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counting on hearts (like yours)

Chapter Text

In hindsight, Sam remembers that he’d learned early on in life to pay attention to the Delacroix grapevine. It seems reasonable - logical, even - to think that people who’ve been observers of so much of Sam’s life, from not only afar but up close, would manage an evidence-based read on him and his current relationships, especially when one of those relationships has increasing visibility to the neighborhood. He’s not really sure how he missed quite so many of the early intricacies of his neighbors’ interactions with Bucky - whether the overwhelm of being a public figure has made Louisiana gossip feel far less dramatic than it once did, or if Sarah’s truly accurate in saying he’d spent too much time and energy watching Bucky himself to see others around them, let alone how they were watching him.

Regardless, all relevant clues as to how his burgeoning relationship with his sort-of-partner was being interpreted seem to have been lost on Sam, considering the newer facts in front of him: that their most recent welcome home from a mission has culminated not just in his bed being knowingly made up for the both of them, the couch and its couple decorative pillows left alone to be used as seating, but the entire former guest room redone to be better suited to continually house the pair. In lieu of using Bucky’s abilities and willingness for labor, as she had for some of their other recent renovations, Sarah had instead recruited some neighbors to help turn the room into an en suite, making the best of what space they had to fit the two men.

The closet extended far enough to give them room to store a more substantive wardrobe, two separate areas nearby left open for their suits and Sam’s wings, and a tall laundry basket set in the corner. Towel sets in two different shades of blue are on view from the bathroom, the toiletries they'd left while away on their mission further tidied up on their respective portions of the shower and the sink counter.

Sam’s computer sat on an academic desk he only vaguely recognized, phone chargers tucked behind it along with a painted can full of writing utensils; an Avengers charity photoshoot calendar and a painting of the house’s view of the water now adorn the wall directly behind the desk. Two matching dark wood nightstands stand at the sides of a queen-sized bed placed about where the twin bed had been, with Captain America sheets just a bit visible beneath the red floral bedspread.

A small paper “Welcome Home Uncle Sam & Bucky” sign made by the boys, matching one they’d seen downstairs in the kitchen, hand-drawn with wings, shields, fish, and hearts and stars, is taped to the front of their door, and Sam gets a chance to smile at it while Sarah rolls her eyes at her sons, who are cheerfully pulling Bucky along to look at the redone decor. They’ve all been aware that he thinks he’s imposing by staying longer than he'd presumed his welcome would be, and his pleasant surprise is as clear in his eyes as the blue Louisiana sky currently above them.

A vintage radio the boys had found at someone's yard sale and excitedly brought home (to Bucky’s childhood stories, and Sam's technical tinkering skills) sits on a wall-mounted shelf of its own, while a couple other shelves hold books, Sam's and Bucky’s mingled together ‐ mystery, pulp, and therapeutic books, not in any apparent arrangement. Framed photos are spaced out on the shelves - family, friends, and former selves looking back at them as they look around. Sam's seen most of the photos before, including one of the famous Howling Commando group photos, but he's surprised by some recent additions, like a couple he'd seen pop up on Sarah's Facebook recently - photos where their family had been intentional about including Bucky. Even as awkwardness boils up in Sam's chest, he can't help but see how easily Bucky could be believed to have become part of the Wilson family.

Or...observed, perhaps.

The assumptions being implied may not ring entirely true, but they weren't far enough off-base to be totally false. Sam, for his part, has at least gained some awareness of his own changing intentions, of the ways his interest and his focus have begun to linger on Bucky, of the distinctly less platonic aspects of that interest. It's hard not to notice, really, at this point, when he can't see Bucky’s shocked, grateful expression without wanting to know what that smile feels like upon his own. He supposes it's not impossible his attraction is obvious enough for neighbors to know, especially with all the time they spend outside, but it is a bit disconcerting that he's so obvious that changing up a whole floor of the house so he and Bucky can more comfortably share a room, a bed, everything, was a reasonable enough task for Sarah to enact such a project in less than a couple of weeks.

How long had people just been assuming they were together, their frequent teases not actually jokes as Sam had generally figured? How many times had there been remarks and glances that felt tinged with just a little extra interest, interactions Sam had tried to brush off, only to catch Bucky’s eye and have to be grateful it was somewhat hard to tell if his skin flushed with red? How many times had people referred to them as partners, and meant it as a mark of romance as well as common goals?

Had Bucky even noticed - was he oblivious, uncaring, or unaware? Had he been so alone for so long that it might not occur to him that their affection or bickering could be viewed in a light other than growing friendship?

Bucky leans into the far wall, his head next to the window and his arms each pulling one of the boys back towards him in a hug Sam's pretty sure he specifically reserves for them. The room is bright, a bit too warm, brimming with laughter and sun, and the smell of the pie in their near future comes up from the oven, peachy sweetness spreading to every corner of the house. There's conversation to be had later, but when Bucky’s glittering eyes meet his, Sam just can't help but send back a grin of his own in response.

"So?" Sarah cues, interjecting with her knowing look and tone.

So….so many things. What answer was there when he had so many questions to get out first?

"You know, I did tell you not to move my stuff around again."

Sarah snorts, and the boys grumble.

