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Acts of Service (AKA how to accidentally win over your boyfriend)

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i.

 

The first time it happens, Sam falls asleep almost immediately afterwards.

 

They’re fresh off the heels of a reconnaissance mission that leaves every joint in Sam’s body feeling all forty years of his big age on this miserable space rock. It probably doesn’t help that his wretched D.C. rental has got to be a hundred degrees in the sweltering summer heat and to top it all off, he’s pretty sure Mercury is in retrograde. He’d only kept this place because it was cheap and close to the hangar for nights when he didn’t have the energy to fly back to New Orleans. 

 

“This place is worse than mine,” Barnes says neutrally, messing with the busted AC unit.

 

“Why are you here again?” Sam grumbles. Barnes had followed him back from the base for some reason or other that he couldn’t be bothered to think about right now.

 

“Seriously,” Sam says, flopping onto his bed and wincing when it exacerbates the throbbing pain shooting up his back. “Just leave me here to die.” At least he’d had the sense to toe off his boots first, which just leaves him to stew in the miasma of sweat in his uniform.

 

Barnes lets out a long-suffering sigh, and seriously, why is he still here? Sam isn’t sure he can deal with Barnes’s dry wit on top of everything else he’s got going on in this little corner of hell tonight, which, judging by the way the AC sputters and coughs before giving up completely, he’s pretty sure is going to be A Lot. He feels a weight plop down unceremoniously next to him.

 

“You need to take your suit off,” Barnes says, and does he really have to sound so grumpy all the time? “You’re going to be more sore in the morning if you don’t.”

 

He has half a mind to leave it on just to spite Barnes. Sam grumbles something unintelligible into the comforter and hopes Barnes gets the idea. He hears yet another sigh followed by the feeling of a zipper running down the length of his back.

 

Sam still has no idea what Barnes is doing in his apartment at 2 AM in the dead of summer. They’d technically agreed to go separate ways after dealing with the Flagsmashers – Sam had been perfectly fine with that; hell, he’d been under the impression Barnes had been more than fine with it. Neither of them had brought it up again when all was said and done, though. And now every inch of his body aches and he’s too exhausted to start another argument tonight. He can already feel a migraine coming on.

 

“Can I touch you?” Barnes asks. It’s maybe the most jarring thing Barnes has ever said to him, and that’s saying something considering Barnes has graced him with such hits as let’s take the shield, Sam and we’re breaking Zemo out of prison , Sam but he can already feel the ghost of a hand hovering over his back as if asking for permission.

 

“To relieve the tension,” Barnes says as if Sam is the one being particularly dense.

 

Again, Sam grunts into the mattress. It’s less assent and more begrudging resignation to whatever the hell Barnes means by ‘ relieve the tension’. For all Sam knows, Barnes has also decided he’s had enough of this partnership and plans to kill him in his sleep – and okay, he knows Barnes would never actually do that, but again – Mercury. Retrograde. Pisces. He’s more focused on the tension building at the back of his head and the way his lower back feels like it’s been run over by a large truck, all thoughts of which come screeching to a halt when Barnes digs his thumbs into Sam’s shoulder blades.

 

Sam hisses on reflex because it hurts like a mother, but the second Barnes’s fingers ease up, the relief is so instantaneous that it leaves Sam floating and feeling like he’s just inhaled a Xanax or three. The groan he lets out is honestly obscene.

 

“W’th hell,” he slurs. Now that the pain has subsided to a manageable level, Barnes’s knuckles gently knead his shoulders, rolling back and forth across his spine.

 

“Where else?” Barnes asks with a grunt.

 

It must say something about how quickly Sam is able to recalibrate to a new normal because he mentally shrugs and just twists his neck a few times, ignoring the little sparks of pain that flare up and hoping Barnes gets the message. He expects the white hot pain this time when Barnes’s thumbs settle at the base of his neck. The chill of the vibranium when Barnes gently wraps his fingers down the front of Sam’s throat for better leverage? Decidedly less expected. And he concludes immediately that the goosebumps spreading across his back and down his arms are a Completely Normal biological reaction to the cool metal. He’s absolutely not examining it any further than that, no sir.

 

And again, the relief is immediate. Barnes’s fingers roam down the backs of Sam’s arms, prodding, kneading, grinding until a jolting sensation runs from his elbows to his palms, which suddenly feel a little less strained. His palms had been shot to hell from all the shield practice lately, but how the hell had Barnes even known that? Sam melts into the mattress. He’s not sure he could move right now even if he wanted to, limbs loose and coaxed into the consistency of jello by Barnes’s stupidly strong fingers.

 

“Where else?” Barnes asks again, monotone. His motions are strictly utilitarian, clearly seeking to achieve maximum relief with as much economy of movement as possible.

 

“My head…?”

 

Sam isn’t actually being serious and he genuinely expects a sarcastic response, but despite how incredible the last few minutes have been, his migraine is still steadily growing. It shouldn’t surprise him when Barnes’s fingers retreat, only to settle again on his temples. The pain causes his vision to flash. In its wake he feels all the tension leave his head. He’d just been fucking with Barnes, but Barnes had gone and literally scared his migraine away. Honestly, it’s far and away the best massage Sam’s ever had.

