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a couple rebel top gun pilots (flying with nowhere to be)

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Bucky fails out of talk therapy in six weeks.

“You didn’t fail,” Steve says, expression pinched. Bucky rolls his eyes, pokes the slushy ice at the bottom of his frappuccino. Turns his face up toward the sun.

“She told me my issues were too deep-seated and a risk to delve into and maybe I should stick with the meds,” he says. “Pretty sure that means I failed.”

“That’s just one therapist,” Steve says, in a tone Bucky thinks is meant to be reassuring. “We can find another one. Sometimes it just takes a while to find the right person. It’s all about building a relationship of trust.”

Bucky squints at him. “You been reading the brochures in the waiting room, or what?” he asks. Steve shifts a little. Flushes, rubs the back of his neck.

“I’m allowed to read,” he says, defensive. “Anyway, SHIELD assigned me a therapist, after. You know. Waking up.”

“And you actually went to this therapist?” Bucky asks, extremely pointed. Steve ducks his head. “Yeah, thought not, buddy. Relationship of trust, my left ass cheek.”

“Well, I mean,” Steve adds, “probably turns out that therapist was Hydra anyway. I’m just saying, it’s statistically likely.”

“Yeah, you bottling up your emotions for the next thousand years sure came in handy there,” Bucky agrees, placid, and Steve falls for it the way he always falls for it, so that Bucky thinks he might have escaped the conversation successfully. He should have known better.

“I could ask Sam for some recommendations,” Steve says after a minute or two of tussling, during which they both come perilously close to falling off the fire escape. “I’m sure he’d have some good advice.”

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare,” Bucky says. “Wilson’s gone through enough to help my sorry ass out, he doesn’t need you asking him for free advice in his day job on top of everything else.”

“He wouldn’t mind,” Steve starts, extremely earnest, and Bucky bites his lip, prods a little more violently at the shitty watered-down-whip that’s all that’s left of his drink. He knows Sam wouldn’t mind, not really. That’s not the fucking point, right.

Pal,” he says, glaring a little, and okay, he might have deep-seated issues and a fucked-up brain but he still remembers exactly the tone of voice to hit that’ll get Steve Rogers shutting his mouth without another word, so: score one for Barnes.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Yeah, okay, Buck,” and Bucky figures he might as well use the opportunity to take advantage of Steve’s earnest and heartfelt remorse and steal his iced tea while he’s got a sympathy card up his sleeve.

“You can, though,” Steve says later, because apparently he’s not one to give up on conversations or people.

“I can what?” Bucky asks, lazily sleepy and warm. He can feel sweat drying at his temples, and when he glances through his eyelashes at Steve, he can see the edge of sunburn on Steve’s nose and cheeks. It’s the kind of early spring day that already feels like summer, and he’s gotta admit: all things considered, it’s been pretty nice, even if he did fail out of therapy.

“Try out a different therapist,” Steve says, and Bucky sighs, because Christ, Steve’s never known when to quit.

“Yeah,” he says, “maybe,” and knows he won’t.

 

He doesn’t live with Steve, even though they’ve finally moved home after months of deeply uncomfortable BARF treatment to get the worst Hydra shit out of his head, and then more months of tedious legal negotiations. “Not a chance,” Bucky had said flatly. “Sorry, bud,” and Steve had taken it with reasonably good grace. They’re in the same building, anyway, and Steve’s over most days, taking up too much space on Bucky’s couch and leaving his dishes in the sink like he’s never heard of a goddamn dishwasher. It always rides the line of too much, so that Bucky’s only ever just on top of his flight reflex, the desire to leave everything behind and let himself disappear again.

It’s just— Steve’s a lot, that’s all. It’s a lot to get used to.

“If I was betting,” Clint says, garbled through a mouthful of stale Doritos, “I’d say you keep your go-bag stashed between the studs behind the plaster in your living room. Three steps max from the fire escape, on the left hand side. Smash and run, just like that.”

“Well, shit,” Bucky says. “Now I gotta move it. Do you know how much effort it is to patch up drywall?”

“I’ve been renovating the house for the last eight years and it seems like someone puts their foot through a wall once a month, so, yeah, I got some idea,” Barton says. “Don’t move it. It’s a good spot. Mine’s behind the china hutch in our kitchen. I figure if I’m willing to pull that fucker aside and risk breaking Laura’s gram’s dinner set, it must be a real emergency worth coming out of retirement for. Plus I got a mini one at Nat’s, right, but that doesn’t really count.”

“Are we bonding?” Bucky asks without thinking. It’s been a long day, Steve more Steve than usual, and he’s tired. “Is this you trying to bond with me over escape plans?”

“You got the crazy eyes,” Clint says bluntly. “I get it. What’s your bolthole plan?”

“Wouldn’t be much of a plan if I told you,” Bucky says, and then, into the bark of Clint’s laughter, “I dunno. Australia’s pretty far away, right.”

“That place is a goddamn death world all by itself,” Clint says. “You want to get away from it, come stay on the farm for a week or two. The kids’ll wake you at six every fuckin’ morning, but other than that, it’s peaceful enough.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Clint tells him, and pours the remaining Dorito crumbs straight from the bag into his mouth.

 

So there’s that. It’s not so bad. He likes his little apartment with its tiny fire escape and windows overlooking the street on two sides, even though the shower is too small for any reasonable sized human, and the oven runs too hot on the right hand side so that he never remembers to rotate a pan of cookies before they get burnt.

Steve doesn't seem to know how to handle being retired; Bucky had expected that too, leaves brochures for the Steinhardt MFA program and the CUNY art department lying around, and when Steve says, “You know, I might go take an oils class this fall,” Bucky takes it as a small and quiet personal victory. The trick with managing Steve Rogers is to make him think it's his own idea, Bucky sure as shit remembers that one.

“You can’t dodge your own issues by trying to manage everyone else’s, James,” that therapist had said very seriously three weeks in, and it’s one of the only things that’s stuck with him after he quit or failed out, whichever way you want to look at it. Bucky thinks about it somewhat guiltily every time he’s listening to Steve talk about how he misses the shield, about what it means to be out in the world like a normal human person after all this time. The hell he can’t focus exclusively on other people’s problems, lady, he’s doing just fine at it. He’s doing great, considering. To most people’s eyes, he probably doesn’t look like he’s on the brink of running at all.

 

He thinks Wilson sees it. Shit, he thinks Wilson gets it, that urge to disappear; he sees it behind Wilson’s eyes sometimes, days they’re together at the new Avengers base and everything gets so fucking loud. He and Wilson are on okay terms these days—what's a life saved here and there—but they haven't quite bridged the gap to friends. Honestly, given all the fuckery Sam's been through on Bucky’s behalf, Bucky doesn’t exactly blame him. But he sees it, the edginess hidden under a veneer of humor. It shows up more when Sam's tired, when he's around big groups of people, days after long missions gone bad. He keeps it pretty well under wraps, but the thing is, Bucky sorta knows what to look for. It's the same shit he sees in his own bathroom mirror.

“Is Wilson okay?” he asks a couple of days later, and Steve frowns kind of absently.

“Yeah, he’s fine. He’s great. You see him in action the other day?”

Yeah, Bucky saw him in action the other day. He looks good with the shield, that’s for goddamn sure. That’s not what Bucky means, though, but okay. Steve's dealing with his own life, and he's never been particularly insightful about other people's problems.

“The fuck is wrong with you?” Natasha demands in Russian when she sees him next, and Bucky shrugs, doesn't meet her gaze.

“I was mean about Steve,” he admits when she levels up from intently staring at him to pinching him with her creepily prehensile ballet dancer toes.

“What, to his face?”

“No, god. In my head. Still, though.”

“You failed out of therapy, huh.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “Shit, don’t tell me Steve’s enlisted you to convince me to go back.”

“Nah. I failed too, every goddamn time, which was considerably more embarrassing given it was a mandatory SHIELD requirement to get back in active duty. You try anything else since then?”

“Can’t get drunk,” Bucky shrugs. “I’m pretty sure Hydra used a bunch of high-grade benzos on me all the goddamn time, because every time I take a lorazepam I get flashbacks to Siberia, so no go there.” It feels safer to admit this in Russian, somehow; he hasn’t told anyone else that’s why he refused the sleeping pills and relaxants and mood stabilizers, has stuck with a basic combo of antidepressants that seem to make it through the serum long enough to do something to his brain.

Natasha’s face sharpens. “Right,” she says, decisive. “Barnes, you’re coming with me.”

 

She doesn’t tell him where they’re going, just hails a cab and gives the driver an address in Midtown. It turns out to be a massage practice, not the seedy kind that’s a front for illegal gambling, money laundering, sex work or a combination of all three, but something closer to a doctor’s office with a side of rich hippie aesthetic. The bell rings as they go in the door; there’s a salt lamp on the counter, candles lit, and the air smells strongly of lavender.

The massage therapist is a tall black woman wearing loose linen trousers, her long hair pulled back in a mass of neat twists Bucky would like to look at closer if it wasn’t gonna be rude. She and Natasha clearly know each other, and Natasha says something quiet that has her nodding like she understands more than Natasha has said out loud, asks something else that makes Natasha gesture at him.

“You’re a veteran?” she says, directing the question at him this time, and Bucky looks at Natasha, shrugs, nods. It’s as an accurate a descriptor as anything else, he guesses.

“Sonya specializes in massage therapy for vets,” Natasha tells him.

“And the School of American Ballet,” Sonya adds. “Some days they kind of feel like the same thing.”

“You’re not wrong,” Nat agrees. “Okay, Barnes, I’m leaving you with Sonya for an hour. I’m pretty sure you’re not gonna fail out of this one.”

“I work a lot with people who don’t like talk therapy,” Sonya tells him once Natasha’s gone. “In my experience, people tend to hold their issues and traumas in their body. Massage can be one way of releasing that: what I practise is called somato-emotional release. We can go easy today, figure out where your holding points are. It’s up to you to let me know if something’s too much, or if you want me to go deeper, okay?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Okay.”

“Great.” She passes him a form on a clipboard, a pen tied to it. “It’s important you fill this out properly, especially with your prosthetic. I don’t want to damage any of the scar tissue or trigger something before you’re ready.”

They cut my arm off while I was awake, he thinks of saying. Is that something you’re gonna trigger?

He sits down instead. Fills out the form as neatly as he can in his heavy angled-block capitals. I used to have nice handwriting once. Way back when.

 

Sonya starts easy, just like she says: reads his signed disclaimer, her face showing no discernable tells, and then asks him a few follow-up questions.

“Will you be okay with your face down?” she asks in the end, and Bucky looks at the massage table, the little hole for his face.

“Yeah,” he tells her, willing it to be true. “I’ll be fine.”

It’s not fine, and then it is fine, and then it’s better than fine; she runs her fingers slow down his spine, murmuring low like she knows he’ll tense up if there’s silence and he can’t place her in his blind spots, and Bucky realizes exactly why Nat brought him here.

“Take a breath,” Sonya says, thumbs working in circles over his fifth cervical vertebrae, and as Bucky inhales and then exhales, long and slow, she shifts her hands down, digs her knuckles into the muscle between his shoulderblades and twists somehow, and everything goes bright for one excruciating moment before easing, the knots popping and crunching under her hands.

Fuck,” Bucky says, and is surprised to hear how it comes out, like he has a sob caught in his throat. His whole body feels re-aligned bone-deep.

 

He comes out thinking shit, and then, two hours later, shit, I want to do that. I want to learn what she knows about bodies. The next day he's coming up in bruises blooming across his back, his shoulders and chest; it's fucking unreal how much it worked, how much shit he’s been carrying in all the knots of his body.

Bucky looks it up online. There's a massage school specializing in neuromuscular therapy, classes open for registration and starting in three weeks, and before he knows it he's filled out the online registration, dug up his rarely used credit card to pay the fees outright. The form asks for proof of his high school diploma or GED; Bucky’s suddenly tempted to refer them to the new Smithsonian exhibit, all his surviving papers de-archived and curated for the backstory on the world's longest serving prisoner of war, but instead he adds a brief explanation, hopes that'll be enough.

 

Shit, he thinks, belatedly, the arm. That'll be a problem, maybe. He's got haptic feedback these days, neural connectivity and touch sensitive response, but. Still. Time to call Stark, he guesses, and is surprised when Tony picks up his call in under two rings.

