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Choices were fucking hard.

And opinions were just a mess of choices. As Sam eloquently put it, Bucky hadn’t been allowed to have opinions while he was captured, which meant choices were also off the table. That extended to preferences most of the time— sometimes even thoughts in more extreme circumstances. In short, any behaviors that made him more than the weapon HYDRA had wanted him to be.

Bucky personally thought choices were stupid, but that was probably because he still had a hard time wrapping his mind around them. He guessed that meant they were on the right path to his eventual recovery.

But he was working on it.  

It sucked. It really fucking sucked.

Some things helped, like when Steve gave him pats on the back, a hand squeeze, and sometimes, even stickers to put on his metal arm, any time he made an independent choice.

Bucky loved those affirmations more than he could say.

Some days he couldn’t manage a single one no matter how hard he tried. He just ended up spiraling back into the dark hole within himself.

That was another mess to figure out. Worst case scenario, he spiraled all the way down to the bottom; he would panic, drown in anxiety and would find that once again he couldn’t function without a single goddamn instruction from a ‘normal’ person.

Best case scenario, he just needed a gentle reminder to get back on track.

But most of the time he defaulted to what Sam jokingly dubbed his ‘Stand-By Mode’. He wasn’t completely off, necessarily. Wasn’t particularly anxious, but that didn’t mean much. Just ready to comply with anything that was asked of him. He didn’t need to make any choices, only follow orders.

Bucky hated it because he found it so comfortable. He knew he shouldn’t want to be an empty machine, but sometimes it was just easier to leave behind those worthless feelings.

Regardless, he tried. He really did.

Some days were better than others, and he’d ask Steve for a drink, or if they could watch a movie. Steve almost always immediately jumped to get Bucky whatever he asked for, because it really didn’t happen that often.

Most days were a combination of everything: Bucky would try so fucking hard throughout the day, agonizing over picking mundane daily tasks to do, or trying to express a preference for what temperature he wanted his shower to be that day, and then he’d hit a wall. He never knew when it would come, but he’d end up needing Steve or Sam to come to the rescue and help him choose— easy orders that he could follow without losing it completely.

His therapist—bless her heart— told him it was still progress— he wasn’t giving up and he was still working towards the goal of constant choices.

Choices.

Sometimes it felt like a dirty word. Something secret and hushed, scandalous and forbidden.

He knew it wasn’t.

It was just so fucking hard, sometimes.

Bucky remembered those first few weeks, back when Steve had finally caught up with him. He would have disappeared again, but he’d heard Steve plead, “Stop running. Please.”

It wasn’t an order. Bucky knew it wasn’t meant to be an order. But he had gone so long without any maintenance, any orders, missions, anything, and he had latched onto it with both hands in desperation. He had been running through mud without anything to ground him, and the first glimpse of an easy life had been like being able to breathe again.

It had taken them a while to figure it out.

Sam had caught on faster than Steve. Especially when it came to food.

Steve had assumed Bucky needed help with everything— bathing, dressing, talking. He’d assumed that the asset needed parameters to operate in, that a soldier needed orders.

He hadn’t realized that Bucky was the asset. That Bucky needed the guidelines and direction, whether he was being used as a weapon at the time or not.

Sam had realized it the day he had presented an apple and a banana to Bucky after a run and asked him to choose which one he wanted.

Bucky spent at least two hours sitting next to Steve that night, listening to him sniffle his way through repressed tears, trying— and failing— to convince Steve he hadn’t taken advantage of him.

Bucky was just like that, now.

Bucky was grateful that Sam was in their lives, because he had taken the reins of the issue and laid out a plan—

—Sam and Steve working together with Bucky.

—A systematic progression of goals intended to get Bucky to a point where he could be an independent and functioning member of society.

—Positive reinforcement whenever Bucky made a choice of his own free will.

—The addition of a detailed operational definition of what a true choice actually looked like once they realized Bucky could bullshit his way through loopholes.

—A strict stipulation that sex was to never be mentioned within any context while Bucky could overhear. They had figured out quickly that Bucky didn’t stand a chance against any sex-related talk, not after what he’d been through with HYDRA. He shut down almost immediately. That would have to be attacked from another angle, or when Bucky was ready to try and brought up the subject himself.

For now, they simply had a codeword that signaled to Bucky to put on his noise-cancelling headphones so Sam and Steve didn’t have to worry about accidentally triggering Bucky while they had sex in their room.

Luckily, Sam’s careful layout of this plan also included that Bucky didn’t have to choose his reinforcement, since the point of everything was to get over the hurdle of choice in the first place. So Bucky was constantly and pleasantly surprised by what sort of things Steve and Sam came up with to treat him.

Which was why Bucky choosing his own reinforcement today was such a big deal.

They were at a Chinese restaurant— the new one that Pepper had recommended, and Bucky had wanted to go.

He really did.

He assured both Steve and Sam that he really, really, wanted to go.

He had been so sure, that Steve had barely glanced at Sam before he caved in immediately, mentioning how this was a good sign.

Sam muttered something about not getting their hopes up. Bucky probably wasn’t meant to hear that.

Bucky said nothing.

He had chosen his clothes for the day and what toothpaste flavor he’d used in the morning. He had even taken a warm shower and had chosen a book to read. Steve was had been so proud, and had told him he’d get him take-out from the Chinese restaurant for lunch.

Bucky had surprised himself— and Steve and Sam— when he’d said, “I want to go to the restaurant.”

Never mind the fact that he had never, not once, instigated a desire to leave the apartment under his own steam. Every time they went for a run— at four in the morning— or went grocery shopping— at five in the morning— or did any activity that included the possibility of strangers around Bucky, Sam or Steve would have to give him orders just to keep his anxiety levels down.

Once he heard what he was supposed to do, he was always fine. He didn’t have to worry anymore— that was someone else’s job.

Bucky’s only job was to follow orders.

The only problem now, was that Bucky had to follow this order.

The food order.

They were sitting at the very back of the restaurant, in the booth that faced the exits. It was three in the afternoon— not exactly prime time for lunch— and while it wasn’t as crowded as it could have been, there were still other customers around. Bucky noticed them, keeping an eye on them. But his main focus was on the menu.

The fucking menu with all the goddamn choices.

Bucky could have easily asked Sam or Steve to just order for him, and frankly, he should have. But he’d made a few choices already today, and he wanted to do at least one more, if only for the proud fucking look on Steve’s face. He always lit up like Bucky had just solved world hunger or saved a drowning baby or something.

And honestly, he was also after Sam’s approval.

To spite him too, of course. That was nearly always the main reason to do anything related to Sam. But sometimes it was to see the way his smile would pull crinkles around the corners of his eyes, or the way he’d look at Bucky with badly-concealed admiration.

But the spite was definitely there.

He just had to choose what to eat. Just one more thing. He could do it.

He could do it.

He could…

There were just so many fucking pages to the menu. Why did there have to be so many options?

To rub salt in the wound, there were even Chinese descriptions under the English titles, which only served to add to the jumbled mess in Bucky’s brain. He couldn’t even remember when he had learned Chinese.

Had he ever been to China?

Bucky refused to glance up at Steve or Sam, already knowing that they had made their decision of what to eat ages ago and were trying to sneak glances at Bucky to gauge his reaction. They had their fucking menus up as if they were still looking, giving Bucky the grace of extra time to figure out his own choice.

The waitress had come by two times already— both times she was easily redirected by a casual, “We’re still looking, sorry,” from Sam.

Bucky narrowed it down to one page.

He did it.

There was a dish that sounded vaguely familiar. He thought he liked it. Or maybe someone he knew had liked it?

Either way, it was a choice. He was going to do this. He was going to tell the waitress what he wanted to eat, and she was going to bring it to him, and he was going to eat it. Eat what he wanted. With Steve and Sam.

And he wasn’t going to freak out about it.

He was just following the plan.

“Are you ready to order?” The waitress asked.

Bucky dropped the fucking menu.

He knew he wouldn’t have been startled under normal circumstances, but his normal apparently wasn’t supposed to be normal. He had to create a new normal for himself now.

He just wished he wasn’t so wired all the time with this new so-called normal. It dulled his senses, like hearing the waitress come back to the table.

“Hey,” Sam said softly, dragging Bucky slightly back to the present. He had picked up the menu for Bucky and gave it back to him.

“Thanks.” Bucky mumbled, taking it and trying to will away the shaking in his flesh hand.

“Yeah, I’ll take the Mongolian Beef, please.” Steve directed towards the waitress who started writing it down on her pad. She either didn’t care about Bucky’s inept abilities, or was nice enough not to comment on it.

“Do you want it spicy or mild?”

Bucky let their talk wash over him, understanding that Steve was giving him a little bit of extra time to pull it together. He shakily opened up the menu and felt a stone drop heavily in his stomach.

He couldn’t remember which page he had been on.

Sam was talking now, and Bucky flipped through the pages.

There were only three pages.

Fuck, they were back to back.

And an insert.

C’mon, pull it together.

He kept flipping through them, the words blurring together— English, Chinese, English, Chinese, letters and characters mingling until they were meaningless.

The pictures melted.

Pull it together.

It wasn’t the insert. Put that aside. Look at the pages. Look at the pages.

It wasn’t an appetizer.

Good. Work through it.

It wasn’t a dessert. That was two pages eliminated.

It wasn’t a soup.

It was…there.

That one. In block letters. Bolded characters staring at Bucky.

Bucky croaked out, “Chow mein.”

He startled back into paying attention, looking up to realize he had talked over the waitress repeating back Sam’s order.

“Sorry,” Bucky ducked his head, “I’d like the chow mein, please.” He let out a shuddering breath and carefully closed the menu, letting it lie there, innocently on the table. He brought his hands together, letting the metal fingers tug and pull at the flesh ones until he heard the joints popping.