"Yeah, okay, take the couch then, ungrateful. Let Bucky have a bed to himself for once - maybe he'll enjoy it."

Anxiety flashes in Bucky’s eyes, but he still cuts Sam off before he can vocalize the offense.

"Could be fun," he says, teasing Sam right along with Sarah, though enough gentleness remains to start to soothe the spirit, a knowledge of the mutual benefits they've found from sharing space, safety, comfort…

Sam pulls a scoff up from his chest.

"Next project, we're making you a little White Panther-Wolf house in the yard."

Chapter Text

A few moments pass, all too slowly, dragged out, the room's shared smile keeping a balmy warmth in the air. Sam's joke of a doghouse for Bucky has AJ jumping to ask if they could get a pet, and Sam barely manages to hold his tongue so he doesn't reiterate that the pet is the relocated old New Yorker to whom his nephews are currently clinging.

But he raises his eyebrows at Bucky, who rolls his own big blue eyes, and Sam considers the point reiterated. Sarah, for her part, stands firm in her standards for animal acquisition, giving the boys little chance of swaying her, as per usual. They are, however, distracted fairly quickly when the beep of the oven rings from downstairs, just barely audible, announcing the readiness of desserts to be set to cool.

"Okay, go wash up, you two," Sarah orders, looking at each of them; the boys mimic Bucky’s play at raising his hands in defeat, like she's scared him into submission, though she's not actually addressing him and Sam. (Yet, at least.)

"Help me get the pies out and the table set. The slow cooker shouldn't have long now, but let's give some space so your heroes feel ready for dinner." She's only a bit teasing on the matter, doing her sisterly duty of reminding Sam that he didn't hang the moon. The boys groan, but move from Bucky to their mom, grabbing Sam's hands momentarily while en route.

"Take a breath and settle in a little. I'll shout when it's time for your help with dinner," she declares, aiming AJ and Cass towards their bathroom with loving hands on their heads, multitasking yet again, with a knowing expression beamed at Sam in the seconds before she turns away from them and heads down the hall and the stairs.

It may not be clear to their neighbors, or even to his nephews, that Bucky wasn't Sam's romantic partner - but Sarah knew. And, with her characteristic stubbornness, she was very clearly not giving up on urging Sam to change that, even more so than he'd expected.

So now he was left in this bedroom she'd had redone specifically for them, to have space for two men and their belongings, to note how distinctly their lives have become entwined, shared - an uncomfortable emphasis for such a strangely comfortable fact.

Like a dad in a hotel room, Bucky presses into the bed with a tentative hand - pushing down on his side until he decides it's worth gently sitting down on the comforter and taking a look around. He's got no remark to be made about Sam continuing to watch him from the doorway, not a word about him having the staring problem now, though he can't say he knows how Bucky would phrase how Sam can imagine his staring looks. He may or may not have heard thirsty used in such a context, but whether he'd recognize it is another thing entirely.

Sam lets himself smile, though, at the superbly domestic sight of Bucky, still clad in his sleek dark look, relaxing just a bit in a bedroom that genuinely looked like a loved and lived-in home, even as his roommate is waiting out the moment like he's wading out in murky waters.

"We should get some flowers or something," Bucky declares, seemingly out of nowhere. "I hear houseplants are pretty popular these days."

"You never sound so much like an old man as when you try to sound with the times," Sam chuckles, too lightly to sound like a true taunt. He almost tries not to sink into what he could hear in Bucky’s statement, but sure enough - that, too, was a soft bed after their time spent sleeping, seated and suited up, on military planes.

"You know, I just like flowers, Sam."

He heard acceptance.
Pleasure.
Intention.

We.

Bucky was still choosing to stay - here, with him and his family, queen bed, matching towels, and all.

And Sam was totally going to get him flowers.

Chapter Text

Much of their first evening back home passes in a usual manner - a string of moments that felt either amusingly fast or divinely stretched out, jokes and dinner and stories interspersed between each other. Sam had showered quickly, then changed into something far more casual than even his less flashy gear. Before going downstairs, he'd returned to the bedroom for a shirt and jeans, only to find Bucky nearly finished with setting up their suits in their designated places.

He so easily adjusted out of aloneness into being a carer, more than he'd let Sam hear him say aloud - but enough to be beautifully obvious when his vibranium hand gave Sam's nephews high-fives and handed off personally packed lunchboxes, as was now so routine that Sam's a little amazed Bucky hasn't noticed how rare it is that Sam manages to pull his eyes off of him in the process.

To be fair, Sam himself is sometimes barely aware of his own focus. As it is, following dinner, he's drawn away from the sight of Bucky - sitting on the couch, diligently taking down a dictated list of stickers the boys want to put on his arm, to make it "fancy" now that the Louisiana climate keeps him from hiding himself so easily under all his layers, to Sam's simultaneous appreciation and panic - when Sarah flicks him upside the head.

"Hey!"

"Hey yourself, loverboy."

Sam rolls his eyes, more on principle than anything, with how little true annoyance he musters. Sarah chuckles, settling into her so-very-knowing smile.