 

“Wh’re’d y’learn t’do that?” he says, because the pain has been replaced with a reprieve so intense that he can barely keep his eyes open at this point.

 

He can’t see it, but he knows Barnes rolls his eyes. “Go to sleep, Sam,” is all he gets in response. In the absence of any other complaints from Sam, his hands wander over Sam’s scalp, gently seeking out and destroying every problem spot with faultless accuracy.

 

Sam sighs into the mattress, quickly losing consciousness. Vaguely, he’s aware of Barnes speaking, but the words come out garbled like his ears are underwater.

 

The next morning, Barnes is gone – probably left the instant Sam fell asleep. Sam wakes up in a puddle of drool and the stench of his uniform nearly causes him to gag, but holy hell. His neck, shoulders, back, his everything feel like they’ve quite literally had the stress and aches and cramps wrung out of them, and the high lasts well through the morning. It’s the best night of sleep Sam’s gotten since the re-Blippening and he refuses to think about the fact that Barnes was responsible for it.

 


 

ii.

 

The second time it happens is when Sam becomes acutely aware that it’s a Problem™.

 

Barnes had followed him home from the base again with nary an explanation, just silently walked alongside Sam and ingratiated himself into Sam’s living space like he’d always belonged there. It would maybe be more endearing if they’d not constantly been at each other’s necks for the better part of six years now. But then Sam showers, changes into pajamas, flops onto his bed, and the second Barnes’s hands touch his back, all of his irritation vanishes.

 

When Sam groans, it sounds like a morbidly tired person being struck by a bus. He’s not as sore as last time, which Barnes takes as his cue to do as he pleases, fingers pressing into joints and tendons and places no masseuse has ever bothered to pay attention to. 

 

“You learn this in school?” Sam asks.

 

Steve had never mentioned anything about this . And sure, maybe gives his friends ( shit, were he and Barnes actually friends?) mind-melting back rubs is an odd thing to share about one of your mutual friends, but Sam had after all spent over two years tracking the guy. He just feels like maybe he should’ve been entitled to this information.

 

Sam doesn’t think he’s going to get a response, but Barnes’s voice eventually cuts through the haze even if he has to strain to hear it.

 

“It was important for the Soldier to know about pressure points,” Bucky says softly. “You can bring down an enemy twice your size if you know where to strike.”

 

The admission is startling in its authenticity, even if Sam can’t exactly follow the train of thought at the moment. That is, until Barnes presses a firm thumb – the vibranium one – into the back of one of Sam’s shoulders and he loses sensation in his left hand entirely, can’t even make a fist or flex his fingers. Oh

 

But then Barnes rubs his thumb in a circle, searching, and Sam knows the instant he’s hit his target because Sam’s entire left arm shudders before a warmth spreads down to his hands, quickly replaced with a pleasant lethargy.

 

“Buck–” he says, and dammit, he’d really been trying to keep some professional distance between them but it’s impossible when Barnes goes making declarations like that.

 

“‘s okay,” Barnes says. “It can be used for more than just combat, you know.” Had his voice always been pitched so low? He murmurs softly as he explores every fold of Sam’s back, and Sam really can’t help but notice how nice the sound is when it’s not screaming back at him about who went the wrong way and who blew their cover and who’s turn it was to pay for lunch.

 

He allows himself to drift, Barnes now taking it upon himself to explain every single thing he’s doing to Sam, who doesn’t bother to process any of it except to conclude that yes, Barnes’s voice is extremely soothing. 

 

And this is all very well and good, but the problem is that Sam’s not running on fumes tonight. The languid pleasure running through his veins is enough to dull his senses but he’s still awake, which means he notices that all of the tension in his body hasn’t exactly gone away, just run off further south.

 

Shit. Could Barnes tell he was turned on by like, the temperature of Sam’s skin or whatever? Did Barnes even know the effect he was having on Sam? Sam recalls talk of pressure points and Barnes’s utilitarian ministrations and realizes that no, Barnes isn’t secretly giving him some weird tantric sex massage. 

 

He actually feels a little (okay, a lot ) bad for the guy. Dude is a massage savant and doesn’t even know it.

 

And normally, Sam might let him know what a good job he’s doing, it’s just that he’s currently contending with the very real problem in his pants. It’s not like Sam’s actively turned on by Barnes or the thought of what he’s doing, but all his brain is capable of comprehending right now is feels good and decides that’s enough to send a jolt straight to his groin. This had to be a normal thing, right? Sam’s pretty sure that getting a hard-on during a massage is just something that occasionally happened to people. Completely normal bodily function. If he convinces himself of that, then he doesn’t have to think too hard about how it’s Barnes giving him the massage and squeezing groans of pleasure and relief out of him.