“Charly Baltimore, what's going on? Long Kiss Goodnight, Geena Davis, it's a classic. Look it up. What can I do for you, Barnes? Arm trouble?”

“Hey, Stark,” he says, exhausted already by Tony's relentless patter. “If I got massage oil in the joints of this thing, would that cause any problems?”

“I,” Stark says. There's a pause on the line. “That's, uh. A lot of information about your sex life, Barnes, you're getting into sensual massage, huh? Not my thing but I get it, sure—”

“I'm going back to school for massage therapy,” Bucky sighs, “Jesus Christ. I just wanted to know if it'd, you know, short anything. Cause maintenance issues.”

“You say that like you have experience.”

“If I got blood under the plates the techs would get squeamish,” Bucky says bluntly, and then remembers who he's talking to. “Sorry. Sometimes it'd cause shorts in the circuits, require a hard reboot. Pain in the ass.”

“I can see how that’d be a problem,” Stark agrees, and it’s a rare kindness that he’s skipping right over the evidence of Bucky having been a murderous cyborg for seventy years. “You should be good, because I am a god of design, but I’ll send a car over and take it into the lab to poke at it, stress-test the seams, blah blah blah. You think you can spare it for a couple of days?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, already wondering if he can skate on Steve’s sympathy to get him to pay for Thai for dinner, since come on, Rogers, I only got one arm here basically never fails. “Yeah, that’s fine. Thanks, I owe you one.”

“Pepper’s out on a Rescue mission and I’m vibrating out of my skin about it,” Stark says then, with more honesty than Bucky’s used to. “You’re doing me a favor, Barnes, don’t thank me.” He ends the call like he’s allergic to emotion, which: honestly, he might be, who the fuck knows.

Right. Car coming for the arm. It’s pretty easy, all things told, to yank off his shirt, roll his arm back until it clicks out of the shoulder socket. One thing he'd been clear about, designing the replacement arm: it should come off.

“You and Rhodey both,” Stark had sighed, faux-offended, or maybe real-offended; it’d always been hard to tell, with Stark. Bucky’s honestly still not sure what pushed him from you killed my mom to hey, Bourne Identity, come let me take some scans and I’ll redesign the arm I cut off, even as he’s grateful for the détente between Stark and Steve. Maybe it'd had something to do with the fact that they were facing planetary-destruction levels of bad with some purple alien guy hellbent on taking over the universe; in the face of that, a little brainwashed murder probably fades into the background of issues.

“I don't get it,” Tony had continued, the pissy artiste of engineering in his natural habitat, and Bucky hadn't had the energy or the heart to tell him it was tone-perfect for Howard back in the day. “This is state of the art shit right here and you both just wanna know if it comes off, oh my god. The things I could do if you let me build a permanent neural bridge connection, osseointegration, I swear, it breaks my heart. My heart, Barnes, you hear me?”

“Shut up, Tony,” Rhodes had said, making brief eye contact with Bucky, and it's not like Bucky had been in much of a headspace, back then, to make friends, but. He appreciated it, is all.

 

He’s heading out to run some errands the next day when he misses a step off the curb, flails and fails to catch himself, winds up eating pavement. He should know better—should have balanced his weight differently, accounted for the lack—but instead he goes down hard, comes up with a palm full of gravel.

“Motherfucker,” he says, irritated more than anything else by the interruption to his afternoon plans. Glares at his torn-up hand. He could wait for his body to spit the gravel out, heal over naturally, but that's a pain in the ass, and besides, he doesn't want to get blood on these jeans. He just did laundry, for shits sake.

Wilson's office is somewhere around here, he remembers dimly; he’s pretty sure it’s just a couple blocks away, and he sets off in that approximate direction, trying not to bleed on himself.

 

When he finds the VA, the girl at reception directs him upstairs and down the corridor. Wilson’s in his office, surrounded by paperwork and squinting through thick-framed glasses at a smudged computer screen. Bucky clears his throat. Knocks on the door.

“Wow,” Sam says. Directs his squint at Bucky. “Barnes. You’re not here for therapy, are you? That’s gonna be a problem.”

“No, shit, no,” Bucky says. “And if I was, I wouldn’t bring my issues to you, Jesus Christ. Nah, it’s just, uh. It's just— I managed to trip over my own feet and tear myself up, and my arm's in the shop so I can't pick the grit out with a tweezer, and I remembered your office was in the neighborhood. Sorry to be a pain.”

“It's cool,” Wilson says. Locks his computer, takes off his reading glasses. “Come on, there's a first aid kit in the lunchroom.”

The lunchroom is full of exactly the kind of battered institutional furniture that’s in every staff cafeteria worldwide; Sam points to a table for Bucky to sit down, grabs a chipped soup bowl and fills it with warm water, adds a few drops of Dettol from the first aid box.

“Kind of undersupplied,” he says ruefully, “we got no gauze, just paper towels.”

“That's fine,” Bucky says. Holds back the wince as Sam begins to dab at his grazes with a wet paper towel. “Seriously, sorry to interrupt your work.”

“Nah, it's cool,” Sam tells him, “I was dealing with an interview request from Fox News, so really, you did me a favor.”

“They want to interview you?”

“Mostly I think they want to yell at me on air for one, being black, and two, politicizing the role of Captain America by continuing to work at the VA and, you know, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt once where the public could see me. That sort of thing.”

“Those fuckers,” Bucky says, and then, “shit, it’s like they never found out Steve was a member of the Socialist Party.”

“You know, I don’t think they did. Maybe you should leak it, take the heat off me. Okay, there's some stuff really embedded in here, I'm gonna have to dig for it. Shit might sting a little.”

“This may come as a surprise,” Bucky says, deadpan, “but I've gone through having my arm cut off twice, I think I can— motherfuck, ow.”

“Told you it'd sting,” Sam shrugs. Sluices out Bucky's palm again, and yeah, it stings, but Wilson is being very gentle with him, so Bucky guesses it's not all bad.

 

When they’re done, Bucky’s hand is still raw, but beginning to heal pink around the edges. Sam exhales with admiration, gets up to rinse out the bowl.

“Wish I healed that quickly, jeez. You need a band-aid?”

“Nah, I’m good. It’ll be fine. Hey, can I get you lunch? Say thanks?”

Sam glances up at the clock behind him, shakes his head in what might actually be genuine regret. “I got a group at two,” he says. “And the rest of that paperwork. Fuckin’ media requests. Sorry, man.”

“It's fine,” Bucky says. Tries not to look visibly disappointed. “Thanks again. I'll see you around.”

“That's you and Steve both now who've dropped in on me in my day job,” Sam tells him, hands in his pockets. “Don't show up on my doorstep tomorrow with a Russian assassin in tow telling me everyone you know is trying to kill you, I'm getting too old for that shit.”

“You're Captain America,” Bucky says. “Ain't that, like, your core job description?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. See you later, Barnes. Don't fall over again, our first aid budget can't take it.”

“Making fun of a cripple, Wilson, you're doing great.”

“I hate you,” Sam sighs, and it's something he's said often enough now that the cadence is almost fond.

 

His arm comes back a couple of days later; Bucky can tell Tony’s done something to it by the way it fits, the light smoothness of the joints.

Mark 9, Tony’s note says. Tried out some nano-tech, carbon fiber, rejigged the joint actuators and played around with triple-shape-memory polymers. That was a fun time, remind me to talk to Wilson about using SMPs in a Mark 23 of the wings. Oh, and I redesigned the shell with a soft-touch silicone sleeve, once used it to design a sex toy, so you’re good to go on whatever substances you wanna cover yourself in.

Gross, Bucky thinks, and has to resist the urge to scrub the arm down with hard soap. But it feels better, he can't deny—whatever triple-shape-memory polymers are, they're doing great—and he saw on the news that Ms Potts’ Rescue mission went just fine, so that’s something else for the books.

 

He thinks, the next afternoon, hey, I wonder if Wilson likes tacos. It seems like as good a reason as any to head out to the truck two blocks over, because honestly, who doesn’t fuckin’ like tacos, and Bucky still owes Sam for the first aid.

“Uh,” Sam says. “Barnes. Hi.”

“Hey,” Bucky says. Shifts his weight a little. Sam isn’t scowling, exactly, but his expression is at least a relative to scowling, and Bucky chews his lip, ducks his head briefly. It’s not like he’d had to look up Wilson’s address—here, Sam had said once, keying his contact details into Bucky’s phone, I’m trusting you not to murder me—but he feels, now, like he should have called first.

“I brought tacos,” he offers, holding up the bag, “to say thanks for helping me out last week,” and the frown clears from Wilson’s face.

“Yeah,” he says, opening his door a little wider. “Okay.”

His apartment is pretty tidy: just a sweater flung abandoned over one arm of the couch, an open box of cereal on the counter, the shield propped neatly in the corner of the living room just under the window. It feels impersonal the same way Bucky’s apartment is impersonal, beige walls and a big-box store couch, no pictures on the walls or books on the shelves, and something about that makes Bucky’s chest hurt a little.

“Take a seat,” Sam tells him, opening a cabinet in the kitchen to get out a couple of plates. “You want a beer? I think I’ve got a couple in the fridge.”

“Yeah, sure.” Bucky unpacks the bag of food while Sam grabs them beers, begins to lay it all out on the table. Sam clears his throat, gestures meaningfully at the spread of food.

“Shit, did you buy the whole truck or what?”

“Wasn’t sure what you liked,” Bucky shrugs. “So I got a couple of everything.”

“You’re not kidding, huh. Well, I hope you're gonna help me with this.”

“I have to eat about five thousand calories a day,” Bucky says, spooning pico de gallo onto his taco. “You’ll be lucky if you get half of these.”

“Oh, that’s how it is,” Sam says, kicking his ankle under the table, but his eyes are crinkled and warm with amusement, and he’s got adobo smudged just under his bottom lip; Bucky has to take a sip of beer to compose himself.

“So,” Sam continues after another couple bites, “your arm was in the shop? Repairs or what? Tony giving you upgrades?”

“He keeps trying to give me a laser finger,” Bucky says. Watches Sam laugh. “Nah, he was overhauling it to make sure it'd be safe for— well, I'm going back to school. Enrolled in a course for massage and neuromuscular therapy. Oh, that reminds me, Stark said he wants to talk to you about shape-memory polymers for a refit of the wings. No idea what the fuck that is, but, you know. Stark.”

“That guy,” Sam sighs, grabbing another taco. “The wings are just fine, I swear to god. He wants to overhaul something so bad, he can redesign my armor so it doesn’t chafe in the butt.”

“Your ass is too big to contain,” Bucky says. Smirks in the corner of his mouth. It’s worth it, entirely, for how Sam stares at him for a second and then throws a jalapeño at him, trying desperately and unsuccessfully not to laugh.

 

So, Wilson texts him the following week, I figure I probably owe you dinner in return, right?

You fixed up my hand, pal, Bucky texts back. It was me repaying the favor. But if you’re offering to bring over pizza, I’m not gonna say no.

He stares at his phone after he’s sent it, suddenly a little uncertain, but two minutes later he gets a reply.

Yeah, okay. You fussy about toppings?

No pineapple, Bucky says. Apparently it’s that easy. Who the fuck knew.

No fucking shit, Sam sends back. Let me guess, I gotta buy about a hundred garlic knots and marinara just to fill your hollow legs, tin man?

You lived with Steve for like two years, right? You can’t still be surprised about how much I eat.

Point. See you in thirty.

When Sam shows up he’s in jeans and a henley, sporting an extremely impressive black eye. Bucky raises an eyebrow at it; Sam just shakes his head, says tiredly, “Mission in Pennsylvania. Don’t even ask.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Bucky says, privately resolving to look up Captain America Pennsylvania footage later on so he can know how internally furious he should be, and which fuckers should get added to his secret kill list. “That pizza smells good. You wanna watch something?”

“Sure,” Sam agrees, and they wind up bickering through both the original-flavor Terminator and the sequel, Sam doing his best to get Bucky to do a T-1000 impression he can post on Twitter.

“Christ, no,” Bucky says. “You know how much image rehabilitation Hill had to do for me when they were convincing the government to let me back in the country? I show up on the internet pretending to be a murder robot, she’s gonna kill me.”