He felt Sam’s hand settle on his thigh, arm brushing up against Bucky’s, and he knew it for the calming move that it was. Steve and Sam both knew full well how hard this was for Bucky, and how proud of him they were for getting through it.

But then the waitress asked, “Shrimp, vegetable, BBQ pork, beef, chicken, or house special?”

That was…

He was…

There were too many….

There wasn’t….

Bucky shut down. He couldn’t do it. Fuck! He’d gotten so close, and he thought he’d done it, thought he could fucking do this.

Thought he could be human.

But he couldn’t fucking…

He couldn’t choose.

It wasn’t his choice. It never had been. He wasn’t allowed, and he wasn’t allowed. He wasn’t allowed.

His metal hand tightened too much on his flesh, and he heard a crack that wasn’t a joint. His breathing was too fast, he knew, but he couldn’t pull it back together.

It was just one question.

Just pick one.

Just choose something. Please, choose something.

“Order the chicken. You like chicken.” Sam’s voice was sure and sharp, and Bucky responded automatically. His fidgeting hands stilled, settling atop his thighs, and his ragged breathing suddenly went even.

All the anxiety bled away.

Adrenaline focused acutely on his new mission.

“The chicken, please. Thank you.” Bucky reached for the menu and lifted it up for the waitress to take.

She didn’t seem to notice Bucky’s thumb was dislocated as she gathered up the menus and walked away.

Steve’s voice was disapproving as he started, “Sam, you didn’t have to—”

“I absolutely had to.” Sam snapped back. The hand that had been on Bucky’s thigh was now on the back of his neck, not pushing, not leading, just resting. Reassuring.

Letting Bucky know who had him.

Who was in charge now.

Bucky appreciated it. He knew Steve was upset, but Sam would take care of it.

He was in control now.

Bucky breathed out easily, knowing he didn’t have to make choices anymore.

He wasn’t supposed to choose anything.

“He was ordering!” Steve argued back, his voice hard but keeping his volume down.

“He was spiraling, Steve. I know you know that. He was struggling and the last question broke him.”

Steve let out an indignant huff of breath. “He’s not broken.”

Sam sighed, and Bucky felt a pang of curiosity to look up and watch their faces, but his head was still hanging down towards his chest, and he hadn’t been told to move yet. That was okay, he would wait.

He didn’t have to do anything.

“I know. I just mean that recovery isn’t a straight line. He can do great one moment and then slide back. It’s okay. It’s okay, Bucky.”

This time, he knew it was directed towards him. He was Bucky. He knew that, of course he did.

But he hadn’t been told what to do yet, so he just waited.

Sam’s grip on the back of Bucky’s neck tightened a moment. Then he slid it up to tangle in his hair, pulling slightly in a way that bid goosebumps to crawl over Bucky’s arms.

He almost laughed because he knew Sam loved to play with his hair. He didn’t know if Sam knew just how much Bucky loved it too. Steve’s was too short to really grab hold of, and he probably wouldn’t tolerate it anyway.

Bucky would.

Bucky would do anything.

“Hey, look at me.”

Bucky raised his head and locked eyes. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he?

“I know this didn’t go quite the way you wanted it to go, and I’m sorry. We’ll get through it, yeah?”

Bucky kept looking. There wasn’t a direct question in there, so he defaulted to the original command.

Sam’s face made a complicated expression, but then he smoothed it out again, giving Bucky a small smile. He squeezed again.

“When the food comes, you’re going to eat it. You’re going to enjoy it, at a leisurely pace, and then we’re going to go home and rest. You will speak up the moment these parameters need clarification in order to complete the mission. Am I understood?”

Bucky nodded, relief flooding through him like the best endorphins. “Yes, Sam.”

Sam’s eyes crinkled, but not the way Bucky liked. These were a tighter crinkle. Bucky forgot that he could hear the unspoken ‘sir’ when he said Sam’s name.

But he hadn’t been told to stop. So he sat back and waited. The first objective was to eat the food when it came, and he was so good at waiting.

He was so good, he didn’t spare too much of a thought as to why Steve and Sam didn’t speak for the rest of the meal.

*

Bucky woke up from a nap to Steve and Sam having a quiet but intense argument in their bedroom.

Bucky’s room was just across the hall, so it wasn’t that difficult to pick out their words.

Steve’s voice was easy for him to recognize, determined and confident: “—gave him a mission, so he wouldn’t have been able to snap back to himself—”

Sam’s patience was obviously wearing thin as he interrupted, “He was a mess, Steve. You know that. He wouldn’t have been able to pull it together without a buffer, so that’s what I gave him.”

“But it was his choice! He chose the place, the food—”

“And look at what that almost did to him, Steve. I know you want to push him and help him recover, but he’s not going to get better in a day, no matter how good it seems like things are going sometimes. It’s going to take a long time.”

Steve’s voice quieted, and Bucky had to strain to listen. It took almost a minute before he spoke again.

“I know. I know. I just really thought…”

Sam’s voice was gentle and understanding as he said, “I know. He’ll get there. He will. Just…not yet.”

Bucky heard some shuffling and he could almost picture in his mind the way Steve would let his head drop down onto Sam’s shoulder, and how Sam would reach his arms up to embrace Steve.

It was the same old argument the two of them had whenever Bucky ruined a good day.

Bucky wanted to join in. He wanted to fit himself between the two of them.

He could do it.

He could.

He was settled again. Baseline. Sam was right. He’d needed the buffer in order to reach equilibrium.

No choices.

No orders.

Just...

Just there.

But it wasn’t fair. Not now. Not to him, and not to them.

He couldn’t fit himself there in this space. Not this time.

Maybe later.

*

Bucky hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep again when Steve woke him up with a gentle hand on his shoulder.

He blinked up mussily at Steve, and saw the old guilty smile on his face.

“That’s going to get stuck like that you know.” His voice was a little rough, but he offered a small smile. Steve ducked his head a little with a joyless laugh.

“I’m so sorry, Buck. I pushed you too hard earlier, and that wasn’t fair.”

Steve hadn’t moved his hand away from Bucky’s shoulder, and he appreciated the warmth. He missed it when he moved to sit up so he could properly face Steve and his martyrdom, and the hand fell away.

“Steve, it’s okay—” he started, but was cut off  with a protest from Steve.

“No, it’s not. You were struggling and I didn’t do anything about it.” Steve took Bucky’s hands into his own. Even the metal one. It always surprised Bucky how willing Steve was to touch it. Sam would too, though he acted a little more wary of it than Steve. That made sense.

“Really, it’s okay. I get it, I do. And— ah, ah, ah!—” he shook his head when he saw Steve open his mouth to argue, “There’s really no use feeling guilty. Just like there’s no point in me getting angry at the fact I lapsed again. Not when I’ll just be angry with something else later anyway. Something else I can’t choose, or something I can’t decide.”

Surprisingly, Steve was quiet at that, his mouth closed in an unhappy line. Bucky knew that Steve wanted to argue, wanted to fight his way to victory.

But there would be no triumphant win here. Not one that Steve could secure for them anyway. That responsibility was all on Bucky, and Bucky alone.

“How’s your hand?” The question appeared to be a non-sequitur, but Bucky saw it for what it really was— a temporary retreat.

Bucky looked down at where Steve was holding his hands, and he realized that there was a splint on his thumb. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it before, but now he was slowly remembering the details. He’d sat quietly, still, for Sam when they got home. Steve went for the first aid kit while Sam looked him over and declared it a clean break. The splint was one they’d used before and were familiar with, so it hadn’t taken Sam long to put Bucky back together.

Now, the bone was nearly healed.

“Not bad.” Bucky replied, letting Steve mother-hen him, tutting and making guilty faces. Steve moved the hand slightly and Bucky made a soft sound. “Just a twinge when I move it. Nothing I can’t handle.”

Steve’s eyes went a little sad at that, but then he shook his head and said, “I’d like you to keep the splint on until tomorrow at least. Okay?”

Bucky nodded. It wasn’t an order, but he could follow it.

Steve squeezed Bucky’s hands one last time and then got up to leave the room, saying as he left, “If you want, we were thinking about playing a board game or watching a movie. You could come hang out with us, if you’re feeling up to it.”

There it was again.

Another carefully designed statement that couldn’t be misconstrued as an order. Steve had learned how to be so careful about not making true orders ever since he figured the whole mess out.

Bucky wasn’t sure if he appreciated it or not. Sometimes he wished Steve or Sam would just say things without worrying about him. Other times, he liked the fact that he could follow suggestions so basic as watch a movie.

But that was the reason Steve and Sam censored themselves, wasn’t it? So Bucky couldn’t rely on crutches, even though he’d spent decades limping through his life already.

Whatever the reason, Bucky didn’t much care this time. But, he did want to be with them, so he got up and followed Steve.

His head still hurt with a residual headache— stress tightening the muscles in his neck— but he knew it’d go away soon. He was exhausted too, regardless of the naps he’d managed during the day, but he’d powered through worse. The cold though, was annoying. He was just chilly enough to feel the goosebumps forming under his long sleeves, and he knew the thin cotton wasn’t going to be enough against the permeating air conditioning.

So he turned around just as he was walking through the door, to come back and grab the super soft blanket that he usually kept on top of the covers. It had been one of the first gifts from Sam when he’d moved in, and Bucky loved it— relishing the softness as he wrapped it around himself. The initial cold quickly gave way to gentle warmth, and he felt comfortable.

He smiled as he realized he had made that choice. A choice to come back and grab the blanket. And without even thinking about it.

God, he wished they could all be that easy.

But he knew.

He knew these freebies weren’t normal, and he wasn’t going to be able to keep it up.

