“I didn’t back Steve on the Sokovia Accords,” Sam says unprompted one day. They’re so close to apprehending the Flagsmashers and wrapping up this ridiculous saga.
“I don’t follow,” Bucky says.
“I was the one who refused to sign it first. Not Steve.”
Sam says it so softly that Bucky has to strain to hear him. Sam is loud and chatty and half the time he keeps up a constant stream of chatter just to get on Bucky’s nerves, but Bucky’s coming to realize that when he really wants to make himself heard, he’s soft spoken and mild. Bucky doesn’t entirely follow his train of thought, though.
The thing is, Sam is unreadable when it really matters. He offers words of comfort where needed – in Germany, after seeing Walker with the shield that wasn’t his, knowing that it had affected Bucky just as much as himself; in Madripoor, Bucky’s hand on the throat of some henchman or other, Sam’s hand on his when the Soldier’s memories threatened to overtake him; even in Riga, when Bucky’s guilt over releasing T’Chaka’s killer bubbled to the surface and Sam had checked in with him even though he couldn’t have possibly known about Bucky’s meeting with Ayo. Sam speaks with his eyes, always a searching look that leaves Bucky raw and feeling like he’s been x-rayed. I see you , is what those eyes say.
In contrast, Bucky’s words of comfort feel hollow. He knows that Isaiah is still a live wire for Sam, checks in with him after Madripoor when he can tell the conversation with Nagel weighs heavy on his mind. But he doesn’t see the way Sam does. He knows he’d missed something important because that conversation had ended in an argument and a threat from Sam to destroy the shield.
He never gets a chance to ask Sam what he’s getting at, because Torres signals to them that they’re at the drop point before all hell breaks loose.
In the end, after Zemo and the Power Broker and whoever else decides to show their head from the emporium of supervillains are dealt with and they finally have a moment of peace, Bucky says, “The shield looks good on you.”
Sam freezes a few paces ahead of Bucky, the shield strapped loosely to his wrist.
“We make a good team,” Bucky says softly.
What he doesn’t expect is for Sam to whirl around suddenly. The look of barely restrained fury is enough to nearly knock Bucky off he’s feet. They fight without ever really fighting all the time, squabbles over who went left and who went right and who was supposed to lead and who was supposed to follow, but never has he seen Sam look like this before. The fury verges on hurt and it’s so fucking visceral that Bucky can barely breathe.
“You don’t get to say that,” Sam says quietly. His voice shakes and he closes his eyes like he’s steadying himself.
“I said I’d squash it until the mission was over, and I did. But you know what? I’m not doing this anymore.”
“You don’t get to tell me what a good team is. Not after all the shit we just went through. You invited yourself to Munich, and I thought, ‘ Fine. I could use the extra set of hands.’ We went through it together against Thanos and I respected that.”
Sam shakes his head. “But then you went off on some lone wolf woe-is-me bullshit, and look at where it got us. You broke Zemo out without even asking if I was down with that. You knew I wasn’t and you forced my hand. Now I’m an accomplice.”
“He was our only lead–”
“Bullshit. That field trip to Madripoor led us right back to Karli. Torres ended up tracking them to Riga anyway.”
“But the Power Broker–”
“–showed his ugly face in the end. All we got out of Madripoor was you digging up your trauma and us getting our faces plastered all over the internet. I promised Sharon one goddamn thing and I can’t even deliver on that now.”
“But I went along with it, fine,” Sam continues. “I knew it couldn’t have been easy reaching back into that headspace, doing what you did to Selby’s men.” The memory blindsides Bucky. “So I tabled it.” Sam taps out a tally with his fingers.
“And back in Baltimore, you’d been too keyed up about Steve being wrong about you to even listen to what I had to say. Again, I tabled it.” Another tally.
“I’ve been meeting you halfway this entire time, man, and I’ve gotten near nothing in return. You kept Isaiah a secret from me, and at first I thought you were just clueless about how damn significant it would’ve been for me to know about him.” Sam shakes his head.
“But then we met him. You saw what they did to him. The one Black supersoldier – a fucking hero – and look what they did to him. You saw it with your own eyes and you still sat there and lectured me about what you thought I should’ve done with that goddamn shield.”
“There’s precedent for it, you know,” Sam says. It takes Bucky a moment to realize Sam is expecting an answer.
Bucky doesn’t know, is the thing. He feels like he’s all of five years old again, put on the spot. He’s reminded of Zemo and his fucking the African American experience this and comprehensive that ; he’d felt chastised and embarrassed enough to pretend like he’d had any clue what themes lurked in Marvin Gaye’s work. Sam just searches him with those eyes, searches Bucky for something yet unfathomable and decides he hasn’t found it. That hurts more than anything else; Bucky wishes he could sink into the ground, make himself as small as possible. Sam doesn’t notice, or else doesn’t care, and just plows on with a scoff.
“You don’t even know the true history of the country you’re living in. Figures.” He shakes his head. “You’re not ever going to be able to separate the shield from the history Black folks have endured at the hands of this country. Not now, not ever.”
Sam doesn’t even look angry anymore. Angry, Bucky can deal with. It would be a relief, even.
Instead, Sam looks at him with a disappointment that somehow surpasses what Steve could have ever accomplished.
“Whatever. I tabled that, too,” Sam says. “And then after Madripoor, after we heard that doctor go on and on about Isaiah’s blood like he wasn’t even a real human-being? I said my piece and all you did was throw that shield bullshit back in my face.”
“Sam–” Bucky tries again. He’s mortified to hear the crack in his own voice.
“It’s honestly breathtaking,” Sam says with something that might be akin to genuine wonder or maybe even morbid curiosity in his voice. “We saw the same things in Baltimore and Madripoor, but your head was so far up your own ass that you never once stopped to think all of it was just proof to me. That the shield in my hands wouldn’t make any damn sense.”
It’s the kind of statement that should be screamed into Bucky’s face, but he’s learning that when Sam’s angry – when he’s truly angry – he’s just as soft-spoken as he is when he’s in one of his pensive moods. And he lets his anger build and build and build until it bursts in spectacular fashion.
