Sam Wilson is sitting quietly at the bar in the Avengers Tower, trying not to be noticed. It’s not exactly difficult: the floor is packed out this evening and those present are much more interested in getting a selfie with Iron Man than they are in talking to a slightly tipsy vet who’s onto his third beer.
He leans back on the stool and casts a furtive glance around the room. There’s no sign of Steve, which probably means that he could get away with leaving if he could just manage to get to the elevator without meeting anyone who wants to talk. The alcohol in his system has softened things a little, but it’s nowhere close to the anaesthetic level he longs for. He really doesn’t want to get drunk tonight: he should head homewards and into the oblivion of sleep rather than alcohol.
The stool wobbles and Sam abruptly jerks upright, resting his elbows on the bar’s sticky surface. Sighing, he allows himself a bitter smile and presses his fists to his forehead. The last thing he needs is to draw attention to himself by tumbling off a barstool at a Stark party.
A Stark party. Honestly.
Sometimes – let’s face it, all the time – Sam wonders how the hell he managed to end up embroiled in the lives of these people. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy it, because he does. It’s not even that he has nothing in common with them; if that were true then he suspects they’d all be a lot less traumatised.
No, it’s just that…
Well, his life hasn’t really slowed down since Steve shot past him on that fatefully crisp morning in DC, and sometimes it feels as though ever since then Sam’s been doing nothing more than struggling to keep up. This world, this lifestyle – it caught him up and swept him along with it, and he’s sure as hell that one day things will pause just for a second and someone’s going to look at him and ask him what on earth he thinks he’s doing here.
Perhaps for now he should just keep his head down and be glad of the breakneck pace at which they seem to hurtle from one world crisis to another, despite the fact that he’s always a step and a glance away from tripping and skinning his palms.
Ugh. C’mon Wilson, get it together. He takes another sip of his beer and slides a hand down his thigh to wipe off the condensation from the glass. It’s been a bad week and he’s feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be fine if he can get home and crash out on his bed. At least he knows he’ll be too tired to register the softness that still doesn’t sit right with him, no matter how many times he tells himself he’s being unreasonable.
Beside him, a shadow approaches and perches next to him. Sam doesn’t look up: how many people does he know who clunk when their forearm hits a bartop?
“S’up?” says Bucky casually, leaning forward over the counter and rocking a couple of times. He’s the picture of easy grace nowadays and it’s no different this evening, even though he’s hardly dressed up for the party. His jeans are smart but he’s wearing a grey t-shirt with what Sam suspects is a Hawkeye logo on the front. Biting his lip, Bucky thoughtfully drags his fingers through the residue left by someone’s drink, three neat finger-lines through the wet ring that’s gleaming gold on the dark mahogany. Tony Stark does so love his ambient lighting.
“Nothing new since I talked to you maybe three hours ago,” Sam replies, although his smile is forced and it fades altogether when Bucky just gives him the Barnes-patented ‘you’re full of shit’ face.
“Really,” he repeats firmly. “I mean it. What’s up?”
“It’s nothing, man. Don’t worry about it.”
Bucky blows out a lungful of air through his lips in a muted raspberry. “Y’know, someone told me recently that I need to work on my empathy skills, and my memory must be ‘specially shitty today, because I can’t for the life of me remember who it was.”
“Pretty sure it wasn’t my therapist – I remember what she tells me, what with the emails and all. Couldn’t’ve been Stark. Maybe it was Dr Banner? I dunno –” Bucky sighs dramatically and fixes Sam with his Winter Soldier stare. “I guess we’ll never know.”
“What are you, part bloodhound or something?” But Bucky’s made him crack a genuine grin for the first time all evening, and there’s no heat behind Sam’s jibe.
Bucky shrugs, one-shouldered. “Could be. HYDRA’s pretty hot on messing with people’s DNA.”
This time it’s Sam who can see through Bucky’s grin. It’s common knowledge around the Tower that Barnes’ tasteless, often unpalatable quips about his time with HYDRA are a coping mechanism. As a strategy, it’s nothing Sam hasn’t dealt with in the past, but he still can’t envision a future in which Bucky’s faux nonchalance will ever not make him want to give him a hug. Of course, he holds back. Barnes has been back on the grid for almost a year now and he’s possibly the strongest person Sam’s ever encountered – certainly mentally and possibly physically as well – but even so, he’s still skittish and deeply uncomfortable being touched without explicit permission.
Well, apart from one person, who picks this moment to appear out of nowhere and wind himself around Bucky’s torso. Bucky groans and leans back into the warm grip, instinctively aware that it couldn’t be anyone else. It’s adorable, but it’s really not what Sam needs to see right now.
