Sam Wilson flies during the day, but at night, he falls. You’d have to be a fool, he thinks, to get in the air without fear of the drop beneath you. That fear keeps you sharp, keeps you smart, as long as you don’t let it overtake you. And Sam Wilson has more reason to fear falling than most.
Sam met Riley in basic training. Sam himself was young, just out of college, joining the military to pay off his student loans. The army would pay for him to go to graduate school in the future, so long as he served his time. Something in that sounded like a prison sentence. But he needed the schooling, for his future, for his family. And living in the south drilled a love of his country deep into the core of his being. It didn’t make him any less scared.
Riley was the only one who eased that fear. Riley, who was just as scared as Sam, but who faced that fear head on with a smile and a wink. Riley helped Sam up when he fell, lungs feeling like they might collapse after a day of training. He made snarky jokes under his breath to Sam when one of their superior officers was acting up, risking punishment just to lift Sam’s spirits. He joined Sam’s calls with his sister, fitting into Sam’s family seamlessly, even though he had none of his own.
Riley came out to Sam in Afghanistan, after a bomb nearly blew up in their faces. He’d been disowned by his father, he said in a voice too quiet to be heard by any of their other brothers in arms if they happened to be lingering close by. It wasn’t illegal, not anymore, to be gay in the military, but the both of them had heard enough violent words, even seen violent actions, to take unnecessary risks.
Sam kissed Riley for the first time that night, the months of what he thought was one sided pining finally boiling over into action. Riley kissed him back.
They were partners from then on, in every sense of the word. It was because of Riley that Sam volunteered for the XO7-Falcon program. Because above all else, Riley loved to fly. He loved the thrill of the wind on his face, the sight of the ground darting towards him when he took a steep dive. Sam thought the other man would give him a heart attack, one day, but he couldn’t deny that he loved flying too.
And they were good at it. Two of the only recruits for the program to make it through the training, and the two with the highest success record.
It was supposed to be a standard mission. Nothing more dangerous than usual. Risk was always high when they were called in.
Sam knew there was a chance he could lose Riley one day. In their line of work, you’d have to be stupid to ignore that risk. But in his heart, Riley was invincible. The wings might as well be a part of him, for the way he moved, the way he flew with them. It was like he was born to it.
He’d smiled at Sam. Kissed him, before they left.
“Stay close,” Sam said to him, their usual mantra before going on a mission. Even with that, even with all of Riley’s talent, all of Sam’s watchfulness, Riley was too far away when he was hit.
His engine burst into flames. And then he fell. He didn’t scream. He was probably dead before he hit the ground. It didn’t stop Sam from screaming himself, the sound ripping through his throat like a physical thing, and diving after him. He reached out his hand, begging, pleading, to whatever god was in the sky that Riley would right himself, would reach back, do anything but continue to fall, limbs hanging limply at his sides.
He wasn’t fast enough. He had to pull up, but it didn’t stop him from hearing the impact of Riley’s body as it hit the ground.
There was barely anything left of him to bury.
Sam did go back for his degree, though later than he planned to. And he spent his time in the V.A., leading PTSD support groups, and grief programs. He knew the path of grief better than most, and he could help people this way. He made a difference, made people better. Even if he wasn’t getting better himself.
Sam might know the stages of grief, how to work through them, had even seen a therapist of his own after Riley’s death. But he never really worked through it. Being a smart and intuitive man had its downfalls. He knew what to say to his therapist to make her leave him alone, make her think he was doing well. He wasn’t doing well, really. Every night, when he closed his eyes, he was falling again, falling with Riley. Sometimes he hit the ground. Sometimes he didn’t.
It was painful to think about. So he shut down that side of himself. Then Steve Rogers came along, and Sam was back in the game.
Sam met Bucky when the other man was on the run from the various governments of the world. He’d been tracking Bucky for a long time, chasing cold leads, but at least he was doing something. He caught up with him after the suspected bombing.
He didn’t like Bucky, not really, not at first. Bucky had hurt people, hurt people that Sam cared about, in the past (Steve, Natasha). Part of him wanted to hang on to that old prejudice. But goddamn, if it wasn’t difficult to do that when he saw the pain behind Bucky’s eyes. This was a man who’d been chewed up and spit out by life, endured more suffering than Sam thought he could ever imagine.
Bucky tensed up, he noticed, whenever he thought people were tiptoeing around him. Steve certainly was, treating him with kid gloves. So Sam went the opposite direction. He responded to Bucky as a person, not as his trauma. He counted it as a win when he got a snarky response out of the other man, or a roll of the eyes. Those were human responses, normal responses, and that was something he could work with.
Bucky stuck to him like glue, during the altercation. He was next to him when Sam realized what had to go down for Steve and Bucky to escape.
“The rest of us aren’t getting out of this one,” Sam said. There was a sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew what losing meant, for him. It meant time in a cell, time away from his family. But he knew that from the start. He made his decision. He would stick to it.
Next to him, Bucky was staring at him incredulously, obviously having caught on.
“That’s a dumb idea,” he said bluntly.
“Hey, I’m doing your ass a favor. You and Steve have to go. The rest of us can hold them off.”
Bucky was shaking his head vigorously before Sam even finished his sentence.
“No. No one’s sacrificing themselves for me.”
If Sam had the time to unpack that statement, he would have, but instead, he just shoved at Bucky’s shoulder, pushing him in Steve’s direction.
The last thing he saw before he took off was Bucky staring at him with those unfathomable blue eyes. Then he was flying.
Sam spent some time in Wakanda, going back and forth with Steve whenever he went to visit Bucky. Natasha and Wanda didn’t always make the trip with them, but Sam always went. So he spent a lot of time with Bucky and Steve during their two years on the run. He had a selfish motive as well- Wakanda was the only place where he could contact Sarah without the messages being traced. God bless the genius princess.
Bucky’s recovery was… intense. The brainwashing took a long time to get out of his system, and it was a year before the trigger words lost their effect. Sam wasn’t with him for that, leaving Steve and Bucky alone.
He’d caught on to their relationship by the second visit to Wakanda. The two men were secretive, furtive even, stealing touches and glances when they thought no one was looking. Even here, surrounded by allies and friends, they were… stifled. Sam understood that. Sam had lived that. And when he saw Steve’s hand brush against Bucky’s, standing on his back step in the dark, and heard the breath of relief that passed Bucky’s lips in response, it reminded him so strongly of Riley that his heart ached.
He dreamt of falling again that night.
He went to Wakanda without Steve, once. Something had come up, and Steve couldn’t make it for his usual visit. Sam kept the schedule, mostly because Sarah would track him down herself if he didn’t check in regularly.
He didn’t plan to see Bucky, besides maybe in passing at the palace, but he found himself on Bucky’s doorstep the first night in Wakanda. The familiar bleating of the goats calmed his nerves some.
Bucky opened the door, and Sam blinked. Bucky’s hair was pulled back, and he wore simple trousers and a linen shirt. And his arm was off.
“Hey, man,” Sam said, breaking the silence. Bucky raised an eyebrow.
“I didn’t think I’d see you.”
Sam shrugged. “Me neither, but I figured Steve’s reaction if he found out I didn’t check in would be a nightmare.”
Bucky remained in the doorway for a moment, eyes trained on Sam’s face. Then he moved aside, letting him in. The significance of the act wasn’t lost on Sam- Bucky had issues with space and boundaries.
“Is Steve ok?” Bucky asked as Sam walked in. He was clearly trying to be nonchalant, but there was a tremor in his voice that betrayed him. Sam was quick to correct his assumption.
