They don't talk about it: that's how it works.
The first time, they’re in a car; on the run, strangers in a too-close space, and Bucky’s head aches with how full it is of the person who’s not quite him, the one who follows all the orders.
Fuck, he thinks. Feels his knee cramp. Fuck.
“If you keep kicking me,” Sam says, quietly furious, “I swear to god I will shoot out your kneecaps.”
Bucky looks at his face in the rear-view mirror.
“I don't believe you,” he says, although he kind of does; Sam’s got the expression of someone who is so far past done he's in the stratosphere. On the other hand, Wilson seems like the kind of person who would have second thoughts about shooting his best friend's best friend, given he didn't actually shoot Bucky when he wasn't Bucky at the time. “Anyway, I'm not doing it on purpose. It's my knees, pal, blame Rogers for picking such a fucking clown car.”
“I don't care. Keep your knees out of my back.”
“I'm trying,” Bucky says again, “you think I want to be jammed in like this back here?” But he shoves his knees to the side, doing his best to get them out of Sam’s back at least a little. It’s not that successful, but Wilson doesn’t say anything else, so Bucky figures it’s probably okay.
They stop for gas somewhere in bumfuck nowhere deep in Belgium, and Sam glances at Bucky in the rear-view mirror, gets out of the car and flicks the lever to shove the passenger seat forward so Bucky can clamber out. Bucky swears to god he can hear his own knees crackling as he stretches his legs—years of being used as a blunt force weapon will do that to a body, he guesses—and heads towards the gas station bathroom, praying it won’t be the worst thing he’s ever seen.
It’s not; it’s not even the worst gas station bathroom he’s seen this month, there’s running water and paper towels and no suspicious stains or pools of what might not be water on the floor. Bucky takes a piss, washes his hands, makes eye contact with himself in the mirror. He looks tired—what’s new, he thinks to himself, he’s been tired for a hundred goddamn years—and more than a little done with all this bullshit. That ain’t new either, he guesses; he was done with Hydra’s bullshit back in the forties and with Steve Rogers dragging him into every fight way back so far in history he can’t even remember the first time it happened, but: it’s gonna keep happening, so might as well get on with it.
The bathroom door bangs behind him. Bucky looks up, feeling his shoulders curl in like he’s about ready for a fight, but it’s just Wilson, looking every bit as tired and done with this bullshit as Bucky is.
Huh, Bucky thinks, and wonders what the history is there, how Steve managed to pick up someone who by all measures seems to be fairly fucking well-adjusted and pull them into his orbit of fighting the whole goddamn world.
“Wilson,” he says, and grabs a paper towel to dry his hands; if he doesn’t, the water in the joints of the metal one will drive him crazy for hours. Goes to leave.
“Barnes,” Sam says, in the same tone: even, carefully neutral. He’s carrying a paper coffee cup, goes to throw it in the same garbage can Bucky just dropped his damp paper towels in. Comes unnecessarily close to Bucky to do it, Bucky thinks; he can feel the heat of Sam’s body, can smell his mingled deodorant and sweat and the bitterness of black coffee on his breath. And then he’s even closer, his hand on Bucky’s shoulder so he can push Bucky back into the cold tile of the wall, and Bucky tenses briefly before Sam’s mouth is on his hard and unflinching.
It’s— it’s a good kiss, it’s hot and fierce, biting, and Bucky grabs at Sam’s shirt, at his hip, at the smooth skin of his bicep. Holds his metal hand back against the wall like Sam might shy away from it if he’s reminded how Bucky isn’t all the way human.
“I,” Sam says, breaking away. “Yeah, okay. Shit, okay, that—” and bites his lip, backs up a few steps. Bucky licks his lips, tucks his hair back, watches Sam’s face for clues as to what the fuck just happened.
“Yeah,” Sam says again, and leaves, lets the door slam behind him.
He doesn’t make eye contact with Bucky again the whole way to Germany, stares out the window scowling like he’s mad about everything up to and including the fact that it’s raining on the damn autobahn, and it’s not until they park up so Steve can rendezvous with the Carter girl that he actually acknowledges Bucky’s existence in the back seat.
“Can you move your seat up?” Bucky says, knowing he’s being an asshole, trying to get a rise, and Sam manages to keep his lack of expression while simultaneously expressing exactly what he thinks of Bucky’s entire and continued presence in Sam’s life. It’s kind of impressive, actually.
“No,” he says, flat, and Bucky waits a minute in case there’s anything else coming. There ain’t, apparently; Sam’s still impassive about the whole thing, so Bucky shifts over, can’t quite hide his smile.