“What do you mean, pretending,” Sam says. “Come on, do it for the Vine.”

“Vine’s dead,” Bucky says. “You will be too if you don’t get that phone out of my face.”

“So cranky after ten pm,” Sam says, putting away his phone in his pocket. “You’re up past your bedtime. Right, that’s me, I gotta get home. Thanks for this, it was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” Bucky says, still a little surprised that it’s true. Gets up to put the pizza boxes in the trash and see Sam to the door. “Hey, Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“Hasta la vista, baby,” Bucky says, unreasonably smug and probably showing it right on his face. Sam narrows his eyes.

“You little shit,” he says, “that’s the last time I ever buy you pizza.”

“Yeah, yeah. Bye, Wilson. Sleep well.”

 

He brushes his teeth with the intention of going to bed, but it doesn’t really take; he winds up curled up on one end of the couch, the lights down low and the TV on, stuck somewhere between wakefulness and drowsing, and then there’s a knock at his door.

“Hey,” Sam says. “Sorry, I know it’s kinda late, I just— I couldn’t really sleep, you know? Didn’t want to go to Steve’s or my sister’s, I guess.” He’s in sweatpants and a ratty old sweatshirt, hood pulled up, and when Bucky looks closer he sees the hollows under Sam’s eyes, the drawn tiredness in his face.

“Apartment too quiet? I know the feeling. Come on in, I’m still just watching TV.” He’s watching a documentary, some shit about excavating Pompeii; it’s interesting enough to hold his attention without having too much of a storyline he’s gotta follow, so he figures it’s probably gonna do the same for Sam.

“Oh my god,” Sam mutters, ten minutes in. “You’re such a nerd, Barnes.” Bucky just grins at him, gets up to make them both a cup of lemon-apple tea. Twenty minutes after that, Sam is snoring softly, head tilted back against the arm of the couch. Bucky gives himself ten seconds to really look at the way the light is hitting the line of Sam’s throat, his Adam’s apple and cheekbones and full mouth, and then he gets up, finds one of his less ratty blankets and drapes it over Sam as lightly as he can.

Sam doesn’t stir. Bucky turns the lights all the way down, goes to bed.

 

Wilson is still on his couch in the morning when Bucky gets up; his face is creased from the couch cushions and his black eye has developed even more overnight, but he looks like he actually slept and didn’t just stare at the ceiling all night, so Bucky figures he’s counting it as a win.

“Coffee?”

Shit yes,” Sam says, with fervor. Hauls himself up to sitting, rubs his palm over his jaw. “Oh, man. Your couch fucking sucks for sleeping on.”

“Don’t blame me, Steve picked it out. I didn’t have many opinions about furniture at that point, so long as it didn’t come with electrodes.” He fills the coffee machine with grounds and water, flicks it on to brew, gets two mugs out of the cabinet. Puts a couple of English muffins in the toaster oven to heat.

“Hey, Wilson?” he says, once coffee’s done and Sam looks a little less dragged-over.

“Hmm?”

“You got someone you talk to, right?”

“‘Cause I’m out here every day telling vets it’s okay to open up, huh. You saying I need to take my own advice?”

“Well,” Bucky says. Sips his coffee. “Yeah.”

“I'll go see Maggie at work in a day or two. It's all good. Thanks for asking, though.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. “Good.”

 

He looks up the Pennsylvania incident later that day. Turns out it's kids, some low-rent Hydra splinter group doing their best to use Inhuman children to grow super-soldiers from the ground up. Bucky has to stare into the middle distance for a while; when he's able to hold his phone without wanting to break it, he texts Natasha.

Those kids are safe, right?

Yeah, she responds, we got in touch with Daisy Johnson over at the Nest, and he knows she's caught his nuance. Safe from Nazi assholes, sure, but also safe from anyone else who might want to use kids with powers for a convenient purpose. The US military, for example. DARPA. Some scientific research institute set up to study Inhuman genetics.

 

That seems to be the thing that breaks the ice between them; Bucky's never really hung out with Sam before, past being jammed into a too-small car for six hours and then two uncomfortable months in a safehouse trying not to get on each other’s last nerve. Now they’re getting lunch or coffee every few days. Sam falls asleep on Bucky’s couch three more times. Bucky joins him and Steve a couple of times on their morning run.

“Never again,” Sam wheezes the second time. “You assholes.”

“You need some help?” Steve asks, solicitous in that way where he’s being an immense jerk about it, which is underpinned by the fact that five seconds later he starts laughing.

“Just leave me here to die,” Sam says, giving Steve a death-glare. “I swear, my legs are gonna fall off. You haven’t even broken a goddamn sweat.”

“The problem is you gotta do some myofascial release,” Bucky tells him. “It’s your iliotibial bands, pal. You got a foam roller at home?”

“Do I got a foam roller at home,” Sam mutters. “Two months in massage school and you’re schooling me about IT bands, Christ, it’s unbelievable.”

Sam might have a foam roller, but he’s sure as shit not using it; Bucky follows him home, browbeats him into rolling out properly, and then they wind up going out for migas and chilaquiles, so that’s fun.

 

Bucky’s the oldest one in his class by about ten slash eighty years, depending how he's counting, and everyone else very clearly knows exactly who he is and is pretending to be nonchalant about having a retired assassin among them. Bucky refuses to feel weird about it, shows up every day in sunglasses and two day old stubble, his hair pulled back into a nubbin of a ponytail and sleeves rolled up so they can stare at the arm if they want, and as a result it’s all of three weeks before the other students have adopted him as some kind of de-facto older brother or maybe the cool weird cousin.

He learns a lot about the drama between Onisha and her on-again off-again girlfriend Jinhee, tells the class outlandish stories about the thirties that are about ninety-eight percent made up. Elliot gives him a whole shitload of tips on managing high-protein nutrition without getting unutterably sick of whey powder; he’s a sweet-hearted jock there for sports massage who turns out to be incredibly good at pinpointing muscle adhesions and breaking up scar tissue.

They’re all so young, young in the way Bucky never remembers being, and he guesses that’s probably something to do with dropping out of school at fifteen and then shipping off to a war before he’d hit twenty-five, even if he doesn’t count the Hydra years. But it turns out he loves these tiny idiots who turn up hungover half the time and do their best to convince him to come out drinking every Friday; he even goes a couple of times, nursing a beer and learning incomprehensible youth meme culture he tests out on Sam with very little success.

 

He goes to see Sonya every week, and it’s like she’s digging everything out of him piece by piece: all the ghosts of memory layered down into his bones. One week she focuses just on his chest and ribcage, works and works on a knot just underneath his left ribs, and when it finally releases Bucky’s suddenly throwing up into her trashcan, retching and coughing out an apology.

“It’s fine,” Sonya tells him calmly, passing him a tissue and a bottle of water. “It’s a good sign. Your body is processing out old emotions and memory, it means we’re making progress. Come back next week and we’ll see how you go.”

The next week, Bucky finds himself sobbing, face wet with bitter tears. That night he dreams for the first time of being in cryo, not the gentle sleep of T’Challa’s scientists but the long artificial winters in Siberia, years and years of nothing but ice under his fingernails and eyelashes.

When he wakes up, he suddenly can’t stand the whiteness of his apartment. Schleps down to the local hardware store in his sweatpants, comes back with pails of soft sage green and slate blue, one that’s just a little too pale to be a true blush.

“Holy shit,” Steve says, coming in three hours later, “you made a fucking mess,” and yeah, there’s paint everywhere, in Bucky’s hair and flecks of it on his couch where the dropcloth hadn’t properly covered it, but his apartment looks about a million times better than the shitty white box it was before.

“Shut up unless you’re gonna help me clean up,” he tells Steve, and Steve, to his credit, just grabs a brush and gets to work on the edging.

 

He doesn’t exactly plan on getting to know his neighbors. The building’s a walk-up, a little shabby though nothing compared to the tenement Steve lived in back before the war, and Bucky has enough people causing trouble in his life these days. Turns out his neighbor’s dog has other ideas. He’s ordered pizza one night; when the delivery guy shows up at the door he heaves himself up, digs cash out of his wallet.

“Here you go,” the guy says. “Pepperoni and mushroom. Oh, and I think your dog got out.”

“That’s not—” Bucky says, but it’s too late; the guy’s heading down the stairs and the dog is in his apartment, sniffing curiously at his boots.

“You’re not my dog,” Bucky tells him. Puts the pizza down on the counter so he can flip open the lid and grab a piece while it’s still hot. The dog, all one-eyed and patchy tawny-white fur, tilts his head to the side, regards Bucky for a minute, and then puts his front paws on the edge of the counter, lifts himself up, and very delicately tugs a slice of pizza out of the box with his teeth.

“Hey,” Bucky says. “Hey, buddy. Hey pal. This ain't your house.”

The dog looks at him. Huffs out once, turns around in a neat circle, flops down onto his paws. Industrially chews his stolen slice.

“Oh,” Bucky says. “That's how it's gonna be, huh. I see.”

The dog holds eye contact, just long enough to be insulting. Right, Bucky thinks. Okay.

 

When he climbs out onto his fire escape and looks up, he can see someone's bare feet, toenails painted with purple polish; the girl in the apartment above is doing her weird balcony perching again. It's probably objectively pretty strange, five stories up, but this is New York, and also Bucky's got a bionic arm and hangs out with a lot of idiot superheroes, so. His metric is kind of off for normal on this kind of thing.

“Excuse me,” Bucky says, already feeling stupid about this. “Do you own a one-eyed dog?”

The girl above him jumps down onto her fire escape. Leans over the railing to look at him, her long dark hair falling into her face.

“Yeah,” she says. “Why?”

“He's in my apartment eating my pizza,” Bucky tells her, and she makes a face, tucks her hair back behind her ears.

Lucky,” she says, like it's a swear word, and then she's swinging down from her fire escape to his all gymnastic swagger. “Hi,” she adds. “I'm Kate. Sorry about my trash dog.”

“Bucky,” Bucky says. “Barnes.”

“Yeah,” Kate says dismissively, “I know. You're kind of, you know, distinctive. With the arm and the face and all. Subject of an international manhunt. That Bucky Barnes.”

“I,” Bucky starts, embarrassed by this; he's interrupted by Lucky sticking his head out of the window to see what's going on.

“Oh my god, he really is eating your pizza,” Kate says, “shit, I'm so sorry. I'll order you a new pie if you get me an intro with Clint Barton.”

Bucky stares at Kate for a minute. She's slightly built, in jean cut-offs and a ratty white singlet over a neon pink sports bra, and if Bucky had to guess he'd say she’s maybe second or third-gen Korean-American, in her early twenties at the most.

“You want to meet Barton?” he says in the end, entirely bewildered by the last ten minutes of his life. “Why?”

“I shoot pretty good with a bow and arrow,” Kate shrugs. Sticks her hands in her pockets. “I wanna know what Barton thinks of my technique. See if he can give me any pointers.”

Somewhere right at the back of Bucky’s brain, alarm bells start to ring; something about the set of Kate’s shoulders, the tilt of her jaw, it’s all Steve way back when, Steve before the serum with too much fight for his body to contain.

“And you’re totally not gonna ask him for tips on haunting the night and shooting assholes and creeps in the kneecaps, right?”

Kate’s eyes widen incrementally, and she brushes her hair back, shakes her head very innocently. Bucky rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” he says. “Right. Come on, come inside, my pizza’s getting cold and your asshole of a dog is gonna eat it all. Shit, fuck, sorry, I shouldn’t be swearing in front of you.” Something about Kate bypasses every rule of etiquette Bucky’s ma ever drove into him; she reminds him of nothing so much as Rebekah back when she was nothing but scrap and grazed knuckles. Spit and vinegar, he hears his ma say, and it’s enough that he holds out the pizza box to offer Kate a slice.

“Thanks,” she says. Folds the slice in half, sits down cross-legged on the floor and pulls Lucky into her lap. “So, you gonna introduce me to Barton or what?”

“He’s retired,” Bucky tells her. “But I’ll see what I can do. Why does your dog only have one eye?”

“I dunno. I found him like that. He was a stray who kept hanging around the dumpster behind my last apartment and we sort of made friends, I guess. I lured him in with pizza. Why do you only have one arm?”

