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Still I always

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Bucky smiles.

He smiles when he embraces Steve, he smiles when they recite their mushy, cheesy line, and he smiles when Steve comes back after a lifetime, sitting placidly on a bench and looking more relaxed and happier than Sam has ever seen him.

When he mutters “go” to Sam, he smiles. And when Sam takes a shield that is not his, not really, he smiles, and suddenly the weight on Sam’s arm doesn’t seem so foreign.

The thing is, Bucky doesn’t stop smiling. And it’s okay, it should be okay, he’s happy for Steve, right? They saved the world, his best friend got to live his life, he should smile. But there’s something… something there, under the surface. A shakiness, maybe, just before Sam looked away from that reassuring nod. A tremor.

Bucky smiles when he approaches Steve and they embrace again.

“I thought you were younger”, he says, and there’s another shared joke there. Another snippet from their past. A connection.

Steve scoffs.

“I thought you were funnier”

And their eyes are full of laughter and memory in them when they smile. Always the smile.

When Bruce approaches, Bucky backs off muttering some excuse about checking out his phone and a missing call from Shuri. It sounds bland and flimsy even to Sam’s ears, but Steve doesn’t seem to notice. So Sam gently puts the shield down and follows Bucky. He finds him right away, his back to a tree, eyes closed and half a smile on his face. No phone in sight. Sam isn’t sure Bucky even owns one.

“Hey man”.

“Sam” How did he never notice how softly Bucky says his name? It sounds half like an apology, half like something precious he must treat with care. Warm.

Sam doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t even know what’s wrong, only that something is. Bucky beats him to it.

“You’ll be good. You are good”

“You mean with the shield?”

Bucky fidgets for a second and breathes in deeply. When he exhales, his body seems to relax a fraction, like he just let go of something intangible. He opens his eyes and looks right at him and Sam feels something tighten in his chest.

“Yeah”. And it feels like truth, but not all of it. Sam doesn’t pry “He’s done good. He’s had everything I’ve ever wanted for him. And now he can finally rest. I never thought I’d see the day” He smiles at him and he’s sincere, Sam can see that. He’s happy. But there’s something…

“Is that why you haven’t stopped smiling since he said goodbye?”

Bucky takes a sharp inhale and looks up to the sky. The smile drops at last. For a minute, he just keeps his eyes fixed there and stays still, like a statue. Sam waits. The only sounds are the rustling of the tree leaves in the gentle breeze and the occasional bird singing. Then, suddenly, Bucky’s chin starts trembling and the dam breaks. Sam doesn’t have time to process it before Bucky’s eyes flood and start dripping tear after tear. It’s too sudden, like a lightning strike on a clear sky, and for a second the only though that crosses his mind is that those perfect round droplets look like shiny gemstones in the light. He’s never seen someone so beautiful and frail.

He doesn’t even notice he’s drawing him into his arms until he does it. And would you look at that, somehow one of his hands found his way into those incredibly soft locks and is gently petting them.

“I am happy”, Bucky sobs, and it sounds like a confession.

“I know”

“He has… that is everything he always deserved. He always, always…”

“I know”

“I am so happy for him”

“I know”

“I loved him. I love him”, and then Bucky starts crying in earnest, burying his face in Sam’s shoulder. And if Sam ducks his head and brushes a kiss into that soft, soft hair, that’s no one’s business but his own.

“I know”