“This guy bothering you, Buck?” asks Steve, his lips against Bucky’s ear. His eyes flick over to Sam and he straightens. “Hey, Sam – are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” says Sam to his empty glass, realising even as he replies that he’s going to have to make more of an effort than that. He leans his face on an upturned palm and looks back towards two pairs of concerned eyes. “Just had a bit of a rough week, that’s all.”
Steve’s gaze is still pure worry, but Bucky’s eyes narrow.
“Alright,” he says decisively, hopping off his barstool and shimmying out of Steve’s embrace. He vaults over the bar and deliberates for a couple of seconds before selecting a bottle that looks to Sam like an upturned Stielhandgranate. It’s mostly full, and the golden liquid catches the light as Bucky sets it down on the bar and then rummages under the counter before straightening up with a grin that makes Sam’s conscience prickle with apprehension.
“Barnes, what’re you…?” he begins, but Bucky cuts him off.
“Tequila,” he states, waggling the bottle. “Salt.” He holds up a shaker. “Lime.” With his free hand he tips the ice bucket he’s found towards Sam: lo and behold, it contains not ice but lime segments. Tony’s hosting – or rather, Pepper’s event planning – is nothing if not prepared.
“I’ve had three beers, man!” Sam protests weakly. “And I should be heading home.”
Bucky jumps neatly back over the counter and eyes Sam’s glass disdainfully. “Light beer,” he sniffs. “Doesn’t count.”
“Buck, if Sam wants to go home, perhaps you should let him,” interjects Steve gently, but Bucky just quirks an eyebrow at him.
“You still here, Rogers?” He reaches out and prods Steve’s shoulder. “Go on, go and bother someone else. Sam’s gonna tell me about his week and I’m gonna practise listening. It’s practically therapy.”
Steve looks deeply unimpressed but he lets it go. “Okay, okay, I’m going,” he gripes, leaving them to it. Nevertheless, they both catch the besotted glance he throws Barnes’ way as he does so, and when Sam turns back towards the bar, there’s something soft in Bucky’s face that’s only ever visible when Steve’s around. He ducks his head to stare at his hands and allow Bucky his private moment of vulnerability.
“And besides,” Bucky explains a moment later, apropos to their conversation before they were interrupted, “the last thing you want to do is bottle things up. You do that and I’ll start thinking you’ve been taking lessons in how to handle emotions from Steve.”
Sam snorts. “So we’re gonna do tequila shots instead?”
“Better. We’re gonna do tequila shots on the balcony.”
“Because that’s the mature way to handle emotions.”
Bucky shoots him a look that Sam would swear is one hundred percent Sergeant Barnes, it’s that cocky. “C’mon,” he grins, nudging Sam off the barstool with the base of the tequila bottle he’s holding. “Make yourself useful and grab a coupla glasses.”
They make their way up a few more floors. The Avengers Tower has no shortage of balconies but Bucky likes being as high as possible, “for the view”, he claims. Sam doesn’t question it, even though he notices Bucky’s eyes perform the tell-tale flicker of anxiety every time he nears a window or an exposed space. The tower is the tallest building in the vicinity and when they’re this high up, they’re relatively safe in the open air.
Well, from everything except alcohol, that is.
Sam peers dubiously at the amber liquid in his glass.
“Do not tell me you’ve never shot tequila before,” Bucky says, looking faintly horrified.
“Yeah, like ten years ago, maybe. Back when I was young and stupid enough to think it was a great idea.”
But Bucky’s looking at him expectantly and Sam sighs. In smooth succession, he licks the salt from the back of his hand, downs the shot and grabs a lime wedge to suck on. Bucky crows in triumph and follows suit. They both pull faces at each other.
Sam manages to make a strangled sort of “eurcgh” noise, which under the circumstances he’s going to consider a small victory. He may only have had three beers – okay, light beers, as Bucky so contemptuously pointed out – but these days he’s not usually one for drinking much at all and he’s got a strong suspicion that he’s not going to think too kindly of tequila come tomorrow morning.
“Whew,” Bucky whistles, examining the bottle. “That’s good stuff, Stark.”
“Man, you speak for yourself.” Sam’s voice comes out a little huskier than he’s expecting: the burn in his throat doesn’t seem to have abated just yet. He coughs. This stuff is lethal.
“So,” says Bucky, scooting back to lean against the wall, one leg drawn up against his abdomen. “Sam Wilson’s crappy week. Go.”
Sam gives him a wry glance, undecided. He’s not a big fan of offloading his problems, ironically enough – especially when he feels that they’re not all that huge. This week has been awful by his own standards, true enough. He’s had to wade through a whole host of soul-destroying trauma at the VA. But it’s been a thousand times more unbearable for the people he’s been working with… and he’s talking to James Barnes, for heaven’s sake: the man who’s been through more than Sam could ever imagine.