Soon enough, the second he reached the living room and saw the available seats, he couldn’t help but freeze in place; it was the stupidest thing ever, because they always sat in the same damn spots— Sam in the armchair, Steve on the short end of the couch, and Bucky on the L side so he could lie down comfortably without getting in anyone’s way. And yet, there was the middle of the couch still left, plus the other armchair they had for guests. Plus any of the kitchen chairs he could drag in if for some god-forsaken reason he wanted to.

It didn’t matter what he wanted though, because he couldn’t choose.

He waited there, frozen, for about thirty seconds before Sam pointed to the couch next to him. Bucky’s usual spot. Thirty seconds wasn’t quite enough to send him into a tailspin, but it wasn’t pleasant.

At least now he could move again.

He mentally sighed, appreciating the way Sam ignored the moment, and decided he wasn’t going to worry about it anymore for the rest of the night. He sat down in his spot, and watched as Steve set up the board game in the open space in front of him where he usually stretched out his legs. Now, it served as an easy middle ground between the three of them so they could play games.

He appreciated it when Steve gave him the green marker; he would have chosen it if he’d been able to articulate a choice himself. He thought he would, at least.

It wasn’t until Sam started moving his token around the board that the game they were playing clicked, and Bucky thought it was pretty ironic that they had chosen to play ‘Sorry.’

*

They went through four therapists before they found Gretchen.

In their first session, she immediately made a pun about Bucky’s metal arm and asked him to teach her how to say pick-up lines in Russian. Bucky was hooked before he realized it, and fifteen minutes in he had told her more about his issues than he had ever spoken to anyone on a given day.

By the end of the session, she proclaimed that Bucky essentially had executive dysfunction, but ‘with a twist’.

Bucky liked her a lot.

He liked her even more when she caught on to the way the three of them were hopeless in actually communicating their wants and needs with each other, and convinced them that they could do with some group sessions in addition to Bucky’s regularly scheduled individual ones.

Sam was surprisingly the one they had to convince the most to try it out. Once he did, however, he agreed it was a good idea for them to have a safe zone to say things aloud where someone could mediate if anything went wrong.

So the three of them went every Thursday to therapy. Bucky’s appointment was always first, by himself.

“I spiraled at the Chinese restaurant, and Sam had to save my ass.” The sound of the tile hitting the other as it dropped was quiet even in the following silence.

“That ass doesn’t quit, so I don’t know how much saving Sam could have done.” Gretchen added her own tile, red, while Bucky couldn’t help but grin. Gretchen’s bedside manner was the main reason he stayed with her. It often reminded him of the guys during the war. She continued, “What was it over?”

Bucky put his black tile in, foiling Gretchen’s plan. “Picking food. I’d already picked the restaurant—insisted on it, really— and I got up to picking something off the menu. But then the waitress gave me more choices and I…I fucked up. I let everyone down.”

Gretchen hummed and watched the playing field, sucking in her lip between her teeth before she responded. “I don’t think that was it.”

She put her tile down in a place that surprised Bucky. He asked her, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what other choices did you make that day?” She gestured towards Bucky to show it was his turn.

Bucky flipped his tile between metal fingers as he contemplated her question and his next move.

“I picked orange juice that morning, and what shirt to wear. And I wanted to run for ten more minutes so I added it to the timer. I also grabbed a handful of chocolate-covered almonds and took them to my room for a snack.” He wasn’t quite sure why Gretchen wanted to know the details. They were all mundane, small choices that had registered only as background anxiety for most of the day. He’d been proud of them even, and the almonds were the hardest, but it had been worth it.

“You didn’t shut down with any of those.” She said it as a statement, but Bucky heard the question and answered anyway.

“No, not until the restaurant.”

Gretchen nodded, and finally dropped her tile, stacking it on top of Bucky’s. He could see her goal now in the game.

“So, it sounds to me like you ran out of reserves. You made some solid choices without falling apart, and then you just hit your limit and needed extra support. Nothing wrong with that.” She slid a black piece across the table. Bucky caught it reflexively, and thought about what she said.

“But some days I fall apart on the first choice I make.” He pointed out, trying to find the logic in her words.

“So you didn’t have any reserves that day. It happens.” She picked up another red tile and flipped it.

“Even if I can make a choice later?” A spike of anxiety shot through him as he contradicted her. It didn’t happen as much anymore— when he’d first started out, any challenge to authority resulted in some bad episodes. But with Gretchen, it never felt quite that bad. Nowadays he could stamp it down, mostly.

“Everyone has to recharge at some point, Bucky.” He loved that she called him by his nickname instead of his given name. The other therapists had never asked if he’d preferred to go by anything else other than ‘James’ or ‘Sergeant’ and he’d never been able to bring himself to correct them.  Gretchen had asked within the first three minutes, smiling as she had told him that she would call him whatever he felt most comfortable with.

“So falling apart is recharging, for me?” Bucky asked, putting the black tile in. He was just one move away from winning, if he’d calculated it right.

“Maybe. Maybe not. It might help you get your head back on straight if you need it. Or maybe it makes it worse, on bad days. That’s up to you to figure out this week. See how it all correlates. I’m sure you’ll find a pattern if you look for it. Or maybe I’m full of shit, who knows?” She dropped her red tile in and Bucky saw the move she was going for; she would have won, had Bucky not set up his trap.

“Is that my homework?” He dropped his tile.

“I’m not assigning anything. You’re the one that wants to better yourself. I’m just making a suggestion.” She dropped hers in and smiled triumphantly. She really had been close.

“I know, I know. Thanks.” He dropped his tile in. “I win.”

Her smile didn’t falter, and she didn’t look at his win; instead, she watched Bucky’s face.

“Damn right you do. I have no idea how the hell you got so good at Connect Four. I didn’t think they even had this game back in your day.”

Bucky realized she had known she was going to lose. For a while.

He replied. “They didn’t.”

“Well, congratulations. When you’re ready, why don’t you go and tell your boys the good news? You can bring them in after.”

Bucky felt both connected and unmoored. It was usually how he felt after a session— she managed to peel back his issues in a way that made sense to him, and then left him drift so he had to exercise muscles to bring himself back. It was probably not how other therapists would have done it, but he liked that she gave him some responsibility without completely ripping the rug out from under him each time.

He’d have to mull over what she said later.

For now, he got to his feet and went to get Sam and Steve who were waiting in the lobby; Steve was vaguely reading a magazine, and Sam was playing something on his phone.

Sam looked up first. “Are we up?”

Bucky nodded, and Sam stood up. Steve set the magazine down on the coffee table and followed Sam and Bucky back into the therapist’s room.

“Good morning, supers.” Gretchen greeted them, and Steve smiled.

“Good morning, Gretchen.” It had taken precisely five minutes of him calling her by her last name before she laid into him and insisted that she would go by her first name, just like everyone else. He hadn’t had a repeat offence since then. Sam nearly had to leave the room from laughing so much.

“Good morning,” Sam said, and they all settled down on the couch opposite Gretchen. The Connect Four game was cleared away and stored with the other myriad of games she collected so that there was nothing to distract them. That was okay, since they didn’t need the distraction like Bucky did. And Bucky didn’t need it either in the group sessions.

Sam and Steve were distracting enough.

“Well, let’s get into it then, shall we? Bucky, you went first last week, so let’s have Sam and Steve start us off.”

Bucky nodded in understanding, and Sam jumped right in, unashamed of his own insecurities about ordering Bucky around all the time.

“I’m still worried I’m just being another handler sometimes. I get that Bucky needs it, and I’m grateful I can help in some way, but it doesn’t feel like helping. For Christ’s sake, Bucky even broke his finger because he was so wound up.” Bucky’s gaze immediately locked onto Gretchen, feeling guilty for having left out that crucial piece of information. But Gretchen didn’t call him on it— in fact she kept her gaze steadily on Sam, who continued, “And I could have stopped it all sooner, but I didn’t. I let it go on too long before I gave him the orders. And the way he just…”

“It’s always startling, I think. How immediately he follows our orders.” Steve finally finished for Sam, who nodded in agreement. Steve was always more reserved, usually preferring to let Sam talk, but today he was clearly feeling more agitated. He continued to agree with Sam, “I, um... I remember when we first got Bucky back,” He gestured towards Bucky and gave a soft, quick smile that disappeared again, “and we didn’t know. We couldn’t have known. It just… it just feels like sometimes we’re still back there— back then. Before we had to explain we weren’t handlers. And it just feels like you,” He glanced at Bucky, “I don’t know, it’s just... I’m not so sure if you notice the difference sometimes.”

Bucky opened his mouth to interrupt, and the look on Sam and Steve’s faces told him they knew he would. “I don’t—”

“Bucky, why don’t we let Steve finish?” Gretchen immediately cut in, gently. “Remember, today we’re going to listen first. You’ll have your chance in a moment.”

Bucky shut his mouth with a click. It wasn’t an order, technically— she never gave him orders, or anything that could be construed as an order, but the implicitness was there. He respected her too much to disobey. So he waited, and listened.

“We’ve worked so hard for so long, I know that. And I know that recovery can take time, with ups and downs…” At this, Steve looked at Sam for confirmation that he’d gotten that idea right. Sam just gave him a small nod in encouragement, so he continued, “I just feel like we’re taking advantage of Bucky. Like any HYDRA agent could have. Or did. For years. And that when he’s…like that… he doesn’t see us as…us.”

Sam picked up from there. “It’s scary to think that we might be making things worse. I know to look at the big picture— it takes time. And I know all about the exposure therapy theories we were discussing last week. It’s just hard to see it in action, you know?”

They both stopped talking for a moment. Clearly, they had discussed this between the two of them out of Bucky’s hearing. It wasn’t anything new either; Gretchen had already given Steve and Sam a lot of advice on how to deal with, well, Bucky. But it wasn’t easy, and Bucky knew the immense toll it was taking on them.