“Yeah, he’s good. He just had to help Nat with a mission. He’s sorry he couldn’t come.”
“Why’d you come?” Bucky asked, with all of his typical bluntness. Sam found it refreshing. There was no beating around the bush with Bucky.
“I don’t come just to see your shining face, you know. I come here to get in contact with my sister.”
Bucky blinked, then his gaze fell to the ground.
“You have family,” he said flatly. Sam nodded.
“Sister and a nephew. Another kid on the way, too.”
Sam sat down on the couch. Bucky remained where he was, shoulders stiff. Sam looked him up and down, brow furrowing, until something clicked in his head.
“Hey, if you don’t want me here, I can head out,” he said, moving to stand. “We don’t know each other like that, I get it-”
“No, it’s- that’s not-” Bucky blurted out, then paused, trying to collect his words. Sam stilled, letting him figure it out.
“It’s not that. It’s kind of… nice, to see someone besides Shuri. She’s great, but she makes me feel old as shit.”
“You are old as shit,” Sam said, trying to lighten the mood. It worked somewhat, Bucky letting out a short huff.
“Whatever. It’s- I’m sorry. About your family. It’s my fault you can’t see them.”
Then it really clicked for Sam. Of course Bucky would think that. He was one self-deprecating motherfucker, who tried to take on the weight of the world with just the one arm.
“You know I’m a grown ass man, right?” Sam said abruptly. Bucky looked up, surprise showing on his face.
“Then you know I make my own decisions. I didn’t sacrifice myself for you, no matter what your ego tells you. I made the choice I made because it was the right thing to do. And I’m living with the consequences.”
Bucky sat with that information for a moment, then visibly relaxed. He moved to sit down next to Sam on the couch, still leaving a lot of space between the two of them.
“All right. But I’m still sorry.”
Sam rolled his eyes, then let out a laugh. “Man, I bet you wish your boyfriend was here instead of me now, huh?”
Bucky’s head snapped up, eyes wide and panicked, and it felt like Sam had been punched in the gut.
“Oh, fuck, I’m sorry-”
“What the fuck did you say?’ Bucky hissed. “Where the hell do you get off, asshole? You don’t know shit, you hear me? You think because you hung around Steve, made me laugh once, you know our whole fucking relationship?”
There was anger in his voice, of course, but moreover there was a fear, a deep, underlying fear that Sam knew all too well. He’d felt it when Riley kissed him in public once, felt it when he heard jeers and slurs coming from the other men in the military. Felt it earlier than that, when he was jumped after school by a boy he confessed to and his friends.
“Bucky, hey, listen-”
“No. Get the fuck out of my house.”
Sam stood up slowly, holding out a hand, eyes fixed on the supersoldier. Bucky’s breath was coming in ragged pants, fist clenched at his side.
“Ok, I’m leaving. I’m leaving,” Sam said softly. He started to back towards the door. “I didn’t mean anything by it, ok? I know how it is. The hiding. My partner and I, in the military-”
“I really don’t care. Just get out.” Bucky’s voice was harsh and biting. So Sam left. And if he shed a few tears in the dark on his way back, well, that was between him and the night.
He was about to leave the next day when he heard a shout of his name. To his surprise, Bucky was jogging towards him. There were dark circles under the other man’s eyes, like he hadn’t slept. Sam hadn’t either. He’d stayed awake, staring at the ceiling. If he’d slept, he would have dreamt of Riley, and it all would have been too much.
Sam raised a hand awkwardly in greeting as Bucky came to a stop in front of him. The supersoldier glanced around, but there was no one within hearing distance.
“I’m sorry,” he said, making Sam raise an eyebrow. “I called Steve. Last night. He said… he mentioned someone named Riley. I shouldn’t have freaked.”
Sam shrugged, swallowing around the lump that appeared in his throat at the mention of Riley’s name.
“It’s cool. Like I said, I get it. But I won’t bring it up again, ok? And I’m not telling anyone.”
“Thank you,” Bucky said, looking at Sam with eyes entirely too knowing for his liking.
They left it at that. But something was swirling in Sam’s stomach for the plane ride back. He didn’t recognize it for what it was until he laid eyes on Steve. Anger. He could feel it in the lines of his arms as he crossed them, the set of his jaw.
Steve didn’t catch on, but Natasha did.
“Sam, come on, I’ll debrief you,” she said, gesturing towards a separate room. Sam’s eyes were still focused on Steve.
“Come on,” she insisted, laying a hand on his arm. He turned, and followed, leaving a very confused Steve Rogers in his wake. Nat locked the door behind them, then sauntered over to an armchair, draping herself across it. She was like a cat, in a lot of ways, Sam noted. She reached up, pulling off her long brown wig to reveal her usual red locks.
“He thinks we’re sleeping together, I’m pretty sure,” Sam said, gesturing back towards where they’d left Steve. “And that definitely didn’t help.”
Nat grinned, showing off her beautifully white teeth. “Maybe we should start. Make it convincing.”
Sam shot her a wink, but the anger was still bubbling in his chest.
“Ok, what the hell happened in Wakanda, Sam? Steve got a weird call from Bucky that messed him up for a few hours, and then you come back looking like you’re gonna start a fistfight.”
Sam took a deep breath, trying to get himself somewhat under control. “I, uh, went to see Bucky.”
Nat raised an eyebrow. “I gathered that much. Did you two fuck or something? Is that what the call was about?”
Sam’s eyes widened. “Hell no!”
Natasha relaxed. “Good. I didn’t want to have to break your legs.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Nothing that drastic. I accidentally made a comment about Bucky and Steve dating. They’ve still got that whole 40s secrecy thing, you know? It freaked Bucky out and he kicked me out.”
Nat clucked her tongue. “Oh, that makes sense. For the call, at least. Not for how angry you obviously are.”
“Steve told Bucky about Riley. On the call.”
Sam’s voice broke on Riley’s name, and Nat’s eyes widened.
“Oh, shit,” she said in a hushed voice. Sam nodded. Natasha was one of the only people who knew the full story with Riley. Sarah was the other. Steve knew that Sam and Riley dated, and that Riley died, but not much other than that.
“I would have told him myself,” Sam said, trying to explain why he was so angry. Natasha already understood, he could see that much in her face. He and Nat had grown close over the last few years. He’d say she was potentially his closest friend. While she was hard to read, he’d gotten at least a few of her expressions down.
“I would have told him. I was going to, before he kicked me out, to let him know that I wasn’t being a homophobe, that I got it, you know? But it wasn’t Steve’s story to tell.”
“It wasn’t,” Nat agreed. “That’d be like Bruce telling someone about what happened to me in the Red Room.”
“Yea. So it’s not…. I don’t know. I don’t care that Bucky knows. I care that Steve said. He should know, of all people, that isn’t some shit you just throw around.”
Natasha moved to where Sam was, taking his hand in hers. “Of course not. And Steve knows that Riley’s a touchy subject. He doesn’t think where Bucky’s concerned, but that’s not an excuse.”
Sam took a deep, shuddering breath. “Yeah. Fuck, I don’t know. I know he didn’t mean to be an ass, but still.”
“With the one braincell he has, I don’t think he means to do most of the things he does,” Nat said, drawing a laugh from Sam.
“But seriously, are you ok? I know talking or thinking about Riley is tough for you.”
