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birds flying (but i'm still there)

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This moment my whole  
 trajectory’s toward you, and it’s not losing 
 momentum. Call it anything we want.  

-  Marilyn Hacker, from On Marriage

 



Bucky is tired of fighting. 

It’s a strange way to feel, since he was basically built for war; he was a soldier for two years, the Soldier for seventy years after that, a man made into a weapon by every pair of hands that touched him. He almost can’t remember what it’s like to live for something that isn’t the fight, isn’t the crush of bones beneath his fists and the taste of blood in his mouth. He’s been fighting for so long that he’s not sure he knows how to stop. 

It’s been one battle after another: the draft, the war, the winter, the Soldier, the snap, the Flag-Smashers. Enemies upon enemies, rising and falling like the tides. When he thinks about it too much, it's as if Bucky’s entire life has been one long war. He’s so tired that it weighs on his shoulders like a physical burden, a thousand tons of guilt and grief that pull him down and steal his breaths.

He doesn’t know how to breathe without exhaling violence, but he wants to learn. 

When Sharon calls him and says that she’s got a non-combative assignment for him to run, Bucky lets out a sigh of relief and tells her that he’s all in. He doesn’t care that it won’t be a solo flight, doesn’t even care that he’ll have to work with Sam Wilson again; he’s desperate enough for peace that he’s willing to throw his lot in with someone else and hope that it sticks, that maybe he’ll finally be able to build something instead of breaking it. 

That all changes the second he finds out what the assignment is going to be.

-- 

Bucky walks into Sharon’s apartment in Washington DC and immediately regrets it; the second he steps inside, he can hear Sam Wilson’s argumentative voice echoing off the walls. Bucky shakes his head and tries to ignore it, but even without super-hearing it’s like trying to ignore a police siren. 

Sharon’s voice is there too, lower but not softer, full of steel and gunpowder. Bucky grins to himself; she can hold her own, that one.

Bucky walks down the hall towards the kitchen, following the sound of the argument. Sharon’s place is nice - it’s got pale green walls with white baseboards, a nice blue and black carpet that looks handwoven, a few framed portraits hanging along the hallway. 

Bucky stops for a moment to look at one of them: Sharon and Peggy standing in front of the Washington Monument, arms wrapped around each other, both smiling.

 Next to that, there’s a picture of Steve and Peggy from the forties, faded sepia film behind pristine glass. 

Something curls in Bucky’s chest at the sight of that second photograph. Even with the years of Hydra programming erased from his mind, it’s still hard for him to stay oriented sometimes; he slips backwards sometimes, times blending and mingling in his head. It usually happens in his dreams, but not always, and it’s happening now - looking at that picture takes him right back to the training ground in New Jersey, the campsite in Germany, dust and sweat and gunsmoke and death. 

He shakes his head and continues down the hall, feeling unsettled. 

“Absolutely not,” Sam is saying when Bucky enters the kitchen. It’s brighter in here than it was in the hall, light pouring in through the large windows. 

Sam is sitting at the kitchen table across from Sharon, a file of papers lying between them, and Bucky exhales at the sight of him. Sam is the same as ever: tall, solid, real. His presence, as annoying as it is, serves as a grounding force for Bucky. He hasn’t seen Sam for months, not since they shared one picnic on the dock in Louisiana before Bucky went back to New York. 

Bucky takes another breath and walks over to join them. 

“Bucky, hey,” Sharon says, nodding to him. “You could’ve just knocked. I would’ve let you in.” 

“Nah,” Sam cuts in. “Buck’s not big on things like boundaries and personal space. It’s the old age, it’s getting to him. Next thing you know, he won’t even remember who we are.” 

Bucky glares at him. Sam is leaning back against the wall, smirking in a way that’s all too irritatingly familiar to Bucky. He’s got one arm draped over the back of his chair: casual, calm, caught between beams of sunlight. Bucky can’t imagine a world where he could ever forget Sam Wilson.

“Shut the fuck up,” Bucky says, dropping into the chair next to Sharon. “I told you not to call me that.” 

“Sorry,” Sam says, not looking sorry at all. “Buck.” 

“Jesus,” Sharon says, shuffling papers around on the table. “Save your weird verbal foreplay for when you’re off duty. You’ve got a mission to run.” 

Sam scowls now. “I’m not doing that mission.” He gestures to Bucky. “We agreed that we would never work together again.” 

“Yeah, well,” Sharon says, “you’re going to have to suck it up. We don’t have anyone else qualified for this one.” 

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Sam says. “Any idiot from the FBI could pull this off. It’s a waste of my talents. Hell, it’s a waste of Bucky’s talents, and he’s barely got any. Honestly, I’m hurt that you even considered us for this one.” 

“Wilson,” Sharon says, her voice firm and unyielding. “You owe me a favor, remember. Actually, you owe me a lot more than just a favor. You’re going on this mission with Barnes. Case closed.” 

Sam frowns, but doesn’t argue. If they’ve learned one thing from working with Sharon, it’s that she’s absolutely not to be crossed under any circumstances - and as well, it’s true that they owe her more than they can ever repay. 

“Why are you last-naming me,” Bucky says, pretending to be hurt. “I’m not the one being difficult.” 

Sam scoffs. “You were born difficult, Barnes,” he says. He takes a sip of coffee from one of Sharon’s old SHIELD mugs. “Fine. Where’s the location, then?” 

“Paris,” Sharon says, sliding a folder and an envelope across the table to them. “There’s a luxury hotel there, you’re booked for two weeks or until the mission’s complete.” 

Sam arches an eyebrow. “Suspicious. What’s the catch?” 

Bucky doesn’t say anything, but privately he agrees. Seventy years of getting fucked over have taught him that there’s always a catch. Nothing good is ever true. 

“No catch, Wilson,” Sharon says. “The hotel you’ll be staying at is a couples boutique, that’s all.” 

Bucky almost chokes. “I’m sorry, what?” 

“It’s just a little acting,” Sharon says, waving a hand. “You can handle that, can’t you, Cap? Grow up.” 

Sam crosses his arms, scowling again. Bucky watches out of the corner of his eye, notes the curve of Sam’s shoulders and the way his shirt falls over his chest like water. 

“This is bullshit,” Sam says. “Bullshit. You’re making me regret getting you pardoned.”  

“Tragic,” Sharon says, standing. She pulls Sam’s chair backwards until he stands up. “Now get out. I have things to do today, and you’re in the way.” 

The next thing Bucky knows, he’s standing in the hallway with Sam, and Sharon’s door is closed tightly in their faces. Bucky looks at Sam, giving him a wry smile. 

“Looks like we’re working together again,” Bucky says, “so how about we try and make this painless. You keep quiet and I’ll do all the talking.” 

“Man, fuck you,” Sam says, and walks away down the hall.

Bucky sighs and follows suit, taking the opposite staircase from Sam. 

--

Back in the tiny room that he’d rented in a motel on the outskirts of the city, Bucky sits on the floor and spreads out his copy of the mission file. 

The purpose of the mission is intelligence recovery; there’s a flash drive with confidential defense information that’s going to be transferred sometime during the two-week window, and Sam and Bucky are supposed to obtain a copy without compromising the original. The mark is a woman named Sarah Lundvik, 26, from Norway. Bucky flips through her bio; apparently she’s a conwoman and an information dealer, formerly affiliated with various intelligence agencies, who’s going to be selling the drive to an anonymous bidder. It all seems pretty straightforward. 

The last thing in the file is a brochure from the hotel they’ll be staying at. Bucky unfolds it slowly, taking in the grand façade of the building: it’s all rose gold stone and white shutters and iron-wrought balconies, clean and charming and beautiful. There’s a pool on the roof, and the Eiffel Tower is visible in the background, past the curving corner of the hotel. 

Bucky scans the list of offered amenities: hot tubs, saunas, twenty-four hour room service, rooftop pool, daily afternoon wine tastings, discounted tours for local cheese and wine shops, couples massages….

Couples massages. Jesus Christ. 

The back of the brochure doesn’t have any writing; instead, it’s a full-page panoramic view of the hotel rooftop, showing the poolside garden at sunset. There are strings of tea lights woven around the pool, and the pale red roses shine against the pink and orange glow of the setting sun. Paris is spread out in the background, all ornate buildings and golden lights. 

It’s stunning, and it’s all so romantic that it’s sickening. The thought of being there with Sam makes Bucky’s stomach twist itself into some kind of knot. He starts to feel slightly ill.

Bucky stares at the picture for a minute, thinking about how peaceful it all looks. An image appears unbidden in his mind: Sam, sitting in one of the wicker chairs by the pool, smiling in the soft-lit sunset haze. Bucky can picture it so easily that it’s disturbing. 

He shakes his head violently, wondering where the hell that came from, and opens the envelope attached to the brochure. Inside is a plane ticket: Reagan to Charles de Gaulle, direct flight, first class. 

The screen of Bucky’s phone lights up, flashing at him. Bucky squints down at the message; it’s from Sam. 

[Sam Wilson]

Are you fucking serious

Are we really flying commercial

This is a fucking joke

Bucky pulls up the keyboard, deliberating over his response. There’s an entire wall of texts from Sam above the three most recent ones, mostly unanswered. Bucky can hear Dr Raynor’s voice echoing in his memory: You have to nurture relationships, James. 

Somewhere on the other side of the screen, the other end of the line, Sam is waiting. The thought isn’t as terrifying as it used to be. Bucky lets his mind wander for a moment, imagines following that invisible thread through the streets until he finds Sam. He thinks of a can on a string, messages trailing back and forth through the falling dusk. 

[Sam Wilson]

I can see you typing

Asshole 

Bucky turns his phone off without replying and settles into the blankets that he laid out on the motel floor. He falls asleep watching a baseball game, the nightmares sliding in between home runs and strikeouts. 

--

Three days later, Bucky finds himself sitting next to Sam Wilson at Reagan Airport, waiting for their flight to begin boarding. It’s ten in the morning, earlier than Bucky usually wakes up, and it’s horrible. 

The airport is filled with people, everywhere; spilling out of the terminals, crowding around the convenience store kiosks, pushing each other around in the boarding lines. The air feels stale and lifeless, and the hollow echoes of footsteps and suitcase wheels against the airport’s epoxy floors make Bucky want to crawl out of his skin. 

To Bucky’s left, Sam looks completely unbothered. He’s got a cup of coffee and a newspaper, and he’s filling out the crossword puzzle, propping one of his legs up to use as a writing surface. He’s infuriatingly relaxed, completely at home even in this atmosphere of chaos. Miraculously, he’s barely even been noticed, aside from the three kids who’ve asked for his autograph. 

Bucky stares at Sam’s crossword, watches the pen move across the paper. Three across: Impermanence . Nine down: Evolution .

“I can feel you staring,” Sam says without looking up. He writes an E neatly in one of the spaces. 

“You should be used to it by now,” Bucky replies, irritated. 

“I am,” Sam says, a smirk ghosting the corner of his mouth. “Just saying, man. I can feel it.” 

“Whatever,” Bucky mumbles. He taps one foot against the stained grey carpet, restless. “I can’t believe we’re flying commercial. I knew she was gonna get back at us somehow for the whole Madripoor thing.” 

“She’s fucked up for this one,” Sam agrees. “I’d rather fly to Paris myself than get on that dumb plane.” 

Bucky snorts. “Maybe you should try it. Your wings fall off halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, perfect. I’ll get to run this one solo.” 

“Please. I could fly around the globe with those wings.” 

“Could not.” 

“Could too.” Sam pens a T in one of the horizontal columns. “As long as someone didn’t rip one of them off, anyway.” 

The words are light and teasing, lacking sharper edges, but Bucky feels their weight anyways; he slumps down in his seat, pushes a hand through his hair. Most days he can handle the memories, but sometimes they take him over, and today isn’t one of the good days. 

He thinks about standing on that helicarrier, feathers splintering between his fingers: metal on metal, blood in his mouth. Sam’s wing comes ripping off and Bucky flings it aside, kicks him backwards - 

It’s been years, but he still can’t forget. He can’t forget any of it. 

Bucky doesn’t realize he’s breathing heavily until Sam touches him on the arm. It’s gentler than Bucky would’ve thought, a quick brush of fingers against the sleeve of Bucky’s jacket. 

“Hey, man,” Sam says. “I was just kidding, you know. I’m not mad about that anymore. Haven’t been for a long time.” 

Bucky nods, braces his arms against his legs. Sam looks at him briefly, a quick glance that catches Bucky’s eyes, then away again. 

“He wasn’t you,” Sam says, and that’s the truth, but it’s also a lie; he was Bucky and Bucky was him, still is him, every night in his dreams. 

“I know,” Bucky manages. “I’m fine.” 

“Good,” Sam says. “I was starting to worry that I’d have to hold your hand the whole flight.” He smirks. 

“Bitch,” Bucky mutters, stretching sideways to kick Sam’s leg. Sam just laughs. 

-- 

Sam takes the window seat and purposefully puts his suitcase on the aisle seat instead of the overhead luggage compartment, leaving Bucky to wedge himself into the middle seat. Bucky sighs deeply but doesn’t bother fighting it; instead, he just spreads his limbs out until he’s pushing Sam into the window. 

“Can you move over,” Sam says, knocking his knee against Bucky’s. 

Bucky stares. “No,” he says flatly, and it’s a role reversal that takes him back in time, all the way back to a cramped car and a passenger seat crushed against his legs. For a minute, he half expects to see Steve across the aisle of the plane, smiling down at Sharon. 

Sam catches the joke. The corner of his mouth twitches in that way it does, curving around a smile that can never quite stay hidden. 

“Asshole,” he says, but it doesn’t sound as brusque as usual. 

The plane rattles its way into a shaky takeoff, the ground pulling away underneath them, and they’re off, rising into the air as the world tilts upwards. Bucky grabs the armrest, clenching a fist around the end to try and steady himself. He’s flown around on dozens of helicarriers and choppers since everything happened, but there’s something in him that will always be a little bit afraid of heights. 

The train, he thinks distantly, hand gripping the smooth metal of the rest; the train, the railing, the fall. You’re not there. You’re still there. A part of you will always be there. 

“Not to interrupt your death match with that armrest,” Sam says, his voice amused, “but you sure are strangling the hell out of the thing.” 

Bucky looks down at the metal support, which is beginning to buckle beneath the pressure of his fingers. He’d been using his left hand. 

“Oh,” he mumbles, and lets go. “Shit.” 

Sam taps Bucky’s thigh, a quick touch that disappears almost as soon as Bucky registers it. “You good, Buck?” 

“Fine,” Bucky says. “Just. Flying. It’s still - sometimes, it’s just - ” He trails off, not knowing how to finish this sentence, his thoughts jumbling up in twisted knots like they do sometimes. His fingers itch for a pen and paper, for a blank page. He wonders, vaguely, if he’d put his new notebook in his backpack or his suitcase. He can’t remember right now, and it just makes him feel worse.

For once, Sam doesn’t crack a joke or an insult. Instead, he presses his leg harder against Bucky’s, a warm and grounding point of contact. “Breathe,” he says, “I’m here,” and Bucky focuses on the low, rich tone of his voice. Yes, he thinks, this is right. Sam’s job was to help veterans, and right now, Bucky is just another shell-shocked soldier waiting to be talked down. Sometimes, it feels like that’s all he’s ever been. 

Bucky inhales, exhales, inhales again. He pushes back against Sam: equal action, opposite reaction. He nods. 

“I’m good now,” he says. Then, quieter: “Thanks.” 

“Good,” Sam says. He points to the pocket of the seat in front of Bucky, his smirk returning now. “Puke bags are right there, just in case.” 

“Oh,” Bucky says, shaking his head, “will you shut the fuck up.” 

Sam tips his head back against the seat and closes his eyes, still smiling to himself. Bucky looks past him, out the window and into the sky beyond. It’s overcast and grey, the clouds a dull shade of slate, but there’s a bit of blue hovering on the edge of the horizon like it’s just waiting for a chance to break free. 

--

When they finally touch down in Paris, it’s early evening and the sun is beginning to dip below the horizon. Warm orange light floods in through the windows of the plane, drenching the passengers in a vibrant wash of color. 

Sam is still sleeping, and Bucky takes a moment to look at him. Sam is softer when he’s asleep, his expression slack and the set of his mouth relaxed. The dying sunlight catches in the long black tangle of his eyelashes. He looks calm, at peace. Bucky can’t quite look away.

Bucky didn’t sleep at all, and it’s starting to catch up with him; he feels frayed, worn. Sam’s knee is still touching his, and Bucky jerks his leg away. 

Sam stirs, cracks an eye open, stretches out his arms. “Are we here?” he asks. 

Yeah, Bucky wants to say. Yeah, we’re here. That’s why the plane isn’t moving anymore, dumbass. 

“Yeah,” he says, and watches as Sam begins to collect his things from the seat pocket. He pulls out his crossword puzzle, a pen, a pair of reading glasses, and a bag of complimentary airline peanuts that he takes one look at and throws into a waste bag. 

“You done with that?” he asks, pointing to Bucky’s empty Coke can. Bucky nods, and Sam picks it up and drops it into the bag with the rest of the trash like it’s nothing, like it’s second nature for him to take care of other people’s messes. 

There’s something hovering at the edge of Bucky’s thoughts, just out of reach. Sam flashes him a grin, quick and easy, and Bucky forgets all about it. 

--

They make it to the hotel after forty minutes of brightly-lit corners and cobblestone streets and slim black taxis that speed by them like arrows in the breeze. Bucky lets Sam do most of the talking, biting down on his lip and standing in silence. There’s fluent lines of French forming in his mind, curling on his tongue; he learned so many foreign languages over the years, and he hasn’t forgotten any of it, but he keeps this to himself because the sight of Sam stumbling over basic French phrases is too damn amusing for him to do anything but watch. 

The first taxi that they get into ends up driving them fifteen minutes in the wrong direction; the second one misunderstands Sam’s instructions and takes them to the Plaza Athénée, the most expensive hotel in the entire city. When they try walking, Sam wrongly interprets both the directions from locals and the signs on the street corners. 

“This makes no sense,” Sam complains, squinting up at the street sign and then back down at the map in his hands. “Isn’t the hotel supposed to be here?” 

Bucky gives him a lazy shrug. “Don’t look at me. You’re the leader of this mission, aren’t you? I’m just letting you do your thing.” He snaps a mock salute at Sam. “Sir.” 

Sam curses and turns back the way they came. Bucky smiles to himself. 

Finally, after over half an hour of enjoying this spectacle, Bucky takes pity on them both and guides Sam onto the right street. The hotel appears in front of them within minutes, the ornate stonework façade colored a soft pink against the twilight sky. The words La Nouvel Amour are scrawled on the marquee in flowing golden cursive. 

“Finally,” Sam says as they drag their luggage through the gold-scrolled cedar door. “I thought we’d never find this place.” He throws himself down in one of the luxurious upholstered chairs of the lobby, leaving Bucky standing by the concierge’s desk.

Bucky speaks to the concierge briefly, comes away from the desk holding two key cards with roses stenciled onto the front. He tosses one to Sam, who catches it without looking. 

“Hey,” Sam says, getting to his feet again and giving Bucky a sidelong glance. “You talked to that lady in French.” 

“Yeah, and?” 

“So you can speak French.” 

Bucky bites back a smile. “Yeah, and?” 

“You let me look like an idiot for forty minutes out there,” Sam says, shaking his head. “That’s unbelievable, man.” 

“I didn't make you look like an idiot,” Bucky says. “You do that just fine all by yourself. Come on, let’s go find the room.” 

Sam punches him on the arm as they walk to the elevator, and Bucky pretends not to notice when the touch lingers just a little too long.

-- 

Their room is large and spacious, the windows flung open to catch the evening breeze. The walls are a soft golden cream color, and there are a few Renaissance-period replica paintings for decoration. The curtains are made of warm red fabric, and the carpeted floor is pale blue, and the bed - 

There’s only one bed, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does anyway. It’s a king size mattress with a woven heart pattern carved into the headboard, and the sheets are a pristine white. 

Sam raises his eyebrows and whistles at the sight of it. Bucky feels flushed for some reason, and drops his gaze when Sam catches his eye. 

Brown eyes. White sheets. Everything is too soft. Bucky drops his duffel to the floor loudly. 

“Who gets the bed?” Sam says, his voice perfectly calm, a hint of amusement sneaking into it. “Want to wrestle for it?”

Bucky thinks about the last time they wrestled: a field full of wildflowers, the smell of honeysuckle in the air, Sam rolling around on top of him as they fell from the sky. Sam was annoyed then, and Bucky was too, and there had been a space just between the edges of their anger where Bucky had thought, for a quick and fleeting second, that maybe Sam would close the distance between them. 

It had been a terrible thought, absolutely horrible, but Bucky hadn’t been able to get it out of his head that night. 

“You take the bed,” Bucky says now, the admission feeling like a loss in whatever game that they’ve been playing since the day they met. “I’ll end up sleeping on the floor anyway.”

Sam sits down on the edge of the bed, tossing his suitcase in the direction of the luggage rack. It lands perfectly, and Bucky keeps his face neutral. Showoff. 

“I get that,” Sam says. “When I first came back, quit the Air Force, I was the same. Couldn’t lie on a mattress, couldn’t sleep without seeing…” He trails off, the end of the sentence lost in memory, and Bucky imagines what he’s seeing: a man falling from the sky, caught in the crossfire. Riley, he remembers: Sam’s wingman. 

“The nightmares,” Sam says, “are they still bad?” 

Bucky doesn’t know why he does it; he’s lied to his therapist, lied to himself even, but for some reason he just can’t lie to Sam. He just nods. 

Sam braces a hand against his leg. “They’re bad for me too, sometimes. Man, the shit I keep seeing. Lemar. Karli. All those people in the buildings, the ones we didn’t save. Everything. It’s like even when it’s over, it’s never really over. Inevitable.” 

Yeah, Bucky thinks. Sam’s eyes are softer than he’s ever seen them before, and it makes something pull in Bucky’s chest. Yeah. It’s never over. It’s something inevitable. 

Later that night, lying on the floor under the silk hotel blankets, Bucky falls asleep listening to Sam’s breathing: subtle, steady. The nightmares come, like they always do, but they’re not as bright as they used to be; they’re faded, two-toned, washed into something lighter. 

-- 

Bucky wakes the next morning to the sound of running water and rustling fabric. He cracks an eye open unwillingly to see that Sam’s standing in the open doorway of the bathroom, partly dressed in running shorts, a grey shirt in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. 

Bucky’s still half asleep, and he figures that’s why he doesn’t look away as quickly as he should. 

He turns away eventually, squints towards the window. The curtains are drawn, but they’re so thin that light streams through anyway. It’s golden and blinding, too bright to look at. 

“Jesus fuck,” Bucky says, the words rasping a little, “what time is it?” 

“Oh, hey,” Sam says, taking the toothbrush out, running fresh water to rinse his mouth. “Sleeping Beauty awakes.” 

“What time is it,” Bucky repeats, annoyed and disoriented, thirteen hours of jet lag and nightmares aching through his skull. He pushes himself into a sitting position, blankets drawn up over his legs.

Sam gestures to the old-fashioned clock hanging near the mirror, gold and white with elaborate ebony hands. “Seven in the morning.” 

Bucky lets his head drop back against the wall. “Seven in the morning. Why the fuck are you awake?” 

“Going for a run. Want to come?” 

“Fuck no.” Bucky scrubs a hand through his hair. “I’m going back to sleep like a normal human being. Seriously, how are you not jet lagged at all?” 

“Maybe that’s my superpower,” Sam says, his mouth curling into an amused smile. “I’ll be back in an hour, and you’d better be out of bed by then. We’ve got a mission to do.” He raises a finger, points to the left side of Bucky’s head. “Your hair looks great by the way. You should do it like that more often.” 

Bucky puts his hand to the side of his head; the hair there is sticking straight out, matted into a spiky clump. Even without a mirror, he can tell that it looks horrifying.

“I hate you,” he says. “Go run into traffic.” 

Sam slips on his shoes and ducks out the door, chuckling to himself. Even after he’s gone, Bucky can still hear the sound of his laughter.

--

Bucky drags himself fully awake and forces himself into clothes: jeans, a white shirt, a plain grey jacket. He shaves and brushes his teeth in the bathroom, admires the cool blue tiles shot through with streaks of gold. By the time Sam returns to the room, his shirt damp and his breaths loud, Bucky feels like a functioning person again; or at least as close as he gets to that, these days. 

He waits while Sam takes a quick shower and dresses, and then they head out for breakfast and reconnaissance. 

“Don’t talk to anyone,” Sam says while they’re in the elevator. The walls are mirrored; everywhere Bucky looks, Sam is looking back at him. He keeps his eyes fixed on the control panel. 

“Oh yeah?” he says, annoyed. “Why shouldn’t I talk to anyone, huh? Do I not have your permission, Captain America?” 

“Man, get off your damn high horse,” Sam says. “I’m just saying. For a former spy, you’re a pretty terrible liar.” 

“Am not.” 

“Are too.” The elevator comes to a stop, and Sam walks out; Bucky lengthens his strides to match pace. “Plus, we’re supposed to be...you know. In a relationship or whatever. Have you even dated anyone since 1943?” 

“Yes,” Bucky says indignantly. They’re rounding the corner now, heading towards the restaurant. “And I tried some dating apps. They were awful.” 

There’s a group of people next to the door of the restaurant, crowding around the menu fixed to the wall; they smile over at Sam and Bucky, one of them offering a “bonjour” heavily accented by North Italian. Bucky gives them a three-finger wave in return, feeling acutely awkward. 

Sam grabs the door’s gold-embellished handle, pushes it open, steps back to let Bucky through. “After you, babe,” he says loudly, and it’s just for show, but Bucky’s face burns anyways. 

They take two plates from the stack and serve themselves from the breakfast bar, grabbing pain au chocolats and brioche muffins and fresh-sliced pears. There’s an empty table near the window, and Bucky slides into a seat, keeping his back to the rest of the room. From here, he can see out into the streets: colorful, bright, slowly coming to life. 

“Okay,” he says through a mouthful of pastry. “What’s the plan here, then?” 

Sam neatly separates two pear slices. “I brought one of the miniaturized Redwing drones along. I figure we can use that to get Lundvik’s room number. You distract the concierge, have her pull up the guest list. I’ll run recon.” 

Bucky scowls. “You brought that thing? I hate it.” 

“That’s exactly why I brought it.” Sam pats the pocket of his jeans, and Bucky can see the rectangular shape of a small remote control outlined against the denim. “I don’t wanna hear you trashing Redwing Jr. He’s going to get us the info we need.” 

“Redwing Jr,” Bucky repeats in disbelief. “You gotta stop naming these things.”

“Well,” Sam says, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards, “you’re the one who got them for me in the first place, remember,” and that’s true, no denying it. 

Bucky grips his fork tightly, stabs at a pear slice. “I hate you.” 

“The feeling is mutual,” Sam says sweetly, sarcasm dripping from the words, and Bucky can barely hold himself back from throwing an almond croissant at Sam’s face.

--

“Hey,” Bucky says, leaning against the concierge’s desk and resting his elbow against the top. He gives the woman behind the counter his best smile, the one that used to carry effortless charm throughout the streets of Brooklyn. The one that Steve used to say could shut down the dance hall within the space of half a song. Back in those days, smiling had felt like breathing; now, it feels more like starving. Bucky’s sure it doesn’t look as bright as it used to.

The concierge gives him a pleasant smile in return, regarding him over the tops of her golden tortoiseshell-patterned glasses. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she replies. “How may I help you?” 

Bucky clears his throat. “Um, could you tell me what room I’m staying in? I forgot?” 

Behind him, he can hear the barely audible hum of the drone’s motor, and beneath that, the distinct sound of stifled laughter ringing in the smooth, deep echo of Sam’s voice. The concierge gives him a puzzled look, and Bucky shuffles his feet in embarrassment, cursing Sam Wilson and his stupid recon plans. 

“Pardonne moi,” the concierge says. “You...forgot which room you’re staying in?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Yes. Sorry.” 

“But surely it’s on your key card?” 

“Right,” Bucky says slowly, playing for time. “My key card. Uh, the thing is...I lost that. Yeah, I came down for breakfast, and suddenly it was gone.” 

“Hm. What’s your name, sir?” 

“James. Barnes.” 

The concierge types something into the computer, nods. “You’re staying here with someone, no? A Sam Wilson?” Her eyebrows raise at that, like she’s recognizing the name for who it is, but she keeps her face politely neutral. 