"So?" she cues him again, searching for more than he'd given her earlier, and now he's got a bit more of a sigh, which somehow summons an ever-so-slightly anxious glance from Bucky. Sam's pretty sure the far side of the living room is too far for him to hear them clearly, or at least hopes as much.

"You're really not giving this a rest, huh?"

Another chuckle, this one soaked with disbelief and the sip of wine she takes in the middle.

"At the risk of sounding way too much like you, I'll be done when the work is done."

Sam scoffs, but chides himself a bit for having half an expectation of anything else.

"Come on now, boys, let's get these peaches packed up so we can get on to bed," Sarah looks past him to command, and the three in the living room return from the little post-dinner downtime she'd allowed them. Moments like this, he could nearly swear he hears their mother in her. As his nephews huff their ways back to the kitchen, Sam is glad to be on the grown folks' end of the conversation now.

Not that they're all acting grown, he can't help but think, seeing as it's almost no time at all after AJ gets scolded for a joke about peaches looking like butts that Sam's gotten a text from Bucky about those being America's peaches, like Sam is.

"Brb," he texts back, "suing for emotional distress."

Bucky laughs a little too gently, a breath stolen from Sam's lungs at the same time, all the power of the shared understandings and unspoken truths that it's frankly unfair can be summoned by a joke about peaches. The idea that Bucky might have consciously fed an awareness of what Sam's ass looks like is a burning coil in Sam's stomach, one he very intentionally ignores, particularly within the setting of his family. Sarah assists by delegating various tasks his way, helping to redirect his focus, at least until AJ and Cass have begrudgingly shuffled upstairs to get ready for bed.

Sam's intrigued, as he often is, by his own feelings; it feels like a strangely freeing spotlight to know of the room that waits for them. Bucky’s lack of reticence is somewhat reassuring, but then, not quite so clear that Sam knows what it is that Bucky’s aware he's going along with.

In his mind's eye, Sam can hear himself as a counselor, telling people to have their difficult conversations, and there's a twinge of guilt at how many of his he's run away from - so many he's pretty sure he doesn't know how to stop.

Yet, at least, he thinks purposefully. If even Natasha and Bucky, subjected to brainwashing to the extreme, were able to change for the better, damn near anyone could, and that on its own was a deep well of hope to drink.

He adds a note to one of his phone alarms, a stop at the market on tomorrow morning's run. He'll come home with some fresh veggies, herbs, and some flowers, and continue working out what it is he's coming home to these days.

As if on cue, Bucky throws one of the embroidered kitchen towels towards him. Sam's reflexes let him catch it before it's landed, and send his line of sight back to the source.

"Time for bed, Cap," Bucky says lightly, grabbing the towel back to dry his hands, and then putting it into Sam's hands as he moves to go up the stairs.

"See you there, sidekick," Sam teases in return, giving himself a small moment to hold the towel a little more tightly than reasonable.

Chapter Text

Gusts of cool wind speed around Sam's body as he drags in a breath, shaky and weak; his suit holds him firmly, tightly, too tightly, squeezing him immobile. The breath is incomplete when he shoves it out, and he grows aware that he is stuck - flying but not, outstretched arms on guard, speeding downwards through a drizzle while feeling mounted in place all the same.

Lightning crackles brightly, thunder rumbles, and he feels both within his encased skin. The sky darkens abruptly and everything seems to slow. Sam's facing the ground, no concept of why he hasn't yet crashed - no sense of ability to move his hands, and no sense of a parachute, even less of anyone around to communicate with.

To the rescue, huh?

Sarah’s voice rings in his head, stings, burns.

Always.

His own raises bile, and his ears flood with sound, a machinery groan and thunderstorm grumble, then all-too-human screams, the first of which he hears as his own name, joined by other words in other voices from all around him.

It takes him too long to name them, place them - syllables stuck in his throat, family at home in his aortas, lost holders of hope pressing against pulse points, love in his bloodstream, spreading with his rapid heartbeat.

Faces flash beneath his eyelids, illuminated by lightning and then by fire as it catches on a seaside hill, and Sam reaches for something, anything, any explanation for his paralysis, his inability to do anything at all.

He's heard the sequence as many times as a mind can play its own broken record, but he's stuck staring at Louisiana grass while Riley gets hit and taken down, Sam's heart breaking in time with every terrible twist and turn - and by the time he reaches the ground, Riley has spent seconds being Sarah, AJ, Cass, Bucky, Nat, Steve, Wanda, T'Challa, Shuri, Sharon, Bucky, Rhodey, Tony, Mama, Daddy, Bucky-

"Sam!"

The declaration of his name snaps his awareness, not quite a shout but close to it, vibrating with tension-

His vision blurs, keeping only the darkness clear-

"Sam."

His suit was tighter now, pulling at his left side, pulling him into...touch.

It isn't his suit, isn't him, isn't around him entirely. He throws his left hand up towards his shoulder, testing if it would move, and a tentative hand twines its own fingers into his. Plush ground bends below him-

"Sam, breathe. Just focus on your breath."

The dark becomes the dark of a bedroom, his childhood home's former guest room, where former assassin James "Bucky" Barnes has a hand holding Sam's and therapeutic knowledge to draw from, helping Sam to breathe himself away from the helplessness of having people depend on you and failing them, to center his in-breath and soften the out, while he leans back into Bucky’s comforting arms, vibranium and warm, soft, skin both curled around pieces of him that desperately need to be held.