He knows he’s being irrational. He knows he’ll feel differently in the morning. But he can’t change his exhausted brain’s reasoning, and all it’s flinging up is the fact that he has no right to whine to the man sitting next to him.
“Hey Sam.” Bucky’s head is leaning back against the smooth wall, his eyes gleaming as they take in the dimming night sky.
“Either you start venting at me or I make you down another shot.”
That gets Sam smiling again despite himself. “Okay. Okay. You win.” He settles himself alongside, careful to leave a comfortable space between them so Bucky doesn’t feel crowded. “There’s just been a lot going on at work,” he begins, eyes focused on his own outstretched legs. “There’s a guy who’s been doing great. Really great – he’s talked to me about maybe training to become a talk therapist himself. And he’d be good at it, too.”
Bucky crooks his other leg and wraps both arms around them, resting his cheek on his knees. “So what went wrong?”
“His wife left him.” There’s bitterness underpinning Sam’s tone. “And the guy’s crushed. I mean, right back to square one. I just…” He rubs his hand over his face; words are failing him already.
“Harsh,” says Bucky, raising his eyebrows sympathetically – which at least makes Sam feel slightly better: regaining the ability to empathise was a big step in the recovery from Asset to Bucky, and it’s gratifying to know that no matter how many of his patients at the VA are going to pieces, James Barnes is still holding up. Even if Sam can’t personally take much of the credit for his remarkable progress.
“It’s not his wife’s fault, I guess. I can’t blame her as much as I want to. When people come through PTSD… well, you know as well as anyone that it changes you. And some relationships just don’t stand up to that sort of battering.” He sighs. “I don’t know if it makes it better or worse that she stuck around to see him through his therapy.”
“How low was he, at the start?” asks Bucky quietly.
“Damn near suicidal.” Sam shakes his head; his mind inexorably filled with every detail of the man’s traumatic past. Confidentiality agreements – as well as common decency – mean he can’t disclose any details, but suffice it to say that this guy had been inadvertently responsible for two deaths in the field. Two young soldiers who would never make it home. David, a friendly guy from Queens with cheerful eyes and an easy smile, and Maxine, reserved but fierce, handier with a wrench than she was with a rifle. Both brought home in boxes. Both my fucking fault, the man had sobbed furiously.
“Then maybe it had to happen now,” observes Bucky. His hair has fallen forwards over his kneecaps, shielding most of his face. It’s always easier for him to speak freely when he doesn’t feel as though his every move’s being analysed: Sam had cottoned on to that fact while they were still in the initial throes of his rehabilitation process. He wonders whether that’s part of the reason Barnes has kept his hair long, or whether it’s because he knows Steve likes it.
Or perhaps it’s because he knows Steve doesn’t like it, which is something Sam would absolutely not put past him.
And there it is again: that uncontrollable pang he gets whenever Bucky and Steve cross the line into ‘old married couple’ territory. Sam knows he shouldn’t envy them their happiness. They’ve both been through enough to deserve several lifetimes’ worth of comfort in recompense. Truth be told, he wouldn’t ever begrudge them what they have: they fought death and grief and separation and HYDRA until they finally, finally found each other once more – and even now, it’s no picnic. Every day is a struggle to claw back some sense of security in their lives; every moment they’re performing an intricate balancing act against falling prey to past torments or future threats. When they’re not bickering like a retired couple, the constant, unwavering support they give each other is a beautiful thing.
But Sam can’t help the way his heart sometimes twists when he sees them together.
“Was there… was there any other reason why your week was bad?” probes Bucky gently.
Sam blinks. “I know, I know – my week’s nothing compared with…” He gestures vaguely towards Bucky and the door back into the tower. “Y’know. What you guys deal with.”
“That – that’s not what I meant,” Bucky clarifies quickly, looking pained. “Really.”
Guilt hammers its way into Sam’s mind; for a moment he’d forgotten who he was talking to. He’d overlooked the fact that Barnes is a recovering trauma victim who often struggles to verbalise his thoughts coherently after seventy years being denied any form of self-expression. It’s easy enough to make that mistake, what with Bucky having his casual persona pretty much perfected by now – but Sam’s supposed to be an expert in these things, damn it. And Bucky’s not a counsellor. It’s unfair of Sam to treat him like one, no matter how awful a week he’s had.
“No, I know,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. And to answer your question – no, not really. Just little things that pile up.” And one big thing that leaps out at him whenever he’s feeling low. But he’s not going to go into that sob story right now.