 

Instead, Sam says “y’should hire yourself out as a personal masseuse. Probably make a killing.” And it’s not like he can’t ignore what’s going on below his waist. There’s a difference between being an eager participant and simply responding to stimuli, is all he’s saying, and this situation firmly falls into the latter category. Clearly.

 

“That’s disgusting,” Barnes says lightly as he continues to knead and massage all of Sam’s stress away.

 

“You’re giving me a massage,” Sam points out. 

 

Barnes doesn’t respond, but his hands work their way up to Sam’s scalp and Sam sighs before Barnes has even done anything, the memory of his vanishing migraine priming him for what’s to come. Sleep becomes harder to resist as Barnes works out the knots and tensions in his scalp that Sam hadn’t even known were there. He somehow manages to fall asleep feeling both frustrated and relaxed. Fucking Barnes and his stupid fingers.

 


 

iii.

 

After that, Sam doesn’t even question it anymore. It’s just another way Barnes annoys him into submission, answering no questions, providing no explanations, just following him home and working his magic until Sam really, really isn’t annoyed anymore.

 

And okay, Sam had complained pretty vocally and in lurid detail about how sore his legs were today, but that had mostly been to Torres; Barnes must have overheard. Is cutting him off what needs to happen to shake Barnes off his tail? Something in his chest gives an unhappy little flutter and Sam promptly banishes it to the Depths to never be thought of or perceived again.

 

He’d googled it, after the last time. For validation purposes, okay? What he finds is less than validating, though.

 

When a person receives a massage and trust exists between the therapist and client, oxytocin is released into the blood. High levels of oxytocin can lead to erections.

 

Trust. Dammit. It’s not like he doesn’t trust Barnes – he trusts the guy to cover his six and knows he’s usually trusted in return to catch Barnes when he falls, but that was strictly workplace trust. Ugh. He immediately deletes his search history and tries not to think about it again. Try being the operative word.

 

It’s just, he’s got no idea what angle Barnes is playing at here. He never stays the night, but Sam always wakes up to find himself tucked neatly into his covers, which, what the actual fuck? And Barnes even locks the front door before leaving despite not having a key, which, again: what the fuck? If it’s a come on, it’s got to the weirdest one Sam’s ever experienced. And if it is, Sam’s really not sure how to feel about it. As far as friends with benefits – or, “benefits” – go, it could be fine, the “benefits” on offer being what they are. But as far as anything else? Sure, Barnes isn’t bad-looking by any means, but Sam looks for more in a relationship than the on-and-off antagonistic connection they’ve managed to foster, and he can’t imagine Barnes would feel differently. Maybe Barnes is just genuinely trying to be a good friend? Sam can’t think of a more absurd way of showing it than silent (admittedly mind-blowing) massages and back rubs, but then again, he’s never really understood how Barnes’s brain works, so maybe that’s it.

 

And the thing is, he’d initially viewed the back rubs as a harmless dalliance. Now that he’s constantly second-guessing his not friendship with Barnes, though, they’ve gone from a pleasurable inconvenience to a Big Problem, not to be confused with a Very Big Problem™, which is what Sam’s about to have on his hands if Barnes doesn’t stop talking very soon.

 

“You seem tense,” Barnes says. He does something with his knuckles to the backs of Sam’s knees that causes Sam to melt into the mattress and his spark of irritation to dull.

 

“I wonder why,” Sam grits back. His words don’t have the heat behind them that he’d like.

 

“It’s about the mission,” Barnes says with an infuriating calm.

 

“No shit. What the hell was that?”

 

“You were in danger.” Barnes says it as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

 

“I had it under control,” Sam grits out. He can already feel a headache coming on. Barnes’s fingers slide up to his head with unnerving discernment, and Sam discovers that it’s really quite hard to stay mad at Barnes when he’s working him over like this.

 

“It didn’t look like it to me,” Barnes says quietly.

 

He wishes Barnes would stop massaging his scalp so he could make this a proper argument and express himself clearly, except for the fact that he also really, really doesn’t want Barnes to stop.

 

“‘m not some lone wolf,” Sam says, slowly for the sluggish haze at the margins of his consciousness. “Wish you’d trust me to ask for help instead of making decisions for me.”

 

And like, he gets that Barnes has this oddly protective streak where the second he feels like Sam’s in danger, he charges in ready to take the hit, but they can’t work as a team if Barnes is constantly undermining his autonomy and putting the mission in jeopardy.

 

It takes Sam a moment to realize why the feeling of hazy leisure is subsiding, but the weight of Barnes’s fingers splayed over his scalp, unmoving, becomes more evident with each passing second. Sam has to fight back a whine, because Jesus Christ he doesn’t need this.

 

But then Barnes speaks, ever so quietly. “Noted,” is all he says before Sam becomes one with his mattress again.

 

It’s only several minutes later that Sam realizes what’s actually happening here. Barnes turns his attention to Sam’s calves and he hisses. The force that the vibranium arm can exert will never not be shocking – it legitimately feels like his soleus is about to rupture what with how hard Barnes digs in, but then he’s met with blessed relief as always. And then Barnes moves on to his feet, which is when the real Very Big Problem™ begins.

