It had been daunting. Or, rather, hands settled low on his hips and appraising the mattress as if he knew what to look for, Steve had been daunted.
"So," Clark, the salesman, cleared his throat and began, "What d'ya good folks think?"
"Well—" Steve cast a set of sidelong glances to the men on either side of him.
From his left, came Bucky's gentle laugh. And as it always did, as he knew it would always do, it drew Steve's attention. A small figure, draped in pale skirts over yellow tights, her strings upon strings of fake pearls hitting against each other as she moved, tugged Bucky down to whisper urgently in his ear.
A moment passed. Another. Steve could feel Clark grow more and more antsy as time went by and his sale was not yet made.
The salesman hitched his thumbs into the loops of his belt. Again, he cleared his throat. "Folks?"
Sam held up a finger, that beautiful smile of his dancing on his lips. "Give a girl a second," he said, adjusting the weight of the other child tucked into his side. "Just give her a second."
"Okay," Bucky murmured, voice as serious as his nod answering whatever else he was being told. "Uh huh. Definitely. Definitely ." He straightened up. Hand curled around that much smaller one, he met Clark's eye and, with the kind of level stare that had frozen greater men, he said, "Sarah Laird thinks it's best that she jump on the bed."
"Excuse me? I can't really— I don't think I'm really allowed—"
"We have a big family: three grown men, two children, two cats and a dog—"
"Two dogs," Sam interjected.
"Two big dogs," Steve added, understanding the route the conversation was taking. "Huge."
Seeing the sweat dot along Clark's receding hairline, along the line of his neck, Steve understood, too, why Sarah Laird had asked Bucky to make her request.
Bucky flashed the slice of a quick grin. "So you see, a large family. How will we know that this bed can support the weight of such a large family if our daughter can't test it out for two minutes."
Clark looked at Sarah Laird, who immediately swiped away the tangle of dark curls hiding half her face and beamed deceivingly innocent up at the man.
He looked at his slim wristwatch and swallowed. "I guess… Well, I guess two minutes couldn't hurt."
Before the sentence was out of his mouth, Bucky picked Sarah Laird up by the pits of her arms and set her, laughing, onto the mattress.
"Manners," Sam reminded, half a second before Steve could.
Jumping just an inch high, Sarah Laird cast that same large smile on Clark. "Thank you, Mr Salesman," she said, much too sweetly.
The three of them watched her— grinning and gleeful at having gotten her way— and Clark watched them, exhausted and on edge.
Sometimes he would think about it, the life they shared, and it flooded him with disbelief. How? The first question. And quick to follow soon after: Why? What had he done to deserve any of this, an entire lifetime with these two men, these incredible children?
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I do like this one," he mused, more for his own sake than for that of either man.
Bucky hummed. "Sturdy. Large, too. Perfect for the new place."
Around a wary smile, Clark regarded them with wide eyes, hopeful that, if not anything else, he could finish a sale with the family he had been walking around with since the morning.
An eye, consistently observant, glanced over the exhaustion on every corner of Clark's face.
They really would have to buy this mattress now, Steve realized. Both grateful for the salesman's patience, and sorry that he had been stuck with the pickiest group of people possible.
Rubbing his hands together, Clark took a small step forward. "So, what are we thinking?"
Turning the slightest bit away from Clark, Sam bumped his shoulder lightly against Steve's. Loud enough for only him to hear, he urged, "I'm gonna put this guy out of his misery if one of you don't."
Steve sighed. He eyed the line of drool staining the deep red of Sam's shirt. "I'll do it. I'll do it. Here, let me take Adlai, you're getting baby spit all over your new shirt."
Sam had been carrying the toddler for most of the afternoon, having found him half-standing and leaning against the armrest of a bright blue futon, fast asleep. Twice already Steve had offered to take him, Bucky too busy with making sure Sarah Laird didn't get bored enough to start tearing up any more furniture, and twice Sam had simply shook his head, no .
Bucky wrapped his arms around Sarah Laird's waist then, as if sensing the flow of Steve's thoughts, and pulled her to his chest with a "That's enough for now, angel-demon," as she struggled against his hold.
Sam placed Adlai in the careful curl of Steve's arms. Slow, careful not to jostle him and wake him crying.
Clark watched, growing more frustrated or more tired, Steve couldn't tell.
Running a hand calmly along Adlai's back, he shifted his head to meet Bucky's eyes, to find Sam. Two nods answered him, a pair of set frowns.
Holding out a hand for Clark to shake, Steve smiled wide. "Where do we sign?"
"Father," Sarah Laird piped. Her mouth a firm line, she held out a handful of bright rubberbands.
