In his defence, he never would’ve seen it coming.
Sam prides himself on being observant. It’s part of the job— to gauge the situation, to pay attention to the little, missable details that a person make, to read in between the lines and make informed guesses. He does it well, having worked with veterans through their trauma, and even earlier than that, having been the mediator between his older brother and younger sister. Sam observes, understands, and acts. It’s his thing.
Then, Bucky Barnes barrels into his life, one busted ass car and two broken wings at a time, and his thing becomes a pain in his ass.
By far, Bucky is the most traumatised person he’s ever met. He thought it may have been the vet who served in EOD that went through about ten partners in less than a year, who looked at him like he was about to explode, but looking at Barnes had changed his mind about that. Considering everything he’d gone through, from getting caught by HYDRA and turned into a ruthless killing machine, to having to find out his best friend, who fought through hell and back to get him back, left him for an old flame that sputtered out before it even started, it’s a wonder his mind doesn’t just explode.
There were times, Sam has to admit, where he thought that would happen. That, one day, in his nice little hut in the middle of a Wakandan plain, Bucky’s cyborg brain will end up shutting down and then, bye-bye Barnes. It didn’t, and probably never will, but it could’ve. No one goes through what he does and doesn’t come out of it more than a little worse for wear.
So, that’s what Sam focused on. Many times, during their acquaintanceship (because Barnes is too against calling them friends to classify their relationship as friendship,) Sam tried to help him deal with it. He can put aside how goddamn fucking annoying Bucky can get and how good he is at dodging confrontation like bullets, so long as he could also get past all of Bucky’s walls to the man inside.
But, because Bucky’s the wild card of wild cards, he suddenly loosens up when Sam invites him to stay at his home in Delacroix, Louisiana, and Sam’s left a little bit floundering.
Bucky seamlessly fits into his daily life, from helping with the boat to hanging out on the docks with a beer in hand to doing the dishes when Sarah’s back starts hurting to letting Cass and AJ swing on his vibranium arm. It feels like Bucky had been there for months rather than five days, from the way he fits just right. In just one prolonged stay in the Wilson family home, Bucky goes from ‘annoying acquaintance that occasionally fights alongside Sam’ to ‘still annoying now-friend who his family adores.’
That did something to him, Sam realises now. He’d always been a family man, and while he used to want to have his own kids and a spouse, his sister and her sons are his family now, with little change for that on the horizon. He’d never brought anybody home because he never found anybody he would’ve wanted his family to meet, and now here he is, telling Bucky to take the couch for as long as he wants. He didn’t realise how much it mattered for his family to approve of somebody—
Somebody, meaning what, exactly? Sam’s a little stuck on that, if he’s being honest. Bucky’s his annoying friend that flirts with his sister and turns his own nephews against him, but Bucky’s also the only man he’d trust on the field with all facets of his life. He’s someone Sam never expected to enjoy a nice, cold beer with, someone he never expected to have all these cool stories outside of the Soldier’s memories, someone he never expected to be sitting next to on the couch and watching whatever shows up on cable at the ungodly time they’re awake after both of them wake up from nightmares.
Sam really hadn’t expected anything from Bucky from a force of habit, to minimise disappointment and maximise approval, but even this throws him off kilter. Then, because his own mind hates him, he starts thinking about what it would be like to live with Bucky all the time.
He thinks it’d be nice, that they’d basically be the same, just without Sarah and the kids. Sam likes to go on runs in the morning, so he’d convince Bucky to go with him, like the first time he and Steve met (which is a whole can of worms he doesn’t wanna open right now in his little dream world.) Bucky’s got the palate of both a child and a white man from the 30s, which Sam just can’t deal with, so he’d have to steer them away from having chicken tenders and boiled, unsalted potatoes every day of their lives. Sam’s least favourite chore is washing the dishes, which Bucky seems happy to do, while Bucky’s least favourite chore is using the feather duster, which Sam is pretty content with doing. Sam is on the spectrum, and he suspects Bucky might be too, so they’d both need a clear schedule so they can avoid the tempting comfort of doing what they’re fixated on for hours on end.
Jesus fucking Christ. He feels like a teenager lying on his bed, belly to the mattress and legs kicking up as he wrote in his diary about his little crush on James Barnes. The thought is both intoxicating and distressing.
All that thinking comes to a head when Sam, sitting with Bucky on the matching rocking chairs on the porch that were once ma and pa’s with coffees in hand, realises that he’s more than a little in love with Bucky. From meeting Steve, becoming a fugitive, fighting aliens, the Blip, and becoming Captain America, falling in love with Bucky feels like the universe both throwing him a bone and fucking with him once more.
He thinks about Bucky’s stupid, handsome face, the fact he’s seen him genuinely smile (which is at least fifty times prettier than that awkward, forced smile he puts on sometimes for appearances) more times in the last five days than his whole time knowing Bucky, the way his eyes reflect like pools of clear water that sometimes get hard to look at, the way he lets his beard grow without a trim, the way he looks at Sam with soft eyes and a smile on his lips. He’s definitely more relaxed here, and there’s just something about it that has Sam reeling.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Bucky says suddenly, snapping Sam out of his daydreams. He sips his coffee, which they probably shouldn’t be drinking as the sun sets, eyes trained on Sam. For all his staring, he’s not a big fan of looking someone in the eyes, Sam notes. “What’s that little bird brain coming up with now?”
