or Barnes’ ghost, or both. “It seems cruel to not do anything, and just leave Barnes like he is.”
“But we don’t know for sure it’s Barnes!” Natasha returned to the previous argument. “I mean, yes, the ghost looks similar, and the letter’s signed J.B.B., but that could just be coincidence. You said yourself he asked who Bucky was, like he didn’t actually know.”
Sam felt a twist of frustration in his chest. “You sound like you’re looking for reasons to say no.”
“We’re talking about the possibility that his best friend is some kind of tortured ghost!” Natasha said sharply. “I just don’t want to spring this on him. Not unless our evidence is rock-solid. He’s…he’s not in a great place right now.”
“I hear you,” Sam sighed. He couldn’t argue against her apprehension, or her desire to protect her friend.
“Did Kamala find any more pieces of equipment?” Natasha asked.
Sam’s eyes widened. “Yeah, she did.” He had totally forgotten the items that Kamala has said she’d put into his filing cabinet. He got up and opened the lower drawer, finding the wrapped objects easily. He took them out and gave one to Natasha as he sat back down. She took it, and they started unwrapping the musty newspaper.
“Holy shit,” Sam breathed. He was holding an arm badge, embroidered in a golden yellow. The shape was that of a stylized wing that Sam immediately recognized as being the symbol for the Howling Commandos. It looked like it had been torn off a uniform made of blue cloth, and part of it was stained in the unmistakable brown colour of old blood.
“Sam,” Natasha said, and there was a wealth of emotion in that small word. Sam turned to her.
In her hand was a pair of dog tags emblazoned with the name: James B. Barnes.
Natasha took Sam to see Steve in his tastefully decorated apartment on Connecticut Avenue that same evening.
They ended up sitting in the living room on furniture that Sam thought wouldn’t’ve looked out of place in his grandmother’s house. It made Sam sad for all the time Steve had lost.
“Are you sure?” It was the third time that Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers had asked Sam that question.
“We’re sure,” Natasha said, even though she’d never actually witnessed the ghost. “He looks exactly like Bucky did when he fell from the train.”
Steve’s pale face got somehow paler. He looked at Sam, his blue eyes sad and confused all at once. “And you think this…ghost showed up because you found some of Bucky’s things?”
Sam nodded. “We found some of his things in a box of donations that were given to the V.A. earlier this week. Here.” Natasha had asked him to bring them. He wasn’t sure how Steve was going to feel about seeing his best friend’s equipment covered in blood, but he took the artifacts out of his backpack and gave them to Steve regardless.
Steve held them in his big hands like they were impossibly delicate. He smiled as he looked at them, eyes misting. “I remember how excited he was when he got his hands on this.” Steve ran his fingers along the edge of the Treasury of Science. “He always loved this kind of stuff. And this.” He rubbed his thumbs on the munitions pouch. “He gave Stark such a hard time about this. His belt and the pouches had to be leather, to match his boots. Stark told him canvas would be lighter, but Bucky didn’t care. He thought the first aid kit was lucky, since he didn’t use it before Azzano. He thought he’d be safe, as long as he had it.” He put the book, pouch and tin onto the table beside him and stared down at the dog tags and the badge he still held. “I remember…” He stopped. His face crumpled. He put his head in his hands.
It hurt, watching Steve cry. Sam didn’t know him at all, but he knew what that kind of pain was like. He moved his chair over, sitting close enough so that Steve could sense his presence, but not so close that he’d feel crowded. “It hurts, doesn’t it. Losing someone like that.”
Steve nodded, wiping at his eyes with his free hand, his other still cradling the dog tags and bloodied badge. He grimaced. “It’s been over a year since I came out of the ice.”
Sam knew exactly what he meant. “A year’s not such a long time when you’re grieving,” he said quietly. He thought about Riley, and how it’d been over four years since he’d died. “There’s no time limit on grief.”
“He was my best friend. More then that. We were like brothers. Like…” Steve shook his head. “It was like I couldn’t think after he fell from the train. Couldn’t breathe. And now, knowing his soul never made it to heaven—” Steve’s words broke into a choked sob. His shoulders heaving.
“It’s not your fault,” Natasha said quietly.
“It is!” Steve raised his head, his face blotchy and his eyes red. “He’s a ghost because we never found his body! He died alone. He died alone at the bottom of that ravine. We should’ve found him. Been with him. We should’ve…”
“It was war, Steve,” Natasha said. “People die in war. That’s what happens. Bucky knew the risks.”
“I promised him he wouldn’t die alone,” Steve wept. “And I broke that promise. That’s why he’s a ghost. Because I didn’t keep that promise to him. He was alone.”
Sam licked his lips. “I don’t think that was it.”
“Of course it was,” Steve said angrily. “Bucky was Jewish. Its wrong for Jews to be alone when they die. And I promised him! But I wasn’t there.”
That was interesting to know about Bucky. His dog tags listed his religion as Protestant, but then again, marking down that you were Jewish in WWII probably wasn’t something a lot of Jewish soldiers did when fighting Nazis. It made Sam wonder if maybe Steve was right, and the ghost of Barnes was because of a broken promise, rather than a broken heart.
“I think you should look at this.” Sam picked the Treasury of Science off the table and gently pulled out the letter. He gave it to Steve.
Steve looked curiously at Sam before taking the letter with shaking hands. Sam watched in silence as Steve read. Steve’s hand went to his mouth, eyes filling with renewed tears. “Oh my God.”
Natasha’s mouth twisted and she looked at Sam, obviously unhappy to see Steve so upset.
“What is this?” Steve was staring at the letter. “Where did you get this?”
“From his book,” Sam said as he showed Steve the American Service Edition. “It was stuck between the pages. Which is probably why you haven’t seen it. It took me a couple of hours to clean off enough blood so that I could get it open.”
Steve looked at Sam. “What do you mean?”
“The book is soaked with Bucky’s blood,” Natasha said bluntly before Sam could answer. “And like Sam said, it was clear no one had opened it since Bucky died.”
“You found the letter in Bucky’s book,” Steve said. “The one that he’d had in his pocket when he fell.”
Sam glanced at Natasha. “Well, yeah. Like I said. We found it in a box of donated—”
Steve stood from his chair, his entire body trembling with grief and barely suppressed rage. His eyes, red-rimmed and wet from his tears were nearly glowing with his anger. “You need to leave. Now.”
Sam had seen anger like that before, in soldiers who’d been triggered emotionally beyond their endurance. Normally, he’d try to say something to diffuse the situation, but normally he wasn’t facing the wrong end of a super-soldier’s fist.
“Okay. We’re going.” Sam stood from where he’d been sitting and started backing up slowly towards the door, hands out like he was surrendering. Steve looked every inch a man who could kill someone with just one punch. “We’re going. Isn’t that right Natasha?”
Natasha clearly wasn’t intimidated. “Steve, we’re trying to help.”
“By bringing him and these lies into my home?” Steve thrust an accusatory finger at Sam. “He’s a lying bastard, and he needs to leave. Now!”
Sam didn’t need to hear any more. He grabbed his jacket and was out the door a second later. He was all the way down the hall and halfway down the stairs by the time Natasha caught up.
“Well, that went horribly,” she said, jogging to catch up to him.
Sam nodded. His heart was thudding in his ears louder than his feet on the steps. He felt hot, uncomfortable, and far too much like he was going to cry.
“I was afraid that was going to happen,” Natasha said softly, face drawn. Then she looked at Sam. “Don’t worry about it. Steve’s always really dramatic. He’ll calm down after a while.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Sam nodded again. His throat was too thick to force words through. He could feel his body vibrating in his skin, like he was too big and too small all at once.