Sam’s not even done yet. “And that’s another thing. Stealing the shield from Walker…” Sam rolls his eyes at the memory. “You want to run around with that giant frisbee, fine. That’s your business. But then you forced it on me–”
“That’s not fair,” Bucky says immediately. Desperately. “You didn’t have to accept it.”
“The whole damn country was watching,” Sam says hotly. “It was either accept it, or shit all over Steve fucking Rogers’s legacy and make myself into the villain half the country was already hoping I’d turn out to be.”
“You were dead wrong for that,” Sam says. “I stuck around until we sent Zemo to Wakanda because it was the right thing to do. After Munich, though, this little adventure was all you. The prison break, Madripoor, the shield.”
Sam shoves the shield into Bucky’s arms, the impact so sudden that it forces him back a step.
“Since you’re so obsessed with this thing, it’s yours. Congrats,” Sam says sarcastically. “I’m sure you’ll do it proud.”
Bucky lets out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.
“For what it’s worth,” Sam says, “Steve might not have understood everything about me. But in Vienna, when it came time to sign the accords? He was considering it. I put my foot down first and he listened.”
Sam shrugs. “Whatever you thought we were, it’s not a team.”
Bucky knows where to drive the knife in to kill a man in as few twists of the wrist as possible – a brutal economy of movement and technique. But Sam...it pales in comparison to what Sam’s capable of. His weapons aren’t knives and his targets may not be made of flesh and blood, but he knows exactly where he needs to strike to rip Bucky open raw. Bucky feels like he’s been flayed alive.
“How about that long vacation?” Sam says, and claps Bucky on the shoulder.
And we’ll never have to see each other ever again goes unsaid.
The thing about ignoring Sam’s texts was that Bucky had always responded if they were actually important. It just so happened that most of the nonsense Sam sent was inane prattling about his day, about his job, his sister, his nephews. Now that he’s on the receiving end of it, though, it feels awful.
3/25/21, 2:58 AM
3/28/21, 1:51 AM
Can we talk?
3/31/21, 3:05 AM
Let me know what to do and I’ll do it.
Read 3:34 AM
4/1/21, 12:42 AM
Or if there’s anything you need.
Read 1:05 AM
Yesterday, 1:00 AM
I’m available if you need another body for a mission .
Read 1:02 AM
A week into the admittedly one-sided exchange, Sam turns his damn read receipts on. It’s ridiculous and passive aggressive and fucking asinine and it gets under Bucky’s skin immediately. It’s a form of twenty-first century psychological warfare that he’s unfamiliar with and already can’t stand. Mainly, he hates that it makes him seem desperate (he’s not), needy (he might be, especially when he realizes with horror that he actually misses Sam’s rambling texts), and ridiculous (he definitely is, because he’s letting petty mind games get to him).
Normally, Sam would send him nearly daily updates on his comings and goings – whether he’d been in New York, D.C., or New Orleans. The radio silence is unsettling. Bucky wonders if Sam made good on his promise to take a long vacation. And then....
The thing about apologies is that Bucky isn’t sure he’s ever done a proper one in his entire life, at least nothing beyond a rote “I’m sorry” with the “let’s move on” part left unspoken. But it stands to reason, Bucky thinks, that a proper apology can’t be given if he’s not completely certain what he’s dealing with. That’s all well and good because he’s got the world at the tips of his fingers, is what Yori always said. And when he grows frustrated with reading on his tiny phone screen, the New York Public Library is only a train ride away.
Sam had mentioned precedent, so Bucky’s first search is for medical experimentation. He knows for a fact he was good at this once, a memory of Steve whining about him being too good at exams coming up unbidden. He reads voraciously. Anything and everything that might offer a clue on what he’d missed. And it doesn’t take long for him to find what he’s looking for.
He learns with dawning horror. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Eugenics. God, the fucking Nazis had even modeled their race science on the American school of thought. The things that the history books left out. Some of it was even happening under his nose in the 30s, he’d just been blissfully unaware. He somehow ends up down a rabbit hole where words like `prison industrial complex’ and `school-to-prison pipeline’ make increasingly more persistent appearances. New Jim Crow. COINTELPRO. War on drugs. The way all of these horrors reached their long arms into the twenty-first century.
Bucky’s going to be sick. The memories come up one after another.
Just give him your ID so we can leave.
You think you can wake up one day and decide who you want to be? It doesn’t work like that. Well, maybe it does for folks like you.
So you’re telling me that there was a Black supersoldier decades ago and nobody knew about it.
This is what you’re not going to do. You’re not going to come here in your over-extended life and tell me about my rights.
The shield wasn’t yours to give away.
He spends the next week in his downtime reading. With the mission being over and his parole in jeopardy, his downtime mostly coincides with every day of the week.
Had Steve known?
No, he thinks. Steve was compassionate, but he wouldn’t have known because he’d taken one look at the problems of twenty-first century America and decided he’d had enough. Then he’d run back to the 40s to live out some fantasy that simply didn’t – couldn’t – exist anymore. Had he eventually become aware of all the issues plaguing this country that they’d been able to ignore as starry-eyed kids in Brooklyn? Bucky hopes not, because that would mean he’d...no.
A part of Bucky thinks he’s so surprised because he’d thought things – race relations, civil rights, not things , his brain amends – had been getting better in the 40s. Deep down, though, he knows that’s a lie. A 2 AM read through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States confirms it. Shady politicians. Klansmen who went back to their day jobs as cops, judges, firefighters. Mass incarceration taking its place as the new king on the throne of segregation. One injustice traded for another.
There had even been white folks raising an uproar about these hidden horrors back then. The seeds of those movements had even been there in the 30s. Bucky tells himself that he’d been raised during the Great Depression, that his family had been too focused on putting food on the table to focus on social movements, but that, too, ends up being a lie. The poorest and working class whites – some, at least – in movement and solidarity with civil rights. Not him, though. Apparently he’d had his head up his ass back then, too.
Bucky can see the bigger picture a tiny bit more clearly, now.
Fine. So he’s been disarmed of the little lies he’d used as shields, and he also owes Sam one hell of an apology.