"Buck-," Sam tries, mouth dryer than summer days, and finds himself shushed.

"I'm here, Sam. I've got you," Bucky says, the arm coming up around Sam's right side settling more strongly against him, not quite sure of its hand's place on Sam's chest, but willing to be. Sam answers wordlessly with his own right hand atop it, not tightly, but enough to indicate his comfort. "You're safe. You're home. Just breathe."

Sam doesn't always oblige Bucky’s requests, or vice versa, but right now, Sam just breathes, guiding himself with the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest at his back, until matching his slow rhythm feels natural, until the whole world is just the two of them, holding each other, in this bed.

Chapter Text

When Sam wakes next, it's been two weeks since debrief had crescendoed into mission - before mission tasks had skipped like rocks on water into their infirmary check-in and travel home to Louisiana, and the warm swell of their welcome cooled into their settling into their new, bigger, bed. That had become the chills of Sam's nightmare, and then the sweat-sheened, leg-tangled heat of the early morning return to sleep.

When he wakes peacefully, it's to his left hand being gently squeezed by Bucky’s vibranium grasp, their thighs sliding against each other - possibly some more exciting body parts as well, were Sam awake enough to truly identify the flurry of sensations that draw a tired grumble from his dry mouth. Bucky sounds quite awake in his soft "morning, Sam," rather reverent, and it aches a bit, how deeply Sam wishes he could always have the privilege of that voice, of the tenderness with it as Bucky’s hands still remain latched to him, curled around his hand and tucked at his waist like the intimacy of it came naturally.

When he goads himself into opening his eyes, the sunlight in the room is much brighter than Sam expects it to be. Often, he rose with the sun itself, getting a running start to his days, but it seems to have been up a while, which Bucky doesn't delay confirming.

"It's about time I go make good on my promise to help Sarah with this soup kitchen brunch," he says, still softly, telling Sam it's most likely past 9am by this point. Sarah started her own prep for brunches as soon as she took a breath after breakfast, and help would move in and out for a good couple hours after that.

"Late," Sam manages to groan with his head angled back towards Bucky - half a complaint, weak enough to barely sound like a realization. Bucky’s breath gets hot at Sam's neck.

"I shut off the alarm. I knew you needed the rest."

"Rude," Sam replies, but there's no weight in it, and the hair on his neck is on edge at the touch of Bucky’s warm, answering chuckle. Sam knows the flutter of his own heartbeat too well to miss just how it stutters at the statement of caring. It was one thing, being held close in the middle of the night, but another to stay laid up under the covers, wrapped in each other until mid-morning. As much as Sam does like his habitually early rising, he'd stay just like this for hours longer if it were a choice; it's a bit dissatisfying not to have it, but then, Bucky’s probably stayed in bed a while longer than he'd have liked, what with intentionally monitoring Sam's sleep.

A pang of guilt pops into Sam's lungs; as easily as Bucky took to caregiving when the need arose, Sam most often was the one tending to him, and had no desire to be turning that dynamic on its head, least of all with his own distress the impetus.

There's still a laugh dripping from Bucky’s lips when he parts himself from the bed, two last paired squeezes of his hands marking the cold that takes his place on Sam's skin when he leaves. Therein lies the danger, truly - how seamlessly Sam adjusts to the gift of their touch.

"Will you be okay if I go, Sam?" Bucky poses, both of permission and concern. Part of Sam leaps to snap that he's not fragile, a glass ornament bound to break if not held together by a signature vibranium grip; another part could beg desperately, to be swaddled in affectionate warmth like protective packaging, to bask in the tenderness of a kiss he's never dared ask for-

The words come, but conviction, he's lacking. "Yeah, I'm just gonna go sweat my ass off on my late-as-hell morning run."

"Don't sweat too much; outfit's still shiny and new, gotta fit for a while yet."

"Oh, yeah, we'd hate to have a Cap without the cake."

The comment escapes Sam without much thought, and he doesn't evade the knowledge that Bucky’s laugh quite clearly indicates he understands. It would be his luck for his chosen old man to have a grasp on 21st century ass-related slang.

"Definitely. That would be just terrible." Bucky can't manage to sound serious, but he seems to try, even though it can't restore Sam's dignity.

"Yeah, yeah," Sam waves him off, like he wasn't the one to start this part of their conversation. "Go help my sister before she comes for both of us."

Bucky waits a moment more, but shuffles quietly over to the closet, gingerly opens a couple of the small dresser's wooden drawers, picks out two t-shirts and tosses one onto the bed. A pair of shorts lands next to that one a bit later, and Sam maneuvers himself to grab them, trying to take - and simultaneously, to not take - detailed mental notes of Bucky pulling on and buttoning one of his pairs of dark jeans.

"Should still be some hot coffee left when you get back. Remember to drink some water first, though," Bucky declares, slipping into a pair of boots as Sam sits further up in bed and responds to him with a reflexive, easy smile.