“Hey,” Natasha called as they exited the stairwell, “did you mean to take the book?”
Sam looked down at his hands. He was still holding the Treasury of Science from when he’d picked it up to give Steve the letter. He knew he should probably turn around and give it back to Steve, bur right that second, he’d have rather died. He shoved it into his jacket pocket.
They crossed the small lobby and went out onto the dark street. The night air was crisp with the promise of winter and Sam was grateful for its cool touch on his burning cheeks. He started walking towards the Metrorail.
“Sam!” Natasha called after him. “I parked the other way.”
“Gonna walk, thanks,” Sam called without looking back. He barreled down the Metrorail steps without confirming if she heard him or not. He tapped his Smartrip card, then fidgeted on the escalator down to track level. It took forever for the Blue line to take him to Federal Centre where he could change to the Green Line and finally get back home. By the time he crossed the Anacostia river he was nearly crawling out of his skin with nerves. He got off two stops early, right in front of a small corner store. He checked his watch. It was only a quarter after nine. Plenty of time.
Sam went into the store and came out less than seven minutes later with a nondescript paper bag. The itchy, ill-fitting feeling in his skin was getting worse, and by the time he crossed the threshold of his house, he was trembling with need. He kicked off his shoes and dropped his jacket on the floor before heading to the kitchen. He took the bottle out of the paper bag and twisted off the top, taking his first swig of whisky in over a year straight out of the bottle.
Sam woke up lying face down on the floor with the empty bottle beside him. He opened his eyes, squinting even though the house was almost completely dark. He sat up slowly and leaned against the back of the couch, feeling sore, achy and still drunk. The room whirled in a slow spiral around him, and he squeezed his eyes shut, breathing deeply until the nausea passed. He opened his eyes.
The ghost of Barnes was looking at him. Head tilted as if Sam was some sort of puzzle he needed to figure out.
“Fuck off,” Sam slurred. He made a loose dismissive gesture with one hand. “I don’ wanna have anything to do wit’ you.”
The ghost didn’t move. His huge black eyes were darker than the room he was standing in, and looking into them made Sam feel like he was falling into blackness. It made his stomach roll unpleasantly.
“Wha’ do you want?” Sam demanded. “I left alla your shit at Steve’s place. Why don’ you go there?”
“Steve.” Barnes’s voice sounded like winter wind.
“Steve,” Sam repeated with a sneer. “Steve dosen’ believe you’re real.” He picked up the bottle and gestured with it at the ghost. “Called me a liar. I’ve been living wit’ your bullshit all week, seeing your sorry, bleeding white ass like that an’ Steve thinks I made it all up!” He brought the bottle to his lips, then set it down in disgust when he realized it was empty.
“What do you want?” Sam yelled after the ghost still hadn’t moved. He picked up the bottle and threw it at him. It sailed harmlessly through Barnes’ body and landed heavily on the carpet.
The ghost watched the bottle land impassively before turning back to Sam. His face held the same tragic expression, blood was still dripping from his arm. He looked the same as he had every night, and there was still no reason for him to exist.
Sam let his head fall back against the couch. “Steve doesn’ believe you’re real,” he said again. “His bes’ friend, back from the dead.” He straightened to look at Barnes. “My bes’ friend died, too. Did you know that? He was smashed like a carton of eggs and I had to watch. Kinda like you an’ Steve. But did Riley come back as a ghost? No. Of course not. Even though I’d believe he was real. Even though I miss him every damn—” Sam’s voice cracked on the last word, and then he was sobbing, forearms on his knees and head down. Crying so hard that he could barely breathe. The tears poured down his cheeks and dripped off his chin, soaking into his shirt where they landed.
“It was like I was jus’ there to watch,” Sam sobbed. “I saw the RPG. Tried to warn him, but he couldn’ hear me. I was screaming at him, but it didn’ matter. He was dead less than a second later. He was dead!
“Why did you get to come back?” He shouted at the ghost. “Why you and not Riley? Why you?” His words were nearly incoherent as he cried, a torrential flood of sorrow pouring out all at once. Finally, after what felt like hours, Sam’s tears slowed. He felt worn out and hung over, and like all he wanted to do was sleep, preferably like the dead. He wiped ineffectively at his eyes.
Barnes was still there, still as silent as the grave.
“Seriously, dude,” Sam said wearily. “Steve’s got the letter and the rest of your stuff. Go bug him.”
A look of uncertainty crossed Barnes’ face. “Steve?”
Sam shook his head. “Steve doesn’ believe you’re a ghost.”
“Ghost?” Barnes repeated.
“Yeah,” Sam spat, “as in dead.”
The ghost’s uncertain expression deepened. “Dead?”
“Is there an echo in here?” Sam rolled his eyes, then immediately wished he hadn’t as the room kept rolling. “You’re dead, Barnes. D. E. A. D. dead! Now go solve your shit and leave me the fuck alone.” He closed his eyes.
He must have fallen asleep, because when he next opened his eyes, it was break of day and the ghost was gone. “Shit,” Sam muttered. His head felt like something delicate wrapped in cotton that had been smashed underfoot, and all the cotton was now in his mouth. His whole body was sore from sleeping against the couch. He felt sick and fragile, and like if someone even mentioned vomit, he’d get sick.
Speaking of. He took off for the bathroom, just making it to the toilet in time.
He staggered upright and brushed his teeth, which also helped settle his rocky stomach. He lurched into the kitchen.
There, on the counter was the book he’d accidentally taken from Steve the night before. Sam blinked, remembering shoving it into his jacket pocket when he left Steve’s apartment. He had no recollection of taking it out. He certainly didn’t remember opening it and leaving it on the counter.
The spine of the book had been cracked so that it wouldn’t accidentally close, ensuring that Sam could see the chapter heading: “Cryogenics and Human Physiology,” and what was written underneath.
Cryogenics, or the science of studying low-temperature environments, has recently been used to hypothesize the theoretical possibility of preserving human beings. In this chapter, we will discuss how this process could be undertaken and what impacts it might have on human physiology.
“The fuck?” Sam said.
He called Melinda.
“Let me guess,” she said as soon as she’d answered. “You got really drunk last night.”
Sam’s cheeks heated. “How’d you know?”
“Because it’s barely six a.m., which means you’ve either woken up horribly hungover or you didn’t sleep last night because of a bender. So, which is it?”
“The former,” Sam muttered. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say sorry to me,” Melinda said. “You haven’t let me down.” The implication that he’d let himself down was so obvious Sam winced.
“I shouldn’t have done it.”
“Probably not,” Melinda agreed, tone more neutral than judging. “Want to talk about it?”
Sam shifted from where he was sitting on the floor of his kitchen, back against the cabinet. He’d called Melinda right after he’d found the book on his counter, truly terrified he’d taken it out of his jacket pocket and then read it while so intoxicated he couldn't remember doing it. It’d been a long time since he’d gotten blackout drunk and he was scared that he’d ended up right back where he started. Just like that.
He bit his lip, thinking about how much Steve’s words had impacted him. He remembered how strangely soothing it was to break down in front of Barnes, who wasn’t even alive. It would be nice to be able to think of Riley without pain. It would be nice to not be jealous of Steve for having the ghost of Bucky Barnes, even if Steve thought Sam was a liar. “No,” Sam said honestly, “but I think that maybe I should?”
“I think you’re right,” Melinda said. “Can I meet you at that breakfast place by your work in an hour?”
“You think I should go into work?”