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “He’s, uh, my. He’s my boyfriend.” The words come out flat and unnatural, falling off his tongue with all the wrong weight. Maybe Sam had a point about him being a bad liar. “He lost his key card too. We got kind of distracted on the way down.”

“Ah,” the concierge says, her expression clearing slightly. “Yes, I understand. That’s what La Nouvel Amour is all about, is it not? Young love?” She types something else, then nods and reaches under the desk, comes up with two key cards. “Here you are, sir. Enjoy your stay with us.” 

“Thanks,” Bucky says. He takes the cards and leaves the lobby as fast as possible without actually running. 

Sam’s waiting for him in the elevator, and as soon as Bucky steps in, he snorts. 

“Don’t even start,” Bucky says, jabbing the button for their floor. 

“Dude, you should have heard yourself,” Sam says. “Sorry, I forgot which room I’m staying in! I can’t believe you used to be one of the world’s most feared assassins.”  

Bucky glares at him. “Did you get the intel or not?” 

“Yeah, Lundvik’s not here yet. She’s on the arrivals list for Thursday.” 

“Thursday? That’s not for a week and a half. What the hell are we supposed to do until then?” 

“I don’t know,” Sam says, “tourist shit? We should go see the Eiffel Tower.” 

Bucky blows out a long breath of exasperation. “We are not going to see the Eiffel Tower.” 

--

They go to the Eiffel Tower the next day, Sam smiling and Bucky scowling, forcing Sam to practically drag him through the streets. 

“How can you not want to see this thing,” Sam says as they navigate the crowd at the base of the tower, both of them sliding untouched through the mass of people. “It’s like, a historic landmark.” 

Bucky doesn’t answer, doesn’t say what he’s thinking; he doesn’t care about historic landmarks, doesn't care about history itself, not when it’s something that he spent seventy years rewriting in red ink. He remembers being here before, right here beneath the tower, back when the lights were dark and the only thing that mattered was the iron that it was made of: like him, strong and cold and unyielding. 

They take the stairs up, one thousand sixty hundred and sixty-five of them, Bucky taking them two at a time and Sam perfectly matching his strides. Tourists move past them in both directions, their idle conversations pouring past Bucky’s consciousness in an unending stream. Bits and pieces catch in his ears, there and gone in a matter of seconds. 

“I heard they’ll be closed for repairs for a while…” 

“Not as tall as I thought it would be…” 

“Scared for no reason…” 

Bucky narrows his focus, shrinks the world to a single point the way he learned to do so many years ago. When they reach the top, he feels almost calm again. 

It doesn’t last, though; it never does. It disappears the moment he looks over the edge. 

The height isn’t anything Bucky hasn’t experienced before, but it hits him like a tidal wave nonetheless: the sheerness of the drop, vertigo spinning out into the sky, the wind pushing through his hair and whipping it into his face. Up here, the streets of Paris are laid out in an intricate grid, a seemingly infinite chessboard. Bucky stares down and tries not to think about the time when he used to be a piece in that game. 

The railing is wrought iron, smooth and cold beneath his flesh and blood hand. The ground sways far below him, almost indiscernible. He’s standing still, but it feels like he’s falling anyway. 

He’s being ridiculous and he knows it - it was only a few months ago that he voluntarily jumped parachute-less from a helicarrier - but he can’t control when the fear hits, can’t control the fear itself, can’t control anything in his wreck of a life. 

Sam brushes against his side, and Bucky shivers away from it. It’s too much and not enough; he wants Sam closer and farther and right where he is now, all at once. 

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of heights,” Sam says, teasing, but there’s a hint of concern beneath it. 

“Not scared of heights,” Bucky grits out. “It’s just. Not all of us can fly, and it’s a long way to fall.” 

Sam presses his hand to the base of Bucky’s spine, and Bucky arches into it before he knows what he’s doing. It’s a firm touch, unhesitant, and it feels like a tether. 

“You won’t fall,” Sam says. “And even if you did, I’d be there.” 

“You would,” Bucky says, and it’s supposed to be a flat denial, but it’s not; it’s almost like a question, almost like a prayer. 

“I would,” Sam says. “Someone’s got to catch your stupid ass.” 

Bucky turns toward him, searching. Sam’s squinting in the sunlight and he doesn’t have his wings; there’s absolutely no hope for him catching anyone right now, and yet in this moment, Bucky believes that Sam could break his fall. 

More than that, he wants to believe it. 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “okay,” and is rewarded with a smile from Sam, a sweet one that breaks at the corner of his mouth without bending into a smirk. 

The drop looms before them, as hard and high as ever. Bucky grips the railing and breathes. 

-- 

Bucky pulls away from Sam when they get back to the hotel, heads out into the streets alone. He remembers these corners, these buildings, these squares; their appearances have changed, but the layers underneath remain untouched. He thinks he knows what that’s like. 

He crosses a few main roads, eventually winding up on a path parallel to the Seine River, and then he puts his hood over his head and just walks. He’s not quite sure where he’s going, but he knows he needs to get there.

The sky is overcast now, morning sun fading into afternoon clouds. As Bucky walks, it begins to rain, a slow and steady fall that turns his jacket from grey to black. It feels fitting. 

There was a mission here, he remembers; something in the seventies, a duchess and a rooftop and Bucky’s finger on the trigger of his sniper rifle, the sights aligned perfectly, the sun warm on his back as he took the shot. There’d been an explosion too, a grenade launched at her carriage and a flaming detonation that took out a floor of the nearest brownstone. 

Bucky finds the spot after about twenty minutes, runs his fingers over the cold metal of the commemorative plaque affixed to the front of the building. 

Site de l'assassinat de la Duchesse Abernathy, 1975. In memoriam.

There’s a narrow alley that leads between this building and the next, a winding cobblestone path that twists around the corner and disappears. Bucky follows it to a patch of grass filled with small, weathered gravestones. There are flowers placed on a few of the headstones, roses and lilies wilting beneath the rain. 

The names are unfamiliar, and so worn by time and elements that Bucky can barely read them at all. He makes his way through the graves, trailing his left hand over their tops: stone against metal, hard edges damaging themselves against each other. 

Finally he comes to a tall marker of white marble, placed in the back. The carving reads La Duchesse Abernathy, and beneath that, in memoriam - a formality, a stone placed over empty earth. 

Next to that, there’s yet another small stone with an illegible name. A building worker, probably; someone poor, someone without connections. Another casualty, another unwitting soldier in a battle that was never theirs. Collateral damage. 

Bucky drops to his knees in the wet grass, facing the unmarked grave. He bows his head, a sick feeling caught in the back of his throat. 

“I’m James Buchanan Barnes,” he says quietly. “I am no longer the Winter Soldier, and you are part of my efforts to make amends.” 

It sounds hollow, just like it always does. The rain starts falling harder, drenching the graveyard, but Bucky doesn’t move; he stays where he is, face turned towards the sky now, water running down his face. When it touches the corner of his mouth, he tastes salt. 

--

By the time Bucky returns to the hotel, it’s early evening. Sam doesn’t ask where he’s been, and Bucky is grateful for that; he wouldn’t have known what to say, where to begin.

They skip the hotel restaurant and go to a crêperie down the street for dinner, finding a small table crammed into the corner. Bucky orders a ham and cheese crepe with thyme, and Sam orders a chocolate crepe with strawberry. 

“Kind of backwards, don’t you think?” Bucky says, pointing to Sam’s plate with his fork. “It’s dinner, not breakfast.” 

“I spent years in the Air Force eating the shittiest food imaginable,” Sam replies, shaking more powdered sugar onto his crepe. “I reserve the right to eat whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, for the rest of my life.” 

Bucky thinks back to the army rations during the war - canned salt beef, dry flatbread biscuits, turnips that were often rotting at the edges. He thinks of the nutrient sludge that Hydra fed him for seventy years, shoving it down his throat with the blood and the lies and the gunpowder. He thinks, grudgingly, that Sam may have a point here. 

Sam’s watching him intently, and there’s a smear of chocolate at the edge of his bottom lip. Bucky tries not to wonder what it tastes like. 

“I know you want some of my crepe,” Sam says. “You’re doing the staring thing again. Jesus, Barnes, you’re like a goddamn owl. Just have a bite, alright?” 

Bucky shakes his head. “I don’t want any,” he says, and it’s a lie, but he wants to keep his dignity more than he wants a bite of Sam Wilson’s stupid chocolate crepe. 

Sam scoops up a piece of crepe and carefully piles a strawberry on top, then holds the fork out to Bucky, offering him the handle. “Take it.” 

“No.”

“Take it.”  

“No.” 

They glare at each other: Sam frustrated, Bucky stubborn. Just when Bucky thinks that Sam is about to give up and throw the piece of crepe at him, Sam leans forward onto the table. 

“Open your mouth,” he says, and it’s so unexpected that Bucky doesn’t think to question it; he opens his mouth as directed, and Sam shoves the crepe past his lips in one quick movement. The rich sweetness of the chocolate spreads over Bucky’s tongue, the strawberry bursting into freshness between his teeth. 

“Oh,” he says, can’t stop himself from saying it, because it’s one of the best things he’s ever tasted in his life. 

Sam grins at him from across the table. “Good, isn’t it?” 

Yes, Bucky thinks, eyes on the curl of Sam’s smile, yes, it’s good. Sam’s skin is beautiful in the soft glow of the crêperie; Bucky feels at ease, the guilt from the cemetery settling into something softer in his chest, and when he looks back on this moment later, he’ll think that maybe this is where it all started. 

(It’s not. It started days ago, in the crowded chaos of a public airport; it started months ago, in the dark grey cabin of a helicarrier; it started years ago, with a map of the world and a handful of pins and the ghost of a soldier, half man and half myth, who didn’t want to be found. 

Bucky doesn’t think about any of that. Not yet, anyway.) 

--

The next week passes slowly by, folding them into a loose routine of mornings at sidewalk cafes and days at parks and evenings at dim-lit restaurants. Bucky learns that Sam likes his coffee with one cream and no sugars, and Sam gets used to covering Bucky with an extra blanket while he’s sleeping on the cold surface of the floor. They find a way to coexist in the same space, and most of the time they don’t even want to kill each other because of it. 

They visit Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées. They find bakeries tucked down side streets and arthouse cinemas that show films that only Bucky understands. The city unfolds before them like an infinite tapestry, all pastel colors and gold lacquer, days that feel endless and streets that lead like the entrance to heaven.

 It’s easy and beautiful, and Bucky feels at peace for the first time since those few fleeting weeks in Wakanda. 

He gets used to Sam somehow, adjusts to the unfamiliar weight of his presence. Sam is like the ocean: constant and steady, lulls and storms and tidal waves hovering just beneath the surface. Sometimes Bucky looks at him and thinks he understands why the first humans set sail for the far horizon.

They still fight, but their antagonism has lost the bitter edge that it used to carry; their words fall more lightly, the ground of their verbal battles mined with jokes instead of warnings. Bucky only wants to strangle Sam once or twice a day, and he starts to genuinely enjoy their time together. It’s such an unfamiliar feeling that he wonders, briefly, if he’s having some kind of out-of-body dream experience. 

He dismisses the thought. He knows what it’s like to truly be outside your body, to watch helplessly as someone else moves you through life and wraps your fingers around a rifle, a kill switch, a helpless throat. This is nothing like that; he’s got room to breathe and a mind of his own, and it’s better than he’s felt in a long time. 

--

“You look less shitty these days,” Sam tells him one morning. They’re sitting at a café near the hotel, drinking elaborately decorated lattes. It’s warm out - Bucky’s jacket is draped over the back of his chair, and Sam is wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off. 

“Thanks, pal,” Bucky says dryly.

Sam rests his elbows on the table, and for just a moment, Bucky’s eyes are drawn to the strong curves of his arms. He wrenches his gaze away, takes a sip of coffee to cover it up. 

“You know what I mean,” Sam says. “You’re glaring less, you don’t look permanently miserable, you’ve even stopped wearing that one god-awful depression hoodie all the time.” He pauses, treading more lightly now. “The nightmares...they’re better too, aren’t they?” 

Bucky nods. He hates talking about his nightmares, but Sam understands; he’s had them too, and he was the one to get down on the floor and talk Bucky through the panic when he woke up screaming on their second night in the hotel. They didn’t talk about it the next day, but Bucky knows that Sam hasn’t forgotten. 

“They’re getting better, yeah,” he says. 

Sam looks pleased, passes him another sugar packet. Bucky takes it but doesn’t open it. He feels a little bit sick; he’s telling the truth, but not the whole truth. 

The nightmares are getting better, if better means less frequent, but they’re also getting worse. They’re changing in nature, becoming something far more frightening. In the most recent one, Bucky lost something far more important than just his control; he lost Sam, ripped off his wings and threw him backwards into space and then shot him out of the sky like a flightless bird. Bucky had woken up in a silent sweat, paralyzed by fear, and only remembered how to breathe after he zeroed in on Sam’s heartbeat and made sure he was still alive. 

Bucky doesn’t quite know how it’s happened, but Sam’s become someone to him - he was once a vague outline, a pencil sketch of a person,  but he’s in full color now, burning bright in the center of Bucky’s vision no matter where Bucky looks. Bucky doesn’t know what it all means. 

He tries not to overthink it. All he’s doing is nurturing relationships, like Dr Raynor said. She may have been underqualified and irritating, but even a broken clock is right two times a day, and Sam feels like an anchor in the storm-surge sea of Bucky’s life. He doesn’t want to give that up. 

“Are you good, man?” Sam asks. “You’ve been staring at me for like, five minutes.” 

Bucky pulls himself out of his thoughts. “I’m fine,” he says, “except that looking at your ugly face is making me sick. I can’t even finish my latte now.” 

Sam laughs. Something starts to unravel in Bucky’s chest, loose and easy, and he has to look away.

--

They go to the Louvre a couple days later, at Bucky’s request, and walk through the halls until they find the Mona Lisa. It’s surrounded by a massive crowd, all pushing and shoving each other to reach the front, and Bucky doesn’t even try to move through them. Instead, he leans against the opposite wall and observes from a distance. 

“It’s not as good as I thought it would be,” Sam says critically, leaning next to him. He frowns in the direction of the Mona Lisa, a flash of discontentment crossing his face. “Overhyped.” 

“I’ve seen this before,” Bucky answers, leaving out the rest of the story: the guards, the heist, the painting that left the museum tucked beneath his jacket. “It was never all that. Plus, I’m pretty sure this one is a fake. I have it on good authority.” 

Sam turns his frown onto Bucky. “Pretty sure?” 

“Reasonably sure.” 

“Bucky,” Sam says, “tell me you didn’t steal the damn Mona Lisa.” 

Bucky smirks, offers him a shrug. Sam’s lips curve upwards in an incredulous laugh, and Bucky thinks that maybe Leonardo Da Vinci would have been a better painter if he’d ever seen the curl of Sam Wilson’s mouth. The smile of the Mona Lisa has nothing on this, on Sam’s half-breathless beat of laughter caught in the seconds between thought and speech. 

“You didn’t,” Sam says, finding his voice again, “you didn’t. You’re fucking with me.” 

“Believe what you want,” Bucky says, arching an eyebrow. “I’m not saying anything one way or another.” 

Sam shakes his head. “No way, man. No. Way.” 

Another group of tourists sweeps through the room, loud and clamoring, large cameras hung around their necks. Sam catches Bucky’s almost imperceptible flinch and takes his arm, pulls him around the corner and through the hall until they reach one of the back galleries. 

It’s quieter here, and they’re the only ones in the room. Bucky sits on a bench, resting his feet, as Sam walks slowly across the floor and stares at the wall of paintings before them. They’re all faded colors and twisted thoughts, surrealism spread across the surface in swirls and slashes. There’s chaos, but there’s order, too. 

Sam bends forward to read the label of a tall blue seascape that’s dissolving into outer space, and Bucky watches carefully. Sam belongs here, he thinks: here in this museum, this gallery, this collection of art. Sam’s back is like a canvas; Bucky imagines his own fingers dipped in acrylic, dripping with color, a name scrawled across skin. He pictures a frame surrounding Sam, bright and gold and beautiful. 

“Check it,” Sam says without turning around, “it says this painting was lost for a long time, but somehow they found it again. Everyone had written it off as an impossible case until this one guy came along and just refused to give up until it was returned.” 

Bucky rises, pads over to Sam in silent steps. “Really?” 

“Here,” Sam says, pointing to the plaque, but Bucky looks at the painting. There’s a black silhouette in the corner, a man drawn in shadow, and for a moment, Bucky sees his own reflection in the glass: drawn, quartered, hunted and haunted. 

Sam’s face appears next to him, and Bucky breathes again. 

“Cool, isn’t it?” Sam says, and Bucky lets out a noncommittal murmur of agreement. When he looks at the painting again, all he can see is Sam’s reflection. 

--

Their mark finally shows up at the hotel after almost two weeks, and Sam and Bucky make a hurried plan of action. It’s Sam’s idea, and Bucky hates it. 

“I don’t know why it has to be me doing the dirty work,” he says earlier that morning, T minus 13 hours. “Seems unfair to me.”

“It’s not unfair,” Sam argues. “It’s just common sense. You want me to go climbing around on the outside of a building, you’re going to have to get me a vibranium arm and some super soldier serum first.” 

“Whatever,” Bucky says, and sulks for the next fifteen minutes. 

That’s how he finds himself where he is now: poolside on the roof of the hotel for the complimentary wine tasting night, sitting next to Sam on a loveseat with a glass of red Pinot Noir in his hand. The wine is nowhere near strong enough to make him feel anything, but he takes a sip anyway. 

“So,” says the woman sitting across from them, laying a hand on her husband’s arm, “have you two been together for long?” 

“Yeah,” Sam says, giving her a smile so blinding that Bucky knows he’s the only one who can see where it slips into fakeness at the edges. “It’s about to be our seven year anniversary.” 

“Oh,” the woman says, clearly delighted. “That’s wonderful. How did you meet?” 

“On the freeway,” Sam answers easily. “We got into an accident, actually. Bucky blindsided me, ruined my steering wheel, we both crashed into the median. When we got out to exchange our insurance information, well, it was practically love at first sight.” 

Bucky fakes a smile, gritting his teeth. Sam Wilson is such a little shit. 

“It wasn’t all my fault,” Bucky says, keeping his tone light. “Was it, sweetheart?” 

“No, baby,” Sam replies, a challenge sparking in his eyes now, fight and friendly fire. “Just mostly.” 

“Adorable,” the woman says dreamily. “Your connection is so natural. As a relationship counselor, that’s a beautiful thing to see.” 

Bucky frowns slightly, because there must be some kind of mistake; anyone who analyzes relationships for a living should be able to see right through the flimsy charade of his so-called relationship with Sam. He almost asks her about it, but it’s too late; she’s dragging her husband over to the charcuterie board set up next to the rosé table. 

“Sweetheart?” Sam mutters in Bucky’s ear. “Really? Could you make it any more obvious that you’re from the forties? You sound like my grandma.” 

“Fuck off,” Bucky manages, still reeling from your connection is so natural and trying not to notice that Sam’s lips are pressed softly to the shell of his ear. 

The cluster of people in line at the white wine table begins to shift, revealing the mark and her date standing in conversation with the sommelier. Bucky recognizes Sarah Lundvik instantly from the briefing folder, all blonde hair and grey eyes and flawless posture. Her date, a shorter woman with curly black hair, is unfamiliar, but Bucky noticed that she too carries herself with the kind of effortless grace that only comes from years of combat and stealth training. 

Probably another conwoman, or an assassin. That shifts the odds a little, but not unbearably. 

Lundvik looks in their direction and then away again, and the vacancy in her eyes tells Bucky that either she didn’t recognize them or she doesn’t consider them a threat. Probably the latter; he has, after all, looked far more threatening in the past than he does on this night, wrestled - at Sam’s insistence - into a white short-sleeve button down patterned with blue hibiscus flowers and a god-awful pair of oversized aviator sunglasses. 

“She spotted us,” Bucky says softly. “No recognition.” 

“Perfect,” Sam replies. “It’s go time. I’ll keep eyes on the mark, you take care of business. The plan is on.” 

“I hate this plan,” Bucky says, and Sam tips his wine glass over and spills the contents down Bucky’s shirt. 

“Shit,” Bucky says, loud enough for the other hotel guests to hear, and pats at his shirt. Sam hovers near him, looking concerned. 

“Baby,” Sam says, “I am so sorry,” and even though he’s soaked in wine, Bucky can’t help the warmth that flares in his chest at the term of endearment. 

“You better get that in hot water before the stain sets,” advises a woman to their right. 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “good idea, thanks, I’ll be back.” 

He gets up from the loveseat and heads for the door, holding his shirt away from him. The fabric is slightly sticky, and every movement of Bucky’s fingers stains more crimson across the white. 

He hates Sam Wilson’s plans so much. 

-- 

“I hate your plans,” Bucky mutters, “did I mention that?” 

“Tough,” Sam says, his voice made tinny by the small speaker of Bucky’s earpiece. “Lundvik is occupied. Are you on the recovery yet?” 

“Getting there. Keep your pants on.” 

“Well, that’s a new one. Usually people ask me to do the opposite.” 

“Shut up,” Bucky hisses, uncomfortably aware of the strange heat that spikes momentarily in his stomach at the thought of Sam Wilson without pants. “You’re distracting me.” 

“That easy, huh?” 

“I’m muting you.” 

“Don’t you dare mute me, Barnes.” 

Bucky dials the volume on his earpiece to the lowest setting, then opens the window at the end of the thirteenth-floor hallway. He climbs through it and closes it behind him, balancing against the top of a twelfth-floor window frame. 

“Okay,” he says. “Here goes nothing.” 

Sam laughs quietly. “Have fun playing Spiderman.” 

“I am not Spiderman,” Bucky grumbles. “I’m a hundred and six. Spiderman is a child.” 

“A child that kicked our asses once,” Sam reminds him. 

“That was your fault.” Bucky begins to make his way across the face of the building, jamming his fingers into holds that barely exist, clinging to the edge of the shadows in the way that he first learned in a Hydra bunker, the way that makes him all but invisible. “Can we argue about this later? I’m kind of busy right now.” 

“A hundred and six years old and you still haven’t learned to multitask? Man, that’s just pathetic.” 

Bucky reaches the window of room 106 and cracks the seal, pushing it open and rolling forward into the room. He switches on the desk lamp, looks around at his surroundings: gold and cream wallpaper, king size bed, landscape paintings. It’s pretty similar to their own room.  

“Anything?” 

“It’s been literally two seconds. No.” Bucky scans the room with a practiced eye, searching for hiding places. He immediately discounts the hotel safe, the desk drawers, and the closet; Lundvik is sure to be smarter than that. 

A light blinks near the baseboard, flashing electric blue through the white bed skirt. Bucky drops to the floor, lifts the cloth to find a computer sitting there. A flash drive rests in the port, a steady green light shining at one end. 

“Found it,” he says, pulling an empty drive from his pocket and plugging it into the empty port. The screen fills with options, lines of code scrolling across; Bucky routes the firewalls within seconds, and the data starts to copy over. 

The green loading bar inches slowly across the screen, percentage by percentage. Bucky watches in silence, a little disconcerted. He can’t remember the last time that he completed a mission without blood on his knuckles and red in his ledger, can’t remember what it’s like to quit the location without the taste of gunsmoke lingering in his mouth. Tonight is a bloodless victory, and it’s unfamiliar enough that Bucky’s throat constricts with some bittersweet emotion. 

“Everything good on your end?” Sam asks. “You’re being quiet. I don’t have your annoying voice yapping in my ear right now, and it’s suspicious.” 

The flash drive finishes loading. Bucky snatches it from the port and stuffs it in his pocket. “Fine. Finishing up now.” 

“You sure you’re fine? You sound kind of weird.” 

“No I don’t,” Bucky lies around the catch in his throat. “I’ll be right there.”

He leaves the room completely unscathed, no damage trailing in his wake, and it feels almost like making amends. 

--

“Okay,” Bucky says once they’re back in their room, the flash drive tucked securely into the secret pocket of Sam’s suitcase. “The mission’s over then, isn’t it?” 

“I guess it is,” Sam says. “Sharon texted. We’re flying out tomorrow morning.” 

Bucky nods, shoves his hands in his pockets awkwardly; there’s something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how to. He looks at Sam, standing by the window, framed against the Parisian night, and wishes they didn’t have to leave. 

It’s nothing to do with Sam, he tells himself; it’s just that he’ll miss this place: the golden light and the lacy curtains, the bright-colored streets and the intricate buildings, the opera singer across the road and the bursts of rapid-fire French that volley back and forth across streets and restaurant tables. He’ll miss the heart of this place, the heat and art and beauty of it, all of Paris folding around him like the petals of a rose. 

And he’ll miss Sam too: the low rasp of his voice when he’s just woken up, the smell of his cologne in the bathroom, the half-smile he gives Bucky just before he turns the lights off. Against all odds, Bucky has grown to like him. 

Bucky tries not to think about that part of it. 

“Hey,” Sam says suddenly, as if they’re halfway through a conversation already, “if we’re leaving tomorrow, we should go out in style.” 

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Style, huh?” 

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Let’s go to that bar down the street and get absolutely wasted on...shit, I don’t know, whatever they have there - cognac or cointreau or fucking absinthe, I don’t care. We got the mission done, we deserve a night out.” 

“Sounds good,” Bucky says, shrugging, and then: “You know I can’t get drunk, right?” 

“I do,” Sam nods, “but tonight, it won’t be for lack of trying. Get dressed properly, we’re leaving.” 

Bucky glances down at himself: plain white shirt, old jeans, perfectly serviceable Nikes. “What’s wrong with my outfit now?” 

Sam laughs once, loudly. “Barnes, go get your dumb white ass dressed. I’ll wait.” 

“Make fun of my clothes some more,” Bucky huffs, digging through his suitcase for a different outfit. “I’m going to ask the bartender for a snake cocktail just for you.” 

Sam grimaces. “Do not remind me of that, unless you want me to hurl before we’ve even started drinking. I’ll meet you at the elevator.” 

--

The bar is dimly lit and packed to the roof, and there’s a band on the tiny stage in the back playing some kind of French punk rock. Bucky and Sam push through the crowd to the counter, where Sam orders them cognac and a round of absinthe shots. 

“Cheers,” Sam shouts, tapping his shot glass against Bucky’s before downing it. Bucky follows suit, feeling the muted burn of the liquor drag down his throat. 

A strobe light flickers to life, showering them with blue and green light, and Bucky winces for a moment, remembering the last time he was in a club: the Winter Soldier, returned from the dead, bones breaking beneath his hands. 

But this is not then, and Sam’s smiling at him from underneath his long black lashes, and Bucky brushes the memory off with another shot. 

“You know what I’m thinking,” Sam says to him, leaning forward, mouth pushed against Bucky’s ear. Bucky blames the alcohol for the way he shivers at the touch. 

“Nothing, probably,” he cracks, and Sam rolls his eyes. 

“Asshole. No. Let’s have a drinking contest.” 

Bucky laughs. “You think you can take me? Alcohol doesn't even affect me.” 

Sam’s eyebrows tilt, a smirk creasing the corner of his mouth. “Come on, Barnes. Live a little.” He places a hand on Bucky’s thigh, fingertips pressed against the seam of Bucky’s pants, and Bucky shifts forward instinctually, his mouth going dry; it’s too hot in this bar, too loud and dark and breathless. Sam’s smirk curls higher, and Bucky feels his face burning. Maybe the alcohol is working after all. 

“Let’s see how long we can last,” Sam says, voice low, and Bucky bites the inside of his lip. If Sam’s going to push, then he’s going to push back. 

“Fine,” Bucky says. “Let’s go. It’s on, Wilson.” 

The next round of shots arrives. When they drink, Sam’s foot presses against Bucky’s beneath the counter, and Bucky almost chokes; Sam’s fingers curl over Bucky’s wrist as he drops his shot glass onto the bar, and a dull heat blooms beneath Bucky’s skin, spinning him into a lightheaded blush. He coughs subtly. 

“Don’t stop now,” Sam says, eyes locked on Bucky’s, and Bucky can’t look away. 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he says. “Round three?” 

--

The next few hours are an endless haze of heat and liquor and darkness as time passes by and leaves the bar untouched. Bucky and Sam take shot after shot, pressing closer with each drink. The band keeps playing, but Bucky’s stopped understanding the lyrics. 

“Had enough?” Bucky teases after the ninth round, pushing against Sam’s arm in a way that he never would in the light of day. The liquor must have gotten past his super soldier tolerance, because he’s definitely feeling something: he’s light and loose, his thoughts separating from his speech. 