“Fell off a train,” Bucky shrugs. “The bionic one gets, I don’t know…” He gives Lucky his pizza crust, waves his hand vaguely in the direction of his head. “It’s like it’s itchy in the neural connection sometimes. Nice to take it off once in a while.”

“Huh,” Kate grins. “Neat.”

Bucky is one hundred percent never introducing this girl to Clint Barton. You got the crazy eyes, he remembers Clint saying, I get it, and he can tell: Kate is exactly the goddamn same.

 

After that Kate drops by every so often, usually literally via his fire escape. Bucky gets into the habit of dog-sitting if he's home studying. Sometimes they even study together, Kate dragging down her law textbooks to inevitably fall asleep on. It should be weird, Bucky thinks: his first friend in the twenty-first century, outside a bunch of asshole superheroes and kids he knows from class, is a twenty-three-year-old Korean-American girl with a mangy dog, a bow, and a habit of asking blunt questions, but it settles into routine so easily he hardly even notices.

 

There are weeks where he and Sam don't talk, where Bucky realizes they've gone days and days without seeing each other, and it always makes him think of the interiority of Sam's life, all the people he must know who Bucky's never met, the friends he has that are just names in his mouth. His family, the sister and niece Bucky’s heard about but never seen. It leaves this strange ache in his chest: he’s weird about Steve these days, keeps him at arm’s length, but he remembers what it was like to be tangled up in someone, the boundaries of their life and his blurring until it’s difficult to find the edges, and now it’s like he doesn’t know what normal friendship is, whether he’s doing it right, whether he should want more or less and what he might do if Sam says thanks but no thanks in return.

He doesn’t notice, is the thing; doesn’t notice how ever since Sam slept on his couch that night he’s been letting Bucky closer bit by bit, that as Bucky’s been wondering about the boundaries and structures of friendship, Sam’s been drawing in. And then Sam shows up another night, tired and edgy, and Bucky thinks oh, and then, sudden, oh, it’s you.

“You okay?” he asks, and sees the glib answer on the edge of Sam's lips, the way he takes a breath and pauses just a little.

“I'm tired,” he admits. “I’m not great. Fuck, I’m just— work’s rough, and the other work’s rough, and it’s just, you know. A lot.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I hear you.” He gets an idea, suggests it before he can think twice. “If you want, I could help a little, maybe?” He's not at Sonya's skill level yet, can’t dig Sam’s traumas out of him with nothing but touch and wouldn’t want to besides, but he's got the basics of relaxation massage techniques down, and Sam looks hollowly exhausted.

“Uh,” Sam says. “Sure, yeah, okay. Why not.”

“Okay,” Bucky says, and gets up to grab a couple towels and his massage oil.

 

They set up on the couch, since Bucky doesn’t have his own massage table. Just lays a towel over the couch, looks away as Sam strips off to his boxers, drapes another towel over his legs and hips. Pours some oil into his hand, rubs it between his palm to warm it. It’s jasmine and ylang ylang; these days lavender gives him a Pavlovian reaction to Sonya’s office and all those deep-seated issues she doesn’t make him talk about because he’s processing them anyway. “Is that okay?” he asks, smoothing it lightly onto Sam’s back. Sam nods.

“Smells good,” he mutters into the couch cushion. Bucky doesn’t bother to hide his smile.

He goes easy at first, gently warming Sam’s muscles up, figuring out where the pain points lie. Sam's got bruises on his shoulders where the wing pack must sit, and Bucky skates his fingers lightly over those areas, careful not to press too hard. He works deeper down the middle of Sam’s back, out into his lats and back further to roll along the base of his spine.

“Shit,” Sam groans, “oh shit that’s good,” and Bucky flushes to his hairline; it ain’t like he’s not used to hearing people make sounds like that, he’s done enough practicum work to hear the whole range, but it sounds suddenly filthy coming out of Sam’s mouth, Sam spread out half-naked on his couch.

Get a grip, he tells his dick. Be a goddamn professional. Focuses on Sam’s lower back, the way the arch of it dips down into his ass, and rolls his thumbs into the knots to work them out, presses the heels of his hands into the dimples, the top of his iliac crest.

“Fuck,” Sam groans again. “Fuck.” And then he’s rolling over, sitting up and grabbing Bucky by the front of his shirt to yank him into a kiss.

It’s slow but not gentle, Sam dragging his teeth over Bucky’s lower lip, his hands sliding up under the hem of Bucky’s shirt. Bucky feels it electric everywhere Sam’s touching him, a hot current under his skin; it’s all too easy to let Sam tug his shirt up over his head, to sink back onto the couch and pull Sam into his lap so he’s straddling Bucky’s thigh.

“Shit,” Sam says, “shit,” and bites Bucky’s shoulder, his clavicle, licks over the sting of it and lets Bucky press his fingers to Sam’s jaw, tilt his face back for another kiss. Bucky’s hard in his jeans and he can feel Sam is too, grinding down against his thigh.

“I’m supposed to be doing something fuckin’ therapeutic,” Bucky tells Sam, and that just has Sam biting him again, a sharp nip that makes Bucky growl in the back of his throat. “Christ, sweetheart, are you—”

“Shut up,” Sam says. “Just— shut the fuck up and go with it,” and reaches down, palms Bucky right through his jeans.

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees breathlessly. “Okay, yeah. Wait, one thing.”

What,” Sam demands, wrecked as hell, and Bucky kisses him hard, tilts his head in the direction of his bedroom.

“My bed,” he says, stroking one finger down the length of Sam’s dick, the heat of it through the cotton of his boxers, “is way more comfortable than this couch.”

“That’s,” Sam says. “Yeah. Yeah.”

 

They make it into Bucky’s bedroom somehow; Bucky thinks he might go up in flames before he manages it, the way Sam is touching him all need and desperation.

“Oh my god, did you paint your bedroom pink?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Bucky says, “it’s soothing,” and drops to his knees, tugs Sam’s boxers down so he can get Sam’s dick in his mouth.

It’s good, it’s so fucking good, and then Sam cups the back of Bucky’s head, slides his fingers into Bucky’s hair, and Bucky makes an embarrassing sound. It seems like Sam likes that; he thrusts harder into Bucky’s mouth, cock leaking salty pre-come over Bucky’s tongue. Bucky moans, drags his tongue over the head and pushes his mouth down further to see if he can get Sam all the way down his throat.

“Holy goddamn fuck,” Sam swears. Tightens his grip in Bucky’s hair so he’s holding him in place; Bucky’s eyes start to water and he can’t breathe but he doesn’t move away, just swallows, leans into it.

“Fuck,” Sam says again, “you keep doing that and you’re gonna make me—”

“So come,” Bucky says, pulling off just long enough to take a breath. Looks up and makes eye contact, and Sam thumbs over Bucky’s lower lip, pushes back into his mouth. Sam’s holding Bucky’s gaze, touching his hair, his jaw, his mouth, biting his own lip and breathing hard, and he’s covered in a sheen of massage oil and sweat so that he looks almost golden in the low light of Bucky’s bedroom. It’s. Fuck, Bucky thinks, it’s almost enough to make him come in his pants, and then Sam is gasping for breath, coming in hot pulses down Bucky’s throat and over his mouth and chin.

 

“God,” he says after. Watches Bucky lick his lips, and Bucky watches him watching; “get up here,” Sam says, and drags him up and into bed, yanking Bucky’s jeans down while cursing about how fucking tight they are. Bucky feels like his skin might not contain him, like a knot of raw nerves, a bundle of dry tinder just waiting for a conflagration: it’s something similar to the feeling he gets after an intense session with Sonya, and entirely different all at once.

“I might actually die if you touch my dick,” he says honestly, and Sam huffs out a laugh against his mouth.

“You like having your hair touched, huh,” he murmurs. Gets his free hand in Bucky’s hair again, pulls hard; the noise Bucky makes is undignified, but fuck dignity. Then Sam is touching his dick, and yeah, Bucky’s pretty much dying, dying in the best possible way, going up in a blaze of heat and white light behind his eyes.

 

“Fuck,” he manages eventually. Sam laughs. Flops down on his back. Glances over at him, and then rests the back of his hand over his eyes, is quiet for a minute or two. Pushes himself back up on one elbow.

“Yeah, shit,” he says. “So that happened.”

“Well, yeah,” Bucky agrees. Looks down at the mess between them. “Happened kind of a lot, even.”

“I, uh,” Sam starts, and when Bucky takes a look at him, he sees that Sam is chewing the corner of his mouth in a way that looks uncertain.

“You, uh?”

“It's not that I don't like you,” Sam says. “I mean— you're an asshole who destroyed my car, but I don't not like you. It's just, this wasn’t really where I meant for this to go, you know?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I get it.”

“Sorry, fuck, I feel like an asshole. I didn’t mean to take advantage of you.”

“You didn’t,” Bucky tells him. “And you ain’t.” Kisses Sam’s shoulder before he can think better of it. “People do this, right? What is it, fuckbuddies? The kids at school are always talking about fuckbuddies.”

“Oh my god,” Sam says. “No, not fuckbuddies, Jesus. We’re too old for that shit. Look, just— friends? Is that cool?”

“It’s cool. Hey, you don’t have to go.” Bucky shrugs a little. Touches Sam’s arm. “You’re still tired, right? Ain’t like you haven’t slept here before. You don’t even gotta take the couch.”

“I’m fuckin’ not,” Sam mutters, settling back into bed. “That thing kills my back.”

“I didn’t say you could make me sleep in the wet patch,” Bucky complains. Sam heaves a sigh, reaches for Bucky and slings an arm across his ribs, drags him closer.

“Shh,” he murmurs. Kisses the nape of Bucky’s neck, grazes his teeth over the skin so Bucky shivers.

“Do that much more and we’ll be starting this whole mess again, I’m telling you.”

“Well,” Sam says. Breathes hot against Bucky’s ear. “If we’re already here, and I’m already staying the night…”

“Might as well make our mistakes comprehensively and then pretend it never happened,” Bucky agrees, shivering again and pressing back into Sam, feeling Sam’s dick begin to stir against his ass. He knows, objectively, this is not the greatest decision either of them could be making, but what the fuck, right. With Sam Wilson naked in his bed it’s pretty fucking hard to care.

 

Sam fucks him slow, fingers him open for what feels like about an hour before he slides in and bottoms out in one long, long drag of skin against skin.

“You good?” Sam asks, and Bucky tightens his grip on the sheets, arches back and up into it.

“Haven’t been fucked for seventy years,” he says, “fuck yes I’m good. You?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, breathless. “Yeah, I’m— shit, that’s good, just like that.” There’s nothing desperate about it this time, just exhausted, easy sweetness; when Bucky comes it’s almost a surprise.

Oh, he thinks to himself, feeling the burn of Sam’s fingers on his skin, Sam’s mouth against his lips. Oh, I get it. Yeah, this was a goddamn mistake alright.

 

The thing is, Bucky sleeps better that night than he has in months, maybe even years; he suspects Sam’s the same. Things should probably be awkward after, but they both just wind up kind of ignoring it without ignoring it. Bucky doesn’t tell Steve. What the fuck’s he gonna say, hey Steve, so I kind of, uh, slept with Sam Wilson one time. It was honestly a bit of a fuck-up but we’re cool, so. Just so you know, pal. File that away.

“It’s nice you and Sam are getting on better,” Steve says the next time Bucky’s over at his place. Bucky slowly chews and swallows his mouthful of spaghetti.

“Yeah,” he says instead, very casual. “Yeah, it is.”

 

Steve cajoles him into sitting for a portrait; Bucky thinks he’ll hate it, but it’s not so bad, sitting and listening to the scratch of Steve’s charcoal over paper. Kind of like old times, even, but not bitter how it sometimes is. Just sweet and a little nostalgic, and Steve hums to himself when he’s done in the way that says he’s happy with his work.

“You’re not mad, right?” Steve asks suddenly, tone serious. Bucky glances across at him, blinking back into himself.

“For what? You stealing my last meatball? Yeah, pal, I’m furious.”

“God,” Steve sighs. “No. For fucking up your life in Bucharest and dragging you back into all this.”

“You’re about fourteen months late on that,” Bucky tells him. Has to stop and think about it for a minute, make sure he gets it right. “No, I’m not mad. Bucharest was horseshit. I had to keep newspaper on my windows and I’m pretty sure I spent the entire time in a fight-or-flight panic attack. This is better.”