"Yes, sir," Sam returns, and realizes the shirt that Bucky’s pulled on is one of Sam's with Air Force insignia. He can't help but to think the nonchalance exemplifies the seeds that planted their current perception - for all that they're so obviously not challenging the idea of being an item, a package deal, differently than they are in practice.

Bucky moves through the doorway to the hall and closes the door, his parting words a reminder to Sam to call if anything comes up, and an early comment of his, months ago now, that he was relieved to have something good assumed of him, for once, rings in Sam's head.

He almost manages to toss the thought away, pushing himself out of bed to get ready - at least, until he notices the shirt Bucky’s given him this morning is emblazoned Brooklyn.

Chapter Text

Change, Sam knows - too - well, is one of life's constants. Yet all the same, he also knows that as much & as often as things change, some pieces seem forever the same.

Even on days like today, when he's woken late, when the sun is perhaps long since shining, his run is an essental routine. It's rare there's a day that the morning doesn't find him dressed in casual, clean, clean-cut clothes, stretching himself awake & making his way outside to orient himself, wherever he is, with the landscape, climate, neighborly greetings. He makes a point of it: whether he's overseas on tour; in hiding with another name, another life; the Northwest Washingtonian political scene, where nearly every move is calculated; or his honey-sweet, salty-air Louisiana hometown, he gets up and moves. It's no matter if he makes good time, is nursing an injury, or is showing off; the run itself is the goal.

He'd formerly been among the throngs of athletes, jogging languidly at dawn and competing in the high afternoon, corralled by coaches & fighting distraction from their fellow teammates. These days, when he's home in Delacroix, those memories are kept alive by pleasant waves from people's seats on their porches, where many people, elders especially, spent any day with weather they'd call decent.

Some neighbors have questions for him, like Jeanne, his former baseball coach, who publicly shared that she kept tabs on all her players, and was never without something to say to him. The publicity had been a shock at first, on the first trip home after he'd joined forces with Steve, but Sam's come to reason that it's good practice for his public speaking. After all, he much prefers what Sarah's called the "crowdsourced public opinion" to Washingtonian surveys behind closed glass doors.

Now, Redwing follows him loyally, their path traced & logged, even in a place as safe as home. Sam would once have passed furtive glances - occasionally, back and forth - at fellow athletes, lingering only when he was confident in their acceptance or interest in turn, and young adulthood had brought the opportunity for quite a few romances sparked by competition. The past couple decades, though, have him conjuring scenes of battle and training, the two concurrent threads of "thoughts relevant to fighting" and "thoughts about unfairly attractive people".

Running by the water where his younger self had spent so much time, it's hard not to compare the days he and Bucky had shared, repairing the Paul & Darlene, relaxing with Sarah and the boys, and training underneath the tall trees, with high school Sam's evenings out on the boat, finishing homework and learning his way around another boy's changing body, finding rhythm in his own alongside it with saltwater-tinged, suitably awkward sex.

For all that any crush or partner was so different from every other, human nature had Sam pulling taut the red thread of fate connecting him to them, if only with his own synapses.

Whether on dusty dirt roads, weathered wood docks, or jovial town streets, Sam gets acknowledged, either as a neighbor or as the closest they have to a celebrity. The context has changed over the years, but this has never been a place to escape notice, for all that it can appear that the community has disintegrated into ocean salt and Midwestern transplants in the post-Katrina years. Everyone has something to spare, though - be it a nod, a wave, an opinion, or a question.

These days, those are primarily questions about the restaurant, the specifics of the Avengers job, and Sam's love life. Recently, that's included queries about Bucky, though to be fair, Sam's never sure quite how much of the interest is centered around his being the guy Sam's brought home to the Wilsons and how much is Bucky’s own reputation. The latter seems to be waning in the past couple of months, which is likely related to people becoming increasingly comfortable with asking Bucky questions to his face, rather than by proxy...leaving Sam to field the questions on Bucky’s music tastes and spice tolerance, of course.

Not that he doesn't answer the questions he knows the answers to, that is. So he brings it on himself, really. He's well aware, as his only quick retort when his favorite fruit seller Ana prods him with a wink and a wondering as to how and if he and Bucky slept, is a blush that stings like sunburn.

"You know, you've got to get your rest, keep your energy up. It's a tough, active job you've got," the great-grandmother pretends to chide, holding his hand warmly as she hands him a bag with plums and grapes. His own question as to the whereabouts of a florist he knows Sarah's friendly with gets him more information than he truly needed about the woman's financial difficulties, though that she's picked up another job as well gives him yet another reason to find a way to help her outside the hypothetical ways one person's fame can help others in their identity groups.

With a gentle half-hug adios and a $10 bill slipped into Ana's pocket, he urges himself into a slow jog, one that lets him keep the bag mostly steady for the rest of the way home.

Chapter Text

It's only by the grace of one of his elderly neighbors, who is crouched on the ground by his porch and surrounded by a rainbow array of blooms when Sam's route takes him on the road in front of his home, that Sam ends up heading home with flowers at all: Sidney's crown of grey pops up above his profile when Sam is barely turning the corner, gravel crunching in an announcement, and his voice rings out a moment later. They exchange waves, and quickly that becomes a handshake, and then questions.

"What's new with the Wilsons?" is is its own kind of difficult to answer, but a "where do I even start, man?" comes easily enough.