“But I started drinking again.”
“You had a lapse in judgement. You’re not evil,” Melinda said like that was the final word on the subject. “Go. Take a B6 vitamin and some Advil and drink some water and I’ll meet you there.”
“Okay,” Sam said. His heart was pounding at the idea of telling Melinda about Riley. But he was strangely excited, too. Like this might be the start of something different: a hard ending for an easier beginning afterwards. “And, Melinda? Thanks.”
He could hear her smile through the phone. “Don’t mention it.” She hung up.
Sam smiled at the phone. He had a headache and was nauseous from his hangover, but he felt better than he had in a long time. He stood and went to follow Melinda’s instructions.
Barnes’ book caught his eye, still open to the same chapter.
Sam knew himself and he wasn’t a science guy. Even drunk out of his mind he would never have wanted to read that section. “What are you trying to tell me, Bucky?” he whispered into the quiet of the morning. There was no answer.
“So,” Melinda said after she’d pushed the remains of her eggs Florentine aside and picked up her cup of coffee. “What happened?”
Sam put his cup down and wiped his mouth on his napkin. He chuffed out a laugh, heart pounding. “You don’t want to hear about that.”
Melinda raised one slender eyebrow. “Isn’t that why we’re doing breakfast at this ungodly hour?”
Sam opened his mouth, then shut it again. He’d come to breakfast in good faith, intending to talk to Melinda. Hell, he wanted to tell Melinda about Riley. But he wasn’t sure he could. He sighed. “It’s like…” he gestured at his chest, unsure what he wanted to convey.
“Like a big stone that won’t come out? Trust me,” she continued at Sam’s incredulous look. “I know that feeling. Like everything you want to say is so big and heavy that it feels like it’s going to crush you, so you try to swallow it down instead.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “That’s it exactly.” He took a sip of coffee, trying to ease the sudden ache in his throat.
“The first few words are the hardest,” Melinda said. “Prying those out feels impossible. But once you start talking? It gets much easier.”
“It’s just so strange, you know? My entire job is helping people talk about what they’ve lived through. I know how important it is. But I still can’t.” He dropped his gaze, feeling ashamed.
“It doesn’t have to be with me,” Melinda said kindly. “And it certainly doesn’t have to be all at once. Maybe start by talking about something that’s a little bit personal, and work your way up to the big stuff.”
Sam licked his lips, considering. It made sense to start with something personal, but not painful. Something that he hadn't shared with others but wouldn’t hurt to say out loud. Natasha, he thought with a smile. It wouldn’t hurt at all to tell Melinda about his crush on the beautiful redhead. He opened his mouth to speak.
“There’s a ghost living in my house.” He had no idea he was going to say that.
Melinda put her coffee cup down. “What?”
“There’s a ghost. Haunting my place,” Sam said. He proceeded to tell Melinda everything, starting with finding the bloodied artifacts in the donated boxes to seeing the opened book on his kitchen counter. He left out the details of Steve Rogers calling him a liar, and all of his drunken bawling in front of Barnes the night before. Melinda had said to tell her easy stuff, after all, and neither of those episodes qualified.
“Huh,” she said after Sam had finished. She took another drink of her coffee.
“Huh? I tell you a story like that, and all you got for me is, 'huh'?”
“I’ve seen a lot of really strange things in my line of work,” Melinda said with a small shrug. “Hearing that the ghost of a Howling Commando has taken up residence in your house doesn’t even make the top five.”
“I really wish I could ask.”
“Don’t,” Melinda said easily. “So, what do you think this ghost wants?”
“I have no idea,” Sam said. He’d shouted the same question at the ghost the night before, but he’d had no response. “I thought it was the love letter, but even after I gave it to…his friend, the ghost still appeared.”
“You mean his friend Steve Rogers. Don’t worry,” Melinda waved her hand dismissively while Sam gaped like a fish. “What other friend would Bucky Barnes still have living nowadays? It wasn’t that hard to figure out.”
“I still don’t know if the letter was meant for Steve.”
“Maybe the ghost didn’t either,” Melinda said with a smirk. “But either way, the letter probably wasn’t his unfinished business, since he’s still here.”
“Then what could it possibly be?” Sam wondered. “There wasn’t anything else in his belongings that even had a clue.”
“Except for the open chapter of that book.”
“But what would that mean to Barnes anyway? ‘Cryogenics and Human Physiology.’ Why would he care?”
“I don’t know.” Melinda shrugged. “Its too bad Rogers didn’t have any information for you when you saw him.”
Sam thought back to his conversation with Steve, forcing himself not to wince when he thought of Steve accusing him of lying. But Steve had said something else before that. something that had stuck in Sam’s mind. “Rogers thought that Barnes might’ve been a ghost because he was Jewish, and it’s against their religion to die alone. But no one was with Barnes when he died because they hadn’t gone to find the body.”
“That’s interesting,” Melinda said, then, “wait. If the Commandos didn’t find the body, who did?”
Sam knew that Melinda had jumped to the same conclusion Rogers had, that someone must have found Barnes’ body and kept the bloodied objects. Otherwise, how would they have ended up in a donation to the V.A.? “I don’t know,” he responded honestly. “I’ve asked Kamala, one of our volunteers, to look into it.”
“It still doesn’t make sense,” Melinda mused. “I mean, I suppose it’s possible that some Axis soldier might have come across Barnes’ body, looted it, kept his stuff and then they or their family could have taken it with them to the United States when they immigrated. It’s a possibility.”
“I guess,” Sam said doubtfully. “And maybe they never told the Allies that his body was found, even after the War?”
“Barnes wasn’t the only soldier to be missing in action and presumed dead,” Melinda said. “But it still doesn’t explain why Barnes’ ghost is still around, or why he’s apparently obsessed with the science of freezing people.”
“He fell in February. Maybe his body froze when he landed?” Sam meant it as a joke, but Melinda’s face told him she found it anything but humourous. “Melinda?”
“Say that again.”
“His body froze when he landed? It was just a joke—”
“I need to check on something,” Melinda cut him off. She stood abruptly and put a handful of bills on the table.
Sam picked up three of the bills and tried to hand them back to her. “That’s too much!”
“You can pay next time. I need to go.” She hugged him quickly and headed for the exit. “Find out who dropped off those boxes and let me know!” she called, and then she was gone.
“What the hell just happened?” Sam asked the empty space. He grabbed his jacket and left the restaurant, still feeling off-kilter from Melinda’s strange departure. He had no idea what had made her leave like that, but something about suggesting that Barnes had been frozen had set her off.
Who cares if his body got frozen? Sam thought to himself and he headed towards the V.A. to start his shift. Bucky must have fallen at least 3000 feet from that train, plenty high enough to have reached terminal velocity. Being frozen after hitting the ground from that height wouldn’t have made him any more dead.
The thought of Bucky dying after a fall made him think of Riley. He remembered being in one of their numerous flight classes together, learning what to do if the EXO-7 failed while they were in flight. The instructor was pretty blunt about how it was unlikely they’d survive any fall from above 1800 feet. But he'd also told a story about a Russian bomber pilot in WWII who’d survived a fall of about 22,000 ft without a parachute, probably because he’d landed in deep snow. The fact he’d lived made the story kind of reassuring, even though there wasn’t any snow where they went.
There was probably snow where Barnes fell, Sam mused as he walked. It was the Alps in the middle of winter after all. There was probably lots of snow where he landed. It’d be no wonder if he ended up frozen.
Cryogenics…has recently been used to hypothesize the theoretical possibility of preserving human beings.