 

Sam jerks his leg away with a squeak of laughter, and it feels like the entire room freezes. 

 

“Ticklish?” Barnes asks quietly.

 

“Yeah,” Sam says, dropping his leg back onto the bed.

 

It’s a moment of startling clarity: he’d served up that information to Barnes on a silver platter. While it’s not like Barnes can do anything with it without things getting Weird, it’s still unsettling. Sure, Sam is extroverted and he talks and chatters and he can’t help but fill the silence in the face of Barnes’s stony quietude, but it doesn’t mean he’s Talking. Sharing, whatever. It’s just not something that comes easily to him, giving away the little pieces of himself that make him who he is. Most people tended not to pick up on it through the gregarious front he’s put up. Not Steve, nor Natasha, nor any of the other Avengers. The only one had been...and he was...

 

And then Barnes had slipped in, quiet as a ghost. It had happened so slowly that Sam hadn’t even realized at first, the way Barnes speaks to him softly and takes on all of the weariness from Sam’s listless bones and Sam just melts , but then Barnes actually digs. Pries out information as if it was as simple as plucking the feathers from down, and Sam just lets it happen, talks about how his body aches and headaches are probably caused – or at least, not made better by – his nightmares. Afghanistan, EXO-7, Thanos. And Barnes hums and...listens, letting his fingers and knuckles do their thing on autopilot.

 

Last week, Sam, sated and loopy, had mentioned offhand that his birthday was coming up. It’s not the kind of thing he’d ever mention casually to a co-worker. He’s not even sure he fully remembers the laundry list of questions Barnes had asked after, only that he’d shown up to Delacroix a few days later with an honest-to-God cake, a Marvin Gaye vinyl, and a nice record player. And Sam knows jack all about records, he’s not Ancient like Barnes, okay? But he’d looked up the brand and the build afterwards and there had been a startlingly large number of zeroes in the price. It’s...touching. Also: terrifying in the ease with which Barnes insinuates himself into Sarah and the kids’ midst, like this whole situation has grown into something else entirely and Sam’s not in control anymore; maybe he’d never been.

 

And there’s also the fact that Barnes knows . That Sam’s incapable of arguing with him when he’s too busy trying not to sink into his mattress. Barnes always, always follows Sam home after one of those missions. Sam’s not even sore after said missions on account of Barnes choosing to take several hits for him, so the fact that he still feels better after Barnes is through with him is infuriating. Sam wants nothing more than to chew him out so badly. For not valuing his own life, for scaring the shit out of Sam, and then for making Sam realize that missions – no, life – without Barnes is what scares the shit out of Sam to begin with. 

 

Sam’s been compromised , is the realization he comes to. Oblivious though he may be to modern-day social norms, Barnes is observant as hell and he’s found the one chink in Sam’s armor and wedged himself in tightly. The crown of Sam’s head and the nape of his neck may as well be Kryptonite, and Barnes knows this, too.

 

Sam should absolutely cut this off now while he still can. 

 

On the one hand, he reasons, sometimes you just need to get properly angry in order to let it all out of your system. Plus, it would put some distance between them and give him space from whatever the hell it is that’s burgeoning between them. On the other hand, the incredible high he’s feeling right now would vanish. He knows it’s probably just the endorphins talking, but knowing and resisting are two different things. There’s also the fact that his physical performance has legitimately improved with how good his muscles feel all the damn time now. Barnes even compliments him on it, no trace of mirth in body nor voice. It doesn’t help Sam’s Situation one bit.

 

He figures he can always chew Barnes out in the morning, only that never quite ends up happening once the frustration has been massaged out of him and the remnants are left to simmer and burn out overnight.

 


 

iv.

 

Sam steadfastly refuses to acknowledge how his and Barnes’s working relationship is softer around the edges these days. It’s easy, or at least should be, considering Barnes never acknowledges their post-mission trysts. But his seemingly permanent glare-scowl combo loosens, directed at everyone else except. Except Sam. And he’s not imagining the way Barnes’s reckless streak has been tempered somewhat; he’s there in an instant when Sam calls, but maybe, just maybe has enough faith that if Sam doesn’t speak up, then he doesn’t need the help.

 

Sam would like the record to show that he does put up at least a token show of resistance. Occasionally. 

 

“I know what you’re doing,” Sam says, turning around.

 

Barnes freezes mid-step, hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar. He blinks, ever the picture of innocence. Asshole.

 

“So...you don’t want this then?” Barnes asks, and he actually wiggles his fingers like a dork. The gesture looks utterly alien and bizarre on him but somehow Sam just finds it endearing. Another disturbing thought to banish.

 

“I didn’t say that,” Sam says grudgingly. Barnes smiles – an actual smile, not the more common smirk and not even a hint of smugness, but a genuine toothless smile that reaches his eyes – and the weight of it hits Sam like a goddamn freight train.

 

“It’s just...why?”

