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Biting is a Love Language

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Sam doesn’t worry right away.

So his texts to Bucky stay on unread for a couple hours, a day, two. It isn’t like they’re joined at the hip 24/7, whatever Sarah or Sharon or the internet has to say about it. Gotta be a good thing if Bucky’s too busy to answer him, right? He should have more things in his life than Sam and his family.

Sam brushes aside the clinging shreds of concern, the little voice pointing out that, for an old guy, Bucky is surprisingly welded to his phone, and he usually reads things even if he doesn’t answer them.

He’s probably fine.

May 17, 17:52
You lose your phone or something?

May 17, 17:53
Seriously, don’t make me go buy you one of those old geezer cases with the wrist strap.

It isn’t like before, he reminds himself. Bucky knows he has people he can call if he gets stuck in some dark place inside his head again. Places he can go. Last time they spoke, he even sounded half-convinced to start looking for a place down in Delacroix. Sam thought he’d managed to hide how embarrassingly happy the idea made him, but Sarah demanded to know what he was smiling at the second he got off the phone.

Point is, Bucky didn’t sound like he was struggling to make time for Sam in his busy schedule. So maybe the radio silence is a little weird.

But Bucky’s a weird guy sometimes. And Sam’s his friend, not his babysitter. He’s probably fine.

May 19, 22:56
Everything ok?

Probably.

May 21, 17:04
I know you didn’t fall through an alien portal or get zapped to the future or whatever. Somebody would’ve called me.

May 21, 17:08
So text me back, would you?

Sam calls a couple times. The first time, it rings for a while; the second, it goes straight to voicemail. He even sends an email with his number, in case the actualfax cyborg doesn’t know how to back up his contacts.

Nothing.

Probably fine turns into hopefully turns into a sick hollow in Sam’s gut. The days stretch close to a week, and he can’t stand it anymore.

New York isn’t as unbearable as it gets in midsummer yet, but the AC is busted on the ground floor of Bucky's apartment building, a bluebottle buzzing lazily in the dim heat.

When Sam asks for Apartment 23, the super starts up like he's been waiting for somebody to unload his complaints on for days. "Promises to help me fix the AC and then disappears! You know how much it costs to get a repairman out these days?" He pauses before Bucky's front door, eyeing it like it's personally offended him. "And when you see your friend, tell him we don't allow pets in here. I see that mangy cat of his hanging around the place again, I'm gonna start using it for target practice."

"Cat?" Sam starts to say. "He didn't tell me he was getting a..."

He trails off there, because the door is open and he can see Bucky's phone lying inert on the kitchen counter. And on the floor to the side, something much larger, gleaming in the half-light.

Sam’s stomach drops. Bucky doesn’t take the vibranium arm off to sleep, or even, Sam’s pretty sure, to shower. It’s as much a part of him as any flesh and bone.

He wouldn’t leave it behind. Not of his own free will.

A blanket lies crumpled on the couch, a smaller metallic glint within its folds. Sam knows what he’s gonna find before he bends down to retrieve Bucky’s dog tags. They clink emptily on their chain; he winds it around his hand a couple times and then shoves them into his pocket.

He gestures for the super to stay back while he checks out the rest of the apartment, not that there’s much here to check out. Sparse furniture, not enough for anybody to hide behind, just the couch and a railing of clothes in what ought to be the bedroom, except there’s no bed. The place is painfully neat, more a monk’s cell than a home, and Sam finds himself hating it, because this isn’t Bucky. Not the Bucky he knows, the one he sees down in Delacroix, laughing and taking up space and managing to insinuate himself into every crack of Sam’s life like he’s always been there.

No forced entry. No sign of struggle. There’s a dry rime of coffee crusted into the mug in the kitchen sink; it’s been there at least a couple days.

The undisturbed staleness of the place feels heavy and wrong. Bucky would’ve put up a fight, if he’d gotten the chance. Did someone sneak in while he was sleeping? Use drugs, or enhancements he couldn’t counter?

Was it someone he knew?

Sam crouches to retrieve the vibranium arm, setting it gently on the counter, like he’s afraid of hurting it. His reflection in the plates is fractured, cut into strips whose edges don’t quite join up. He rubs his temple, the throb of a stress headache starting up.

On the far side of the room, movement stirs in the shadows.

The tiniest motion, barely anything at all. Sam peers into the gloom, but it takes a moment before the darkness resolves itself into a shape.

The shape of a cat. Big, scruffy, dusty grey fur. Sitting very still, as if it’s hoping Sam won’t notice it, so he doesn’t notice for a couple seconds that one of its front legs is missing.

Its eyes are blue, and fixed warily on Sam’s face.

Must be the one the super mentioned earlier. There’s nothing in the apartment to suggest a cat lives here—no feeding bowl, no litterbox, no little toy mice with bells inside. Could be a stray, he guesses, but it doesn’t run away when Sam moves closer and crouches down. Just sits there and keeps staring.