Steve kisses Carter, awkward and determined exactly the way Bucky remembers him being the last time there was a Carter around, and that’s kind of weird but it’s also pretty fucking endearing if he’s being honest, Steve’s embarrassed flush, the way he rubs the back of his neck.
“So,” Bucky says, seeing how Sam’s smiling at that. Waiting just until Steve’s not looking. “Are we gonna talk about—”
“No,” Sam says again, but this time the corner of his mouth twitches, his long lashes sweeping down like that’ll hide whatever it is he’s thinking.
Huh, Bucky thinks again, and files that one away.
They wind up fighting together, because of course they do, taking on a kid in footie pajamas who Bucky swears to fuck is all of about twelve and who wants to stop and chat about Bucky’s goddamn arm in the middle of the fight. He’s more trouble than he’s worth, gluing Sam to a balcony and then winding up to take him over the edge, and maybe it’s just Bucky’s guilt talking, the sudden muscle memory of kicking Sam off a fucking helicarrier, but he dives in to take the hit, gets taken down right alongside Sam so for a moment or two they’re lying side-by-side winded and wheezing on the airport tile floor.
That little spider shit glues them to the floor. He glues them to the fucking floor, and then Sam’s got the presence of mind to grab him with that robot bird, tangle him up in his own string and take him out the window, and all Bucky can think to say is, “you couldn’t have done that earlier?”
“I hate you,” Sam sighs, put-upon, and Bucky smirks a little as he wriggles around until he can get a knife out of his thigh holster.
“Yeah,” he says, cutting himself free. “That’s understandable. I didn’t exactly make the greatest impression.”
“Steve looked for you for two fucking years,” Sam tells him as Bucky pushes himself to his knees, picks the web shit off his metal fingers. “You think he did that on his own?”
“He shouldn’t have,” Bucky says, trying not to sound tired, trying to make it neutral. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Yeah, I know. But we did.”
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “You did,” and bends over Sam, runs the knife blade over the mass of webbing holding Sam in place. Sam holds his breath, closes his eyes for a minute like he’s maybe afraid all of a sudden, like Bucky here with a knife and Sam laid out on the floor is something he’s been trying not to think about.
“I’m not gonna cut you,” Bucky tells him, doing his best not to be offended; he’s hurt Sam already, can still see the shape of his own fingertips in bruises along Sam’s jawline.
“I know that,” Sam snaps, opens his eyes and looks hard up at Bucky, the pulse beating rapid in his throat, and Bucky stares at him for what feels like an hour but which is probably only thirty seconds at the most, caught up suddenly in this weirdly close intimacy.
“Sam,” he says, “Wilson—” and puts the knife down, plants his palms either side of Sam’s shoulders so he’s bracketing him in against the floor. Sam’s not bound up anymore, could push Bucky away, but he doesn’t; just holds himself still, tilts his chin up the smallest fraction in challenge or provocation. That’s it, Bucky thinks dimly, that’s what he was waiting for, and leans down, brushes his mouth soft over Sam’s.
It’s hardly even a kiss, just an invitation for Sam to make it one, and Sam does; parts his lips, licks into Bucky’s mouth, and it’s like Bucky’s whole body thrums with it. It’s the adrenaline from the fight, it’s— it’s Sam, Jesus Christ, this guy with his gorgeous mouth and beautiful cheekbones and a heart so big he’ll follow Steve around the world just to look for Bucky’s sorry ass, and Bucky suddenly wants nothing more than to grab him, spend an hour touching as much of Sam’s bare skin as he’s allowed to.
“We should,” he says instead, pulling back. “Go. Help.” It comes out rough, ragged, and Sam blinks at him, breathing hard.
“Yeah,” he says, “we should,” and leans back up into Bucky’s space, kisses him again quick and sharp, a little painful.
It stings; it stings harder when Sam calls it, sends him and Steve to the Quinjet at the cost of Sam’s own chances.
“We’re getting them out,” Steve says after, jaw set, and Bucky nods.
“I’m coming with you.”
“You can hardly walk,” Steve objects, and Bucky rolls his eyes even though it makes his head pulse with pain.
“What, like that’s ever stopped us in the past?”
Steve can’t argue with that; it’s clear he’s mad about it, the muscle of his jaw ticking as he clenches it, but Bucky figures he’s gonna need all the help he can get if he’s thinking about storming an underwater super-prison, even if that help comes with only one goddamn arm. He sets his nose in the back of the Quinjet, splashes cold water on his face to wash away the dried blood; it aches, but he’s had worse.