What about Sam, he wonders. Is Sam mad about us fucking up his life and dragging him back into all this? But he knows by now that’s a stupid train of thought to let himself fall back down. Wilson’s a grown man; what’s done is done, and if he wasn’t about taking on the shield and the stars, Bucky’s got no doubt he’d have said no, would be saying no. It’s gotta be enough.

 

Sam disappears on a long mission a week later, radio silence for the first four days broken by a text at three am the fifth night.

It’d probably be a bad idea to get into a slapfight with this guy from the CIA, huh.

That’s something that can only end in embarrassing press coverage or extraordinary rendition, Bucky replies, squinting at his screen. What’s bugging you?

The fuck, why are you awake.

You texted me, asshole. My phone went off. I’m a light sleeper, bite me.

There’s a long pause before Sam responds, in which Bucky has way too much time to think about the time Sam did bite him, and how good it was. He’d had marks on his collarbone for a good two days after, had touched his fingers to the tender skin and traced the shape of Sam’s mouth on his skin and thought, fuck, that was— before buttoning his shirt up a little higher, doing his best to ignore it until it faded.

Sorry to wake you up, man. For real, though, this asshole. Trying to dictate how I run this fucking mission. Maybe I’m just tired, I dunno.

Set Natasha on him, she’s great at that diplomatic shit. Isn’t that what she’s there for?

Yeah, maybe. Go back to sleep, god, don’t let me keep you up.

Or I could fill you in on the latest drama between Onisha and Jinhee. CIA doesn’t even compare, let me tell you.

Yeah, Sam says a minute later. Hold on. And then Bucky’s phone is ringing with an unknown number—a burner phone, untraceable the way it always is—and he thumbs to accept the call, rolls over and tugs the blankets up a little.

“So,” he starts, voice low, and tries to ignore the way he goes warm at the sound of Sam’s laugh.

 

He goes to school, goes to the grocery store, picks up his meds. Does his dishes, walks Lucky around the park, drops in on Kate to make sure she’s eating something other than microwave burritos and on Steve to make sure he’s not turning into some weird art-school hermit.

“I’m thinking of trying a blue phase,” Steve says, squinting at his canvas, and Bucky snorts.

“What, like Picasso? You know his blue period was because he was profoundly fuckin’ depressed, right?”

“I’m not depressed,” Steve says absently, dabbing his brush in a swatch of luminously pale ice-blue and scribbling it in a hazy line across the foreground. “Shit, I can just afford to buy cerulean and ultramarine these days, okay?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Sure, okay,” and hooks one knee over the arm of the couch, lies back to read his class notes over again while Steve paints.

 

Sam calls him again before he gets home from the CIA-involved fuckery he’s dealing with, voice quiet like maybe he’s calling from his bunk, and it’s almost unbearably intimate, the two of them swapping inane and overtired anecdotes about life in Brooklyn and in whatever redacted location Sam’s set up in.

Do you call other people like this? Bucky wants to ask. Do you talk to them in that voice, sweetheart?

He doesn’t ask.

“See you when I get home,” Sam says at the end of the call, and it’s all Bucky can do to say, yeah, sounds good.

 

He’s being weird about it, he knows he’s being weird about it; maybe he’s just too caught up in his own head, needs to work the memory of Sam’s body out of his own, but it’s not like he can exactly say to Sonya how do you claw someone out of your heart. Just an inconvenience; he’s lived with worse.

Sam gets back, looking about a thousand percent done with the US goddamn government, and thank fuck, it settles; yeah, Bucky says to himself, just in your head, pal, the fuck are you thinking.

“Hey,” Sam says one day, calling him as Bucky’s sitting in the laundromat with his textbooks, “what are you up to?”

“Laundry. Real exciting, let me tell you. Why?”

“Wondered if you wanted to hang out,” Sam says. “You want company?”

“Shit, if you’re into sitting at the laundromat with me, I’m not gonna say no. Don’t judge me for not using fabric softener.”

“I’ve seen how you live,” Sam tells him, “it never crossed my mind you might be using it in the first place.”

When Sam shows up, he’s carrying a tray of iced drinks; he hands Bucky the coffee and sits down with something extremely pink. Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“Ain’t it too cold for iced drinks?”

“It’s never too cold for iced drinks, Mr Freeze. What, you don’t want yours?”

“I want it,” Bucky says immediately. Takes a sip just to be contrary. “The hell is going on with yours?”

“Passion flower hibiscus green tea,” Sam says, shaking the cup so the ice rattles. “I’m trying to cut back on caffeine.”

“Trouble sleeping again?”

“Eh, you know how it is. Not much more than usual, but it’s enough to bug me. What are you reading?”

“Skeletal and muscular anatomy refresher, because we all failed the pop quiz last week. Right now it’s hands and arms.”

“Seriously? Arms? That’s fucked up, man.”

“I'm not gonna get a pass just because I'm a cripple,” Bucky says, shrugging. “Anyway, I don't mind. Just gotta memorize it all.”

“Want me to quiz you? Been a while since I worked pararescue, but that shit never really goes away. And I just re-sat my first aid certification, so I'm a regular medical genius right here.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Sure.” He sets his cup down on the empty molded-plastic seat beside him, wipes the condensation off his fingers on his thighs. Reaches for his notebook to draw a diagram, and Sam shrugs out of his sweater and rolls his t-shirt sleeve up, twists a little closer.

“Life model quiz,” he says, smirking, and Bucky shrugs again.

“Fine, okay, whatever. Come here.” He rests his right hand on Sam’s shoulder, and Sam shivers.

“Your hands are cold.”

“Shit, sorry. Holding that coffee too long.” Bucky rubs his palms on his jeans one more time, trying to warm them up a little. Traces his fingertips down the musculature of Sam’s arm. “Trapezius. Posterior deltoid. Medial deltoid. Anterior deltoid. Bicep and tricep. Brachialis. Brachioradialis. Flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris.” He works his way down to the wrist, lightly touching each muscle; Sam’s skin is warm and very smooth.

“Now the skeletal system,” Sam says when he finishes with all the muscles of Sam’s hand, and Bucky closes his eyes for a minute, shifts his fingers back up to the shoulder. Works his way down.

“Scaphoid,” he says, tapping the little bone in Sam’s wrist. “Metacarpal. Proximal phalanges. Distal phalanges.”

“Aced it,” Sam tells him. “Good job.”

“Yeah, well,” Bucky says. Shrugs a little, suddenly uncomfortable. “‘Course, all my anatomy training up to now was focused on how to break your wrist with the least possible effort.”

“We all learned that, you’re not special. Stop wallowing.”

“I kind of figure I’m allowed to wallow a little,” Bucky says, but feels himself smile. Looks down, realizes he’s still holding Sam’s wrist, his thumb pressed against Sam’s pulse point. He lets himself brush his thumb over the delicate skin for just a moment longer before pulling his hand away, touching his fingertips curiously to the ragged scar on Sam’s inner bicep just above the elbow.

“Took some shrapnel back when I was still in the Force,” Sam tells him. “Nicked the brachial artery, it was touch and go for a while. Almost lost my arm because of the tourniquet.”

“Huh,” Bucky says. “We coulda been one-arm buddies. What a missed opportunity.”

“See, I know you’re messing with me, and because I’m a good person, I’m still gonna help you fold your sheets.”

“I don’t deserve you,” Bucky says, and the way that makes Sam smile is a beautiful fuckin’ thing, alright.

 

Sam does, in fact, help him fold his sheets when they’re done drying; he looks down at the light gray fabric, raises his eyebrows a little.

“Huh, these are real soft.”

“Bamboo,” Bucky says. “I just bought them. Cost a fortune but I figure it was kind of worth it.” Come over again and we’ll test them out, he doesn’t say, because they’re not bringing up that topic; instead he focuses on folding the pillowcases, smoothing out the creases in the fabric. “Hey,” he adds, “I just got one more load to do, you sure you want to stick around? Seems a pretty boring way to spend your day off.”

“It’s not so bad,” Sam shrugs. “Read me some more of your anatomy textbook, it’ll be just like being back in PJ medic training.”

Apparently, Sam slept through a bunch of his medic training, because twenty minutes later his head falls heavily against Bucky’s shoulder, and he doesn’t wake up until Bucky’s last load of laundry dings to show it’s done.

“You keep falling asleep on me like this, I’m gonna get a complex,” Bucky jokes, as Sam yawns and stretches. Doesn’t miss the way Sam’s eyes flash to his mouth, just for a second.

 

They go to the gym, they go catch a movie, they drive up to the farm one Friday with Steve and Natasha and Wanda, spend the weekend catching up with Clint and Laura and the kids. The farmhouse is big but not nearly big enough for the lot of them: he and Steve and Sam are all crammed into cots in the one room up in the attic, echoes of all that time in the safehouse before they really knew each other at all.

Steve keeps giving them oddly assessing looks. Bucky’s got no fuckin’ idea what it means.

“Hey,” he says in the car on the way back, “move your goddamn seat up, asshole,” and Sam just drops it all the way back and laughs like a stuck drain when Bucky tries to rescue his own fucking knees. He has bruises for days, even with the serum; somehow it’s goddamn hilarious, something that becomes a shared joke where one of them only has to mutter the word ‘seat’ before they both start laughing. What, Bucky thinks again, is the fuck his life.

 

They see another movie, get beers with Scott after work one Friday, go to the grocery store at two in the morning when the neither of them can sleep. It seems like half the time they’re hanging out Sam winds up on Cap duty: they’re wandering around the Bushwick farmer’s market one Saturday afternoon, idly browsing homemade conserve and raw vegan granola in the weak fall sunshine, when Sam’s wrist alert goes off.

“Shit,” Sam says. “Duty calls, brother. Gotta go save the world.”

He kisses Bucky as he goes, just a casually quick brush of his lips to Bucky’s as if he’s forgotten, absent-minded, that this ain’t what they do. His mouth tastes of peach soda.

Bucky sees him three hours later, the footage all over every channel: one wing torn up out of commission and trailing behind him, and he still fucking goes down with guns blazing and a goddamn superhero landing.

“That’s rough on your fuckin’ knees,” Bucky mutters into his coffee, and then, when Sam doesn’t get up, “oh, you fuckin’ idiot, I swear to all that’s holy, Wilson—”

 

“I’m fine,” Sam says, when Bucky finds him all of forty minutes later sitting in a bed in Mt Sinai. Given he’s in a splint and brace from thigh to shin, and one entire side of his face is coming up interesting shades of bruising, Bucky thinks he’s forgiven for not finding this overly convincing.

“Jesus, sweetheart, you’re an adrenaline junkie at heart. I knew it. Nobody gets to be Cap without a death wish.”

“I’m fine,” Sam says again. “Fucksake, Barnes, you’re worse than my mom.”

“You got three cracked ribs and a fractured patella. You ain’t fine.”

Sam blinks at him. Tries to rip the lid off his pudding cup, wincing when the IV line in his hand causes problems with the maneuver.

“The first time we met, you ripped the steering wheel out of my car,” he says, in a tone that’s either very patient or slightly woozy from the drugs. It might be both, Bucky thinks; it’s hard to tell.

“Look,” Bucky starts, and Sam holds up his hand.

“The second time we met, you ripped my wing off and threw me off a helicarrier.”

“That’s cold,” Bucky says. “Holding it against me like that. Even Stark doesn’t hold it against me anymore.”

“I’m not holding it against you,” Sam sighs. Hands him the pudding cup. “Open my pudding, would you? I’m just saying, first of all, this is not the worst I’ve ever had, and second, how did it take you this long to figure out I didn’t sign up to be Cap for cups of tea and Bible study? Yeah, Barnes, I might get hurt. That’s part of the job description. I knew that going in.” He pauses for breath, shoves a spoonful of chocolate pudding into his mouth and glares as angrily as he can at Bucky, which is impressively furious given he’s eating pudding and on a wide range of intravenous painkillers. “Anyway,” he adds thickly, mouth full, “Steve pulled a bunch of stupid stunts when he was Captain, and it didn’t bother you then.”

Sam is dribbling chocolate pudding. Sam is dribbling chocolate pudding, and all Bucky can do is stare at him, because, oh shit, Bucky has a problem. Bucky has a Sam Wilson problem.