He’s a ghost because we never found his body!
Sam stopped walking. Then he laughed at his own folly and started walking again. What he was thinking was ridiculous. Total sci-fi. The kind of stuff they made movies about but didn’t happen in real life.
Except, the Russian pilot had survived a fall from four miles because he’d landed on deep snow. Was it possible that Barnes had survived his half-mile fall from the train?
And if so, who had found him? And what had they done with him?
Cryogenics…has recently been used to hypothesize the theoretical possibility of preserving human beings.
What if that possibility was less theoretical than the author of that book had thought? And Barnes was trying to tell him?
“You’re being Crazy,” Sam muttered.
But what if he wasn’t? That would be a hell of a reason for Barnes’ ghost to be hanging around: because he wasn’t actually a ghost at all. “Holy shit,” Sam breathed. Barnes wasn’t dead. He’d been cryogenically frozen and was still clinging to life…somewhere.
It sure as hell would explain why Melinda took off so suddenly. He wondered if this would make her top five of strange things.
He pulled out his phone and called Natasha.
“Explain this again.”
Natasha was sitting across from Sam in the V.A.’s office, staring at him with her green eyes narrowed. Sam couldn’t tell if she was debating calling 911 or just really focussed.
“I think Barnes might still be alive and cryogenically preserved somehow? Maybe. Sort of?” The more Sam talked about it out loud, the more impossible it sounded. If cryogenics weren’t a thing now, how could they have been during WWII? And why Barnes? His theory had more holes than a chain link fence. He crossed his arms, hoping she couldn’t tell how fiercely he was blushing.
She was still staring at him. “And how did you come up with this theory?” She’d left out the word ‘crazy,’ but Sam heard it anyway.
“I was having breakfast with my friend, Melinda,” Sam started. “And she—”
“Wait, Melinda?” Natasha interrupted. “Melinda May?”
“How’d you know that?”
“We work for the same company,” Natasha said dismissively. “How do you know her?”
Sam licked his lips. Melinda was his sponsor for his recovery. While he wasn’t ashamed of his previous alcohol abuse, and he was damn proud of how far he’d come, he wasn’t sure Melinda was equally as open with her co-workers. “I’ve known her for a couple of years,” He deflected. “She helped a lot when I first got back after Riley died.”
Natasha’s intense expression softened. “She’s a great lady. I’m glad you have her.”
“Me, too,” Sam said honestly. Then he frowned. “Wait, you both work for Tony Stark?”
“It’s complicated.” Natasha dodged the question. “Let’s just say we run in the same circles.”
That was interesting, considering that Melinda worked for SHIELD and was probably some kind of international spy, but Sam was going to have to leave that for another day. “She asked me to tell her if we found out who dropped off the boxes.”
“Hold on.” Natasha got up as fluidly as a cat and ducked out the door, returning moments later. The expression on her face was hard. “Kamala says that it was some woman named Adele Zola. She said she found the boxes when she was cleaning out her father’s place after he died, and that they probably belonged to her grandfather.”
“Thanks.” Sam immediately texted the name to Melinda. He looked up. Natasha was already putting on her jacket. “Where are you going?”
“I need to talk to Steve,” she said.
“Steve? Why?” Sam asked. “What’s going on?”
“Your hypothesis might not be as farfetched as you think.”
Sam looked at her. “You know something, don’t you?”
“Maybe?” Natasha hedged. “But I do know a couple of people who can help me pull on that thread.”
“Will you tell me what you find?” Sam said. “I mean, the ghost is in my house.”
“Whatever I can,” she said. Before Sam could ask what she meant by that, she bent over and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, for figuring this out. It’s going to mean a lot to Steve.” And then she was gone.
Sam sat in the office, fingertips against his cheek. His mouth broadened in a smile.
The ghost didn’t reappear that night. Or the night after, or the night after that.
Sam tried not to let it concern him. After all it wasn’t like something worse could happen to Barnes than being frozen, dead or both.
But he couldn’t stop himself from staying up later than usual on the couch, the Treasury of Science sitting in front of him on the coffee table and the lights turned down low enough to shadow the room.
When the ghost still hadn’t appeared three nights later, Sam stopped looking. He went to bed early and set his alarm for the crack of dawn. It had been nearly a week since he’d been on a run and he could feel the need building to set his body loose. Running was as close as he was going to get to flying in the EXO-7 again in this lifetime; he didn’t like to go too long without it.
Sam curled up under the covers. It was nearly October and the cool night air was creeping into the house. He’d have to break down and turn on the heater soon, but not before the night temperature dipped to below 50. He could sleep in track pants and a sweater if it meant he didn’t give in too soon.
He snugged down and closed his eyes.
His eyes snapped open. The pale light of dawn was just beginning to make its way over the horizon, lifting the shadows just enough so Sam could see. His phone told him it was still a good forty-five minutes before his alarm would go off. He had no idea what woke him.
The room was chilly, colder than the night’s temperature would’ve predicted and Sam winced as his bare feet touched the floor. Then he looked up and his heart froze in his chest.
Barnes was standing in his bedroom, but looking nothing like he’d ever done before. Instead of short, tousled hair, this Barnes’ hair was long and scraggily, like he’d let it grow out and hadn’t made any other plans. He was wearing a black jacket and black pants with too many buckles, and instead of a mutilated and bleeding left arm, this arm looked like it was made of plates of overlapping silver metal. Even the edges of his body that were so blurry before were clear and sharp. Everything about him looked hard and mean and as cold as the temperature around them.
“Bucky?” Sam whispered.
The ghost’s gaze was as heavy as it was impenetrable. He didn’t move.
“Are you dead?” Sam asked. He reached out to touch the ghost.
Barnes moved lightning fast, grabbing Sam’s wrist in his metal hand and wrenching Sam’s arm behind his back, hard enough to drive him to his knees. Sam cried out, joints creaking.
“Why am I dreaming of you?” Barnes spat at him. “Why are you in my mind?”
“I don’t know!” Sam tried to twist his hand out of Barnes’ grasp. The hold was tight and far beyond the hand-to-hand training he’d received. “You just showed up in my house!”
“You’re interfering with my mission!” Barnes yanked Sam to his feet and dragged him out of the bedroom into the kitchen. Barnes’ path took Sam parallel to the kitchen counter, where a steak knife was waiting to get put into the dishwasher. Sam palmed it as they went by, quickly hiding it up the sleeve of his free left arm.
He was thrown into one of the kitchen chairs, Barnes towering over him. Sam shrank back. He had no idea that ghosts could get this handsy with people. He’d always thought that they were insubstantial, like clouds or vapour. You could see them but they couldn’t touch. Barnes had behaved that way too until now, which was absolutely terrifying. What had caused the relatively harmless ghost to go from Casper to murderous? And how the hell was Sam going to get out of it?
“Bucky, you don’t have to do this,” Sam tried. “we can figure out what you still need to do. Work together—”
“Who the hell is Bucky?” Barnes’ blue eyes were wild with rage. He grabbed the collar of Sam’s sweatshirt with his metal hand.
Sam’s eyes widened. “Your eyes are blue!” That made Barnes pause. His grip loosened. “Your eyes are blue,” Sam said again. The ghost’s eyes were completely human-looking: a blue-grey iris surrounded by the whites of his eyes. It was nothing like the endless black of Barnes' eyes before. All of a sudden Sam understood. “Oh my God,” he breathed. “Bucky, you’re alive.”