When the silence stretched on, Gretchen spoke, “Thank you for your honesty. Bucky. Now it’s your turn. Steve, Sam, please be quiet and listen.”

Bucky allowed himself to quirk a smile at the fact that she still had to remind them. He often struggled not to interrupt; they were far worse.

He also knew they were going to have a particularly hard time with it today.

“I hear you.” He started, but paused briefly to collect his thoughts, the lesson about reciprocal listening really resonating with him. “But I can’t help but wonder…how bad is it, really? That I see you as my handlers when I’m having an episode?”

As he predicted, both Sam and Steve immediately started talking over each other in their rush to protest.

“Shush, both of you.” Gretchen didn’t raise her voice, but her tone demanded to be obeyed. “Please, Bucky, go on.”

Sam still looked appalled, and Steve looked like he was about to interrupt again, consequences be damned.

Bucky ignored him to quickly explain, “Listen. I’m absolutely aware that at the beginning, I…well, you’re right. I couldn’t differentiate you guys from my old handlers. I slotted you into that role. And it was easy.” Bucky looked down at his intertwined fingers, the way the metal contrasted with the flesh ones. “I mean, it’s not like you ever told me to do things that hurt me. Or asked me to do anything I wouldn’t have wanted to do anyway.” Bucky breathed in deeply. “It was…easy. Easier than anything I’d done since I escaped. You make it so easy, to follow your orders.”

Steve opened his mouth to interrupt, but Gretchen caught his eye and shook her finger at him in warning.

Bucky continued. “Really, you never gave me anything hard. Or tricked me. So, it was nice. I could even...” Bucky chuckled humorlessly, “I could even anticipate what you wanted from me, what orders you would give me in some situations, and I could follow them before you even asked.”

“Is that why we didn’t see—?”

“This whole time you were guessing—?”

Gretchen intervened once again. “Boys. It’s not your turn. Please, be quiet and listen. Or else I’m throwing you both out.”

Bucky knew it wasn’t an idle threat. They all knew, especially Steve from his own past experience challenging her. He’d only tried it once.

This was their last warning, and they would heed her warning.

“I know… I know having these…choices…all the time, is— it’s—  the end goal here. And believe me, I hope I’ll get there eventually…but until then, I just— I don’t think it’s so bad that I follow some orders from people I trust. That’s all.”

After releasing his rambling thoughts, Bucky stayed quiet for a moment, refusing to look over at Sam and Steve; it was bad enough that he could feel them chomping at the bit to speak next.

Gretchen was the one to break the silence. “Okay, now it’s my turn.” Bucky looked up at her, ignoring the way it took the others longer to meet the same gaze. “First off, I want to mention how happy I am with the progress Bucky has made. In particular, I wanted to highlight the fact that he was able to formulate and verbalize his side of things, especially with a well-thought out argument.” Gretchen raised her hand for silence when Steve opened his mouth to interrupt. He snapped it shut audibly.

“Furthermore, I think that Bucky has a point.” Bucky felt his stomach drop— he hadn’t expected anyone to actually agree with him. Off Steve’s incredulous expression, she continued, “It might not be as harmful as you think, but all of this comes with the caveat; it can only work so long as everyone is in agreement and supports each other. Otherwise, this can easily become as harmful and detrimental as it can get.”

She left them to stew in her words for a moment before she allowed, “The floor is open.”

Steve verbally tripped over himself to get out, “Okay, how is it not crazy that Bucky wants us to be his handlers? How could we do that to him? I refuse to be just another abuser in your life, Bucky, I can’t do it.” Steve had shifted his position so he was facing Bucky with his usual determined expression.

Bucky didn’t say anything.

Neither did Sam, which Steve immediately noticed in the awkward silence that followed his declaration.

He turned to Sam, clearly expecting him to back Steve up and support him.

“I’m sorry, Steve, but I think I can see Bucky’s side of things here. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I agree with him.” Sam frowned a little, like he was confused about the words coming out of his own mouth.

Steve was even more confused. And indignant.

“What? What are you talking about? How can you agree with him when you were just talking about how you’ve been struggling with the same idea?” Bucky kind of felt bad for Steve because he was very clearly trying to understand many conflicting things at once, and none of them were making any kind of sense to him.

But he was also morbidly curious to see how this played out between them. And better yet, it wasn’t technically ‘his turn’ so he could just watch it all explode around him and take it in.

Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering Steve. “Yes, Steve. You’re not wrong, and I’m still having a hard time with that. But it’s something I’m working on. And it’s also something Bucky’s working on. And I’m trying to see it from his perspective, and it’s not… it’s not as bad as we thought…I think…” His eyebrows scrunched together, eyes squinting a little as if trying to see this whole mess from a different side. “But really, if this is what he needs to cope and heal, then I’m sure as hell going to try and feel a lot less guilty about it.”

Steve opened his mouth, but no sound came out, so he closed it and tried again.

Nothing.

Bucky shouldn’t have been surprised to see Steve visibly go through a variety of emotions— confusion, betrayal, anger, back to confusion— because after all, Bucky himself was still reeling from it all, and it was his idea.

Steve seemed to reach some internal limit because his face went blank, and he stood up as he gritted out, “I’m going to need a moment.”

He walked out the door without saying another word. They all knew he wasn’t coming back today.

Bucky and Sam were silent for a moment, replaying the entire conversation in their minds. Gretchen let them mull it over for a few more moments before gently telling them, “I think this is where we’re going to end today’s session.”

Bucky snorted at the obvious.

Gretchen smiled at him. “We opened up a can of worms today, so expect some wriggling and dirty hands for a little bit before you take the bait. Just remember that if you decide to continue down this road— or any road, for that matter— it will only work if you’re all open about it. I’m not shitting you when I say that communicating your wants and needs to get them met is absolutely essential.”

She looked pointedly at Bucky, and ceded a little bit, “Bucky, I know that’s harder for you than most, but that’s what needs to be worked on. It would be the goal, at least.”

Bucky nodded stiffly.

Sam and Bucky both said their goodbyes and headed off. Gretchen’s building was in the East Side, so it was nice to walk only a couple blocks to the F train and then go home without any changeovers. It gave them both time and space to think about their session without the pressure of talking— just walking in sync, side by side. In the subway, they hardly ever took seats, preferring to stand, angling their backs to each other so they could keep watch around them.

It wasn’t until they resurfaced next to Prospect Park that Sam stretched and wondered out loud, “Do you think Steve walked over the bridge?”

Bucky snorted, imagining it. “Of course. He probably won’t be home until after dark.” They still had a couple hours of sunlight, but he was sure Steve would just end up walking around the neighborhood, or at the very least, around the Park a few times to burn off steam.

They both knew Steve would come back whenever he was ready, regardless of the time.

“Fuck.” Sam breathed out suddenly. “This is all really fucking complicated, isn’t it? Like walking on wires.” The corner of Sam’s mouth twitched down, as he added, “Bomb wires.”

Bucky shoved his hands in his hoodie pocket, interlacing his fingers. He couldn’t feel any residual twinge in his thumb anymore. He nodded slightly, almost hiding it as they walked along.

Sam continued, “But I guess we’ve been walking on wires from the beginning anyway, huh? Starts and stops, cuts and pulls, and everything in between.”

Sam kicked a rock on the sidewalk, angling it back towards the edge with the rest. Some kid on a bike might have displaced them all. The rock bounced off and landed up ahead, back in the middle of the sidewalk. “This would just be another angle to approach the issue, is what I keep coming back to. And fucking committing to it.” Sam let out a disbelieving laugh. They came to the rock again and Sam tried a second time to send it home. This time, it landed better.

Bucky purposely bumped his shoulder against Sam’s. “You know… I’m going to be following orders anyway— until I’m better— so I don’t really see the big deal.” It wasn’t a lie, necessarily. He could see all the problems that could come with it, but he just didn’t think they were really that bad in the grand scheme of things. He’d seen hell and purgatory—he didn’t think they could bring that upon themselves wholly.

Sam bumped his shoulder back against Bucky’s in return. “Yeah, I know you think that.”

They walked in silence the rest of the way home.

*

Steve came back hours later, hair windblown and sweaty, and the skyline fully darkened into night.

He’d clearly gone for a run, and Bucky didn’t even want to look at the state of his shoes— he knew for a fact that Steve had not worn his running shoes when they went out earlier.

So Bucky didn’t say anything, and Sam barely looked up from where he was cooking a late dinner— Tuscany soup. The soup was simmering, and he was finishing cutting up the kale, while Bucky put down his phone.

Steve let the silence continue for a few more moments before he spoke. “I uhh.... I’m going to agree— for now. I’m willing…to try… this new perspective.” Each word looked almost painful to get out, and Bucky was almost amused at the frazzled look on Steve’s face. Almost.

“Sounds good. Now go shower, or else I’m not feeding you.” Sam told him, gesturing to the bedroom absently with his knife.

Steve nodded and walked past where Bucky was sitting on the couch, stopping to press a kiss against the top of Bucky’s head before disappearing into the back of the apartment. The sound of the shower running followed closely behind.

At the sound, Bucky let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. It felt like they all weighed a little less, somehow. As if all they needed was permission to live the way they had been living already.

Bucky almost wanted to point out to them how good it felt to do what was expected, but he didn’t think that would be something they’d want to hear, and the soup smelled too good to risk Sam demoting him to sandwiches instead out of spite, so he kept his mouth closed and waited patiently for dinner to be served.

*

The next time Bucky surfaced after a spiral, Steve didn’t notice at first.

“Sort the socks and underwear.” His quiet order felt warm and easy, and Bucky didn’t mind it at all. He didn’t need it anymore, now that he was back with it, but it helped ease the frayed edges that always came after a storm.

And doing laundry with Steve was hardly a chore.

