Bucky was outside on the back porch when Sam got home. They had just finished helping one of their neighbors pave around the swimming pool in their backyard that they had been able to construct with the community's help. Bucky had been carrying the heavy stone slabs from the truck in the front of the house to the back while Sam and a couple of other men were placing them. It had been a good division of labor, and they had gotten the job done a lot faster than without a super-soldier doing the heavy lifting. Sam had noticed that Bucky had gotten a lot quieter towards the end and had excused himself from the obligatory beer after a finished job.
"Hey," Sam greeted softly when he found Bucky sitting on the bench, looking out into their own backyard. "You alright?" He sat down beside his friend, but Bucky didn't turn to look at him. Instead, he stared into the distance, the lines on his face hard, and it wasn't difficult to see that something was bothering him.
"Man, you have to work on your murder glare. I don't think that tree did anything to offend you," Sam tried to lighten the mood, which got something out of Bucky but not what Sam had expected. Bucky dropped his gaze to look at his hands in his lap.
"Sorry," he said, and nothing more.
"What's wrong?" Sam tried again, seeing how Bucky was tensing his jaw.
"Nothing, just... exhausted," Bucky finally answered, but that really didn't answer anything. Sam studied his partner's face a little longer. Really the job today shouldn't have exhausted Bucky. It was light work as far as super-soldiers were concerned. Then suddenly, Bucky stood up and immediately had to hold onto the porch banister to steady himself.
Sam was up in a second and by his side.
Carefully he touched Bucky's right shoulder, not wanting to startle him.
"You're more than a little exhausted," Sam said softly, and he knew by the change in Bucky's expression that he was right. He waited and gave his friend the time he needed. Bucky's face went through several emotions before a look of defeat settled on his features, and he sighed.
"It's the arm. It's..." Bucky trailed off, looking to the side and away from Sam. "Sometimes the nerves it's connected to get overstimulated, and it, like, gets into my spine and up into my head, giving me a headache." Bucky stood there, hanging his head in defeat at the admission.
Sam was a little taken aback by the honesty but also glad that Bucky was trusting him with this. Bucky had never talked about the arm before except for a snarky comment here and there, but never about what it actually meant having it attached to his body.
"Do the Wakandans know about this?"
"Yeah, there's nothing they can do except take it out completely, and I can't exactly do that."
Sam frowned. "Of course, you can. Nobody here is going to judge you for taking it off. Come on, man, you know that."
"No, Sam, not taking it off. Taking it out." Bucky said, sounding tired. He gestured to his shoulder with his right hand. "The whole thing, socket and bone connection and all the other stuff they put into my body."
"Oh," was all Sam could say as he realized what Bucky meant. Removing all the hardware that was wired into his system was a lot more invasive than just popping the arm out of the socket.
"I'm sorry," Sam said, giving Bucky's shoulder a slight squeeze, hoping to give Bucky at least some reassurance. "Is there anything I can do?"
Bucky looked up, giving him a tired smile. "Not really, but thanks. I think I'll just lie down."
Sam watched as his partner disappeared inside. He really wished he could do something for Bucky, but they didn't have any of the few painkillers that worked with Bucky's super-soldier serum. Besides that, Bucky didn't like them because they made him incredibly drowsy. Begrudgingly, Sam headed inside as well and, with nothing else to do, turned on the TV. He settled on the couch but paid the TV barely any attention. His mind was still occupied with his partner's struggle. The thought that Bucky was up in his room, probably on the floor, suffering in silence, just didn't sit right with him.
After sitting in the living room for an hour, Sam made the executive decision to check up on Bucky and see if he needed something. Maybe a cold, wet cloth or another blanket, anything to Sam from feeling useless. He trudged upstairs and stood in front of Bucky's room for a moment, listening to determine if it was maybe a bad time to disturb him.
They had bought the house together, with each having their own space. Their romantic relationship was still in its infancy. While Sam would like them to share a bedroom eventually, he didn't want to pressure Bucky into anything he wasn't ready for yet. The man still had problems sleeping in an actual bed; adding another person into the mix would only complicate matters. Sam had planned to slowly ease Bucky into it with some cuddling on the couch, but so far, he hadn't had the opportunity. Bucky soaked up touch like no other after being starved of it for so long. That was when he allowed himself to enjoy it. He was still hesitant about engaging in hugs and other casual touches.
Sam knocked softly and waited a few seconds before turning the knob and pushing the door open. The room was almost pitch black with the curtains drawn. The bed was empty, as expected, and Sam could just make out the curled-up form of his partner on the other side of it.