Somehow, he doesn’t think “I’m sorry, I was ignorant then but I read some books and now I know better” is going to cut it. Maybe a commitment to do better would work? Perhaps after Baltimore, but not now. That ship had long since sailed. Some grand act of service, then? He’s sure he can think of something Sam needs in this post-Blip world that he can provide. He vaguely remembers Sarah mentioning something about a ship and bank loan. That could be a starting point.
It doesn’t take much time to find the public records on the Wilson family business and then the not-so-public records on the denied bank loan. It wouldn’t take much for him to pry a little, not when seedy bankers were astonishingly amenable to the threat of violence. But he’s reminded of Zemo and figures that he ought not to do anything so drastic that could jeopardize Sam’s family situation further.
He snorts. Did growth that came several months late still count?
In the end, he decides to rip the bandage off quickly, which is how he finds himself in the sticky Louisiana heat with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, staring back at an incredulous Sam through his open door.
“I did some reading recently,” Bucky says.
It’s not outright refusal, so Bucky continues.
“About, um, the things you mentioned last time. Precedent.”
For someone who’s normally so expressive with his language, Sam’s one-word answers are as nerve-wracking as anything.
“I didn’t fully appreciate the situation that you were in. That you’re still in,” Bucky amends. “And the historical context for that situation.”
Sam shrugs. “It’s cool,” he says in a way that doesn’t sound like he really believes it. Bucky wonders if this is a test; he feels just as lost as he did on that plane a week ago.
“Let’s do this outside,” Sam says, closing the door behind him and ushering Bucky away from it. “Walk with me.”
They head down to the pier mostly in silence until Bucky breaks it. “I’m sorry for making it all about me,” he says.
Sam stares at him. It’s true Bucky might stare a little too much on occasion, but Sam’s stares are utterly unnerving in the way he seems to see right through Bucky when he really wants to, like he’s already mapped out all there is to know.
“It’s fine,” Sam says after a beat, and then “what’d you do with the shield?”
And this time it’s absolutely a test, which isn’t exactly fair. “It makes a good fruit bowl,” he says carefully.
Sam snorts. “I’m sure it does. Any idea what you’re gonna do with it?”
Bucky has to think carefully about what he says next. For the most part, the honest answer is that he has no fucking idea, just that it shouldn’t be destroyed.
“I’m not planning on using it, if that’s what you mean,” Bucky says.
“But you think someone else should ,” Sam says, more a statement than a question.
“I....yes. I don’t think it needs to be destroyed. With the right person, it has the potential to do a lot of good.”
“You’re asking for it to be a symbol of something that it’s never ever been,” Sam says softly. “At least, not a symbol for everyone.”
“We can change that,” Bucky says hotly, aware that he’s raising his voice now. “Look, I’m trying to learn. I’m trying real hard here.”
Sam sighs. “Do you remember all those texts I sent you last year?”
It’s a non-sequitur and they both know it.
“You’re not the only one who Steve left,” Sam says. “All I wanted was to talk to someone – anyone – who knew Steve and could tell me what to do with the shield. That’s what I thought I needed, at least.”
Bucky can feel the guilt roiling in his gut again. The texts had been small talk, which he was no good at. If he’d known Sam had needed a confidant...he’s still not sure he would’ve answered.
Sam seems to pick up on this. “It’s okay,” he says earnestly. “I know you had a lot of shit on your plate. Besides, I don’t think it would’ve helped anyway.”
Maybe it’s the kind of reassurance that’s meant to ease his guilt, but it’s a low blow and Bucky feels every bit of it.
“I’m just saying,” Sam continues, “it’s a complicated issue and it’s not ever gonna be settled in such a short time. I, um, appreciate you trying to understand though. And trying to help – it means a lot.”
Bucky lets out a little huff of frustration. Not at Sam, but at this . This whole thing about legacies that has to be so damn complicated and confusing. Sam puts him to work shifting crates and bins on the pier, and Bucky’s grateful for the distraction, the two of them working mostly in silence except to rib and tease the other for the tiniest of mistakes. The peace feels tenuous, though. It’s a return to the way things were before Munich, and had Bucky not known what he does now, it might’ve even been a relief. But all things considered, he wants more. To help Sam figure out how the legacy of Captain America fits into Sam’s story. To figure out how that same legacy fits into his own story. And the shield...it doesn’t feel like he’s any closer to dealing with that particular minefield.
When they’re done working, Sam sets him up in the guest bedroom, which answers the question of whether or not Bucky’s going to have to book a flight back to New York tonight.
“It’s good to see you again, man,” Sam says.
Bucky doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve it. It’s incomprehensible to him that there are people out there like Sam – people who are so fundamentally good . Bucky doesn’t deserve it. He’s only going to drag Sam down with him again, but he’s not strong enough to refuse the lifeline that Sam throws out to him.
One of the only benefits of the entire world seeing footage of the Winter Soldier in Madripoor is that they’re fully aware of what he’s capable of now, “they” including low-life fascists who think it’s fun to roam the streets of the city under the guise of authority.
Normally, Bucky would hide the vibranium arm under several layers of clothing. For this, though, displaying it prominently works in his favor.
It’s after curfew and there’s a palpable anticipation in the air, a line of officers in riot gear ahead of him and a gaggle of remaining counterprotestors penned in behind him. He wears a mask mainly out of courtesy to the other protestors, but it’s largely decorative – it doesn’t hide his identity on account of the glaringly obvious metal arm, and it doesn’t protect him from the tear gas on account of the fact that tear gas has almost no effect on him. It’s taken him a while to get to this point, but the mask no longer triggers flashbacks to his time as the Soldier. A small victory when all is said and done.
There are lingering agitators on the sidelines. Proud Boys, they had called themselves. Just the sight of them makes Bucky angry; the cops seem to have no problems with them .
Tonight, he’s focused. The anxiety he has about slipping into the Soldier’s mindset evaporates the second he hears the sound of a baton on flesh. He moves to intercede, catching an arm in his left hand, squeezing with a sickening crunch while the counterprotestor scuttles clear of the chaos.
On nights like these, he only has two rules. The first: don’t initiate. The second: no one gets hurt who doesn’t deserve it. He’s sure Dr. Raynor would have a fucking field day if he ever shared them with her, which is exactly why she’ll never know about them.