Steve goes in; Bucky tries, but it’s true, he can hardly walk. Manages, anyway, to settle the girl in the back of the jet, drapes his blood-stained jacket over her unresisting form. She's got the blank eyes Bucky remembers from his own worst days, and it makes him feel tender, raw all over; wishing he could do fucking anything to help.
There are footsteps behind him, and Bucky straightens, turns to find Wilson looking beat-up and pissed off in equal measures. Opens his mouth to say something. Doesn't know what.
“Barnes,” Sam says. “You look like shit.” He doesn’t pause, just crowds Bucky up against the wall of the Quinjet, slams his mouth against Bucky’s hard enough to bruise. It’s like the first time: unforgiving, enough to hurt, to make Bucky’s head swim.
“Ow,” Bucky says, wincing. “Fuck, ow.” Licks his split lip and tastes blood, and Sam makes a face, doesn’t step back.
“Sorry,” he shrugs, and kisses Bucky again, gentler this time, just a quick press of his lips to Bucky’s before he pulls away, touches the pad of his thumb to Bucky’s cut lip, his probably-broken cheekbone. “Seriously, you look like shit.”
“You ain’t exactly a picture,” Bucky replies. “They get mean with you?”
“Well,” Sam says. Shrugs again, prods the bruising around his black eye. “You know. They weren’t happy with me.” There are layers under that, shit Sam's not saying, and Bucky touches his own fingers to Sam's cheek, carefully gentle.
“Fuck,” he says, feeling inadequate, inarticulate in the face of everything he wants to say. “I— fuck, sweetheart.”
“Not on you,” Sam says, and when Bucky drags his fingertips down Sam's cheek to his jaw, the delicate skin of his throat, Sam's eyes flutter closed. Bucky watches him lean into the touch; he's fascinated by it, if he's being honest, the way Sam's letting him get so close. He hasn't had the chance to touch someone else like this, to touch skin without making it a fight, in so long it's hard to remember.
Steve, his brain prompts, it was Steve, not like this but near enough, and right on cue Steve is striding back up the loading ramp. Sam steps away. Holds himself carefully casual.
“We're ready to go,” Steve says, jaw working overtime, and Bucky nods.
“Not on you,” Sam says again, quieter, and when Bucky reaches for him, Sam lets him brush his fingers against the back of his hand. Links their little fingers, brief, and squeezes before letting go.
In Wakanda Sam falls asleep as soon as he gets to a bed, stays down for a day and a half. Bucky's mostly in medical; his bones are healing just fine but there's nerve damage in his shoulder, bare wires and the remnants of the arm sparking phantom pain down his spine. Making him flex fingers that aren't there: the buzzing drives him crazy. Shuri fixes the stump, caps it off. “I can replace it,” she says, this girl with more knowledge in her than all the Hydra scientists put together, and the kind of irreverence that makes Bucky want to treat her like his own little sister. “Easy. Better tech than this old thing.” Flicks her nails against the silver metal, dismissive. “You could even pick a color, you know.”
“Black,” Bucky says, reflexive, “but— not yet. There's shit we gotta do first, right.”
“Yes,” Shuri agrees, gentler. “I can fix that too, Sergeant Barnes. It might just take a little time.”
“Well, sweetheart,” Bucky says, trying to smile. “Turns out time ain't much of an issue for me.”
He looks for but doesn't find Sam, his bed empty; Sam finds him instead, still sitting on the edge of Sam's bed half an hour later. He's wrapped in a towel, looking clean but rough around the edges, and with no shirt on Bucky can see more bruises he didn't know about before. Sam's ribs, painful-looking and maybe broken. A long graze along one shoulder.
“Barnes,” Sam says, unsurprised. “Gimme a minute,” and tugs on a clean t-shirt, the same kind of soft knit pants Bucky's wearing. Sits down next to Bucky on the bed, looks obliquely at him.
“Are you—” Bucky starts, and Sam makes a dismissive noise in the back of his throat.
“Don't ask if I'm okay, man, I've had enough of that shit from Steve.”
“Right,” Bucky says. “Okay. Are we gonna talk about this yet?”
“I’m gonna go back under,” Bucky says, after enough of a pause to think about it. “T’Challa said he can do it for me. Shuri knows.”
“That’s a choice,” Sam says, his voice carefully even, a little tight like he’s holding something back. “You tell Steve yet?”