“No way, man,” Sam answers, breathing heavily. “Just give me a second.” 

The next song begins with a blistering guitar riff, ripping through the bar like a hurricane. Bucky feels it swell in his chest, spreading through him like pure electricity. He feels restless suddenly, filled with a longing for motion, for change. 

“Let’s go,” he says, grabbing Sam’s sleeve, “let’s go outside, see the lights one more time.” 

“Giving up already?” Sam says, smug. “I knew I could beat you.” 

“You didn’t beat me,” Bucky scoffs. “I’m bailing you out so you don’t end up blacking out. One more round and you’re finished.” 

“Am not,” Sam mumbles, but he lets Bucky lead him out of the bar and into the night. 

Outside, the street is warm and breezy. The wind lifts Bucky’s hair gently, and he leans into it. They continue down the sidewalk on slightly unsteady legs, bursts of music and laughter passing them by as they move past bars and restaurants and night cafés. 

Sam is leaning into him now, relying on Bucky to keep him upright, and Bucky feels it everywhere; he feels drunk on it, drunk on this night, drunk on everything. Paris lights up around him, bold and incandescent, and he’s never felt farther from the wreckage of the Winter Soldier’s legacy. 

Sam’s hand brushes against his, their fingers tangled at the very tips. Bucky should pull away, but he doesn’t. 

“Hey,” Sam says, nudging him. They’re standing in a small park now, tiles and copper-plate stars beneath their feet. Across the street, a chapel stands outlined in rose-gold light. “Look. A church.” 

“What,” Bucky says, “you wanna go in? I didn’t know you were religious.” He reaches for his neck on instinct, finds bare skin where the silver chain of a cross necklace had once hung so many years ago. They’d taken it from him when he was first recovered by Hydra, but he hadn’t begrudged them for it; if they hadn’t taken it, he would have destroyed it himself. He stopped believing in a god the moment he fell from that train. 

Sam shrugs, the movement lopsided. “I’m not. It’s just pretty.” 

Bucky studies Sam for a moment: caught in the copper-stain, rose-blush light, his smile loose, his eyes bright. He smells like sage and sandalwood and cigarette smoke from the bar, and his hand is still touching Bucky’s. 

Somewhere in the distance, there’s a song playing. Bucky pauses and listens carefully, recognizes it as La Vie En Rose. 

“Yeah,” he says, “okay, let’s go in.” 

Sam smiles at him. The park begins to spin, Bucky’s vision obscured, and he can’t think straight anymore; he falls forward and the night catches him, setting him down more softly than he’s ever landed before. The last thing he remembers is Sam’s face, mouth curled in amusement, and then it all becomes a blur. 

--

Bucky wakes slowly, fighting upwards into consciousness like he’s trying to break the surface of the ocean. He lies still, half awake and half asleep, as feeling returns to his body: there’s something soft beneath him, soft and warm and comfortable. 

He’s lying on the bed instead of the floor, and Sam’s lying next to him, close but not touching. Bucky opens his eyes enough to see that Sam’s still asleep, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open. There’s sunlight streaming through the window, bright enough that it hurts to look at. Bucky’s head, already sore, begins to ache with the dull pain of a hangover. 

Bucky groans and sits up, slumping back against the headboard and rubbing his eyes. He’s wearing the same clothes as last night, minus his boots, and his back aches from the softness of the mattress. He can’t remember anything from the night before, and he has no idea how he ended up on the bed instead of the floor. 

Sam mumbles something and rolls over onto his side, and Bucky turns to look at him. He’s fully dressed as well, lying in the shaft of light that falls over the bed. His shirt is riding up on one side, revealing the flat plane of his stomach, and Bucky can’t help but chart the movement. Sam is so easy like this, unguarded and uncomplicated, and Bucky likes it more than he should. 

Something on Sam’s hand flashes in the sunlight, and Bucky looks over curiously. He doesn’t remember Sam being a jewelry kind of guy, but now there’s something on Sam’s left third finger: a plain but elegant band of gold that almost looks like a wedding ring. 

A wedding ring. 

Bucky freezes, the bottom of his stomach dropping into free-fall. He looks slowly down at his own hand, praying that he’s dreaming, praying that there’s nothing there - 

There’s a matching golden ring on his own hand, resting around his ring finger like it’s always been there, and now Bucky remembers, the previous night coming back to him in a rush: the bar, the park, the chapel, Sam’s hand in his, a lock and a key and a bridge, the burn of liquor in his mouth and the faint strains of La Vie En Rose in the distance as he stood in front of a white-robed priest and said I do -  

Bucky frantically puts a hand to his neck and finds a silver chain with a key hanging from it. There had been a bridge and a lock and a river, Sam’s initials scrawled next to his in black marker…

“Fuck,” Bucky says out loud, the truth crashing down around him. “Shit. Fuck.” 

He’s married to Sam Wilson. 

Bucky reaches for Sam and shakes his shoulder. “Wilson,” he says, and the name feels wrong in his mouth. “Sam. Wake the fuck up.” 

Sam groans and opens his eyes, stretching languidly. “Buck, what the hell? I was sleeping.” 

“Sam,” Bucky says, feeling sick, “look at your hand.” 

Sam looks down at his hand in confusion, still not fully awake, and Bucky can see the moment it hits him; his eyes widen, dark with disbelief. 

“Shit,” Sam says, staring at the thin golden ring on his finger. He blinks quickly, like he’s pushing through it all: the hangover, the too-bright sunlight, the pure insanity of this moment. Bucky watches the dark curl of his eyelashes, staring for just a second too long. 

Sam blinks again, then starts to laugh. “Shit. Well, I guess we’ll have to file for annulment.” 

And maybe it’s the leftover buzz of the alcohol, or maybe it’s the way that Sam has started to feel like safety to him, but something makes Bucky blurt it out; he clears his throat and says, “Yeah, or we could just stay married.” 

Sam frowns. “What?” 

Bucky ducks his head, wishing he hadn’t said anything. “I was kidding, pal. Obviously. It’d be a stupid idea.” 

“Right, yeah,” Sam says slowly. “So stupid.” 

“Horrible,” Bucky says. There’s a strange feeling welling up inside his chest as he looks at Sam, but he pushes it away, falls back into the comfortable pattern of banter. “You’d be a terrible husband anyway.” 

Sam laughs at that, a quick, incredulous sound. “I’d be terrible? Please. You can’t even work a dating app and you want me to believe that you’d be some kind of model husband?” 

“So what, you think you’d be better at marriage than me?” 

“I know I would, man.” 

“Yeah, alright,” Bucky says. There’s a challenging spark in Sam’s eyes, one that’s become as familiar as his smile, and Bucky meets him without blinking. “We’ll see about that.”

“Okay then, we’re doing this,” Sam says. “No annulment until it’s settled. Someone will have to give up on this marriage first, and it isn’t gonna be me. This is your last chance to back out.” 

And it’s a terrible idea, one of the stupidest things Bucky’s ever done, but he does it anyway: he looks Sam in the eye and shakes his hand, gripping tightly, feeling the press of metal from the two rings against his skin.

“I don’t back out of things that easy,” he says, eyes still locked on Sam’s - they’re dark brown and intense and beautiful, filled with a wordless dare, and this is one fight that Bucky doesn't want to walk away from. “It’ll take a lot more than that to get rid of me.” 

“Me too,” Sam says, and Bucky finds himself wanting to believe it. 

--

They’re an hour into the flight home when the flight attendant comes by with blankets and headphones, checking to see if the passengers need anything. As soon as she spots Sam and Bucky, she smiles. 

“Hello, gentlemen. Can I get you anything? Did you have a nice holiday?” 

“Yeah, it was great,” Sam says, flashing her a smile. Then, before Bucky can blink, Sam grabs his hand. “We just got married, actually.” 

“Oh,” the flight attendant says excitedly, “that's lovely. Congratulations. Please hold on for one minute.” 

She disappears and comes back a minute later with a bottle of champagne, which she pours into two paper cups. “On the house,” she says with a wink. “Newlyweds policy.” 

“Hey, thanks,” Bucky says, pleased. 

“My pleasure, sir,” the flight attendant says. “You must be so happy with your husband.” 

Sam coughs quietly around a laugh. Bucky grimaces, quickly turns it into a smile. 

“Uh, yeah. We’re...very happy together.” 

“Wonderful,” the flight attendant says. “Well, I’ll leave you two alone.” She walks away with another wink. 

“Cheers,” Sam says once she’s gone. “To the first of many free drinks that we’ll get from working the just married thing.” 

Bucky downs his champagne. “You really think people will keep falling for that?” 

Sam shrugs. “Yeah, why not. I mean, it’s not like it’s fake. Not legally, anyway.” 

It’s an offhand comment, but the truth of it knocks the breath out of Bucky for a moment; he’s married to Sam, really and truly married. It makes his head spin. 

“You know,” Sam continues, “free drinks aren’t the only benefits for married people. There’s other stuff. Tax breaks, rental leases…” 

Bucky tips his head to the side. “Yeah? So?” 

“So,” Sam says, “maybe we should get an apartment together. We could probably find a nice one, now that we’ve got the marriage advantage.” 

Bucky can feel a smile growing at the corner of his mouth, threatening to take over his entire face. “You want to move in together? Don’t you want to stay in Louisiana?”

“Don’t make it weird,” Sam sighs. “I’m just saying. Delacroix is great, but Sarah needs her own space, and honestly? I miss New York. We could get a decent place, probably. You telling me you’d rather stay alone at your piece of shit apartment?” 

“My apartment is not a piece of shit.” 

“Sure it isn’t.” Sam crumples his empty champagne cup. “So? Are we doing this?” 

Bucky pauses for a moment, thinking about it. He imagines coming home to Sam every day, sharing space like stories, an apartment that holds a true home within its walls. He looks at Sam and pictures the future, and it shines with the glow of unexpected beauty. 

“Okay,” Bucky says. “Yeah. Let’s do this.” 

Sam grins, long and wide and pretty. Bucky turns away and reaches for the champagne bottle. 

--

It turns out that even the tax breaks from marriage aren’t enough to get them a really nice apartment, so they end up buying a two-bedroom walkup in Brooklyn that’s got enough space for the both of them but not much else to recommend it.

Bucky doesn’t mind too much, though; despite its myriad problems, the stove and plumbing work, which is more than he can say for his previous apartment. The living room has mismatched furniture and half-dead houseplants, and the walls are a nice, if slightly faded, shade of pale blue. His bedroom is small but comfortable, with lavender walls and a window that only opens if he puts the full strength of his metal arm behind it. 

Sam brings his things up from DC and tries to fill the apartment with it, but there isn’t room; most of it ends up going into a storage container five blocks away. 

“You’re unbelievable,” Sam says when Bucky vetoes a battered leather armchair that no longer reclines. “I move to Brooklyn for your ass and you’re banning my favorite chair?” 

“I’m not banning it,” Bucky answers. “I’m just pointing out the fact that it doesn’t fit anywhere in the living room.” 

Sam scowls at him and throws a quilted afghan blanket over the back of the sofa. It’s one of the most hideous things Bucky’s ever seen, but he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he takes out his notebook, flips to the page titled Moving In, and crosses off furniture, blankets, and Sam’s stuff.

Once they finally get settled into the apartment, the result is messy but pleasing. Sam’s sofa sits next to Bucky’s chair, Bucky’s boots rest on Sam’s doormat, the TV on the wall is Sam’s flatscreen from DC, and the kitchen cupboards are full of incomplete sets of plates and bowls and glasses in all different shapes and sizes. After a few days, Bucky starts to forget what belongs to who, and it’s nice not to worry about it. 

The fire escape outside the living room window has a platform landing big enough to comfortably sit on, and Bucky takes to climbing out there when the walls of the apartment get to be too much for him. Sam never asks him about this; he just waits until Bucky comes back in and then puts on the TV. 

They order out most nights, getting takeout from Brooklyn’s Homeslice and Thai Holic and the tiny Mexican place around the corner that never has the same menu twice. Sam keeps cases of Budweiser in the fridge and shares with Bucky even though it’s not enough to get him drunk, and Bucky gives Sam the mattress from his room because it’s more comfortable than Sam’s, and it’s not like Bucky’s using it. 

There’s an old stereo in their living room and Sam connects his phone to it, plays music that Bucky’s never listened to before: Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye and Tracy Chapman, slow songs and power ballads, all of it filling the quiet corners of the apartment on slow afternoons and late nights. There are a few songs Sam plays so often that Bucky begins to learn the words for them, and he writes them down in his notebook: Fast Car, Bring It On Home, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). 

--

“Just talked to Sarah,” Sam tells Bucky once they’re finished moving in, waving his phone vaguely in the air. “She thinks we’re insane.” 

Bucky flops down on the sofa. “So she knows we’re married?” 

“Yeah, and she thinks it’s the dumbest thing she’s ever heard. Well, in her words, it would be the dumbest thing she’s ever heard, except that it’s me, so it’s on par with the usual.” 

Bucky lets out a laugh. “Well, she’s got that right.” 

Sam sits down next to him and picks up a pillow, throwing it at Bucky’s face. “Please. You’re responsible for at least ninety percent of the dumb ideas in this relationship.” 

Bucky shifts around, strangely nervous. There’s a knot in his throat, words caught in a tangle of worry. “Uh...but what did she think about us moving in together?” 

“She thinks it’s good,” Sam says, shrugging. “She used to worry about me always living alone, you know? She’s happy about it, although she says it’s not going to get me out of visiting on the regular.” 

“So she didn’t have issues with you moving in with a former assassin who’s tried to kill you multiple times?” 

“Nah,” Sam says. “S’fine. I told you, she thinks this is good for me.” He stretches his legs out, knocking his knee against Bucky’s. “Pass me the remote, will you?” 

Bucky hands it over and lets Sam scroll through the TV guide, watching him more than the screen. The room seems to expand around him like an exhale, letting him breathe easily. He’s sitting with Sam Wilson on the couch of the apartment that they share, and Bucky’s learned that everything he touches is eventually ruined, but maybe this can work after all. Maybe it will be good for him.  

--

Sam is often busy, either as Captain America or as a counselor; he goes back to the VA, joining the New York branch on the Lower West side. He sometimes asks if Bucky wants to come along, but Bucky always declines. It’s hard enough for him to speak to a single therapist; he can’t imagine talking to a whole room. 

When he tells Dr Raynor this, she looks skeptical. 

“You should go,” she tells him. They’re having a virtual therapy session, Bucky calling from the laptop that he still barely knows how to use, because apparently leaving a nice note and your list of amends in a fancy gift bag on your therapist’s couch isn’t enough to officially release you from court-mandated therapy. 

It’s still hell, even though Dr Raynor approved of him moving in with Sam enough that she decided he was cleared for sessions that weren’t in person. Bucky appreciates not having to travel two hours each Tuesday, but seeing Dr Raynor on his screen is almost as bad. 

(He tried hanging up on her once and ended up getting about fifteen emails from her, all filled with incomprehensible therapy jargon basically telling him that he sucks. Since then, he’s made a point of staying on the call until the last minute.) 

“I don’t need to go,” Bucky says now. “They just talk about their problems. Isn’t that what I got you for?” 

Dr Raynor side-eyes him. “Yes, because forming connections with your therapist and no one else is such a good way to live your life.” 

“You can’t use sarcasm against me,” Bucky says. “I’m your patient. That violates the Hippocratic Oath or something.” 

Dr Raynor sighs. “James. You need to connect with people.” 

“I am connecting with people,” Bucky argues. “I connected with Sam enough that I moved in with him. Isn’t that enough?” 

He hasn't mentioned the marriage thing to her - he’s sure that it will result in another dozen pages of therapist psychoanalysis that he really doesn’t want to subject himself to - but moving in with Sam in itself should, in Bucky’s opinion, be more than enough to satisfy his nurturing-relationships-with-people quotient. 

“That’s good,” Dr Raynor says, looking genuinely kind for the first time since Bucky’s started seeing her. “That’s a very big step for you, James. I’m proud.” 

“Thanks.” 

“But you still need to connect with others.” 

Bucky shrugs his shoulders helplessly. “I don’t know what to do, okay? I don’t even know what to do with my life these days. Sam’s still doing the Captain America bit, he goes on missions a lot, but I don’t go with him.” 

Dr Raynor leans forward. The pen comes out. “And why not?” 

 “Don’t write this down, come on…” 

“Why don’t you go on missions with Sam, James?” 

Bucky blows out a long breath. “Because,” he says. “I - I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to keep fighting.” 

Dr Raynor sets her pen down. “Good,” she says, and she’s smiling now. “You know what you want, and you allowed yourself to communicate it. That’s a very good thing.” 

“But,” Bucky says, hating how lost he sounds, “I don’t know what to do with myself now. I have all this free time and nothing to do with it.” 

“That’s exactly it, thought,”  Dr Raynor says. “You have time to figure out what you want to do now. Try out some hobbies. Maybe get a pet. Make some friends.” 

“I have friends,” Bucky mumbles. “My amendments, the list...” He trails off into a bitter silence, thinking of Mr Nakajima. 

“Real friends,” Dr Raynor insists. “You should befriend someone because you want to, not because you feel that you owe it to them. You deserve that.” She pauses for a moment. “You really are making progress here, James. This is good.” 

“Not all on my own,” Bucky says, and doesn’t know why. “Sam, he’s helped me a lot.” 

“Well then, you’re very lucky to have someone like him.” 

The back of Bucky’s throat stings unexpectedly. “Yeah,” he answers. “I am.” 

“Think about what I said,” Dr Raynor says. “Find something you like doing. I’ll talk to you again in two weeks.” 

Bucky nods and shuts the laptop, leans back against the sofa, closes his eyes. Sam’s music is playing in the background, soft and sweet. The front door opens loudly, and Bucky cracks an eye open to see Sam there, pulling off his boots, slinging the shield into the tiny mudroom. 

“Hey, Buck,” Sam calls over to him, and Bucky tries not to notice how natural the nickname sounds in Sam’s voice now. “How was therapy?” 

“Great,” Bucky answers. “She said that my homework is to paint your room hot pink. Says it’ll be a therapeutic exercise in color study.” 

“Hilarious,” Sam says dryly. “I’m making stir fry tonight. Get your lazy ass up and help me chop the vegetables.” 

Bucky follows him into the kitchen. Sam hands him a knife, handle first, and passes him two bell peppers, humming to himself as he does. He moves around the kitchen like he’s lived here his whole life, his skin turned warm as cocoa beneath the soft golden lights. 

Sam’s shirt collar shifts, revealing the chain of his key necklace, the one that perfectly matches Bucky’s. Bucky pointedly looks away and begins to slice the peppers. 

--

The thing about being married to Sam, Bucky thinks, is that it’s not much different from not being married to him. They still banter and fight and argue; they still make stupid dares for each other and get overly competitive over little things. Bucky takes up more than his fair share of the couch and Sam cooks dinner with more spice than Bucky’s used to, just to be little shits about it. 

They go out to lunch together sometimes, or to the bar or the store, but it never feels any different than it did in Paris. Sam is the same as he always was for Bucky: an infuriating but steadying presence, an anchor that grounds Bucky more than he’d like to admit. 

Most days, even with the key around his neck and the ring around his finger, Bucky more or less forgets that he’s married to Sam at all.

That’s why he’s surprised when there’s a knock on the door of their apartment one day and he opens it to find two old women standing there, holding hands and smiling at him. There’s grey streaked through their hair, and they’ve got deep lines etched into their faces from years of laughter. 

“Hey,” Bucky says. “Uh, what can I do for you?” 

“I’m Dorothea,” says the taller one, “and this is Betty. We’re across the hall in C19. We just thought we’d stop by to say hello and welcome you to the neighborhood. I know it’s been a couple weeks since you moved in, but we thought we’d let you get settled in first.” 

“We’ve brought you a casserole,” says Betty, handing him a large ceramic dish, “although I don’t know if you’re allergic to anything...I hope you’re not lactose intolerant, because there’s cheese in it. I assure you, though, it is a fantastic casserole.” She winks at him. 

“She’s just saying that because I made it,” Dorothea says, giving Betty a fond smile. 

Betty shakes her head, a gleam in her eye. “I’m right, though.” 

Bucky wraps his hands around the casserole dish, watching the two of them bicker, and he can’t help smiling - a real smile, nothing like the fake ones he’s been giving out for the past couple of weeks. Betty and Dorothea are so sweet together, and it warms Bucky’s heart; they clearly know each other inside and out, intertwined at every twist and turn of their lives. Bucky wonders, just for a moment, what it would be like to have something like that. 

“The casserole looks great,” he says. “Thank you. I’m Bucky.” 

Dorothea beams at him. “Bucky, now there’s a good old fashioned name. And who’s the other young man you’re living with - your husband, isn’t he? The landlord said a married couple was moving in.” 

“Good thing, too,” Betty says. “I’m getting tired of us being the only ones in the building.” 

Bucky stumbles over his words, disoriented. “I - husband? Oh, right. Sam. Sam is my husband.” He gestures over his shoulder. “He lives with me. We’re married.” It’s not a lie anymore, but the words still feel unfamiliar in his mouth.  

“How sweet,” Betty says. “Well, tell him we said welcome, will you? We’ll have you both over for dinner some night, if you want.” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “yeah, that sounds great. Thanks. It was nice to meet you.” 

Dorothea and Betty both smile at him, then slowly cross the hall back to their own apartment. Bucky lingers in the doorway for a moment, watching as Dorothea pauses to open her door and Betty leans against her shoulder as she does. They’re so easy together, so plainly perfect for each other, and it makes Bucky’s heart feel like it’s expanding in his chest. 

He goes back into his apartment and sets the casserole on the counter, hoping that someday he can find the same kind of quiet peace that Dorothea and Betty clearly share. 

--

“Hey,” Sam says later, once he’s home from the VA. “Who cooked the casserole? I know it wasn’t you.” 

Bucky looks up from the sofa. “What, you think I can’t cook?” 

“I think that if you did cook,” Sam says, sitting down at the kitchen table and lifting the lid off of the casserole dish, “I’d come back to find the apartment on fire. Plus, this smells way too good for you to have been involved at all.” 

“The old ladies across the hall made it for us,” Bucky says, watching as Sam grabs a spoon and digs a scoop of casserole straight out of the dish. “They’re called Dorothea and Betty, they’re really nice, and - you should use a bowl for that, pal. Other people need to eat it, you know.” 

Sam just raises an eyebrow. “That’s rich coming from the guy who was drinking out of the milk carton yesterday morning.” 

Bucky huffs and looks away. He’d done that one time, one, and only because there hadn’t been any clean glasses. 

“Put on the TV, will you,” Sam says, pulling two bowls out of the cupboard and filling them with casserole. He comes and sits next to Bucky, passing him one of the bowls. “I think they’re showing a documentary about birds of prey on Animal Planet.” 

“You’re way too dedicated to your bird brand,” Bucky grumbles, but he flips the channel over anyway. Sam leans back against the sofa and puts his feet up on the coffee table, staring intently at the TV as a red-tailed hawk appears on the screen. 

“See, look at that,” he says, pointing with his spoon as the hawk dives downward and snatches up a mouse. “Absolute mobility. Amazing. I wish I had that level of agility. The wings are pretty damn good, but that - ” 

“So you want to be like a real bird,” Bucky says. “Noted. If you get an urge to start eating mice, let me know.” 

Sam flips him off, turning his attention back to the screen. Bucky watches him watch the hawk’s flight, studying him carefully out of the corner of his eye. Sam is wearing black jeans and an army shirt, and a grey hoodie that Bucky is pretty sure belongs to him. He’s completely focused on the bird documentary, a bright spark of interest dancing in his eyes. 

That’s my husband, Bucky thinks, and then tries to unthink it. 

“I know you’re staring,” Sam says, still staring straight ahead. “I thought you were past this, man.” 

“Fuck off, I’m not staring,” Bucky says. He takes a bite of casserole, all potato and onion and melted cheese. “God, this is delicious.” Then, a moment later: “Hey, is that my hoodie?” 

“Maybe,” Sam mutters. “I didn’t have anything else to wear, okay? You forgot to do the laundry.” 

“Whatever you say,” Bucky replies, something light and feathered taking flight in his chest. He turns back to the TV, feeling a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. 

--

Over the next couple of weeks, at Dr Raynor’s insistence, Bucky tries his best to find a decent hobby. Despite the fact that he’s putting in genuine effort, it doesn’t go very well. 

He tries joining a local book club, but the first book on the list was about World War One, so he refuses to read it and subsequently gets asked to leave. He tries joining a knitting circle, but all the other members of the group are elderly women who do nothing but talk about their grandchildren all day. He tries amateur carpentry, but he ends up almost taking off his hand in an attempt at power sanding the roof of a birdhouse - and really, it’s not like he could have put it anywhere even if he’d finished it. New York doesn’t have much in the way of birds, other than pigeons that are definitely too fat to fit inside a door with a four inch diameter. 

“What the fuck is that,” Sam says two days after the birdhouse incident, pointing to the kitchen table.

Bucky looks up from the steaming saucepan he’s stirring. “A cake? According to that bakeoff show, it’s called a Victoria sponge.” 

“That’s not a cake, that’s a pan of toxic waste.” 

“Just for that, you’re eating the first slice.” 

Sam shakes his head and walks out of the kitchen, leaving Bucky to stare mournfully at the cake tin. The misshapen lump of raw batter inside it bubbles pathetically before sinking into itself. The saucepan on the stove starts to smoke alarmingly, spelling the end for his attempt at homemade jam.

“Great,” he mutters. “This is great.” 

Next to the cake tin, his notebook lies open on the page labeled Potential Hobbies. Bucky sighs, picks up a flour-covered pen, and scratches an X through baking. 

--

“The hobby thing is still going badly, huh,” Sam says the next day at lunch. They’re in the window booth at the pizza place down the street, which they’ve visited so often since moving in together that it’s unofficially become theirs. 

Bucky holds up a hand. “Don’t even start. I’ve already gotten all kinds of shit from Dr Raynor. Apparently I’m not ‘applying myself’ enough.” 

“Nah,” Sam says with a smirk. “You’re applying yourself too much, if anything. I saw that ugly ass sweater you started knitting.” 

“Shut the fuck up.” 

Sam sprinkles pepper on his second slice of pepperoni, looking thoughtful. Silence hangs between them for a moment, but it’s not uncomfortable. 

“I just,” Bucky says eventually, his body prickling hot with shame. “I thought that I’d be better at, I don’t know, doing things. Back when I was - him, I was good at everything.” 

“Well, you were also being brainwashed and mind controlled by a bunch of psychotic fascists,” Sam says, dry, “so there’s that.” 

Bucky taps the fingers of his left hand against the table, metal against laminated wood, the pattern coming to him unbidden: three short, three long, three short. A cry for help, a signal of distress; Sam catches his eye, a lighthouse sliding into view. 

“This just sucks,” Bucky says, the truth pouring out of him before he can stop it. “I have a life now, I like my life now, but it just feels like I can’t do anything right. The only thing I’ve ever been good at is fighting, and now that I’m living in peacetime, what use am I to anyone?” Something constricts at the back of his throat, and he has to stop speaking. 

“Hey,” Sam says, leaning forward. He places one hand on the table, close enough that his fingers overlap Bucky’s vibranium, and gratifyingly pretends not to see the way that Bucky flinches at the touch. “I’m gonna stop you right there, man. So you haven’t been doing great at the arts and crafts shit you’ve been trying. Big deal. You’re good at other things.” 

Bucky scoffs bitterly. “Like what?” 

“You’re a good partner,” Sam says. “You’re a good friend. You’re a good roommate, even if you forget to do laundry half the time.” He smiles now. “And you’re the best damn husband I’ve ever had.” 

“That doesn’t count for anything,” Bucky says, exhaling quietly past the sudden warmth that's blooming in his chest. “I’m the only husband you’ve ever had.” 

“Jesus, Buck,” Sam says. “Just take the damn compliments, alright? You’re a good guy. Better than you know.” 

“Alright,” Bucky says. He looks up, finds that he can’t meet Sam’s eyes, looks away again. “Thanks.” 

Sam narrows his eyes and scrutinizes Bucky for a moment, like he’s trying to find something shifting between the planes of Bucky’s face. Bucky taps his fingers on the table again, flushed beneath the weight of Sam’s stare. 

“Has there ever been anything you really, really wanted?” Sam asks. “Like, before the war? Or even as a kid?” 

There’s a no hovering on the tip of Bucky’s tongue, but then he pauses, reconsiders. He slips back in time, remembers something he’d long since forgotten: a hot Brooklyn street in summer, a scruffy mutt wandering loose with no collar, a makeshift bed made from empty potato sacks. 