I love you, he can’t say. Don’t hurt yourself, Christ, I love you, I’m just— I’m worried, that’s all, god—

“Steve,” he says instead, “was born ten pounds of fight and stupid in a five pound bag. There’s no stopping him doing something dumb when he’s set his mind to it. Anyway, that serum, he goes down he can walk it off. You’re only human.”

“Only human,” Sam scowls, pretending to fall for Bucky stealing his pudding, and they’re on safe ground again, Bucky carefully filing this away to think about only much, much later.

 

When Sam gets out of hospital, he’s in a knee brace and crutches, is absolutely fucking furious both about being benched and all the VA paperwork he’s suddenly got time to catch up on while he’s benched, and Bucky can’t help but think of all the times he had to basically sit on Steve back before the serum just to keep him from doing something that’d make things hurt worse.

“You are the biggest pain in the goddamn ass,” Bucky snaps the third time Sam’s like oh, no big deal, I’m just gonna walk two miles from my office to my sister’s place. “I’m gonna tell Steve he should come over and make his disappointed face at you. How did your sister not make her disappointed face at you?”

“She did,” Sam admits. Winces as he shifts the ice pack on his knee. “And she told me she’d tell my mom, so I’m probably gonna get a call from her any second, and my mom's disappointed voice is the worst thing in the world.”

“Good,” Bucky says. “Now take your meds and eat your soup.”

“Fuck your soup,” Sam mutters, and Bucky thinks, Jesus Christ, this man is the best and worst person to love, all at the same goddamn time.

 

“I wanna paint my apartment,” Sam says thoughtfully a couple weeks later; Bucky is sitting on the floor half-heartedly reading about lymphatic drainage, even though Sam gave up on working through his remaining paperwork backlog about three hours ago. “All this time sitting around staring at the walls, it’s making me realize just how much I goddamn hate this paint color.”

Bucky pushes his textbook and the empty pizza box aside and leans back on his elbows, considers the walls for a minute. “About fuckin’ time,” he says, “I can’t believe you’ve lived with this beige for this long.”

Sam kicks him lightly in the shoulder blade. “Asshole. You gonna help me or just give my apartment shit?”

“Of course I’ll help. You wanna go to the paint store right now, or wait until morning?”

“I’ve already got paint,” Sam says. Shrugs a little uncomfortably when Bucky twists around to look at him. “I just never got around to it, okay? I was busy, shit, I’m Captain America. You think I’ve got time to paint my own apartment in between saving the world?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Now’s as good a time as any, I guess. You got an old shirt I can borrow?”

Sam looks him up and down, his lip curling a little. “Seriously? You really believe that sweater is gonna get ruined from a little paint?”

“Oh my god,” Bucky says. Lets himself fall backwards until he’s splayed flat on his back, arms flung out to the sides. “You asshole. I bring pizza to your house and offer to help with your redecorating and this is how you’re repaying me, giving me shit about my sweater?”

“It’s just,” Sam says, nudging Bucky in the ribs with his toes, “did you steal it while you were on the run and not washing your hair, or what? It’s kind of got that look about it.”

“I bought this at J Crew,” Bucky tells him, lazily amused. “It’s meant to be worn-looking. That’s the goddamn style, right, not all of us wear khakis like we’re already ninety.” Sam keeps poking his ribs; it’s very easy to reach out and grab his ankle, to press his thumb into Sam’s instep until Sam sighs out very softly.

“Holy shit, that’s good.”

“Adrenal pressure point. Supposed to relieve stress.” He presses a little harder, then lets go; Sam sighs again, flexes his toes.

“Go get the paint from the closet, would you?”

“Oh,” Bucky says. “Wait. I see how this is going. How you planning on doing this painting when you shouldn’t be standing up on your own for more than ten minutes at a time, Wilson?”

Sam grins at him, the gap between his teeth showing. “You’re a super-soldier,” he says. Stretches out on the couch. “Should be a breeze, right.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Bucky sighs, but he gets the goddamn paint out of the closet, strips down to his undershirt and boxers. “What,” he says, when he catches Sam staring. “They’re nice jeans. I’m not gonna go getting paint all over them, I learned that once the hard way.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Fine. Whatever. I guess you’re putting on a show for me, huh.”

Guess I am, Bucky thinks, and hopes his flush doesn’t show up as full-body as it feels.

 

“You need a plant,” Bucky says way too many hours later, looking critically at the room and wiping the back of his hand over his forehead. Sam, who has been goddamn fuckin’ napping for the last half hour, yawns widely, sits up a little straighter.

“What I need is to unpack all my shit I put into storage when I moved from DC,” he admits. “Fuck, I don’t know why I haven’t already. I’m pretty sure Homeland Security went through it all when I was in the Raft, maybe I’m just putting off seeing what damage they’ve done.”

“All my old shit’s in the Smithsonian,” Bucky offers. “Donate yours and make it a double exhibit, it sure makes it easy to get on board the minimal living trend,” and Sam stares at him a moment, starts laughing.

“You’re right,” he says after a minute or two. “I do need a plant.”

“Well, this room’s done, at least. Bug Steve to do the rest, I’ve got enough paint in my hair already.”

“Steve’s in a blue phase, didn’t you hear?”

“Christ, is he still on that,” Bucky mutters, trying to detangle his hair with extremely low success. “Shit, it’s one in the morning, I better get going.”

“Sleep here,” Sam shrugs, and yeah, it’s one in the morning, so Bucky does. It turns out Sam’s couch is even shittier than his when it comes to using it as a bed; Bucky winds up with a crick in his neck so bad he can’t turn his head to the right for three days.

“I’m never doing you a favor again,” Bucky tells Sam, trying to hold a heat pack in place with his shoulder so he can actually eat his goddamn Chinese, and Sam just fucking laughs. “I hate you,” Bucky mutters into his noodles. Sam shrugs.

“You sure spend a lot of time around me for someone who hates me,” he says easily, and the thing is, it was only ever the other way around, but yeah, Bucky thinks, yeah, you do, huh.

 

In early December Bucky gets the kind of cold he didn’t think he could get anymore; it’s soul-destroyingly brutal, especially as his body burns through most cold medication before it gets a chance to touch the fuckin’ bugs, and he’s miserable about it, regretting everything that has brought him to this point in life. He's still riding out the last of it when Kate knocks on his door as she’s heading out, Lucky winding around her legs.

“Got your mail,” she tells him. Takes another look at his face and involuntarily shifts back a step. “Jeez, what's wrong with you?”

“Sinus infection,” Bucky says. Sniffs very loudly, makes a face. Kate frowns.

“I thought you were supposed to be a super-soldier, or something.”

“Don't remind me. I just rinsed out the inside of my face with saline solution. Not the funnest thing I've done in my life, I tell you what.”

Kate wrinkles her nose. “Gross. What you need is some spicy soup, that’ll fix you. I’m going by my grandma’s, she usually makes a big pot of something on Sundays. I’ll bring you back some if she did.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, blowing his nose into a tissue. “Thanks. You need me to watch Lucky while you’re out?”

“Yeah, actually, that’d be great. It’s icy out there and I don’t have a jacket for him, he ate the last one.”

“Your dog is a trash dog,” Bucky tells her, for the fifteenth time. Kate shrugs, for the fifteenth time.

 

Sam comes by half an hour later, because apparently don’t come over, I’m culturing a new strain of the goddamn Spanish flu, and also you fucking know I live in a walk-up is a message he’s happy to ignore; it turns out it’s the first time he’s ever actually met Lucky. Lucky is not chill about this situation.

“You… have a dog,” Sam says slowly, confusion in his voice. Lucky jumps on him again, threatening to knock him over. “Since when do you have a dog.”

“He’s my neighbor’s,” Bucky says. “The one I told you about.”

“Oh,” Sam says, recognition dawning. “The garbage dog.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “The goddamn garbage dog. Lucky, get down.”

Lucky doesn’t get down, but he kind of wags his tail in the abashed way that says he’s heard Bucky and is kind of trying, at least, to consider it as a request. That’s about as good as Bucky’s gonna get, so he swallows back a sigh, gets up and hauls Lucky off Sam. “Don’t make me put you on the fire escape,” he tells Lucky, who responds by licking his jaw and intensifying the tail-wagging. “Ugh, gross, you’re such an asshole.”

“Man,” Sam says, making himself comfortable on the couch and taking up about three-quarters of the space, on the grounds that he has to keep his knee propped up, “you weren’t kidding about being sick, huh, you look like you died three days ago.”

“Thanks,” Bucky sighs, “that’s real comforting, pal,” and settles himself into the space left behind, wrapping one hand absent-mindedly around Sam’s ankle.

 

They both fall asleep in front of the third episode of Iron Chef, wake up to the sound of someone dropping down onto his fire escape.

“Hey!” Kate yells. “Open your window, it’s me. I brought you soup.”

“You know you could just come through the door?” Bucky tells her as he pulls open the protesting sash window. “It’s snowing out there, for Christ’s sake. One day you’re gonna slip and fall, and I hate to break it to you, kid, but I’m an anomaly when it comes to falling off high places and surviving.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kate says, pulling off her lilac knit cap and fluffing out her hair. “It’s only four stories, I’ll be fine.” She notices Sam as she’s shrugging out of her backpack and puffy coat; Bucky can tell by the way she freezes up and then turns to stare at Bucky very meaningfully.

“Katie, this is Sam,” Bucky says. “Sam, Kate, my neighbor with the garbage dog.”

“Hey,” Sam says easily from his spot on the couch. “I’d get up, but, uh, this thing makes it kinda difficult.”

“Hi,” Kate says, basically vibrating with excitement. “I live upstairs. I’m, yeah, I’m Kate. Bishop. Kate Bishop. You’re, uh, Sam Wilson, right? Captain America? Barnes did not tell me he was friends with Captain America.”

“You asked me the first night we met how I lost my arm, and then you started talking about the international manhunt for me,” Bucky interjects, muffled through blowing his nose for the fiftieth fucking time. “The fuck, Katie, I thought that would be kind of obvious.”

“I mean, everyone knows you’re friends with the old Cap,” Kate says dismissively. “That’s old news. He lives in this building, I’ve seen him half a dozen times getting his mail. Sam Wilson, though.”

Bucky pinches the bridge of his nose. He’s getting a headache, and his nose won’t stop dripping, and Sam looks real amused by this whole disaster. Lucky, in the corner, whines and puts a paw over his face.

“Did you actually bring me soup, or did you just come over to get your dog and be weird at my guest?” he asks, and Kate blows a raspberry at him, digs in her backpack before pulling out an enormous Tupperware and a plastic bag with a couple of jars in it.

“I really did bring soup,” she says. “Well, it’s technically stew, but close enough. Sam, you want some? It’s kimchi-jjigae, my grandma made it.”

“Yeah, sure, if there’s some going spare, that’d be great.”

“I brought so much,” Kate says, opening Bucky’s pantry to get out three bowls. “Bucky, I’m putting a shit-ton of extra gochujang in yours, it’s the only cure.”

She’s not lying; his bowl is packed with extra chili paste floating in the broth alongside the kimchi and scallions. It might actually be the best thing Bucky’s eaten this month, and within three bites his entire face feels like it’s melting off, which is frankly preferable to all the sinus shit he’s been dealing with today.

“Oh my god,” Sam sighs after a couple of mouthfuls, “this is so good. Your grandma needs to meet my grandma, I swear to god they could open a restaurant together and make bank.”

“You’ve never brought me anything your grandma made,” Bucky says accusatorily. “That’s it, Wilson, Kate’s a better friend than you.”

“Winning,” Kate says thickly around a huge mouthful of pork and kimchi. “It’s better when it’s still hot in the stone pot with a bunch of banchan, but that was kind of cumbersome to bring over. So, Sam, what’s it like being an Avenger?”

“Right now, I wouldn’t know,” Sam says. “Been waiting three weeks for them to tell me whether I need knee surgery. I don’t, by the way, so I got that going for me. You don’t get into the superhero business for the benefits, I swear to god.”

“Still, though,” Kate says. “Some kinda business, huh.”

“Kate’s a sharpshooter,” Bucky tells Sam. “Arrows, not bullets. Keeps bugging me to introduce her to Clint.”