Sam looked at her then, and he contemplated opening up. Contemplated telling her just how badly Riley’s death still hurt him, how the other man haunted his dreams, how sometimes Sam wished he was the one to fall instead. But when he felt those emotions welling up, he did what he always did. Shut them off.
“I’m… holding up,” he said, and that was as honest as he could get. Nat knew that. She switched the subject, talking about the mission she and Steve had been on, and before he knew it, he was laughing again.
When he came back, reformed after being turned to dust five years prior, Nat’s laugh was gone. Steve cried, when he told Sam, Bucky standing next to him with a hand on his shoulder. Just a single tear. That was more than Sam could manage for a while. So much loss. So much loss, and it was the loss of Natasha that hit him the hardest.
He got the account from Clint, later on. She’d fallen, too, just like Riley. Well, she jumped, but Sam’s brain couldn’t quite fathom the difference. All he could see was her body falling through the air, hurtling to the ground, and hear the impact echo in his mind.
He spoke to Sarah. Saw the boys. Managed a smile, managed to play along, play his part. No one seemed to notice that he was falling apart at the seams, breaking, ripping through stitches that he had used to sew himself back together after Riley.
Natasha would have noticed. Riley would have noticed. And in his mind, the two of them were one and the same. Smiles turned to screams, falling, falling, falling.
Tony got a funeral. Sam went, stood with Bucky and Wanda, put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder when he saw the super soldier struggling. Played his part. Sam Wilson didn’t have his own emotions, he thought bitterly. Sam Wilson bottled it up, pushed it down, so that others could receive the catharsis that he himself so badly needed.
He didn't begrudge Bucky the comfort, though. If anyone needed it, Bucky did, and the way that he leaned into Sam’s hand, almost desperately, was evidence of that. There was something going on with him and Steve, Sam could tell, but he didn't have the emotional capacity to dig into it.
It wasn’t until after the funeral was over that it hit him. Tony got a funeral. Natasha didn’t.
The rage was back, white hot and glaring, burning a hole through the center of his heart. This time, someone noticed. Bucky, across the room, nudged Steve. Steve started to make his way over, but Sam walked out the door. He couldn't do this, not there, not in Tony’s cabin. So he walked, walked away from the house, dress slacks rustling against one another as he walked.
“Sam!” Steve called after him. Bucky was there too, trailing a bit behind.
Sam stopped in his tracks. He tried to control his breathing.
“Hey, are you ok?” Steve asked, brow furrowed as he leaned closer to Sam.
“You know what? Nah. I’m not ok,” Sam said. It was harsh, maybe harsher than it needed to be, but there was no pushing the rage down now. What was the point of that, anymore? Who was left to fight for Nat, if not him?
“Talk to me,” Steve said, laying a hand on his shoulder. Sam shrugged it off.
“Tony got a funeral,” he said in a low voice. Steve looked confused, but from the corner of his eye, he could see realization dawning on Bucky’s face.
“He did,” Steve confirmed, somewhat wary.
“He got a funeral. She didn’t.”
Then Steve got it, and he winced. “Sam-”
“Don’t stand there and Sam me. Why not? Did she not deserve a funeral, man? Did she not deserve some goddamn recognition for what she did?”
His voice was raising, he realized. It would draw attention. He found that he didn’t much care.
“Of course she did-”
“Then why didn’t she get one? Did it slip your mind?”
Steve didn’t have an answer, that much was clear. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again.
“There wasn’t anything to bury,” he said, and once again, Riley and Natasha were the same.
“Bullshit,” Sam spat. “Bull. Shit. I’ve had funerals with no bodies, Steve. You had a funeral when you went under the ice. There was no body then. Tell me why she didn’t get one.”
Steve reached out to him, and Sam stepped back, stepped away, tears suddenly blurring his vision. He swiped at them angrily. He hated crying, hated it more than anything. Crying meant he wasn’t all right. And Sam Wilson was always all right.
“No, just-” he took a deep breath. “Just go.”
When Steve didn’t leave, the anger rose again.
“I said go!” he snapped. He heard a soft murmur- not Steve’s voice, but Bucky’s, and then there were footsteps walking away. Just one pair, though. Bucky stayed behind.
Sam waited for Bucky to start in on him. To tell him that he shouldn’t yell at Steve, that Steve was trying his best, that there was a good reason for not giving Natasha a funeral.
Instead, the other man just stood, inching closer to Sam until there was a foot of space separating them. His feet crunched in the leaves.
Sam turned his face away. He was still crying. There was a slight movement from Bucky, a pause, and then another movement. His hand slowly descended on Sam’s shoulder, echoing the gesture Sam had given him during the service. Just like Bucky, Sam leaned into the touch, shaking. Bucky’s hand was shaking too, and he squeezed Sam’s shoulder.
They stood like that until Sam was ready to go back inside. He didn’t thank Bucky, and Bucky didn’t ask for thanks.
Then Steve left, a few days later, and Sam didn’t see Bucky for three months.
“You look like shit,” Sarah said. She’d shown up unexpectedly at Sam’s place. Apparently, he’d been out of contact long enough for her to get worried. So, determined as always, she drove from Louisiana to DC, knocking on Sam’s door until he finally answered. She jabbed a finger at his chest, then pulled him into a tight hug. If Sam wasn’t used to her moods, he would probably have gotten whiplash.
“Come on, you know I look good,” Sam said, even though it was clearly a lie.
Sam had come back after Steve left, back to DC. His home was his again, though it felt strange, and disconnected. Someone else had been living in it, and they’d been displaced. That didn’t really sit right with him.
The therapist in him said that he needed to take some time, to mourn, to grieve, to readjust. Instead he threw himself back into the fight, making use of his abilities wherever he could. He wasn’t in contact with many people. Just his sister, sometimes Bruce, and Bucky, though that line of communication was very one sided. He’d seen the supersoldier once. At Steve’s funeral. Bucky vanished halfway through, and Sam couldn’t find him after that. So he moved on.
He had to work. He had to help. Otherwise it would just be him, and his thoughts, and after… well, after losing Natasha, he couldn't handle that.
He’d almost broken, when he got back to DC. He saw Nat standing at his doorstep with Steve, saw her over for their weekly breakfast, which had quickly become a routine between the two of them. Then he’d gone to look for his stuff. Most of it was there, kept in a storage locker, but there was something missing.
Riley’s dog tags were gone. That had sent Sam into a spiral, turning him into a shuddering mess. But he was back in the field the next day, no time to think about it.
He was sure that was taking a toll on his appearance.
Sarah messed around the house, clucking her tongue at the small messes he left, cooking food. She stayed for a couple days, having left the boys with a friend, before heading back, with strict instructions to take care of himself.
He tried to, for a few days. But he couldn’t be alone. He told her as much, over the phone. He shouldn’t have been surprised that she intervened.
Because two days later, Bucky Barnes showed up on his porch. He was wearing a leather jacket that was far too heavy for the weather, and his hair was short. Sam did a double take.
“Hey, man,” he said, opening the door. Bucky nodded stiffly.
“Can I… help you with something? You want to come in?”
Bucky shrugged, but moved inside when Sam offered. Sam followed the ex assassin. Bucky still moved like a soldier, glancing around the room, checking for exits. He positioned himself with his back to a wall, facing the door.
“Your sister called me,” he said, crossing his arms. “I don’t even know how she has my number.”
Sam groaned. “Shit. She probably took it off my phone while she was here.”
“She’s stubborn,” Bucky commented. “She wouldn’t leave me alone until I came.”
Sam cracked a smile. “Yeah, that sounds like her.”