"I'd say I know the feeling, but I don't reckon I've ever been in those shoes," Sidney says, sounding not the least bit bothered about it. He shakes his gardening gloves against his pants leg, and his hands: his bony fingers, wedding ring tan line, and the start of what Sam knows to be an Army tattoo, are reminders to Sam of all the weight upon him again - the history that his community bears, the future they put faith in him and his work to bring. Some days he carries that like it's the bag of fruits he can jog with as long as he's gentle, and some days he lays down when night comes, unsure how he's lived through yet another day so heavy. Sam holds the literal bag a bit tighter, deciding to distract himself. Knowingly or not, Sidney takes the hint, wiping some sweat from his brow and pointing a finger to the Brooklyn tee shirt with a wink and the question of whether Bucky is feeling at home here.

Sam's very aware of his inability to hide the fondness in his reflexive smile, or the pride in his relative certainty that Bucky seems to be adjusting. There are implicit parts of that question that Sam can't answer, but he's glad to have this much, and really, especially with the follow-up query of if he'd ever have imagined this for them, well - he's incredibly lucky to be part of helping Bucky find himself as a person again. In recent days, he's even more pleased to see Delacroix factor into Bucky's days separate from Sam; it feels less selfish and clingy to want him here, even if here does, of course, mean by his own side.

Which, to be fair, he definitely wouldn't have expected to want from Bucky if he had only the context of their first few meetings. But he knows as well as anyone how immediately things can change.

Sam's question of where Sidney got the flowers he's currently in the process of planting - which Sam intended as direction towards a nursery or florist - doesn't get him a proper answer with any haste, because Sam's bashful explanation as to why he's wanting to bring some home for the renovated room finds him with Sidney assembling a hefty tray of planters handed out to him, little flowers in a couple short rows of pots. Sidney waves away Sam's worry of caring for them, saying he'll write up some details and bring them by - "if you boys don't want to Google for yourselves, of course" - and takes a hearing aid out when Sam insists he'll pay for the ones he takes home. Apparently, they're a donation to the "neighborhood project". Sam isn't sure if he's more honored or embarrassed - but it's distinctly lovely to be given the gift, and adorable of Sidney to wave at Redwing as he pauses his flying, and...perhaps Sam won't examine his feelings about it all right now.

Not that he really has the brain space at the present. As soon as Sidney decides he's done his due this fine morning, and should get back to his own garden, Sam sets himself upon the rest of the trip home. He walks the remainder - still swift, but more intentionally careful, minding the flowers and the fruits.

At the house, the cars parked out front are all the indication he needs that Sarah's friends are still around, and he winds his way around the yard, hoping to avoid more attention while he's sweaty and bearing gifts. They mean well, but just like his sister, they can overdo it - and adding excitement over Sam's blend of fame and infamy has only made that more common in their interactions with him. Being an attractive older brother served as a tease to Sarah as well, but going from a charming athlete, to an esteemed military hero, a fugitive, an Avenger...there were a lot of questions and a lot of expectations, and being looked at like a potential conquest by women he's known since they were girls wasn't a particularly enjoyable part of being back home.

Thankfully, that interest has lessened since his return - and, indeed, Bucky's relocation - and is more akin to fangirling than genuinely romantic or sexual. And that's progress, from the very real crush one friend of Sarah's had had as a teen, as far as Sam is concerned - although it feels like being spied on and exposed red-handed when he sneaks cautiously inside, gingerly setting down the bag of fruits then tiptoeing over to the staircase, and hears that particular crush is the topic at hand: Sarah's lament of the mortification as it had applied to her, having to endure her friend swooning over her brother and his boyfriend in their baseball uniforms, and her telltale scoff when Bucky contests that at least Gabi had good taste, to Sarah's offense, and Sam's hidden flame of blush.

There's no indication, though, that anyone in the house has realized Sam's gotten home - no pause in either cooking or conversation, the kitchen's chatter still louder than his practiced soft steps and the boys nowhere to be seen or heard, unlikely to have ventured out of bed yet, with it still being morning. Sam's heart is pounding, from exercise and from emotion, but even his breath is barely audible, and with some thought, he can maneuver himself up the stairs with the tray of planters balanced against the handrail. He makes it up and into the bedroom, and after putting the tray down on the bed, he closes the door as quietly as he can, and gives himself a few deep breaths. It's now he can identify his spoils, some by sight and some by the labels tucked into the soil of the little pots: gardenias, tulips, bachelor's button, multiple colors of carnations, catmint.

The sheen of sweat on his skin feels more obvious, especially as reaching for individual pots has his fingers slip against them, and Sam ultimately moves them with his hands wrapped underneath, taking a couple to a shelf not entirely lined with books, and placing others around the room, trying to judge where he should put them by where the sun is beaming in the window. He instinctively wipes the traces of dirt at the bottom of the shirt, and in looking down at it he balls up his fist around the hem, pursing his lips at his rising internal dialogue.