“A dog,” Bucky says. “Steve and I, we found a dog once and tried to keep him, but he ended up running off on us. I said it was probably for the better, cause we didn’t have food for him anyway, but Steve was real cut up about it. So was I, to be honest. I was just better at hiding it.” 

“Did you give it a name? Before it ran away, I mean.” 

“Sarge,” Bucky says, smiling wistfully at the memory. “Thought it’d be fitting, us wanting to be soldiers and all.” 

“My god, you suck at animal names,” Sam says. “No wonder that dog ran off.” He tugs another slice out of the pizza box, seemingly done with the conversation, but there’s a soft crease at the edge of his mouth that speaks of something yet untold. 

--

Sam takes Bucky out to lunch the next week, promising that he’s found a new place with the best cheeseburgers in the city. Bucky goes along willingly, but ten blocks from their apartment, he realizes that he’s been hustled. 

“This isn’t a burger joint,” Bucky says, staring up at the sign on the building in front of them. It reads Brooklyn Animal Shelter in mint green letters, and there’s a row of black cat and dog silhouettes painted beneath the letters. 

“Thank you, captain obvious,” Sam says, rolling his eyes and pulling the door open for Bucky. “I wanted it to be a surprise. Come on, let’s go.” 

Bucky walks inside slowly, taking in his surroundings. Past the front desk, he can see a long, brightly-lit hallway filled with small spaces separated by chain link fencing. Inside each little area is a dog, and Bucky can’t help but stare; there are so many different kinds, all different shapes and colors and sizes and breeds, all turning to look at him in interest. 

“I’ll clear it with the desk lady,” Sam says, giving him a little push in the direction of the hall. “You go on and look.” 

Bucky stops at the first cage, where a small black terrier looks back at him curiously before turning away again, clearly unimpressed. 

“I don’t think this one likes me,” Bucky calls over to Sam.

“Oh, so he’s got good taste?” 

“I hate you,” Bucky mumbles to himself, continuing down the row of cages. He passes a Jack Russell, a pit bull, a cattle dog, and a poodle before landing on the last cage. The dog inside it is a coppery shade of orange-brown, and his fur is soft and wavy. He’s lying curled up in a ball, and he looks up at Bucky with hopeful but wary brown eyes. His tail, pulled tight to his body, thumps once against the floor. 

Bucky looks at him for a long moment, his heart pounding in painful sympathy. There’s something about this dog that reminds Bucky of himself after the fall: hiding within his own body, fearful despite his best intentions, torn between reaching out in hope and flinching from every touch. 

“Hey there, buddy,” Bucky says softly, crouching down so that he’s on the same level as the dog. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.” 

The dog whimpers, giving Bucky a quick glance with those big brown eyes. Bucky looks at the nametag clipped to the cage: Brutus, 2 years old, all shots included. 

“Brutus?” Bucky says. “I’m not calling you that. It’s a stupid name.” He presses his fingers to the metal links of the cage. “Come here, boy. I promise it’s okay.” 

The dog waits for a long minute, then slowly inches his way forward and sniffs cautiously at Bucky’s hand. His nose is cold, and his whiskers tickle against Bucky’s skin. Bucky scratches gently behind the dog’s ears, feeling a helpless smile spreading over his face. 

“Oh, hey,” Sam says, walking up to them. The dog gives him a nervous look, but Bucky shushes him gently. 

“This one,” Bucky says. “He likes me, and he - he really needs a home, Sam. I know they all do, but he’s the one.” 

He’s part of me, Bucky wants to say; I couldn’t save myself, but I can save him. He keeps that part to himself, though, because it’s dramatic and overly personal, even if it feels true. 

Sam looks at him and just nods, and the softness in his eyes makes Bucky think that maybe he understands anyway. 

“Brutus?” Sam says now, reading the nametag. “That’s an awful name. We’re not calling him Brutus.” 

“Obviously,” Bucky says. “We’re going to name him something cool.” He points at Sam. “Don’t even try to say Redwing.” 

Sam huffs. “Fine. What are you thinking, then?” 

“Blaze would be cool,” Bucky suggests. 

“Blaze? Only a stoner would name their dog Blaze.” Sam catches Bucky’s blank look and sighs heavily. “Do you even know what a stoner is? Did they not have weed in the 1940s?” 

“Fine, not Blaze,” Bucky says. “Come on, let’s hear your ideas.” 

Sam kneels down and puts his fingers through the bars of the cage. The dog sniffs at his hand, then licks the tip of Sam’s thumb. Sam looks pleased. 

“Sweet Potato,” he says, straightening up again. “We can call him Sweet Potato.” 

Bucky chokes. “We can call him what?” 

“Sweet Potato,” Sam repeats. “Cause he’s a sweet guy, and he’s the same color as yams. It’s cute.” 

The dog pushes his nose against the bars, licking Sam’s fingers again. Bucky tries his hardest not to look at the smile that’s curling at Sam’s mouth; it’s soft and warm and spreading wide with happiness. 

“We’re not,” Bucky says, his tone falling just short of sternness. “We’re not naming him Sweet Potato.” 

“Hey there, Sweet Potato,” Sam says, rubbing the dog’s head. The dog perks up at the stupid name, ears rising to full attention. “See, he likes it.” 

The dog looks at Bucky with big, soulful brown eyes, like he’s seeking Bucky’s approval. Bucky sighs deeply. 

--

Sweet Potato comes home with them later that day, along with a can of biscuits, a giant bag of dog food, a blue collar with a brand new set of engraved tags, and a set of papers that register Sam and Bucky as his owners. Dorothea, on her way out from the grocery store, spots them walking Sweet Potato down the hall and tells them that the landlord isn’t big on pets. 

“But don’t worry,” she says, winking. “He’ll let it slide as long as you bring him a pan of brownies. We’ve got three cats, and all because Betty made him a chocolate cheesecake one time.” 

“You’re gonna have to bake the brownies,” Bucky says to Sam as they let Sweet Potato into their apartment for the first time. “You saw what happened when I tried baking.” 

“Fine,” Sam says, “but you’re washing the dishes after. I’m sick of you not even putting plates in the damn dishwasher.” 

Bucky closes the door behind them and leans against the kitchen counter to observe Sweet Potato in his new environment. Sweet Potato’s claws click against the wooden floor of the kitchen, his paws sliding slightly on the smooth surface; he sniffs the space beneath the stove, licking tentatively at a smear of something that Bucky doesn’t even want to try and identify. He then pads into the carpeted living room, bumping his nose against the couch cushions and wagging his tail so hard that it sends Sam’s crossword puzzle flying from the coffee table to the floor. 

“I think he likes it here,” Sam says. Sweet Potato is nosing at the houseplants near the window now, one paw planted in a pile of dirt. He pulls a withered fern out of its pot, lying down and happily chewing it to bits, and it’s only then that Bucky realizes what they’ve forgotten. 

“Shit. We didn’t get him a bed.” 

Sam shoots him a look. “You didn’t get him a bed.” 

“I mean, I think this is on both of us...” 

“No,” Sam says slowly, “because when we got to the pet store and split up, I said that I’d get the food and you’d get the other stuff, remember?” 

“No, I - ” Bucky starts, and then stops. “Oh. Fuck.” 

“Uh huh,” Sam says. “It’s fine. We can go get one tonight.” 

There’s a sound of metal clattering against metal, and Bucky looks over to see that Sweet Potato has tipped over Sam’s shield; instead of resting vertically against the radiator, it’s now lying upside down on the floor so that it looks like a giant bowl. Sweet Potato licks the edge of it, sniffs at the leather grips, and then climbs into it and curls up into a ball. As Bucky watches, Sweet Potato contentedly closes his eyes. 

“You have got to be kidding me,” Sam says, but there’s a smile on his face. 

“Seems like that’ll work pretty good,” Bucky says. “And if he gets sick of the shield, he can always have your actual bed.” 

“Man, shut the hell up,” Sam grumbles. “You don’t watch out, I’m going to put him in your room for the night so he can sleep on your blankets instead.” He puts a hand to the back of his head, fingers braced against his skull in a gesture of nonchalance. It’s elaborately unconcerned, but Bucky sees through it: there’s an anxious twitch to Sam’s hand, an almost imperceptible veneer of concern in his voice. It’s only noticeable to Bucky because he knows Sam so well; at this point, he thinks he could read every one of Sam’s movements like a page from his favorite book. 

“So,” Sam says offhandedly, “you’re happy with this? You like Sweet Potato?” 

Sweet Potato lifts one ear at the sound of his name, then lets it fall again. Bucky smiles over at him and then leans into Sam before he can stop himself, pushing against his side with such a quick motion that it seems like contact rather than connection. 

“I still think his name is stupid,” Bucky says. “But yeah. I’m happy with this.” 

--

Sweet Potato settles in with them like he’s been there all along, and Bucky forgets what the apartment looked like before there were two bowls by the fridge and brown hairs on the couch and dirty paw prints on the kitchen floor. It’s good, Bucky thinks; the apartment becomes worn at the edges, fuller than it was before. 

Sweet Potato is a constant presence in the apartment: sleeping on the sofa, eating in the kitchen, padding around the coffee table. Bucky becomes used to finding him at the living room window, paws on the sill as he stares out at the fire escape. He also becomes used to Sweet Potato’s unusual love of donuts, which they discover when Sam brings home a dozen strawberry glazed and Sweet Potato ends up stealing three of them off the kitchen counter. 

Bucky finds this hilarious and starts going out of his way to buy glazed or old fashioned donuts for Sweet Potato. Sam complains about it being ridiculous to feed donuts to a dog, but Bucky catches him slipping Sweet Potato a vanilla cruller when he thinks no one is looking. 

Sweet Potato changes them for the better, filling in the gaps between their lives. He provides company for Bucky when Sam is away on missions, and entertainment for Sam when they play tug of war with one of the many dog toys now scattered about the apartment. He loves both of them, and they love him in return.

Best of all, Sweet Potato gives Bucky something to do with his life. 

The shelter apparently never prioritized training of any kind, so Bucky takes it upon himself to teach Sweet Potato basic obedience. They get kicked out of the local dog trainer’s organization after the second lesson because of an incident between Sweet Potato and a particularly vicious Chihuahua, but Bucky doesn’t let it faze him. After all, he spent seventy years taking orders; if there’s anyone who knows about obedience, it’s him. 

He begins taking Sweet Potato on walks around the nearby streets, teaching him to sit and stay and heel on command. Sweet Potato is lacking in motivation and easily distracted, but he starts paying better attention once Bucky starts bringing donut holes along as treats. 

 “I shouldn’t have to bribe you,” Bucky tells him one morning. They’re outside the door of a little coffee shop a couple blocks away from home, and Sweet Potato is sitting on his haunches looking expectantly at Bucky’s pocket. “You should just be obedient. You’re a dog.” 

Sweet Potato thumps his tail against the sidewalk and lets his tongue hang out. Bucky sighs and gives him a donut hole. 

“Okay, boy,” he says. He starts them off again, makes sure that Sweet Potato stays by his right side. “Heel.” 

Sweet Potato heels for about ten seconds before he spots a pigeon and charges out in front of Bucky, dragging him along. Bucky sighs again. 

--

Bucky wanders into the kitchen one Sunday morning, whistling slightly off-key in the way that he knows gets on Sam’s nerves, and looks around for Sweet Potato. No dog in sight. 

“Hey, Sam,” he yells in the direction of the closed bathroom door. “Where’s Sweet Potato?” 

“Pie?” Sam answers, his voice somewhat muffled. “He’s around somewhere.” 

“Stop calling him that,” Bucky huffs, “his real name is stupid enough.” 

(Sam has taken to creating variations on Sweet Potato’s name: Sweet Pea, Sweet Stuff, Yams, and Pie. Sweet Potato, maddeningly enough, answers to all of them, despite Bucky’s insistence for him to ignore Sam.) 

Bucky looks around the living room and the kitchen, checks his room, checks Sam’s room. Nothing. 

“Sam,” he says, feeling a curl of panic start to settle in his chest, “he’s not here. Anywhere.” 

The bathroom door flies open and Sam comes out, shirtless and damp, a smear of shaving cream clinging to his jawline. Against his will, Bucky’s eyes stray to the skin at the top of Sam’s jeans: dark brown contrasting with the blue of the denim, the line of his muscle so smooth that it looks hand drawn. 

“What do you mean he’s not here,” Sam says, but he sounds distracted. His eyes catch Bucky’s, dart away, return. 

Bucky steps forward slowly, deliberately, folding the space between them into something as small as an exhale. He reaches out and trails a finger along the edge of Sam’s jaw, carefully brushes away the stray shaving cream. 

Sam’s breath catches, eyes dark. Bucky tries not to betray the frantic beating of his heart. 

“You just,” he says, loses the end of the sentence. “You had something there.” 

Sam’s throat moves, an involuntary swallow, and Bucky sees his own desire mirrored on Sam’s face. He wants to close the distance so badly it hurts, wants to crush himself against Sam until there’s nothing left of them but the point of contact. 

“Thanks,” Sam says, breathless, and Bucky’s two seconds from leaning in - he forgets that it’s a bad idea, forgets that it would never work out, forgets everything but Sam - but then, past the broad curve of Sam’s shoulder, he spots something so unbelievable that it makes all thoughts of Sam fly right out of his head. 

“Holy shit,” he says incredulously, and strides over to the open window, sticks his head out. He stares across at the building next door, at all the windows facing theirs. 

“What,” Sam says, his voice wavering slightly, “what the fuck is going on.” 

Bucky wordlessly points to the window directly across from them. Sam mumbles a disbelieving curse under his breath.

Sweet Potato is sitting in the apartment opposite theirs, face pressed up against the window. He looks at them with an expression that Bucky swears is guilt. Next to him, a yellow dog that looks like some kind of golden retriever mix is chewing on a piece of pizza. 

“Holy hell,” Sam says finally. “How did he manage to get over there, and how do we get him back.” 

The window is pushed open and someone sticks their head out, pushing the two dogs aside - a girl about nineteen years old, with black hair and piercing blue eyes, wearing an oversized white shirt with a purple bullseye design. There’s an easy smile on her face, and her movements have a quick grace to them that makes Bucky think she’d be handy in a fight. 

“Hey there,” the girl calls over to them, resting one hand on Sweet Potato’s head. “Is this your dog?” 

“Yeah,” Sam replies, “yeah, that’s our stupid demon dog. His name is Sweet Potato. Sorry he invaded your house.”  

“No problem,” the girl says cheerfully, and Bucky admires the way she doesn’t bat an eye at the weirdness of Sweet Potato’s name. She puts her other hand on the yellow dog’s head. “Lucky here was happy to make a friend. Do you want me to bring Sweet Potato back over there?” 

“Sure,” Bucky says. “The code for our building is 616 - ” 

He trails off as he realizes that the girl isn’t listening. Instead, she’s picking up something: a bow and arrow, which she points towards their window. 

“Whoa,” Sam says, “what the fuck is she - ” 

Bucky tenses in preparation to catch the arrow if the girl ends up targeting them, but there’s no need; the arrow flies under the sill of the window and buries itself in the brick wall of the building, trailing a flat line of rope behind it. The girl ties the other end of the line to her own window, picks up Sweet Potato and slings him around her shoulders, and crosses the rope between their apartments without any apparent effort. Bucky and Sam exchange looks, mystified. 

“Here you go,” the girl says, climbing through the window and depositing Sweet Potato on the floor. “He might have an addiction to pizza now. Sorry.” 

“That’ll go great with his donut addiction,” Bucky mutters, but the girl isn’t listening. She’s staring at Sam, mouth open. 

“Hey, aren’t you Captain America?” she asks. “You were on TV the other day fighting those space ninjas. Pretty awesome.” 

“Space ninjas?” Bucky asks, because Sam usually recaps missions for him, but he definitely doesn’t remember any ninjas being mentioned. Sam gives him an I’ll tell you later look and then turns back to the girl. 

“Yeah, that’s me,” he says. “Sam Wilson. This is Bucky Barnes. Who exactly are you?” 

The girl gives them a cocky grin. “Kate Bishop,” she says. “Pretty much an Avenger. At your service.” 

Bucky shrugs, because he doesn’t really remember her being on the team, but he also doesn’t really remember a lot of things, like the ice and the kills and the endless darkness of waiting. Sam’s got his eyebrows raised: one in doubt, one in admiration. 

“I don’t remember you being around,” Sam says, “but the way you shoot, I figure you know Clint.” 

“Yeah, he trained me,” Kate says, nodding. “Kind of lost track of him after he moved out to the farm, though. Hey, are you guys seriously my neighbors? I would’ve brought a cake or something if I’d known. Or like, a whole meal. That’s what neighbors do, right? The ones I had before were European mobsters who tried to kill me and Lucky multiple times, so.” 

Kate talks even faster than she moves, talks circles around them both. Bucky looks over at Sam and can tell that he’s just as lost. 

“Yeah, sure,” Sam says finally. “Shit, come over for dinner sometime. We could use more friends in the neighborhood. I’ll make mac and cheese.” 

Kate grins. “I’ll take you up on that,” she says. “Mac and cheese? Sam, you’re on track to become my second favorite America.” 

Sam frowns. “Second?” 

“Well, yeah,” Kate says, still smiling. “You’ll have to try a hell of a lot harder if you want to overtake my girlfriend. America Chavez, do you know her? Feel like all you cape types know each other. She makes the best paella, I’ll bring you some tomorrow. Gotta go now, though. Nice meeting you guys.” 

She disappears out the window before either of them can reply. Bucky looks at Sam, amused. 

“Whew,” Sam says. “She’s something. Barton must’ve had his hands full with her.” 

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, “the kid’s got guts. Reminds me of how my sister used to be.” 

“Your sister?” 

Bucky nods. “Both of us, really.” 

Sam starts to say something, stops again. There’s still the barest trace of shaving cream on his face, and Bucky can’t bring himself to meet his eyes. 

“I’ll take Sweet Potato out,” he says instead. “Could probably do with a run after eating that pizza.” 

“Yeah,” Sam says, “good idea.” 

Bucky clips on Sweet Potato’s leash and slips out the door, leaving a trail of words unspoken behind him. When he returns to the apartment later, it’s as if the moment never happened.

--

Kate Bishop is as good as her word; she shows up the next day with a massive pan of paella and a box of pizza, entering through the window the same way she did last time. 

Bucky looks over from where he’s sitting on the couch. “You know we have a door, right?” 

“I know,” Kate says, pushing a pair of sunglasses up onto her head, “but it felt like a waste of time to walk all the way around when I could take the direct route. Anyways, I brought you guys something.” 

“Sam’s not here,” Bucky says, muting the TV. “He’s at the VA. Sweet Potato’s here, though.” 

Kate lights up at this, flopping down on the floor to pet Sweet Potato’s ears. “Here,” she says, raising the pan and the pizza box towards Bucky, “take this before I spill it.” 

Bucky takes both from her, setting them on the kitchen table. He opens the lid of the paella dish to find that it smells absolutely amazing - rice and meat and spices so strong that they burn at the back of his throat. Then he flips open the pizza box: half a pepperoni pizza, cold to the touch. 

“You brought us pizza too?” he says, amused. “You shouldn’t have.” 

Kate laughs. “Sorry,” she says, “but America said she was going to throw it out the window if I kept it around for one more day - although it’s only two days old, so whatever - and I figured I’d see if you wanted it. Otherwise it’s just going to end up in Lucky’s stomach, and he’s already dangerously close to obesity.” 

Kate’s smile is apologetic and easy, and Bucky can’t help but smile back. He tugs a slice from the box and takes a bite; it’s not bad, actually, and he says as much. 

“I know, right,” Kate says, “I’ve had pizza way older than that before and it still tasted good. Thanks for eating it, cause America said there was no way anyone besides me would ever even think about it.” She leans back against the heater, completely at ease. “Hey, question. You’re like, the Winter Soldier, right? I mean, I remember seeing a ton of stuff about you on the news a few years back.” 

Every muscle in Bucky’s body tenses, curls against itself. His heart rate slows, aching between beats; the taste of copper fills his mouth, stale and metallic. He shouldn’t be surprised at this question, and he isn’t, but it still hits him like a bullet: the memories, the history, the truth of it all, crimes committed by a man wearing his face and a monster wielding his arm like a weapon instead of a limb - 

“I’m not,” Bucky says, and almost believes it. “I’m not - well, I was, but I’m not him anymore. He’s gone.” 

Kate nods, quiet for a moment. Something about the way she looks at him makes Bucky feel like it’s safe for him to keep talking. 

“I’m trying to figure out who I am without him,” Bucky says. “Trying to figure out my life now, you know? Like, where do I go from here?” 

“Yeah,” Kate says. “I get that. Not the deprogrammed assassin thing, but trying to figure out who you are once you’ve stepped out of someone else’s shadow.”

“Sam helps,” Bucky says. “And Sweet Potato helps. I mean, we just got him and he’s vaguely psychotic, but he’s sort of given me a direction again.” 

Kate pets Sweet Potato’s snout, looking thoughtful, then nods again like she’s come to a conclusion. “Have you taken him to the dog park over on Hillside yet?” 

“No,” Bucky says. “They’ve got parks for dogs now?” 

“Jeez,” Kate says, “I keep forgetting that you’re actually like, a thousand years old. Yes, there’s dog parks. Do you have time today? I’ll show you right now, if you want.” 

“I’m a hundred,” Bucky says as he gets up, disgruntled. “And six.” 

“Same thing in my book,” Kate says, springing to her feet and landing softly, like there’s no weight on her shoulders. Bucky looks at her and remembers when he used to feel that way, light and loose and infinite, the future spreading out before him like an open door. 

He hasn’t felt like that in a long time, but maybe he’s on the path to relearning it. 

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky says. “Show me the dog park, kid.” 

“Not a kid,” Kate says indignantly. “I’m nineteen.” 

“Same thing in my book,” Bucky replies, and when Kate laughs, he laughs along with her. 

--

The dog park is a wide expanse of emerald green grass enclosed within a low chain link fence. There are benches near the gates, and a handful of trees cast dark shadows that contrast sharply with the brilliant gold of the sunlight. The space is full of dogs and their owners; the dogs run around the park, chasing each other, while the owners sit in the shade and talk. Bucky spots two old men who have even set up a backgammon board on one of the benches. 

“Pretty nice, right?” Kate says. “I don’t come here a lot because Lucky usually just does his own thing, but sometimes it’s nice to see a lot of other dogs. And there’s kind of a community here.” As if to prove her point, she waves to a brunette woman on a nearby bench who’s wearing a bright pink tracksuit and a feather boa. “Hi, Ms Miyawaka. How’s your son?” 

“Good, good,” Ms Miyawaka says. “Still hung up on you, of course, no matter how many times I tell him that you were never together in the first place..” 

Kate shrugs helplessly. “What can I say? I’m just irresistible like that.” 

Ms Miyawaka smiles at her, then turns back to her magazine. Kate leads Bucky over to an empty bench in the sun. 

“Let Sweet Potato off, if you want,” she says. “He won’t go too far.” 

Bucky unclips Sweet Potato’s leash and watches as he wanders away in the direction of a cluster of corgis. He leans back against the bench, closing his eyes against the warmth of the sun, and takes a deep breath in: it smells like gasoline and harbor breeze and freshly cut grass, all the familiar scents of Brooklyn in midsummer woven into a tapestry of lives that he’d recognize anywhere on earth. 

“So,” Kate says after a few minutes of silence. “You need something to do with your life, right?” 

Bucky squints at her. “What are you, my therapist now?” 

“Please,” Kate scoffs. “You couldn’t afford me. No, I’m just wondering. Not every day you get the chance to make friends with a guy like you.” 

Bucky glances over at her. Kate’s got one hand propped behind her head, slouched against the bench with elaborately poor posture: the picture of nonchalance. 

“Fine,” Bucky says. “Fine, yes, I need something to do with my life, as long as it’s not knitting, reading, or bird house making. I tried those already.” 

“Hm,” Kate says. “What are you good at?” 

“Nothing,” Bucky says, the word coming out bitter. “I mean, nothing now. I used to be good at fighting, but I don’t do that anymore.” 

I almost wish I did, sometimes, he wants to say, but doesn’t. I don’t miss it, but I miss feeling like I was good at something. Good for something. 

Kate studies him carefully. “Alright, no fighting. How do you feel about working out?” 

“Fuck no,” Bucky says, grimacing. “Sam goes on runs every day at seven in the goddamn morning. If that’s what working out does to you, I don’t want any of it.” 

“You wouldn’t have to run,” Kate says. “Or get up that early. My friend Teddy works at a gym, though, and he’s looking for more part-timers. I think maybe you should try it out. It’s a pretty special place.” 

“Special how?” Bucky asks. “Special like the treadmills are made of gold?” 

Kate shakes her head. “Special like it’s centered around LGBT youth and lower-income people who don’t have that many opportunities.” 

“Oh,” Bucky murmurs, chastened, but there’s another feeling below the guilt - an excitement, warm and blooming. He forgets, sometimes, that in these days it’s no longer a mark of shame for dames to step out with dames or fellows with fellows; he forgets, sometimes, that it’s not wrong for him to look at a pretty man for a moment too long. 

(He forgets, sometimes, that his marriage to Sam was both legal and celebrated; his memories of that night are still hazy, but there were handfuls of rice and dried rose petals thrown by late night churchgoers - tearless and fearless, no pain or protests, no lingering sense of shame or wrongness.) 

“I figured you might like to be part of something like that,” Kate says. “Seeing as you and Sam are together.” 

“How’d you know,” Bucky says, grinning despite himself. “Did you see the rings?” 

“Rings?” Kate says blankly. “No, I saw you guys through the window. You looked about two seconds away from jumping each other’s bones in the middle of the living room.” 

Bucky blushes, a hot rush of heat to the face as he tries to push away any thoughts of jumping Sam Wilson’s bones. “Oh.” 

“Yeah, so I figured…” Kate shrugs. “What’s the deal with you two, then? Boyfriends? Fuck buddies?” 

“We’re married,” Bucky says, the words ringing just as strangely familiar as they always do, and tries to stop blushing. 

“Oh,” Kate says, and then: “Oh. Oh my god.” She starts laughing, so hard that she slides sideways on the bench until she’s doubled up and pressed up against Bucky’s side. 

“I don’t get what’s so funny,” Bucky huffs, but he lets Kate rest her head on his shoulder anyway. 

--

Kate becomes a permanent fixture in their lives, appearing on their fire escape on lazy mornings and boring afternoons. Sometimes she brings them food; other times she shows up when Sam is cooking breakfast and fixes herself a plate without even asking. She teases Bucky about his age and teases Sam for doing the crossword puzzle “like some kind of nerdy loser” and brings Lucky over to hang out with Sweet Potato almost every weekend. She even introduces them to America, who Bucky immediately likes: she’s all strong arms and dark curls, all confidence and self-assured steadiness. She wears even more stars and stripes than Steve used to, but it looks better on her - more an ironic statement than a label of possession. 

Kate fits easily with them, her jokes and banter aligning perfectly with theirs. Bucky starts to think of her as a kind of little sister, but he keeps it to himself; he figures she wouldn’t be big on him doing the whole big brother act. 

Still, she starts to feel like family to Bucky. He trusts her in a way that he’s only trusted one other person in the last seventy years, and he takes her words, even the teasing ones, and full value. 

So when Kate mentions her friend Teddy’s gym again, Bucky decides to give it a try. 

The gym is a small building tucked between a deli and a bookshop. There’s a rainbow flag hanging over the door, and a bell lets out a cheery two-tone chime as Bucky pulls the door open. 

Inside, the place is charming in a way that Bucky wouldn’t have expected a gym to be. It’s all cream walls and heather-grey carpeting, the rows of treadmills and weight machines and stationary bikes arranged in flawless lines. A row of floor-to-ceiling mirrors stretches along one wall, each one spotlessly clean. In the back, Bucky can see a clear area filled with mats and surrounded by a low circle of rope: some kind of sparring ring. 

Bucky heads for the front desk, where Kate told him that Teddy would be. “Look for the tall blonde kid with a smile brighter than the sun,” she’d said. “He’s pretty hard to miss.” 

At the time, Bucky had thought she’d been exaggerating, but now he knows she wasn’t - the kid behind the counter is smiling in a way that radiates warmth. It’s not that he’s smiling widely, or even intensely; his smile is small and gentle, creasing around the corners of his mouth, but soft in a way that makes Bucky think he’s never caused harm to a living thing in his life. 