It was meditative, as Steve took control of the ironing board next to Bucky. Steve would iron out a shirt, or pants, and then order Bucky to hand him the next one. They were easy orders, comforting, and in no time, they had gone through the whole load; pressed shirts all nicely lined up in baskets, ready to go back in the closet.

“Pick up the blue basket and follow me.” Steve took the green one and Bucky followed silently behind until they were in the bedroom. They set their baskets on the bed and Steve picked up some of the clothes.

“Put the clothes away.”

Bucky felt the instinct to comply, but it wasn’t screaming in his head as loudly as usual. Just to try it out, he spoke up; his voice was raspy, but it was clear enough to assert, “No.”

Steve spun around, shock written across his face.

Bucky showed off his best shit-eating grin and followed up with a more confident, “Put them away yourself.”

He watched as Steve let out a surprised breath that slowly turned into pure, delighted laughter.

Bucky wanted to join in, exhilarated by this new turn of events, but he only lasted about twenty seconds before his resolve broke and he felt panic set in firmly along his sinews. His tentative laughs quickly turning into hyperventilating gasps.

Steve jumped in immediately, acutely aware of the behaviors that preceded Bucky’s freak-outs and said firmly, “We’re going to put the clothes away together. Bring the basket.”

Where just moments before the orders were something Bucky thought he could ignore, now they were his lifeline and he clung to them desperately, breathing evening out again as his body moved on automatic. Panic receded as his hands gripped the basket’s handles and he brought it over to Steve who was standing in the middle of the closet.

“Good. Just stand there, please.” Steve’s voice was gentle, still echoing a little mirth, but the order was explicit, even wrapped up in politeness.

It was the easiest thing in the world to stay still, holding the basket as Steve took clothes out and put them away in their correct spots. They finished the basket and Steve told Bucky to grab the other one.

When the second basket was empty, Steve had Bucky stack them and put them by the door. Then, “Come here.” He sat down on the bed and patted next to him. Bucky walked over and complied with the implicit command, sitting next to Steve.

His breathing was calm.

Steve placed his hand on the bed in the space between them, palm up. The gesture was too ambiguous for Bucky’s brain to translate it as even an implicit order— this was a choice, and it rested solely on Bucky’s shoulders.

His next breath had a hitch to it, but he got it to even back out. He forced himself to reach over and entwine his fingers with Steve’s. It felt right.

They sat there for a few moments, holding hands and breathing together. Steve finally spoke, “I get it. This…thing. It’s a— give and take,” He huffed out a half-laugh, “but I… I get it.”

Bucky didn’t say anything.

Steve turned to him, grinning suddenly and brightly. “First time you ever said ‘no’ to me. Don’t think we’re not going to celebrate when Sam gets home.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, but he couldn’t stop the smile that stretched across his face.

*

Bucky loved to lie on the couch.

Bucky loved to rest his head on Sam’s lap.

Bucky loved to have his hair stroked.

Bucky hated that he couldn’t really ask for it.

(He couldn’t ask for much, sometimes, if he was being honest. This request always seemed more impossible than wanting Chinese food, though.)

So he usually settled for trying to trick himself into secretly asking; it never worked out. He would always be his own worst enemy, after all.

Tonight, however, he got as far as settling against Sam— more like sprawled against— and was enjoying the way Sam’s arm was around his shoulders, occasionally brushing strands of hair away. It wasn’t enough— not nearly enough— but Bucky would take what he could. He tried to eke out the faint pleasure of his hair getting pulled slightly, and enjoy the slight shiver it caused.

He thought he was being subtle, like any other time, but apparently he’d failed in that department because Steve looked over at him and laughed.

“Sam teasing you too much?”

Bucky froze.

Sam caught on quicker than Bucky expected, and chuckled as he sunk his fingers into Bucky’s hair, applying just enough pressure to elicit goosebumps and an involuntary gasp out of Bucky.

“That hit the spot?” Sam quipped, good-naturedly. “You can just ask, you know.”

It took only a second for Sam to realize what he’d said, and then he froze, right alongside Bucky.

“Shit, sorry man. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay.” Bucky tried to quickly placate him, lamenting the fact that Sam pulled his hand away.

“No it’s not, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Really, it’s okay, I just—”

“You should ask for it.” Steve’s voice cut through Bucky’s rambling excuses. Both of them turned their heads at the same time to look at Steve incredulously.

“What?” Steve said defensively, “Isn’t this part of your homework anyway? What we’ve all been working on since Day 1? You should practice asking Sam for what you want.”

Bucky felt his throat close up at the idea. He shifted his attention back to Sam, hoping he’d let him off the hook, but much to everyone’s surprise, Sam actually agreed.

“I think Steve’s right. You want me to pet you, right? Play with your hair and let you lay all over me like a cat.” Bucky felt his cheeks grow hot at the accuracy of his words. He couldn’t believe they’d nailed it right on the head. Sam just continued, “You should practice asking for what you want. And that’s harmless enough.”

Bucky kept staring.

“It is what you want, right?” Steve asked slowly, the first hint of hesitation apparent in his voice. Bucky whipped his head back to him and nodded quickly, though still unable to make a sound.

“Perfect.” Sam caught his attention again, making Bucky feel like he was going to get whiplash. “It’s harmless enough,” he repeated. At Bucky’s raised eyebrow, he elaborated with, “I’d feel less bad about ordering you to do something you were going to enjoy anyway if this goes sideways.”

Steve came around to Sam’s side, making Bucky grateful he didn’t have to keep looking back and forth. “I think it’s worth a shot.”

“You don’t care if I need orders for this?” Bucky finally blurted out, his voice hoarser than he’d thought it would be.

Steve sat down next to Sam. “Of course I care. But that’s the point, right? To try this out and push the line a bit. See how far we can go this time, and the next.” Bucky didn’t even want to think about the next time.

Honestly, he didn’t want to think about this time either, but Steve wasn’t cringing at the prospect of Bucky spiraling so much that they’d have to resort to giving him orders. And that was what made Bucky want to try.

If they were going to try for him, he had to try for them.

“Okay.” His voice was barely a whisper but he got the word out eventually.

He faced the both of them; Sam had both of his hands in his lap, easy as can be, and Steve was sitting on his other side, one leg tucked up with an arm slung over the back of the couch. They were both relaxed— maybe a little too relaxed, if their forced stillness was any indication— but they looked as inviting and non-threatening as they could.

Still, Bucky couldn’t help breaking out into a sweat as he tried to force more words past his tongue. His metal arm recalibrated a few times— the only sound in the room apart from his short breaths— and still he couldn’t grit out a simple question.

The minutes slugged on, stretching time longer and longer; so long, he thought that Steve and Sam were going to get impatient.

But they didn’t.

They just sat there, waiting. Comfortable.

With a growl of frustration, Bucky stood up, fists clenched tightly at his sides. The other two didn’t even blink, just watched him carefully. Bucky forced himself to unclench his hands and channeled the energy into pacing instead. There wasn’t too much room between the couch and the ottoman, but it worked, and it allowed Bucky to shake himself out a bit.

It also allowed him to avoid their eyes and attention at every turn. He thought maybe that was why, on one of his turns facing away from Sam, he was able to finally spit out the request, “Sam, will you touch my hair?”

Sam’s response was immediate and friendly, saying, “Yeah, man. Come relax here with me.”

Bucky blinked, and suddenly found himself slammed down on his knees in front of Sam, head bowed and hands gripping his forearms behind him, in a forced parade rest.

“Woah, hey!” Sam exclaimed, hands coming up and away, clearly caught off guard. Steve, too, had straightened up at the move, but was quicker to try and move away. Bucky couldn’t tell if it was to give him space if this was a trigger, or to get into a better position in case Bucky got violent. He couldn’t really see anything with his attention focused straight down at the little space of couch between Sam’s legs.

“Hey man,” Sam began hesitantly, and Bucky knew his hands were still up, probably now in a peace-offering position. In fact, Bucky would probably bet on it. “Are you okay?”

A direct question required a direct answer, and Bucky was compelled to speak. “Yes. No. I don’t know.” He did a quick physical assessment, and other than sore knees, he was okay. Mentally, he had no fucking clue what trigger he just tripped over. This wasn’t a usual spiral.

Steve started to speak up— the beginnings of a “Should we…?” But Sam shushed him quickly, cutting off his line of thought.

Sam asked instead, “Do you want to stay down there?”

Bucky started to shake his head and ended up nodding before getting out, “I don’t know.”

Mild panic was taking root, slowly surging up as he realized he couldn’t really move. He tried to release his hands behind him, but his fingers wouldn’t obey. He couldn’t even lift his head to meet Sam’s eyes, and that was terrifying.

Bucky knew it was caused by erased memories. Maybe even suppressed ones— he couldn’t be sure anymore— but his body was remembering something about this scenario, and it wasn’t good.

Except…

Maybe some of it was?

He wasn’t afraid, exactly, but he wasn’t comfortable.

He couldn’t figure it out, but he knew that this was the source of the anxiety.

And he still couldn’t move.

“I can’t get up.” He found he was able to give out facts easily. It was a status report, after all, and Sam and Steve expected it.

Sam finally lowered his hands— deliberately onto his knees where Bucky could see them in his peripheral vision— and said in a calm voice, “That’s okay. It’s okay if you’re not ready yet, just take your time.”

Bucky nodded, and realized that was the only movement he could do. Shake or nod for confirmation.

He knelt there, breathing raggedly as he tried to slow the wheel of his racing mind. No matter how much he tried to remember, the memories still eluded him.

After a few moments, Sam piped up again, quiet and hesitant, asking, “Do you still want me to play with your hair?”

It wasn’t an order.

It wasn’t an order.

Just a request for information. Personal information, but still. Bucky could do this, he could make a choice.

He could.

Bucky breathed out harshly and suddenly he didn’t know what he wanted.