Bucky lay stretched out in the back of the car. An eyebrow shot up and he bit back a surprised laugh. "Father?" he repeated and, at Sarah Laird's nod, he shook his head. "Okay," a pause as she placed the bands into his cupped hands, "I'll bite. What kind of braid?"
His voice drifted to the front. A frown in the curve of each word, a scowl at the tangles Sarah Laird had worked her short hair into.
"You forget Graduation morning, already?" Sam called, around a chuckle.
Steve remembered. The rush of the morning, Sam half under the dresser in the guest room trying his best to coerce Adlai out and into his suit, and Sarah Laird— Steve grimaced— kicking her legs against the countertop as Bucky strained to pull her hair into anything that didn't look like it had been done with his eyes glued shut.
"He's not wrong." Steve twisted around in his seat. Bucky scowled. "Don't misunderstand us, Buck, we love you, but you were never meant to be a hairdresser. They're a little bit..."
"Wild," Sam contributed. "Unruly. God coming down from Heaven to question why you would so blatantly disrespect his creation. A mess."
Sarah Laird's grin was a slice into her brown-freckled face. "I like the braids, they're nice," she said, simple as ever.
None of them could really fight with that. "If you like them, sweetheart, then we like them," Sam said, certain and strong, pulling an answering nod from Steve, a proud grunt of agreement from Bucky.
Adlai stirred then, waking to the sound of Sam speaking. Eyes remaining stubbornly closed, he strained against the hold of Steve's arms to find Sam. "Papa? Papa?" he whined.
Steve bounced him gently on his knee. One, two, three. "It's okay." And he hoped that Adlai wouldn't start crying. "It's okay, baby boy, it's okay."
Small sobs wracked through the car. Almost nothing would stop him now.
"I think he's— stop wiggling— I think he's coming down with something," Bucky murmured, barely audible under the growing crying.
Steve met the quick cut of Sam's gaze, from the road to his eyes and back in a second.
A nod to answer the unvoiced question, and Sam manoeuvred the car through light traffic to park alongside the road.
The cries were louder, broken only by a series of tired coughs. Quieted only when Steve took a seat behind the steering wheel and Adlai took his place, firmly bundled, against Sam's chest.
Days flew past each other, a bare greeting as they danced from morning to the next afternoon.
A kiss to the cheek as the number of boxes outgrew the number of items filling the old apartment.
Moving was hard. Family was hard. He was a man carved into care, but the edges of him were beginning to fray and he longed for a moment of peace.
Phlegm stained the front of his shirt and he ran steady hands through his hair and listened to a doctor tell him Adlai was going to be fine, just fine fine fine, and he smiled and nodded and hated his mind drifting to a birthday fast approaching and a leak that had to be fixed in the new house and a new pair of shoes to be bought because Sarah Laird had somehow burned the old one's to a crisp.
"Dinner tonight?" Sam made sure each morning, slipping past him and to the shower, sweaty from their run.
A bare moment to talk. A bare moment to share a kiss.
"Coffee's ready," Bucky hurried. Pulling Steve into a quick hug and pecking of lips as he bundled the children into coats and scarves, urged them out into the waiting car.
A bare moment. Pushing furniture into corners, pushing them out, pulling boxes into rooms just to ignore they needed unpacking. Rushing breakfasts and ordered dinners on the days when cooking was just another thing standing between them and a good few hours of rest.
It was a relief, pure relief, the day the last box was squirreled away, an apartment left bare for their new home to be rightfully settled into.
"Just in time for someone to turn 10," Bucky said, lowly, dragging his eyes to the children sprawled on the kitchen floor and scribbling vivid colours across blank pages.
Well, Sarah Laird was drawing, Adlai more content with tearing the paper labels off the crayons and littering them over Alpine and Barnabus, worrying the cats during their late afternoon doze.
Sam handed over the last plate to Bucky, leaning against the counter and wringing a washcloth between his hands. "Too soon," he murmured, shaking his head. "I just want her to be five again, man. It was easier when she was five."
Bucky chuckled. He folded the cloth over the rack, folded his arms loosely over his chest. "She drew over all the walls with red paint and hid a rat in her room for over a week." It was why they had adopted Marshmallow, a Siberian husky Sarah Laird had insisted on taking home, and naming.
Nostalgia in the lines of his face, Sam raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. "Simpler times."
A key in the front door drew both their attention at once.
Steve, home early and arms abound with bagged with groceries, birthday decorations stashed safely in the car, kicked the door shut behind him. "I'm home! Everybody better be dressed and ready for dinner," he called, his voice ringing clear.