“Bucky…” Barnes said again. He dropped Sam back into the chair. His hands went to his head and he looked like he was going to fall. Sam just managed to lever him into another one of the kitchen chairs. The knife fell out of his sleeve and clattered onto the floor. Sam froze, but Barnes didn’t react, just sat clutching his head as if he was in great pain.
“Are you okay?” Sam said uselessly. He’d been an excellent field medic in the air force, but a suddenly not-dead man with a metal arm who was writhing in pain was not something he’d read about in a field manual. He thought it would be a good idea to call 911 for a couple of reasons, but his phone was sitting on his nightstand, ready to alarm in another thirty-seven minutes. He wished he hadn’t dropped his knife on the floor.
“Bucky,” Barnes said, voice cracked and broken. “I know that name. I know it! Why do I know it?” He lowered his hands to glare at Sam and rose to his feet. The tightness around his eyes showed exactly how much pain he was in, but it was like he’d decided not to feel it anymore. He still looked like he could kick Sam’s ass without even breaking a sweat. “What have you done to me?”
The threat in the way he was looming towards Sam was obvious. Sam wished he’d made his escape when Barnes had still been incapacitated.
“I haven’t done anything.” Sam put his hands up and started backing away slowly. He put his foot over the knife and then kicked it backwards to the far end of the kitchen. He hoped that would give him enough space for what he planned to do. “You were the one who appeared in my house, remember?” He didn’t even properly finish that sentence before he’d turned, slid along the floor on his knees, grabbed the knife and was back on his feet in the next moment, blade out and pointed towards Barnes. He gestured threateningly with the knife, hoping Barnes would get the point and stay away. He backed slowly towards the living room, hoping to get to the front door.
The main window in the living room was open, which explained both Barnes’ appearance in the house and the frigid temperatures Sam had woken up with. It did not explain why Barnes was there, obviously alive.
Barnes watched him the way a cat watches a mouse try to escape. It made Sam’s blood cold and his chest tighten. I’m not getting out of this alive, he realized with sudden and terrible clarity. Barnes was going to kill him.
When Sam was nearly at the door, Barnes rushed him.
The impact was like getting hit by a freight train. Sam was slammed against the door hard enough to make the house shake. The wind was knocked out of him. His chest spasmed with the terrible urgency to get air. Barnes clamped his hand around Sam’s throat before he could breathe.
Black dots swam through Sam’s vision; his lungs screaming for air. He clawed at Barnes’ hand clamped around his throat. His human hand.
Sam still had his knife.
With desperate accuracy, Sam drove the point of the serrated blade deep into Barnes’ wrist. Barnes cried out and let go, dropping Sam to the floor. A spray of blood splattered over Sam’s face. Sam had enough time to suck in a lungful of air before Barnes grabbed Sam’s wrist. He gripped it with his metal hand, and squeezed.
The bones in Sam’s wrist snapped like twigs and Sam howled in pain and dropped the knife. Before he could recover from the agony, Barnes backhanded him across the face. Sam tumbled into the wall, caving in the drywall with the force of his hit. He was dazed and hurt, the blood in his mouth metallic and sickening. Barnes was standing over him, blood dripping off of the fingers of his right hand.
Sam staggered to his feet, swaying with sudden dizziness. It felt like Barnes’ fist had cracked something in his cheek. He leaned against the wall. “I’m not your enemy.”
“Why are you in my mind?” Barnes grabbed Sam’s collar in both hands and threw him across the room. Sam landed on the coffee table and bounced off, falling hard onto his side. He managed to pull himself up onto his knees, head hanging as blood ran down his face. This time it was his blood staining the carpet red.
“Don’ know,” Sam said, words indistinct from his swollen jaw. “Thought you were a ghost.”
Barnes kicked him. He flew far enough to hit against the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. It felt like something cracked in his chest and he whimpered in pain.
“You don’t need to do this,” Sam panted from his position on the floor. He hoisted himself into a sitting position, but couldn’t manage to stand. “You’re James Buchanan Barnes. Best friend of Steve Rogers. You don’ need to kill me.”
For a long moment, Barnes stood still, looking like he’d been struck. It gave Sam enough time to dig deep inside himself and find the strength to pull himself to his feet. He moved into a fighter’s stance, broken wrist against his chest and ribs aching. He knew he’d have no chance against Barnes, but at least this way he’d die fighting. Like Riley did, he thought. He didn’t want to die, but if it meant he’d get to see Riley again, he’d be okay with it.
Barnes still hadn’t moved. “I know him,” he said softly.
Barnes clearly didn't know his own name, and now he seemed confused about Steve Rogers. Maybe that’s want cryogenics did to a person’s mind. It wasn’t like Sam had read the chapter in Treasury of Science to actually know. “Yeah, you do. He’s your best friend,” Sam repeated. “He misses you a lot.”
“He’s my mission,” Barnes said, more to himself than to Sam. “He’s my mission!” He crossed the floor in two long strides and went to hit Sam across the face. Sam just managed to block the blow with his left forearm. Hitting Barnes’ metal arm felt like hitting a stone wall, and Sam hissed as the shock went all the way up his shoulder. All that happened was that Barnes hit him with his right fist and Sam went sprawling.
Barnes was crouched over Sam between one heartbeat and the next. He fisted Sam’s collar in his left hand and started hitting him over and over again with his right. Sam was dimly aware that he was damn lucky that Barnes wanted to prolong this, as one solid blow from the metal arm and he’d be dead before his head hit the ground. “He’s my mission!” Barnes screamed at him, and hit him again.
“He’s your friend,” Sam said through lips coated in blood.
“My mission!” Barnes’ voice sounded desperate, almost frightened, but it was nothing Sam had the strength to sort out.
“He loves you. And you love him,” Sam said, thinking of Steve crying over Barnes’ equipment. Barnes wasn’t a ghost, but maybe he still had some unfinished business. Maybe it would stall him enough so Sam could live for a few more seconds. “I gave him the letter you wrote.”
Barnes’ fist stopped before it completed it's trajectory. “Letter?”
“The letter you’d left in the Treasury of Science book,” Sam said. “the one you wanted to give him for Valentine’s day.”
Barnes’ grey-blue eyes were wide with shock and confusion. Sam could practically see the memories being pulled from the depths of his mind. “February 14,” Barnes whispered. “1945.”
“That’s right,” Sam said. His heart leapt. He might not get beaten to death in his living room after all. Which was exactly when Natasha Romanova came hurtling through the open window and Steve Rogers kicked in his door.
There was music playing somewhere.
Sam cracked his eyes open; closed them again; opened them. He wasn’t in the bedroom of his house. He wasn’t sure where he was. He looked over towards where he thought the music was coming from, and frowned when he saw someone had put a wireless speaker on a windowsill in a room he didn’t recognize.
“One your left,” Natasha said.
Sam looked to his left. Natasha was sitting on an uncomfortable-looking plastic seat in what was clearly his hospital room. He smiled at her, which pulled at the stitches someone must have put in his face at some point. “Hey.”
She smiled back, her green eyes bright with relief and happiness. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I got hit by a truck,” Sam said honestly. “Is that the Trouble Man soundtrack?”
“I remember you said you liked it.” Natasha was still smiling. She moved her chair closer to his bed, close enough to take his hand. He turned his wrist so their fingers intertwined. “Do you want the rundown of your injuries now, or later?”
“Hit me,” Sam said, then winced. “I didn’t mean that.”
Natasha laughed. “Broken right wrist, three broken ribs, a broken cheekbone that required surgery and a split lip, which needed stitches. Oh, and you also have a concussion and a really nasty bruise on your left forearm.” Her smile slipped as she spoke, like saying it all out loud was upsetting.