Well no, he did. He very much did want that. He was just so fucking scared of this whole set-up— of what it could mean.

But when had that ever stopped him from doing anything in his life? Willingly or otherwise.

He nodded tightly, and then he felt his body grow tenser, expecting pain.

Pulling.

Yanking.

Ripping.

None of that happened, though, just Sam tentatively reaching a hand down to place it on Bucky’s head. With light fingers, he began to stroke Bucky’s hair— slowly and evenly— until he was carding his fingers all the way through the long strands.

Bucky forced himself to breathe.

Just breathe.

Nothing bad was happening.

His body was still primed and ready for an onslaught, but it never came. Just light touches that gently unknotted the tangled hairs and massaged his scalp.

Slowly, so slowly, Bucky began to feel his adrenaline lower; he couldn’t stay at such high alert for long without anything to cause it. With it, his anxiety began to bleed out and he found himself slowly relaxing under Sam’s gentle hands. His thoughts were still racing, trying to find those missing memories, but with each breath, they ran slower and slower until he was able to finally focus on the present.

His pulse spiked for a moment when he heard Sam speak— quiet and soothing— about nothing in particular. It wasn’t really directed at Bucky, with Steve humming in agreement sometimes.

Just little things about his hair, Sam’s sisters, and what they were planning for the Fourth of July.

The words washed over Bucky, and he found himself floating a little bit, leaning more and more against Sam’s thighs until his body felt heavy and supported.

His body had finally lost the fear of pain— too worn out to maintain his usual hyper-vigilance— when Sam shifted slightly. Clearly, his legs had been falling asleep— Bucky’s own calves were starting to protest too— but Bucky slammed head-on into a full panic the second Sam moved. His body straightened up and he immediately began hyperventilating, knowing what was coming next but utterly powerless to stop it.

He wouldn’t stop it. He couldn’t. He never could.

He couldn’t even fucking move.

He heard them both faintly, as if through water, trying to rein him in, because this? This was him spiraling. He knew it, and they knew it, and he couldn’t stop it, couldn’t stop them, and it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter that he couldn’t get the words out, didn’t matter that he just wanted to tell them he didn’t want it, he didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to do it, please—

“At ease, soldier.”

Like a balloon finally reaching its limit and popping, Bucky finally came to an abrupt stop.

Bliss.

Finally.

“Come up and lie on the couch here.”

Clarity.

Nothing else mattered.

He finally had a path. He could breathe. He could do this. He could do anything that was asked of him.

He didn’t feel his body anymore. His legs didn’t matter, with their prickling pins or exhausted muscles. Heaving himself onto the couch wasn’t a chore, it was an order. Something expected of him with no thought of his ever disobeying.

His hands didn’t shake anymore. His eyes didn’t strain, his mouth done worrying at his lips or the insides of his cheeks that still faintly tasted of blood. But he didn’t register it. Only the spoken words that he needed to be attuned with at all times.

“We’re just going to lie here quietly for a bit. I’m going to play with your hair for a while longer, and you’re going to rest with me. Nothing else, just relax.”

All he had to do is obey. He didn’t need to feel, didn’t need to explore the reasons behind any emotion or thought, other than the immediate need to do what was being asked of him.

Though he did have enough of a fleeting thought to spare, that this was nice. He thought he might like this order more than the others he’d had in the past, but he couldn’t remember.

It wasn’t his job to remember, anyway.

Just obey.                                                                                                                           

*

The television was on, though the sound was off. There were subtitles, though, so Bucky knew Steve and Sam were still paying it some attention. Sam wasn’t running his hand through Bucky’s hair anymore; rather he was resting a hand on his shoulder.

Bucky himself was lying down on the couch with his head resting on Sam’s thigh. He was curled in on himself— nearly in the fetal position— but comfortable. There was even a blanket on his lower half, which he appreciated against the air conditioning. Steve and Bucky may not like it when it was cold, but Sam despised the heat so this was their compromise: leaving tons of blankets all over the apartment that they could cover themselves with at any time.

Sam wasn’t talking, but Steve was making occasional comments, presumably about what they were watching. Bucky was still taking it all in, this moment of peace. Domesticity that he craved so much, yet was always a tease because he could only glimpse it in brief instances like these. Like water, he couldn’t hold on to it for long before it slipped out of his hands.

He inhaled deeply, smelling a delicious dinner that Steve was cooking. He knew it was Steve’s doing because it was familiar, an old recipe that was clearly from their early days. Navy bean soup was one of the few things Steve could actually put together that was edible, and they used to eat it during cold winters. Granted, they had barely been able to afford any meat to go with it, but Bucky was pretty sure this one had at least some ham thrown in.

Sam noticed Bucky’s movement and the hand on him squeezed briefly. “You back with us?”

Steve’s chatter came to a stop with the interruption, and Bucky breathed in the hearty aroma again, letting it fill his lungs. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak yet.

“Want another minute?”

Bucky breathed out and nodded again, the choice coming to him easily.

And why couldn’t they all be like that? Why must it always be such a battle?

The hand on his shoulder squeezed again, and Steve continued talking, making another comment about the show. It was some animal documentary, Bucky realized. Arctic oceans, with weird fish and strange creatures. It was beautiful. He didn’t blame Steve for pointing out everything.

It had been definitely more than a minute by the time Bucky felt steady enough and pushed himself up to a sitting position. Steve stopped talking again, but he kept his eyes on the TV. Sam watched him.

“I figured we could debrief and then eat some dinner. How does that sound?” Sam’s tone was casual, with no hint of command embedded to give Bucky sway.

Bucky nodded and cleared his throat before rasping out, “Sounds good.”

Steve leaned over to the side table next to the couch and grabbed a glass of water. There were some melted ice cubes in it, and condensation still clung to the sides; when Steve passed it to Bucky, he drank it greedily, nearly finishing the whole thing in one long gulp.

He cleared his throat again, and this time, his quiet, “Thank you,” sounded clearer. He kept his hands wrapped around the glass, letting his left fingers slip a little along the wet streaks. It gave him something to focus on that wasn’t Sam or Steve’s face; he wasn’t quite ready to read any of their emotions just yet.

Steve turned off the TV, giving his full attention to the matter at hand, but he wasn’t the one to break the awkward silence.

Sam let out a long breath and kicked them off with a “Sooooo. I think that actually went pretty okay.”

Bucky was startled into looking up from the glass and searched Sam’s face, but there wasn’t a trace of irony or sarcasm.

Steve’s reaction was a bit more vocal. “Excuse me?” Bucky tore his gaze away from Sam to see complete bewilderment on Steve’s face— that seemed more predictable to Bucky— as he continued, “How was that okay? How was any of that okay?”

Sam opened his mouth to respond but Steve continued with, “I don’t understand how you, of all people, could argue that was in any way a success?”

A pillow struck Steve solidly in the face, and Bucky barked out a quick— if slightly hysterical— laugh. Sam had an eyebrow raised.

“You done?”

Steve picked up the pillow from where it had fallen onto the floor and tucked it against his stomach, visibly restraining himself.

Bucky could tell Steve was caught between the need to apologize and the desire to continue the argument. When he opted for silence instead, Sam calmly continued.

“Bucky asked for what he wanted. Didn’t you?” He slowly turned back towards Bucky, obviously wanting Bucky to chime in.

He could only nod.

“Right. You asked to chill with us, and while the beginning was a little rocky, we were doing fine. It wasn’t until I made a mistake that you spiraled, Bucky.” Bucky breathed out harshly through his nose, thinking that that wasn’t a completely fair assessment of the situation, but Sam went on. “And even when you did, dude. You told us you didn’t want it. That’s fucking huge.”

Bucky nearly dropped the glass in surprise. It was only because of his metal hand’s grip that it didn’t shatter.

“I actually said that? Out loud?” Bucky couldn’t believe he’d managed to vocalize anything, let alone something so personal.

Sam’s expression softened further. “Yeah, man. You did. Which was so much better than what we were trying to do. You told us what you didn’t want.”

Both Steve and Bucky were caught off guard by that little nugget of information. Steve’s face was pure confusion, eyebrows knitted together in an adorable way as he tried to process what Sam was saying.

Bucky was sure his own facial expression was just as bewildered. “I guess…that works too.” He thought briefly of the other day when he’d told Steve ‘no’ for the first time; this seemed like a natural next step to follow up with. Of course, the backlash of it wasn’t great, but the fact that it even happened at all had to be a good sign.

At least, that was what Bucky hoped.

They all lapsed into silence as they digested the new information and its implications. Sam reached out a hand and gently took the glass from Bucky, who hadn’t realized he’d started to shake minutely. It wouldn’t have sloshed the water out, but he was grateful for Sam’s help nonetheless.

“What, exactly, was Sam’s mistake, Bucky?” Steve asked it quietly. It looked like this was the most confusing part for him— the last piece of the puzzle before he could see the big picture.

It was the easiest piece of them all, to Bucky.

“I thought Sam was going to order me to blow him.” It came out bluntly, and Bucky belatedly realized that maybe he should have softened that particular gut-punch before delivery.

Both Sam and Steve were frozen for a moment.

“Let me just, uh, get this straight,” Sam picked his words carefully. “Did you actually think that I was going to order you to…perform sexual activities…on me?” He clearly was trying to keep the terms clinical, and failing with his horrified tone.

Bucky shrugged. “That’s what everyone else orders me to do when I’m on my knees.”

Bucky kept his gaze on Sam, watching the way he closed his eyes and brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. He exhaled shakily, before reopening his eyes and reaching out both hands— open palmed—to Bucky.

It was easy to close the distance and let his own mismatched hands be cradled in Sam’s warm ones.

“Bucky, I need you to listen to me right now.” Sam’s voice was pitched low and serious, and Bucky was already paying attention. “I promise. I promise, that I will never, ever, order you to do anything sexual. Not without first talking to you about it and gaining your consent beforehand, if that’s the road we end up eventually going down.”