He found his way into the kitchen, the groceries unceremoniously dropped on the cluttered table. A smile, tired at it edges, dripping in all the warmth of the sun, curled his lips up to greet Sam and Bucky.
"Daddy!" Sarah Laird shrieked, shoving her latest drawing at Steve and tugging on his pants leg until he looked down at her. "Look what me and Adlai made!"
"It's beautiful, my love."
"Do the art voice."
"Absolutely gor-geous ." Pompous and exaggeratedly British. "Spectacular. May I say Miss Sarah Laird Wilson-Rogers-Barnes, your eye for colour far surpasses that of any another artist I have had the pleasure of meeting."
The giggles of children filled the room, laughter from Steve hooking an arm around each one and hugging them high against his chest.
Bucky put the water onto boil. Sam pulled out an aged recipe book.
They were largely unaffected by the happenings outside their home. The world was constantly in shambles, but, right now, not theirs.
Outside the picture windows of their main bedroom— this bed larger and sturdier, newly bought— snow fell. Gentle flakes dusted the windowsill, carpeted the earth in fine layers of crystal.
A chill most unwelcome inched its fingers under thick, woolen blankets. Roused Steve before his alarm could.
A shiver ran through him, despite the heat of the bodies surrounding his, and he melted into the strong pair of arms settled around his waist. Steve hummed, sleepy and content, as the hold tightened and pulled him close, their bodies puzzle pieces fitting seamlessly together.
Sam cracked an eye open. "I didn't hear anything," he whispered, groggy, careful not to wake Bucky, "what's the time?"
His head bent to fit into the crook of Sam's neck. Eyes slipping shut, he kissed at the bare shoulder. "Early. Too early." Another kiss, to the peek of a collarbone. "Too, too early. Sleep." He draped his arm over Sam, reveled in the heat that the man radiated.
"I don't think I can. You want coffee or something, while I'm up?"
Steve opened his mouth to answer.
"Fucking God," Bucky grumbled, cutting Steve off before he could get the words out. He moved further into the middle of the bed. "Fucking God."
Sam craned his head around Steve. "You alright, man?"
"It's freezing. Is the heater even on?" voice knife-sharp, he asked. "And for fuck's sake—" he wormed his hand under Steve's stomach, curled up right against him, "stop talking. Just. Shut up."
"He's my husband, Buck. And if I want to talk to my husband at," Steve spared a glance to the alarm clock flashing bright red on the bedside table, "Six-thirty in the morning, then I can."
"He's my husband, too, doesn't mean I'm disturbing every living person to enjoy him."
"Funny," Sam mused. "Didn't think you'd hear us over your snoring."
"Says the man who could wake the dead from their graves."
Steve breathed out a quiet chuckle. He rarely got between the strange way they had of communicating; he certainly wasn't going to start today. "I like how you said 'enjoy him,'" Steve said instead. He shifted his weight, craned his neck to rub the tip of his nose along the line of Sam's jaw.
They rarely had moments like this. Just the three of them, without disruption or distraction.
Sam brushed Steve away. He muffled his chuckle into the back of his hand. "Hm mm," he started, wiggling his eyebrows, "I also like how he said 'enjoy me.'"
At a snail's pace Steve slid strangely warm hands under the loose sweatshirt Sam insisted on wearing to bed, glided across his torso to and rested them lightly against smooth skin.
Bucky pressed closer to Steve. Loose hair slipping from the band of his ponytail and framing his face, he propped his chin on Steve's shoulder. Eyes narrowed, mouth almost a pout, he glared. "Really?" he demanded. "Really? Now? Now? "
"Thought you were insatiable." Steve teased.
"I got a job and a two kids. Two dumbass husbands to match." Another of his famous scowls.
Sam moved the smallest bit. A small smile curved his lips upwards. "We could always just lay together some more," he offered, drawing distracted patterns into the length of Steve's forearm with the tip of a finger. "Cuddle. Fall asleep again."
Bucky closed his eyes and hummed, a grin rucking up his features into wrinkles upon gorgeous wrinkles.
"I mean," Steve mused, slowly tapping a finger to his chin, "it would work in conserving heat."
Sam laughed. "Good enough reasoning for you, Stevie? Or do you need me to calculate how much it's adding to our budget, too?"
"Okay, okay, I'm a nerd— I didn't marry me. C'mon, hold me closer. I'm cold."
"So bossy, so early in the morning," Bucky teased.
The bed was the one they had spent an entire day trying to find. Large enough for five people and perfect for the nights they wanted to spend together instead of in their own rooms, that, and strong, too.
Laughter muffled into the rounds of shoulders and the backs of necks they tangled and untangled, searching for the position most comfortable and most warm.