Bucky surveys him, his face impassive. All of a sudden Sam gets the distinct feeling that he’s just had his mind read; there’s a flash of what might be understanding in Bucky’s eyes as he shuffles forwards and unscrews the bottle cap again. Plunged into a memory of a past conversation he had with Barnes – long ago now, before he came in from the cold – it takes Sam a moment too long to voice his protestations, and by then he’s got a shot glass in his hand and Bucky’s inflexibly holding out the salt shaker. He sighs and surrenders: downs the thing with good grace.
“This is so totally not the responsible way to deal with emotions, for the record,” he manages around a mouthful of lime.
“S’okay,” Bucky grins, thoughtfully licking the remnants of the salt from his hand. “Tonight I’m getting to be the therapist.”
“Oh my God, never go into my line of work.”
“What, they don’t recognise tequila as a valid treatment?”
“Nobody recognises tequila as anything other than trouble.”
“Their loss.” Bucky replaces the bottle between them and folds his arms. “So. You gonna tell me about him?”
Sam almost chokes. Spitting out his lime, he wheezes: “What?”
And there’s that Barnesian look again. He wonders whether Steve ever gets sick of being on the receiving end of that infuriating eyebrow.
“Oh please,” says Bucky airily, waving his lime around. “My brain might be damn near perforated, but I’m not blind. You get this… this hangdog look sometimes, and your eyes go all sideways and shifty.”
“Seems like I don’t need to talk to you at all – you’ll just read me like a book,” Sam mutters grumpily, a little stung at how accurate Bucky’s observations are. Clearly Barnes isn’t as emotionally handicapped as he sometimes appears… either that or Sam desperately needs to work on his poker face.
“Aww, c’mon,” Bucky implores with just the right touch of seriousness in his own expression. “You never talk about him. Might do you some good.” He cocks his head and gives Sam an encouraging smile.
Perhaps it’s because this week has crawled by. Perhaps it’s because he’s antsy and tired. Perhaps it’s the tequila. (It’s probably the tequila.)
Whatever the reason, Sam gives in.
“You’ve been hanging around too many shrinks,” he grumbles, but it’s half-hearted and he shifts around so that he’s almost facing Bucky, no longer shutting him out. “What d’you want to know?”
At this point, Bucky would usually shrug, and the fact that he doesn’t is a testament to how much his interpersonal skills have improved since a year ago. Instead, he keeps his tone level as he replies, “Whatever you want to tell me. What was he like? How did you meet?” His eyes suddenly glitter wickedly. “Was it love at first sight?”
Sam laughs out loud at that. “Hell no. You think you and Rogers have it bad? You’re the perfect couple compared to Riley and me.”
“You didn’t get on?”
“We hated each other, man. I thought he was this cocky, jumped-up frat boy who smiled too much, and he thought I was a cynical bastard.”
Bucky grins, looking genuinely interested. “Cynical? You?”
“I, uh… I wasn’t exactly myself around him,” explains Sam, shaking his head in a dazed sort of way.
“So he wasn’t a cocky frat boy?”
Sam snorts. “Well yeah, he kinda was. Ivy League grad, star of the football team, straight into the air force ’cause he thought he could change the world. Course, I didn’t see that at first. All I saw was the way he showed off to everyone like he’d got something to prove. He had this smirk that’d drive a saint up the wall. When he was in the wrong mood, he was the most arrogant asshole on the planet.”
“So what changed?” asks Bucky, carefully poking holes in the rind of his lime wedge with a cocktail stick he’s picked up from somewhere. He’s taken his cue from Sam and neither of them are looking at each other now, except out of the corners of their eyes.
“Honestly?” says Sam, considering. “I don’t think I could tell you. There wasn’t some big revelatory moment or anything. We’d both saved each other’s lives a couple times – in a project like ours, it wasn’t exactly unusual.” He glances at the shadowed figure beside him. “I guess you’d understand that.”
“Yeah,” Bucky replies, sounding distant and slightly muffled. Sam continues hastily, well aware of how prickly Bucky gets when he’s emotional and under scrutiny.
“And I mean, at that point, I’d only ever dated women. Hadn’t even questioned it. So it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice that things had changed between us.”
It had been startlingly unconventional: typical Riley all over. It was mid-morning and Sam had been going over blueprint specs for the latest EXO-7 model, getting frustrated at his sweaty hands even though they’d been in Afghanistan for months by then. He was deliberating whether it was worth enduring the blazing sunshine outside in order to run to the mess tent and scavenge some ice chips when a shadow fell across the paper as Riley ducked under the rolled canvas flap.
Sam had already opened his mouth to ask him what the hell he wanted though he wasn’t even sure why, because they’d been on good terms for weeks and civil to each other for a while before that. It seemed as though Sam’s default response to Riley’s presence was to be far ruder than he’d ever be to anyone else – and this had been mutual at the outset. Old habits and all.