 

“You looked like you could use the pick-me-up,” Barnes says. It’s the same answer he’s given for the past month as the cool autumn air turned to frigid blasts of wind. Sam doesn’t bother challenging him on it. He’d lost the battle second he’d let Barnes step foot in his apartment tonight.

 

Once Sam has showered and changed, Barnes grabs one of Sam’s shirts and a pair of sweatpants that engulf his legs and dutifully heads into the bathroom, because that’s a thing that happens now. A thing that Sam had suggested the last time. It was strictly practical, okay? If Barnes was going to lurk around after hours, the least he could do was make sure he wasn’t gracing Sam’s apartment with his stench too. 

 

“It’s not that bad,” Barnes had said with a scowl.

 

Sam had rolled his eyes. “Eau d’Post Mission Body Odor, maybe.”

 

On some nights – like this one – when the weariness is more mental than physical, Barnes doesn’t bother with the whole Shiatsu treatment. Instead, he hops up on the bed next to Sam, rests his head against the headboard, runs his fingers across Sam’s scalp, down his neck, behind his ears. God, when had his ears been so sensitive? Barnes manages to find all of his softest, squishiest bits with unerring accuracy and capitalizes on them ruthlessly. They’re so far beyond just relieving the tension now and they both know it. Barnes has indoctrinated himself seamlessly into Sam’s daily routine, gradually raising the temperature so that by the time Sam even notices, he’s already burning up.

 

And the real kicker is that maybe Sam doesn’t want this, whatever this actually is, to stop. Barnes clearly doesn’t either.

 

Sam buries his face into a pillow, dead to the world save for the soothing murmurs of Barnes’s voice. Barnes fills the silence with his muttering, just another new normal Sam can’t remember taking hold. It had always been him speaking at Barnes and trying to see what finally stuck.

 

“You’re doing really well with the shield, you know,” Barnes says softly.

 

“I fucked up today,” Sam says, turning over to face Barnes.

 

“You didn’t.”

 

“One of these days I’m not going to be fast enough or – or strong enough and someone’s going to die.” He looks away into the darkness of the D.C. evening because Barnes’s piercing stare is too much to deal with right now. Being the focus of that kind of attention was unnerving now that Barnes had pieces of Sam that he’d hoarded away. 

 

“It’s not about strength.”

 

Barnes–

 

“Bucky, please,” Barnes says in a rasping, low voice.

 

“What?”

 

“You don’t call me Bucky anymore,” Barnes says earnestly. “I’d prefer it…”

 

At first, the formal address had been to put some distance between him and Barnes, to keep their relationship strictly professional. But now, Sam doesn’t know how to say it’s because this closeness terrifies me . Unfortunately for him, he’s not sure how to say no when Barnes – Bucky, his brain amends – looks at him with those big soulful eyes. 

 

“Fine. Bucky,” he says. “I appreciate the vote of confidence man, I really do, but that’s not good enough. I’ve got to do better.”

 

“We’re a team, though, aren’t we?” Bucky says quietly. Somehow, Sam knows it’s not rhetorical – Bucky is genuinely asking.

 

“Of course.”

 

“It’s not about being strong enough or fast enough, then. I’ll always be there to pick up the slack,” Bucky says, eyes shining bright as a pair of new coins. “And I know you’d do the same for me.”

 

Sam knows it to be true, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that his shield throws may never be as polished as Steve’s or Bucky’s even Walker’s. 

 

“I wish I’d had a smartphone during the war,” Bucky says lightly. “It took Steve a year before he finally got the hang of that thing.”

 

“No,” Sam says, aghast. 

 

“Who do you think helped him train? God, watching him run after that stupid thing in the woods was incredible.”

 

Sam snorts. He can see it now, Steve throwing the shield with a frustrated huff and Bucky shouting sarcastic encouragement from the sidelines as Steve ran after it yet again.

 

“That actually does make me feel a little better.”

 

Bucky grins.

 

Sometimes, Bucky offers up pieces of himself, too, when Sam’s mind is sluggish and hazy like maybe he thinks Sam won’t remember. It’s a dirty trick and only serves to make Sam more determined to lap up whatever tidbits Bucky shares with him.

 

Most surprising is when he talks about his time in Wakanda, about the goats and the children and the quaint little vegetable garden he’d had. He mentions a forest and a fire, Ayo reciting the trigger words, and Sam feels like he’s trespassing an intimately personal moment. He doesn’t know how to respond, so he squeezes Bucky’s hand – the left one – and receives a gentle squeeze in return. It’s not as cold as he expects.

 

“She still won’t take my calls,” Bucky says. “You were right. I never should have broken Zemo out.”

 

Sam sits up, rolling his shoulders and sighing at how loose they are, but doesn’t disagree. It’s a reminder of shattered trust. “You returned him to Wakanda. Not much more you can do, now.”

 

“They saved my life,” Bucky whispers. “There’s gotta be something I can do.”

 

“It’s...trust is easier to break than to build,” Sam says softly. “I think you just need to give her space. If she wants to reach out, she will.”

 

Bucky lets out a frustrated huff. It’s the only fracture he’s seen in the otherwise infuriating and uncharacteristic calm Bucky radiates whenever he’s over. 