“I thought you were hardheaded. Apparently that’s a genetic thing.”
“I could have told you that,” Sam said. Then he paused. “But why’d she text you?”
Bucky shrugged. “You’ll have to ask her that. She said you needed, and I quote, checking up on.”
Sam bristled at that, but kept it down. “I figured. Why you? No offense, I don't really think of you as my number one support system.”
“That’s what I told her, trust me,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “She said there’s no one else to call. That’s sad. And that’s coming from someone who’s primary and only contact is his therapist.”
“Ouch,” Sam said, putting his hand to his chest in mock outrage. “That stung.”
“Oh, trust me, I do.” Sam let out a sigh. “Well, you want some water or anything? You’ve gotta be sweating in that thing.”
Bucky was, in fact, sweating in that thing. He took the jacket off eventually, when he felt more comfortable in the house. He stayed a few hours, then left. But he was back two days later. Checking in, like he said.
It was nice, Sam had to admit. Not being alone. Having someone around. Bucky didn’t ask questions. He seemed to be worried that Sam would ask them in return. And to be fair, he probably would have.
Sam knew what he looked like. He was a mess, and having someone to check in was a good thing, as much as he found it embarrassing. The dark circles under his eyes still hadn’t gone away, and the usual humor that lit his face was… dulled. He wasn’t sleeping. When he slept, he fell, either with Natasha or with Riley. So he stayed awake, except when he was too exhausted to do anything but let sleep claim him.
And Bucky had that same look about him. That same grief. Sam suspected that part of the reason Bucky kept coming over was because he needed the contact just as much as Sam.
That suspicion was confirmed a month after the visits started. Bucky came over later in the day, after a therapy appointment. Good old fashioned court mandated therapy, as Sam liked to call it. The name always made Bucky roll his eyes. He could tell that the session weighed on Bucky more than usual, his shoulder sagging.
It was getting late, dusk turning to night. Bucky was getting ready to leave, pulling on his jacket, when he stopped. Sam had been waiting for him to break, honestly. There was obviously something weighing on his mind, and being around him was like waiting for a bomb to explode.
“Does it ever get… Lonely? For you? In the house?” Bucky asked, sentence stilted. Sam frowned.
“I guess, a bit,” he replied slowly.
“My apartment does,” Bucky continued, not meeting Sam’s eyes. “I, uh, mentioned it to my therapist. She made a… suggestion.”
Sam’s eyebrows were slowly climbing up his forehead. “Therapists tend to do that. You gonna tell me what it was?”
Bucky took a deep breath. “She suggested that… well, that I get a roommate. A specific roommate. You. As a roommate.”
Sam blinked. “What?”
“Forget it. It was a dumb suggestion anyway-”
“Buck.” Sam’s hand was out in a flash, before he even knew he was moving, gripping Bucky’s wrist. Bucky’s eyes flashed down, then back up to Sam’s face.
“”Jesus, give a guy a second to process,” Sam said. “I wasn’t saying no.”
Bucky stilled. “You weren’t?”
“No. I’m not saying yes, not yet, but I’m not saying no. I’m saying let me think about it.”
Bucky nodded, head bobbing slowly up and down. “You don’t have to. Just because my therapist said, you know.”
“I know that. Honestly, it does get lonely here. I got used to having a team, you know? And on the run, I always had… people.” It was still difficult for him to say Natasha’s name, let alone touch on Steve’s betrayal. “It’s not the worst idea, is all I’m saying.”
Bucky let out a breath of relief. “Ok. Think about it, then. Much as you can with that bird brain of yours.”
And just like that, they were back to normal. Aside from the fact that Sam was still holding Bucky’s wrist, with apparently no intention of letting go.
Bucky moved in a week after their discussion. They had to go through an approval process from the government- Bucky, though pardoned, was still considered high risk, but with help from his therapist they were able to speed it along.
Bucky didn’t have much to move. He had a bed of his own, though it looked brand new. Sam wondered for a moment if he’d brought it just to move in.
Sam left for a mission the day after Bucky moved in.
“Avoiding me already, huh?” Bucky said when he told him, the joke hiding a very real note of insecurity.
“Giving you some space to settle in,” Sam said more seriously. “I know a new space can be overwhelming. But don’t touch my shit.”
He stumbled in a few days later, tired, sore, and in desperate need of some sleep. He wouldn’t get any, he knew that for sure, or at least not any restful sleep, but the idea of it was nice.
Bucky had made himself right at home. He was sitting on the couch, what looked like a reality TV show playing on the screen. He looked up when Sam entered, and he looked… relaxed.
“You look like shit,” he said, eerily echoing Sarah’s words when she first came to his house. Sam rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. Usually he would have a snappy comeback at the ready, but today… he was just tired. Bucky’s face remained in its usual set expression, but something flashed across his eyes. And when Sam came back after changing, he had two beers, one in his hand and one held out towards Sam. Sam nodded his thanks, taking it and taking a swig. Bucky’s eyes lingered on him.
“What are you watching, man?” Sam asked, looking at the TV. He grinned.
“Real Housewives of New York,” Bucky said, deadpan.
“Congratulations, you’ve turned from an old man to a middle aged woman. That’s an improvement.”
Bucky snorted. “You know, I’ll take it. They were on to something with this show. These people are insane.”
One episode turned into two, two beers turned into three, then four, and Sam was starting to feel a pleasant buzz. Eventually, as evening began to wear into nighttime, Bucky stood up, claiming a need for some air. From the look he gave Sam, company wouldn’t be unwelcome, so Sam followed him. The air was crisp, but not cold.
“So how was the mission?” Bucky asked after a few moments of silence.
Sam shrugged. “Fine. Successful.”
“How many of these are you doing?”
“As many as they need me to.”
Bucky gave a slow nod, but he looked troubled. “You know, Sarah might have had a point about you needing checking up on.”
Sam bristled slightly, and Bucky shot him a look. “Not like that. I mean you’re not taking care of yourself. Not that you need babysitting or something. But maybe someone to hold you accountable.”
Sam stopped, taking a deep breath.
“You might be right,” he admitted. “But I think you need the same.”
Bucky chucked. “I never denied that, though.”
Sam conceded the point with a nod.
Bucky was apparently in a talkative mood, and continued.
“You know, I thought you’d have a better… I don’t know, idea of grief. Since you were a counselor, and all.”
Sam felt himself still, back straight and stiff. This was starting to get too close to something real, too close to the truth, but he couldn’t make himself leave.
“What do you mean?” he found himself asking.
“Ok, let me walk you through a hypothetical. You’re back in the VA, doing your whole counseling thing, and someone comes in, says they’ve lost two of their best friends in a very short period of time, they’ve taken no time off of work, and they’re shutting everyone in their life out. What do you say to them?”
Sam glared. “You don’t gotta walk me through like I’m a child, Barnes. Just say what you wanna say.”
Bucky softened. “Look, Sam, you’re grieving for Steve, definitely for Natasha-”
Sam flinched at her name.
“And maybe someone else. Maybe that Riley person that Steve told me about. But from an expert as pushing things down until they boil over, it seems like you’re burying those feelings.”
Sam wasn’t used to this level of honesty from Bucky. “Did you see your therapist while I was gone?”
“Yep,” Bucky said.
“And she told you all this.”
Bucky hesitated. “No. I told her all this. She gave me ideas on how to bring it up.”
Sam wasn’t sure how to feel about that. There was something warm in his chest, and he wasn’t sure if it was the beer, or if it was the acknowledgement that Bucky, in some way, cared about him and his well being.