He hasn’t broken any of his rules. He doesn’t have to hold back here. He twists until he hears a pop, dipping into the reserve of skills and anatomical knowledge that allow him to make sure it really hurts. The wailing scream he gets in response is confirmation enough that he’s hit his mark. He lands a kick to the chest, sending the officer crashing into the others. And he’s acutely aware that despite being the most dangerous person out here tonight, he’s never had them train a gun on him. Huh.
None of the remaining officers want to engage him, which suits him just fine. That leaves only the Proud Boys on the sidelines. He focuses his attention on the biggest and cockiest looking one of the group. A hunter’s gaze that had been forcibly assimilated into his body language over decades. For this, though, utilizing it is freeing. He advances forward with a sharp grin that’s all teeth, noting with dark satisfaction that the other clowns scatter easily and leave their supposed leader alone.
He’s in control. He repeats it like a mantra. He’s in control. He’s doing this because he can – because he wants to. And if he doesn’t think too hard about it, he can pretend like these darkest and most violence impulses within him don’t terrify him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s on the right side of history here, moved to action like millions of others. The only difference happens to be that Bucky’s got a highly specialized skillset which he can use reduce the numbers of innocent people lining jail cells at the end of each night. It’s a small thing, but he’s got to believe that it helps, and if also helps him to believe that there’s a good person lurking inside him somewhere, then who is he to not cling to it like a lifeline?
In his periphery, he sees that the counterprotestors have managed to slip by the barricade in the commotion. Good. Head Proud Boy chooses that moment to charge him. Bucky catches him by the shoulder and drives his left thumb in hard between neck and collarbone, and HPB crumples with a scream before even landing a blow. Bucky presses harder where he knows pain will be maximized, his arm buzzing with a telltale whir. It would be so easy to fracture the clavicle; the thought comes up unbidden and intrusive like all of the Soldier’s do, even when he knows his mind is his own now. He’s spared from the idea when HPB passes out from the pain.
Bucky shrugs. His work is done. The officers take that as their cue to move in, and he falters under the force of the clubbings. The pain barely registers, and the bruises will subside by morning anyway, courtesy of HYDRA. The handcuffs are laughable, as is the skittish looking officer assigned to usher him into the back of the cruiser. Bucky fixes him with a particularly intense glare just to watch him scurry away as soon as he closes the passenger door.
He makes bail easily. Something about a community bail fund which has come to his aid the last several times. Bucky doesn’t ask questions – he figures they’ve done the cost-benefit analysis and realize what they spend on bail for him alone saves them from the costs of a night that ends in mass arrests.
Once he’s back home, his phone lights up from the only person in his contacts list to bother sending him texts.
Today, 1:05 AM
I saw you on the TV again
Nice Vulcan Nerve Pinch lol
Seriously though, you okay??
Bucky has no idea what the hell a Vulcan Nerve Pinch is, but the texts are the first thing to return after his trip down to Louisiana. He wasn’t sure what, exactly, he was expecting to happen afterwards. The thing about the texts is that they’re so much like his old normal that it would be easy to ignore them, to settle into old routines again. But maybe Bucky doesn’t want to go back to pretending things are alright with Sam.
He hovers over Sam’s name before hitting the call button; Sam picks up after just two rings.
“Sam,” he says awkwardly, hoping the other man will get the ball rolling.
Sam laughs. “That’s my name. Just wanted to check in with you and make sure you’re okay.”
“You know means none of that stuff hurts me,” Bucky says, and immediately wants to kick himself for being so abrasive.
“That’s not what I’m asking about. Those news cameras really got all your angles, that’s all. You had that look in your eyes again.”
Of course Sam had noticed, the same way he had in Madripoor. Even in this tenuous peace they’ve carved out for themselves, he checks in on Bucky and somehow knows when something’s off. It makes Bucky feel like even more of an asshole for never answering the other texts – even more so for never reciprocating and checking in on Sam.
“I’m...handling it,” Bucky ventures carefully.
“You sound convinced.”
“I am ,” Bucky says more firmly. “It’s not as bad as it was in Madripoor. I’m in control now. I...I can stop myself anytime, but it scares me,” he says quietly.
“The Winter Soldier?”
“The violence,” Bucky says, more urgently this time. ”I was holding back last night. Madripoor too. I could have killed them all and not a single one of them could have stopped me.”
Several seconds pass before Sam responds. “But you didn’t.” He sounds hesitant.
“But if I did, who would’ve stopped me? No one should have that kind of power.”
Bucky holds the phone to his ear in silence while neither of them speaks. He adds, “The worst part is that I enjoyed doing it. N-not in Madripoor, but last night. To those assholes in the streets.” There’s a quiver to his voice that causes his cheeks to burn, but there’s nothing he can do about it, nevermind that Sam might be the only person alive to have seen him like this – in the hangar, after Zemo and the Power Broker.
“I mean, punching Nazis isn’t–”
“It’s not about the Nazis,” Bucky says quickly. “I’m fine with that part.” Sam laughs. “I’m not one of those people,” Bucky mutters. He tries to imagine what it would be like to be one of those hacks on the TV telling the nation that punching fascists makes you just as bad as they are.
“It’s about me hurting people. I enjoyed that, Sam.”
He lets out a shaky breath.
Sam gives a little hum, maybe to let Bucky know he’s still there, or maybe because he’s just as lost as Bucky is.
“It’s natural to want to see bad people punished,” Sam says eventually. “For better or for worse, it’s how modern society is wired. Someone commits a crime and we want to see them locked behind bars, even killed. Nevermind even thinking about rehabilitating those people, right?”
“Look, I know you’re not on social media,” Sam says with a laugh, like he already knows Bucky’s got a massive scowl on his face. “But there’s millions of people out there taking pleasure in seeing these people get a beatdown. Especially knowing that they’re never gonna see legal consequences for their actions. I’m just saying, the way you feel isn’t all that weird.”
“Do you remember the piers in Madripoor, when you threw that pipe?”
The scene replays vividly in his mind. It’s not something he can ever forget.
“I saw the look on your face. You telling me you enjoyed that, too?”
“Of course not.” She’d been a bounty hunter, sure, but it was a far cry from the type of evil roaming the streets of New York last night.