So maybe Bucky’s been feeding it, or letting it climb in through the windows and chill in his apartment. The idea of him patiently befriending a stray cat, waiting for it to come to him, does something to Sam’s insides, twists up with the worry there and makes him ache.

“I still want that thing out of here.” The super must have shuffled in while Sam and the cat were eyeballing each other. “I ain’t feeding it.”

Sam has more important things to worry about right now. He needs to call Torres, call Sharon, start looking for leads and chasing them down.

But if Bucky gets back and finds out Sam let his cat run away, he’ll be fucking unbearable. The thought of that—the what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you squint, the way Bucky can somehow pout with his entire body—is weirdly comforting.

Sam sighs and straightens up. “Anyone around here got a carrier?”

They locate one thanks to an old lady on the second floor, who refuses to take anything but a selfie for her granddaughters in payment.

Of course, when Sam carries it into Bucky’s apartment, the damn cat loses its mind.

In hindsight, he probably should’ve guessed that any cat adopted by Bucky Barnes would be a raging hellbeast. It starts up a bloodcurdling yowl the moment he stoops to pick it up and, when he finally manages to grab a hold of it, turns round and bites his hand hard enough to draw blood. By the time Sam finally wrangles it into the carrier, he has a hole in his t-shirt and his forearms are scratched to shit.

“You owe me a drink, Buck,” he mutters as he dabs at the scratches with a kitchen towel. “You owe me a whole bunch of drinks.”

Funny, but he could swear the cat glares at him.

---

“Uncle Sam brought us a cat!” AJ runs ahead of him into the kitchen, and by the time Sam sets down the carrier, Sarah is already shooting him a capital-L Look.

“Nah, I brought you a beast from hell,” he corrects. “But it’s Uncle Bucky’s cat, so we’re gonna take care of it for him until he gets back, okay?”

He shoots Sarah a pleading look over the boys’ heads, and she softens right away.

“No luck?”

Sam shakes his head. He’s called in every favour he can think of, put the word out as far as he can without alerting the wider world to the fact that Bucky’s missing and maybe sending other, more dangerous people looking for him too. Back in New York, he had an excruciating conversation with old Mr Nakajima and a slightly less painful one with a woman called Leah, who watched his face speculatively when she mentioned she and Bucky had gone on a date back in March, but then said she hadn’t seen him in weeks. Nothing to go on.

All Sam wants to do is suit up, take flight and head out there and do something, but with no leads, he’s got nowhere to start.

Sarah sighs. “That thing better not have fleas.”

He’s half-expecting the cat to take a swipe at AJ and Cass when they try to play with it, but to his surprise, the hellbeast stops yowling and turns gentle as a lamb the second it lays eyes on them. Lets them ruffle its fur up without complaining, runs around obligingly after shoelaces and laser pointers and whatever else the boys can find to mess around with. Its gait is a little lopsided with the three legs, but doesn’t seem to slow it down much.

At least, not until it runs face-first into the wall chasing the laser pointer. That’s when it gives up and stalks off to go do important cat stuff, ignoring Sam’s attempt to pet it like it’s embarrassed at having lost its kitty dignity.

Sarah raises her eyebrows. “Thought you said it was a hellbeast.”

Sam brandishes the scratches on his forearms, the bite-mark on his hand. “Practically maimed me!”

“You probably deserved it.” Her smile fades a little. “Maybe it needed to feel safe. I mean, who even has a cat in an apartment block in New York?”

Sam deflates, sagging back against the couch cushions. “Yeah.”

Sarah lays her hand on his shoulder. “You’ll find him,” she says, and squeezes.

“Man, I hope so.” Sam lets himself lean into her touch, just for a minute.

Then he peels himself off the couch and opens his laptop.

---

Whoever took Bucky, they’re professionals. Better than professionals: ghosts. (A ghost story, whispers a small voice in Sam’s head, and he grits his teeth against a shiver.)

Torres doesn’t find a thing. Sharon, and the network of contacts she’s always kind of cagey about, turn up precisely jack shit. Ayo says nobody in Wakanda has heard a peep. It’s like Bucky got up off his couch one day and vanished into thin air.

Sam almost crawls out of his skin with frustration, staying up until the small hours until he’s exhausted enough to ignore the fear gnawing at his belly. He gets in arguments about stupid, petty stuff with Sarah, can barely keep a smile on his face for the boys.

He even gets desperate enough to go to the Raft.

“I know you had something to do with those Flagsmashers getting blown up,” he tells Zemo. “Now Bucky’s missing. You sure you didn’t have something to do with that, too?”

Zemo ignores the question. “They were killers, Sam. Or they would have been, given time.”

