After six months back in the superheroing business, Bucky was pretty sure the bad part wasn’t the missions themselves. Sam was a natural leader in every sense of the phrase, and, like it or not, Bucky was built for war. Might as well use it for good, on he and Sam’s terms. They'd been doing good work. But after. God, after. ‘After’ meant debriefing with government types that usually treated both of them with some combination of awe, mistrust, and disdain. ‘After’ meant being stuck in very close quarters with Sam, which seemed to get more and more uncomfortable with each mission they went on. And, most of all, ‘after’ meant dealing with a very familiar process – adrenaline crash, endless overthinking, and, finally, exhaustion, bone-deep and unavoidable – and watching Sam go through it as well, without being able to help.
“Earth to Barnes.”
Bucky jumped. Sam, freshly showered and looking beat, laughed quietly at his expense.
“Jesus, Wilson, didn’t even hear you leave the bathroom.”
Sam plopped down onto the couch next to him and smiled. “World’s deadliest assassin, huh?”
“World’s oldest man, more like.”
Sam laughed again. “Ready for retirement, then?”
Silence fell – not awkward, but not exactly comfortable either. The mission hadn’t gone to plan (did they ever?), and they were both in a mood. It didn’t help that Sharon guided them to what must be the shittiest US government safehouse in the northern hemisphere. It was a ten by ten box with a kitchenette, an old TV, a bathroom covered in dirty mint green tile, and a small set of bunk beds crammed inside a windowless closet of a room.
Sam’s voice came quiet and stubborn. “I don’t like being sidelined.”
Bucky sighed. “Listen, there were more of them in that base than expected. Now they’re looking for us. And Sharon and her team are going to catch them unawares while they’re distracted with the chase.” He was just repeating things Sam already knew, but sometimes it did them both good to talk it through.
“We could help with that.”
“Yeah, or we could keep our phones off, lay low, and sit it out like she asked. You know when you take contracts with the State Department that she’s going to call the shots.”
That earned him a glare, but it was the kind that had a little smile hiding behind it.
“I just wanted-” Sam started and stopped. He sighed and flopped back fully into the couch, boneless. “Sarah is going to be pissed.”
“What day is it, genius?”
Did he forget a birthday? Bucky shrugged lazily, and Sam pointed at the TV, which was on but muted. Bucky hadn’t really been watching it while Sam was showering; he’d been too busy playing the entire mission back in excruciating detail in his mind. There’d been one woman who had looked so young. So young, to be so radicalized, and so angry. Bucky shook his head, chasing ghosts away. On screen, there was a crowd, cold-looking presenters with wide smiles, a Christmas tree, and a big red “LIVE” in the corner.
“It’s New Year’s Eve?”
Sam rolled his eyes and nodded. “Yeah, it is. And Sarah always hosts a big party. It’s one of our traditions from our parents. I promised her I’d be there.”
“But you knew we were shipping out on the 29th.”
“Shipping out my ass. The damn mission was in Louisiana! Supposed to be quick! How was I to know that the simple twelve hour in-and-out Sharon promised would last three days and come to a dramatic finish with us laying low in Mamou of all places? Fucking Mamou!”
A fond smile tugged at Bucky’s lips at the way Sam said the word ‘Mamou’ – like a true Louisiana native, vowels deep and round. Eight months ago, Bucky would have argued back, pulled Sam in with bickering, kept the conversation going at any cost. Now, though, he just got his face under control and said, “I’m sorry, Sam.”
Sam sat forward and bumped their shoulders together.
Bucky glanced over at him, and all he could see for a moment were the bags under Sam’s eyes, the lines on his face. There was a new side to Sam after missions that Bucky had never seen before; it was a Sam that didn’t always have a joke or a smile, a Sam that seemed fucking tired, a Sam that needed something, and Bucky still wasn’t quite sure what. Whatever it was, Bucky probably couldn’t give it. Usually, he just let Sam have some space.
“I think I’m going to bunk up for the night. Or you can take the room now. I can hang out here. Whichever you want.” Bucky managed a weak smile.
Sam didn’t look up, he just stood, nodded at the ground, and said, “Okay, sounds good. You can take the bedroom for now.”
Bucky left the room quickly, almost relieved to get away. The door closed behind him, and Bucky threw his duffel onto the bottom bunk, then collapsed beside it. The mattress creaked as he landed.
Sam’s feet dragged heavily outside as he shuffled around the kitchen, and Bucky had an odd feeling that he made a mistake. But that, he told himself firmly, was more selfishness, like showering first, or claiming the bottom bunk. Sometimes it felt like all he did was take, take, take – just like those few months where Sam texted him every couple of days and he just watched the notifications light up his phone and gave nothing back.