He tries not to be too frustrated with himself, or God forbid, with Bucky, but sometimes the inertia of the constant do-we-don't-we is an uphill slog in quicksand, and Sam's desire to jump out of the pattern swells to overwhelm: the desire to just go for the kiss or spit the words out, to state the romantic observations they remark on as though it's all external gossip, no origin in the ways they actually act. He doesn't want to throw off the processes of them healing, though, least of all by being, well, selfish and horny. Sarah's pointed out that it's a conundrum: Bucky may very well not have reached a working understanding of 21st century dating, so telling him he's welcome in Sam's life and leaving it in his hands might mean he's not going to figure out any affection that counts as modern-day flirting, and they'll be in that limbo for however long, but for Sam to take it upon himself to make a declaration could just as easily either frighten Bucky or damage what is genuinely only supposed to be a friendship - and Sam can't do that. So he's just here, sweaty and smitten, wondering what flowers and shirts and sharing a bed all really mean, and what to do about it.

Laughter ricochets through the house, grabbing him with some strange, strange feeling between startling and grounding.

Sam peels the Brooklyn shirt up and off and heads for the shower, putting the shirt in the hamper face-up and nabbing an Army shirt to change into afterwards with some clean shorts.

Chapter Text

In the bathroom, Sam is greeted by another shirt of Bucky's, folded and left on top of the closed toilet with a grouping of Sam's clothes that complete an outfit - obvious enough to be an intentional sharing, albeit a fairly casual one, on Bucky's part, though Sam does check the label of the slim black pants to make sure they're actually his, because they definitely look more like something Bucky would pick out. Fair play to him, though, because Sam sets aside what he'd planned to change into with an eyeroll.

A shower is a great idea, particularly considering the sheen of sweat Sam's currently got on his skin, but there's an awkwardness in facing thoughts that conjure flashbacks of threats to have a mouth washed out with soap for improper comments. It's not that he's a master of decorum, but that states of undress make it ridiculously clear just how wrapped up in his feelings Sam's body gets - specifically, the presence of arousal among said feelings, when it's sometimes more easily hidden within layers of annoyance, anxiety, and fondness. It can be difficult to ignore in shared company, but alone with imagery that he can feel in his dick, for lack of better words, it seems nearly impossible.

In his internal defense, the shower is sometimes the best place for that side of Sam's imagination - but that's when he can believe it's mostly a secret. He's not so dense to think Bucky can never tell when he's gotten off - after all, Sam can smell, and his senses aren't serum-heightened - but his remaining sanity has reliance on Bucky remaining blissfully unaware of the vision of himself in Sam's head as he does. Either way, with laughter climbing the stairs to the second floor of the house, Sam is careful to will away as much of his sensual train of thought as possible, focusing on the literal processes of washing, drying, and dressing himself. No need to try some sneaky solo fun and chance anyone getting a clue about it, he figures.

He realizes, however, late enough for awkwardness to settle into his chest again, that he hadn't really thought much about how he expected Bucky to react to the flowers. Regardless, Bucky seated on the bed, casually leaning back into the headboard, his legs stretched out before him, a book open in his lap and his focus in its direction, wasn't what he expected. Sam's general surprise at the sight is a contributing factor, sure, having not heard the bedroom door open or close, but Bucky's ability to appear so casual just seems unfair.

But then, maybe it was only Sam who felt like such a mess about their reputation. Maybe Bucky had adjusted, had decided that the space between real and fake wasn't worth the energy of worrying about or even deciphering, decided that he could just live their pretend life and not examine things like mornings tangled up in bed or clothes worn by both of them.

Maybe Sam was just seriously overthinking this.

He can't feel certain, though, because it feels like there should be some clue in the way that Bucky just barely flickers his eyes up from the book to look at Sam, just barely crinkles the edges of his eyes in what could become a smile but isn't quite.

"Good run?" Bucky asks, his tone full of amusement that's not clear in his face.

"Yeah, it was," Sam agrees, half a chuckle and half a sigh rolling off his lips; he's not sure which most lends itself to the schooled, careful tightness of Bucky's next comment.

"And some nice flowers."

"You did say you like flowers - and that we should get some," Sam replies, hands moving nervously to his hips as he hopes that doesn't come off sounding like a retort.

"Yes. Yes, I did," Bucky nods, and though its shine is momentary, Sam catches his smile, holds onto it in his pounding heart.

"Impressively fast turnaround on that."

Bucky glances up again, eyes twinkling with questions he's waiting to ask in the most purposely bothersome ways he can find, and Sam puffs his shoulders up with the part of the statement that's complimentary.

"You know me, man, I aim to please."

Bucky purses his lips together, slipping a handmade bookmark from Cass into his book as he closes it and sets it down. Sam can't help wondering if he was waiting with something in mind, if he had just wanted to seem occupied, or if he had tired of interaction and come upstairs for some time alone, time Sam was interrupting, possibly evinced by the lack of announcement of his entry.

"Well, luckily you didn't get tasked with carrying a whole truckload of food. I think Sarah cooked half of what we had in the kitchen."

"Oh, my poor tired super soldier," Sam jests gently, waiting for Bucky's telltale eyeroll, "who was so easily roped into helping out, and who has definitely never lifted heavy shit for the sake of showing off to us mere mortals-"

Bucky groans, and his pink cheeks betray him, his tone a bit more serious than Sam thinks he intends to seem.