“Hey there,” the kid says, nodding, smiling. “Are you Bucky?” 

Bucky nods in return, feeling a little bit awkward; he shoves his hands in his pockets, trying to find a way around the inevitable breaking of the ice. 

“I’m Teddy,” the kid continues. “Kate told me to expect you. Are you here about that job opening, or are you just here to exercise? Either one is fine, I can get you set up real quick.” 

Just exercising, Bucky wants to say - it’s the smart thing, the easier thing, the thing with less commitment. But he looks at Teddy, barely twenty years old and smiling like he’s got the entire world cradled carefully in his hands, and sees a peacefulness that he wants to learn. 

“I’m here for the job,” Bucky says. “Never worked at a place like this before, but I’ll catch on.” He raises his left arm. “If nothing else, you can use me as a machine mover.” 

“Awesome,” Teddy says, “we’ve been looking for a new guy ever since Loki got fired for spilling a bottle of nail polish and welding the register shut. It still sticks a little bit, but if you really yank the handle it should be fine.” He takes a second glance at Bucky’s arm, and Bucky suddenly sees it through his eyes: cold and shining, a pristine expanse of unforgiving metal, an instrument of deadly precision. Shame prickles through him, that same familiar flash of guilt and sorrow, and he fights the instinct to tuck his arm behind his back. 

“Cool arm,” is all Teddy says, and then he’s walking around the counter and handing Bucky a dark blue lanyard with the words Haven Fitness written on it in white. 

“Haven,” Bucky says slowly, testing the word on his tongue. It feels good to him, rolling comfortably around his mouth, steady and solid and safe. “Why’d you choose this for the gym name?” 

“Thought it was fitting,” Teddy says. “I started this place instead of going to college. My boyfriend Billy helped, but I did most of it. I felt driven by something stronger, you know? I’ve met so many special people over the years - people who look like me, people who love like me, people who more than anything just want somewhere to belong. I wanted to make a place that would be safe for everyone, especially those who needed it most. So - yeah, that’s why.” His eyes meet Bucky’s, a gentle emerald green gaze that feels like an embrace. “Alright, I’ll give you a little walkthrough. Ready?”  

There’s something welling up inside of Bucky, a feeling that spills over the edges until it’s too much to hold. He blinks quickly, feels the sting of salt at the corner of his eyes, realizes he’s close to tears for some reason. 

“Yeah,” he says, hoarse. “I’m ready.” 

--

Teddy covers the weight machines, the treadmills, the bikes, the rowing stations. He shows Bucky where the power strips are, where the towels are stacked, where the cleaning supplies are kept. He introduces Bucky to the other workers: Tommy, a speedy kid with white-blond hair who talks a mile a minute; Karolina, a blonde girl with neatly braided hair and an easygoing nature; Leah, a dark-haired girl with a fierce expression and a half-dozen silver ring piercings in each ear.

It’s a whirlwind of information. Bucky does his best to remember all of it, but he finds himself pulling out his notebook whenever Teddy’s not looking, doing his best to jot things down as they come. Towels - storage closet 1. Cleaning - brooms in the hall, sprays in the closet. Vacuums?

Teddy catches him doing this and laughs, but not meanly. “Hey man, don’t stress,” he says kindly. “It’s a learning process. I don’t expect you to remember everything right away.” 

“Right,” Bucky says, shoving his notebook back in his pocket. “Yeah, I knew that.” 

They’ve worked their way to the back of the room by this point, standing by the pile of mats outside the sparring ring. There’s a punching bag hanging from the ceiling next to the ring, a sharpie dangling on a string next to it; the bag is bright red and covered with black writing, words and phrases so small and layered that even Bucky has a hard time reading them. 

“What’s with the graffiti?”

“Oh, that’s the therapy bag,” Teddy says. “People can write on it if they want - their problems, people they’re mad at, things they feel like they can’t control, whatever - and then punch it. I think Loki was being sarcastic when he suggested it, but it actually worked out pretty well.” He gives Bucky a quick, considering look from beneath long golden eyelashes. “You want to try it?” 

Jesus, Bucky thinks, this kid is like the goddamn sun. It almost hurts to see, pulls at an ache that’s been festering in Bucky’s heart for months - Teddy is good in every way possible, kind and careful, considerate, each of his breaths an exhale of compassion. Steve had been the same way once, back when the world was theirs and then no one’s and then everyone’s -

“Sure,” Bucky says, snapping himself out of the memories. “I’ll try it.” 

Teddy beams at him. “Go on, then.” 

Bucky circles the bag, bends down, uncaps the marker. He braces the pen against the fabric, hesitating for a split second, then presses down; words appear in bold strokes beneath his fingertips. 

Тоска, he writes, and then: Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One. Freight car.

Each word burns in his vision, blurred into something beyond recognition. He finishes the last word, the pen strokes powerless, and then adds something that he’s been shoving down, something that’s been simmering beneath the surface of his heart ever since he returned. 

He left me, Bucky writes, and can’t help the bittersweet rush that surges to life within him at the thought. 

“Okay,” he says, low, and lets the marker drop. “I’m done.” 

“Hit the bag,” Teddy instructs, smiling, the picture of ease. He’s leaning against the wall now, watching Bucky in a way that feels friendly rather than wary. 

Bucky steps up and clenches his fists, curled into anger for the first time in months. He lets the rage flood him, filling the hollow vessel of his chest, all the things he doesn’t understand and the words he didn’t say and the truths he didn’t tell tangled into a jagged kind of heat that spreads dark beneath his skin. Images fill his mind, crowding forth through the haze of red: Zola sneering down at him, Steve turning and walking away, John Walker raising the shield, Sam getting shot out of the sky - 

Bucky grits his teeth and thrusts forward with both hands, more a push than a punch. The bag snaps from its chain and flies across the room, hitting the wall and bursting on impact. His left hand feels nothing; his right hand splits open, blood dripping down the knuckles - none of it innocent, all of it his. 

A hushed silence falls over the gym. Bucky looks up, realizing what he’s done. Teddy’s eyes are fixed on him, wide with surprise. 

“Shit,” Bucky mutters. “Shit, shit - sorry, I didn’t mean to - ”

“No, it’s fine,” Teddy says, starting to laugh. “Wow. Forget the bag, Bucky. The only question is, did it help?” 

Bucky shakes his arms out, settles into himself. He reaches for the anger only to find that it’s dulled and muted, smoothed into something gentler. 

“Yeah,” he says. “It did. Thanks.” 

“No problem,” Teddy says cheerfully. “But can I ask you to hold back a little in the future? We can’t afford to replace many more bags.” 

“Deal,” Bucky says, and when he smiles back at Teddy, the movement almost feels natural.

--

“How was it,” Sam asks him later that night, the two of them sprawled on the couch and ten episodes deep in a Love Island marathon that Sam had insisted on recording. Bucky still doesn’t understand the appeal of this show, but he’s gotten tired of Sam’s death glares whenever he tries to change the channel. 

“Good,” Bucky answers. After the punching bag incident, Teddy had him straightening treadmills and walking the room, making small talk with some of the patrons. He hadn’t known how to help them with any of the technical stuff, but the simple act of encouragement had felt like enough. “Real good, actually. It felt like - I don’t know, like I was doing something good. Like for once, I was doing something right.” 

“Kate told me about what they do there,” Sam says, and his eyes flick to Bucky’s, pride barely concealed behind the rich brown of his irises. “I’m glad you’re there, Buck. Glad it means something to you.” 

Bucky lifts one shoulder, lets it drop. This is uncharted territory for them, a shift from the shallow - they don’t often slide from levity to gravity, but when they do, it always feels to Bucky like he’s pushing himself into freefall. 

“Me too,” he says now. “It’s cool, you know? We didn’t exactly have things like this in the forties.” 

Sam snorts. “Shocker.” 

“It’s a lot,” Bucky says, “knowing that there’s places like this now, places where - ” He stops, 

“Where you can be safe?” Sam asks, finishing his sentence for him. 

Bucky pauses to collect his thoughts. Sam is pushed back against the couch cushions, his head resting on a faded red pillow, his body angled towards Bucky. The space between them isn’t as wide as it used to be. 

“Yeah,” Bucky says at last, “places where you can be safe,” and presses his leg against Sam’s; Sam smiles at him, and there it is, that unspoken truth - for every time that Bucky falls, Sam is there to catch him. 

Bucky wants to thank him somehow, but there’s no way to do it without sounding foolish, so he just turns back to the TV and adds one more item to his mental list: Things I can’t quite talk about yet. 

--

Dr Raynor calls him a week later; Bucky picks up with Sweet Potato on his lap, hoping that the sight of him will distract her from asking too many therapist questions. It doesn’t work, though, because Dr Raynor only spares Sweet Potato about fifteen seconds of consideration before starting in on the session. 

“Did they like, teach you not to care about dogs in therapy school?” Bucky asks, mildly offended on Sweet Potato’s behalf. “Man, you guys are fucked up.” 

“You’re deflecting, James,” Dr Raynor says, her voice laced with a false patience that grates at Bucky’s nerves. 

“No I’m not,” he says, even though he kind of is. “I just thought maybe you’d appreciate meeting my dog - you know, as a break from your agonizing existence as a highly trained professional bullshit spouter.” 

Dr Raynor gives him an unimpressed look. “Sarcasm again? It doesn’t suit you. In fact, it’s another classic deflection technique.” 

Sweet Potato raises his head from Bucky’s leg and utters a short, sharp bark in the direction of the screen. Bucky recognizes it as his I don’t like you bark and rubs his ears gratefully; at least someone here has his back.

“I’m not deflecting,” he mumbles. 

“Then answer my question,” Dr Raynor says. “Have your nightmares improved? I assumed that they have, since you’ve seemed better rested at most of our more recent sessions.” 

“What - that’s weird, doc. Don’t judge my state of wellbeing by this shitty webcam, it doesn’t do me justice.” 

“Answer the question,” Dr Raynor repeats, sticking to her guns like she always does, the determination just as unwelcome as it has been the last fifty times she’s asked about Bucky’s nightmares. Bucky itches to hang up on her. 

“Fine,” Bucky says. “Yes, the nightmares have improved. Pretty much stopped, actually. I’m not sure why.” 

It’s unsettling, is what he doesn’t add; he’s slept through the last few nights entirely, slept in his bed instead of the floor and woken up with a mind full of peace and no screams choking in his throat. He’s happy to be rid of the nightmares, happy to be rid of the blood and the terror and the memories, but there’s a small part of him that feels almost guilty about not having them anymore. Somewhere, on some level, it feels like an unpaid debt. 

“Very good,” Dr Raynor says, giving him a self-satisfied smile. “And you’ve connected with your neighbor, Kate - and you've gotten a job. I must say, James, this is better than I hoped for you. Within this timespan, anyways.” 

“Thanks,” Bucky drawls. “Your encouragement means the world to me.” 

“What did I tell you about sarcasm?” 

“Yeah, yeah, deflection. Got it.” Bucky twists his fingers into the soft fur of Sweet Potato’s neck. “If I’m doing so much better, can I stop seeing you then?” 

Dr Raynor looks at him thoughtfully, eyes narrowed, pen held at the ready. Bucky is bracing himself for the worst when she finally speaks again. 

“Yes,” she says. “At least, for now.” 

Bucky stares. “Really?” 

“For now,” Dr Raynor repeats. “Think of this as a trial period. I’ll give you a six week break from therapy sessions. We’ll have another session at the end of the month, and if you manage to convince me that you've improved enough to get by without regular therapy, then I’ll contact the court and have them release you from the mandate.” 

“Thank god,” Bucky says, then reconsiders. “I mean, thanks, doc. You won’t regret this.” 

“I’m sure I won’t,” Dr Raynor says dryly. “I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise, but you’re not exactly a model patient.” She taps her pen against the screen. “But you’ll only be able to get out of therapy if you’re actually doing well enough to do so. If you aren’t truly ready, then I won’t get that court mandate repealed.” 

“How would you tell if I was ready anyway,” Bucky says, a little bit sulkily. “For all you know, I could be lying.” 

Dr Raynor laughs at that. “I’m worried about a lot of things,” she replies, “but not that. You, James, are one of the worst liars I’ve ever seen.” And with that, she hangs up before Bucky has the chance to do it first. 

Bucky scowls and shuts his laptop, tossing it to the far end of the couch. In his lap, Sweet Potato shifts slightly. 

“This can work,” Bucky says out loud, the words falling soft against the silence of the apartment. “I can make this work. Can’t I?” 

Sweet Potato yawns and moves his head onto Bucky’s other leg. Bucky scratches gently at the dog’s ears, the weight inside his chest lightening a little bit. 

--

Bucky goes to work early the next day, helping Teddy open the place. He sets up shop with ease, and as he switches on treadmills and stacks towels perfectly, he feels a small glow of pride. It’s not hard work, but it still feels good; these days, there’s a kind of satisfaction that comes with the mastery of a new skill. It’s nice to know that he can still be good at something that doesn’t end in blood. 

Customers start coming in while Bucky’s setting up the mats by the sparring ring, and he pauses for a moment to watch as they head for the dumbbell racks and weight machines. He’s getting to know some of the regulars pretty well, and they’ve always got a second to greet him. 

Today it’s Matt from Hell’s Kitchen, who somehow has the patience to take the subway all the way down to Brooklyn three times a week. Matt waves from his perch atop the stationary bike, his cane resting against the wall next to him; Bucky waves back, smiles at him. 

“Hey, Matt,” Teddy calls out from behind the counter, because he makes it a point to say hello to everyone who walks through the gym’s doors. Sometimes he even buys coffees for a few of the longtime regulars, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. “How’s your studying going? Law school right?”

“Hey yourself, Teddy,” Matt answers, grinning. “Yeah, it’s good. Can’t complain. Still do, though.” 

Bucky laughs quietly at that, then goes back to unfolding mats. He’s almost worked his way through the stack when he senses someone standing behind him. 

“Hey,” Bucky says, turning around, “how can I help you,” and then he stops short. 

The kid in front of him is almost a dead ringer for Steve - the Steve that Bucky used to know, before the shield and the serum and the war. He’s about five foot three and skinnier than a shadow, and his hair is a windblown mess of sandy blonde waves, but there’s a look in his pale blue eyes that Bucky recognizes all too well: a burning sort of determination, the kind that spits in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Bucky’s head spins, timelines shifting and blending. Suddenly it’s 1940 again and he’s standing in the back of a Brooklyn alley, trying to pull Steve away from a fight with five guys from the local street gang; Buck, no, I can take them all one handed -

“What,” the kid says defensively, and Bucky realizes that he’s staring. 

“Nothing,” Bucky says, shaking his head. “No, it’s all good. Uh, what can I help you with?” 

The kid points to the sparring ring. “Fighting. Show me how to put someone down.” 

Bucky’s eyebrows rise automatically. “Whoa there, kid. Let’s save putting people down for like, professional wrestlers.”  

“No, I - ” The kid gives his head a quick shake, pushes an impatient hand through his hair. “Self defense. I need to know how to protect myself. These guys at school keep pushing me around, but I’m gonna learn to fight back, and once I do they’re never gonna bother me again. And don’t call me kid.” 

Bucky looks at him more closely; now that the kid’s under the light, Bucky can see the faint purple spread of a bruise on his left cheek. He sees the way the boy is standing - one foot forward, his body a line of tension, his fingers one curl away from being fists - and can tell that whatever he’s been through, he’s downplaying it. Bucky’s jaw clenches slightly, something in him reaching out in sympathy. 

“Why are they pushing you around?” Bucky asks, curious despite himself, wondering if it’s the same reason they used to go after Steve. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the decades: the little guys either get bigger, or get eaten alive. Always have, always will. 

“Cause I like guys,” the kid says, defiant, and Bucky figures that it’s only the super hearing that lets him catch the barely-there line of fear wavering in the undercurrent of the words. “That a problem?” 

Bucky smiles a little, can’t stop himself. This kid is brasher than Steve ever was, his edges sharper and his eyes keener, but he’s still the same type: a boldfaced idiot who doesn’t know his own size. Bucky sees all of Steve in him, can’t help himself. 

“Not at all,” Bucky says. “I do too, you know.” 

The kid relaxes a little for the first time, eyes widening slightly. “You got a boyfriend?” 

“I have a husband,” Bucky says, smiles again at the thought. He wonders where Sam is right now, what he’s doing - pushing papers in his VA office, maybe. Talking to a group, listening as someone else speaks. 

“Oh,” the kid says, looking a little put out. “You’re married? You don’t look that old.” 

Bucky lets out a bark of laughter. “Kid, you have no idea.” He gestures to the ring. “Step in here and I’ll show you a few self defense things, alright?” 

The kid nods quickly. “Alright.” 

Bucky reaches out a hand to help the kid over the rope ring, but the kid slaps it away like a reflex. Bucky’s got to give it to him - he’s one tough little punk. 

“What’s your name, by the way?” Bucky asks, once they’re standing in the center of the ring. 

The kid shakes back his hair, suddenly defiant again. “Ulysses,” he says, his face daring Bucky to laugh, “but you can call me Grant. My parents really liked that one old president.” 

Bucky’s not thinking about the president, though; he’s thinking about another Grant, a middle name instead of a last name, another scrappy little blond boy in a Brooklyn backstreet. He smiles, remembering Steve as he used to be: not old or strong, not leaving him behind. Just Steve, the Steve that Bucky knew before the rest of the world ever did. 

“Okay, Grant,” Bucky says, soft with the memory. “I think we’ll get along great.” 

--

Sam shows up later that morning, sliding through the front door in a way that doesn’t trip the ring of the bell. Bucky doesn’t even notice him until he’s standing right there at the front desk. 

“Sam,” Bucky says, pleased but confused. “What’re you doing here?” 

“We finished up early at the VA,” Sam says on a shrug. “Figured I should come see the place for myself, let you introduce me to some of the people.” His expression turns teasing. “If you’ve made any friends, that is. And that’s a big if. .” 

“Fuck you, I can make friends.” 

“Oh, really? That why you got a grand total of ten contacts in your phone?” 

Bucky huffs. “That’s a choice, Sam.” 

“If you say so,” Sam smirks. “So what have you been doing today?” 

“Personal training, kind of,” Bucky says. “This kid wanted me to teach him some fighting stuff. Self defense, all that.” 

Sam eyes him carefully, a flicker of concern crossing his face. “And you were good with that?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, offhand. 

“No bullshit, Buck.” 

“It was fine,” Bucky says, half touched and half exasperated. “It was good, you know? Just self defense. It wasn’t like...” He breaks off, but he can tell that Sam hears the rest of it anyway - it wasn’t like the winters in Russia or the bar in Madripoor or that empty street in 1991. It wasn’t violence.

“Okay,” Sam says, his expression clearing now. “Good. Where’d you put the kid?” 

Bucky waves towards the left side of the room, where he’d set Grant up with some weights after their training session. The kid sees him and flips him off in return. 

“Charming,” Sam deadpans. “You must be great with kids.” 

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Look, if you just came here to bust my chops, you could’ve saved yourself a trip and waited till I came home.” 

“Lucky for you, I didn’t come just for that.” Sam picks up a tray that Bucky hadn’t noticed before, one of those cardboard coffee carriers, and holds out a paper cup. “Brought you a latte.” 

“Thanks,” Bucky says, surprised. He takes the cup from Sam, their fingers brushing and lingering; Sam catches his eye, halfway to speaking, and then falls silent. The moment stretches wider between them, holding its breath - Bucky can’t find his words, almost can’t find his breaths either -

“Fraternize on your own time, Barnes,” yells the girl behind the counter - Nico, Karolina’s mean gothy girlfriend. Bucky snatches his hand away from Sam’s, his face burning hot. 

“You should probably go,” he says. “Nico’s pretty ruthless. Her girlfriend is so much nicer than her.” 

“Heard that,” Nico says, but she’s smirking. 

“No problem,” Sam says. “I should get going anyway. See you back home.” 

Bucky watches him leave, taking a sip of the latte: vanilla chai, one espresso shot, just the way he likes it. Sam looks back over his shoulder and smiles easily before walking out onto the street; when he steps over the threshold, the sun catching him perfectly, he looks like the brightest thing in the city.

--

Sharon calls Bucky that weekend, tells him that she’s got something for him to see but it has to be in person. Bucky tries to argue, but there’s no moving her once she’s got her mind set on something. 

“Think of the plane fare,” Bucky argues. “Does it look like I’m made of money?” 

“Trust me,” Sharon replies, “that won’t be an issue for long. Get down here by Sunday.” 

So Bucky goes to DC, leaving Sam behind to take care of Sweet Potato. The airport is too loud without Sam’s voice to drown it out, and the window seat is too much for Bucky; he’s supposed to be in the middle seat with Sam next to him, blocking out the brightest edges of the sun. He keeps the shade halfway down for the entire flight and tries not to think about it. 

He gets to Sharon’s apartment tired and dirty and stale from the recycled air on the plane, already tired from whatever she’s got up her sleeve. This time, he knocks instead of just going in. 

“Hey,” Sharon says when she lets him in, “you look like shit. The flight’s only an hour long, how could you possibly be jet lagged?” 

Bucky doesn't answer, just sits at her kitchen table and puts his feet on the rungs of the chair next to him. Last time he’d been here, Sam had too; it feels strange not to have him along this time, and Bucky wonders when exactly Sam became so important to him. 

“So,” Bucky says, “what’d you find? What did I have to fly down for?” 

Sharon opens a sleek black laptop, pushes it across the table towards him. There’s a scrolling matrix of code flashing on the screen, red and black letters and numerals swirling together to form an ever-shifting skull and tentacles. Bucky instantly recognizes the code as a Hydra algorithm; he pushes the laptop away again, wary, the Hydra logo burning itself on the insides of his eyelids.

“Where’d you get that?” he asks, the words coming out roughly.

“I did some hunting around old Hydra bases while I was...away,” Sharon says. “I finally managed to get through these firewalls. You know what this is?” 

“One of their algorithms,” Bucky says, “not sure what it does, they never gave me that information. Wouldn't want the Asset to be too knowledgeable, would they.” 

“Well, here.” Sharon types something, and the code resolves itself into another screen, a spreadsheet grid filled with numbers. Lots of numbers. 

Bucky frowns, leans closer. Words jump out at him: dollars, yuan, euros, marks. Currency upon currency, all spread out in binary code. 

“Hydra’s secret offshore financial cache,” Sharon says. “The last one, the one that SHIELD and the Avengers never got around to finding. These are just the records. There’s still millions in the accounts behind the last firewall, maybe even billions. There’s a password lock that I disabled, but there’s a biometric scanner too.” 

“And what, you think I can undo it? There’s no way I’m still in the system, if I ever even was to begin with.” 

Sharon shrugs. “Worth a try, right?” 

“I can't believe you made me fly down here for this.” 

Sharon types again. A square appears on the screen, outlined in black and filled with a glowing white thumbprint. “Stop being such a drama queen and put your thumb on the pad, Barnes.” 

Bucky sighs and presses his thumb to the laptop’s trackpad, watches as the lines of his fingerprint fill in red against the original white. A circle appears on screen, slowly surrounding the thumbprint, and then the screen blinks and disappears, fading into a different interface: checkings, savings, deposits, and a string of zeros so long that Bucky has to blink a few times to make sure he’s seeing it correctly. 

Hydra’s bank account, laid out for the taking. 

Sharon raises her eyebrows. “What were you saying about not being in their system?” 

“I don't,” Bucky says, shakes his head. “I didn’t know. What are you gonna do with this?” 

“Me?” Sharon says, turning her gaze on him. “Nothing. It’s yours. I sure as hell don’t need it, remember.” There’s a flicker of something almost like guilt in her eyes, but as soon as Bucky notices, it’s gone again.

Bucky reaches for a cynical comment, but for once it’s not there; he can only stare at the screen, jaw slightly slack. He’s never had much money - not for himself, not for anyone. He can still remember winters in Brooklyn, sitting on the floor with Steve and counting crumpled dollar bills beneath a dim light - we have to save better, Buck, we don’t have much and you know my newspaper job barely pays; he thinks of the discharge envelope he’d expected but never ended up getting, two hundred dollars in a plain envelope. They sent it to Rebecca, probably, after Bucky didn’t come back. He’ll never know for sure. The numbers in this account are more than just figures. They’re debts paid, safety secured, the future itself spread out across the screen; he could do so much with this, so much - 

The flashback hits without warning: a bar and an alley and an arms dealer, money passed below the table, Bucky’s fingers dripping red as he pocketed the envelope. He presses one hand to his head, trying to free himself, and looks at the screen again - blood money, all of it, paid in flesh and pain and human life. 

“I can’t,” Bucky says, “can’t take this. Shouldn’t you be giving this up to the government, anyway? Now that you’re back in the fold?” 

“Like hell I’m giving it to them,” Sharon says, impatient. “Just because I’m back in doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven them. I’d much rather see this go to you. I’ll hand it to you, Barnes, most men I know wouldn’t turn down a windfall like this no matter where it came from.” 

“I’m not most men.” Bucky taps a finger against the trackpad, fights the urge to shatter the screen. “I don’t deserve any of this, I was part of the reason they even had this money in the first place. Shit, Sharon, how much of this do you think came directly from people I killed?” 

Sharon looks at him for a minute. “Okay,” she says. “Wilson’s a counselor. I’m not, so I’m gonna tell you something, no sugarcoating. You’ve done fucked up shit, sure. So has everyone else in the world, and it wasn't even you doing it. So you can take this money from your old organization and do something good with it, or you can give it up and fail to come up with rent next month because you wanted to throw yourself a pity party.”

“Jesus,” Bucky says, but she’s right; it’s cutting, but it’s correct. There’s bills to pay and people to help, and the treadmill that just broke at the gym and needs replacing. He rubs a hand over his face. “Fine. I’ll take it.” 

“Good,” Sharon says. Bucky picks up the laptop, tucks it into his bag, lets Sharon show him out. 

“By the way,” Sharon says, in the doorway. Bucky’s halfway down the hall, but he turns back. “When were you going to tell me you and Wilson got married?” 

“He told you?” 

“My job is intelligence, Barnes,” Sharon says, “and I can read a Facebook status update as well as anyone.” 

Huh, Bucky thinks, Facebook, right. It’s one of those things where he knows it exists but hasn’t bothered to investigate properly. In fact, it’s right at the top of one of his lists - Things that don’t matter in the 21st century - along with typewriters and telegrams. 

Sam using Facebook, though - 

“What’d he post?” Bucky asks, trying not to sound eager.

Sharon gives him a look. “Figure it out,” she says, “you’re still not too old to learn how to use social media.” Then she closes the door in his face. 

Bucky shoulders his bag and makes his way down the stairs, still not quite believing what just happened. The laptop presses against his leg, cold and heavy even through two layers of fabric. 

--

As soon as Bucky walks in the door, Sweet Potato is jumping on him and barking excitedly. Bucky grins, bends down to scoop Sweet Potato up with his left arm; he was only gone for two days, but he missed the dumb dog more than he thought he would’ve. 

“Honey, I’m home,” he calls out, tossing his bag onto the kitchen table. The laptop lands with a dull thud. 

“That joke wasn’t funny the first time,” Sam drawls from the couch, “or the other fifty times you’ve used it.” 

Bucky scoffs. “You know you like it.” 

Sam unfolds himself, stretching into a standing position. “Yeah, man, whatever. What’d Sharon want?” 

Bucky opens the laptop and turns the screen towards him, the bank account details flashing brightly. Sam frowns, uncomprehending. 

“What is that,” he says slowly, “cause it looks like a whole ton of money to me.” 

“Yeah, it is,” Bucky says. “She found Hydra’s offshore accounts somewhere in Madripoor or something, and they had my bio signatures in the system still, so I unlocked it. She gave me the laptop and kicked me out of her apartment.” He shrugs, more offhandedly than he feels. “Is there any coffee left?” 

Sam is still looking at the screen, standing stone-still. His arms are crossed over his chest, taut with tense disbelief. “Bucky, what the fuck,” he says. “This is like - this is like, fucking millions. Fucking billions . You’re rich now.” 

“We’re rich,” Bucky says, the words falling first and doubt chasing after; he catches Sam’s expression at that, wide and startled, and backtracks. “I mean, we’re, you know. Married or whatever, so doesn’t all of our income basically become joint property or something? We never really worried about that stuff back in the old days, we were too busy fighting the Depression. Butter was ten cents a stick back then, right. Goddamn street robbery.” 

Normally Sam would laugh at this, crack a joke about Bucky being old and out of touch, but he doesn’t. He just keeps staring at the numbers like they’re some kind of equation he needs to solve, like he’s going to fail the test if he doesn’t come up with the right answer.  