"Buck?" Sam slipped into the room and slowly walked around the bed, careful not to make any loud noises to startle the other man. Sam could see Bucky opening his eyes in the dim lighting from the hallway. Bucky let out the most pitiful sound, and it broke Sam's heart.
Thankful that Bucky was awake enough to not startle, Sam sat down beside his head.
"Hey, how are you feeling?" A silly question, Sam realized. Bucky made another keening sound and closed his eyes. "Worse than before?"
"Yeah," Bucky managed to get out, sounding as exhausted as he looked. Sam gently laid his hand on Bucky's head. The other man gave a slight twitch but instantly relaxed under the touch. Sam used the tips of his fingers to apply gentle pressure to Bucky's scalp and began massaging him, hoping that what he was doing wasn't causing any further pain.
Bucky let out a soft sound somewhere between a sigh and a keen, and Sam stopped his movement. "Does that make it worse?"
"No... it's good, actually," Bucky mumbled, and a small smile spread over Sam's face. He suddenly had an idea.
"Alright, you know what? We're going to do this properly. Come on," Sam said and scooted towards the wall. Bucky opened his eyes again and frowned. Sam got comfortable in his new position and stretched his legs out in front of him, then patted his lap.
"Come here. I'll give you a proper head massage."
Bucky looked at him, confused. "You don't have to do that..."
"I want to. If it makes you feel better, then let me do it," Sam gestured for Bucky to move over and put his head on his thigh. Bucky was still hesitant but then slowly uncurled. His movements were sluggish and barely controlled. He held his head steady, his back straight and slowly crawled over and just as slowly laid back down on his side. His head hovered over Sam's thigh, waiting, maybe expecting Sam to push him away or asking for permission.
Sam barely ghosted his fingers over Bucky's temple, and it was as if all life drained out of him. Bucky was finally relaxing. It was a start, but Sam couldn't help but wonder.
"Would it help if you took the arm off?" He asked while he continued to run his fingers through Bucky's hair. It was getting long again, and Sam thought it suited him. Bucky had told him he had only cut it because Dr. Raynor had talked him into it.
Bucky tensed under his hand as soon as the question left Sam's mouth, and Sam feared Bucky would shut down completely. Then Bucky let out a long sigh, apparently in an attempt to relax again.
"I don't know... I've never taken it off before." Bucky's voice was so quiet, but Sam heard the vulnerability in it. Sam fought for the right words. There was so much Bucky wasn't saying, but Sam could guess what he was implying. Bucky was deadly afraid of being vulnerable and unprepared if something happened and he had to fight. Sam couldn't think of a single instance in which Bucky would be anything other than an incredibly competent fighter. But Sam suspected this wasn't the only reason his partner was hesitant to be without the arm. The past couple of months, as they had spent more and more time together, Sam had started to suspect Bucky never had the opportunity to come to terms with the loss of his arm. He had lost it during the fall and was immediately captured by HYDRA. Sure he had spent some time in Wakanda without it but living in a hut far removed from civilization to recover from brainwashing was a little different than living day-to-day life while integrated into a society that expected you to be able-bodied and productive.
Sam realized he was maybe putting way too much thought into this, but he had worked with vets coming back from war missing a limb. While working for the VA, he helped many access resources and get into a prosthesis program.
Sam wanted to let Bucky know he was here for him.
"I'm right here if you want to try."
Bucky didn't react immediately, but Sam could see in his face that he was struggling with himself. Then ever so slowly, he shifted enough to free his right arm from where it was pinned underneath his body. He opened the zipper on his hoodie and reached inside the collar of his shirt to his left shoulder. Sam didn't know what exactly the mechanism was to release it, but it took Bucky a while until there was a soft click and a visible shudder ran through his body when the arm detached. It was still stuck in the sleeves of the shirt and his hoodie, however, and Bucky fumbled to get it out, finally dropping his hand and squeezing his eyes shut, breathing heavily. Pulling the arm out of the sleeve took much more effort than was currently capable of but leaving it like this was probably uncomfortable.
"Let me help," Sam said, more as a warning as to what he was going to do than anything else. He gave Bucky's temple one last scratch before he fumbled the arm out of the sleeves it was still stuck in. It felt strange touching Bucky's metal arm without him being attached to it, and Sam noticed how it was deadly still, realizing that the usual strumming that accompanied it was gone. It took Sam a moment until he had the arm free, and he placed it beside Bucky, close enough to reach just in case.