"Okay, okay. I won't help next time she does brunch. I'll just sleep in, pull the covers over my head until you're back. Get the boys to keep your side warm, maybe."

"Don't start with them. They won't get back up for me, and when I'm coming to bed, we're not doing that."

"I don't know, we could push them over, give you some space-"

"We just got this bed, and you're already giving the nephews priority? My, some kind bedfellow you make-"

"Only when you've gotten out of bed, Samuel."

Sam laughs at the clarification, shifting onto the foot of the bed and facing the headboard in anticipation of moving towards his pillow.

"Are you bribing me to sleep in later, James?" he asks, a lilt bringing in the joking spirit all the while asking far more real questions at its roots.

"I do believe that technically falls under threat as opposed to bribe, but yes."

Sam rolls over and scoots himself back, a couple swift movements getting him to the other end of the bed. Bucky's eyes are on him until he pauses at his destination and looks to his right, spotting one of his most-used mugs in a familiar placement on the nightstand next to him, the smell of coffee hitting him once he's sitting by it. He leans his shoulder into Bucky's for a soft nudge, and Bucky presses back.

"I can live with some threats from your side of the bed," Sam says as coolly as he can manage, grabbing his coffee and taking a deep, warm sip. "Gotta keep life interesting, after all."

Chapter Text

Bucky insists on a remark about Sam's sneaking past the kitchen full of Sarah and friends, his luck for the fawning he narrowly escaped. Sam momentarily worries he'll add something to say that he hadn't avoided Bucky's notice, that Bucky had been pulling Sam's leg along with the act he was putting on for company.

Bucky describing attraction to Sam as 'good taste'? Yeah, right.

"Not that Sarah didn't do her best to keep them away from the topic of our love life," Bucky adds, and the head tilt that comes with Sam's own chuckle gives him the sight of Bucky's cheeks tinged rosy pink. "But my so-called old man sensibilities are apparently amusing, and raise some questions."

"Questions about sleeping arrangements?" Sam says, as jokingly as he can make his tone.

"In that they can be phrased as though they're about sleeping, yeah," Bucky answers. His tone tries to jest like Sam's, but the knuckles of his right hand have begun to lose color in the strength of his grip on his book.

On instinct, Sam's left hand reaches over, the heat lingering from Sam's coffee mug settling on top of Bucky's fingers. His grip immediately loosens, only for him to then let go of the book altogether, dog-earing his page and flipping over his hand. Sam hears the tail end of a soft exhale, and puts their fingertips against each other.

Bucky spreads his fingers open gently, and Sam moves his hand aside by an inch, less sure than the moment before that the contact is desired - at least, until Bucky's fingers curl up around to the back of Sam's hand, wordlessly a giving motion as opposed to expectant, yet cuing him to twine their fingers together.

Sam leans away, carefully sets down his mug, angles his chest towards Bucky as he sits back up fully.

"They get to be too much, you gotta know me and Sarah will back you up if you say so."

"I do know that."

Bucky leans his head back to the headboard, breath staying soft, like he's as comfortable as he could be, gaze aimed over towards his partner. Sam grins, preening.

"You happy little retired hunting dog," he reflects, relaying memories from former lives, of dutiful working animals getting to slow down and rest. He'd ruffle Bucky's hair like he was a dog, too, if the most convenient way to tease him like so didn't mean prying apart their joined hands.

"Panther-wolf, wasn't it, to you?" comes Bucky's next remark, a laugh not quite spilling out from his tight lips as he says it. Sam's paying them and their redness too much attention, but as of yet, Bucky doesn't seem to mind. "And not yet retired."

Some ache buckles inside Sam's chest, something inexplicably clear enough that his demeanor changes, and Bucky's in turn.

"Not that I want to be. Right now, at least. I'm talking with Lorraine about it, you know, figuring out what I want."

Sam does know, indeed; he'd been present for the part of that final session with Raynor, when Bucky had asked her for referrals, when he'd asked for someone in Louisiana, and gave her sass for writing a line too many on her legal pad about the query. Sam had driven him to New Orleans for the introductory appointments, sat outside in the truck for those 50 minute hours, asked what Bucky thought of them.

He's gotten the footnotes of most of the sessions that followed Bucky's choosing one of those professionals - a young lady who's become instrumental in the continued ice melting project that is the healing of Bucky Barnes. They're doing good work, have been for the last couple months. Bucky's grown into it.

"Keeping the mix of things is good, the time here and then missions and trainings, too. Besides, I don't trust anyone else to have your six like-"

"When you want out of the-" Sam interjects, trying to ignore the creeping flush he feels at the comment he's interrupted, even as he squeezes Bucky's hand.

"I'll tell you." Bucky squeezes back. "You'll know. Stop worrying."

"About you? No way, José. Pas question."

"Bien sûr," Bucky smiles through his eyeroll, "of course."

"Oh. Also, Sarah asked if we could take care of the boys this evening."

Asked, he says, like her saying it isn't more of her telling. Like he's bringing it up casually, not in the midst of a conversation they need, and don't particularly want, to have. "And?"

"I said I'd run it by you, but yes."

Sam chuckles. "Yeah, good answer."