“Huh. You wanna be the new Hawkeye?”

“Does it pay better than my current job?”

“I dunno, what's your current job?”

“Intern,” Kate says, inhaling another bite. “At Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz. I get twenty paid hours a week, plus all the stale bagels I can fit in my backpack at the end of the day. It works out. Looks good on my resume, if I ever graduate law school.”

“Honestly, I don't really think the Avengers gig pays much at all,” Sam admits. “But I'll talk to Tony, it’s not like we couldn’t do with another face on the team.”

 

The third time Sam rolls his shoulder, wincing, Bucky clears his throat to say something.

“Hurt yourself?”

“Nah, nothing that dramatic. Just pulled a muscle.”

“You’re on crutches,” Bucky says. “How the fuck did you pull a muscle?”

“Don’t ask me. I blame the crutches, actually. Slipped on some ice earlier today.”

Bucky leans over to set down his bowl on the floor, rolls his shirtsleeves up, climbs up to perch on the back of the couch behind Sam.

“Where does it hurt?” he asks, prodding at Sam’s trapezius. “Here?”

“Little to the left,” Sam says. “It doesn’t hurt, it’s just twinging.”

“Shut up and let me fix it,” Bucky says. “There?”

Oh, yeah, that’s it. Shit, that’s good.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky sees Kate sit up a little straighter, glancing between them, and then her mouth forms into a perfect O of gleeful surprise.

“Well,” she says, pushing herself to her feet and grabbing their bowls to load into the dishwasher, “time for me to head home. Come on, you dumb dog. Oh, Bucky, my grandma gave me a jar of yuja marmalade for you. Mix a spoonful of it with hot water to make tea, it’s supposed to be really good for you. Full of, like, vitamin C and stuff.”

“Sounds like your grandma is sweet on Barnes,” Sam says, pushing back a little into Bucky’s hands and tilting his head to the side. “I guess she'd almost be the right age for him, right.”

“She likes knowing I live above you,” Kate says. “She thinks it makes me safer, you know, ‘cause if anyone attacked me you'd be able to murder them for me.”

“That is true,” Bucky agrees. Smiles very sharp. “I can think of at least five ways to dispose of a body just tonight, right.”

“Neat,” Kate grins, pulling her cap down around her ears, and really, Bucky should not be considering buying her a set of brass knuckles, but it ain’t like he’s ever claimed to be a good influence on anyone.

“She seems nice,” Sam says once she’s gone. Relaxes back against Bucky’s touch.

“She's a pain in my ass,” Bucky grumbles. “But yeah, she's a good kid.”

 

“So,” Kate says the next morning, cornering him in the apartment foyer as he's leaving for school. Bucky actually flinches a little from her tone.

“So?”

“When were you gonna tell me about the planet-size crush you have on Sam Wilson, huh?”

“Oh my god,” Bucky says. This might be the worst thing that's ever happened, unless he forgot his pack of tissues today, in which case he's got worse problems.

“You think he's dreamy,” Kate continues, all raised eyebrows. Bucky sighs. Scowls at her, trying to remember what his intimidating face looks like.

“I'm sick, Katie. Leave me alone. Give me some fuckin’ peace.”

“Sick with love,” Kate says, because she's fearless.

“I used to be an assassin,” Bucky tells her. “You know that? I could kill you with my pinky finger.”

“Yeah, yeah. Have a good day at school.”

“You too,” Bucky says. Kisses her hair without thinking, the kind of casually affectionate thing he'd have done once for his own little sisters. “Don't drink too much coffee.”

“No such thing,” Kate shrugs, and that’s probably true, because she’s twenty-three and doesn’t think about the possibility of her heart exploding.

 

Two nights later, Bucky gets mugged literally twenty steps from his goddamn apartment block. In all honesty, he should have seen it coming a little sooner; the worst of it is he isn’t even expecting it. Maybe it’s a sign of progress that he’s let his guard fall so far, but it’s still fucking embarrassing when a couple of heavyset white men in pseudo-military getup manage to take advantage of his blind spot and get the jump on him on his way home from a late-night trip to the nearest bodega. He’s not even wearing his arm, for shit’s sake.

“Look,” he says, because he’s tired and just wants to get home and bake some peanut butter cookies. “I’ve got twenty dollars on me, max. You really want to do this?”

“He thinks we’re here for his money,” one of the men says to the other. “You hear that, Chad? The Asset’s gone soft.”

Oh, Bucky thinks, Christ, this again. “Really?” he says out loud. “You fuckers are still goddamn around? Christ, you’re like roaches.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the one who’s apparently Chad says, and Bucky takes that as his opportunity to swing his plastic bag of muscovado sugar and peanut butter at his face before dropping to one knee so he can better kick out the other guy’s kneecap.

He should see the knife. He does see the knife, but it turns out not-Chad is faster than he’s got any right to be, and suddenly the knife isn’t in not-Chad’s hand anymore but sinking into his own thigh.

Bucky growls. These are his favorite sweatpants, fucking goddamn, and he’s sick of two-bit Nazi assholes coming after him when all he wanted to do was buy peanut butter and say hi to Mrs Patil.

Fuck you,” he hisses. Yanks the knife out of his leg, ignoring the hot flash of pain, and slashes at not-Chad’s torso, spins just in time to elbow Chad in the solar plexus. Christing motherfucker, his leg hurts; maybe he is getting soft.

“You’re supposed to be a weapon,” Chad wheezes. “You’re supposed to be our weapon.” Bucky growls again. Finds his footing—fuck these sneakers and this ice, shit is fucking ridiculous—and pushes himself up to sock Chad hard enough in the jaw that he goes down in a heap of idiotically overblown khaki.

Not-Chad gapes for just a second. Bucky flips the knife, bares his teeth at him, and that’s the moment his thigh gives out and collapses him into the icy slush of the sidewalk.

Shit, Bucky thinks, shit, shit, and then he must go into a fugue state, or something, because time slows down for a second or two, blood rushing in his ears, and not-Chad topples face forward, clutching at his ass.

There’s an arrow sticking out of his left ass cheek. Bucky pushes himself up just long enough to kick not-Chad in the temple hard enough it should keep him down for the foreseeable, and then tumbles backwards, glares half-heartedly in the direction of his apartment building.

“That definitely should have gone better,” he mutters to himself. Looks down at his leg. There’s a whole lot of blood on his pants, and in the muddy snow around him, and Bucky knows, objectively, he’s a whole lot tougher than this shit, but ugh, Christ. Christ.

 

When he wakes up, he can tell before opening his eyes that he’s in a hospital bed. The smell of disinfectant sharp in the back of his throat, and the hum and beep of machines monitoring his vitals: it’s enough that he has to take a deep breath, deliberately tense and relax so he doesn’t go ripping the tubes out of his hand.

“Guess I kinda got stabbed,” he says, relieved to discover his voice doesn’t rasp in the way that it would if he’d had an endotracheal tube down his throat. No intubation means no major surgery, which means he’ll probably be out of here in a day or so. Two at the most.

“Yeah, Buck, you kinda got stabbed,” Steve agrees, sounding halfway between torn up about it and pissed the fuck off. Same, buddy, Bucky thinks. Cracks one eye open.

“How’d you find me?”

“Your tiny neighbor showed up banging on my door and screaming about Nazi dickweeds mugging you,” Steve tells him. “Christ, she’s something, huh.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “She sure is. You catch the guys?”

“You know, it was kinda hard not to, given one of ‘em had a broken jaw and the other one had an arrow in his butt,” Steve shrugs. “Turns out they’re not even Hydra. Just some alt-right militia idiots who’ve done too much wading in the SHIELD files and think they can take up where Hydra left off. You wanna talk about where that arrow mighta come from? If I didn’t know better I’d say Clint was out there.”

“Not a clue,” Bucky says. Closes his eyes and smirks a little.

 

Sam shows up an hour later, has a muttered conversation with Steve that Bucky can still hear in its embarrassing entirety.

“You know you’re not being quiet,” he says without opening his eyes. It’s warm in the hospital, and they must have figured out a painkiller combo that doesn’t trigger his benzos flashbacks; he’s feeling pretty nice, all things considered. “Take it into the hallway if you want to discuss me, Christ.”

“Shut up,” Sam tells him. “You got stabbed.”

“Just a little bit stabbed,” Bucky says. “Like ten percent stabbed, max.”

“The knife was about an inch away from your femoral artery,” Sam says. “You could have bled out.”

“I’m fine,” Bucky tells him. “Honestly, my biggest fuck-up was not carrying a blade of my own, Christ, I oughta be ashamed. The fuck was I thinking.” Sam smacks his non-stabbed thigh.

“Fuck you,” he says. “I’m eating your pudding. It’s what you goddamn deserve. After that lecture you gave me about being reckless, god.”

Sam’s still in a fucking knee brace, Bucky thinks mutinously, and focuses on looking pathetic enough that Sam might give him back his pudding. It’s butterscotch flavor. He loves butterscotch.

It doesn’t work; Sam just stares at him, one eyebrow raised, and then says, mouth full, “hey, move over so I can sit on your bed, I need to stretch my leg out.”

Bucky has the worst friends. Can’t even get stabbed in goddamn peace.

 

He finally gets to go home the next day, and as he lets himself into his apartment, awkwardly one-handed and juggling the bag of meds they'd sent him off with, he can tell immediately someone else is there. Fuckin’ figures that there’d be more of them, he thinks, and then Lucky smacks his nose straight into Bucky’s crotch, which is not exactly the dignified home-coming Bucky might have expected.

“What’d you do, pick my locks?” he says, and Kate sticks her head up over the back of his couch, her face tight in the expression he’s already seen from both Steve and Sam.

“You got stabbed,” Kate says, and Bucky’s pretty fuckin’ tired of people telling him something he already knows, but Katie’s chin is wobbling and she’s glaring at him so hard it might scorch his eyebrows. He grabs Lucky by the collar, drags him over to the couch. Sits down next to Kate.

“Hey,” he says, as gently as he can. “I’m fine, I promise. Super-soldier, remember? I ain’t even got a scar, look, you want me to show you?”

“Gross,” Kate says. “No, ew. Don’t pull your pants down, you’re like a hundred and five.”

“I’m thirty two,” Bucky mutters. Kate punches him in the shoulder, and he winces, immediately regretting ever having taught her how to throw a good punch. “Kate,” he says, reaching to stop her fist before she can hit him again. “Seriously. Thanks. Steve told me what you did.”

“Could have been anyone,” Kate says. “New York’s full of vigilantes who haunt the night and shoot creeps and assholes in the butt.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “Right. Thanks anyway.”

“You’re welcome,” Kate says seriously. Pauses for a minute. “So, done anything about your crush yet?”

“Oh my god,” Bucky groans. “I was in hospital, Jesus, leave me alone.”

“Gonna take that as a no,” Kate says. “Hey, I bought you yogurt parfaits, you want one?”

Yes, Bucky wants a yogurt parfait. He lets Kate make him tea, drag a blanket over the both of them, and when Lucky gets up on the couch, Bucky pretends he hasn’t noticed, just this once.

 

Shit, he realizes, waking up an hour later in a tangle of dog hair and blanket and sweat, Kate drooling on his shoulder. Shit, they came with their knives and their fucking Asset-speak, came basically to his goddamn front door, and he didn’t run, hadn’t even considered it as a goddamn fucking option. His go-bag is still behind the plaster. He’s got a dog snoring on his thigh, and his biggest complaint about the whole situation is losing his best sweatpants and missing out on peanut butter cookies.

Fuck, he thinks, that’s— fuck, and lets himself feel the seachange all the way down, through and fucking through.

 

Christmas is kind of a shit-show: they’re supposed to be heading out to the Bartons’ again, but a storm comes through on the twenty-third that fucks up the roads too bad to drive. Natasha and Wanda are already up there, and wind up stuck at the farm for a week, which is no problem at all except for how Sam gets his knee brace off just in time to have some bullshit thing come up in Virginia which he probably can’t postpone just on the grounds that it’s a goddamn holiday. In the end Kate winds up taking pity on Bucky and Steve and dragging them home with her “so you don’t have a sadsack orphan Christmas, god, you’re like some cartoon encapsulation of The Sadness of Christmas Past.”