“Right. Fuck if I have all the answers. I’m just as lost as you,” Sam says. “But here’s how I see it. It matters who you’re accountable to, and I’m not talking about the Accords. There’s personal accountability to yourself, and based on this whole moment we’ve been having I figure you’re not entirely a lost cause in that department.”
“Thanks,” Bucky attempts to say sarcastically, but he can’t even manage that properly right now.
“And then there’s accountability to your community,” Sam goes on. “The New Yorkers who are organizing protests every single day – right now, those people are on your side. You know who’s posting your bail, right?”
Bucky shrugs, before realizing Sam can’t actually see him do that.
“You better believe those same people will let you know when you’re wrong. If you’ve got no conscience or morals, then that might not make a difference. But if you’re part of a community, I think that makes all the difference.”
“I don’t even know my neighbors,” Bucky says. He barely knows the counterprotest organizers, just shows up and does his thing and goes home.
“There’s always time to change that,” Sam says lightly.
“I...you’re right.” What Bucky means to say is thank you .
It’s true. God, all of it is true, and Sam lives up to his namesake because he’s got to be the most observant guy Bucky knows. He’s not even sure if any of the other Avengers ever noticed it, not even Steve. But in Leipzig, the escape was all Sam – he’d been the only one to see clearly enough that they weren’t all getting out without most of the team staying behind.
Their ledgers are so unbalanced right now Bucky’s got no fucking idea how he’s ever going to repay Sam. Sam’s got his words of wisdom, his family, his community – Bucky had spent one night in New Orleans and it was clear the guy was a pillar of his community. Bucky’s got decades of trauma and it seems like lately, all he does is take and take and take without ever knowing how to give.
The least he can do is make sure Sam is doing alright, but he’s not sure he knows how to do this. Maybe he did at some point before the war, but not now.
“How are things with you?” Bucky asks. The words come out stilted.
Sam laughs. “You sound constipated, man.”
“ Sam ,” Bucky says, exasperated. Even when they’re not fighting, Sam knows exactly how to get under his skin.
“Eh, they could be better.”
“Tell me about it?”
Sam sighs. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ve got enough on your plate.”
“I’ve got time for you, Sam.”
Had Sam ever actually been closed off, unreadable, or was it that Bucky had never even tried? Shame mixes with the guilt that’s already settled in his bones.
“You know about the family boat, right? My sister really needs it up and running if we’re gonna keep the business afloat. But our loan was denied.”
Bucky remembers digging up the info on the loan.
“My family’s been with that bank for generations, and they told us there’s nothing they can do for us.”
“That’s bullshit,” Bucky says.
“I helped save half the universe, but I guess that counts for shit,” Sam says bitterly. “You know that banker asked if I was a football player?”
“He thought he recognized me from somewhere. LSU was his guess.”
“Microaggression,” Bucky says immediately.
Sam lets out a bark of laughter. “Man, what?”
“It’s a microaggression.”
Sam laughs again, genuine and amused. “Who taught you that word?”
“I read an article about it,” Bucky says, ears burning.
“Look at you, all earnest and shit.” Bucky’s honestly not sure why Sam can’t stop laughing, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like he’s laughing at Bucky, and besides, it’s a nice sound.
“Anyway, loan denied. So now I’ve gotta fix up the boat on my own.” He sounds less angry, amusement still suffusing his tone.
“I can help,” Bucky says immediately.
“You know how to fix a boat?”
“How hard can it be?”
Sam snorts. “For someone who complains that I never have a plan, it doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had one a day in your life.”
“Whatever, see you soon.”
“Oh-hoh! Tell me you’re dropping everything to come see me, a guy might get the wrong idea.”
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Goodnight, Sam.”
He falls into a dreamless sleep and feels well-rested for the first time in months. Huh.
“I can’t believe you know how to use FaceTime,” Sharon says, delighted. All things considered, she’s not as pissed as Bucky might have expected.
“I’m sorry about the pardon,” he says. “I dragged Sam into that mess with Zemo, and it’s my fault he couldn’t get it for you.”
Sharon shrugs. “Honestly, it’s what I expected to happen. So, what was so important that it couldn’t wait?” She continues before Bucky has a chance to respond. “Is it about the domestic you’re in with your husband?”
“Oh come on, you two fight like a married couple.”
“And yet, we’re not married.”
“Fine, just a couple, then.”
“Nope, try again.”
“So you’re telling me all those looks you give him when you think he’s not looking don’t mean anything?”
Bucky rolls his eyes. “I don’t give him looks ,” he says and doesn’t miss the way it comes out defensively.
“Hmm. Well, you’re a terrible liar,” she says smugly. “Anyway, if it’s about the argument you two had, full disclosure: I already talked with Sam and I’m definitely on his side.”
It shouldn’t surprise him as much as it does. There’s plenty Sam doesn’t tell him about, like how Sam still goes on missions occasionally. And it’s not like the two of them had ever been a well-oiled machine, but in the end they’d at least gotten their acts together combat-wise. Not being asked to join Sam on those missions hurts more than he cares to admit.
“You think the shield should be destroyed, too?” Bucky asks.
“Honestly, I don’t really care what happens to that thing. Sam’s got the right idea of it, though.”
“That shield was built on the blood of a lot of people. I mean, Sam told me about Isaiah Bradley. It was the CIA that conducted those experiments and I knew fuck all about it. How do you think that made me feel?”
“It’s wrong,” Bucky agrees. “But in the hands of the right person...it could be a force for good in the world.”
“Oh my God ,” Sharon cackles. “Do you hear yourself right now? The world ? Madripoor might not be home for me, but it’s taught me one thing – the world doesn’t give a shit about America. They rammed that crap down our throats in school and we ate it right up. No one wants the military or the CIA coming in and fucking everything up in their country.”
“Why do you even care about that thing so much?” Sharon presses.
“It’s all that’s left of Steve’s legacy,” Bucky says fiercely.
“Hmm. Here’s how I see it. You look at the shield and you see something that belonged to your friend. Sam looks at the shield and sees all of the people who’ve suffered because of it. Now, Steve might’ve been an idiot, but I want you to look me in the eye and tell me Steve wouldn’t have had some serious reservations about carrying that thing if he knew what we know now.”