The words were nice. Full of commitment and honor, and all that jazz. They were something Bucky had been slowly learning to realize were part of his new normal, though the road there was long and winding and so much more complicated than the life of the asset.

He didn’t mind them— he’d always choose this harder way no matter how tempting the easier path was in the moment, with its worn and comfortable routines.

But he couldn’t help shrugging again. “It’s not that I think you would do it. I know you’re not them.” Bucky looked at Steve too, including him and his pained expression in the conversation.

He didn’t say out loud that although he might know, his body might not.

He was used to betrayal from all sides, including from himself. That was the most common type, if he was being honest.

“I’m hungry though. Can we eat?” The smell of food was inviting, and Bucky didn’t really want to talk about this anymore, didn’t want to sift through the painful tangles of confusion and uncertainty. He certainly didn’t want to spend any more time dwelling on triggers and jagged memories.

Sam and Steve’s expressions spoke loud and clear that they wanted to continue the conversation, but Steve was the one that let him off the hook.

“Yeah, let’s go set the table.”

They didn’t talk about it again that night, and Bucky was happy to let it go, wrapping his blanket around his shoulders as he ate his soup. Someone turned the documentary on again for background noise, and Bucky listened to the narrator talk about the animals that live in Antarctica for a while.

*

Bucky should have known that just because he didn’t want to think about something, it didn’t mean that it wouldn’t slither its way into his brain anyway, regardless of his intentions.

He had a nightmare that night.

It involved being tied to the Chair.

He fucking hated this.

He knew he’d just been wiped— and they always did it right after he’d been wiped.

His hair was grabbed, and he was thrown to the floor—

On his knees.

They didn’t let go of his hair.

Fingers. In his mouth, now. Stretching it open and it hurt, it hurt—

He wanted to cry. But he was told not to make a sound— not a fucking sound—

The hands in his hair pulled tighter, but—

They weren’t hands.

They were slimy and thick, curling, curling—

HYDRA’s tentacles, giant and wrapping, and they pulled at him, ripping at his skin—

His clothes were gone and he was naked, and he didn’t want it—

He knew he didn’t want it, but—

There was a tentacle in his mouth and he couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe.

It was shoving itself down his throat. Down, down, down, thick and viscous, and gagging, and choking—

More and more tentacles wrapped themselves around him, growing tighter, and one was traveling—

Up his leg. Legs.

He knew—

He knew where they were going, but he couldn’t stop it, he could never stop it—

He knew it was going to hurt, and it was too big, always, but it didn’t matter.

Manipulated. Always moved around, pushed, pulled, stretched, held down, held steady for them, however they wanted, however it wanted, and—

He had no choice. Couldn’t stop it, had to contort and bend and—

Bucky woke up drenched in sweat with tears blinding his eyes, but he hauled himself up onto his hands and knees, needing to— move, run, escape— get out of bed—

Stuck.

He was stuck there— the emotions from the nightmare crashing into him over and over again, freezing his muscles, and bones, and blood—

Move. Just move, he tried to scream to himself, but nothing came out.

The position was too exposed, too vulnerable, but he still couldn’t fucking move, couldn’t make that choice— even to just get up— even though he knew it was going to hurt, it was going to hurt—

He gasped, finally, air tearing through his throat to shred delicate tissues, and for some reason, all he could think of was Sam and his promise.

Sam’s promise that he would never order him to do anything sexual.

Bucky needed that promise so much right now—he could still feel the choking sensation and he realized he was holding his breath again.

He forced the next breath, a whistling whisper that barely formed Sam’s name around it.

Scrambling, from down the hall.

Suddenly there they were, Sam and Steve, in his room.

He didn’t even want to know what they were seeing, Bucky frozen in terror in bed, choking on Sam’s name.

And crying. Because he was absolutely crying now, hitching breaths and choked sounds that Bucky couldn’t quite believe were coming from him.

But Sam was there, miraculously, with gentle hands that tried to turn Bucky’s face towards him as he murmured, “Shh, hey, it’s okay. I’m here, we’re here, you’re okay, just breathe. It’s okay to be comfortable, you can lie down again and relax.”

Like a puppet with its strings cut, Bucky crumpled onto the bed, finally able to move. He only did enough to curl in on himself and around Sam who followed him down, still talking to him in that quiet, but steady voice. “Yeah, that’s it, just breathe, it was just a dream. It’s over now, we’re here.”

Bucky couldn’t stop gasping, his chest hurting from the effort, and he clung to Sam tightly. Sam held him just as tightly, and that helped.

God, did that help.

He didn’t know how long it took him to get back from the edge, but it was long enough for him to finally register that Steve had settled up against him on the other side to cocoon Bucky between them, and was now extricating himself from their enclosed world.

Bucky’s breathing ramped up again for a moment before Steve said, “I’m coming right back. I need to get you something to drink.”

Bucky didn’t want him to leave— he wanted to burrow into him and Sam and crawl into their bodies to live there forever, away from his own memories— but he understood enough to know his throat and head would thank him for the concession later.

Steve was fast and reappeared with juice and some fruit in a bowl. He passed the bowl to Sam who took it one-handed, then settled back against Bucky.

“Looks like we have some blueberries here. Let’s take a bite, yeah?” It was carefully not an order, but it was enough of a ghost of one that Bucky could follow it in his current state. He let Sam feed him a few berries, and the sweet bursts of flavor helped to distance himself from the sensations of the dream.

Sam and Steve felt nothing like the warped memories. They were warm and solid. Unruffled.

They were feeding him.

Giving him a drink when he needed it.

Helping.

He wanted to ask them to stay.

Luckily, they didn’t need his words to understand. Not this time.

*

The next few days were okay. Not great, but not horrible either.

Sam and Steve were called out for most of Friday night to take care of an incident that had popped up near Central Park; Bucky generally tried to avoid details— it tended to trigger him if he knew what they were doing. The details could range from something as simple as keeping the peace, all the way to fighting a new super-powered villain, and Bucky knew from experience that it didn’t matter what side of the scale it fell on, he would still obsess and escalate the situation in his mind until he lost himself. It was always better not to know until they came home and told him if he asked.

Friday night was quiet, and he’d done okay with choosing what to eat for dinner— rice crispies, because he liked the crunch, and not because Sam had left the box out as a gentle crutch for Bucky in case he couldn’t choose for himself— and he’d managed a shower, but he balked at the final task of picking his pajamas. Luckily, he didn’t have to stand there frozen and naked for too long, because Sam and Steve came home.

Bucky actually appreciated their light teasing as they took the time to pick out his clothes. They even helped him get dressed; he didn’t need much assistance in that area, but one look at them told him that they needed it. Needed to help him. Whatever they’d done out there had made them need that closeness and mundane task of getting ready for bed, and Bucky was just happy to offer something in some small way.

He even let them tuck him into bed, and he would have rolled his eyes at the mother-henning if he didn’t secretly enjoy the clear parameters and being pampered.

But now it was Saturday morning.

He was freshly clean from the bath Sam had suggested, but it had gotten cold and he was soon bored and ended it earlier than usual. In fact, he was immensely proud that he had made that choice for himself and was excited to share it with Sam and Steve.

But opening their door was a mistake.

He hadn’t stopped to listen or knock— just turned the knob and walked straight in— and he found himself staring at Sam, bare ass in plain view as he fucked into Steve.

Frozen, his mind started overlapping memories, and a surge of emotions rose up to riot. On the one hand, he was intrigued because despite having lived together for so long, he had yet to actually see them like this, and he wanted to feel their closeness in a sense; on the other— stronger, metal, overpowered— hand, he was petrified because he knew how this was supposed to end— years of practice told him so— and he hadn’t realized it could happen to someone like Steve.

Someone so much stronger.

But he was there, on all fours, chest pushed into the mattress and pinned down by Sam’s hand.

Steve’s legs were spread.

Moans pushed out of him.

Helpless.

Immobile.

Suffering.

Suddenly there was a flurry of movement and both Sam and Steve were on their knees in front of Bucky.

“Shh, hey, it’s okay. We stopped, it’s fine, we’re done.” Steve was breathless. He had reached out and taken both of Bucky’s hands in his.

“Steve’s fine, he’s fine. We wanted this, Bucky, it’s okay, he’s okay.” Sam kept repeating the same words over and over, and it wasn’t until Bucky took a ragged breath that he realized he was also on his knees. Crying. And pleading.

Begging.

Begging Sam.

To leave Steve alone.

“You promised!” Bucky’s throat was scratchy and his mouth dry; his brain kept stuttering on this one piece of information. “You said you wouldn’t!”

“Bucky, breathe, stay with us.” Sam’s voice was on the edge of panic, and Bucky couldn’t calm himself down enough to figure out why.

“Not Steve, not him, please. Take me instead.” If he knew anything, it was that Steve shouldn’t be the one to hurt. It should be Bucky.

It was always Bucky.

“No one’s doing anything to anyone, Bucky.” Steve was in front of him now, trying to get his attention. “Just breathe with us, c’mon.”

Bucky gasped, trying to see through the haze. Sam was also in front of him, but slightly off to the side, his hands open and unthreatening. Steve was still holding onto Bucky’s hands, squeezing them rhythmically.

Bucky’s heart was pounding in his chest.

Steve’s face was pinched in worry as he said “I’m going to call it—”

“No, we can’t. He’s got this, just give him a minute.” Sam disagreed, but his tone was forced and light, as if he was only trying not to spook Bucky further.

It conflicted with what Bucky was thinking, and that was enough to help him try and pay attention.

“Bucky, you’ve gotta breathe and think, please. C’mon, in, out. In, out. Keep going,” Bucky forced himself to match Sam’s pace, but it was hard, and he kept shuddering out irregular, ragged breaths. The words from Sam weren’t orders— not with that barely-contained fear in his tone— but they helped.