“I used to draw those comics,” Steve says, maybe a little wistfully. “Made good money, back in the day. Big-eyed orphans in the soup kitchen, that kind of thing.”

“Oh my god, shut up,” Kate says. “I can’t take it. Drink some soju.”

“You know we can’t get drunk,” Bucky tells her, and Kate just tops up his glass.

“It’s 90 proof, buddy, give it a try.”

Apparently put enough 90 proof liquor in a couple of super-soldiers and they do get a buzz on, Bucky discovers; he and Steve wind up singing karaoke nobody knows the words to with Kate’s parents and grandparents while she gleefully documents the whole thing for instagram likes. Lucky tries to sing along, until Kate winds tinsel into his collar, and then he lies down under the table to hide as they start playing entirely incomprehensible drinking games.

“This sucks,” Sam says mournfully down the phone late that evening; they’ve decamped back to Kate’s to keep drinking, and Bucky’s hiding in the bathroom while Kate and Steve are making a mess with peppermint schnapps hot chocolate. “I’m stuck here in Fucksville Nowhere sorting out idiots who think Christmas is a great time to start a supervillain plan and you’re actually drunk, what the fuck. I can’t believe I’m missing out on this. This and my mom’s sweet potato pie.”

“I miss you too,” Bucky says, because he is drunk, at least enough to be honest.

“Yeah,” Sam sighs. Lets the quiet spool out between them on the line. “Yeah, man, I miss you too. Shit, I better go before Scott starts something dumb. Say hi to Steve and Kate for me.”

“Sam says merry Christmas,” Bucky announces, coming back into the living room and claiming a mug of hot chocolate. Kate points at him a little accusingly, her finger wavering as she slumps sideways onto Steve’s shoulder, and Steve squints at him, gives him another one of those assessing looks.

 

“Come on,” Sam says once he’s home, a couple of weeks into the new year, “you’re coming over to my mom’s for dinner.”

“The fuck I am,” Bucky replies, reflexive, because the idea of meeting Sam’s mom terrifies the living shit out of him; Sam just rolls his eyes.

“You were the one complaining I've never brought you any of my grandma's cooking. My grandma's down in Maryland, but my mom's chicken is almost as good.”

Did you forget I’m an assassin, Bucky wants to say. Runs his fingers through his hair.

“The most your mom knows about me is I got your ass thrown in jail, right?”

“And yet, she’s still been bugging me to bring you over,” Sam says. “Go figure. So go shave and put a goddamn sweater on, would you? I know your natural state is unwashed hobo, but I believe in you.”

“Fuck you,” Bucky says, because he has seen Sam Wilson three days deep on the same sweatpants and t-shirt, eating congealed Chinese leftovers straight out of the carton. But he shaves, combs his hair back into a bun, pulls on one of his nicer sweaters.

“Yeah, you’ll do,” Sam tells him, giving him a critical up-and-down glance, and Bucky honestly doesn’t know whether he’s pleased or offended.

 

Turns out it’s not just Sam’s mom: Sam’s sister and his niece are there too, like maybe Sam planned this whole thing in advance. Bucky nudges him in the ribs; Sam nudges him back, surreptitiously pinches the back of his hand.

“Mom, Trina, this is Bucky.”

“Ma’am,” Bucky says, and Sam’s mom smiles at him, kisses him on the cheek.

“Call me Darlene,” she tells him, and Bucky ducks his head, wishes for one desperate moment that he could lean in and hug her exactly the way he used to hug his own ma.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and Darlene laughs and laughs, swats at him lightly.

“Mo,” Sam says, picking his niece up and swinging her onto one hip, “this is Bucky. He’s a friend of mine.”

“You got a robot arm,” Monique says. “How come you got a robot arm?” and Trina coughs quietly, gives Bucky an apologetic smile.

“Mo, honey, we talked about this, remember? You know Miss Allison at Sam’s work, how she has a new leg these days? You don’t just go asking people about things like that.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky tells her. “Honestly, I don’t mind.”

“She’s gotta learn,” Trina says. “So, Sam said you’re back in school?”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “Massage and physiotherapy,” and it’s easy enough to talk about his classes, to make polite small talk over dinner until Sam takes over and tells them all about his most recent Cap mission.

 

Darlene and Trina are both warm but reserved, watchful, and it's not until Monique climbs into his lap after dinner and demands a story that Bucky feels himself begin to relax.

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay. I'm gonna tell you a story about a dog with one eye, okay?”

“One eye?” Monique says, her own dark eyes saucer-wide, and Bucky grins at her, tickles her sides a little.

“One eye. And he's a pizza thief, can you believe it?”

“Nooooo,” Monique giggles, and that's how they wind up making an eye patch out of purple felt and elastic and glitter glue while Bucky tells her the story of Lucky the pirate dog superhero, who lost his eye in a swordfight with an evil pizza shop owner.

“Hey,” Sam says, and Bucky turns to look up; he's wearing the eye patch, since Lucky isn't around to try it on, and Monique is almost asleep with her head tucked into the crook of his shoulder. “Never mind,” Sam says, looking a little taken aback by the whole thing. “I was just, uh. Nice accessory.”

“I think it really brings out my cheekbones,” Bucky tells him, smiling softer than he intends, and turns back, gently bounces Mo on his hip in exactly the gesture he hasn't used in eighty years. His muscles remember, and she sighs very softly, flings one arm out and presses her face more firmly into his neck.

“Oh,” he hears Sam's mom say behind them, quiet enough he knows he shouldn’t be overhearing. “Sam, honey, are you—”

“Mama, shhh,” Sam murmurs. “I'm working on it, okay.”

Working on what, Bucky wonders, and lays Monique down on the couch so they can head home.

 

Kate loves the eye patch. Lucky loves the eye patch even more: they take a photo of him wearing it, text it to Trina, and three days later Bucky gets mail via Sam, a thick envelope full of crayon drawings of a dog wearing an eye patch and a cape. It’s amazing. He sticks them all on his fridge, smiles at them every time he goes into the kitchen. Sam sulks about it.

“I can’t believe Mo sent me drawings just to give them to you,” he mutters. “She’s never even sent me drawings.”

“Guess I’m her favourite uncle,” Bucky says, just to rile Sam up. It works.

“I’m her only uncle.”

Apparently the way he solves matters is by coming home from his regular superhero briefing slash group complaint session up at the Avengers base two weeks later with a dog-size Avengers cowl and dog tags to match.

“You made my dog an Avenger,” Kate says blankly, looking down at Lucky in his new Captain Dog outfit and then back at Sam, her eyebrows raised.

“Bucky told my niece he was a superhero,” Sam says. “The fuck was I supposed to do.”

Lucky fucking loves the cowl too, which is the weirdest thing Bucky’s ever seen, but whatever. It’s less funny when he gets snapped by a paparazzi photographer while he’s out taking Lucky around the park; the shot makes it all the way to the front page of the New York Post, and both Sam and Steve clip it out and stick it on their fridges, because apparently they live to torment him.

“Come on,” he says. “Do you gotta?” It’s unmistakably him, his face drawn into the Winter Soldier glower underneath his pulled-up sweater hood and black wool coat, shitty jeans and old boots, the photo taken exactly as Lucky was taking a piss against a goddamn fucking tree, and the fucking Post has taken great glee in writing the headline WINTER SOLDIER BACK IN THE SUPERHERO BUSINESS??? underneath.

“This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” Sam tells him, and the next time Bucky looks at his own kitchen fridge he notices that someone, probably Kate, has printed out an edited version now captioned WINTER SOLDIER BACK ON HIS BULLSHIT???

It’s not fucking funny, Bucky tells himself, and tries unsuccessfully not to laugh.

 

The whole of February and the beginning of March is nothing but shitty weather, shitty missions, shitty press coverage that Bucky can tell is getting to Sam.

“I can still leak that whole Socialist Party thing,” he offers the third time he comes over to find Sam watching CNN, his jaw tight. “Seriously, sweetheart, this is bullshit. Everyone who knows anything about you knows you’re better than they’re making you out to be.”

“Yeah,” Sam sighs. Turns off the TV. “I know. I just—”

“It’s frustrating, huh.”

“Yeah,” Sam says again. His shoulders slump. “Yeah, it’s frustrating.”

“Come on,” Bucky tells him, “let’s go for a walk, huh. Watching Lucky run in the snow in his dumb snow booties, that’s something that’ll cheer anyone up, I promise you.”

It does, Bucky thinks, it cheers Sam up; Lucky tries to fight the snow, tries to eat the snow, tries to dig in the snow, and then gives up and starts chasing squirrels.

“You’re never gonna catch them,” Bucky tells him. “Buddy, you’re fighting a losing fight here, come on,” and Lucky just cocks his head to the side, pauses for a minute before bounding off again.

“Fuck,” Sam murmurs. Shoves his hands in his pockets, leans against Bucky like he’s tired. “How is this our life, huh?”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “It’s not so bad, right?”

“No,” Sam says, quiet. “Nah, it’s not so bad.”

Bucky glances sideways at him. Thinks about Sam’s mouth on his, tasting of peach soda. Of the two of them warm in a cocoon of blankets, of the sound of Sam’s voice spinning out quiet from a phone line. The sharpness of soju thrown back all in one go.

His thigh aches in the cold like it hasn’t healed properly; he’s got no scar, but he rubs it anyway, absent-minded.

 

Winter finally breaks, and it can’t come too soon; Bucky starts thinking about what he’s gonna do when he finishes with school, whether he could get a job or open his own practice.

“Come work for the Avengers,” Sam suggests, half-joking, and Bucky kicks him in the ankle.

“If you think I’m gonna work as a massage therapist for Tony fuckin’ Stark,” he says, and Sam can’t hold a straight face. “Anyway, you want a massage, all you gotta do is ask.”

“I know,” Sam says. Looks away.

What’s going on, he thinks, and lets it go; he gets the impression, somehow, that it’ll break or not just the way winter did, cold easing into something new.

Three days later, someone’s banging on his door way too early in the morning. Bucky groans, rolls over, tries to hide under his pillow. His phone starts ringing. Sam.

“What,” he says, hearing how rough it comes out; he’s still asleep, goddamn it, it’s too early for this.

“It's me, asshole, open your door.”

When Bucky pulls the door open Sam's eyes kind of go a little wide.

“I was asleep,” Bucky says. “Gimme a minute, I'll put my arm back on.”

“I,” Sam says. “Yeah. Are you in yoga pants?”

“Shut up, it's six in the fucking morning, I wasn't expecting anyone. The fuck, Wilson.”

“Yeah, okay. My water's out, can I use your shower?”

“Seriously? You came over just to use my shower? That’s cold. I was asleep.”

“You're only a block away,” Sam shrugs. “It was just easier, okay? Are you gonna let me use it or not?”

“Whatever,” Bucky says, shrugging one-shouldered and closing the door behind Sam. “You know where everything is. There are clean towels in the hall closet.”

“Thanks, man,” Sam says, hiding a yawn. “I owe you one. Sorry to wake you up.”

It’s no big deal, really, Bucky thinks as he slots his prosthetic back into the shoulder fitting, rolls it into place for the reboot and turns his coffee machine on. It’s kinda nice, even, to be up this early, to have the morning light painting his apartment in shades of gold and rose.

Sam starts singing in the shower. Bucky reconsiders kinda nice and rates it all the way up to extremely nice, and also the best thing he’s ever heard. He could wake up to this, he thinks idly, and pours himself a mug of coffee before he gets any more ideas.

“Hi,” he says when Sam gets out of the shower, still a little damp around the edges. “Coffee? I just brewed a pot.” Sam just looks at him, this one ineffably long moment of breathless silence, and Bucky has exactly enough time to think wait, you’re— before Sam is taking Bucky’s face in his hands, kissing him slow and deliberate.

“Do you—” he says, into Sam's mouth—Sam’s mouth, Christ, tasting of Bucky's toothpaste when he licks along Sam's lush lower lip—and Sam nods. Lets his hands drift to Bucky's hips, kisses him again.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah. Yes.”

“Well,” Bucky says. Thinks about how this has unfolded, sweet and easy and tender between the two of them, their boundaries blurring between each other until they’re something more confusing by far than friends. “Thank fuck, sweetheart. Thank fuck.”

It’s taken long enough, he thinks; it’s taken exactly as much time as it needs.