Bucky wondered briefly if that was why things felt strange between them lately. Maybe Sam had finally noticed the pattern. Maybe the tightness in Bucky’s chest, the strange looks, the uncomfortable silences – maybe they all meant Sam was finally catching on. Bucky was in a bad headspace, he knew. Post-mission wasn’t really the time to figure this out. Things would look better tomorrow, when his brain was done broadcasting every single mistake he made in the last three days on repeat. He pulled his book out of his duffel, settled back on the bed, and did his best to clear his mind. He had just found his place when a quiet knock came at the door.
Something pulled in his chest at the soft sound of Sam’s voice.
Sam cracked the door and peeked in. “Wanna play cards? You don’t have to… if you don’t want to.”
“Yeah.” Bucky stood, maybe a little too quickly. “Uh, yeah.”
They settled quickly back on the couch, legs crossed, facing each other, using the middle cushion as a playing surface. They played, glancing periodically at the screen, cracking the occasional joke about what they might be talking about. The musical performances were best left muted, Bucky thought, to avoid an inevitable fight over the state of modern music.
They started out easy - rummy. Bucky won, then Sam. As Bucky shuffled for the third game, Sam looked at the screen and made a small noise.
“Look at that, only half an hour until midnight.”
“I never asked you. How was Christmas?”
Sam shrugged and leaned back against the arm of the couch. “It was good. Sarah and the boys have new traditions now. They had to make them. They lost so much so fast. And I’ve been gone for a long time. But it was good. Really good.” Bucky just offered him the deck to cut. “What about you? I know you were nervous.”
Bucky cracked a small smile. “Me? Nervous? Nah.” He avoided Sam’s knowing look and started to deal the cards. “It was fine. Becca’s grandchildren are about my age. I guess they’re my… grand nieces and nephews? It’s a bit odd. Most of them have kids. They have a nice thing going. Lots of little babies, food, presents. And they have all sorts of pictures, some of Becca’s old things. I liked those.”
Sam picked up his cards. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. She grew up real well, and lived a good life. Strong family. They all seem to like each other. I’m sorry I missed her.” Bucky took his turn and added, “I don’t know if I’ll go back next year, though.”
Sam had his neutral counselor face on, the one that always made Bucky want to rile him up. Instead, Bucky said, “It ain’t my family. Not really.”
Bucky shrugged. He hadn’t really expected it to work, but he was glad he tried.
“It’s fine. Honestly, I missed you.” There was a short pause before he had the sense to add, “All of you, I mean.”
Sam stayed quiet, took a turn, then finally gently said, “I told you, you were welcome.”
Bucky nodded. “Next year.”
He was looking at the TV again. A skinny girl with a ponytail was dancing around on a stage with far too few clothes on for what must be a very cold night in New York City. The timer ticked down steadily.
“Tell me about this Wilson New Year’s party, then. What are the highlights?”
Sam smiled at that. They had both unconsciously set their cards aside, and Bucky didn’t much want to point it out. Sam was winning, and Bucky would much rather listen to him talk anyhow.
“Well, everybody gets a bit wild. Kids, parents. Almost the whole town comes.” Bucky watched his face relax at the memories. “There’s lots of cheap champagne. We don’t watch this trash.” He waved toward the TV screen. “We have a big clock we put in the middle of the house. There’s games and competitions and all that. Eventually, the kids start passing out on the couches. Parents too, sometimes. But about five minutes before midnight, we pour a new round of champagne and turn out all the lights. You know, let people have their moment when the clock strikes.” He winked then, and Bucky couldn’t help but smile back. “We count down that last minute. And when the new year comes, we turn on the lights and yell and scream. My momma used to say it was like a surprise party. A surprise party for the new year. Welcome! We’re happy you’re here. Treat us nice.”
They were both caught in a reverie for a moment - Sam probably thinking back, Bucky trying to picture it. Sam snapped his fingers and added, “Oh, and there are fireworks, of course. Nothing like fireworks over the ocean on a calm night. I promise.”
Bucky rubbed a hand down his face and sighed. “Well, I really am sorry then, Sam. That sounds nice.”
“Sarah has a date. I was looking forward to meeting him. Giving him a little hell, you know.”
Sam picked his cards back up, and Bucky followed suit. They played in silence for a few turns until Bucky couldn’t help himself.
“Did you have a date, then? Are you standing someone up?”
Sam shook his head and said, “Nah. I had a plan to ask someone, but it fell through last minute.”
Bucky managed a small smile. “Well, Samuel, how do you expect to get a New Year’s kiss acting that way? It’s good luck, you know.”
Sam laughed. “I need all the luck I can get these days.”