“Thank you,” he said, voice low.
“I didn’t just bring it up to say it, though,” Bucky said, turning slightly towards him. “If you want to talk about it, or anything, you can.”
Sam didn’t want to talk about it, not most of it. But there was one thing that slipped through before he could stop it.
“I lost Riley’s dog tags.”
Bucky’s gaze was on his face then, dark and intense, and Sam had to look away.
“Well, I didn't lose them. But when I came back from the Blip, they were gone. I tore through my stuff, ripped up some pillows even, hoping they’d be there, but they’re gone.”
“Riley was your… partner?” Bucky asked softly, hesitating on the last word. Sam gave a short nod.
“Partner. Boyfriend. Whatever you want to call it.”
“Steve said he died. He didn’t say how.”
Sam took in a deep breath, or tried to- it caught halfway through.
“I can’t- I can’t talk about that,” he said in a rough voice. There was no judgement in Bucky’s face, when he looked back. There was a sheen over Bucky’s eyes, glistening in the moonlight.
“I, uh-” Bucky started, then stopped, clearing his throat. “I can’t talk about the last few days with Steve. So I get it.”
Usually, when someone brought up their own trauma in response to his, Sam would bristle, used to having his own problems overlooked in favor of others. This time, though, the small bit of information that Bucky shared helped him breath easier. Bucky did understand. Of course he did.
They changed the subject after that, but things between them seemed to rest easier.
Sam knew his exhaustion would eventually catch up to him. He’d been sleeping easier, strangely, since Bucky arrived, but still nowhere near enough. He was on a mission, and made a stupid mistake, a stupid maneuver that he never would have attempted had he been in his right mind. He hit something, he wasn’t sure what, his engine sputtered, and then he was falling. He saw the ground rushing towards him, and he wondered in a wild moment if that was the last thing Riley saw.
His engine came back on, and he tried to pull up. But he was moving too fast, and he still slammed into the ground.
He woke up in Louisiana. He remembered waking up a few times before then- but he wasn’t particularly lucid. He definitely remembered Sarah’s face, tearstained and worried. He had some memory before that, but it was… blurry. He thought he remembered Bucky sitting next to him, dark circles under his eyes, gripping his hand. But that could well have been a dream.
He wondered if all of it had been a dream. Waking up in your old bedroom will do that to a man. His throat was dry, and his eyes felt like they had glue in them. It took him a moment to notice the figure in the corner of the room.
His sister was sitting in an armchair that she’d evidently dragged up from downstairs, head tilted back, mouth slightly opened as she slept. A fond smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
He tried to say her name, but it just came out as a rasp. Sarah, though, a woman who raised two children, one entirely on her own, was attuned to even the smallest sounds, and she nearly jumped up. She moved quickly to his side, calling for someone- Sam didn’t recognize the name.
“Are you actually awake this time?” she asked, her tone wavering slightly, betraying her concern.
“Think so,” Sam managed to croak out. The door opened, and a nurse came in, checking his vitals and tapping at the IV that he noticed was attached to his arm.
“How long?” he asked, looking back at Sarah.
“You’ve been out of it for a week,” she said, her mouth set in a straight, hard line. “You came to a couple times, but they had you on a lot of meds. They’ve been weaning you off. You’ve got a broken arm, couple broken ribs. Head trauma, too.”
“Get here?” Sarah finished for him. He nodded. His head felt heavy.
“I insisted. You were in the hospital for the first five days. I managed to get them to bring you here after you woke up for real the first time.”
Sam frowned. “I don’t remember that.”
“They said you might not. Some short term memory loss. It’ll come back to you.”
The nurse finished her examination, and nodded to Sarah. “He looks good. Recovering well. He’s lucid, and there’s no sign of concussion anymore.”
She laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder with a smile. She was a pretty thing, blonde with a nice smile. “I’ll give you two a minute. Call me back when you want to talk next steps.”
The moment she left the room, closing the door behind her, Sarah’s fists were clenched.
“What. the hell. Were you thinking, Sam?”
Sam blinked. “I, uh-”
“Don’t you sit there and stammer at me. I thought you were taking better care of yourself. They told me what happened, I know how you fly. You never would have made that mistake if you were in your right mind.”
Sam had to concede the point to her.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been… better, but still not great. But they needed me-”
“No, they didn’t. Not that badly.”
She took a deep breath, inhaling through the nose. “You’re staying here for a while. Until you recover. Maybe after that, too. I’m making an executive decision.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Sarah, I’m a grown man.”
“Then act like it!” she snapped, and Sam finally saw the tears in her eyes. “We could have lost you, Sam. Because you wouldn’t take time to take care of yourself. So I’m gonna do it for you.”
She softened after a moment. “Plus the boys miss you.”
Sam huffed a laugh, feeling a twinge in his ribs. “I miss em too. I guess it's not the worst idea to come home for a while.”
They called the nurse back up, creating a care plan for the next few weeks. She would come back in a couple days to check in, but Sam could be left in his sister’s care.
When she left again, Sam suddenly had a thought.
“Hey, is Bucky all right? Do you know?”
He felt a wave of guilt, not having thought of the supersoldier before this. Though he supposed he could cut himself a bit of slack. To his surprise, Sarah grinned, a sly thing that he didn’t like the look of.
“See for yourself,” she said, opening the door. Sam’s eyebrows nearly shot off his face as she went down the stairs. The footsteps that came up were distinctively heavier than hers. They hesitated outside the door, and then Bucky walked in.
“All right, how the hell did you get in my sister’s house?” Sam said, mostly to break the silence. The weight of Bucky’s gaze on him was like a physical thing, pinning him in place, and there was something in it that worried Sam. It took him a moment to realize what it was.
Bucky looked scared.
“Turns out your sister likes me more than you,” Bucky said, the words coming out stilted. “I don’t take dumb risks like some people I know.”
Sam let out a laugh at that. “She doesn't know you all that well, I guess.”
Bucky’s responding smile came and went in a flash. He was still staring. The dark circles under his eyes were deep, like they’d been there for days. Sam was starting to think the memory he had of Bucky at his side after the fall wasn’t a dream at all.
“You all right?” Sam asked, voice quiet.
“I’m not the one who fell.” Bucky’s response was equally quiet, equally weighty.
“That’s not an answer.”
Bucky turned his head sharply, away from Sam, a shuddering breath ripping through his chest.
“No, actually. I’m not. I don’t have- I- I don’t have people here, Sam. Not anymore. Just- just you. And then-” Bucky waved his hand at Sam’s injuries. “I thought it was getting better. You were getting better.”
He let out a laugh then, a bitter one. “I thought I was helping.”
That statement tore through Sam like a bullet, hurting worse than the physical wounds he sustained when he fell. Taking care of people, helping people… that was his job. But Bucky had been trying to help him. That was new.
“It ain’t your job to help me, man. I have to sort through my shit myself,” he said, falling back into what he would say as a therapist, even though his heart was threatening to beat out of his chest at that simple statement.
“Yeah, that’s what my therapist said when I called her,” Bucky said, running his hands through his hair distractedly.
“But you were. Are. Helping,” Sam added. He owed it to Bucky to be truthful, he thought. “There’s just some shit I gotta work through that’s just mine.”
Bucky seemed to relax, at least a bit, at that admission.
“I get that,” he said, finally moving to stand next to Sam. “Sorry. I didn't mean to snap. You’re probably tired.”