“Buck,” Sam says, quiet. “Are you saying you’re going to share this with me?” 

“Well, yeah,” Bucky says, “what’s mine is yours,” and it doesn’t come out as sarcastic as he’d planned. It’s all Sam’s, really - Bucky’s life and his money and his heart, it’s all Sam’s, has been for a while. Another entry on the list of things he can’t yet talk about. 

“We could’ve fixed the boat with this.” Sam says. “We could fix homelessness in Manhattan with this. Shit, man, this is more money than some countries have. What were you planning on doing with it? You can’t just give it to me.” He’s upset for some reason, pacing around the kitchen, one hand braced against the back of his head. Bucky watches him walk a hole in the floorboards, footsteps heavier than they used to be. 

“I’m not,” Bucky says. “Come on, Sam, do you really think I’d keep it all? Fuck, I want to use it to help people. I want to do something good.” 

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Okay.” 

Bucky shuts the laptop. Sam sits down next to him. 

“I didn’t think you’d keep it all,” Sam says. “It’s just, I grew up with next to nothing, grew up around people with less than nothing, and there’s so many people in this world who need help. And then there’s people like, I don’t know, fucking Bill Gates, Tony even, who are richer than god when the other ninety-nine percent are starving or homeless or struggling to make ends meet.” 

“Was,” Bucky says quietly, “Tony was richer than god.” 

Sam closes his eyes, pushes a palm against his face. “I know,” he says. “I mean, I remember. Fuck, I’m not trying to talk shit about the dead, and he went out a hero. I’m just saying - ” 

“I know what you’re saying,” Bucky says. “Don’t worry.” 

Sam nods. “Okay.” 

Sweet Potato whines, paws at Sam’s leg. Sam smiles down at him, a quick upwards quirk at the corners of his mouth. 

“At least we’ll be able to buy him a proper bed now,” Sam says. “You know, after months of him being without one because you forgot to pick it up at the pet store that day we got him.” 

“For the last time, I didn’t forget it. I just...didn’t get it.” 

“Keep telling yourself that,” Sam says, reaching over and lightly punching Bucky’s forearm. He’s got the other hand on Sweet Potato’s head, Sweet Potato happily pushing his nose between Sam’s fingers, and Bucky thinks the sight is more valuable to him than the entire Hydra bank account. 

“Fine,” he says, soft, and feels like he’s saying something else. “I will.” 

--

They spend the next week transferring the money out of Hydra’s systems and into their own, spreading it across various accounts and figuring out how to use it. Sam handles the investments, because, as he tells Bucky, “your 1940s ass wouldn’t know good stock if it bit you on the leg.” Bucky buys a new treadmill for the gym, the latest model from a high-end line, and gets an Employee of the Month award from Teddy in return. 

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Nico tells him when she catches him smiling at the cheap metal plaque. “Teddy gives that to everyone eventually. I got mine the same week that I spilled a quart of bleach on the stockroom carpet.” 

“Oh,” Bucky says, slightly deflated, but he still puts the plaque up on the living room wall when he gets home again. When Sam finds it, he laughs until he almost makes himself sick.

Once they’ve got the money in their own accounts, they start giving it away. The NAACP, the Freedom Fund, the Trevor Project, Oxfam, Greenpeace; the donations go on and on, crossing off names on Bucky’s list. Bucky’s long-abandoned inbox fills with emails of thanks. He doesn’t answer any of them, but occasionally he scrolls through them just to remind himself that he’s doing something good. 

He goes grocery shopping with Sam one day and they end up buying three cartloads of food, which they take to the local soup kitchen. It was only supposed to be a dropoff, but once Sam sees how much work there is to be done, he rolls up his sleeves and pitches in without a backwards look. Bucky joins him, surprised at how natural it feels. He serves dozens of people, and none of them seem to recognize him as a person or even a threat; he isn’t the Winter Soldier, isn’t Bucky Barnes even, isn’t anything other than a helping hand. It’s a new feeling, and one that he likes more than he can put into words. 

In between charity donations, Bucky takes one of their new credit cards and goes to the pet shop. When he comes home, Sweet Potato becomes the owner of a luxury featherbed. 

“I can’t believe you bought him that,” Sam says, “that’s like, basically an eight hundred thread count bed.” 

“We didn’t have thread counts in the forties,” Bucky tells him. “We slept on cots that were basically sewed-together potato sacks.”

Sam snickers.  “Alright, enough with the sob story. You’re gonna be breaking out into one of those numbers from Annie next.” 

Bucky doesn’t reply, just rolls his eyes and stretches out across the couch to rest his feet in Sam’s lap, the way he knows Sam hates. Sam doesn’t shove them away immediately, which is unusual; Bucky raises his head slightly from where it’s resting against the arm of the couch to check on what he’s doing. 

“The crossword puzzle again, huh,” Bucky says. “And you say I’m the lame one.” 

“I’m exercising my mind,” Sam says loftily. “You should try it someday.” 

Bucky laughs. “Just seems like such a nerdy thing to do. God, Steve used to be the same way.” 

“Well, yeah,” Sam says, shifts around on the couch. “I picked up the habit from him, actually. Back when we were looking for you.” 

Bucky goes silent. Most days he forgets that Steve chased him across three continents, forgets that Sam went with him - forgets all of it, the streets and the languages and the apartment in Bucharest, baskets of fresh fruit and day-old newspapers. He imagines Sam bent over a map, pins spread red across the surface, Steve looking over his shoulder. He wonders how it felt to chase someone who appeared and disappeared like a curl of smoke on the breeze, leaving fires in his wake.

“What was it like?” he asks quietly. “Looking for me.” 

Did you ever feel like you were getting close. Did you close your hands around me only to feel me slip through your fingers. Did you know how useless your search was. How could you ever expect to find me when I can’t even find myself? 

Sam sets down his pen. “Tiring,” he says. “Exhausting, really. That was two years on the road, living out of suitcases and coming home to hotels. I could tell right away that we weren’t going to find you, but Steve was so damn insistent, and back then I would’ve followed him to the ends of the earth, probably.” 

Me too, Bucky wants to say, doesn’t. A lot has changed over the years, and this is no exception; like the shield, his devotion has changed ownership, no longer flying blind. The scrappy kid from the Brooklyn backstreets is gone, nothing but a flag and a legacy remaining in his place, but Sam Wilson is alive and well and sitting six feet away, and Bucky feels like he can see clearly for the first time in seventy-five years. 

“You were like a myth to me, almost,” Sam continues, eyes somewhere far away: another place, another time. “I always told myself, if I found you, I’d - shit, I don’t know what I’d have done. I didn’t think I ever would find you.” 

“Well, you’ve found me now,” Bucky says. 

Sam glances at him, smiles. “Yeah,” he says. “I have.” 

Sam’s wearing his clothes again, Bucky notices - his favorite grey t-shirt, softened by countless washes. His skin is glowing in the golden morning light, and his left hand is resting against his leg. Against his shin is Sweet Potato, eyes closed, tail wagging slowly. The moment shutters like a photograph, caught in the corners of Bucky’s vision. He looks at Sam’s smile, small and content, and feels something unfurl in his chest: a steady bloom, a slow burn that he can’t name. 

“Oh, oblivious,” Sam says, tapping the crossword puzzle in front of him. “That’s the word I was looking for.” 

Warmth sweeps through Bucky for some reason, painting his face in a rose blush. His feet are still in Sam’s lap. He thinks about moving them, but doesn’t.

--

When Bucky returns from the gym the next day, Sweet Potato is once again nowhere to be found. This doesn’t bother Bucky as much as it used to; whenever he’s not in the apartment Sweet Potato is usually with Lucky, and Kate’s told them all about her dog’s many adventures on the city streets. Lucky is capable of taking care of himself, not to mention several gangsters of dubious European origin, so Bucky’s sure that Sweet Potato is in good company right now. Still, he makes a point of looking around the apartment just in case. 

He checks the living room and the bathroom - nothing - before heading to Sam’s room and sticking his head in to check. Sweet Potato’s not there either, but Bucky gives himself a minute to look around. Sam’s walls are painted a soft gold color, and there’s a set of photographs tucked into the frame of the mirror: Sarah, Cass, AJ. Bucky smiles at the sight, remembering the way that the Wilsons had welcomed him in Louisiana, then continues down the hall to his own room.

The second he opens the door, the smile falls right off his face, because his room looks like a crime scene.

There’s a hole ripped in the side of the mattress and feathers are scattered all over the floor, downy white and scratchy. The blankets are in disarray, draped halfway over the bed and falling onto the floor, holes chewed in random places through the fabric. And underneath the bed, there’s a black nose that’s not quite tucked beneath the sheets. 

“Sweet Potato,” Bucky says disbelievingly, and there’s the muted sound of a tail thumping against cloth. 

Bucky gets down on his knees and pulls the sheets away to reveal Sweet Potato, who’s lying with his head tucked onto his paws and an expression of deep shame. He gives Bucky a pleading look, wagging his tail hopefully. 

“What the hell,” Bucky says. “You couldn’t have done this to Sam’s bed?” 

Sweet Potato whines. Bucky sighs. 

“Come on out from under there,” he says, “come on, I’m not mad. Not that mad, anyway.” 

Sweet Potato crawls out from under the bed and Bucky scoops him up, cradling him like a baby as he walks back down the hall to the living room. They’ve barely sat down on the couch when the apartment door opens and Sam comes in, dropping the shield with a careless motion that Bucky’s never seen from him before. Bucky’s meaning to tell him the story of Sweet Potato and the mattress, but the lighthearted words die on his lips when he gets a look at Sam’s face. 

There’s a bruise around Sam’s right eye, dark red that’s bleeding into purple at the edges. It’s a pretty good shiner, but Bucky’s seen worse; he’s pretty sure he’s given Sam worse himself, back when he was the Winter Soldier. It’s not the bruise that worries Bucky; it’s the look on Sam’s face, brooding and vacant, that sends a spike of worry shooting through Bucky’s chest. He’s never seen Sam like this before. 

Sam sits on the couch next to him, the movement automatic. He picks up the remote, sets it down again without turning on the TV. Bucky steals glances at him out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to upset him. 

“You okay?” he asks finally, and the answer is obvious, but he can’t think of anything else to say. 

“Just fine,” Sam says flatly. He slumps forward, runs a hand through his close-cropped hair, rests his elbows against his knees. Across the room, the shield lies face down, the star on the front obscured. 

Sam doesn’t say anything else, so Bucky settles down to wait; he stares into space, mind relaxing into a lower consciousness. It’s a part of the training that he still hasn’t managed to unlearn: the waiting and watching, the counting of countless seconds. The apartment settles in around him, soft and quiet, and Sam doesn't speak, and Bucky waits. 

“Do you think,” Sam says finally, “do you think that I made a mistake taking the shield?” 

“No,” Bucky answers, a reflex more than a response. 

“I didn’t think so either,” Sam mumbles, “but some days it’s all just so much. I gave it up in the first place because it felt like the right thing to do, and I took it back because that felt right too, but it’s still not easy. You know how hard it is to wear the symbol of a country who doesn’t even want to let you live?” 

“I know I can’t understand it,” Bucky says carefully, “not properly, never properly, but Sam, I’m so sorry. 

“Not your fault,” Sam says, “it’s this whole fucking country, Buck. They hate my people. They hate me, and I’m the one carrying their shield.” He gestures to his eye. “You think the guy who gave me this wants me as his Captain America? Maybe Steve made the wrong choice after all.” 

Bucky shakes his head firmly. “No. Steve didn’t think about the consequences of giving you the shield, that’s a hundred percent true, and everything that’s happening to you as a result of that is wrong. But you being the one to carry that shield? That’s not wrong, Sam. I can’t think of a single guy in the world who deserves it more than you do, even if Steve hadn’t gone back in time.” 

 Sam looks at him, eyes dark and deep. “Really?” 

“Really,” Bucky says, and it’s true; Steve was the golden boy, the martyr and the hero and the marble statue of a god, but Sam is the sun and the sea and the falcon that glides on the summer breeze - winds of change, waves of peace. Steve Rogers was a great man, but Sam Wilson is a good one, and in the end, perhaps that’s what matters more. 

“Thanks,” Sam says, quiet. 

“He should have done more,” Bucky says, “he should have, I don’t know, talked to you about it. Or the world. He shouldn’t have put it all on your shoulders.” He blows out a breath, feels himself let go of the last thread he’s been holding onto. “Steve didn’t always make the right decisions. I know that now.” 

“Of course he didn’t,” Sam says. “After all, he left you behind.”

Bucky bites his lip, hard. “Left both of us,” he points out. 

“Yeah,” Sam says, “and look where we are now.” 

It’s a rhetorical command, but Bucky obeys anyway; he looks and looks, and all he sees is Sam. There’s some meaning to that, probably. Bucky doesn’t dwell on it. 

“I mean it,” he says instead. “You really are the best choice to carry the shield. I wouldn’t want to see it in anyone else’s hands.” 

Sam nods, smiles. Sweet Potato drags the shield over to them, tail wagging, and Sam takes it from him without hesitation. 

--

“By the way,” Sam says when they’re making dinner that night, “what the hell happened to your bed? I saw that shit on my way to the bathroom. Man, it looks like a pigeon massacre took place in there.” 

“Sweet Potato,” Bucky says ruefully. “No clue what got into him, but he tore up my mattress and all my blankets. Demon dog. Why didn’t he go for your bed?” 

“Cause I’m his favorite,” Sam says, smug. “Good boy, Pie.” 

Sweet Potato gives them a doggish grin, eyeing the chicken that Sam is cutting up. Bucky scowls. 

“That name is so stupid,” he mutters. “Still can’t believe he answers to it.” 

“I repeat. I’m his favorite.” Sam tosses a chunk of chicken to Sweet Potato. “But if your bed and blankets are fucked, then where are you gonna sleep?” 

“Couch, probably,” Bucky says, although just the thought of it makes his back ache with phantom pain. There’s a broken slat underneath it somewhere, and it’s started to sag alarmingly in the middle. 

“Nah, that thing is about two seconds from falling apart. You can share with me.” 

Bucky freezes. “You want me to share your bed?” 

“Yeah, there’s plenty of room. Don’t be weird about it.” Sam slices a pepper in half, apparently unaware of the fire he’s just lit - it’s a match dropped on gasoline, flames rising high. Bucky swallows through the smoke. 

“You want to share a bed,” he says again, strangled. 

“What’s the problem,” Sam says, “don’t you want to sleep with your husband?” He arches an eyebrow, mouth curled in a smirk, and Bucky just about combusts. 

“Fine,” he says, pretty sure that it’s not fine. “Better than breaking my back on the couch, I guess.” 

--

It’s not better than the couch, Bucky thinks later that night; it’s worse by a mile. He’s lying on his back in Sam’s bed, surrounded by the smell of sage and sandalwood and cotton sheets. Sam is only inches away from him, and it makes Bucky’s head spin. 

They’ve shared a bed before, but not like this - not with Bucky aware of each breath Sam takes, not with Sam’s leg brushing against Bucky’s, not with the sheets rustling every time either one of them moves. Bucky lies perfectly still, not daring to do anything else. There’s a strange kind of exhilaration rushing through him, an unmoored, terrifying excitement. 

“Loosen up, will you,” Sam says, his voice already thick with tiredness. “You’re lying like a goddamn mummy, it’s making the bed feel weird.” 

Bucky exhales, forces himself to relax. The mattress gives beneath him, gathering him in. “Happy?” 

“Better. We’ll work on it.” 

Bucky waits for Sam to elaborate on that, but it doesn't happen; Sam’s breaths slow down, evening out into a steady rhythm. He’s asleep, Bucky realizes. 

Bucky turns towards him slightly, watching. Sam’s mouth is barely open, his head halfway off the pillow. His hands twist in the sheets, holding them close against himself. The dim light that filters through the window casts him in an orange-tinted glow. He looks, just for a moment, like a resting hawk. Like a fallen angel. 

Weird, Bucky thinks. Go to sleep. 

He rolls over, away from Sam, and falls asleep with his back facing the wall. 

--

When he wakes up, the sunlight streaming through the window is a pale gold color. Bucky opens his eyes and watches dreamily, watches the way the light brushes Sam’s bare shoulders like a caress. Sam’s got one arm under his pillow; he’s turned in Bucky’s direction, eyes still closed. His skin is like pure amber in this light, and his face is soft with sleep, and Bucky would be happy to wake up like this every morning. 

Oh, Bucky thinks, and then: Oh no. 

He slides out from under the blankets carefully and then sits on the edge of the bed, braces his arms against his thighs, rests his head in his hands. He glances over at Sam, then away, then back again. 

Sam shifts, the sun falling into his face, and his eyes close tighter at the glare. “Buck?” he mumbles, still half asleep. 

Here, Bucky should say; here, I’m here. 

He doesn’t. He slips out of the room and pads down the hall to the kitchen, starts a pot of coffee. Sweet Potato comes over to him and lies down on his feet, ears perked at the sound of the coffee machine. 

Bucky watches the coffee begin to brew, but he’s still seeing Sam. He presses a hand to his face. 

It’s nothing. It’s not - he can’t. It’s nothing. 

Sam wanders in about ten minutes later, his shirt creased and his eyelids still heavy. “You got up before me?” he says, his voice a little hoarse. “Am I still dreaming?”

“Asshole,” Bucky says, automatic. He carefully charts Sam’s movements - a yawn, a stretch, the easy curve of his body as he sits in the chair by the window - and feels it all beating in his chest. No, no, no. 

He passes Sam a mug and sits on the windowsill next to him, and for a moment the two of them share the early morning silence. It’s not quite seven yet, early enough that the city is still talking in whispers instead of shouts. 

“That was nice,” Sam says after a pause, “last night.” 

Bucky’s heart speeds up, and he curses himself. “What?” 

“Like I said before, don’t be weird about it.” Sam takes another sip of coffee. “I’m just saying. It was nice.” 

Does he mean it was nice, Bucky wonders, or does he mean it was nice. He hates himself for hoping - what, exactly? What does Sam mean? What does he even want Sam to mean? 

“I don’t think you’re fully awake yet,” Bucky says, because self-sabotage is one of the things he’s best at and old habits are the hardest ones to break and Sam is too pretty here in the seven o’clock light, sitting in that old paisley armchair like it was built just for him. 

“Maybe not,” Sam says, and laughs a bit. “Gonna take Sweet Potato out for a little run. Wanna come?” 

“No,” Bucky says, and for once, he doesn’t mean it; for once, he wants to say yes, but he doesn’t. He just sits and finishes his coffee as Sam clips the leash on Sweet Potato, tugs on his old grey sneakers, heads for the door. Once he’s gone, Bucky leans back against the cool glass of the window and closes his eyes. 

It’s nothing. It’s fine. It’s under control. 

In his hands, the coffee mug has gone cold. 

--

Something changes between them after that, and it’s not anything really, it’s just that -

It’s just that Bucky can’t stop noticing Sam, can’t stop seeing him. The light has shifted, and the perspective has changed. If Steve were around to draw it, Bucky thinks that the portrait of him and Sam would be done cubist - broken and breaking, all at the same time. 

Bucky just can’t see past Sam anymore, and it makes him feel insane. Sam’s presence turns from comforting background to maddening foreground, the magnet pull of a compass towards north. It’s unsettling in the best and worst way possible, and it makes something inside of Bucky twist into a tangled mess of knotted strands. 

He feels short-tempered and irritable, every part of him snapping: his words, his nerves, his temper. It’s like they’re all the way back at the beginning, the wing and the helicarrier and the missing steering wheel, no, I won’t move my seat up, no. Everytime he looks at Sam, he’s two seconds away from something breaking - and it can’t be his self control, so it has to be his anger. 

He sleeps in his own bed, even though it’s still wrecked. He stops making coffee each morning, even though Sam needs it more than him. They begin arguing more and talking less, blowing smoke at each other and pretending not to hear when the fire alarms go off, fighting for every inch of ground like they’re stuck in trenches of their own design. 

Bucky leaves a towel on the bathroom floor and Sam complains about it for the next twenty minutes; Sam forgets to buy milk while he’s at the store and Bucky spends the duration of breakfast glaring at him over the top of his bowl of dry cereal. Their nerves are fuses, and they’re both holding lit matches - all that’s left to do is see who catches fire first. 

None of their fights should be of any real consequence, but they are anyway. The trash isn’t taken out and it feels like the end of the world, or the TV channel is changed and it switches like a betrayal. It’s like they’re in retrograde, spinning backwards, dragged back into the past. 

“Stop staring at me,” Sam says one morning, scratching his pen irritably against the newspaper. Bucky just stares harder, hating the way Sam’s arms curve so perfectly, hating himself for noticing at all. 

“Your crossword puzzle is lame,” he says, and it’s weak, but it still gets the desired effect - Sam catches his eye and glares at him across the table. Bucky holds his gaze, eyes narrow and focused, pale blue against dark brown; he thinks of the sky and the earth, wonders if they’ve ever been at war. 

Sam doesn’t blink and doesn’t blink and doesn’t blink. The moment carries on, and Bucky is suddenly all too aware of every detail of Sam’s face: the deep brown of his eyes, the slight arch of his eyebrows, the shadow of a beard that’s clinging to the edge of his jaw. Bucky charts the fullness of his mouth, and his breath stutters for a moment. Involuntarily, he blinks. 

“Ha,” Sam says, a smug grin curling his lips. Bucky wants to wipe it right off his face. “You lose.” 

“Whatever,” Bucky shoots back. Weak, again. The curve of Sam’s mouth, the line of his jaw; weak, weak, weak. Sweet Potato whines like he can sense what Bucky’s thinking, and Bucky tosses him half a glazed donut to keep him quiet. 

Sam looks at Bucky, his grin fading, his mouth half open like he’s about to say something else. His expression is softer now, and for a minute Bucky almost thinks everything’s normal again, doesn’t understand how it’s all gone so far from what it used to be. 

Then Sam’s smirk returns, lopsided and horrifyingly attractive, and Bucky remembers. 

“Your day to do laundry,” Sam says, and oh, Bucky hates him. 

“I’m leaving all your clothes behind when I go,” Bucky mumbles, and tries not to listen to Sam’s laugh.

--

Bucky drags two hampers of laundry down to the ground floor washing machines and pushes them in for a cycle, then leans against the dryer to wait. With nothing else better to do, he pulls out his phone and scrolls through it absently. 

There’s not much on there. He’s still only got fifteen or sixteen contacts, about five more than he used to. The recent texts are from Teddy, letting him know the schedule for the next week of work, and Kate, showing him a picture from the archery range: her and America, smiling at the camera, a red and white target visible in the background. Bucky smiles at the image for a moment, then types a response.

[Bucky Barnes] 

tell your girlfriend I said hi .

His phone really doesn’t have much else to do; he’s not on social media, and he’d ended up deleting all his dating apps after seeing one too many of those godforsaken tiger pictures. He opens the app store and flips through absently, and it’s only then that he remembers what Sharon said when he saw her last. 

Sam. Bucky. Marriage. Facebook.

Bucky downloads the Facebook app before he knows what he’s doing, and struggles his way along for five minutes before giving up and calling Kate. 

“Hi,” Kate says, her voice ringing brightly through the phone. “Hey, I don’t think you’ve ever called me before. What’s up?” 

“I need your help,” Bucky says, bracing himself for the inevitable. “How do you work Facebook?” 

Kate, as expected, laughs so loudly that Bucky has to pull the phone away from his ear. He just sighs, settles down to wait it out. 

“My god,” Kate says at last, “you really are a hundred and six. I can’t believe you interrupted my brunch date for this.” 

“You and America go out to brunch every day,” Bucky points out. “I think you can spare a minute. Come on, Kate.” 

Kate pauses, says something indistinct to America. Bucky can hear America laughing now, low and amused. 

“Oh, thanks,” he huffs, pretending to be offended. “Making fun of me with your girlfriend now? Real nice.” 

“Sign up with your email,” Kate says. “Make a profile. Add your information. Use the search bar to search for people. Got it? I’ll come by later to help if you really need it, but I’m going to hang up now so the hash browns don’t get cold.” The line goes dead without another word, and Bucky sighs. 

Following her instructions, he manages to create a profile for himself without too much effort. He doesn't bother putting a photo or personal information; instead, he heads straight for the search bar and types in Sam’s name. 

Sam pops up right away. Bucky clicks onto his page, scrolling down until he finds the post that Sharon was talking about. 

Sam Wilson: Just got married to this loser. He doesn’t know how to use technology, so he’ll never see this, but here’s to a lifetime of him staring at me like a weirdo. 

There’s a few replies, too; one from Sarah, one from Torres - since when did the kid befriend Sam on Facebook? - and a couple others from unfamiliar people, but Bucky barely registers them. He’s too busy looking at the picture attached to Sam’s status update. 

It’s a picture of him in the café down the street from their Paris hotel, all sun and softness and steam rising from their lattes. Bucky’s looking slightly off to the left, in the direction of the street, and there’s a genuine smile on his face. In the corner of the frame is Sam, his reflection half-caught in the edge of a gilt mirror that’s hanging on the opposite wall. 

Bucky stares down at the photo, an unaccountable feeling simmering inside of him. He didn't know this picture existed, hadn’t even noticed Sam taking it at the time. For some reason, a split second of insanity, he imagines carrying it in his wallet. 

Christ, he thinks, what’s happening to me?

The washing machine chimes, signaling that it’s ready to be taken out, but Bucky stands alone by the detergent station for another fifteen minutes before finally unloading the clothes and pushing them into the dryer.

--

Things with Sam go from bad to worse. As the days go by, they’re at each other’s throats so often that even walking into the same room as Sam is enough for Bucky’s face to flush with heat, enough for him to want to push Sam up against the wall and do something about this. He can’t stop thinking about that photo, the café and the sunlight and the camera, the memory folded into living color. Every time it crosses his mind, he feels like he’s going to explode out of his skin. 

The arguments continue. The fights keep starting, or maybe they just don’t stop. Sweet Potato takes to sleeping underneath the kitchen table, like he’s hiding from the conflict, and Bucky can’t help but think of a kid watching his parents’ divorce. 

“It’s okay,” Bucky says one afternoon, crawling under the table with him and scratching his ears gently. “It’ll all work out, buddy.” 

Sweet Potato’s tail wags, clearly convinced that Bucky’s telling the truth, which makes one of them. 

It all comes to a boiling point one late afternoon in August. Heat blankets the city, heavy and oppressive, the air thick with a lingering fatigue. Bucky comes home to find Sam sitting listlessly on the sofa, watching some stupid reality show. Sam’s wearing Bucky’s grey sweatpants and a sleeveless shirt, his eyes vaguely focused on the TV, his legs spread wide. The sight of him in Bucky’s clothes sends a white-hot spike right to Bucky’s chest, burning bright with something bold. 

“Why the fuck are you wearing my clothes,” Bucky snaps, “I just did the laundry two days ago.” 

Sam raises an eyebrow, amused. Smug bastard. Smug, beautiful bastard. “You never had a problem with sharing before.” 

“Well, now I do.” Bucky crosses his arms, glares. 

“Do you want me to take them off?” Sam asks, one hand dipping just below the waistband like he’s going to strip right there in the middle of the living room, still with that infuriating smirk on his face. Bucky’s breath catches in his throat. 

“I want,” he says, “out of this marriage,” and then stops short, the words out there now, no taking them back. 

Sam’s eyes widen for a split second. “Man, what?” 

“I want out,” Bucky says, not sure what he’s saying really - he wanted a change, but not like this. He wants something different, wants things to stay the same, doesn’t know what he wants at all. The heat presses in around him, shortening his breaths, leaving his thoughts cloudy and slow.

“Seriously?” Sam asks, and there’s a flash of something - surprise? relief? - that crosses his face. All this time learning to read him, Bucky thinks, and he’s still a closed book when it matters most. 

“Seriously,” Bucky says, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that’s screaming what are you doing, this isn’t what you want. “I - well, we can both afford rent now, and isn’t that the main reason we even started this whole thing? Either one of us alone could pay for this place. The arrangement is no longer necessary, right.” His tongue trips over arrangement, reaches for marriage. He pulls it back. 

Sam’s face shutters, blinds drawn. “Yeah,” he says, flat, “yeah, that’s true. You’re right.” 

Bucky doesn’t feel like he’s right; the victory is hollow, useless. He can’t show that, though, so he just shrugs.

“And hey,” Sam says. He’s smiling, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. It’s smaller, dimmer, a shadow of the brightness that Bucky’s used to. “I told you I wouldn’t back out of this marriage first, and sure enough, you’re the one dipping. I win, huh.” 