“So are you. You do it with a phone call instead of your fists, and you think that makes it better?” Sam breathes in deeply, counts to ten. “And you didn’t answer me.”

“Ah, yes.” Zemo does his stupid-ass head-tilt. “The real reason you’re here.” Always that hint of superiority, like he’s judging everyone, and the worst part is it kind of gets to Sam. Zemo had a bunch of misguided kids killed because they took the serum, and— It isn’t that Sam doesn’t care. It hurts to think about how young they were, how they might’ve made better choices if somebody had listened to them sooner.

But this hurts so much more.

He may be Captain America now, but he’s still just one man, and Bucky’s absence at his side aches like a wound. He forces his clenched hands to relax at his sides, and very deliberately doesn’t think about John Walker, about blood on the shield. That isn’t him and he knows it—but he feels the helplessness, how easy it would be to let it curdle into rage.

“I’m sorry, Sam.” Zemo eyes him steadily through the glass. “Whatever happened to James, I had nothing to do with it.” For once, the smug little motherfucker sounds sincere. “I hope you find him.”

Nobody makes a sarcastic comment. Nobody makes fun of Zemo’s reading material with Sam as he leaves. Nobody asks, So how come he gets the nice, cosy cell? Thought you said this place was a hellhole, you piss off the turn-down service or something?, the back-and-forth taking the sting out of the memory of being trapped in here himself.

He’s been carrying Bucky’s dog tags around in his pocket since he found, them, like he’s waiting to hand them back. Touching them from time to time, because for some stupid reason it makes him feel a little less hopeless.

As his plane lifts away from the Raft, he finds himself turning them over and over between his fingers until the cold steel is warm from his touch. After a moment, he slips the chain over his head and the tags under his shirt, so they rest over his breastbone.

Sam gets home feeling a little tireder, a little more ragged around the edges.

When he arrives, the damn cat is in the kitchen, eating something that definitely isn’t kibble off a saucer in the corner of the room. Its ears prick up at the sound of Sam’s footsteps, and it leaves its dinner to twine around his legs, almost tripping him up in the process.

“Yeah, yeah, alright,” he grumbles, but crouches down to give it a scratch behind the ears anyway. Maybe it’s getting a little friendlier, now that it’s used to him and Sarah and the house.

But once it’s got his attention, the cat goes still, looks up at him with its big blue eyes and lets out a yowl. It honestly sounds kind of frustrated, like it’s been yelling at him for the past hour and he hasn’t just walked in the room.

Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. He definitely needs to sleep if he’s projecting on the damn cat. “What?”

Another yowl. He could swear it’s trying to tell him something.

“Seriously, what? You got Sarah feeding you leftovers, you got all the attention you could possibly want, looks like they bought you a cat tree—” One of those enormous ones that’s practically a jungle gym, Jesus, how much did that thing cost? “—what more could you possibly want?”

The cat gives a plaintive little mew.

Sam sits back on his heels and sighs. “Yeah, okay. I’m trying to find him, you know? I really am.”

“Hey.”

He starts at the sound of Sarah’s voice. He didn’t even hear her come in, that’s how exhausted he is. “Hey.”

She heads for the coffee pot, watching him from the corner of her eye. “You doing okay?”

Sam sighs, rolling his shoulders to get the aches out as he straightens up. It doesn’t work. “Zemo says he doesn’t know jack, and I believe him. So, still at square one.”

“Not what I asked.” Sarah pours herself a coffee, lifts up her mug as if to ask whether Sam wants one.

He shakes his head. Caffeine is the last thing he needs right now. “What do you mean?”

Sarah leans up against the kitchen counter, holding her mug in both hands. “Sam.”

He does not have the energy for this. “Sarah.”

“I’m not telling you to sit at home and mope,” she goes on. “That isn’t you. But someone you love went missing, and you’re scared for him. It’s okay to admit that.”

Someone you love. She says it so matter-of-factly, like it’s obvious, and Sam’s heart stutters with how wrong it doesn’t feel. For a second, all he can do is blink at her.

“Come on, Sam. You got it almost as bad for that white boy as he does for you.” She says that like it’s obvious, too.

And maybe Sam is more sleep-deprived than he thought, because his brain can’t seem to put up even a token resistance.

Bucky’s grouchy, stubborn, and, until recently, Sam would’ve said the most annoying person he’s ever met. He’s also loyal and determined, and still himself even though everything he’s been through should’ve cracked his mind apart like an eggshell. And down here, away from the fight, he turns into another version of himself, soft and smiling and a little cocky, and also a massive fucking dork. He charms old ladies and lets kids climb on him like a jungle gym. He touches Sam like he’s amazed that he’s allowed to, like he can’t believe anyone would trust him after all the lives his hands have taken, but now they do, he’s gonna hold on and never let go.

The thought of never getting to see that again punches a hole through Sam’s chest.