 

“I’m gonna do better, Sam.” The look Bucky gives him is too heavy, like he’s not just talking about Ayo anymore, and Sam really has no idea what to do with that. 

 

“Well, you’ve got time.”

 

Bucky shrugs, and the moment is broken. It’s too late to go back to the easy languor Bucky had established earlier in the evening, and so he goes and makes possibly the stupidest decision he’s made so far.

 

“You should stay the night,” Sam says. “Easier than catching a train back to New York at this hour.”

 

Bucky doesn’t even hesitate, just flashes him a small smile and turns off the light on his side of the bed before tucking himself under the covers. Sam tells himself that it’s only practical, another little lie he allows himself.

 

In the morning, he wakes to Bucky’s flesh and blood arm draped over his chest. It might as well be searing a hole right through Sam’s breast for all he’s concerned, but he can’t bring himself to wake Bucky, not when his even little breaths sound so peaceful. And when Bucky slowly transitions to consciousness, he ignores the telltale flutter in his chest again when Bucky says “no nightmares.” There’s a hint of wonder in his voice before he beams at Sam, blinding.

 

Sam’s no stranger to nightmares either. Falling, broken wings, not fast enough. He sometimes has them even on nights when Bucky works his magic, but what he refuses to say aloud is that the proximity to another human – to Bucky – had helped.

 

Fuck.

 


 

v.

 

“His name was Riley,” Sam says.

 

They’re both still suited up in the entryway of Sam’s apartment, Bucky curiously studying the framed photo on the shabby console table that had come with the place.

 

“Your partner?” Bucky asks carefully.

 

“Something like that. We met during the EXO-7 project,” Sam says. “In the end, only the two of us passed all of the tests, but it was still experimental.” He’s not sure why he volunteers this information – certainly, he’d never have done it a few months ago – but now?

 

“I thought we’d have more time,” Sam says. “I…I really figured he was it. That he was the one I’d spend my life with.” And now he’s gone and overshared. “Fuck, sorry. That was a lot.”

 

Bucky places a gentle hand on his shoulder and steers him over to one of the creaky little dining chairs.

 

“Tell me more,” Bucky says, then adds quickly, “if you want.”

 

Sam swallows and sits down. He feels the zipper slide down along his back and hisses when Bucky passes inquisitive fingers over his shoulder blades.

 

“This might hurt a bit,’ Bucky says apologetically. He presses in gently this time, a far cry from the usual bruising strength he uses, before retreating and focusing more on some point along Sam’s spine. There’s an odd twisting and swooping sensation which radiates up to his shoulders, fades to a pleasant thrumming, and causes Sam to sigh in relief.

 

“Everything’s connected,” Bucky says. Not smug, but pleased, like he’s cracked the code. He hones in with laser precision now that he’s got a target.

 

Sam leans into the touch and closes his eyes to steady himself.

 

“There was an accident,” he says. “It – it wasn’t even supposed to be dangerous, just testing out some new thrust capabilities.”

 

“The technology back then was a joke. We had chutes but no failsafe, and God–” his voice cracks, “–I wasn’t fast enough to catch him.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Barnes says, solemn. His hands continue working at Sam’s back. Maybe it’s the only way he knows to comfort, but it’s definitely what Sam needs right now.

 

“‘s not your fault,” Sam says. “We were young and thought we were invincible. This apartment was the first place we’d lived together, you know?”

 

Bucky freezes.

 

“To grow old in,” Sam continues. It had been the type of dream that he no longer allowed himself to have. Not the type of thing to go sharing, though, so instead he says “I think you would’ve liked him.”

 

“What was he like?”

 

“Headstrong, impulsive. Kind.” He says the last one quietly, knowing Bucky will hear it anyway. “Also never had a plan like someone I know.”

 

“Hey, watch it.” Bucky jabs a thumb into Sam’s neck, which sends an awkward jolt down his leg and forces his knee to kick out on reflex. There’s no heat behind Bucky's words, though.

 

Sam grins, a fragile little thing.

 

“I still have nightmares,” he says. “Not of Riley anymore, but falling. Rhodey in Leipzig.”

 

It’s a while before Bucky says anything. His fingers absently roll over Sam’s shoulders, and Sam wonders how he’d ever lived without this before. It’s just another thing he blames Bucky for – Sam hadn’t ever needed this, except Bucky had slipped in past his defenses, broken those walls down, and then Sam needed his touch as much as the air he breathed.

 

“I don’t think Steve could ever forget me falling off that train,” Bucky finally says. “Hell, I still haven’t forgotten, but it affected him way more than me, even after I woke up in Wakanda.”

 

“Bucky…”

 

“It should’ve been me looking after him in battle. I mean, God knows Steve was just about the most reckless person alive, and I had the training.” The Winter Soldier training, Bucky doesn’t say but Sam gets it anyway. “But it was hard for him to let me out of his sight.”