The realisation of what was being held out to him, however, drew Sam up short.
“It’s really hot,” Riley said almost apologetically, as though he was taking personal responsibility for the climate.
“Fuckin’ hot,” agreed Sam tersely. He always swore more around Riley. Why was that?
A shadow passed over Riley’s face; perhaps he mistook the curse for aggression. Was he wrong in that? Sam had no idea.
“Well. I, uh, thought you could maybe use this.” Riley coughed slightly and his gaze dropped to his own hand.
Sam took the proffered paper cup, mystified. It was beautifully cold and wet with condensation and at that moment someone could’ve told him it was the Holy Grail and he’d have believed them. There was a plastic lid with a striped straw sticking out the top, takeout style, and despite the fact that he was still wondering what Riley was doing in this tent, Sam couldn’t resist. He took a long draught and the world stopped turning.
It wasn’t the iced water he’d been expecting, which honestly would have been enough in itself. No, this was cloudy lemonade: fresh and zesty and tasting like purity incarnate. He fought to restrain himself from letting out the kind of breathy moan which probably wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an 80s porno.
“Pretty good, right?” Riley was grinning – his inexplicably infuriating grin, but right at that second Sam couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Holy shit,” he managed to choke out at last. “Who did you have to kill to get hold of this?”
Riley shrugged. “Couple of people. But you’ll help me bury the bodies, yeah?” He gestured towards the cup in Sam’s hand. “Fair’s fair for a share of the prize.”
“Deal. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for lemonade in the middle of a desert,” quipped Sam unthinkingly.
“Oh yeah?” Riley raised an eyebrow and the atmosphere in the tent suddenly seemed to crackle.
In hindsight, that was the moment at which the penny dropped, although Sam was so flummoxed by the lemony peace offering that he didn’t manage to process it until later. And by that time…
Well, by that time other circumstances had contributed towards his enlightenment.
For now, Sam just jerked his head awkwardly towards the spread blueprints on the table. “So did you, uh, want to discuss the new design?”
Riley seemed to deflate a little, and Sam mentally congratulated himself on the business-like tone he must have succeeded in producing.
“Yeah,” came the distracted reply as Riley ran a finger along the condensation on his own cup. “Yeah, that’s why Eklund sent me over here.”
Sam watched him flick a droplet from the tip of his index finger. They both approached the table and pored over the creased paper; the exploded diagram spiderwebbed its way across the page in thin black lines. Eklund, their CO, was the sort of man who liked to delegate in an attempt to minimise how far people realised he was woefully under-informed about the intricacies of the project he was supervising. In practical terms, this meant that the EXO-7 pilots liaised with the developmental engineering team back in the USA much more regularly than was scheduled – a point about which Sam was pretty satisfied. It was helpful, seeing the initial stages behind the latest wing designs, and it meant that the techies received frequent first-hand operational feedback from the pilots.
The downside was that it meant a threefold increase in paperwork, the reasons behind which Sam still hadn’t quite figured out. Nevertheless, a fiery hatred of mind-numbing bureaucracy was something he and Riley had bonded over; an affable camaraderie drifted over them while they badmouthed pen-pushers and their ilk.
To be fair, the specs weren’t too tedious. They’d have a look, have a discussion and try to work out what effect the latest tweaks would have on the practical functioning of the wings: it was mostly speculation until the ground team of engineers stationed here with them could actually implement the changes. Then they’d do a couple of test flights and perhaps a reconnaissance mission before (providing all went smoothly) taking the upgraded version on a PJ op.
For about an hour, their attention was solely focused on the table. Sam reached for a biro and made the odd note or comment on the blueprint before digging out a sand-stained notepad from under a pile of manila folders and writing up everything into a bulleted list. He dumped it back on the stack when he’d finished and the whole lot slithered to the floor in a swish of paper.
“Aw, shit,” Sam yelped, more forcefully than he’d intended, slamming the pen down onto the table and ducking down to retrieve everything. Riley took a half step backwards as an impatient elbow brushed his kneecap, but he made no move to help – which of course only exasperated Sam further. He straightened up with an armful of files and his mouth open to tear the smug little peacock a new one.
“Dude, what the hell is your problem?”
Sam gaped – he could’ve sworn he was just about to say those words. But Riley had got there first and everything Sam had wanted to say suddenly evaporated quicker than water in the desert. He’d never seen Riley look like this; his cheeks were pink and his eyes were flashing and Sam’s stomach swooped in a way he found difficult to attribute to being shouted at.