Sarah’s eyes are still on him. He looks away.

“I’ve been dreaming about Riley,” he says. “First time in years.” It’s as good as an admission.

The dreams came sharp and desert-bright for months after Riley died. Laughing one minute, falling the next, faster than Sam could fly and then gone. Now, the past and the present slide together in them, so that sometimes it’s Bucky dropping out of his reach like a stone, blue eyes wide with terror. Or Riley staring right through him over a black mask, no fear in the look, no recognition, nothing human at all.

Sarah squeezes his shoulder. “Go get some sleep,” she says. “You look like you need it. Driving yourself into the ground isn’t gonna help him.”

It’s mid-afternoon, sunny outside, but Sam does as he’s told, eventually falling into a couple hours’ uneasy doze. When he wakes up, the bedroom door is open a crack, the cat curled up beside his feet.

Probably shedding all over the comforter. It lifts its head to gaze unblinkingly at Sam, like it was waiting for him to wake up, and he eyeballs it right back. “Figures even his cat would have a staring problem,” he says, mostly to himself. “Go on, yowl at me again, I dare you.”

The cat doesn’t. It makes this huffing sound, almost a sigh, and stays where it is.

Despite himself, Sam sits up and leans over to pet the top of its head. The cat butts against his hand, and a small smile steals over his face. When he finds Bucky, he’s totally going to show off about how he befriended the hellbeast.

And while he’s doing it, Bucky’s probably lying unconscious somewhere, or locked in a reinforced cell wondering why nobody’s coming to find him.

Sam sighs and gets to his feet, headache throbbing at the back of his skull, and very deliberately doesn't think about the other possibility. That’s about all the sleep he’s getting for now.

---

Torres turns up a lead in Germany, where it turns out the ‘metal man’ being reported on the local news is actually a disgruntled robotics researcher with a grudge against his ex-boss and an unhealthy love of mecha anime.

Sharon sends Sam out to an abandoned HYDRA facility. He sneaks into the building with his heart pounding, but finds it empty and stripped for parts. Whatever tripped the sensor was probably an opportunistic thief, or maybe just a rat.

After that, he gets called in to help out with a hostage situation in New York. Torres isn’t confident with the wings yet, so Sam has eyes on the ground, but it isn’t Bucky’s voice in his ear, and he has to fight his way through an extra half-dozen armed goons that Bucky probably would’ve bulldozed his way through in two seconds flat. Together, they have a rhythm; alone, everything’s that little bit harder.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” one of the goons taunts him. Sam very carefully doesn’t incapacitate the guy any harder than he has to.

Reporters cluster outside afterwards, ready to crowd in around him with cameras and questions. He knows to expect it, it’s part of the job, but suddenly the thought of putting on a brave face and coming up with something that will reassure and inspire people at the same time is all too much. There are still moments when Sam stops and thinks about the responsibility he’s taken on and it feels crushing, the huge weight of it bearing down on him, and he’s only one person and panic starts to scratch at the back of his mind.

Normally, it helps to remind himself he has other people. Sarah, Torres, Sharon, Rhodey. Everyone back home. Even without Bucky around, he isn’t doing this alone.

But right now, it really feels like it.

He heads out the back way. Shoots up and streaks away into the cold night sky, until the lights have faded behind him and he can breathe again. He only feels a little guilty.

It’s late by the time he gets home. By some miracle, he manages not to wake Sarah or the boys, but the cat, quiet as a shadow, slips past his feet as he lets himself into his bedroom.

“Fine,” Sam mutters, because he feels too hollowed-out and drained to bother herding the hellbeast back out onto the landing. He strips off his suit and folds it into its box in the bottom of the closet. Bucky’s arm is in there, too, and Sam lingers a moment, letting his fingertips brush over the smooth surface of the vibranium.

When it’s attached to Bucky, it seems to change with his body temperature, so it feels alive. Now, it’s cold, inert: a relic.

A shuffling noise, a brush of fur, as the cat ducks under his arm and sticks its head in the box.

“Oh, no,” he tells it. “Get outta there.” Wakandan technology is probably cat-hair-resistant, but he isn’t taking any chances. He makes to grab the cat around its middle, scoop it up and move it, but it whips its head around and bites him. Right on the meaty part of his palm, under the thumb.

It doesn’t draw blood or anything, doesn’t even really hurt. Honestly, it feels more like a Hey, stop that than aggression.

That doesn’t stop Sam from cursing under his breath, or glaring at the cat like it actually ripped his hand off. “You’re almost as prickly as he is,” he mutters, and then feels himself crumple inside a little, because shit, what wouldn’t he give right now to have Bucky roll his eyes and make a dumb, snarky comment. Sam would come back with some crack about him being the T-1000’s grouchy uncle, and they’d go back and forth without ever really saying anything, but both of them would feel a little less wound-up by the end of it.