Bucky clenches his fists. He can’t say it, is the thing.
“All of it’s a fucking travesty,” Bucky says hotly. “But why not redefine what it means to carry the shield? Why not build something new?”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Isaiah’s words echo. You think you can wake up one day and decide who you want to be?
“Let me ask you something else, then. You’ve been busy with the police lately,” Sharon says knowingly. Bucky blushes; he’d always hated how the news stations hovered around those protests, even if he understood the importance. “Do you think arresting ‘bad’” – and she actually frames the word with air quotes – “cops is going to solve police brutality?”
“No,” Bucky says immediately. “It’s the entire system that’s the problem.”
“Hah! I love it. He reads one book and suddenly he wants to tear down the system.”
“Anyway,” Sharon continues. “There’s plenty of people who think reforming the police won’t work because you’re then asking them to be something they’ve never been in their entire history. You read about that yet?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “It’s...a compelling argument.”
“So, now you’re saying that you want to turn the shield into a symbol that it’s never been since Howard Stark created the damn thing. Does that make sense to you?”
Bucky swallows. Sam had said as much, too, and he knows they’re right, but he’s just so, so tired of being out of his depth.
“Look,” Sharon says. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. But I am saying it sounds like a hell of a lot of effort for something that’s not worth it.”
After a long silence, she says, “I heard what happened in Baltimore.” She sounds like she pities him, and Bucky fucking hates it. “Maybe it’s not my business, but it sounds like you’ve hitched your wagon to the shield because it belonged to Steve , and maybe you think he’s the only one who believed in you. That can’t be healthy, nevermind that it’s not fair to project all of that onto Sam. Steve gave him the shield to do with as he pleased.”
“Ahh,” Sharon interrupts. “Got some clients on their way up, gotta run.”
She ends the call, and then Bucky’s left with only his thoughts and a worldview that feels even more upended now than it had last month in the hangar with Sam.
He’s at the point where he’s already accepted that the shield is a flawed symbol, more emblematic of the pain and suffering of those used to recreate the serum than of the hope he’d once thought it stood for. And a part of him knows that Sharon’s right about what the shield means to Bucky, specifically. It’s just that for so long, he’d hinged everything on Steve’s stupid, misplaced hope that he’d maybe missed the others in his life who believed in him – or rather, other . Singular. He thinks Sam might have believed in him at one point. Before Munich, and before the prison break, and even before Madripoor, but perhaps not so anymore.
“Why didn’t you use the metal arm?” Sam asks with a confused lilt to his voice.
“I don’t always think of it immediately,” Bucky says awkwardly. “I’m right-handed.”
They stare at the haphazard way the hose is screwed on to the spigot.
“Huh,” Sam says after a beat. “How about that. I’ll grab a wrench.”
And that’s….nice. To not be viewed as an asset for once in his life. He doesn’t have the heart to tell Sam that he can just as easily use his left arm if he puts some thought into it.
“To be honest with you, we’re probably selling the boat.”
“I thought we were fixing it to help your family’s business.”
“I never said that. Level with me for a sec.”
Together, they manage to wrangle the hose on securely before Sam wipes his brow with his sleeve and plops onto the deck with a sigh. Bucky passes him another beer. It turns out that Sam has abso-fucking-lutely no idea how to fix a boat. Neither does Bucky, but between the blueprints and the fact that he’d always been hands-on, it somehow works out. Sam, on the other hand, throws his hands up half an hour into this ordeal and hovers around, commenting on how he doesn’t think that’s right, Bucky, and are you sure the screws should go on that tight?
“You’re shit at this, Wilson. You know that?” Bucky teases. There’s no heat behind it, though.
Eventually, Sam grunts and resigns himself to sitting on the deck and watching.
“Sarah’s been the one looking after the boat this whole time, right?” he says. “And it’s been tough since the Blip. I mean, the kids are her main priority, and business hasn’t exactly been booming lately.”
Bucky nods. The pier’s been a ghost town the entire time he’s been here.
“So when I came back and heard she was planning to sell it...the ship was our family’s legacy. So I made her go with me to the bank to take out a loan. I figured we’d keep the business afloat that way until we figured something out, but Sarah wasn’t having it.”
“Honestly, I think I was angry at myself for not being there for her sooner. Our parents passed the ship to Sarah after I enlisted, so really, it’s hers. And I came back yelling at her, that she had no right to sell it without me.”
Bucky swallows hard. He can see where this is going.
“I just thought if I could fix this one thing, everything would be alright. You know what I mean?”
Bucky does. For the first time, it feels like they’re seeing eye to eye. Sam must agree because he gives Bucky a searching look before nodding.
“It’s a wonder Sarah puts up with my shit,” Sam says with a self-deprecating laugh. “Turns out she was right all along.”
“If you had the money, you’d keep the boat though?”
Sam shrugs. “It’s not even really about the money. I mean, it’s sentimental and all, so maybe we’d keep it. But say we get it up and running. Who’s gonna man it? Who’s got time to staff the business?”
“If none of that were an issue, though?” Bucky presses like he’s trying to shepherd Sam to some far-off epiphany. He’s pretty sure that only works if the person doing the shepherding has a clue where they’re heading, though.
“That’s kind of the whole point,” Sam says pointedly. Bucky stops what he’s doing and levels Sam with a stare.
“But yeah,” Sam continues. “The restaurant used to be a cornerstone of the community, a way for us to help people in need. It’s my dream, though. If I could find a way to do it without dragging Sarah into my mess, sure. I was gone for so long – Afghanistan, then D.C., then the Blip. Sarah’s really the one who knows the ins and outs of the business.”
Sam’s got that pensive look again. “I think she’d probably help because that’s what she always does, but it’s just not fair to her, you know?”
Huh. It’s information to be filed away for later. Bucky’s not entirely sure what good that information will do, but it’s...significant. Even he realizes that.
Sam’s nephews wave at them from the house and Bucky waves back. They dash down to the docks and when Bucky turns around, Sam’s got the both of them pinned to the deck, tickling them mercilessly.
“Mr. Bucky, help!” AJ squeals with delight.