The gibe puts a little smile on Sam’s face, too small to spread across his face but big enough that Bucky notices it, smiling back. “Just... thinking about things. How we got here.” It’s not the whole truth, only cherry-picked parts of it, but how do you tell your best-friend-who-isn’t-your-best-friend that you’ve got feelings for him?
“It’s been a pretty long road, hasn’t it,” Bucky hums, a bit of wistfulness in his tone. He smiles at a memory. “Hey, you remember when you and Steve visited my hut once?”
“Oh, Jesus. With the gift,” Sam mutters darkly, rubbing his temples. Bucky laughs at him freely, and Sam smiles so hard his face hurts, even as he tries not to.
The only time Sam came with Steve to visit Bucky in Wakanda was mere months before the Blip, and Sam brought a ‘gift.’ It was a cut-up news article in German, looking back on the anniversary of the Winter Soldier’s escape from a Berlin prison and the subsequent disappearance after. The whole article was just tabloid-level bullshit, talking about how it’s possible that Steve orchestrated the whole thing because he actually worked for HYDRA and some other tin-hat conspiracy theories, but the part Sam saved was a paragraph talking about how much they could actually blame James Buchanan Barnes.
‘There is, without a doubt, a price on the head of James Barnes, the Winter Soldier, but how can we be sure it is worth it? Everyone knows the story of what happened by now, so we will not go over it, but when the HYDRA files were leaked to the public, the only mentions of him were records of “severe electric-shock induced memory loss.” He was, in layman’s terms, brainwashed by HYDRA and turned into who he is (perhaps was?) today. If you, reader, were taken into captivity and subjected to serums and operations to turn you into a highly skilled killer, then brainwashed to forget your identity, would you say you were in control? Something to think about.’
He’d given it to Bucky as they were about to leave, folded in a way where it wouldn’t rip apart the moment he took it out of his pocket, and didn’t say another word. Bucky had taken it with suspicion, but before Sam could know if he read it, he’d already turned around and walked back to the jet.
“That gift was... is important, to me,” Bucky nearly whispers, the smile on his face a little sad. He reaches into his pocket and takes out Steve’s (now Bucky’s) notebook, and on the first page, that article is clipped with a paperclip. Sam wonders how he never noticed that before. “I don’t read anything about me, but it was the first time I ever saw something that talked about me like I was a person that wasn’t you, Steve, or the Wakandans.” Bucky looks down at the notebook, running his thumb down the edges. “It... made me feel hopeful.”
Sam’s smile turns soft, sipping the last of his coffee before he puts it aside. It’s not often Bucky opens up, though the rate at which he does did increase significantly, so he feels just the slightest bit (okay, maybe more than that) honoured. “If it helps, a lot of people generally think it wasn’t your fault for being brainwashed. People even like you on the internet.”
Bucky laughs then, and it’s such a nice sound to Sam’s ears that he can’t help the smile that splits across his face. “Well, at least I can say somebody out there likes me.”
“Hey, c’mon, people like you here,” Sam says, sitting back and letting the chair rock. “Sarah likes you, AJ and Cass like you, hell, even Benny likes you, and he’s a mean old son of a bitch,” Sam lists, then, without thinking, he adds, “I like you. People want you here, man.”
Bucky seems to come to a stop, like he’d heard something he wasn’t expecting. He looks at Sam with a smile reaching his eyes. “You like me?”
The hell? “Well, yeah, ‘course I do,” Sam responds, looking out at the front yard. “Look, Buck, I know you don’t like to think it, but you’re my friend, so that means I like you, alright?”
He glances back at Bucky when he doesn’t react to the nickname, and it really shouldn’t be so natural for a skilled ex-assassin to look like a kicked puppy, but it tugs on Sam’s heartstrings a little. He’s not sure why Bucky looks that way, because he’s pretty sure he just assured him that they were friends, so what—
Bucky clears his throat, putting on a smile that doesn’t quite look right on his face. Oh. “Thanks, Sam. I, uh, like you too, I guess.” He doesn’t look at Sam directly, instead focusing on something else. He gets up from his seat. “I’m gonna go see if Sarah needs help with dinner.”
No she doesn’t. “Buck, wait,” Sam says, taking hold of Bucky’s wrist. Bucky stops in his tracks, looking at Sam with a guarded look. He hates that look on him. “I... I think I misread something. Can you sit?”
Bucky regards him with light suspicion now, but he sits. He doesn’t say anything, so Sam figures he might as well. “Uh, well, I think I meant something else, when I said I liked you.”
“You ‘think?’” Bucky repeats, brow raised. The guarded look has faded somewhat, confusion obvious on his features. “Can you... elaborate on that?”
Fuck it. “I like you, Bucky. In a not-really-friendly way,” Sam says, and kind of flounders for a bit because Bucky is just looking at him and he doesn’t know how to act around that, “and I don’t know if I’m reading you right, but if you could react or something that would be great—”
“You talk too much,” Bucky cuts in, getting up from his chair, “you also worry too much,” He says, then he’s standing in front of Sam and leaning down, lips pressing against Sam’s in a soft kiss that is far too chaste, before he’s pulling away with a smile.
Sam, brain finally reconnecting with his body, pulls him back in by the shirt and kisses him, longer and deeper than the last one. Bucky practically melts in his arms, sinking into the kiss with everything he is, and Sam figures this could’ve gone a lot worse than it did.
He probably should’ve seen it coming, but that’s neither here nor there when Bucky drags him up from his seat into the house with a wink and a grin. Thank fuck AJ and Cass are still at school.