The cat sits back on its haunches and gazes flatly up at him. It has that look again, like it’s trying to tell him something.

Or maybe Sam’s just worn-down and miserable enough he’s imagining things. Yeah, that’s probably it.

“C’mon,” he says. “Time I got some sleep.”

That’s when the cat stiffens, ears twitching back and forth on sudden high alert. Sam blinks at it. They better not have mice.

The cat races to the window, barely missing a beat on its three legs, front paw scrabbling at the sill. It turns its head to look at Sam, like it’s asking him, You seeing this?

He hesitates a second, and the cat gives another one of those impatient yowls. More urgent than usual, this time, inhuman and panicked.

Okay, so it probably isn’t mice.

Sam keeps low, snagging his goggles and switching off the lamp as he makes his way to the window. He can’t see anything out there but the trees in the yard, Spanish moss swaying gently in the night breeze, but the cat is practically vibrating where it stands, fur on end, and Sam figures it can’t hurt to be cautious.

He pulls on his goggles and sends Redwing out to sweep the property for anything that shouldn’t be there. Then stiffens when the image comes back to him: two figures creeping around out there in the trees, armed and unwelcome.

He should’ve known this would happen eventually, he guesses. If Karli could track down Sarah and the boys, others were bound to figure it out, too. The shield isn’t just a shield: it’s also a target. Sam knew the risks when he took it up. He knew he’d have to be prepared to protect the people he loves from whoever might come after him.

Maybe you should’ve done that weeks ago, nags a little voice in the back of his skull. He’s been trying to shake it away this whole time, because Bucky has plenty of enemies of his own, and anyone wanting to hit Sam where he lives would be real fucking dumb to go after the cyborg supersoldier first.

But it’s a little too much of a coincidence, isn’t it, Bucky vanishing so soon after Sam took up the shield? And now this, armed hostiles in his backyard while Sarah and the boys are asleep in their beds.

Outrage prickles hot under his skin.

There’s no time to suit up. Whoever’s out there probably has eyes on the door, so Sam slips out the window, onto the porch roof and then down the side, the same way he used to sneak out back when he was sixteen years old and slowly figuring out he wanted to kiss boys. He hears a faint noise behind him, and when he glances round, a furry grey shadow has followed him down.

He ignores it; focuses. He can worry about the hellbeast later.

Measuring his steps and his breathing, he creeps up on the nearest of the two hostiles. The guy clearly isn’t expecting anyone to still be awake, because he doesn’t seem to register Sam’s footsteps until the last second, and by then it’s too late. Sam knocks him out before he can even aim.

The guy’s weapon is stolen Stark tech, same as the hostage-takers from earlier. Redwing didn’t pick up any escapees back then, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t more of them waiting elsewhere, seizing the opportunity to follow Sam home when he decided to take off instead of sticking around for the debrief.

Stupid, stupid. That’s how far off-balance this whole thing has him.

If Bucky had been there, he’d have been the one saying, C’mon, this could be an email, let’s just go, and Sam would’ve stepped in as the voice of reason, pointing out that they can’t do whatever they feel like. And Bucky would’ve made one of his grumpy faces and probably been unfairly rude to Torres, but he would’ve stuck around.

There’s an ease to their interactions, the way they know how to be with each other. Without it, Sam feels like he’s lost a wing.

He shouldn’t feel that way. He’s spent most of his adult life navigating dangerous situations without Bucky at his side. Half the time Bucky was the dangerous situation. But now…

A beep from Redwing. The other hostile is close.

Too close. Sam hits the ground just in time to avoid a burst of fire.

A light blinks on in Sarah’s bedroom window.

Shit. Shit.

The gunman turns toward it, and Sam is on his feet, moving toward him, but not fast enough. Sarah’s silhouette is in the window and the guy is raising his weapon and Sam isn’t there yet and—

From the trees above them, there’s a howl like a demon out of hell. A furry, grey shadow drops out of the branches, spitting fury.

It lands right on the gunman’s shoulders. He lurches backward, aim going wild, as the cat hisses and scratches at his face, still making this deafening banshee wail. The gunman flails at it, grip slackening on his weapon, but the cat hangs on like a limpet. The damn thing must be freakily strong.

Sam notes that distantly, in the back of his mind, but he’s already on the gunman, bringing a knee up into his solar plexus and disarming the guy before he hits the ground.

The cat lands easily beside him, and ducks its head to administer a sharp bite to the gunman’s ear. He yelps like a kicked dog.

Sam could swear the cat looks pleased with itself.

He doesn’t dwell on the thought, drops and pins the gunman to the ground. “Who do you work for?” he growls. “And what have they done with Bucky?”