Sandwiched between the two men, Steve relished in the weight of a strong arm curled around his frame, in the heat of Bucky pulled against his front.
It might not have been winter. Warmth and warmth, in the arms of the men he loved, it might have been the wakings of Summer.
His blunt-nailed fingers raked through Bucky's hair. Soft hands massaged circles into Steve's hips, into the outsides of his thighs.
It might have been Summer in Eden.
Steve's lips, dry and cracking from the cold, curled into a hint of a delicate smile.
He basked in the pleasure of life's simplicities.
Sweet sleep beckoned, and who was he to deny the temptation of it. All too welcome, even if only for an hour, before the busy day they would undoubtedly be having.
Warm lips pressed against skin exposed just above the stretched collar of his T-shirt. Firm against sensitive skin, snaking a shiver down the length of his spine.
"What're you doing, Buck?" Steve asked, quietly, if only for the sake of hearing Bucky speak.
A different hand wormed its way underneath Steve's thin shirt, soft fingers brushing over softer skin. Sam began pressing kisses along the nape of his neck and Steve had to force himself to think beyond the feel of honey-sweet touches.
He loved and he hated how insync Sam and Bucky could be sometimes.
Loved and hated how they could have silent conversations around him.
For a mere few seconds, the onslaught of kisses stopped, the movement of hands stilled.
"Nothing," Bucky's voice a sly lilt. "Thought you were cold, hm? Just try'na get you warm."
"Yeah?" came the short question. Steve dropped his head back against plump cushions at the feel of lips on the Achillean curve of his neck, deeply breathed in the scent of vanilla that was distinctly Sam.
"Yeah." The word, Sam's voice, muffled. "Heat conservation, right?"
He exhaled a laugh. To his own ears he could hear the love-drunk rasp of it.
He couldn't see Sam but he could hear, too, the smirk that danced on his mouth and cut across his stubble-dusted face.
"You're so lucky to have us in your life, you know that?" Bucky pointed out, face drawn in a mock-serious frown.
"Oh, really … Care to explain that?"
Cupping his chin in his hand Sam brought their mouths together in a slow, intimate kiss. Unhesitant, moving against each other with the ease of familiarity; moving iin time with the traces of himself Bucky was leaving along the stretch of Steve's chest, his neck.
Each of them knew the other better than they knew themselves.
Steve could draw them blindly. Knew the planes of their bodies as if they had been sculpted just for him; knew them like the scars on his fingertips.
Swiping a thumb swiftly over Steve's bottom lip, Sam nodded. "Who else in the world is going to kiss you and your morning breath?"
Steve shook his head, long blond strands of hair falling in front of deep blue eyes. "Sharon… Thor, you know, from the gym… Clint… I'm very delectable," he said around a smirk of his own.
Bucky clicked his tongue. Sam hummed appreciatively.
Tired of talking, and tired of being teased, Steve twisted and slid unwavering hands up either man's shirts.
It was bliss, just to touch them.
Afterwards, they lay as vines among trees, intertwined. Weak sunlight wormed through thin curtains, gracing their skin it coloured the flush of their bodies.
Living art; Steve had never seen anything more beautiful.
And when, hushing their giggles, Sam and Bucky took ahold of one of his hands each and tugged Steve from the bed to the shower, boneless and awed, he let them.
It was bliss, just to be touched by them. Bliss, just to be loved by them.
Steve rubbed a towel through his hair.
He watched idly as Sam helped Bucky reattach his prosthetic, something that had taken him a long time for which to ask for help.
They whispered to each other, sitting at the edge of the bed with Bucky's arm bent and resting on the bench created by Sam's crossed legs.
A moment of cherished quiet.
Outside the room, the house awoke and would soon have to be attended to. Floorboards creaked, the dogs barked eager early morning greetings across the house.
"Eggs for breakfast?" he asked, "Or should we do those chocolate-chip pancakes Adlai likes?"
"Sarah Laird won't keep those down. She'll only eat blueberry," Bucky reminded him.
"I'll do blueberry if you do chocolate-chip." Sam offered a shrug.
The doorknob turned slightly. They had missed the careless steps and the creak of floorboards. Her life-size Winnie the Pooh held to her side, almost larger than her, Sarah Laird popped her head around the door. "Can we come in?" she asked, waiting only a second before she bounded in, leading in a happily barking Lionel and Marshmallow.
Adlai followed soon behind, steps unsteady and clutching at Lionel's golden tail.
"How you doing baby girl?" Bucky asked, reaching for a hug. "Did you sleep okay?"
"Dreamt about dinosaurs in space," she said, clambering up into Sam's lap. At the encouraging round of nods and uh hmm 's she nodded. "Yeah. And Pooh was there, too, but he was suuuuper tall and he had a lightsaber."