The conversation flowed easily from there, as it always did when Sam was smiling like that. They shifted from luck, to the mission, to Sharon, to the fucking government, and eventually to baseball. Old reliable. Sam won another game, then another. They switched to an Italian game that Bucky learned on the front. Sam won that, too.
They sat back after that. Everyone on the TV had red cheeks and a kind of manic energy. Out of curiosity, Bucky dug the remote out of the cushions and unmuted it.
“-believe it, just a few minutes left until the new year!”
Bucky sprang up and went to look through the kitchen. It was pretty slim pickings, but he returned to Sam with more or less what he was looking for.
“Sprite?” One eyebrow was halfway up Sam’s forehead.
“Look, man, I can’t get drunk anyway, and it’s the closest we’ll get. I’ll get you a bottle of champagne whenever we get the hell out of here.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He cracked the soda open, poured half into each dingy mug he found at the back of the cabinet, handed one to Sam, and turned on his heel in search of the lightswitch. He flicked it down, and the room went dark. Sam was still visible in the glow from the TV. When he sat back down, Bucky felt Sam’s eyes on him.
“Alright. Surprise party ready. Just five more minutes to wait.”
He looked back at Sam then. They were sitting close, closer than before. Sam had a strange look on his face. Bucky bit at the inside of his mouth. There it was again – that wall, that feeling that he didn’t know how to fix.
“You okay, Sam?”
His eyes flashed up to meet Bucky’s. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s cheesy, but it makes me think about this year. About taking it on. It’s a lot of work, all of this. You know?”
Bucky nodded. “Yeah. It wears me down, too.”
“You sure you’re not ready for retirement?”
“Nah. Not until you are.” They both looked down, away. Bucky swallowed, steeled himself. “You look tired lately, too, after missions like this. Maybe we both need to slow it down.”
Bucky knew it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Sam scowled.
“You think Sharon’s noticed? Or Torres?”
It wasn’t the question Bucky was expecting. “Uh, no. No, you hide it well. I don’t think you’ve been any different with them.”
“So what you’re saying is you are noticing it.”
“Because I act that way around you.”
“Because…” He leaned his head forward, as if he expected Bucky to be able to complete the sentence. He let out a small laugh at what was no doubt an extremely dumb look on Bucky’s face. “Because you’re my partner, Buck. Because I trust you. I’m trying to be honest around you about how I’m feeling.”
Bucky blinked. “Oh.”
Sam laughed again; his eyes wrinkled, and his head fell back. Bucky smiled back almost involuntarily.
“All this,” Sam motioned around the room, “sucks because it’s transitional. Debriefing, waiting, decompressing. It’s uncomfortable because you’re between one thing and another. Not in the action, but not out of it yet. I know that, I learned that, I’ve helped people through that. But, shit, it doesn’t make it easier, does it?” Sam paused and just looked back at him for a moment. “I’m okay. I promise, I’ll tell you when I’m not. It’s been a lot lately, but I’m not at my limit yet. Just trying to figure out what that might be.”
Bucky thought about that for a moment, then nodded. “Alright. But go easy on yourself, okay? Treat yourself how you’d treat someone else. How you treat me.”
Sam hummed, gave Bucky a sly, sideways look, and smiled. They were still sitting so close. The announcer’s voice cut through.
“-- starting the countdown!”
They both picked up their mugs. With another wink, Sam tapped his against Bucky’s and took a small sip.
“Mm, yeah. Nothing like some flat Sprite to ring in the new year.”
Bucky laughed and took a drink. Sam was looking at him, still looking. Bucky wondered what he was looking for, and if he was finding it.
There was a very familiar gleam in Sam’s eyes – amused, and slightly put out, and fond – and then his eyes slid down. To… to Bucky’s lips.
Bucky swallowed, and Sam’s eyes continued downward, watching the bob of his throat. Bucky felt his heart rate pick up.
How had it taken him this long to realize? They were between one thing and another, too. Several things made sudden, shocking sense.
The Christmas invitation. The lingering looks.
Sarah’s teasing. Charged conversations about moving in together.
Quiet mornings. Soft touches. Easy silences.
Bucky took a breath. It had been brave, he realized, for Sam to knock on the door earlier. It was all they’d been doing for a long time, really. Being brave, opening doors, breaking down each other’s walls - brick by brick by brick.
Sam’s lips formed around the word in sync with the crowd. Bucky set his mug on the floor.
He reached both hands up to cradle Sam’s face, and used his last jolt of bravery to lean forward.
“Happy New Year!”