The gunman looks around wildly. “What?” he wheezes. “Where? No, no, we didn’t know your partner was here, I swear. Intel said it was just you, that’s why the boss sent us after you—”

The guy keeps babbling, but Sam barely hears what he’s saying, a cold weight of disappointment settling at his core.

---

The guy doesn’t stop talking once he’s started. He gives up his boss’s whole organisation, not that there’s much of it left. The Feds can mop them up without Sam’s help; every one will be on their way to a cell by dawn.

Nobody’s left to threaten the house, but Sarah says she’s getting the boys out of there anyway, until things calm down and any stragglers have been caught. Sam should probably go with her, help them get settled at the safehouse and reassure the boys, but the idea of leaving the place empty feels wrong.

It’s the kitchen where his mom and dad used to make dinner and bicker, the den where he and Sarah used to fight over the TV remote, the bedroom where he used to stare out the window and dream about flying. He needs to stay here and make it feel safe again, pacing from room to room until the anxiety and the adrenaline wear off, and the long shadows of dawn outside have turned into morning brightness.

He finds himself standing still in the front room, staring at the empty couch, and that’s when the crash hits him. The disappointment he felt earlier, like a stone in his gut, gets heavier.

For a moment back there, in among the fear and the anger, he’d let himself hope. Stared at the pieces and found a pattern.

Thing is, when you look for something long enough, your brain starts seeing patterns whether they’re there or not.

Sometimes, they’re not.

Sometimes, somebody’s really gone.

Sam sighs and sinks onto the couch. Light sneaks through the crack in the drapes, golden and bright. He closes his eyes against it.

The edge of the couch dips.

He cracks an eyelid, and finds the cat has joined him. Sam reaches out automatically to scratch its head, and it rubs against the touch for a moment before curling up on his chest.

“Shit, you’re heavy,” he tells it. But the exhaustion and the loss have mixed together into a leaden weight, and the idea of moving it off him feels like more effort than he can muster up right now. Anyway, the hellbeast did good out there. He’s kind of grateful for its presence.

The cat gives a low, mournful mrowl, butting its head against his face.

“Yeah,” Sam tells it softly, “I miss him too.” He presses an absent kiss to the top of the cat’s head before sleep tugs him under.

---

When he wakes, it’s early afternoon, sun high in the sky, and he’s warm. A heavy weight presses him into the couch, half-suffocating but half… weirdly comfortable.

It takes him a moment to dredge up the memories of last night and this morning. The gunmen. Sarah and the boys leaving. The ache of disappointment in his chest. Falling asleep on the couch with the furry hellbeast.

It takes him a couple more moments to register that the cat is gone. The hair tickling his nose definitely isn’t cat fur, and there’s an arm slung over his waist. Someone is breathing sleep-slow against his collarbone.

Sam blinks. Sits up fast.

The body beside him tumbles off the couch with a thud and a muffled, “Hey!”

And he knows that voice.

Heart thumping out of his chest, Sam peers down at the floor. Bucky stares up at him, eyes wide and startled.

Oh, and he’s completely naked.

Which Sam doesn’t even get a chance to think about, because Bucky lets out a groan of pure, desperate relief. “Thank fuck,” he says. “Thought I was gonna be stuck like that forever.”

Sam blinks again.

---

Sam makes coffee, because that’s the normal thing to do when you’ve just woken up, and he desperately needs to do something normal right now. He fills two mugs, sets one of them down in front of Bucky, then turns back toward the kitchen as though there might be a morsel of sanity lurking in one of the cupboards.

Bucky catches him by the wrist. “Would you look at me?”

Sam takes a breath. “Yeah. Okay.” He turns back, pulls out a chair, and Bucky releases his grip. He still only has the one arm, sitting at the kitchen table in a borrowed pair of Sam’s sweatpants and his oldest t-shirt, all rumpled and pleading. “I’m still kind of processing the fact that apparently you turn into a cat.”

“Sam—”

“And you didn’t feel the need to, I don’t know, maybe tell me about it?” Sam shakes his head, takes a mouthful of his coffee, and doesn’t look at Bucky, because he wants to stay mad, but there’s a wave of relief waiting to rush over him and drown it out, and the moment he gets a flash of those big, imploring eyes he’s gonna let it.

Bucky’s quiet for a moment, rubbing his thumb along the rim of his mug. “I didn’t think it could still happen,” he says softly, at last.

And that kicks the bottom out of Sam’s anger as effectively as any puppy-eyed look, because there can only be one reason for it.

He waits to see if Bucky elaborates, and when he doesn’t, decides this isn’t time to push it. “Did Steve know?” he asks, instead.

Bucky shakes his head. “My mom had it,” he says. “One of my sisters, too. But Mom was pretty strict on the ‘tell no-one’ thing. She didn’t even talk about it with my dad, really. I mean, he knew, but…” He trails off, refocuses. “And you know Steve. Always trying to look out for other people, and back then he really needed somebody looking out for him. Not another thing to worry about.” He pauses, looks up at Sam. “You don’t exactly need more things to worry about, either.”