“Broken cheek?” Sam thought about raising his hand to touch his face, then decided it wasn’t worth it because he’d have to let go of Natasha’s. “Please tell me I’m still handsome.”
She laughed again, as he hoped she would. “You’re still handsome.”
“Then all’s good.” Sam gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. “Thanks for showing up when you did,” he added. “Your timing was excellent.”
“I wish we’d gotten there sooner. Maybe would could’ve spared you some of this.”
“You were there when it counted. That’s all that matters.” He licked his lips, noting how dry they were, how the stiches felt under the tip of his tongue. Natasha noticed and held the straw of a cup of water for him, letting him drink his fill.
“It was you suggesting that Barnes might not be dead that meant Steve and I were there in the first place,” Natasha said after he’d finished drinking. She set the cup back down and took his hand again.
“I remember you saying you had some threads to pull on. I’m guessing one of them worked out?”
“More than that.” Natasha grimaced. “Looking for information on Barnes unearthed a whole lot of stuff that some people would’ve much rather was left buried. Have you ever heard of SHIELD?”
“You mean that CIA-knockoff with the really stupid acronym? Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
Natasha made a face at his choice of words. “Turns out that SHIELD was actually infiltrated by the Nazi science division, called Hydra.”
Sam blinked. “Wait, what?”
“Nazis. In SHIELD. They’d been there since the end of World War Two, working quietly to turn the world fascist under the guise of international political stability.”
This was not news one could take lying down. Sam tried to move himself more upright on his pillows. It was exhausting and he immediately gave up. Natasha pressed a button and the head of the bed elevated.
“How?” Sam said after he caught his breath. “How the fuck did SHIELD let that happen?”
“Naiveté and stupidity,” Natasha said succinctly. “Truth is, they brought the Nazis over after the war with Operation Paperclip. They have no excuse.”
Sam thought of how Barnes had looked in his intimidating black uniform. Now that Natasha mentioned it, he could totally see the fascism in Barnes’ clothing. But that didn’t jibe with anything he’d read about the man. How could a Howling Commando end up with Hydra? “Is Barnes a Nazi?” Sam asked. “Is that why he tried to kill me?”
Natasha’s mouth twisted. “Worse.” She folded her arms along the top of his bedrail. “Did you know that Barnes was experimented on when he was a prisoner at Kreischberg?”
Sam winced. “That didn’t show up on his Wikipedia page.”
“He was given some sort of hybrid version of the serum that turned Steve into a super solider,” Natasha said, “It was what kept him alive after he fell from the train.”
“No shit?” Sam said faintly. It made sense. Barnes had been fast and incredibly strong. Sam knew he’d been outmatched just looking at him. His mind immediately went to Riley, and how his body looked hurtling to Earth. He wished it didn’t feel so bitterly unfair that Barnes survived.
“He was found by Russian soldiers after he landed in the Ravine. Instead of turning him over to the Allies, they kept him and...” She took a breath. “They sold him. To the Hydra part of SHIELD. Like a piece of meat.”
“Jesus,” Sam breathed. He had horrific stories of slavery in his own family history. That was nothing he’d wish on anyone.
“They experimented on him,” Natasha continued. “They brainwashed him. They turned him into a killing machine. A weapon that they’d just point at their target, and he’d do the rest. It’s pretty amazing that you survived, really.”
Knowing Barnes had been brainwashed made his inability to remember Steve Rogers, or his own name make a terrible kind of sense. “He wanted to know why he was seeing me in his dreams.”
Natasha tilted her head. “You mean he was seeing you when you were seeing his ghost?”
“But I wasn’t really seeing his ghost, was I?” Sam said. “Since he wasn’t actually dead.”
“He wasn’t,” Natasha agreed. “And that’s what I wanted to tell you. You were right. He was frozen. Hydra kept him cryogenically frozen in between missions for decades.”
“Horrible’s not a bad enough word to describe what Hydra’s done. Steve is…” She shook her head.
“I can imagine.” He’d never want anything like that to have happened to Riley, even if it meant he’d still be alive. “He was trying to tell me that.” Sam realized. “That’s why his book was opened to the chapter on cryogenics. He was trying to let me know.”
“I still don’t get why his ‘spirit’—” she made quotation marks with her hands “—was even at your place. How did that happen?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Sam said.
“The woman who dropped off the boxes was Arnim Zola’s granddaughter,” Natasha said with a small shiver of disgust. “Zola was the scientist who experimented on Bucky in Austria and then again with SHIELD.”
Sam recoiled. “He kept souvenirs?”
“Yes.” Natasha grimaced. “But she honestly had no clue about what was in the boxes, or her grandfather’s Nazi past. She thought they contained old clothes that our veterans could use. She’s not a very curious person.”
“Probably for the best, with a history like that.” They lapsed into silence, each thinking about Bucky Barnes and what he’d had to live through and what he’d become. It was terrifying how easily Bucky had tracked Sam down, how easily he’d nearly killed him. Sam cleared his throat. “So, where’s Barnes now?”
“Steve and I managed to subdue him,” Natasha said gratifying quickly. “He’s now in SHIELD custody, undergoing deprogramming with one of Tony’s inventions. It’s called BARF. Don’t ask me what it does. And, uh. Sorry about your house.”
“That’s good news,” Sam said. And then, “sorry about my house?”
“It was harder than you’d think to take him down,” Natasha said, “even with the wrist injury you gave him. And kudos on doing that. I can’t remember the last time someone who wasn’t armed with a gun managed to wound the Winter Soldier.”
“Winter Soldier?” Sam repeated.
“That’s the code name Barnes was given by the intelligence community. He’s credited with over 12 major assassinations in the last fifty years.”
“Huh.” A slow smile stretched across Sam’s face. He might have almost died, but he’d actually managed to wound the apparently infamous Winter Soldier. Not bad for a retired pararescue. His smile fell. “How bad is my house?”
“The repair work should be done by the time you’re discharged,” Natasha said brightly. “We could go pick out new dishes together.”
“Together?” Sam’s eyebrows shot up. “Like a date?”
“Yeah.” Natasha grinned at him. “We could multitask.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, grinning back. “Okay.”
She checked her watch and sighed dramatically. “Well, now that I know you’re on the mend, I should probably get back to work.”
“Can’t Tony Stark do without you for another few minutes?” Sam looked at her through his lashes.
Natasha laughed. “Nice try. But I promise I’ll come back. And maybe I’ll bring my boss.”
Sam frowned. “Why would I want you to bring your boss?”
She shrugged in a way that looked far too casual. “No reason.” She leaned over the railing and kissed him gently on the side of the mouth, just next to the line of stitches from his cheek. “I’m glad you survived, Sam,” She whispered against his cheek.
Before he could react, she was gone.
When he woke up again, Melinda was in the room, along with a tall man wearing a long black leather trench coat. He had a bald head, a goatee and an eye patch and Sam let out a little squeak of fear before he could stop the sound.
“Hi, Sam,” Melinda said. “This is Nick Fury, director of SHIELD.”
“Hi, Sam,” Nick said. There was just enough tone to make those two words sound sarcastic as hell. “Sorry for waking you up.”
“Isn’t SHIELD overrun with Nazis?” Sam asked.
Nick grimaced. “We’re working on it.”
Melinda shot the bald man a look. “What Nick means is that, yes, there were some of Hydra’s leftovers in our organization. But we’ve ferreted them out and we’re in the process of making sure that they’re detained.”
“That’s great,” Sam said. He darted a look between Melinda and Nick. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” Melinda said sincerely.