“You’d think a week of sleep would be enough, but I guess I am tired,” Sam said. And he was. His eyelids were already threatening to droop as some of the pain medication entered his system.
Bucky was still watching him. Sam’s mind became fuzzy as he started to drift off. He saw Bucky standing by the armchair that Sarah was sleeping in, and he had a sudden glimpse of Bucky carrying it up the stairs for his sister. The idea brought a surge of emotion to him that he didn’t totally recognize.
“You want me to get Sarah?” Bucky asked in a low tone. Sam shook his head, with some effort.
“Just let her know, will you?”
As Bucky walked towards the door, Sam’s stomach sank. He didn’t want to be alone, but he didn't want to ask anything more of Bucky than he already was. So when the word ‘stay’ crept into his mind, he wasn’t sure if it was a thought or a spoken word.
Whichever it was, Bucky must have heard it somehow, because when Sam woke up Bucky was sitting in the armchair, scrolling on his phone.
Sam’s recovery took some time. The ribs healed relatively quickly, but the arm would take longer. The nurse stopped coming over after the first week, leaving Sam in the care of his family- and Bucky, of course.
Sam hadn’t expected the supersoldier to stay. He was surprised that he did. Wasn’t sure why he did, to be honest, but Bucky was there, sleeping in the guest room, taking care of the kids while Sarah was at work or caring for Sam.
The first time he saw Bucky with his nephews, Sam thought he’d stepped into an alternate dimension. It was one of the first times he’d left the room since he arrived. He’d seen the boys, and he’d seen Bucky, but he hadn’t seen them all together.
Bucky was lounging on the couch while the boys were playing video games. Something with way too many guns, as usual.
“I’m stuck,” Cass complained, a frown scrunching his brow. To Sam’s absolute astonishment, he twisted around, pushing the controller at Bucky. “Will you do it?”
If Sam’s jaw was on the floor when that happened, it fell six feet under when Bucky accepted the controller with a fond roll of his eyes.
“This is the last time, little man,” he said. “You gotta start doing it yourself.”
“You’ll do it again if I get you more lemonade,” Cass said, a sly look on his face. Bucky paused, making a dramatic facial expression.
“You might have a deal.”
“That’s not fair!” AJ complained. “He’s literally a soldier! He shoots real guns!”
“Hate to break it to you, kid, but this controller is nothing like a real gun,” Bucky grumbled, fiddling with the controls.
Sam realized he was staring, but he couldn’t help himself. Bucky looked relaxed, the usual tension weighing him down lifted. His face was smooth, and a small smile played on his lips as he quipped back and forth with AJ and Cass. Even the mention of guns hadn’t made him flinch.
Bucky noticed his presence then, head swiveling to meet his eyes. He lifted his hand in a half wave, which Sam returned automatically.
“They finished their homework already, thought it would be ok if they played some games. Sarah’s at work,” Bucky explained.
“Come watch, Uncle Sam!” Cass called from the kitchen, where he was getting Bucky the promised lemonade. Sam moved to the couch, lowering himself down carefully- his ribs were still tender, though mostly healed. He didn’t miss Bucky’s eyes following him, and the way his body shifted closer.
“What the hell is this, Super Nanny?” Sam muttered to Bucky, low enough that the boys wouldn’t hear. Bucky snorted.
“I think Super Nanny gets paid.”
“You get lemonade,” Sam pointed out, as Cass came over with some. He’d poured an extra glass for Sam.
“Mmmm,” Bucky hummed. “Your sister’s lemonade is worth millions. I’ll take it.”
He turned his attention to passing the level, tossing the controller back to Cass when he did, much to the smug satisfaction of the boy.
“I can’t believe he lets you play for him,” Sam grumbled. “He won’t even let me do that. I’m a soldier too, you know!”
“Yeah, but he’s a super soldier,” Cass said, as if that explained everything. Bucky laughed, but stifled it when Sam shot him a look.
“How dare you laugh,” Sam said, nudging him with his good arm. Bucky nudged him right back, probably harder than he meant to, given the apologetic look that flashed across his face when Sam winced.
“I’m good,” Sam reassured him. “Callie says I’m healing fine.”
“Callie, Callie, Callie,” Bucky said, letting the name drawl out of his mouth. Sam raised an eyebrow.
“You got a crush?” he said, ignoring the strange twist in his gut at the prospect. Bucky shrugged.
“She’s cute. Her eyes are too blue, though.”
Sam stared at him incredulously. “Not to state the obvious man, but you know the… last person you dated had blue eyes, right?”
Sam didn’t want to mention Steve’s name specifically, not in front of the boys. He wouldn’t out Bucky, not after the way Bucky reacted in Wakanda. But Bucky remained mostly relaxed, just a line appearing between his brows before smoothing away.
“I guess I’ve had a change of heart. Startin’ to have a liking for brown eyes.”
Bucky pointedly didn’t look at Sam, and Sam pointedly ignored the fluttering of his heartbeat.
Sam was woken up by a pounding on his door. He’d been home for about two weeks, and they’d all started to fall into a routine. This rapid pounding was a break in that routine.
He got up with little effort- his ribs were bothering him less, and he’d gotten used to maneuvering with the broken arm- and walked to the door. AJ’s worried face greeted him, and Sam was instantly on alert. AJ hadn’t woken him up at night since he was way younger.
“What’s up?” he said, leaning down to his height.
“Uh, I think something’s wrong with Bucky. There’s a lot of noise coming from his room.”
Sam’s heart sank. “What kind of noise?”
AJ shrugged. “Yelling.”
Sam nodded, standing up. “I’ll take care of it.”
AJ hesitated, lingering next to Sam. He raised an eyebrow.
“Is he ok?” his nephew asked, genuine worry in his eyes. It still astonished Sam how quickly the boys had taken to Bucky.
“Yeah, he’s ok,” Sam said. “I can explain it more in the morning, but I think I know what’s going on. Sometimes soldiers get nightmares about the stuff they’ve seen. I get em sometimes too. Bucky’s been through a lot, but it's just a dream, ok?”
AJ nodded, seemingly satisfied with that answer, but Sam guessed that he would have more questions in the morning. He ushered his nephew back to bed, then made his way to Bucky’s room.
He could hear the noises AJ was talking about right away, and sure enough, it sounded like a nightmare. When he opened the door, those suspicions were confirmed. Bucky was tangled in his sheets, tossing and turning, pain etched onto his face. The sight sent a pang through Sam.
He’d heard Bucky have nightmares before, of course. He got them often, but he never thought that Bucky would be comfortable with him seeing him in this kind of state. He wasn’t sure he’d be comfortable with it now, but since it was disturbing AJ, he thought Bucky would understand.
And there had been a shift in their relationship, Sam couldn’t deny that. They were closer. Maybe he could offer Bucky some comfort, a safe person.
It didn’t take much to wake Bucky up- just a hand on the shoulder was enough to do it. The super soldier shot up, eyes wild, and grabbed Sam’s wrist with his metal hand, wrenching it away. Sam stayed stock still, barely breathing. He’d forgotten about Bucky’s superstrength for a moment. Bucky was clenching his wrist hard enough to hurt.
“Buck,” he said, keeping his voice low, soothing. Bucky grasped harder for a moment, breathing heavily, then turned his eyes to Sam’s face. Sam counted the moments in the gasps of Bucky’s breath, until he finally saw recognition in his eyes.
“Sam?” he asked, looking lost, voice raw.
“Yeah, just me,” Sam replied, unable to look away from the blue of Bucky’s irises. “You’re kinda crushing my wrist.”