Sam cocks an eyebrow. “Look how that turned out.”

Bucky scowls at him, a hint of red high up on his cheeks. “Hey, I used to be able to control it. Didn’t figure it would come back like this.”

“Used to,” Sam echoes. “I need to ask what happened?”

“Probably not.” A half-shrug. “I figured HYDRA had… shut that part of me off, somehow. I tried it a couple times, after I got back, but I couldn’t shift. And that was fine, I mean, I was fine. I just dealt with it.” There’s a hint of strain under the words, and Sam’s pretty sure it isn’t that simple. Having a part of yourself ripped away—even if it’s a really fucking weird part—isn’t something you just deal with, at least not long-term.

But he isn't gonna force Bucky to talk about if he isn't in the mood. Won't help anything. “They didn’t try to use it?” he asks, instead. “I mean, an assassin who can turn into a cat seems pretty useful. Stealth missions.”

Bucky levels a stare at him. “You ever tried getting a cat to comply?”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“So anyway, I was fine. And then I wake up in the middle of the night and I can feel it, the change coming on, and I try to stop it and I just… can’t. I was trying to shift back for… days, I think.” Bucky’s brow furrows. “Things get kind of fuzzy after I’ve been like that a while. Or they do now, anyway. I can’t actually remember if it was like that before.”

Sam can’t help himself; he reaches out and places his hand over Bucky’s. Bucky looks down at it for a moment, like he isn’t sure Sam’s touch is real. He laces his fingers through Sam’s and squeezes lightly.

“You hadn’t answered your phone for a week,” Sam tells him. “Which I figured was too damn rude even for you, so I came looking. And I guess I found you.” He sits back abruptly, remembering the fucking nightmare that was getting the hellbeast—Bucky—into the carrier. “And you bit me!”

“I panicked!” Bucky at least has the grace to look embarrassed. “I… guess at that point I was still hoping I could figure it out without freaking you out. Hide in a dark corner until I turned human again, or something. You showing up kind of threw that plan out the window.”

“That sounds like an awesome plan,” Sam says. “Seriously. Foolproof.”

“Yeah, well.” Bucky’s thumb strokes over Sam’s knuckles, like he’s trying to brush away the already-healed scratches. “Sorry about that, by the way.”

“I might forgive you,” Sam says. “Eventually.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Bucky’s smiling again, just a little. Sam can’t stop himself from looking at the way it softens his whole face, the little creases at the corners of his eyes. Yeah, he should be pissed, or at least freaking the hell out, but there’s a warmth blooming inside his ribcage that won’t leave room for either.

Bucky reaches out, and Sam glances down at his hand. He touches the dog tags Sam’s been wearing since that day on the Raft, now hanging outside his t-shirt.

“Huh,” Sam says. “Guess you can have these back now.”

But Bucky just shrugs. “It’s fine. Kinda sweet, actually. Didn’t know you cared.”

“Who says I do?” It’s automatic.

“You missed me. You said so.”

“Oh, you heard that, huh?” Sam pauses, re-running the past few weeks in his head.

Shit. That conversation with Sarah—was Bucky in the room? He can’t remember.

“Wait, you understand people talking when you’re…?” He waves a hand.

“Kind of? I have to concentrate really hard, and it gets harder the longer I’ve been shifted, so I don’t always get everything.”

“Okay.” He takes a deep breath. “So, when I was talking to Sarah about you…”

“You mean when she said you, what was it, ‘had it bad’ for me? And you didn’t deny it? Yeah, I heard that part. Sorry.” Bucky doesn’t sound sorry at all.

Awesome. Fan-fucking-tastic. Sam entertains a brief fantasy of running out of the room, strapping on his wings and soaring into the sky until the embarrassment falls away from him like the first stage of a rocket.

But Bucky hasn’t let go of him. He’s still stroking his thumb over the back of Sam’s hand in tiny, gentle motions, still has that soft, open look on his face.

And Sam remembers something. “You know what? I’m pretty what she actually said was ‘almost as bad for him as he does for you’. So.” He lifts his eyebrows.

Bucky holds his gaze like he’s accepting a challenge. “She’s the smart one in the family, obviously.”

Relief bubbles up through Sam, dizzy and unexpected. He hadn’t even realised he was afraid of anything, and now this is happening and it feels like he’s dodged a warhead.

He laughs. “Yeah, I feel like I should argue with that, but…” He inclines his head toward Bucky, toward their joined hands. “Case in point.”

“I feel like you were nicer to me when I was a cat.”

"I feel like you were nicer—" Sam breaks off, shakes his head. "Nah, can't say that with a straight face. You were still a giant pain in the ass with whiskers. And—" It deserves saying again. “—you bit me.”