“I wanted to see the man who actually injured the Winter Soldier in a fight,” Nick said. “Do you know how rare that is?”
“I might have some idea,” Sam said. He moved the head of his bed into an upright position. “But I still got the shit beat out of me.”
“That’s to be expected. Hell, even Captain America needed time in hospital after they took him down.”
“Is Steve okay?” Sam asked, concerned. They hadn’t gotten off on the best foot, but that didn’t’ mean he wanted anything to happen to him. Especially not at the hands of his suddenly not-dead best friend.
“He’s fine,” Nick said dismissively. “Out of hospital already. But that’s not why we’re here.”
“So why are you here?” Sam asked again, glancing between the both of them.
“To offer you a job,” Nick said.
Sam blinked. “What?”
“SHIELD is involved with the Avengers Initiative,” Melinda explained. “It’s a team of people with extraordinary skills and abilities who help defend the planet from threats.”
“I saw them in the Battle of New York last year,” Sam said, thinking of Natasha. “They were pretty amazing.”
“Only six of them, and they defeated an entire alien army,” Melinda said. “Very impressive.”
“Yeah, they did and it was,” Nick said, “but this is no time to rest on laurels. Those aliens are not the only ones out there. There are lots of super-powered bad guys from other planets. Trust me.”
“I’ve dealt with them, too,” Melinda added. “And I have colleagues who have dealt with even more.”
“We’ve met alien species that could make the Battle of New York look like Stark Expo,” Nick continued grimly. “We have to be prepared.”
“Super-powered aliens,” Sam repeated, wondering if maybe the concussion the Winter Soldier had given him had suddenly gotten worse. “But you already have the Avengers. What’s this got to do with me?”
“You're one of the only two people in the entire world who were trained to fly an EXO-7,” Nick said. “And you went toe-to-toe with the Winter Solider and didn’t die. I’d say that’s pretty extraordinary.”
Fly the EXO-7? Sam felt hot and cold all at once. He missed flying more than he could say, but the last time he flew, it was to pick up the pieces of Riley the RPG had left behind.
Melinda saw the way his face changed. “Don’t decide now,” she said. “Don’t even decide this month. Wait until you’re back home. Then we can talk.” Her expression let him know that she’d left the about Riley part of that sentence unsaid.
“And if makes any difference, Natasha’s the one who said we should ask you to join the team,” Nick said.
“Natasha?” Sam repeated. Even thinking of her made him feel a little better.
“One of the best I have,” Nick said proudly.
Sam frowned. “I thought she worked for Tony Stark?”
“It’s complicated,” Melinda said. “Tony Stark’s an Avenger, too.”
Sam sat up straighter. “Thanks. Thanks for the offer. But I don’t think I can.”
Nick narrowed his eye. “You sure?”
“We’ll talk later,” Melinda said, shaking her head at him in warning before Sam could say anything else. It was clear she didn’t want him to refuse outright. “Feel better,” she called as she ushered Nick out of the room.
Sam lay back on his bed, feeling drained from the short conversation. The idea of flying in an EXO-7 again was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. Nick wanted him to help fight aliens, for fuck's sake! It sounded like he’d be heading into Afghanistan all over again. Sam knew he was a good fighter and an excellent pilot in the EXO-7, but Nick Fury was talking about defending the Earth from super-powered threats from other planets.
What even was his life?
Three days later he was released from hospital.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay awhile?” Maria asked, brows drawn in concern.
“I’ll be fine,” Sam promised as he pulled the keys out of his jacket pocket. He’d left it hanging from his right shoulder in deference to his cast.
“You have a broken arm,” Maria pointed out needlessly. “How are you going to function?”
“Take out and sweatpants.” Sam grinned at her. “And I’ll cover it with a plastic bag when I need to shower.”
“Okay,” she said skeptically. “Just don’t push too hard. Or make any dumb decisions.”
Sam knew that by ‘dumb decisions’ she meant ‘start drinking.’ “I promise I won’t,” he replied, looking her straight in the eye. He’d been craving alcohol almost as often as he’d been thinking about Riley while he’d been in hospital, but he refused to continue to slide down that slippery slope.
She must have seen something on his face that convinced her, because her shoulders dropped. “Alright. But call me the minute you need anything. You hear?”
“Yes ma’am.” He smiled.
“I’ll be by on Friday after work to pick you up for dinner.” Maria started walking towards her car.
“You don’t have to do that!”
“Monica would love to see you!” She called over her shoulder. “She’d got the biggest crush on you, and I’m encouraging her attraction to decent men.”
Sam laughed, blushing from the praise. “Your daughter is six.”
“Never to early to learn,” Maria said as she got into her car. She beeped twice and then sped away as if she were driving a Ferrari instead of a Toyota.
Sam chuckled and shook his head, opening the door to his place. He was incredibly lucky to have a boss like Maria. She was more his big sister than his manager. He was very fortunate to have her in his life. Same with Melinda, he thought as he went inside and flicked on the lights. He knew both of them had lived through a lot, and both of them had ended up stronger and better for it. He wanted to be more like them.
He locked his door and turned around, immediately noticing that his walls were no longer the dull off-white he hadn’t bothered to paint. Someone at SHIELD, who had a definite eye for colour, had painted them a charming buttercup yellow. The dark wood accents looked brilliant in contrast. He grinned to himself and took in the rest of his space.
Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes were sitting on the couch in his living room.
“Holy shit!” Sam cried, throwing himself painfully into the door.
“Don’t!” Steve yelped. He and Bucky both stood, arms outstretched in a vain attempt to stop Sam from flailing. “We don’t mean you any harm.”
Sam stood, back pressed against the wall, good hand against his chest. “What the fuck are you guys doing in here?”
Steve and Bucky looked at each other. Bucky dropped his gaze and Steve licked his lips nervously. “We owe you an apology,” Steve said.
“What?” Gingerly, Sam stepped away from the door, but only far enough that he could still reach behind him and undo the lock. He kept his hand on the doorknob in case he had to run.
Steve straightened his shoulders, apparently deciding to go first. “You tried to tell me that Bucky was alive, and I…I called you a liar. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”
That wasn’t the way Sam remembered it. “I didn’t say that Bucky was alive,” he blurted before he remembered that Bucky Barnes was right there, and could still kill him without any real effort.
Steve’s eyes reflected his confusion. “But when you came to my apartment. You gave me his letter. You tried to tell me—”
“I didn’t say that he was alive,” Sam repeated. “I didn’t know he was.”
“But then how did you know to tell Natasha to look for him?” Steve asked. Barnes was still standing by Steve, gaze down. Motionless and more silent as he ever been when he was a ghost.
“He told me.” Sam indicated Barnes with his chin. “When he was a ghost. He left the Treasury of Science book open to the chapter on cryogenics. I figured it out from there.”
“I don’t remember,” Barnes said quietly. His eyes never left the floor.
Sam moved a step closer to Barnes. Curious, frightened and angry all at once. “You came to my house! As a ghost! How can you not remember that?”
“It was when I was…frozen,” Barnes said haltingly. “I would close my eyes, and wake up here. But I don’t remember how. Or why.”
“You dripped blood all over my carpet,” Sam said, incredulous. “You scared the living shit out of me! How can you not remember?”
Barnes shrugged and moved even closer to Steve, as if the conversation was making him upset. Well, you’ve made me plenty upset, too, Sam thought angrily. “So, what do you remember?” Sam asked nastily, “nearly beating me to death?”