 

“That...doesn’t sound healthy,” Sam says carefully. It’s not like he and Bucky are attached at the hip during missions, but there are times he worries. Bucky jumping out of a moving plane with no chute, which Sam had played off by mercilessly ribbing him about the fall. Bucky running on foot to Walker’s location in Riga, Sam completely in the dark as to his whereabouts until he’d materialized at Sam’s side with a sarcastic you’re welcome . He knows it’s dumb – that Bucky is damn near indestructible, and that they mostly slotted together easily in battle once they were side-by-side – but that does nothing to allay his fears.

 

“It’s a natural response,” Bucky says softly. “Not like we were conjoined or anything, but it made us better in the field.”

 

It’s...definitely the truth, Sam realizes. There was a certain way Steve and Bucky had moved in the field and he’d never stopped to think about all the little intricacies that made up that sort of teamwork.

 

“I wish I could’ve met Riley,” Bucky says, wistful. “He sounds like an incredible guy.”

 

“You definitely would’ve liked him,” Sam says quietly. Not at first, no. Bucky would've probably given Riley the standard Barnes Murder Glare at first, but Riley had always had a way of disarming people. He’d have gotten through pretty quickly.

 

Sam doesn’t know how to say thank you for listening , not when he’d thought it’d been him trying to break through to Bucky since Madripoor. Turns out Bucky easily flips that line of thinking on its head. Instead, Sam pulls away, pushes back and heads towards the kitchen where he fishes around the fridge for the cake they’d left in there two or three missions ago. He passes a slice over as an offering.

 

Bucky grins at him, one of the real ones again that doesn’t show his teeth but still reaches his eyes.

 

Afterwards, it’s not lost on him the way Bucky takes extra care to keep their comm-links more open, voice a low rumble filtering through Sam’s ear. Bucky’s normally fairly reserved in the field, and that doesn’t really change, but he does give dorky little narrations of what’s going on periodically – cute knick-knacks he finds in shipping containers while they’re on recon, how roaming the subway tunnels looking for their arms dealer turned fascist reminds him of entering Moria. Sam, of course, gives him endless shit for it, but he doesn’t miss the way it makes him feel whole in mind and body.

 


(+i.)

 

“I don’t suppose your magic works on this,” Sam says dryly. He prods at the angry purple splotch developing over his ribs.

 

Bucky flashes him a wry smile. A challenge.

 

It’s the first time they’ve done it this way with Sam on his back. The main issue is that he’s got no idea where to look with his eyes. Directly at Bucky is too intense when he knows Bucky will just stare back at him, so he settles for tipping his head back against the mattress. Bucky just hums amiably, clever fingers roaming over Sam’s torso while he furrows his brow in concentration. It’s like Sam’s body is some great puzzle he’s trying to crack. He sticks to the periphery of the worst of the bruising before moving on to the rest of Sam’s torso.

 

Then he slots his fingers between Sam’s ribs and kneads, ripping a surprised laugh out of Sam. Sam smacks him away with a scowl and Bucky grins. Unrepentant asshole. It’s a warning: since the Great Foot Incident in November, Bucky delights in reminding Sam he has access to that kind of knowledge now and can use it at any time.

 

But then he’s back to soothing away all the aches from Sam’s chest and abdomen and even his arms, and Sam melts.

 

He’s no stranger to the warm feeling of arousal that begins to develop, but a new issue becomes apparent to him extremely quickly. Namely, on his back, there’s nowhere to hide the way his sweatpants are beginning to tent. Normally, it’s something that he can relegate to the margins of his consciousness – just a normal biological reaction, completely normal, yes sir – but this time, the more he tries to ignore it, the worse it gets. Every pass of Bucky’s fingers sends more blood rushing to his groin, and the way Bucky’s started speaking to him in low tones to fill the silence is absolutely not helping.

 

Sure, it’s maybe a trust thing like that stupid internet article had claimed, but it’s also everything else. Barnes, giving enough of shit to barge his way into Sam’s life. To see what no one else had seen before. Bucky, listening to Sam’s fears and knowing exactly what changes to their routine needed to be made. Even Bucky, growing out his stupid beard because Sam had complimented him on the scruffier look once, and it actually looks so damn good on him.

 

His only saving grace is that Bucky hasn’t seemed to notice yet, or if he has, is being remarkably professional about the whole affair. It’s only a matter of time, though, and then…

 

Bucky stares at his crotch, slowly raising his eyes to meet Sam’s and then back down again. Sam’s acutely aware that whatever happens in the next moment is going to make or break something. Then Bucky’s lips slowly curl into a smirk and Sam contemplates exactly how much that isn’t helping his current Situation.

 

“I can help with that, too,” Bucky says. It’s smarmy, like he’s just so damn pleased with himself. It’s exactly the way he’d always envisioned the Bucky Barnes of old to sound.

 

“You really think you’ve still got it in you, old man?”

 

Bucky barks out a laugh, high and surprised, and takes that as his cue.