“Have I done something to personally injure you, somehow?” Riley continued, setting down his drink only to clench his fists at his sides, his stance resolute. “’Cause if I have, I’d really appreciate you telling me what it is and why the fuck you won’t just come out with it instead of giving me all this…” He gestured angrily. “This passive-aggressive routine you’ve got going on.”
For an instant, Sam couldn’t do more than stare, totally wrong-footed. It was the expletive, funnily enough, that brought all his resentment back in a torrent. “You’re an idiot,” he spat, dumping the folders unceremoniously on the tabletop and crossing his arms defensively. “You wanna know my problem? Fine. You’re arrogant. You’re irritating. You grin all the time. I mean, Jesus, doesn’t your damn jaw ache? You don’t take anything seriously. Half the time I can’t even tell if you’re listening during briefings and that distracts me, which is worse, ’cause then I’m looking at you rather than –”
“Am I a bad pilot?” interrupted Riley.
“What the hell do you –?”
“Am I,” Riley repeated icily. “A bad.” He raised his eyebrows. “Pilot.”
“Well no, but –”
“No. I’m not. In fact I’m a pretty ace pilot. And I’m a good wingman. The fact that I crack the odd joke while we’re stuck in the middle of an Afghan desert doesn’t change that, any more than you sitting in briefings looking like you’ve swallowed a lemon affects whether you can fly these things.”
Sam was still staring at him, a litany of panic flowing through his mind and paralysing his tongue, because he knew this, in all honesty. He’d been acting irrationally, sure – but his mind had been as logical as ever. It had just been more convenient to ignore it. Right at that moment, however, he wasn’t sure whether he should be insulted or… or whatever the other feeling was that was snaking its way up out of his chest.
“So,” said Riley, shifting his weight and unconsciously – it must’ve been unconsciously, right? – edging into Sam’s space. “Now we’ve established that I didn’t get my place on this project through either sheer dumb luck or my pretty face,” – a flash of the cavalier smile – “Are you gonna tell me your real problem with me?”
There were flecks of green amidst the hazel of his eyes, and they held crystallised seriousness underneath the deflective humour of his words.
Bucky’s hand is waving in front of Sam’s face, and he jolts back to the present, something like a physical ache flitting across his ribcage.
“Yeah, huh?” he mumbles, blinking in a hazy sort of way. “Sorry man – what did you say?”
“Didn’t realise you were so out of it,” Bucky says, sounding apologetic. “Should I have let you be?”
Sam rubs his eyes. “Nah,” he replies, summoning an impressively steady voice, all things considered. “S’okay. It’s just pretty vivid, you know?”
“Like it happened yesterday,” agrees Bucky, and Sam looks over to recognise tacit understanding in his expression. Bucky meets his eyes for a moment before habitually lowering his head back to his knees. “So what was it like then?” he asks, to let Sam know that he’s still comfortable talking. “Your first kiss?”
Rubbing the back of his neck, Sam thinks. “Lemony,” he admits after a beat, and Bucky breaks out into peals of laughter.
“What?” he gasps in between sniggers.
“We’d been drinking lemonade, see…” Sam abandons the attempt to explain; it’s easier to just smile and watch amusement play itself out on Bucky’s face. “Aw, stop – I’m sure your first kiss with Steve was nothing but fireworks and patriotism,” he jibes, but gently. There’s an open tenderness in Bucky’s face that he doesn’t want to eradicate through an ill-judged remark.
“When me and Stevie first kissed, he tasted like spun candy,” says Bucky. Sam wonders if he’s pulling his leg, but Bucky’s eyebrows are raised in the way that usually means he’s telling the truth.
“Oh yeah?” Sam replies, and they pause, looking out over the skyline, dotted with bright windows. Then he adds “how sweet,” at the same time as Bucky cuts in with the wry “sweet,” and they both crack up in unison, elated by their own wittiness.
All too soon, the laughter fades as Sam remembers that there’s a reason he doesn’t allow himself to dwell on Riley too often. Bucky watches narrowly as he grabs the bottle of tequila and carefully pours them both another measure, thinking that if he’s going to wake up hungover tomorrow morning, he may as well make it worth it. He picks up the salt shaker and considers it, watching the myriad of tiny crystals roll and break over one another as he rotates the thing in his hand.
“I miss him like…” Crazy, he’d been going to say, but the word isn’t strong enough, so he just gestures, sending salt skittering across the ground.
“Like an ache,” supplies Bucky in a voice hardly more than a whisper. “Like it’s a stitched wound that’ll open up if you move too fast.”
Sam lets out his breath, replaces the shaker, ignores the new glass of liquor. “Yeah,” he breathes, suddenly having an inkling of the relief people must feel when they come to therapy sessions and realise that their feelings are shared by others. Shared and understood, but never invalidated. Not in Sam Wilson’s clinic, anyhow. “Yeah, exactly. And I – I want to think about him, y’know, I want to remember him, but at the same time I want to pretend like it never happened.”