“Whatever,” Bucky says, “not like the winner gets anything from it anyway,” and tries not to think: we’re both losing, we just don’t know it yet. 

--

In the end, the divorce is settled with surprising ease. They don’t want to go into court, and both of them know it, so they write up a list of terms that they can both agree on - the first thing that they’ve agreed on in weeks, Bucky thinks wryly - and go down to the local courthouse to file the divorce papers without trial. 

Sam leaves Bucky with the apartment, but they reluctantly compromise on joint custody of Sweet Potato: they’ll take care of him for alternating two-week periods for the indefinite future, unless one of them decides to give up their rights to him altogether. 

“I’m taking the first two weeks,” Sam says, snatching the paper away from Bucky. “You get the apartment, this is the least you can do.” 

“Jerk,” Bucky says, but he knows that Sam’s right. It doesn't stop him from trying to box Sam out so that he doesn’t get first pick from the basket of pens next to the stack of paperwork. The receptionist watches their scuffle from behind the counter, looking partly amused and partly concerned. 

“God, no wonder I wanted a divorce,” Bucky says when Sam ends up with the blue fountain pen that he’d had his eye on. 

Sam just smirks and tosses a plain ballpoint at him. “Shut up and sign,” he says, and there’s that slight catch in his voice again, but it’s gone before Bucky can parse it.

Bucky uncaps the pen with a deft movement, but doesn’t sign right away. He looks over at Sam for a moment, wondering how they even ended up here; he thinks of the starting point, hopes this isn’t truly the ending point. The first time they met, Bucky wasn’t himself and Sam was just a secondhand casualty; seven years later, summer is over and he’s James Buchanan Barnes, signing away his marriage with Sam Wilson. The steering wheel he stole feels like a distant memory. 

“Buck, come on,” Sam says, “enough with the staring, you’re creeping out the desk lady,” and Bucky realizes that he’s gotten lost in the memories. He shakes his head, pushes his pen against the contract, and signs on the dotted line. 

“Congratulations,” says the woman behind the counter, sounding genuinely excited about it. “You’re officially divorced.” 

Sam nods, still smiling that smile - the one that falls just short of sincerity, darkened in his eyes. Bucky hates it, and hates that he doesn’t know what Sam’s thinking anymore. Sam’s eyelids dip, heavy with tiredness. How long have they been sleeping through this? 

“Hey,” Bucky says, taking his phone out of his pocket. “Come here.” 

Sam eyes him suspiciously. “What are you doing?” 

“Nothing,” Bucky says, “just, just come here.” He grabs Sam’s arm and pulls him closer, pressing their bodies together - maybe the last time they’ll be this close - and then raises his phone. 

“Barnes,” Sam says, and the return to Bucky’s surname hits like a hammer blow; they’re back to distance, back to formality, and Bucky wanted this, so he doesn’t know why it aches all the same. “Are you taking a goddamn selfie?” 

Bucky angles his phone, frames the shot. “No.”

“I swear to god - ” 

“Just smile, you stubborn bastard,” Bucky says, “we got divorced, for christ’s sake, come on, we gotta mark the occasion somehow.” He holds up a peace sign, and Sam grins despite himself. It’s his real smile; Bucky can’t see past it. 

“You idiot,” Sam says, softer than it should be, still smiling. Right at that moment, Bucky snaps the picture. 

When he looks at the photo later, sitting alone in the apartment, the TV up too loud and the couch too big for just one person, it doesn’t look like they’ve just gotten divorced; it looks more like they’ve just fallen together, soft with each other like they’re halfway to the honeymoon already. It makes Bucky’s chest ache, and he quickly swipes the photo away. 

--

In the days that follow, Bucky’s life changes; it becomes something new and different, uncomfortable, the days wrapping loneliness around him like an ill-fitting coat. The apartment feels empty, the walls hollow and the rooms deserted. The coffee pot is too full for him to drink alone, and he buys takeout instead of cooking for himself. 

It feels, vaguely but definitely, like he’s just been dumped - which is ridiculous, because he and Sam weren’t together. Not really. Not like that. And even if they had been, it would’ve been Bucky who technically dumped Sam, not the other way around. 

Still, Sam’s absence is a splinter in his side that Bucky pokes at more than he’d like to admit. He misses Sam, somehow; misses his jokes and smiles and Air Force Ones in the hallway, misses the way that he used to cook dinner like a professional line chef, even misses his stupid crossword puzzles. He misses Sweet Potato too, with a fierceness that makes his stomach hurt. The apartment isn’t the same without dog hair clinging to the couch or dirty pawprints on the kitchen floor. 

Bucky calls out of work for three days and lounges around the apartment, filled with a restless kind of boredom that beats within him like a second heart. He thinks about calling Sam, doesn’t; thinks about going to visit Kate, doesn’t. There’s really nothing for him to do; he’s alone with himself, and he is quickly finding out that he is terrible company. 

Sam packed up in a hurry, and there are still traces of him throughout the apartment: a pair of his socks under the couch, a bag of the hazelnut grounds that he likes next to the coffee machine, a black shirt of his lying across the back of the chair by the window. Bucky tries to ignore what he’s left, but it’s an exercise in futility; he ends up drinking hazelnut coffee instead of dark roast and wearing Sam’s shirt to sleep. 

It shouldn’t affect him this much, he thinks, but it does, and he hates it. There’s no rational explanation for any of this. Seventy years of losing people who are important to him, and it turns out that he’s still a novice when it comes to dealing with the fallout.

When he’d first taken his arm off, back in Wakanda, the adjustment had been a hard one to make; he’d kept trying to reach for something with his left hand only to remember that it was no longer there. Losing Sam feels the same way. Bucky keeps turning to see Sam’s reaction, keeps making two cups of coffee each morning, keeps expecting to see him sitting at the counter with a pen and the latest edition of the paper. 

Being alone in the apartment feels like the vacation away from Sam that he used to want, the one that he used to dream about. Now that he’s actually got it, everything feels wrong. Bucky’s forgotten every version of himself that doesn’t want Sam Wilson. He feels loose, unmoored, searching for something that he can’t reach. 

I’ll find it, he thinks, but he doesn’t, and this is the truth: he’s found it already and lost it all the same, and everything beyond this is an apartment with empty rooms. 

There’s a realization working its way free from the back of his mind, pushing forward into the light. It’s partly cast in shadow, but Bucky can almost read the name that’s written on the side. 

He brushes it away, back into the dark. He’s not quite there, not yet. 

--

“Alright, enough already.” 

Bucky raises his head from the couch, where he’d fallen asleep last night after wasting five hours watching shitty movies whose endings he’s already forgotten. They were probably happy, he figures. Must be nice. 

 The sun slants into his eyes, blinding; he squints, turns away. “Huh?” 

Kate Bishop stands in the middle of his living room, three Starbucks cups balanced precariously in her hands. She’s wearing black jeans and a stars-and-stripes shirt that clearly belongs to America, and she looks completely unimpressed with Bucky’s current state.

“I said, enough,” she says. “I’m right across from you, remember, and your windows are open like, twenty-four seven. I’ve been seeing you moping around here alone for the last four days, and Teddy says you haven’t been showing up at work. What gives?” 

Bucky groans loudly. “Don’t watch me from your apartment, kid. That’s probably against some kind of law. Violation of privacy, I don’t know.” 

“Your windows are always open,” Kate repeats, and yeah, that’s true; Sam leaves them open no matter what the weather, loves the freshness of the air that breezes through and fills the apartment. In his current state, Bucky hasn’t thought to close them. “It’s not like I’m hardcore spying, more like I’m looking over my shoulder on the way to the fridge. So, about your depression coma?” 

Bucky groans again, shakes his head. Kate sighs and yanks the pillow out from under his head. 

“Not fair,” Bucky mumbles. “Give it back.” 

“No,” Kate says. “You’ve been wallowing for long enough. I’m guessing that you fought with Sam or whatever, but you’ll get over it. That’s not an excuse to stop living. Now come on, I told Teddy that you’d be the second instructor in America’s self defense class today, and it’s starting in half an hour.” 

Bucky looks up at her blearily. Kate stares back, unrelenting. 

“I’m not getting out of this, am I,” Bucky says mournfully. 

“Not really. On the bright side, if you get up right away, I’ll give you the latte that was supposed to be for Teddy.” 

“What flavor?” 

“Peppermint gingerbread.” 

“Jesus,” Bucky says, “keep it. What the fuck is this, Christmas?” He drags a hand across his face; every bone in his body aches from the couch, and he thinks about refusing to go with Kate, but then he thinks about the emptiness of his apartment and a cup of overly sweetened coffee and the welcome lull of a distraction, and forces himself to his feet. “Give me ten minutes.” 

“Five,” Kate says cheerfully, sitting down on the coffee table to wait. 

“Fine,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes, but he wraps an arm around Kate’s shoulders and gives her a quick, awkward kind of side hug before he goes to his room to get changed. He’s grateful for her; even if she is a smartass teenager with way too much purple in her wardrobe, she’s a good kid.

--

America is waiting for them at the gym, dressed in a red and white sleeveless shirt and black athletic shorts. She’s busy winding tape around her hands, but she drops the roll the second that she spots Kate.  

“Hey, princess,” she says with a smirk. 

“You gotta stop calling me that,” Kate says fondly, handing over the other coffee cup and pressing a kiss to America’s cheek. “It’s been two years. It’s getting old.”

“You know you like it,” America replies, wrapping an arm around Kate’s shoulders. Their conversation is quick and light and easy, and it tugs at something deep in Bucky’s chest. He sees himself and Sam in them, hears echoes of their banter beneath the current of America and Kate’s conversation, and it hurts in the best way. 

Bucky clears his throat, feeling vaguely like he’s interrupting something. “Uh, so. The self defense class.” 

“Right, right,” America says. “Thanks for coming. You’re going to be my test dummy today, got it? We’ll go a couple rounds at the end, just for the demo, if you’re cool with that. It’s all friendly, though, we don’t have to go all MMA.” 

Bucky braces for the flare of panic, the creeping discomfort of fear at the idea of fighting again. It doesn’t come. 

“Sounds good,” he says, and tries not to watch the way that Kate leans softly into America like she’s the only thing keeping her tethered to earth. 

A group of people slowly joins them, people drifting over one by one until there’s a small crowd gathered next to the sparring ring. America grins, cracks her knuckles, and downs the rest of her coffee.

“Hey, guys,” she says. “You all here for the self defense course?” 

Nods. Most of the people here are women, Bucky realizes, and suddenly feels out of place. 

“Awesome,” America continues, her voice clear and confident. “Bucky here is gonna be my partner for all the demonstrations. He’s a little elderly and fragile, so I’ll try my best not to break him.” 

There’s a ripple of laughter, and Bucky scowls halfheartedly in America’s direction. Kate nudges him, smirking.  

“You didn’t have to tell her my age,” Bucky sighs. “Jesus, you’d think I look like a walking corpse.” 

“Sorry, bud,” Kate says, not sounding sorry at all. “Full disclosure act. Perks of being a girlfriend. Plus, I couldn’t exactly not mention the hundred year old popsicle living next door,” and well, Bucky can’t quite argue with that. 

“Alright, chico,” America calls to him. “You’re up.” 

Bucky steps into the ring carefully. America waves a hand towards him. 

“Try to grab my arm,” she instructs, “like you’re gonna mug me or something.” 

Bucky tenses slightly. “You sure? I don’t want to hurt you.” 

America snorts. “Don’t sweat it.” 

Bucky reaches for her, slipping into battle mode like a reflex: he feels his muscles tightening, his fists clenching, that faint red glaze tinting his vision. No matter how hard he tries to push it back, it’s always lingering just beyond the edge of denial. He gets one hand on America’s arm, tries to keep his fingers loose around her - 

The next thing he knows, he’s lying flat on his back and America’s got him in a textbook hold, one knee planted in the back of his neck. Bucky groans against the mat, disarmed by the simplicity of it all; seven years ago he was dealing killing blows with the biting efficiency of a Soviet rifle on silencer, and now he’s being neutralized on the dirty floor of a Brooklyn gym like it’s nothing. 

It’s new and unfamiliar, and despite the slight humiliation of it all, it’s freeing. 

“There, you see,” America says, letting him up. “It’s all about using your momentum against the attacker to launch your own attack, turn your defense into offense.” She pats Bucky on the bicep. “You can sit down again for a minute.” 

“Your girlfriend is ruthless,” Bucky says to Kate, slumping down in the seat next to her, and Kate gives him a radiant grin. 

“I know,” she says. “Isn’t she wonderful?” 

Kate’s smile is soft and honest as she looks over at America, open and true and full of wonder, her guard lowered for a moment. Bucky wonders if he used to look at Sam the same way; he can’t remember now.

(He can, and he did, and he still would if he had the chance.) 

“Yeah,” he says, soft. “She is.” 

Kate turns to him now, the sarcastic edge layered back onto her smile. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on with you, or do I have to let America beat it out of you?” 

“This is elder abuse,” Bucky says, and Kate’s laughter makes him feel light enough that he can laugh along with her. 

--

Once America’s done wiping the floor with Bucky in the name of self defense instruction, she and Kate take him out to get lunch. Bucky accepts happily, reaching for anything to delay his return to the empty apartment that’s waiting for him. 

“Okay,” Kate says, pointing her sandwich at Bucky. They’re sitting in the park near the river, sprawled out in the shade beneath a majestic old tree. Kate’s lying with her head resting in America’s lap; Bucky’s leaning back against the trunk of the tree, wondering if it’s even older than he is. 

“Okay what,” he says, taking a bite of his own banh mi. 

“What happened to you and Sam?” Kate presses, staring at him so intently that Bucky instinctually moves to block her view. “There’s no way you’ve been that depressed over anything else.” 

Kate’s eyes search his, the same pale blue as the sky. Bucky reaches absentmindedly for his wedding ring, finds a smooth expanse of skin where it used to be; it’s back at the apartment, on his bedside table. His hand feels bare without it, and he’s tired of hiding his true feelings. 

“We got divorced,” he says, and Kate’s mouth falls open. 

“Shit,” she says. “I’m sorry.” 

Bucky shrugs. “It wasn’t like that. I mean, it was, but it was like...complicated.” 

“Complicated how?” America asks, arching an eyebrow. “I knew a guy on Earth 219 once whose divorce involved three alien lawyers, a ring of fire, and a battle that leveled an entire city. Yours wasn’t like that, I’m assuming, cause New York’s still standing.” 

“No,” Bucky says quickly, not even trying to unpack that sentence. “It was just, like, it was like…” 

Kate thumps him on the arm. “Spit it out before you age another hundred years, will you?”

So Bucky tells them the whole story, starting with Paris and ending with the courthouse, then looping back around and beginning with the steering wheel and the freeway, the wing and the helicarrier all the way to the boat and the picnic and the days alone after he left Louisiana. Kate and America listen without interrupting, and when he’s done talking, they just stare at him with judgemental expressions so scathing that Bucky resolves right then and there to give up staring at people. 

“What,” he says defensively. 

“So let me get this straight,” Kate says slowly. “You met the guy when you were all Winter Soldiered up, ripped out his steering wheel, then kicked him off a helicarrier. Fast forward a few years and you’re on the run together. Fast forward another few years and you’re working together again, you settled all your bullshit and he basically accepted you into his family but then you left and ended up reuniting for an assignment where you pretended to date each other and somehow accidentally got married, and then instead of getting it annulled like rational human beings, you made it a competition and moved in together and only got divorced when shit started getting weird, but it was never real to begin with.” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “that about covers it,” and can’t help thinking about it: years of history with Sam, more than he ever thought he’d have, and still -

And still he wants more. 

Kate takes another bite of sandwich. “Okay, I get it.” 

Bucky blinks. “Really,” he says, because he can’t imagine anyone making sense of this mess. He can’t even make sense of it himself. 

“Yeah,” Kate says. “You’re in love with Sam. Like, for real.” 

Bucky’s head spins like he’s been hit by a knockout punch. “I’m what?” 

“Come on, it’s totally obvious. You married the guy, for shit’s sake.” Kate looks to America for backup. 

“Sorry, chico,” America says, patting him on the shoulder in sympathy. “I’m with her on this, and not just because I’m dating her. She’s right.” 

Bucky can’t keep up with this, can’t process it. A stream of memories flashes through his mind: Sam in the seat in front of him, refusing to move up; Sam at Tony’s funeral, smiling softly over at him; Sam sitting across from him in a helicarrier, staring straight into his eyes and refusing to blink; Sam picking up the shield and making a speech as Bucky watches, prouder than he’s ever been of anyone in his whole life. It’s all Sam, and Bucky’s blown away by it. 

“I’m not,” he says, and it’s not convincing even in his own mind. “I’m not in love with Sam Wilson.” 

“Dude,” Kate says, reaching over to steal the rest of Bucky’s banh mi from his unresisting hand, “you are such a bad liar.” 

“Sam said that to me once,” Bucky says, the memory like a reflex. 

“Oh yeah,” America says with a smirk, “you got it bad,” and Bucky can’t find anything within himself that will deny it anymore. 

“Well, what the hell do I do now?” he says helplessly, staring at his hands. 

“Talk to him,” Kate suggests. “Communicate. You know, like mature adults do.” 

“Like you ever did that,” America teases, tucking a strand of hair behind Kate’s ear. The gesture is so tender that Bucky looks away automatically, feeling like an intruder in this moment.

“Okay,” he says, looking out across the park. The grass is a brilliant green in the sunlight, and he can’t see a single cloud in the clear blue sky. “Alright. I’ll talk to him.” 

--

Bucky walks home alone, taking it slow, giving himself time to think. The crowded sidewalks barely register to him, the chatter of passersby and the rush of traffic just white noise in the back of his mind. He can’t stop thinking about what Kate and America said.  

Shit, he thinks to himself, halfway across the street, I really am in love with him, and it’s such an inevitable revelation that he stops right where he’s standing. The sky is blue and the summer is ending and he’s in love with Sam Wilson, deeply and irretrievably, in a way that he couldn't undo even if he wanted to. 

A car swerves around him, laying on the horn as it passes, the driver flipping him the bird. Bucky just waves in return, feeling a helpless smile breaking over his face. 

He pulls out his phone, sends Sam a text - hey, can we talk - and then finishes crossing the street, heads up the block towards the apartment. He spots the grocery store on the corner, a big display of flowers in the window, and he’s through the doors before he even knows his feet are moving. 

Roses, daffodils, sunflowers; Bucky looks through each bouquet carefully, wondering which ones Sam would like best. He’s pretty sure that Sam would laugh and call him an old-fashioned loser for buying flowers, but he’s also pretty sure that it’s worth it just to hear Sam’s laugh again. 

Bucky finally finds a gorgeous bunch of daffodils and lavender surrounding a single rose, and he picks it up without a second thought. He starts towards the checkout counter, trying to remember if he needs to buy more bananas while he’s here, and then he freezes as he realizes who’s standing next to the fruit stand. 

Mr Nakajima is there, holding a string bag full of oranges, his face an unreadable stone mask as he meets Bucky’s eyes. Bucky flinches despite himself, lowers his gaze. The guilt sets in, quick and fast, burned copper on the back of his tongue. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, quiet. The flowers in his hands suddenly seem too bright, too colorful. Maybe he was a fool to think anything could ever change. “Yori - ” 

Mr Nakajima just looks at him, a long stare full of grief and something like anger, and then shakes his head and turns away deliberately. 

“I do not blame you,” he says over his shoulder. “I do not blame you. But I blame him, and you have his face. You always will.” 

And then he’s gone, leaving Bucky with an aching chest and a handful of flowers wilting in the grasp of his metal fingers. 

--

Bucky stumbles the rest of the way home, lost in a muted fog, the bouquet hanging forgotten by his side. He falls facedown on the couch, tosses the flowers into his coffee mug from earlier. The only thing he can hear is Mr Nakajima’s voice, echoing again and again. 

You have his face. You always will. 

I do, Bucky thinks, and he does; he has his face and his hands and his ribs, and how much of himself has been built on his foundations? You can take the Winter Soldier out of James Barnes, but maybe you can’t take James Barnes out of the Winter Soldier. Maybe he’ll always be there, standing in your shadow - 

And then he stops thinking clearly, you and me and him all tangled up in his thoughts, slipping back in time, disjointed memories shifting through his mind in muted tones of black and grey. He’s on the train and he’s in the train and he’s wrecking the train, 1940 and 1950 and 1970, a span of thirty years, a meaningless jumble of numbers. His hands are covered in blood and he’s got a gun slung over his shoulder: Soviet slug, no rifling. Natasha smiles at him through the haze, teeth bared, lips as red as her hair. готов, солдат, she says. This is the wolf’s den. 

Bucky presses his face into the couch and tries to breathe. Inhale, six counts, exhale, six counts. It’s not working. 

I should be over this, he thinks, I’m fixed, I’m not him anymore, I don’t do this; I don’t kill, don’t fight even, I am my own person and this isn’t what I want at all - 

And it’s the truth, but so is this: his arm is new but his face is the same, and the past is never so far that he can stop running from it. 

His phone buzzes. Bucky stares unseeing at the screen, brightness reduced to nothing. Sam. 

[Sam Wilson]

Sure, let’s talk. What’s a little hangout with your estranged ex husband, huh? Pizza tonight? 

Bucky traces a finger across the keyboard. The wanting is so much that he can barely hold it, but he can’t picture Sam’s face right now; all he sees is Mr Nakajima, disappointment and sorrow and bitterness etched into every line, and he’s not - 

“I am James Buchanan Barnes,” Bucky says softly. “I am no longer the Winter Soldier, and I am trying to make amends.” 

It’s not convincing, and he knows it; there’s too much he hasn’t done, too many amends he still hasn’t made, too many bridges he’s burned beyond the hope of repair. His ledger is full of red and it’s all permanent ink, blood stained on white cloth, indelible and irreparable. He could live the next thousand years and still not do enough to atone for his crimes. 

Sam’s message waits, blinking at Bucky from the screen. Bucky turns his phone off and throws it across the room, then closes his eyes. 

--

The next few days are a blur for Bucky. He wanders through his apartment in a daze, life sliding past his windows and leaving him alone by the wayside. His time slips happen frequently and without warning; he hears a baseball match on his neighbor’s radio and for a second he swears that it’s the Brooklyn Dodgers in the subway series, a man on third and the tying run coming home. 

A bunch of kids set off cheap fireworks in the alley behind the building one night, and Bucky is instantly back in the trenches of Germany, back in the streets of Chicago, hiding from crossfire and throwing explosives like knives. He spends the night lying on the floor in a blanket, trying not to listen to the explosions and hearing all of them anyway. 

He eats, or maybe he doesn't; it’s hard to keep track. Coffee cups stack up by the sink, unwashed and chipped. The empty apartment rings hollow at Bucky’s touch: cold even though it’s still summer, silent even though there’s a city’s worth of noise right outside the windows. He’s never felt so lonely in his life. 

Sam texts and Bucky doesn’t answer, and it’s like they’re right back where they started. He falls asleep with the TV on and forgets to lock the front door half the time, and none of it matters at all. He feels like he’s living inside a fire alarm, just waiting to go up in flames. 

His notebook lies on the table, spread open to a blank page. Every time he tries to write something, his hands shake too much to hold the pen. It’s not Steve’s notebook, not anymore, but Bucky still feels like it doesn’t belong to him. It doesn’t work for him anymore, and maybe it never did.

Berlin, Siberia, Paris; all of it flashes behind his eyelids, drifting in and out of his waking hours, nightmares in broad daylight. Bucky stops using his left arm for anything at all, fumbling through life with nothing but a right hand and a mind full of ghosts that won’t stay buried.

He thinks fleetingly of calling Dr Raynor, and then laughs so bitterly at the thought that he can taste it. There’s nothing she can do; there’s nothing anyone can do. He’s nothing but a wreck, all broken parts and twisted metal, a soldier too human to be useful anymore. His thoughts sink like quicksand, doubling back on themselves, hopelessly knotted: the shield and the arm and the endless winter, Berlin and Bucharest, Sam and Sharon and Steve.

Steve left him and Sam, and Bucky left Sam, so why does it feel like he’s the one being abandoned? He’d been mad at Steve for so long, hating him for leaving like that, but now he thinks he understands; if he could leave right now, if he could get out of his life and his head and his past, he would. 

You’re alone, he thinks on the morning of the fourth day, forehead pressed to the floor, left arm trapped beneath his chest. You were leaving and you were left, and you will always end up alone.

His phone lights up again, bright against the carpet. Bucky ignores it, but it doesn’t ignore him; it’s suddenly Raynor’s office again, dim lights and green-grey walls, you have to nurture relationships.  

Nurture, he thinks numbly; what does that even mean? He’d never been good at taking care of things. Even the houseplant across the room is half-dead from him forgetting to water it, and everything that he’s touched for the last seventy years has ended in death.

Bucky pushes himself harder into the floor, feeling like the weight of the world is suffocating him - there’s a myth about that, a half-remembered story from somewhere in his past, about a man who held up the earth on his shoulders. It crushed him in the end, or maybe it didn’t. He can’t remember either way; all he remembers is that the man was utterly, tragically alone.

Like me, he thinks, eyes half closed, vision blurry; a hundred and six and facedown on the floor like a stubborn child, alone in an empty landscape of his own creation. There’s nowhere for him to go from here, nowhere he wants to go, except - 

(Except to wherever Sam is, but he can’t want that.) 

Bucky falls into a weary stupor, running through his memories of Sam until they’re beaten bloody in his mind. He’s almost asleep when he hears it: a clear, lilting laugh that carries on the breeze like a bird of flight. 

Kate is laughing on the fire escape across from Bucky’s own, and Bucky isn’t alone after all. He has a friend in her; maybe even two, if America’s around still. Sam Wilson is still too complex a tangle of desire for Bucky to unravel, but Kate Bishop is steady and simple and sarcastic, and Bucky can handle that, if nothing else. 

He drags himself to his feet and starts for the door, leaving his phone behind on the carpet. The screen flashes at him again, signaling new messages, but he doesn’t touch it.

--

“You look like shit,” Kate says when she opens the door for him. Then, looking at him more closely: “Wait, you really look like shit. Are you okay?” 

Bucky shakes his head, feeling the shame flush hot beneath his skin. 

“Come in,” Kate says, “and sit down. I’ll get you some tea, America’s got this orange jasmine stuff from Earth 319 that smells amazing. That okay with you?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky manages. “Thanks.” He makes his way to Kate’s couch, grateful for the rapid-fire steadiness of her conversation; it’s routine, and he needs routine right now. 

Kate brings him a cup of tea, and Bucky accepts it carefully, watches as she sits down next to him. She doesn't leave much space between them - just enough for Bucky to be comfortable, but no more than that - and he takes the proximity as the comfort that it is. She, at least, is not scared of him; he wishes that he could say as much for himself. 

The cup is warm against Bucky’s hands. The steam rises around him: orange and jasmine, soft and fragrant and soothing. He allows himself to take a slightly deeper breath. 

“Okay,” Kate says, careful. “I’m not sure what’s going on with you, but I’ve got a lot of experience fixing up old guys who are going down the trainwreck of a human being path. Clint taught me that much.” 

The corner of Bucky’s mouth twitches upwards at that; it’s not a smile, but it’s closer than he’s gotten in days. 

“I will say, though,” Kate continues, “he was more of an ‘alcoholic caffeine dependent womanizer who got beat up too much’ mess than an ‘ex assassin with lingering trauma and a recent divorce hanging over his head’ mess, so this is uncharted territory for me.” 

“Right,” Bucky mumbles. Lucky pads over to him and rests his head in Bucky’s lap, and Bucky feels a pang of sadness that Sweet Potato isn’t here too. 

“Ah, whatever.” Kate waves a hand. “My point is, I’m here if you need anything. And I once had to crawl through a fifth-story window in an evening gown and stiletto heels to rescue Clint’s sorry butt, so when I say anything, I mean anything. Yeah, it’ll be a pain in my ass, but it’s worth it for the people I care about.” 

“You care about me?” 

Kate rolls her eyes and punches him in the arm, then yelps in pain. “Jesus, I’ve got to start remembering to punch your right arm, not your left. And yeah, of course I care about you. You should know that by now, loser.” 

“Oh,” Bucky says, soft, surprised. “Well. Yeah. Thanks.” 

“You could at least say it back,” Kate says, rolling her eyes again. 

Bucky stumbles over his words, feeling like a heel. “No, I mean, of course I do. You’re like a sister to me, Kate.” He reaches for a smile again, falls short but comes closer than before. “A very little sister.” 