“Not yet,” Bucky says. Winces, knowing what that’ll entail. “I’ll get to it. It’s not forever, anyway, just— until they can get this shit out of my head, anyway.”
“Makes sense,” Sam agrees. Bucky bites his lip. Doesn’t turn to look at Sam, but it’s like Sam can feel his tension anyway, because he leans in just close enough to press up against Bucky's side, warm against his shoulder and hip and thigh. “You gonna kiss me, or do I have to do all the work here?”
“Oh—” Bucky says, is about to follow up with something smart like I thought this wasn't a thing and thinks better of it. Turns and angles himself in against Sam, touches his fingertips to Sam’s chin and tilts his face up for a kiss. It’s sweet, almost chaste, and then Sam parts his lips, drags his tongue along Bucky’s lower lip, and Bucky feels his whole body light up like a flare.
“We’re not talking about it,” Sam says again, breaking away only enough that his breath still puffs against Bucky's mouth.
“Sure. This ain’t a thing.”
“Good. Now that's clear: you wanna come back to bed with me, or what?”
“Fuck,” Bucky says, startled by it, the casual way Sam's stripped him down to bare wires just with one kiss and a single sentence. “Yeah, sweetheart, fuck,” and they do, they fuck, hot skin and healing bruises, Sam's mouth on Bucky's throat and Bucky taking Sam in hand, stroking him slow and easy. When Sam comes, he closes his eyes, lets his mouth fall open, and Bucky thinks: if he dreamed about this in the ice, it'd be enough.
He comes awake and Sam's not there. Just Shuri, eyes bright, and as Bucky drags himself out of cryogenic drowsiness she turns back to her screens, starts her music playing.
“Are we ready?” Bucky asks, “did you figure out how to— when do we start?”
“No,” Shuri says, and then, seeing his face: “No, James, it's already done.”
“Oh,” Bucky says. Not knowing what he expected—a halo, his hindbrain tells him, a halo and pain and the taste of rubber. Sparks behind your eyes, the smell of burning through all your memories—and he sits forward, drags his palm over his face. “Where's Steve? And the others?” Where's Sam, he wants to ask, but that's giving too much away; they don't talk about it. Not like that.
“Currently…” Shuri says, pulling up a data display, “Ukraine. Taking down a drug cartel, I think.”
“Right,” Bucky agrees. Didn't know what else he expected, really. “What, uh…”
“What's next for you?” Shuri says. Shrugs, expressive. “What would you like?”
It's a question Bucky has to think about. What would you like, as if expressing preference has ever been an option here. Unbidden, he thinks of Sam, the way he'd fallen asleep a little next to Bucky, after. The curl of his lashes against his cheek.
“You got anywhere quiet?” he says eventually. “A farm, or something? Somewhere I'd be out of the way?” and Shuri grins. Nods, once, like that's as good an option as any.
They're already ready for war by the time Bucky sees Sam again. He's on Steve's left, shoulders squared and face impassive, and it's good to see Steve again, it is, but god does Bucky ache to trace his fingers over the set of Sam's mouth, to feel it curve into a smile under his touch.
“Barnes,” Sam says, once Steve's done hugging him, and it's just the two of them side by side watching the city warding slide near-invisible overhead. “Seems like there's nothing but trouble every time I'm seeing you.”
“Hand on my heart, this time it's not my fault,” Bucky says. “You can't pin an alien invasion on me, right.”
“Try me,” Sam mutters, but it makes him smile just the way Bucky intended. “You look good, man.”
“Yeah, you too,” Bucky replies, and it's true; Sam always looks good, even when he's tired and bruised and travel-worn, but the beard along his jaw, his new armor: it's crisp. Bucky itches to touch him, to press his palm against Sam's cheek. He bites the inside of his lip, flexes his fingers.
“Nice arm,” Sam says. “Understated. It feel good?”
“It's lighter,” Bucky says. “Better integrated. Yeah, it feels— comfortable, I guess.”
“No,” Sam says, “Barnes, how does it feel,” and Bucky pauses, glances sideways at Sam. He's got a smile just at the corner of his mouth, head tilted to the side, and Bucky takes a breath.
“Oh,” he says, “I dunno, guess you could tell me,” and lifts his hand to cup the back of Sam's neck. Pulls him in, kisses him slow and lush. Lets all the burning he's done show in the way he touches him, and when he breaks away Sam blinks a couple times, licks his lips.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “it feels good,” and leans back in, kisses Bucky hard and fast and wanting. “We might die today,” he says after, as if it needs explaining, as if he can't just kiss Bucky because he wants to. “Wouldn't want to go without doing that first.”