Barnes flinched: a full body reaction like he’d been physically struck. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, voice nearly a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t him,” Steve said desperately. “He’d been brainwashed. For years! He didn’t know—”
“But I still did it,” Barnes smiled at Steve as he said it, but his expression was infinitely sad. It was obvious that they’d both had several variations of the same discussion between Barnes’ rescue and now. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
All of Sam’s anger drained out of him at once. “Oh, for fuck's sake,” he swore. “Sit your asses down. I’m ordering dinner.”
Bucky had picked at his food, and then passed out like a toddler at a family function.
Steve was sitting on the couch with Barnes’ head in his lap. He was stroking through Bucky’s hair and gazing down at him like, well, exactly like you’d expect someone to look when they got their best friend back after thinking they were dead.
Sam gave Steve a glass of coke and then sat down on one of the armchairs kitty-corner to the couch. He raised his eyebrows. “He going to sleep long?”
“He’s been crashing like this and then sleeping for ten to twelve hours at a stretch,” Steve said apologetically. “Considering he’s a highly-trained assassin, he’s very hard to rouse. Do you want me to wake him?” He bit his lip.
“Nah.” Sam shook his head. “I’ve got a spare bedroom you guys can crash in. As long as you don’t mind moving him to the bed on your own.”
“That’d be great!” Steve enthused, then he blushed, dark enough that it was visible in the low light of the table lamp. “Not that we like to sleep in the same bed, or anything. We hardly ever do it—or never really. Yeah. Never. We never do.”
Sam fastened him with a hard look. “Steve, I read that letter, and I’ve seen the way y’all look at each other. Please don’t tell me you don’t sleep in the same bed.”
Steve’s blush deepened. “We sleep in the same bed.”
“Good to hear.” Sam took a sip of his cola. “Someone should get a goddamn happy ending.” He smiled, both sad and bitter. It was hard to see Steve have everything he’d ever wanted, literally in his lap.
“You know,” Steve said after a moment of silence, “I didn’t understand it. Why he came to you for help, instead of me. I still don’t. But I’m glad he did.”
“Thanks,” Sam said. He watched Bucky sleeping for a few breaths, the satisfying rhythm of Bucky’s chest rising and falling as he breathed. “I have no idea why it was me. I’m sure those artifacts had something to do with it, but beats me what.”
“Who knows?” Steve shrugged. His eyes were on Bucky, and watching his own fingers card through his hair. “Maybe he knew that you’d find his letter. Maybe he knew you wouldn’t judge him for it.” Steve’s words were casual, but the tension in his shoulders gave away just how much this conversation meant to him. Sam didn’t know much about attitudes towards homosexuality in the thirties when Steve was growing up, but he was sure they weren’t as open-minded as they were today. And ‘today’ in the U.S. wasn’t that great to begin with.
“No judgement here,” Sam said. He took another drink, suddenly wishing it were a lot stronger: fortification for what he was going to say next. But if there was ever a time to say it, it was now. “I was in love with a man once, too.”
Steve’s head snapped up. “What?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. Pain squeezed his chest. It turned his stomach and he set his glass down, suddenly sickened by the too sweet liquid inside. “My wingman, Riley. We trained in the EXO-7 program together. You hear of it?”
“Yeah.” Steve was sitting forward now, head nodding. “Fury mentioned it to me.”
Sam smiled, even though his eyes had started to burn with grief. “Fury’s talking about me, is he?”
Steve smiled back. “Maybe a little. What happened?”
“We started out as friends, but the longer we trained together, the more we liked each other. And then, one day we ended up together.” The brief description left out all the nights of silent make-out sessions in their shared quarters, catching each other’s cries of pleasure in their mouths. The way they studiously avoided anything but the most common of touches when they were out in public, barely made eye contact in case it gave too much away. The giddy excitement of falling in love with your best friend.
“But this was a time in the American military called ‘don’t ask; don’t tell.’ It meant that queer servicemen and women could be in the military, but no one could ask about their orientation, and they themselves couldn’t talk about it. It was considered okay as long as no one knew. You were forced to keep your relationship undercover at all costs.”
“That’s like what it was like when I was in the army,” Steve said. “Only if they even suspected, you’d get a blue ticket and forced out. And the rest of your life would be hell.”
“So, what we lived with wasn’t quite that bad, but not that great,” Sam agreed. “But Riley and I got through training without anyone being the wiser. And then we were sent on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.” Sam stopped. He took a long swig of his cola even though he could no longer stand the taste. He had to blink rapidly to clear the tears forming in his eyes.
“And he died,” Steve finished the story, voice soft. “Sam, I’m so sorry.”
“It was like I was only up there to watch; you know?” Sam said, wiping his eyes.
“Yeah, I do,” Steve said, looking down at Bucky. “I know exactly how that feels.”
“But you got him back, you lucky sonofabitch!” Sam turned his head away, no longer able to look Steve in the eye. “Do you know how much I want that? Just one more chance to be with him again?”
“Yeah, I do,” Steve said again. “Because, up until last week, I would’ve given anything to see Bucky again. God, I hated you so much when you came into my apartment. You had the letter Bucky had written saying he was in love with me, but you’d found it. Because his ghost had appeared in your house. I hated you.”
Sam turned to look at him, eyes still wet. “Is that why you called me a liar?”
Steve nodded. “I just didn’t want what you were saying to be true.”
Sam chuffed out a laugh. “I get that.”
“I’ll never be sorry that Bucky’s come back,” Steve said. “But I’m really sorry that it wasn’t Riley.”
“Thanks, Steve,” Sam said, strangely touched by that declaration. “That means a lot. And thanks. Thanks for letting me tell you. I haven’t, uh, really told too many people that before.”
“I’m happy you told me,” Steve said. “My therapist says it’s good sometimes, to talk about what hurts.”
Sam laughed. “Would you believe I am a therapist?”
“Sure,” Steve grinned. “Why not?”
Steve carried Bucky to bed not soon after. Sam realized that he’d begun thinking of Barnes as ‘Bucky’ at some point that evening and wondered exactly when he’d started doing that. He decided that he liked calling him Bucky, liked no longer being afraid.
He was sitting in the near dark of his living room, slowly finishing his cola. The ice had long since melted, leaving the liquid tasting watered down and flat, but he couldn’t find the energy to care.
Telling Steve about Riley had shifted something inside him. It was like before he’d been insubstantial; formless. As much a ghost as Bucky had been. And now, instead of a weight being lifted, it was like telling his story had made him more solid, more whole. He was a bisexual man who’d witnessed the death of his partner right in front of him. That was his truth, as painful and ugly as it was. He wasn’t going to avoid it anymore.
He checked his phone and saw that it was only ten thirty, although the quiet and the dark made it feel much later. He sent a text:
Hey Melinda, he wrote. it’s time I told you about Riley.
The response was almost instantaneous. I want to hear whatever you want to tell me. When?
Sam glanced over at the bedroom where two super-soldiers were sleeping and smiled. He was pretty sure he’d be busy in the morning. Probably directing Steve and Bucky on how to make breakfast in the modern world, since it’d be hard to cook one-handed. Tomorrow afternoon, maybe?
I’ll be at the diner for 2 pm, she wrote. You’re paying.
He sent her a thumbs up and went to pocket his phone, then he pulled it out again and sent one more text. Hey Natasha. How would you feel if I became an Avenger?
The response took a little longer this time: I would love to save the world beside you. :)
Tell your boss, Sam texted back. And then he added a heart emoji. Because, once upon a time, Bucky Barnes had been in love with Steve Rogers. And he'd almost died without Steve ever knowing.
He pressed send.