Kate swats him on the shoulder. “I was just kidding, dude. But that’s sweet. Stay here if you want, okay? You shouldn’t have to be alone right now.” 

“I was alone for seventy years,” Bucky says, the humor falling flat. “I’m used to it by now.” 

Kate looks at him, serious. “That’s exactly why you shouldn’t have to be.” 

Bucky twists his fingers in the hem of his shirt, fighting back the swell of emotion in his chest at the way Kate says that: you shouldn’t have to be alone, like it’s just that easy, like Bucky isn’t the kind of person to get left behind and deserve it every time. “You really think it’s that simple?” 

“Yeah,” Kate says. “I do. Now come help me find some sheets to make up the couch, alright? America’s gonna make chili tonight. You good with that?” 

“Sure,” Bucky says, and if he’s still in the tunnel, at least he can see a hint of light now. 

--

Bucky stays at Kate’s place for the next week, sleeping on her couch and lost somewhere between the past and the present. Kate stays with him sometimes, or America does, but even when they’re busy they make sure to leave Lucky in the apartment to keep him company. 

America cooks tamales and chili and arroz con pollo, and Kate makes tea and coffee, and their couch is much more comfortable than the one in Bucky’s apartment. Bucky is profoundly grateful to them for putting up with him: he’s taking up space in their living room, sitting at their kitchen counter, drinking their coffee, but they accept it all with good grace. 

As the days go on, the time slips begin to fade. The nightmares come often, but they’re not as harsh as they used to be. Sometimes he doesn’t have them at all; instead he dreams of Sam, his hands and his mouth and his eyes, and wakes up feeling almost calm. 

He hasn’t answered Sam, hasn’t even checked his phone in four days. He’s slowly getting better, slowly pulling himself out of this hell, but there’s still a list of things that he’s not ready to face, and Sam is at the top of that list.

It’s not that he doesn't want Sam - god, Bucky wants him more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life. It’s just that he’s scared of heights and halfway to freefall already, and Sam’s always been there to catch him, but Bucky is terrified of what might happen if he’s not there this time. So he stays where he is, feet planted solidly on the earth, radio silence maintained. 

Maybe he can get by without Sam after all, he figures. He’s happy enough here, even if he knows he can’t stay forever. Kate makes him watch her reality TV shows that Bucky doesn’t really understand, and America cooks him food that’s spicy enough to set his mouth on fire, and if he’s not happy exactly, he’s at least getting close. 

And then he’ll see Kate and America in their softest moments - washing dishes together, pressed into a single chair by the window, teasing each other quietly over coffee and small talk - and he’ll think of Sam before he can stop himself: the banter and the jokes and the softness, their hotel room in Paris and their kitchen in the apartment, the warmth of Sam’s body against his, all of it burning in his chest. Fuck, Bucky misses him so much.

He tells himself it’s fine, that it’ll all work out, that this is already more than he should expect from life and Sam was only ever a dream too good to be true. He knows he’s right, but it still hurts like a bitch. 

But his entire life has been one long suppression of pain, so Bucky pushes his heartache down with the rest of it and makes himself keep walking. 

--

“Why don’t you call him?” America says one night, out of the blue. 

Bucky blinks, looks at her blankly. They’re sitting on the couch setting up for a marathon viewing of America’s Next Top Model . Bucky still doesn’t get why it’s such a good show, but Kate consumes it like a religion, possibly because it’s got the same name as her girlfriend.

“Call who?” Bucky asks. 

“Don’t give me that, chico,” America says, spinning the remote in her hand. “Your boy. Your ex-husband. Sam.” 

“I don’t need to call him. We’re not together anymore. We never really were, you know that.” 

“Yeah, but you wanted to be. And you still do, I can tell.” America raises an eyebrow. “Don’t even try to deny it, Barnes. You’re moping around here like a kicked puppy, and it’s starting to become seriously pathetic.” 

“Kate,” Bucky calls towards the kitchen, “come collect your girlfriend. She’s bullying me.” 

“Collect her yourself,” Kate answers, “there’s still dishes to be done here. I’ll be done in ten.” 

Bucky sighs, presses the back of his head against the couch. He wonders what Sam’s doing, where he is, who he’s with - the VA, a mission to the West Coast, a night in with Sweet Potato. He could be anywhere right now. 

“Hey,” America says, and her voice has lost the teasing edge now. She looks at him carefully, softer than Bucky’s ever seen her look at him before. “Are you okay?” 

Bucky shrugs, wants to say: no. Wants to say: I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay.

“I know you’re going through shit right now,” America says carefully, “and I don’t really know what it is, but you gotta keep going, man. You gotta get out of this yourself, because no one else can do it for you.” 

It’s too much like what Sam said to him: that hot front yard in Louisiana, the shield passing between them like it’s nothing, the press of Sam’s shoulder against his. Bucky closes his eyes against the memory. 

“I know,” he says, “I’m trying, it’s just. It’s hard. And Sam - ” 

“Why don’t you want to talk to him?” America asks. It’s not searching like one of Dr Raynor’s questions; it’s direct and honest, and Bucky doesn’t let himself hide from it. 

“I’m not good enough for him, okay?” he says, and there it is - that’s the truth, and it’s ugly and painful but there’s no going back now. “I’m not even good enough for myself. He’s good and patient and kind and Captain fucking America now, and I’m the mess that’s left of the Winter Soldier. He deserves better than me.” 

America doesn’t say anything for a minute. Shame burns hot and low in Bucky’s stomach, and he grits his teeth against it. 

“Okay, listen,” America says finally. “There’s a whole lot to unpack right there, but first off, let me tell you: that’s bullshit.” 

Bucky begins to protest, the words all caught in his throat, but America holds up a hand. 

“No, let me finish, okay? The whole world is full of people who don’t deserve each other, and I’ve seen too many of them to count, but you and Sam aren’t like that. I’ve seen you guys together, and god, you’re almost as bad as Billy and Teddy. You’re pretty goddamn perfect for each other.” 

Bucky grimaces. He’s seen Billy and Teddy in action; Billy comes to the gym sometimes to see Teddy, and the two of them are so head over heels for each other that just watching them feels like a sugar rush. There’s no way he and Sam were ever that bad. 

“And,” America continues, “you’re a good person, Barnes. Really.” 

She says it the same way Kate does: case closed, game over, this is the truth and it’s everything I’m saying. Bucky wants to believe her so badly it makes his ribs ache. 

“You’ll find your way,” America says. “It might take you a while. It took me almost my whole damn life. But you’ll find it, as long as you’re still looking.” 

Bucky nods slowly, thinking it over. There’s something about the way America’s looking at him, a genuine warmth behind the tough exterior, that makes him think she’s really sincere. 

“Thanks, kid,” he says. “You’re better than my actual therapist, you know that?” 

America shrugs. “Well, sure. Therapy’s a scam anyways.” 

“Kate’s really lucky to have you,” Bucky says, soft.  

“It goes both ways,” America replies, and yeah, it does. Bucky smiles at her, the first real smile he’s had in days. 

“I’m going back to my apartment tonight,” he says. “Thanks.” 

“Thank god,” America replies as Kate comes into the room. “Nothing against you, chico, but having you here is really throwing a wrench in our usual routine.” 

“I dunno,” Bucky says offhandedly, “it didn’t seem to bother you last night.” 

Kate shoots him a look. “Creeper.” 

“For Christ’s sake,” Bucky says. “I do have super hearing, you know. And it’s not like you were being quiet, either.” 

Kate blushes. America just smirks. Bucky settles back into the couch and passes Kate the remote, and as the first episode of America’s Next Top Model begins, his chest fills with warm affection for both of them. For the first time since the Wilsons’ cookout in Louisiana, he feels like he has a family again.

--

The next morning, Bucky wakes up in his own apartment. It’s so early that the sky is still grey with night, but he gets out of bed and makes himself a cup of black coffee before lacing up his shoes and heading out the door. 

It’s not quite six yet, and the streets are as quiet as they ever get in the city. Bucky walks without a destination in mind, past bodegas and bakeries and bagel shops, across parks with grass still wet from morning dew. The air is clean and just barely crisp around him, signaling the end of summer. Bucky inhales deeply; it feels good in his lungs, like renewal.

He eventually winds up by the river, finds a bench by the path that runs along it, sits down. A tree arches over him, and Bucky tips his head back to look up through the leaves: lush summer green, bright against the still-dark sky. 

He sits and watches, waiting as the city begins to wake and the sun begins to rise. The sky lightens, gradually and then all of a sudden, streaks of pink and orange light spreading across the clouds as the entire horizon turns golden. It bathes him in a wash of tangerine light, warm and cleansing and beautiful. 

Bucky looks down at his hands, and in this light, they are his and his alone.

The sun rises higher now, spilling brightness across the city, turning the windows of the buildings a soft shade of rose. The bridge shines copper, a hazy metallic glow of color. Brooklyn spreads out before him, and it’s not the Brooklyn he remembers from the old days: hot and dry and dusty, faded into the indistinct hue of memory. Nor is it the Brooklyn that he’s become accustomed to lately: fast and bright and crowded, busy in the most lonely of ways. This is a new Brooklyn altogether, warm and welcoming and remade in the light of the sunrise. 

Bucky looks at the sun, hovering low in the sky, and a tangle of emotion rises in his throat. He feels like he’s waking from a long sleep, like he’s returning from a long absence. Like he too is being remade, here beneath the sun. The beginning of autumn is unfurling all around him, and he is no longer the thing he fears most. 

You deserve this, he thinks to himself, the thought catching him by surprise; you deserve something good in your life. 

The thought lingers, and for the first time in a long time, Bucky doesn’t push it away. 

He waits until the sun is fully risen and the sky has turned a perfect shade of aquamarine, and then he gets up from the bench. There’s a trash can sitting at the end of the trail, and he takes his notebook from his pocket and drops it in without hesitation. If he’s going to find his path in life, he’s going to do it his own way from now on. 

For one more moment, he stands and looks towards the sun. Then he turns his back on the river and starts back into the city. He’s got an errand to run and a call to make. 

--

Bucky opens the door to his apartment and stops dead on the threshold. Sam is sitting on the couch with Sweet Potato in his lap, perfectly at home, like he never left.

“Hey,” Bucky says, his stomach twisting itself into a nervous knot. He wraps his hands around the bag that he’s carrying, just so that they don’t reach for Sam. 

“Don’t ‘hey’ me like that, Barnes,” Sam says. “You didn’t change the locks, and I’ve still got my key. It’s your turn to have Sweet Potato, remember.” 

Sweet Potato barks at the sound of his name and jumps off Sam’s lap to greet Bucky. Bucky strokes his ears gently, but he can’t keep his eyes off Sam.

Sam’s wearing a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans, and he looks better than Bucky’s ever seen him before. It‘s only been two weeks since they last saw each other, but it may as well have been years; Bucky feels whole lifetimes spanning between them, and he wants all of them together. The wanting is caught right between his teeth, and his hands are useless with desire. 

“So,” Sam says, conversationally, “any reason why my sister called me up and told me to come over to the apartment this morning?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “yeah, there is - ” 

“And are you gonna explain why you disappeared on me? Man, I know we got divorced, but that’s just harsh. I don’t wanna be one of those Law and Order type divorces where they can’t even be in the same room without throwing champagne glasses.” Sam shakes his head. “You said you wanted to talk and then straight up ghosted me. I know that’s kind of your MO, but I thought we were past that point. I was worried, you asshole. The only reason I didn’t bust in here and check on your dumb ass was cause I was on a mission that they sprung on me last minute.” 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says. “Sam. I’m sorry. I was just sorting some shit out.” 

“I mean,” Sam says, “it’s not like you’ve got a great track record on your own, right? You were sleeping on the goddamn floor and living in an apartment that could’ve passed as a cardboard box, you won’t ask for help even when you clearly need it, you don’t let people get close enough to you no matter how much they want you to - ” 

Bucky frowns, a little confused now. “What’re you talking about?” 

Sam’s on his feet now, pacing. “You,” he says, “you married me and then wanted to stay married and then dropped me on my ass - which, alright, fair enough, it wasn’t for real anyway - ” 

Bucky is disarmed, disoriented; his head is spinning with the effort of following Sam’s thread of thought and there’s an unspoken confession on the tip of his tongue, just waiting to be set free. He steps towards Sam, wanting him closer, wanting all of this to make sense.

 “I wasn’t trying to worry you,” he says, and there’s frustration rising in him now, that old desire to ruin things before they’re even started. “Why the hell do you care, anyways? We’re not together anymore.” 

“We never were,” Sam says, “not for real, and that’s the issue, isn’t it?” 

Bucky pauses, his entire world hovering motionless on its axis. “What?” 

“Jesus,” Sam mumbles, “you’re never gonna let me hear the end of this, are you. Yeah, fine. I like you, alright? I like you, Bucky. There it is. You win.” 

Bucky stares at Sam, his heart beating frantically in the hollow of his throat. If this is a dream, he doesn’t want to wake up. 

“You like me?” he asks, hope bleeding dark through the words. 

“Yes, you idiot,” Sam says exasperatedly. “I like you so much that it hurts.” 

“Oh,” Bucky says dumbly, his entire body filling with warmth. It’s the beginning of autumn now, but he’s never felt further from the winter. “Sam. I like you too. You know that, right?” 

Sam’s mouth drops open. “Is this one of your dumb pranks?” 

“No,” Bucky says, loud. “No, Sam, I’m like - god, I’m in love with you.”  

Sam smiles at him now,  and it’s brighter than the sunlight that’s spilling through the windows. “Really,” he says, the corners of his mouth curled upwards. “Good. I’d hate to think it was just me.” 

Bucky smiles back at him, happier than he’s ever been before. He’s only a breath away from Sam now, close enough to touch him. 

“Wait,” Sam says, staring down at Bucky’s hands. “What’s in the giant bag?” 

Bucky sets down the bag and takes out the package inside, handing it to Sam wordlessly. Sam turns it over in his hands, examining it carefully. 

“Buck,” he says finally. “Did you buy me a goddamn steering wheel?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, casual. “I figured I still owed you one.” 

Sam laughs, and it’s the sweetest sound Bucky’s ever heard. “You dumbass,” he says, “you complete and total dumbass,” and then he’s placing a hand at the turn of Bucky’s jaw and leaning in. Bucky holds his breath, feeling his heartbeat everywhere: his throat, his wrists, his chest. 

“You know,” Sam says, low and intimate, “if we’re being honest here, you also owe me a wing and a couple of tires.” 

“Oh my god,” Bucky says, “if you don’t shut the hell up - ” 

Sam kisses him right there in the middle of the sentence, and Bucky’s not getting the last word here, but it’s more than worth it. 

--

“Holy futz,” Kate says when Bucky and Sam show up to the gym holding hands. “You guys are together now? For real?” 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, “for real,” and can feel himself smiling like an idiot. 

Kate hops down from where she’s sitting on the counter and grabs Bucky in a quick hug that should be awkward but somehow isn’t. “Dude, congrats. This is huge.” 

Teddy comes up to them, smiling his usual angelic smile. “Bucky, is this Sam? Hey, wow, you never mentioned that he’s Captain America too.” 

“Yeah, this is Sam,” Bucky says happily. “Hey, Teddy, sorry I haven't been showing up to work lately. I’ll be back to regular soon, I promise.” 

“It’s all good,” Teddy says, still beaming. “You wanna spend time with your boyfriend, I get it. I’ve been there.” 

“You live there, you mean,” Nico says from behind the counter. “I still haven’t forgotten the time I walked in on you and Billy banging in the supplies closet. When we told you to get a room, that wasn’t the one we meant.” 

Teddy doesn’t even look ashamed; he just keeps smiling. “Anyways, are you guys here for a workout? What can I do for you?” 

“I’m here to work out,” Sam says. “Thought I should probably get a membership, actually. Gotta keep in fighting shape somehow.” 

“Perfect,” Teddy says. “Come right this way, I’ll set you up. Oh man, I can’t believe you’re joining Haven. Billy’s gonna flip when I tell him.” 

Bucky leans back against the counter and watches them walk over to the other service desk, wondering how he ended up here in this haven of a gym with his boyfriend and his boss discussing the best weight classes and his impossible nineteen year old girl of a best friend poking him in the shoulder - on the right side this time, she’s clearly learned her lesson - and snickering. 

“Look at you,” Kate says, “you’re in love.” 

The denial is right there in Bucky’s mouth, but it fades to nothing on his tongue. He just smiles and says, “Yeah, I am.” And god, he is; he’s so in love it almost hurts. 

“”I’m happy for you,” Kate says, ruffling his hair affectionately. “You deserve this, Bucky.” She grins. “You two will never be as cute as me and America, but you’ll be damn close.” 

Bucky laughs. “I can live with that, I think.” 

“So you’re good?” Kate asks. “Like, really good? You’re happy?” 

Across the room, Sam laughs at something Teddy’s said. Bucky looks at him - all brown eyes and dark hair and graceful strength, wearing one of Bucky’s shirts - and feels the happiness well up in him like a rising tide. 

“Yeah,” Bucky says, soft. “I’m happy.” 

--

“You really need a new bed,” Bucky says later that night. They’re lying in Sam’s bed, pressed together from shoulder to hip, Bucky’s head resting on Sam’s bare shoulder. 

“Shut up,” Sam says, absolutely no bite to it. “Not like I knew you were going to be sleeping here.” He presses a kiss to Bucky’s forehead, and Bucky lets his eyes flutter shut in response. “We’ll just have to buy a new one, I guess. Two, actually.” 

Bucky frowns, eyes still closed. “Two? Why?” 

“Your bed still needs to be replaced, right? And we’re gonna need a guest room, I told Torres that he can come stay for a weekend sometime.” Sam laughs quietly. “He’s kind of starstruck over the whole Captain America thing. Feels like I’ve got my own damn groupie.” 

“Why does he get my room,” Bucky complains. “He’d do just fine on the couch.” 

Sam grins. “Jealous, Buck?” 

“No, asshole,” Bucky says. “I’m not jealous of Torres. Christ, he’s like twenty years old and can’t salute without tripping over his own two feet.” 

“Oh, you’re so jealous.” 

“Shut up, I’m not.” 

Sam places a hand on the nape of Bucky’s neck, pulling him closer. “It’s fine, babe,” he says, and it’s smug, but there’s softness lingering beneath it. “I’m not going anywhere. Plus, I think it’s kind of hot.” 

Bucky blushes, hot and flushed and wanting. “Oh, well, if it’s like that…” 

Sam rolls over on top of him and smiles, sharp and hungry. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s like that all right,” and then he leans down and kisses Bucky, hard and deliberate, and that’s the end of their conversation for a while. 

--

“By the way,” Sam says afterwards, curling himself around Bucky and draping an arm over his waist. “Sarah wants us to come down for a visit. Says it’s the last couple weeks of boat season and we’ve gotta get out on the water at least once before it’s over.” 

“Sounds good to me,” Bucky says sleepily. He thinks of the Wilsons’ house in Delacroix, the porch and the dock and the endless ocean, and feels beautifully content; he’s happy to return, happy to go anywhere with Sam. 

Sam laughs quietly, and Bucky feels it on the back of his neck. “I can’t believe you called her and asked her permission to date me for real, by the way. That’s the most assbackwards, old-fashioned thing I’ve ever heard of. Guess it’s true what they said about old dogs and new tricks.” 

“Shut up,” Bucky says, grinning. “You thought it was cute, didn’t you.” 

“Yeah, I did,” Sam admits. “But only because it’s you.” He slips his hand into Bucky’s, intertwining their fingers. “Hey, how’d your therapy session go today?” 

“Good,” Bucky says. “It was my last one. Court mandate’s finally over.” He’d been expecting a big argument, but in the end, Dr Raynor hadn’t taken much convincing; she’d looked at him for a moment, eyes focused on something that he couldn’t see, and then told him he was done with therapy. He’d even escaped without her taking notes on his condition. 

“Yeah?” Sam asks encouragingly. “That’s great. I’m proud of you, Buck.” 

“I’m going to look for a new one, though,” Bucky says. “I still need help, I know that now. I’m not just gonna magically get better overnight. I gotta our in the work, like you said. It sure as hell won’t be Raynor, though.” 

“Thank god for that,” Sam says. “She was such a bitch. Wasn’t complaining when she basically made us mount each other in her office, though.” 

Bucky snorts. “Of course you weren’t.” Then, quieter: “I wasn’t, either.” 

“Oh, by the way,” Sam says. “You didn’t notice my new room decoration, did you.” 

“No. In my defense, we were kind of busy.” 

“I was busy,” Sam says. “You were staring up at the ceiling. Anyway, look at the wall.” 

Bucky turns his head to the left and sure enough, there it is: the steering wheel he got for Sam, hung right above the mirror. Sam’s added a fake museum-style placard next to it, which reads: Stolen by a fossil on the interstate in 2014 (Replica, 2021). 

“I hate you,” Bucky says, “so much.” 

“Love you too,” Sam replies, his voice light with laughter, and Bucky can’t help but laugh in return. He rolls over onto his back, taking in this moment: Sam in his bed, the window open and the early autumn breeze ghosting over their sheets, the soft sounds of Sam’s late night playlist spilling from the small radio in the corner of the room. In the dim orange light, Sam looks like pure gold. The chain around his neck glints brightly, just like the one around Bucky’s own, and Bucky thinks of something: a river, a locket, a bridge. A promise unspoken and unfinished.

“Hey,” Bucky says, leaning into the curve of Sam’s arm. “When are we going to Louisiana?” 

“Next week, if it works for you,” Sam says. “That alright?” 

“Sounds good. I’ll tell Teddy not to schedule me then.” Bucky pauses, exhales slowly. “Do you mind if we make one stop on the way?” 

“Yeah, sure. Where?” 

Bucky tells him. 

“That’s not on the way,” Sam says, kissing Bucky’s forehead. “Not even close. They must’ve skipped geography classes in the thirties, huh.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky says. “So can we go?” 

“Of course,” Sam says. “We can go anywhere you want, Buck.” His voice is quieter now, and there’s a tenderness to it that makes Bucky’s chest ache with softness.

Bucky smiles, because it’s true; he can go anywhere he wants, and Sam will still be at his side. Paris and Brooklyn, and Berlin and Bucharest before that, and Sam was following him all through that, been with him since before Bucky even knew him. 

“I love you,” he says, and nothing else; it’s all that needs to be said.

--

Bucky drops Sweet Potato off at Kate’s before they leave for the airport, along with strict instructions for his feeding while they’re gone. 

“Don’t give him any donuts,” Bucky says sternly, “no matter how hard he tries to pretend he’s starving. Sam says he’s halfway to chronic obesity.” 

“No promises,” Kate says, grinning. “You know that dogs in this apartment don’t have a great track record with nutritional diets.” She waves a hand towards the couch, where Lucky is curled up with a slice of pizza in his mouth. 

“Point taken,” Bucky sighs. “Fine, whatever, go wild. Just don’t tell Sam.” 

Kate winks. “You got it.” 

Kate’s once again wearing America’s clothes, this time a blue t-shirt with white stars and grey lounge shorts. There’s a faint bruise on her cheek from a fight that she got in last week, and she’s got Lucky’s golden hairs all over her shirt. Bucky steps forward and hugs her, suddenly caught up in a wave of affection.

“Alright, alright,” Kate says, patting him on the back. “Jeez, being in love has made you such a softie.” She leans up and kisses him on the cheek. “Have fun with your boyfriend. Bring me back a croissant.” 

“Will do,” Bucky says. He bends down to pat Sweet Potato goodbye and then leaves, heading back to his own apartment. When he looks back over his shoulder, Kate is waving. 

--

Paris is just as Bucky remembers it: bold and beautiful and bursting with color, all roses and cobblestones and baroque architecture. The City of Light, filled with lights, and as they make their way through the streets, Bucky thinks that Sam is still the brightest thing here. 

Sam stops and buys him a chocolate croissant from a street café; Bucky eats it happily, trading bites with him until it’s gone. The chocolate is rich and tooth-achingly sweet, and it’s gone all too soon.

“Goddamn,” he says, licking powdered sugar off his fingers, “that’s the best thing I’ve tasted in months.”

Sam arches an eyebrow, heavy-lidded and suggestive. “Second best thing, you mean,” he says, and Bucky can’t argue with that.

“You and your dirty mouth,” he says, laughing, hitting Sam’s arm. “We’re in public, for Christ’s sake.” 

“Paris is the city of love,” Sam counters. “Seduction on the streets is par for the course here. Now, are you gonna take me to this mystery destination of yours, or are you just gonna let me wander the streets for an hour? Wouldn’t be the first time, after all.” 

“That was funny and you know it,” Bucky says. “Buy another croissant for Kate, and then we can go. I promised her I’d get her one.” 

“There’s no way this thing is gonna be edible after an eight hour flight home,” Sam mutters, but he buys it anyway, making sure to pick the one with the most sugar on top. Bucky smiles at the sight.

They make their way through the streets, Bucky leading and Sam following, past art museums and rose gardens and wide green parks. Paris blooms around them, a painting in watercolor washes; Bucky looks at Sam and thinks of a vanishing point, the whole world falling away at the touch of their hands. 

“Hey,” he says, a thought coming to him with a brief flash of fear. “It’s okay that we’re doing this, right? I mean, being together? Since you’re Captain America now and there’s already people out there just looking for another reason to trash on you, is this  -” 

Sam pulls him closer, smiling gently. “Yeah, Buck, it’s okay. This isn’t like the shield thing, alright? If they want to hate me for who I love, then fuck them. I’m not letting you go over something as stupid as that.” 

“Okay,” Bucky says, relieved. “Good. Cause we’re here.” 

The Pont Des Arts stretches out in front of them, spanning the Seine in a long line of smooth stone. The railings are covered in thousands of lockets, gleaming silver and gold in the sunlight, and Bucky can see a half dozen couples attaching new ones in the empty spaces. 

“Oh,” Sam says, recognition flickering on his face as they step onto the bridge. “We’ve been here before, right?” He laughs suddenly. “I remember now. I was so wasted that I almost dropped the lock in the river.” 

“Yeah, you were a mess,” Bucky says smugly. “Thanks to the drinking competition that I won.” 

“Of course you won,” Sam scoffs. “You’ve got the damn super soldier serum working for you. All I’ve got is a high tolerance that took years to perfect.” He punches Bucky’s shoulder lightly. “In other words, you were cheating.” 

“Was not,” Bucky says, automatic. He stops at the middle of the bridge, bending down to examine the locks. “I think we put ours here somewhere.” 

Their lock is at the very top of the balustrade, attached firmly to the railing. Bucky runs his fingers over the dull golden metal, stares at the inscription: SW & BB, written in thick black marker. It’s solid in his hand, carrying the heavy weight of permanence. 

Sam reaches for the chain around his neck. “I’ve still got the key, I think.” 

“We did that part wrong, you know,” Bucky says, nudging Sam. “We were supposed to throw the keys into the river.” 

“That’s gotta be a violation of some pollution law,” Sam replies. “But fuck it, man. I didn’t come all this way to half-ass this.” He drops Bucky’s hand long enough to pull the chain over his head, holding it loose in his fingers. “I’m in if you are.” 

Bucky looks straight into Sam’s eyes: one last staring contest, one last challenge. Dare you to love me, it says. Dare you to want me forever. 

“I’m in,” Bucky says, and takes his own necklace off. The key rests in his palm, the beaten gold metal of it warm against his skin. “Ready?” 

Sam winds up and throws his necklace over the side of the bridge, and Bucky does the same. The two keys flash brightly, colliding in midair; they fall to the surface of the river, still entangled, before disappearing into the water.

“Well, that’s that,” Sam says, turning to Bucky with that beautiful half-concealed smile on his face. “Looks like you’re stuck with me now.” 

Bucky smiles back, his happiness so big that he can barely hold it within himself. He’s standing on the right bridge with the right man, and the sun is shining down on them like the daylight will never end, and for once, the past is nothing but a moment left far behind in the distance. Back in the States, the leaves are changing now, and maybe Bucky is changing with them; this time, when he lets go, he’ll remember how to fall. 

This time, when he lets go, there’ll be someone to catch him. 

“Hey, Buck,” Sam says, leaning forward, pressing a quick kiss to his lips. “Wanna get coffee?” 

“Thought you’d never ask,” Bucky grins. “You’re buying.” 

Sam just smiles at him. The two of them walk away from the bridge and into the future, and here, with Sam Wilson’s hand in his and the sun warm on his back, Bucky Barnes is finally at peace.