 

It’s like his massages except that every touch is designed to send the blood rushing straight to Sam’s cock. Sam’s fucking panting from a little bit of touching. No one has ever paid this much attention to his body before. The instant Bucky does something that elicits a response from Sam, he presses the advantage relentlessly – pebbling a nipple between his fingers, rubbing the calloused pads of his thumbs over the creases of Sam’s hips – until Sam’s writhing and gasping beneath him. And Sam can fully admit that the last time he’d had a proper lay was well before the Blip, but this is ridiculous. He’s beginning to think this is going to end embarrassingly quickly.

 

“See? That didn’t take long at all,” Bucky says happily. He pulls down the elastic of Sam’s boxer briefs and gently pulls out his cock.

 

“Left hand or right hand?” Bucky asks. The weight of his gaze is significant, like he’s asking for permission.

 

“Dealer’s choice.” And he already knows what Bucky’s choice is – trusts him completely – but more importantly he just needs Bucky to hurry the fuck up.

 

“Lube?”

 

“Bottom drawer by the desk.”

 

It’s fascinating to watch Bucky coat the vibranium hand in oil. He takes care to massage it into every seam, which honestly can’t be good, but who is Sam to complain? When he finally touches Sam, the chill of the vibranium against his flesh causes Sam to shiver. 

 

With a few strokes, he’s got Sam fully hard and panting again even though the pace he’s set is utterly languid. Like he’s not in any rush at all.

 

“Do you have any idea how good you look right now?” Bucky says. His pupils are blown so wide that it’s a wonder he’s able to keep himself together.

 

“Get on with it,” Sam grits out.

 

Bucky picks up the pace with his left hand while his right moves up to stroke Sam’s nipples again, and Sam swears. He’s so close now. When the vibranium hand begins vibrating – and holy fuck, why is that a thing? – and Sam’s vision whites out, he comes with a gasp, harder than any handjob has any right to cause.

 

“Jesus Christ.”

 

Bucky strokes him through the aftershocks with lazy pulls of his left hand that’s still goddamn vibrating.

 

“Hell of a party trick,” Sam says, and Bucky laughs, bright and raucous.

 

Bucky slips his sweats off and comes in a few shaky strokes. It’s almost jarring considering how much care he takes when handling Sam.

 

“I could’ve helped you with that,” Sam says, chagrined. 

 

Bucky shrugs. “Small refractory period. I can go again soon.” 

 

And that’s something that had never occurred to Sam before.

 

*

 

Later, when they’re both laying side-by-side in Sam’s rickety little bed, Sam says, “you’ve ruined my life, you know.”

 

“Do explain,” Bucky says, sounding amused.

 

“That thing you do with your hands,” Sam says, and digs a thumb into Bucky’s shoulder. It’s the vibranium one but Sam figures he still gets the point across just fine. “I wake up feeling incredible. Always in an amazing mood. God, and I hit harder in the field, too.”

 

Bucky laughs. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”

 

“And then you never stopped.”

 

“I never stopped,” Bucky repeats. “You’re really using your words.”

 

Sam rolls his eyes. “It’s just...why’d you do it in the first place?”

 

Bucky doesn’t answer at first and his cheeks are tinged pink. “...it was supposed to be an act of service,” he says eventually.

 

“An act of service.”

 

“Dr. Raynor suggested it–”

 

“–your therapist suggested you give me a back rub?”

 

“No, she said the way that I know how to show gratitude is through ‘acts of service’,” Bucky says, and actually uses his fingers for air quotes like the dork that he is.

 

Sam imagines that conversation must have been off-the-rails wild. “Gratitude for what, exactly?”

 

Bucky blushes again and it spreads up to his ears this time. “For being a good friend. Or, I guess, trying to be when I kept pushing you away and acting like I didn’t want it.”

 

“Mmm...so the back rub was your idea?”

 

“You kept whining about your back. You’re the most dramatic person I know, Sam. Jesus.”

 

He immediately vows to make sure that Bucky and Sarah are never able to gang up on him about this. Sarah in particular will never let up on the Pisces slander ever again.

 

“Am not,” Sam says, thwacking Bucky on the shoulder. Bucky catches his hand before his knuckles can connect though and pokes Sam in the side in retaliation.

 

“Initially, it really was just gratitude,” Bucky says, offering more. “But then you started opening up whenever I did it.”

 

“I’m an open book. I talked to you all the time back then.” Sam says it more for the sake of argument than anything else. He already knows Bucky sees right through it.

 

“You didn’t,” Bucky says firmly. “You talked but you never actually said anything. It took me a while to notice.”

 

“It’s...hard for me to do that. To really open up,” Sam says. “I guess it’s never been easy for me, even though everyone thinks of me as the outgoing one. Most people never pick up on it.” The only other person to notice aside from Sarah and his parents had been Riley.

 

“I’m not most people.”

 

Sam laughs. Bucky says it so confidently and he’s absolutely right. 

 

“You know you’re stuck with me now, right?” Bucky says earnestly. 

 

“Guess I am,” Sam says with a grin. He squeezes Bucky’s shoulder – the metal one – and Bucky slots a hand over his.

 

Fin.