“Because it hurts.” Bucky’s arms have tightened around his knees; he’s hunched up smaller than any man his size should be able to manage. Sam doesn’t comment on it – the professional side of him hasn’t missed the fact that this talk could be as therapeutic for Barnes as it could be for him, but it’s difficult to focus on that under the circumstances. He can’t consider Bucky and Steve with the undivided attention they deserve, not while his mind’s occupied with the ghost of Riley’s smiling lips as they moved towards him.
“Sometimes – this is years later, and it’s an ordinary day, nothing special – you just wake up crying. For no other reason. But that’s not even the worst thing.” Sam draws in a shaky breath. “The worst thing is waking up laughing, because you’ve just thought of something and you wanna just turn your head and say ‘hey, Riley, you’ll never guess what…’.”
“‘Hey Stevie, listen to this…’” murmurs Bucky, echoing the intonation. He juts his chin out to rest on his knees, his face hardening as he speaks through gritted teeth. “And then you wake up properly and remember where you are.”
“And you realise when you are.”
“And…” Bucky gestures; his arm glints in the cold paleness of the moonlight and the illumination from the huge Avengers logo above their heads.
“Yeah,” says Sam numbly. There’s nothing more they can say. They sit in companionable silence. Bucky’s gaze is distant but Sam can’t bring himself to look further than the glass barrier of the balcony as it reflects their twin figures back at them, silhouetted black holes against the light and steel of the Tower. If he looks any deeper into the darkness, he worries about what shapes might mould themselves out of the night.
Eventually, Bucky shifts, passing his flesh hand over his face. Sam pretends not to notice, although his own cheeks are far from dry.
“But you should remember,” Bucky states with a vehemence that has Sam’s instant attention. Of course Barnes has strong feelings about keeping memories. “You should think about him. Cry, if you want. But don’t you dare forget. Don’t you dare.”
The fierceness of his opinion isn’t directed towards Sam and for his part, Sam isn’t drunk enough not to realise this. “I wouldn’t,” he mumbles, then with more conviction: “I couldn’t.”
A complex tangle of emotions flickers its way through Bucky’s eyes, but he seems content to let things rest without pointing out that actually, he could forget Riley. It’s an argument Sam knows that he and Steve are still hashing out: Bucky’s understandable cynicism towards the possible and the impossible versus Steve’s stubborn faith even in the face of HYDRA's precise brutality. It’s an intricate web and not one Sam feels comfortable wading into, because Bucky is incredibly resilient and Steve is anything but naïve.
“God, he was such an ass, though,” he huffs instead, laughter threading its way through a sob. “Such an ass. Drove me up the wall. We’d be picking up our stuff at the end of a briefing and he’d just turn to me and go ‘yeah, or we could just wing it’. Totally deadpan – only then he’d give you the widest grin, so damn pleased with himself – and you had to laugh.”
He’d laughed after their first kiss, too. Sam had closed his eyes and was concentrating like mad on not allowing his knees to buckle beneath him when he felt hair tickling his chin. Riley had bowed his head but the sound of his mirth was all-too audible.
“Jeez,” he breathed, equal parts elated and relieved. “I didn’t even know you were…”
Sam swallowed, looking up at the canvas ceiling in trepidation. “I’m not,” he replied, but it wasn’t anything like as convincing as it would have been ten minutes ago. Y’know, before he’d had Riley’s tongue in his mouth.
“You sure about that?” Riley quipped, raising his head and fixing Sam with that cocky expression that shouldn’t even be legal, in all fairness. And as much as Sam felt he should protest, he couldn’t stop Riley from conducting another thorough investigation into the matter, further undermining Sam’s hypothesis in the process.
Bucky’s watching him again and Sam tenses instinctively, but when they come, the words are nothing but kind. “You smile,” Bucky observes softly. “When you think about him.”
“Not just hangdog then?” Sam asks drily, attempting to mask the quaver in his tone.
“It’s a little hangdog,” Bucky concedes amiably, spreading his hands. “But it’s good. Endearing, even.”
Sam sighs. “I had no idea what we thought we were doing. But it was like he’d opened the floodgates or something – there wasn’t a damn thing I could’ve done about it.”
“Even if you’d wanted to,” puts in Bucky with a devilish grin, and Sam grimaces half-heartedly at him.
“Even,” he repeats, “if I’d wanted to.”