It might have been Sam's imagination, but Bucky seemed to be more relaxed without it. He continued the massage on Bucky's head and neck and slid his fingers under Bucky's hoodie and shirt to gently knead at the tense muscles there. He couldn't imagine how hard it must be to carry this weight around all day long. Bucky might be a super-soldier, but that didn't mean his body was able to handle this kind of stress 24/7. Sam could only hope his administrations were helping at least a small amount.
Bucky's breathing had evened out, and the lines on his face had softened, a good indication that he had fallen asleep. Sam took it as a sign that he was doing something right. Without disturbing Bucky, he leaned back as well, resting his head against the wall and closing his eyes. He didn't stop massaging, fearing that if he stopped, Bucky might wake up, and the man needed every minute of sleep he could get.
At some point, Sam fell asleep despite his best efforts. He woke up again, still sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall without Bucky's head in his lap. Instead, there was a blanket draped over him. The floor next to him was empty. Bucky was gone, and so was the arm. Sam hoped that meant he was feeling better. He stretched his protesting muscles, regretting not at least putting a pillow between him and the hard floor. He'd probably feel that night for the coming days, but if it had helped Bucky, it was worth it.
There were already a few rays of the coming sunrise streaming into the window, and a glance at the clock told him it was just past 5 am. They had slept through most of the night, and despite his protesting body, Sam actually felt somewhat rested. With creaking joints, Sam got up, doing another full-body stretch before he headed downstairs, hoping to find his partner.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee met him halfway up the stairs, and Sam thought he might fall in love with the man if he hadn't already. Sam found Bucky standing at the stove where he had placed a pan. The carton of eggs was right next to it, and Bucky was holding one in his hand, staring at the sizzling oil in the pan. It took Sam a moment to realize that Bucky hadn't actually put his prosthesis back on yet. It was lying on the kitchen table.
Sam frowned, hoping that didn't mean Bucky was still in pain because then he shouldn't be standing in the kitchen cooking breakfast. He stepped beside Bucky, not knowing if he had already heard him. Usually, Bucky's enhanced senses would have picked up that he was coming down the stairs, but the man seemed to be lost in thought.
"Hey," Sam said softly, not wanting to startle the man. Then Bucky seemed to slip out of his trance and turn, looking confused.
"How are you feeling?" Now that Bucky was looking at him, Sam could safely touch him, and he slipped a hand behind Bucky's neck.
Bucky's face made some uncoordinated movements, and at any other moment, Sam would have made a joke about his cyborg brain needing a reboot, but then Bucky seemed to figure out how to formulate words.
"I'm... good. Better than yesterday," Bucky said, then turned back to the stove, glaring at the pan. Now Sam could see a few remnant pieces of egg and eggshell of a previous attempt to crack an egg into the pan. "I wanted to make breakfast, but I don't know - " Bucky sucked in a sharp breath. "I don't know how to do things with one hand, but I don't ... I don't want to put it back on. I-" His breaths were coming faster and faster as he gulped down air in what Sam instantly recognized as the onset of a panic attack.
"Shh, it's okay, it's okay," Sam gently turned Bucky away from the stove and used one hand to tilt his head up, so the other was looking at him. Realizing that Bucky was still holding an egg in his hand, Sam used his other hand to pry it out of Bucky's death grip, which instantly relaxed under Sam's fingers. Sam put the egg down and turned off the stove.
With the kitchen safe for now, Sam pulled Bucky into his arms. The other's arm came around Sam's back, his hand gripping onto Sam's shirt. Bucky pressed his face into the crook of Sam's neck as his body started to shake.
"It's okay," Sam mumbled over and over, rubbing Bucky's back and neck until the other stopped trembling and his sobs quieted down. Eventually, Bucky pulled away and rubbed at his face.
"Sorry," Bucky snuffled. "I know it's stupid. I should just put it back on and get it over with. I just wanted to make you breakfast after dealing with me last night. I thought it wouldn't be that hard to do it one-handed, but it turns out I'm utterly useless," Bucky mumbled. He turned away slowly to get a tissue to blow his nose, seemingly reluctant to leave Sam's presence. Sam followed him and pulled him into another hug, feeling Bucky needed it.
"Hey, it's not stupid, and I'd argue you had a considerably worse night than me. Why don't you sit down and let me take care of breakfast?"
"But -" Bucky started to protest.
"You already made the coffee. Let me take care of the food then. It's only fair," Sam argued, and, begrudgingly, Bucky shuffled over to the kitchen table. He sat down, slumping forward and hanging his head. Sam didn't miss how Bucky's eyes were fixated on the arm lying on the table, and Sam could almost see the gears turning in his friend's head as he worried his lower lip. He could only hope that Bucky didn't come to the conclusion that he had to put the arm back on to be useful.