Bucky grins. He wipes the oil off of his hands and grabs Sam around the waist, easily looping his arms around Sam’s and linking them behind Sam’s head. Sam makes a dramatic show of struggling for the kids’ benefit.
“Get him!” Bucky yells.
AJ and Cass take that as their cue to pounce, scribbling their fingers all over Sam’s torso. And because Bucky is a bit of an asshole, he swaps Sam’s arms to his left hand and uses his right one to show the boys where they need to strike to really ratchet up the laughter. Sam starts thrashing around for real, and he can’t even swear at Bucky in front of the kids no matter how much he wants to, which is incredible.
Sam wriggles free, breathless with laughter.
“Oh, it’s on ,” he says with a smirk, and lunges at Bucky. AJ hoots with glee while Cass eggs them on.
And the thing is, Bucky might know a hundred different ways to kill a man with his bare hands, but also ingrained permanently into his memory are sensitive nerve clusters, pressure points, vulnerable joints that he can really exploit.
Sam gets a hand in the seam between metal and flesh which forces a high-pitched squeak out of Bucky – props to Sam, really. Sam’s also got the weight advantage, and it’s not like they’re aiming to hurt each other, which means Bucky’s got to be deliberate in his movements. Had this been a proper battle with Sam’s wings, they might have been evenly matched. But with just their bodies, close range, hand-to-hand? Sam really doesn’t stand a chance. It takes Bucky all of a few seconds to pin him down, then he’s mildly horrified to find that a few pointed squeezes to the pressure points on Sam’s hips, his stomach, and sides are enough to leave him incapacitated and howling with laughter. He makes a mental note that maybe they’re going to have to train that out of Sam – they’ve been in weirder combat situations before. For now though, he’s happy to hold this victory over Sam’s head from now until as long as they live.
Sam thwacks him on the chest. “Jerk.”
Bucky doesn’t have a chance to respond because the boys are on them again, begging to climb up Bucky’s arm. As he obliges, Sam smiles softly at him. The waning rays of golden sun bathe Sam’s body in a golden light.
It’s a startling moment of clarity for him in which he realizes two important things in quick succession. The first, which he registers with growing panic, is that Sharon was absolutely right – he’s in love . The second, more depressing than horrifying, is that he can never admit this to Sam. If he does, and if it goes badly, then he loses all of this. AJ and Cass, Sarah, weekends on the pier and home-cooked meals every night.
He’s spent all of a collective two weeks in New Orleans and already he’s been pulled head-first into the orbit of Sam’s family. He’d never needed any of this before, but once something has been actualized into the world and exists, it becomes impossible to even imagine how you’d ever lived without it before.
And so Bucky immediately resolves that if keeping this newfound sense of family and belonging means that Sam is forever unattainable, then so be it.
“You okay?” Sam asks. He’s still smiling, and Bucky can finally place the fluttering in his chest. Dammit.
He only realizes afterward how easily he was able to tap into the Soldier’s reserve of skills again without any of the accompanying panic.
When Sam calls with a mission, Bucky has to force himself to not sound too eager. Sam’s burgeoning trust is something to be hoarded away and treasured on long nights back in New York when he’s alone with his nightmares.
“It’s not the usual Avengers type stuff. More discrete, so no uniforms. You might get arrested, but I hope not,” is what Sam had said.
Bucky’s not sure what to wear, so he goes with his usual jeans, boots, and military jacket over a black t-shirt. When he touches down in Louisiana, Sam meets him at the airport dressed even more casually – the suede jacket over a red tee and fitted jeans. The jeans are new, Bucky notes. Sam usually prefers a more relaxed fit, but these look...good on him, accentuating his legs in all the right ways. It’s not like he’d ever overlooked the fact that Sam’s an attractive guy, it’s just that vague attraction had always been tabled for some crisis or other: the Accords, Thanos, then Zemo and the Flagsmashers, not to mention their on-and-off antagonistic relationship had always left him unsure of where they stood with one another. But in this new normal, it’s hard not to notice.
“Let me give you a run down of the situation,” Sam says. “There’s a group staging a protest in a row of vacant homes. People are working two, three jobs and still can’t make rent. Do you know how many homeless people live in New Orleans?”
“About twelve hundred. Now guess how many vacant homes are in the city limits.”
Again, Bucky shrugs.
“Thirty-eight thousand.” It’s a mind-boggling number that Bucky can’t fully comprehend. “And so there’s homeless folks choosing to live in some of ‘em right now. The main idea is that housing is a basic right.”
“And where do we come in?”
“Right. The property developers are getting antsy. They want an eviction soon, which means–”
“–calling in the cops,” Bucky says.
“Yup. We’re not going to escalate, though. The media is here and some of the organizers are giving a statement tonight. We’re just here to make sure they don’t get evicted. I figure with the two of us around…”
A few minutes after they arrive on site, the cops show up. The evening air is sticky like it always is, but the spring air is cool enough that Bucky keeps the jacket on, electing to rip the left sleeve to expose the vibranium underneath. Several cops blanch when he lets the plates shift and whir. He catches Sam giving him a sly look.
“What?” Bucky says defensively. “It’s practical.”
“Uh huh. I’m gonna speak to the organizers and do a lap around the perimeter.”
Bucky nods. He hadn’t actually been lying to Dr. Raynor about wanting peace; he’s tired of running from war to battle to apocalypse, but by Sam’s side, doing this kind of work is its own form of peace. Sam had asked him once why he’d bothered following Sam to Munich, and he hadn’t had an answer then. Or rather, he had one with a certainty that terrified him. It had never been about the Flagsmashers or Zemo or even Walker, at least not at first. It had always been about the one constant in his life from the Accords to the new world order they’d been un-Blipped into. And Bucky had wondered why Sam had even tolerated his presence at the time.
Sam waves from the porch and Bucky gives a quick salute. He recognizes one of the organizers, a woman who had been at the soup kitchen when Sam had dragged him along to drop off a batch of fresh meals. A few others on the porch give him curious looks.
People like Sam had no business palling around with people like Bucky. In his weaker moments, he allows himself to imagine what courting Sam might look like. He even makes a mental list of all the things he might bring to the table, paltry though it might be.