Bucky visibly started, releasing Sam’s wrist in a flash. “Sorry.”
“It’s cool,” Sam said.
“What are you-”
“AJ heard you having a nightmare.”
Bucky groaned, leaning his head in his hand. “Fuck. I’m sorry. Is he ok?”
Sam smiled in spite of himself. Of course Bucky was worried about AJ.
“He’s fine. He was worried about you. I told him sometimes soldiers get nightmares. I’ll have another talk with him tomorrow. He’s a good kid, old enough to get it.”
Even in the dark, Sam could see Bucky’s hands shaking. Slowly, giving the other man enough time to pull away, he reached out with one hand. Bucky didn’t flinch away, but his breath hitched as Sam pulled his hand into his own, lacing their fingers together.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, until Bucky’s breathing started to even out.
“I don’t think I want to talk about it,” Bucky said finally, looking at Sam out of the corner of his eye. It was like he expected Sam to push the issue, and Sam wondered where he got that expectation.
“You don’t have to,” Sam said. “And if you want me gone, say the word and I’ll go. Or I can be here, long as you need.”
Bucky had turned his face towards Sam by the end of that sentence, eyes scanning his face.
The word hung in the air between them. Sam pondered the question, not entirely sure what Bucky was asking, but understanding at least the gist. He didn’t think Bucky really knew what he was asking, either.
In the end, he just shrugged.
“You’ve been here for me, man. Literally here, in Louisiana. Guess I’d like to return the favor.”
It was the truth, but not the whole truth, not really. It left out large chunks of the story, like the fact that Sam was finding himself gravitating towards Bucky, that hearing him in pain caused Sam pain too, that seeing Bucky with his nephews made Sam want to drop to one knee and propose on the spot. That was all too much for this moment, this quiet moment in the dark between two people just trying to heal. So the first reason, simple as it was, would have to do.
And it did, though Sam could see that the question still wasn’t resolved in Bucky’s mind.
“Can I ask a question?” Sam said. Bucky shrugged.
“Why were you in the bed? I know you sleep on the ground most of the time.”
Bucky looked up, startled. “How do you know that?”
Sam chuckled. “Man, the bed you brought to my place was literally still in the plastic. And I heard you take the plastic off like a month after you moved in.”
Sam was thrilled when he heard a small, answering laugh.
“Nothing gets past you, huh?” he said, rolling his eyes. “Sarah asked me if I needed the bedding washed, and it felt weird to say no, and then it felt weird to not use the bed when she went to all that trouble.”
“Jesus Christ, man,” Sam said, a grin overtaking his face.
“I know,” Bucky groaned. “Your sister just has some kind of power. I don’t know how she does it.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out that mystery my entire life,” Sam said, bumping his shoulder into Bucky’s.
They fell into silence again. As the moon moved across the sky, visible through the window, Sam could feel Bucky starting to droop.
“You don’t have to stay,” Bucky said quietly.
“I want to,” Sam said, simply and sincerely.
When they did sleep, they slept on the floor, though Bucky insisted on piling pillows to cushion Sam’s broken arm. He didn’t end up using any of the pillows, though- it turned out that Bucky’s arm was a better cushion.
Sam woke up before Bucky the next morning, the supersoldier’s arm slung over his hips, Sam’s arm resting on top of Bucky’s. He was tempted to stay there for a moment- he was warm, and comfortable, and the steady rise and fall of Bucky’s chest behind him made all of his worries fly out of his head. But the idea of seeing Sarah’s face if she saw him coming out of Bucky’s room was too humiliating to face.
So he eased himself out of Bucky’s arm, the other man letting out a dissatisfied hum in his sleep. Sam paused at the door, looking back at Bucky, at the way the light fell across his face, his hair tousled on the pillow.
Something rose up in him, something overwhelming, so intense it threatened to choke him. This was definitely crossing a line. And Sam wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Bucky ambled out of his room a few hours later. Sam was in the kitchen, and he tried his absolute best to seem normal around Bucky. He looked well rested, and Sam took some pride in that.
“Morning,” Bucky said, scratching at the back of his neck. He glanced around the room.
“Where are the kids?”
“It’s Sunday,” Sam said with a shrug. He poured a cup of coffee and held it out to Bucky, trying and failing to ignore the shock that came when Bucky’s fingers brushed his in the exchange. “They’re at church with Sarah.”
“You didn’t go?” Bucky asked. “That was always a family thing for me.”
“Nah,” Sam said, face twisting. “I don’t do church anymore. Something about being told I’ll suffer eternal damnation for liking men put me off of organized religion.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah, that would do it.”
“You doing all right this morning?” Sam asked, leaning back against the counter. Bucky’s eyes flicked over his body before returning to his face, fast enough that Sam could pretend he didn't see it.
“I’m ok,” he said, and it sounded truthful. “It was just a… Hydra thing. Thank you. For staying.”
“No problem, man. Like I said, you’ve done enough for me recently,” Sam said, trying to brush it off. Apparently, Bucky wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily.
“Look, I…” Bucky stopped, swallowing. “People don’t really try to help me. Most people give me up as a lost cause. Even… even Steve, a bit. But you never did.”
“That’s because you’re not a lost cause,” Sam said in protest, but the intensity behind Bucky’s gaze was making his head swim a bit.
“I’m coming to realize that,” Bucky said softly. “But I want to thank you.”
“You don’t need to. But you’re welcome.”
“Not just with words,” Bucky said. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulling something out. Sam frowned in confusion.
“What are you giving me, man?”
“Just take it,” Bucky said in exasperation, holding out his hand. Sam slowly extended his own, and Bucky placed something metal in his palm.
When Sam looked at it, he stopped breathing.
“How- how did-” his words caught in his throat, gaze fixed on the dog tags in his hand. Riley’s name and ID number were etched into them. His fingers closed over them instinctively, clutching them like they’d vanish.
“I am an elite spy,” Bucky said. The words were a joke, but his voice was almost… tender. “The people who put your stuff in storage after the Blip missed the dog tags. The people who moved into your place found them, gave them as a gift to someone who collects old war memorabilia. I found the guy and got them back.”
Sam wanted to respond, desperately wanted to, but he couldn’t speak. He couldn't even breath, which he realized when Bucky stepped forward, placing a hand on his back.
“Hey, you’re gonna need to breathe sometime,” he said, a note of worry in his voice. Sam managed a shuddering breath, in and out. In and out.
“Sam? Shit, I’m sorry, you mentioned the tags and I thought you’d want them back,” Bucky’s tone turned apologetic and a little frantic when Sam continued to stand still as a statue, not responding. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to make you upset-”
“Shut up, Barnes,” Sam managed to say, voice choked. Tears were swimming in his eyes. “Shut your damn mouth.”
He finally tore his eyes away from Rileys’ tags, putting them around his neck, pressing them to his heart. Instead, his eyes fixed on Bucky’s face, reading the concern there as plain as day. Bucky blinked when he saw the tears, reaching out towards Sam almost automatically.
His thumb swept across Sam’s cheek.
“Good or bad?” he asked hesitantly.
“Good,” Sam breathed out. “Good tears. Bucky, no one’s- no one’s ever done anything like this for me.”
Bucky looked uncomfortable with the attention, shrugging his shoulders- but his hand remained in place on Sam’s cheek.
“Like I said, just a thank you.”
“Don’t downplay this,” Sam said. “Don’t you dare-”
Then the tears were coming in earnest, and Bucky was pulling him into his arms.