“I can kinda relate to that,” Bucky says unexpectedly. Sam looks over at him; his eyes are glassy, unfocused: lost in swathes of old, old memory. When he continues, it’s quiet, but filled with so much love that Sam’s very soul suffers a pulse of anguish. “Steve kissed me, really, the first time. You would’ve thought it was the other way around – hell, if you’d asked me I woulda sworn that I’d be the one to make the first move. But really, I was petrified. And it wasn’t for any of the obvious reasons, like gettin’ kicked outta our tenement or gettin’ the snot beaten out of us in an alley. That came later, all the reasonable stuff.”
He’s dropped back into his Brooklyn drawl and Sam can’t suppress a faint smile. Usually Bucky’s accent is only evident around Steve; it’s rare that he’s relaxed enough to let it out among others.
“I just had no idea what to expect,” Bucky’s saying: an admission to the stars. There’s a lull, during which Sam bites his thumb and Bucky inspects the shredded lime rind in his hands. Sam breaks the silence.
“But he kissed you first,” he reminds Bucky mildly. “Both our boys kissed us first.” He wonders whether he’s imagining the hitch in Bucky’s breath and the slight jump in his shoulders.
“Both –” Bucky chokes out. He swallows and forces the words from his throat. “Both braver than us.”
And at that point Sam knows he’s not imagining anything. Bucky really is crying next to him. So he swallows down his own loss and musters the firmest voice he can. “Damn straight,” he declares, nodding.
“Which we’re not,” retorts Bucky, seizing upon the opportunity and laughing sloppily, tears streaking his cheeks.
Sam purses his lips to hold back a sob.
Carefully, he picks up the glasses and the bottle and moves them out of harm’s way before shifting fractionally closer to Bucky. “Barnes, d’you mind if I…?” he begins, but Bucky beats him to it, shuffling closer and wrapping a strong metallic arm around Sam’s shoulders. They press against each other wordlessly, both shuddering from more than the chill night air. Abruptly, Sam finds himself weeping helplessly, too far gone to question the wisdom of his actions. Beside him, Bucky’s barely in a much better state himself. Sam twines an arm round Bucky’s waist and they curve into one another, easing into the rhythms of their grief until they begin to grow fainter.
“And then,” says Sam bitterly, when he can trust himself to speak, “then he went and got himself killed.” He swallows furiously. “And I couldn’t stop it.”
“Yeah,” replies Bucky darkly. “Yeah, I can relate to that, too.”
They pull back enough to allow their eyes to meet and it’s an odd moment, both of them lost in strikingly similar pasts that are seventy years apart. Sam notes the point at which Bucky’s body starts to regain some of its tension and he quietly extricates himself, although he sits back down just slightly closer than he was previously. Bucky smiles weakly at him and Sam knows that the gesture hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Behind them, the door clicks and they both whip round, the bubble of reality they’ve formed around themselves out here on the cool balcony dissipating. Steve pokes his head through the gap hesitantly, his gaze coming to rest on the two untouched shots on the floor.
“Should I come back later?” he asks, already going to retreat, but Bucky stands up and he pauses. Barnes reaches him in one stride and pulls him close, arms encircling his waist and gripping tight enough to crack the ribs of any normal man. He buries his head in the crook of Steve’s neck and breathes deep. Steve looks a little taken aback – even now, this amount of unprovoked affection from Bucky isn’t common practice – but he’s obviously pleased, if slightly concerned. He raises a hand to stroke the dark head at his shoulder and his face is a hybrid of emotions as he meets Sam’s eyes quizzically.
Sam offers him a reassuring smile in return and turns away to allow them their privacy. His heart is still aching, but his sense of catharsis has intensified from the moment Bucky hugged Steve. If he’s done some good for them this evening, he’ll consider it a successful end to his week. He stands up noiselessly and goes to move past them to the open door, but Bucky lets out a protestation from the back of his throat and reaches out one arm. Sam halts in surprise and Bucky – not once removing his head from Steve’s shoulder – grabs his arm and pulls him in.
Steve looks utterly nonplussed by this point, but he bites his lip and doesn’t comment. Enfolding Sam and Bucky into his warm embrace, he manages to coax a smile from both of them; despite his ignorance surrounding the finer points of their discussion, he’s sharp enough to understand that something monumental has been aired here tonight. The three of them stand in each other’s grip and Sam’s belief in the healing capacity of hugs is reaffirmed tenfold. And if he pretends for a moment that he can feel Riley’s arms around him, what’s the harm?
“Okay,” Steve says eventually, after a long, long while. “Can I suggest we all head home and get some shuteye? Buck, I can feel you yawning, and Sam’s had a lousy week and could definitely use the rest.”
Bucky opens one eye. “It was pretty lousy, hey?” he says, and Sam winks at him.
“It was,” he agrees. “But it got better.”