"What colour lightsaber?" Sam brushed her hair away from her eyes.
Adlai had already found his way to Steve's legs and Steve couldn't help but grin.
It seemed that lately all he could manage to do was smile; as if the happiness that welled inside him, lived inside his chest, drove lasting sadness away and itched for freedom in all forms. Love and happiness lived in him; he was made of it; it was made of him.
"Breakfast?" Adlai fussed, reaching to be picked up.
"Uh huh," Steve answered, willing to oblige he cradle the boy to his hip. "Anybody else starving?"
Sarah Laird grabbed her stomach and hurriedly agreed. "I heard we're having pancakes."
"And where'd you here that from, huh?" Sam tickled at her side.
"Nowhere! Nowhere! I swear!" she rushed, laughing loudly and trying to push Sam's hands away. "Can we watch Pooh's Greatest Adventure ? Uh, Grand Adventure ? It's Saturday."
"We'll see. If you eat all your breakfast."
"Easy." An indignant rise of her chin. Absently, Steve wondered from which of her fathers she had gotten that from.
With a practiced expertise, Steve herded everybody from the bedroom, enticing the dogs with promises of extra treats and forcing the door closed before either of the cats could force their way inside and on top of cupboards.
Bare feet tapped against cool floors. Bucky scooped up Barnabus if only to stop the one-eyed, golden cat from nipping at Alpine, always easily irritated in the morning. "Little Bastard," he muttered, giving her a scratch behind the ear.
Music played over the radio, tunes barely familiar to Steve's ear; made sweet only by Sam singing beautifully along. By the hesitant laugh from Bucky as Sam coaxed him into singing too, by the nudge of Sam's hip against his own as he tried to urge Steve to join.
Rays of sun filtered through the uncovered windows, but the brightness of their dimmed in comparison to how Sam and Bucky livened up the kitchen.
Sam danced fluidly, hips swaying gently, from end to end as he worked on preparing half of their breakfast.
Bucky spun Sarah Laird and Adlai around the table and out of time with the music, side-stepping the husky and golden retriever who insisted on taking up as much floorspace as possible.
Perfect, Steve thought. Perfect may have been too strong a word to describe what they had, but it was the best one that Steve could find to use.
And afterwards, when syrup had been scrubbed from Adlai's cheeks and pieces of fruit pulled from Sarah Laird's tangled hair, they pulled duvets off beds and made a messy camp around the television. No camp complete without its gathering of animals, theirs formed much the thick carpet ringing the coffee table.
Pooh's Grand Adventure began, Sarah Laird kicked her heels excitedly against the couch and leaned further into Steve.
Pressing her head to his arm until, without her having to voice her demand, he started running fingers through her hair.
" Forever isn't long at all, when I'm with you ," Christopher Robin and Pooh sang on screen, and Steve's heart swelled and swelled and swelled.
Pulling Barnabus from the group at their feet to her chest, Sarah Laird picked up the next line, "I wanna call your name. Forever."
"And you will always answer, forever," Sam and Bucky added in unison, much to the children's delight.
Across the small expanse of the couch Sam pulled their hands together and squeezed, he never knew a squeezed hand could be filled with such deep feeling; Bucky's gaze found his, and he never knew a glance could make him feel such security. And, a tad belated, Steve added, "And all of us will be. Forever."
Sarah Laird squealed at the end, clapping her hands and urging Adlai to join her. Not one to deny a moment of making noise, he brought his hands together in confused excitement.
Noise and cheer and endless, absolute love— that's how Steve would describe their little family.
The movie finished and though it was barely afternoon both children sank quick and deep into their naps. A child each in Sam and Steve's arms were deposited to their rooms while Bucky made about clearing up the lounge.
Fresh cups of coffee waited on the kitchen table when they returned.
Leaning against the counter, Bucky sipped on his and flipped through piles of files they had been careful to keep out of sight from Sarah Laird. "So," he began, briefly glancing up at them, "I was thinking."
"Must've been hard," Sam said, grinning and finding his place beside Bucky.
"As I was saying." Bucky glared. "I was thinking about Sarah Laird's birthday. We haven't settled on a theme yet, right? How about these two."
Bucky pointed to two sections of the file he had marked. Sam nodded the approval that was sought.
A lazy bark came from one of the other rooms, a screeching meow followed.
Their children slept, as peaceful as ever. Tired now, but to be clambering over legs and screaming over the voice of the other when they woke fully rested.
Steve took a sip of coffee.
Perfect, he thought. Perfect was, quite possibly, the right word.