1. He’s in excellent physical shape.
And so is Sam, but the serum means that Bucky is physically incapable of losing most of the muscle mass on his body. Bucky feels like that gives him a leg up in this category. And he knows Sam isn’t shallow – far from it – but people like Sam had options, which meant they could afford to be selective. And Bucky also understands that physical attraction is an important component of a relationship, which brings him to point number two.
2. He’s not bad-looking.
It’s not something Bucky’s thought about much since being de-iced, but on some level he’s vaguely aware that he’s not the worst looking guy. He’d been stuck in the 40s clean-shaven, slicked hair look for a while. He’d had nothing but time after the Blip, though, which meant reading the magazines and catching up on the latest styles. He’d tried letting his facial hair grow in and swooping his hair up and back, which Sam had complimented him on once, so he takes that as a small victory.
3. ...Sam has expressed awe at his knife skills on more than one occasion.
Bucky lets out an honest-to-god cackle, startling one of the officers in front of him. Jesus Christ. Sam feeds the homeless and counsels veterans and probably poops rainbows and kittens, and all Bucky can come up with is muscles, not ugly , and knives. It’s fucking hopeless.
“All good?” Sam asks, reemerging from his patrol.
Bucky nods. And then he’s on the receiving end of one of Sam’s endlessly fond looks that makes him want to throw caution to the wind.
“You want to take the first break?” Sam asks.
“I don’t need much sleep,” Bucky says.
“Suit yourself. We’re hoping they’ll be gone by sunrise. There’s more of them than us, but it’s a drain on resources for them to keep coming out here.”
Bucky thinks that’s the end of the conversation, but Sam says “I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“Can you imagine me standing here, doing this, as Captain America? I mean, you saw what it was like with Walker. The shield was basically an extension of the worst parts of the government and military. Maybe it always had been, I don’t know.”
Bucky swallows. “I can’t imagine it, no,” he says honestly.
“I still want to make a difference in this country,” Sam says. “In my community . But the kinds of the things I’ve realized I need to be doing are in direct opposition to the things this country is doing. Maybe there’ll be times when what the government wants coincides with what I believe to be right, but if that time comes, I’ve still got the wings. I can do it on my terms.”
“I know,” Bucky says softly. “I know.”
“You still hanging on to that thing?”
“Like I said, it makes a good fruit bowl.”
“I’ve been doing some thinking of my own, though. Not about the shield, but...well, I guess it is about the shield.”
Sam nods for him to continue.
“Isaiah was right. I can’t just decide to wake up and be someone else. And redefining the Winter Soldier…I never, ever want to take on that title for myself. He was never meant to be a hero, and trying to reform the title into something it’s never been…”
Sam gives him a heavy look. “But?”
“The things the Soldier can do – those are just tools. Maybe they can be helpful in making amends, I don’t know. Or doing what we’re doing right now. I get to decide how to use them, and you were right about being part of a community. People who I want to help and people who’ll hold me accountable.”
“Sounds like you got it all figured out, then.”
Bucky shrugs. “Still working on it, but getting closer.”
“To figuring things out, then,” Sam says, holding out his hand.
“To figuring things out.”
Sam’s hand burns hot in Bucky’s own hand, and he recognizes the fluttering in his chest as something akin to hope.
“You seem more comfortable with the arm lately,” Sam ventures. He’s mixing up a batch of flour and canola oil for the roux and smacks Bucky’s hand away when he tries to stir it.
“Oh, come on,” Bucky says petulantly. “This doesn’t even look possible to mess up.”
Sam scowls. “I’m not willing to find out.”
Bucky hasn’t been allowed to assist with any cooking since he’d managed to set the breakfast omelettes aflame not even a week into his first stay with the Wilsons, which means he’s relegated to hovering behind Sam as the latter stirs and scowls and adjusts the heat.
“It’s been good,” Bucky says finally.
They’d taken out the remains of a HYDRA cell in upstate New York recently; it’d been the first combat situation he’d been in since Vienna where he’d felt fully in control. No spectre of HYDRA clouding his judgment or sowing doubt in his movements, no pulling his punches.
“We make a good team,” Sam says with a grin.
And it’s true. There’s something liberating in knowing Sam will catch him if he falls, knowing Sam leaves his left flank open because he trusts Bucky to cover him there. They’ve even tried some airborne maneuvers and it turns out Bucky’s still a good shot when hanging onto Sam’s wrists for dear life.
They’re both still riding so high from the success that Bucky figures now is as good a time as any to spring his surprise. Wordlessly, he passes an envelope to Sam, nodding for him to open it.
“Where did you get this?” Sam asks, wide-eyed, passing the check between his fingers like he’s not sure it’s even real.
“Figured I was owed. HYDRA wasn’t so careful with their accounts around me,” Bucky demures. “Guess they never really thought I’d break free. It’s untraceable, though.”
“Buck, I can’t accept this,” Sam says quietly.
“It’s not charity,” Bucky says firmly. “Figure you were owed, too. Look, you said this was the dream, right? I know there’s other considerations, but with the money, it’s one less thing to worry about. If you decide reopening the business isn’t the right thing to do after all, then keep the money, donate it, whatever.”
Sam’s still staring at the check like it’s going to bite him.
“But I don’t want you to move on without having the option,” Bucky says earnestly.
“Thank you,” Sam says, so soft that Bucky almost misses it even with his enhanced senses. His eyes move downward from Bucky’s, and Bucky knows exactly where this is headed. The small part of his brain yelling unworthy and a hundred other self doubts is even extinguished as Sam brings their lips together. Sam’s taste of salt and a hint of the pecans he’d been sampling before cooking dinner, but he pulls away before Bucky can deepen the kiss.
“I don’t want to move too fast,” Sam says, meeting Bucky’s eyes again. His eyes shine clear and bright, and Bucky has to choke back a sob to keep it together.
“Let me do this properly,” Bucky says immediately. It’s possibly the most sure of something he’s ever been in his life. “Take you out to dinner and woo you properly.”
“Old man.” Sam rests their foreheads together, and Bucky figures that’s as good an answer as any. He can see it clear as day now. The two of them, side by side. Not reluctant co-workers, but partners by choice.
Because apparently, sometimes friendships, once broken, can be rebuilt into something stronger than ever before.