“Ain't that the truth,” Bucky says, not letting himself hope—this isn't a thing, this is just—but smiling anyway. “No chance you're gonna die though, darlin’. You're too—” and doesn't know how to finish the sentence.
“Too annoying to die on you,” Sam says anyway. Scowls briefly at him. “Yeah, Barnes, I got your number. You're lucky you're pretty, you know?”
That's how Bucky goes, in the end; Sam's kiss on his lips, and the last thought he manages is: come on, Sam, no chance you're gonna—
It's five years later, Steve says—five years, and one heartbeat to the next—and Sam's here again beside him, too beautiful after all for the universe to lose him. Steve's gonna go, and Bucky's made peace with that; he's been disappearing on Steve so much, the fall and the ice and the running and the ice again, it only seems fair Steve can do the same a little. He worries, though, about Sam. They're friends, he and Steve. More than. Brothers, inseparable on and off the battlefield, ain't that the line?
“You okay?” Sam says, touching his shoulder, and Bucky turns his head toward him.
“Yeah,” he says, “just—” and doesn't quite know what to say. Awkward to be here, at the funeral of a man who wanted him dead; awkward too to come back to a world scarred by so much absence. For them, Bucky thinks, it's simple; he looks at Steve's face these days and sees only the hollowing-out from loss, the kind of thing that doesn't go away with a miracle resurrection.
“Yeah,” Sam agrees. Straightens his tie. “Fuck, this suit is terrible. You'd think they wouldn't have thrown away all my fucking stuff, right.”
“At least you're in a suit,” Bucky mutters under his breath, “I'm at a damn funeral in jeans, my ma would murder me.”
“You're too fucking hard to murder,” Sam shrugs. Slides his hand from Bucky's shoulder down his arm, circles his fingers around the warm metal of Bucky's wrist. “Doing anything after this?”
“Yeah, I got five years of back taxes to file,” Bucky says, deadpan. Sam muffles a snicker, turns it into a cough.
“Isn't it more like eighty years at this point?”
“Fuck, true. Doubt Hydra gave a damn about keeping my IRS file up to date.” Sam coughs again, louder, and someone in front of them turns around, glances at them in slight disapproval. Sam makes an apologetic face. Nudges Bucky, leans in closer.
“Eighty-five years of tax evasion,” he whispers, mouth close to Bucky's ear and breath hot on his neck. “Better go on the run, Barnes, the government's gonna hunt you down,” and Bucky can't hold it back, breaks into embarrassing laughter. Two more people turn around, glare at him.
“Do you mind,” one of them hisses, and Bucky doesn't mind, doesn't mind at all, because here they are at the end of the world, the start of something new, and Sam Wilson is still the sweetest damn thing he's ever seen.
“Hey,” he says, quiet as he can make it. “Sam. Are we a thing yet, baby?”
“Do we have to talk about it?” Sam asks. Lets a smile show just where Bucky loves to see it, tucked in small at the edge of his lips. Bucky wants to kiss him there: wants to lean in like he's allowed, kiss his mouth and his cheek and leave his palm pressed to the small of Sam's back just the way someone who loved him could.
“No,” he says, “we don't gotta talk about it, but—”
“You are such a pain in my ass,” Sam mutters.”Yes, Barnes, fine. You got me.”
“Good,” Bucky says, and it's not like he didn't know it, but he thinks he's gonna talk about it now, gonna say to Steve Sam and me, we— knowing that might let Steve breathe a little easier for the leaving. “Good,” he says again, knowing too that Steve's got a plan, something he thinks he's keeping secret but can't fucking hide at all. Sam's going to look so goddamn fucking good with the shield on his back, and just the thought of it makes him slide his hand out of his pocket, interlace his metal fingers with Sam's.
“You're holding hands with me,” Sam murmurs. “At a funeral.”
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, soft. “I'm gonna kiss you, too.”
“Save it for after,” Sam tells him, “a man died, Barnes, have a little respect,” and Bucky guesses he doesn't mind waiting either, here on the edge of this new world, because Sam is smiling now like he really can't help it or hide it, a smile that makes it so Bucky can't do anything but tuck his hair back behind one ear, lean over and kiss Sam's cheek. Sam shifts closer, rests his weight in against him until it's unmistakable even from the outside what they are, what they might be, and it's nothing; it's everything; they might not talk about it but here's what they are, the two of them, starting over new and together in every way it could possibly count.