It was after that incident that Sam realized he couldn’t continue to deny the obvious. He was head over fucking heels with Bucky. And he was about to move back into their shared house in DC. There was no world in which that would end well. He was already acting weird around Bucky, he could tell- even Sarah had noticed, pulling him aside the day before he was supposed to move back.
“What the hell is going on with you?” she asked, staring at him incredulously. “Did something happen with you and the tin man?”
Sam wasn’t sure how to tell her, whether he could even put into words what was going on inside his head. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you saw it, Sarah could always read him like a book. The second his eyes flicked towards the living room, where Bucky was trying to help Cass with his homework, comprehension dawned across her face.
“Holy shit,” she hissed. “I knew it!”
“No you didn’t!” Sam protested. “I didn't even know!”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Well, you’re always dense about those things. I knew about Riley before you knew.”
Sam had to concede that point to her. “Ok, but still!”
“Sam, what are you gonna do?”
He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I really don’t. Bucky’s still getting over Steve, and we’re… friends now. I can’t lose that.”
He knew he sounded desperate, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had to be real in front of someone, and Sarah was family.
Sarah frowned. “Getting over him still? It's been a while.”
Sam blinked. “What? It’s only been a few months since Steve left.”
“Sam, they broke up before the Blip.”
That information sent Sam reeling. To be fair, he had noticed a decrease in affection between Steve and Bucky a few months before the Blip, but he attributed that to the strange altercation with Bucky in Wakanda, thinking that maybe Bucky wasn’t comfortable around him.
“He didn’t tell you that?” Sarah asked.
“No! He told you?”
Sarah shrugged. “Yeah, we’re friends.”
This was all too much information for Sam to take in.
“You got any other information he shared with you that I might need to know?” he asked, throwing up his hands in defeat.
To his surprise Sarah smirked. “Lots of things. Most of them I think he should tell you himself.”
Despite all of his attempts, Sarah wouldn’t tell him anything else.
Bucky drove Sam’s truck back to DC with Sam in the passenger seat. Music played from the speaker, and neither of them seemed to be in a particularly chatty mood.
“I’ll miss the kids,” Bucky said, partway through the drive.
“We’ll go back and see them soon,” Sam said automatically. Bucky turned slightly in the driver’s seat, a grin on his face.
“Yeah,” Sam said, trying desperately to ignore the warmth blossoming in his chest. Whenever the time to have this conversation was, it definitely wasn’t in the car.
They didn’t have any type of conversation until they got back to DC, and Sam could tell that Bucky was eyeing him weirdly. He knew he was acting strange, but he couldn't seem to stop. Apparently they were going to have to have this out. He just didn’t know how to pull the trigger on it, knowing that this conversation could lead to the end of their friendship if Bucky didn't feel the same way.
It was Bucky who brought it up. After they got settled, Bucky was waiting for him, sitting on the armrest of the couch, face scrunched in thought.
“Did I do something?” he asked abruptly, causing Sam to nearly drop the water glass he was holding.
“What?” he asked.
“Did I do something?” Bucky repeated, meeting Sam’s eyes. “You’re acting weird.”
Sam winced. “No, you didn’t do anything,” he said, but his tone was anything but convincing.
Bucky raised an eyebrow. “It sure feels like I did.”
“Then tell me what’s going on.”
Sam knew that was his cue, that he should start talking, but his throat felt clogged. Of their own accord, his feet turned, starting to walk away. In a flash, Bucky was at his side, grabbing his arm. Not with force, just a gentle touch, but enough to stop Sam in his tracks.
When Sam turned again, Bucky was close to him. Too close. He could just lean in, just an inch, and they’d be-
“Why didn’t you tell me you and Steve broke up?” he found himself saying. Bucky blinked.
“I, uh, didn’t think it was important.”
This time, it was Sam’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Now that was a lie.”
Bucky’s face was getting red, and he was avoiding Sams’ gaze. “How did you even find out?”
“Sarah told me. She thought I already knew.”
Now there was some panic in Bucky’s voice. “Did she tell you anything else?”
“No. I tried to make her, but she’s real good at keeping secrets.”
Some hurt crept into his tone, as much as he tried to avoid it. Bucky’s eyes snapped up.
“I was gonna tell you,” he said.
“Really? When?” Sam said sarcastically.
“I don’t know,” Bucky admitted. “I didn’t want to tell you because… I don’t know, I didn’t want to make things weird.”
Sam frowned. “How would that have made things weird?”
Bucky pursed his lips, glancing away. Sam was suddenly very aware of Bucky’s hand, still holding his arm.
“I didn't think-” Bucky started, then stopped. “I didn’t think you’d want me around. If I wasn’t Steve’s boyfriend.”
Those words stung like a slap, and Sam took a step backwards, eyes narrowing.
“You think I’ve been hanging out with you, living with you, because you’re Steve’s boyfriend?”
“You think I introduced you to my family because you’re Steve’s boyfriend? You think I slept with you after you had a nightmare because I thought you were Steve’s boyfriend?”
Sam’s voice was getting rough, he could hear it, but it felt like all of the pent up emotions of the last few months were finally coming to a head, building up and up and up in his chest until he thought his heart might stop. Bucky’s eyes on him weren’t helping the matter either.
“I don’t think that anymore,” Bucky said quietly. “But I did think it.”
“Good,” Sam said, the word coming out with a finality that he didn’t like. There was a distance between their bodies now, and Sam was aching to close the gap.
“Is that why you’re upset with me? Because I didn’t tell you? That’s why you’ve been acting weird?” Bucky asked, eyes still searching Sam’s face.
It would have been easy to say yes, leave it at that, but instead Sam said-
“Because I like you, dumbass!”
Sam snapped his mouth shut. He’d meant to think those words in the safety of his own mind, but his body decided to betray him.
Bucky’s eyes were wide, mouth slightly open, as he processed what Sam said.
“You like me?” he finally said. Sam was itching to just turn around and leave, rather than deal with all of this, but Bukcy deserved more than that. Deserved better. He deserved the truth, at least, even if the truth meant that he would leave Sam.
“Yeah. I don’t do all that shit for someone I just think of as a friend,” Sam said. He looked away, not wanting to see rejection on Bucky’s face.
Then a hand was on his face, turning him back, and Bucky was kissing him.
Oh god, Bucky was kissing him.
Sam stood like a man frozen, not even breathing, and then he was kissing Bucky back, hands tangling in the supersoldier’s hair. Some of the tension ebbed from his body, the pent up weight of the emotions he’d been carrying around for months, and something else started building in its place. A warmth, a contentment, that Sam hadn’t felt in years.
“I don’t do all that shit for just friends, either,” Bucky said between kisses, sentence broken up.
“I’d fucking hope not,” Sam murmured back, reveling in the rumble of a laugh that seemed to reverberate in his own chest. He was pressed against a wall, and he wasn’t sure how that happened, and he didn’t really care, so long as Bucky kept kissing him.
And kiss him he did, losing track of time, until they finally broke apart. Sam opened his eyes, tracing the lines of Bucky’s face. Bucky’s were closed as he caught his breath.
“I’m kind of a mess, you know. You might have bad taste,” Bucky said drily.
“I’m a bit of a mess too,” Sam said. “We’ll make it work.”
Then Bucky’s eyes opened, crinkling as he smiled, and Sam was falling, falling into the clear blue of Bucky’s eyes.
This time, falling didn’t hurt so much. Because someone was there to catch him.