Neither of them heard the celebration. Sam’s lips parted slightly in surprise; Bucky fit there almost too well, too perfectly. There was a soft sort of friction, metal against skin, chapped lips against chapped lips, stubble against stubble. Bucky stroked his thumbs along Sam’s cheekbones and leaned in further, unable to help himself, forcing Sam to either lean in as well or fall back onto the couch. He opted for the fight – of course he did. Sam’s hand, warm and heavy, landed at one side of Bucky’s neck; his mouth closed around Bucky’s bottom lip and sucked softly. Bucky shivered, and Sam smiled against him. Slowly, they both pulled back.
Bucky’s eyes were still closed. On TV, they were singing Auld Lang Syne . Bucky hesitated. He could pull his hands back, act flippant. Say it was just for good luck, just for the tradition. Play it off. Try to put things back where they used to fit.
But when he opened his eyes, all he saw was Sam’s soft smile, lines finally smoothed from his face, eyes shining. Bucky stroked his thumbs along Sam’s cheeks again. “Happy new year, I guess.”
One side of Sam’s mouth pulled up. “Surprise.”
It made Bucky smile. He thought back to what Sam said before: Welcome! We’re happy you’re here. Treat us nice.
“The lights,” Bucky managed. Sam just looked at him. “They’re still off.”
Sam’s eyes burned. “Leave them.”
They leaned back in then, and this time Sam let Bucky push him over. It was too good – climbing over him, hearing him sigh, pressing him down into the couch, brushing lips across his forehead, and neck, and eyelids, and mouth. Bucky pushed a hand under Sam’s sweater and found no shirt – only soft, warm skin.
Sam spoke then, half into Bucky’s cheek. “You taste like old Sprite.”
Bucky hummed against his skin. “It’s good luck.”
Sam started to laugh, really belly laugh. Bucky felt it under his hand, against his cheek, top to bottom. He started laughing, too, just from the sound of it, just from the joy. They kissed more like that, Bucky propped carefully over Sam, both of them laughing softly, eyes closed, skin tingling, cheeks hot.
Eventually, Buck collapsed into the couch next to Sam. It clearly was not made for two men to lay on. It wasn’t really made to be sat on at all, if how Bucky’s back felt at the moment was any indication. They made do. They shifted to face each other, Bucky’s head tucked into Sam’s neck, Sam stroking up and down Bucky’s back.
The outside world slowly came filtering back in. Bucky thought a few rational thoughts. The TV was still crackling out the celebration. They were still in Mamou. Bucky groaned.
“Ah, fuck. Sharon is going to make so much fun of us.”
Sam laughed and squeezed his arm. “Buck, everyone is going to make fun of us.”
As if to soften it, Sam leaned in again, pressed his body closer against Bucky. It made him shiver, hot and cold everywhere they were touching. And, hell, Sam was good at this, good at letting his hands linger in the right place, at pulling gently at Bucky’s hair, at kissing him like he’s wanted to for a long, long time.
Sam looked tired when he drew back. Happy, but tired. There it was – the exhaustion. It always hit, without fail.
Sam licked his lips, then asked, “Top or bottom?”
Bucky’s mind fizzed out completely at that. In his defense, he was exhausted too. Sam laughed at the look on his face.
“Bunk, I mean. Sorry. Top or bottom bunk. We are not fucking for the first time Mamou.”
Bucky didn’t bother to answer; he kissed him once, and then again. Neither of them seemed to be able to stop. It was soft, though. Soft, and sleepy, and somehow already familiar.
“You need to sleep.” Bucky said it after a few more minutes, into the soft skin of Sam’s neck. The little puffs of air coming out of Sam’s sweater as they moved against each other smelled like shower gel, and skin, and Sam. Bucky wanted to peel it off of him, wanted to spread him out and take him slow. That would have to wait. “Bedtime.”
Sam let out a breathy sigh and said, “Not yet. Just a little more.”
“You sure we’re not fucking for the first time in Mamou?”
Sam laughed, then buried his head in Bucky’s chest. “Pretty sure.”
Bucky watched the TV over Sam’s shoulder for a few seconds. He smiled slowly as he realized.
“You know,” he let his voice take on a little tease, “if that’s live from the coast, then it’s not actually midnight yet here.”
Sam looked up at him, slightly shocked. And then, they both started laughing and hugging each other close, drunk on slow pleasure, and exhaustion, and relief.
“What a shame,” Sam said slowly between giggles, hand dragging up Bucky’s side. “We’ll just have to kiss again at midnight.”
“Yeah, honey. A real shame.”
By the time midnight rolled around, though, they were both sound asleep. Sam’s head was tucked into Bucky’s neck; Bucky was hanging half off the couch, hand brushing the ground. They would both wake up sore. It didn’t matter.
It was going to be a good year.