Sam got to work and put the pan back on the heat. Bucky had already pulled things out of the fridge before cracking the eggs had thrown a wrench into that endeavor. Sam worked quietly, occasionally glancing over to the table to see how Bucky was doing. His partner had his trademark scowl on display that Sam had learned to indicate an internal battle inside Bucky's head which was rarely a good sign.
Sam plated eggs and bacon just as the toaster finished with the last load, then carried everything to the table. Bucky snapped out of his reverie when Sam placed the fully-laden plate in front of him.
"Thanks," Bucky mumbled and picked up his fork. He was hesitant at first, pushing stuff around the plate before he started eating. Sam watched his partner. The food hadn't pulled him out of his thoughts entirely, as he kept staring at his plate at times before he resumed eating.
"You know, there's stuff that can help you," Sam said, which got Bucky to look up and meet him with a confused expression.
"There are probably tutorials on youtube for stuff like cracking eggs with one hand, and there's adaptive equipment," Sam elaborated, but the confusion on Bucky's face only grew.
"I had this guy in one of my VA groups who was really into cooking, but on his tour, he lost his arm and suddenly cooking became a lot more complicated. It really took a toll on his mental health because that used to be his outlet. Until he got this special cutting board. It had prongs on it to stick veggies and stuff on it, so when you cut it, it doesn't slip. And there's tons of other stuff, like electric can openers or pump bottles for shampoo -"
"What?" Sam stopped his rambling when Bucky interrupted. He looked at his friend and found Bucky tensed up, his hand gripping the fork hard. Bucky didn't immediately answer, and Sam gave him the time he needed.
"I don't know... I just... maybe I shouldn't use those things," Bucky said quietly, sounding like each word was a struggle. Sam frowned.
"Why?" Sam couldn't think of a reason why Bucky wouldn't want to use disability aids unless he thought-
Bucky looked away, hunching in on himself even more.
"It feels like... what was the word? App- Appropriation?" Bucky said, still not looking at Sam.
Sam instantly recalled their conversation about cultural appropriation they had a while back. Bucky had seemed quite intimidated by the whole thing, as he often was when he encountered 'modern' concepts.
"I have the arm. I shouldn't have to use anything else..."
Sam reached out and placed his hand over Bucky's balled fist. He could feel the other trembling underneath his touch but slowly relaxed his grip on the fork he was still holding.
"Buck, you are allowed to use tools that help with your disability." At that, Bucky audibly sucked in a breath.
"But... if I have the arm on, I'm not really -," Bucky cut himself off. "I mean... others can't do that. That's a privilege for me, right? I'm... I'm not making much sense. I can't... I don't have the words for it, Sam," Bucky's voice was trembling as he was struggling to put his thoughts and feelings into words.
"Buck, if someone with poor eyesight wears glasses, are they suddenly not visually impaired?" Sam asked. He cupped Bucky's hand in both of his, and Bucky shook his head. He didn't say anything but glanced at Sam. "I think that this is something you should bring up in therapy." Sam gently suggested. "It sounds to me like you are dealing with some internalized ableism." Bucky closed his eyes and didn't speak for some time.
"It seems my brain never runs out of issues to throw at me," he said with a sad smile. "Internalized homophobia wasn't enough. Needed to deal with ableism as well. I'll talk to Mx. Mathis next week." Bucky pulled his hand out of Sam's grasp and wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry, Sam, I didn't want you to.. you know, deal with my crap again."
"Hey, none of that. It's fine. You're my friend, my partner. We can talk about stuff that's bothering you," Sam assured him.
Bucky shrugged half-heartedly. "It just seems like I only ever dump stuff on you. It's not fair."
At that, Sam laughed, and Bucky looked up confused.
"And me ranting for half an hour straight about that racist Texan governor and his republican pals that I had to meet last week wasn't me dumping stuff on you?" Sam challenged with a raised eyebrow.
"I guess..." Bucky said meekly, hunching his shoulders again. Sam could see he was still mulling over what had been said, and it wouldn't be the last time this would come up. It hadn't been the first time either. Sam reached out and squeezed Bucky's hand again, making the other look up and make eye contact.
"Tell you what. If it ever gets too much for me, I'll tell you. I promise," Sam said. "Deal?" He gave Bucky's hand another squeeze, causing him to meet Sam's smile with his own small one.