"Still had your back, though."

Sam inclines his head. "Nice cat-out-of-hell impression."

"Anytime,” Bucky says, and then frowns. “Man, I really wanted to punch that guy.”

Sam feels the smile tighten on his face. “And get in my way?” Showing up at Sarah’s house, the kids—the anger starts fizzing under his skin again when he thinks about it. The worst part is knowing it probably won’t be the last time.

Bucky meets his eyes. “You okay?” There’s a reassurance in the words, a promise that Sam doesn’t have to deal with it by himself. Next time, he’ll know he isn’t alone.

“Yeah.” It slips out on a sigh. “I will be.”

They're quiet for a moment, holding hands in the golden haze of afternoon sun. It feels earlier—like one of those moments first thing in the morning when everything's drowsy and still, and Sam could almost imagine they're the only two people awake in the whole world.

It's just a moment. Sam feels it slip past him as he asks, "So, you think it’s gonna happen again? The whole cat thing?"

"Maybe." Bucky chews on the inside of his cheek, a worried little furrow appearing between his eyebrows. “I don't even know how I shifted back. I mean, I was asleep, I wasn't trying."

"Hm." Sam turns over the morning's events in his mind. The way he'd been unable to settle until the exhaustion hit, finally crashing out on the couch with cat-Bucky curled up on his chest. Saying, I miss him too, and pressing a half-asleep kiss to the top of its head.

He glances at Bucky sharply.

"Wait. Tell me that wasn't some kinda fairytale, kiss-the-frog thing."

Bucky looks at him like he's gone insane.

"Hey." Sam holds his free hand up defensively. "We live in a world where wizards are real, man. And you—I can't emphasize this enough—turn into a cat. A bitey cat."

"It's genetic!” Bucky pauses. “I think. I mean, it's not like I was cursed by a wicked witch. Or a wizard. Because no, they aren't real."

Sam shakes his head. "Yeah, no, I don't know what I was thinking. Fairytales. Doesn't matter how many times you get kissed, you are never turning into a prince."

It's so easy to fall back into it, trading insults that neither of them means, bickering over nothing that really matters. Better, and truer, than promising everything’s gonna be okay. It's their normal, still, and whatever weirdness follows in its wake, having it back feels good. A warm, stabilising thing.

If anyone had told Sam six months ago he'd be thinking of Bucky in those terms, he'd have asked what alternate reality they'd bounced in from, but now it's obvious as the sun.

Bucky inches his chair closer, scraping along the kitchen floor until his knee brushes against Sam's. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe you should try again. Just to be sure."

Sam folds over laughing. "Jesus. That ever work for you?"

"Give me a break," Bucky complains, "I've been a cat for—"

Whatever he was about to say gets cut off, because, turns out, the corniest lines in the book do work, sometimes.

Kissing Bucky is as easy as bickering with him, a slow, sweet slide of lips in the golden warmth, Bucky's hand settling at Sam's waist, Sam's curving around the back of his neck to keep him close. It's a long moment before they part again.

Bucky rests his cheek against Sam's, practically nuzzling him. His eyes are still closed, and Sam can't resist. He leans in close, kisses the curve of Bucky's neck above his borrowed t-shirt, then presses his teeth to the spot he kissed.

Bucky draws in a sharp breath. “Fuck!”

"That," Sam tells him, "was for biting me."

"Guess I should have seen that one coming." Bucky's hand is still at his waist, pressing him closer. "Not sure I've learned my lesson, though. Maybe you should try that again, too."

"Please," Sam says, "stop talking."

But he tries it again.

 

Six months later

The creak of the cat flap alerts Sam that Bucky’s home, and a second later the soft patter of furry paws turns into human footsteps. He’s getting better at controlling the shifting, and Sam hasn’t had to hide a yowling three-legged furball down the front of his jacket mid-mission in months. When Sam pokes his head around the kitchen door, Bucky’s chugging juice straight out of the carton.

He puts it down when Sam pads over to him, flashes one of those light-up-the-room smiles that Sam hasn’t totally gotten used to, even now, and leans in for a kiss.

Sam ducks it, eyeing him, and the juice, suspiciously. “Tell me you didn’t eat a mouse,” he says.

Bucky makes a disgusted face. “Sam, I have some standards.”

“Obviously,” Sam says, gesturing at himself, but he presses in close and tilts his head up, lips meeting lips lazily.

Of course, then Bucky has to ruin it by adding, “It was a bug.”

Sam is 90% sure he’s kidding, but that doesn’t stop him grabbing the nearest spatula and aiming a swat at Bucky’s head. Bucky dodges it, slips past him in the direction of the bathroom, and Sam leans up against the counter with a martyred sigh.

He really needs to get a spray bottle.