He knew he was panicking hard himself, but he was able to tell that this wasn’t a complete spiral— not like usual. The memories were weighing on him, but he was still able to sift through them, still able to think. He just had to think.

Sam asked him to think.

Sam wasn’t touching him. He was keeping his distance, stopping himself from agitating Bucky further, and that…

That meant something.

What did that mean?

Sam had been on top of Steve, fucking him, holding him down—

But...

Steve was okay. He was still right in front of him, trying to calm Bucky, telling him that everything was fine.

How could it be fine when just a few moments ago he was being…?

But he was fine.

Steve was fine.

And Sam…

Sam was okay. Bucky knew he was okay. Sam had promised…

Sam had promised he wouldn’t do anything without talking first. He had meant with Bucky at the time, but why wouldn’t that have extended to Steve? They were together, after all.

Sex.

That’s all it was.

Not punishment.

Not rape.

Not the horrors so frequently painted over reality by Bucky’s broken mind.

It was simply sex.

Something they’d both consented to, and were probably enjoying until Bucky ruined everything.

Bucky’s breathing wasn’t coming out so erratically anymore as he took the time to think through everything.

Sam and Steve had just been having sex. That was it. Bucky had walked in on them by accident; and for a split second he’d even wanted to join them. Almost.

His mind had swept him away with pure instinct, and he hated that.

“You promised.” It was matter of fact. Bucky’s voice was thready but confident. He looked up at Sam who was staring back at him with undisguised concern. “You promised. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to fuck up.”

“No one means to fuck up, usually.” Sam said cautiously. “That’s why it’s called a fuck-up. How are you feeling?”

Bucky gave a wry laugh at that. “Mortified, honestly.” He furrowed his brow. “I know you guys were just trying to have some alone time. I know you wouldn’t do that.”

“Do you?” Sam was still so far away, and Bucky realized that this was now the second time Bucky had feared a sexual encounter from him.  There was no way Sam couldn’t take that personally.

“Sam, can I…” Bucky slipped his hands out of Steve’s, who just leaned back to sit more comfortably, creating a clear path between Sam and Bucky. Sam made a hesitant first move forward towards Bucky’s outstretched hands, before making contact. “I keep dragging you guys into these messes, and I’m so sorry. I love you, Sam. I really fucking do, please believe me.”

Sam finally scooted all the way closer to Bucky and let himself be pulled into a hug. Bucky wrapped his arms tightly around Sam and tucked his head in. He felt Sam’s tightness at first and then he was hugging back as the tension slid away.

“I love you too.” Sam replied shakily, and Bucky squeezed tighter.

“I’m sorry.” Bucky repeated.

Sam rubbed his face against Bucky’s hair. “I know, man. I know you didn’t mean it.”

They stayed like that for a few moments, breathing in sync as they tried to distance themselves from the recent events.

“We’re going to have to come up with some better warning systems next time.” Steve mentioned after a while. Both Bucky and Sam disengaged enough to look at him, but they still held onto each other.

“Actually, I want to watch.” Bucky replied. Sam froze in surprise.

“Excuse me?” Sam wasn’t letting go, so Bucky knew he would hear him out eventually. “You just got triggered hardcore— which, by the way, you did without needing to completely check-out, that’s progress— now you want to risk doing it all over again?”

“I mean, a big part of my reaction this time was that I wasn’t expecting it, I think.” Bucky pointed out.

Sam looked at him, skeptical.

“We haven’t really talked about this before…” Steve began carefully.

Bucky gripped Sam’s arms softly for a moment. “So we’re talking about it now. I want to be okay with watching you guys. I don’t want to freak out at the idea of sex.”

Steve looked at Sam. “What do you think?”

Sam’s raised eyebrow was clear enough to state his opinion, but he followed it up with, “I think that’s moving a little fast, and we have no idea how this’ll go.”

“Guys, I want this. We gotta start somewhere, right?”

Steve looked at Bucky, really looked at him. “You’re making a big choice here, huh?”

Bucky squeezed Sam’s arm again. He felt a pang of anxiety but it wasn’t as bad as usual.

“I guess I am.” He looked up at Sam, making eye contact. “Is that okay? I want to at least try.”

Uncertainty flitted across Sam’s expression, and Bucky didn’t blame him. It really was a lot to ask.

After a long moment, Sam took a deep breath and returned the squeeze. “We’ve gotta talk about it some more first, okay? Gotta plan this out a little more carefully— figure out how to desensitize you so that you don’t get triggered— and if it doesn’t work, we take a break.”

Bucky grinned, sensing a win. “Yes, of course.”

Sam rolled his eyes but smiled back. “How many choices have you made so far today?”

The change in conversation was obvious, but Bucky didn’t mind being distracted; he knew they all needed the time to think. “Three.”

“You ended your bath early, so I’m assuming that was one?” Steve asked, leaning back to reach for the comforter on the bed. He grabbed it and pulled it off, covering himself with a portion of it and throwing the other end to Sam who just gave an amused huff. He took it and covered himself while shaking his head, and Bucky realized the irony; they just went through a huge dramatic moment buck-ass naked, and now they were paying attention to modesty.

Bucky turned to Steve and nodded.

“And you just made another. A big one. What was number three?”

Bucky pulled the comforter over his lap too, cuddling close to Sam who accepted it and pulled him in. “I ordered cookies.”

Steve stared at him. “You did what?”

Bucky couldn’t stop the grin on his face. “I wanted those really fancy cookies from the bakery you go to sometimes, so I used an app— they deliver— and I got us some cookies. They should be here soon.”

“Did you get the Oreo kind?” Sam asked.

Bucky nodded against him.

“Well, then I guess we should probably put on some clothes.” Steve returned the smile and Bucky was relieved to not feel the usual dread of having made a choice; he had made a good choice today— several, in fact— that would hopefully help him move forward.

“You guys don’t have to if you want to finish.”

This time, Sam was the one that let out a bark of laughter. “Yeah, no. I think that ship has sailed. But why don’t you go ahead and put together some milk and a movie for us while we get changed?”

It wasn’t an order, and it was yet another opportunity for Bucky to make a choice. He didn’t know if he’d be able to, but he didn’t want to stress about it until the moment came. And if it did, and he struggled, Steve and Sam weren’t far away.

“Okay.”

*

It turned out that talking about sex wasn’t really a problem for Bucky anymore.

He figured it was probably because he was expecting it now. Or maybe he was finally learning how to compartmentalize things better with therapy. 

But they weren’t in any compromising positions, and he wasn’t facing it directly, so it didn’t trigger anything.

He knew it would probably be different once things got moving, but a little chat wasn’t enough to send him off the rails.

Not even when they talked about limits and boundaries, and schedules and safewords and contingencies if things spiraled out of control.

That was something Sam was adamant about, and Bucky agreed— if he started to panic, they were going to try to work their way through it without having to resort to orders. Sam in particular had made the point that he would feel uncomfortable in that situation, seeing as it could potentially get twisted up in Bucky’s head if it was an order too closely related to sex, which would count as him breaking his promise. It wouldn’t be the same context, but it was still too close for his liking. Steve promised to take the lead in that case if they had no other choice, but even he didn’t like the idea so much, so…working through it was the goal.

Eventually, they were about as prepared as they were going to be.

Of course, the first time that they tried it, Sam was the one that thought it was going to be a disaster.

It wasn’t, but only by a small margin.

“You okay?” Sam asked Steve, who was lying on his back, with Sam over him. They initially talked about doing another position, but Bucky had wanted to overwrite the negative associations in his brain of Sam being the one to give it to Steve, and this was their compromise. They’d been making out, naked, for a while now, while Bucky watched from the armchair they’d dragged over to face the bed. Bucky was still clothed in jeans, with a belt, a tucked-in t-shirt and a sweater over the top— he’d wanted to feel secure in case he felt himself slipping, and those were hard items of clothing to get off in a hurry.

Sam had been slowly rocking against Steve’s hip as they kissed and touched each other, and Steve…

Well, he couldn’t get it up.

At all.

“I’m fine.” Steve answered quickly, but there was an edge of frustration to his voice. He ground back against Sam and pulled him in for a deep kiss, but it didn’t look natural.

“Steve…” Sam tried again, breaking the kiss.

“I’m sorry, this doesn’t normally happen.” Steve groaned and let his head drop back on the pillow. “I just…I don’t want to trigger Bucky again.” He looked anxious as he glanced over at Bucky. “I can’t do it.”

Bucky couldn’t help it; he laughed, startling everyone.

Sam slid off Steve to prop himself up on the bed and cautiously asked, “Bucky?”

More laughter bubbled up at Sam’s look of concern, and then Bucky was having to hide his face, wiping away happy tears. In between giggling breaths, he managed, “I’m sorry, this is too funny.”

“Well I’m glad someone’s enjoying themselves tonight.” Steve’s comment was muffled as he threw an arm over his eyes. It didn’t hide the bright flush of embarrassment on his cheeks, and Bucky still couldn’t stop laughing.

Even Sam was catching Bucky’s mirth, and had to shake his head to try and stop a snicker.

“Really? You too?” Steve pushed Sam over and threw a pillow at him, which finally caused Sam to bust out in full laughter as well. It only took a few more moments before Steve joined them, letting out bewildered huffs through his nose.

“I’m the one that’s sorry.” Bucky finally managed through his grin, still amused. “I didn’t mean to cock-block you.”

Sam giggled again at that, but he was slowly coming down too.

“I really do appreciate you trying.” Bucky was earnest about that, at least, and slipped out of his chair to crouch by the bed so he was eye-level with Steve. “We didn’t expect this to go smoothly the first time anyway.”

Steve looked at Bucky and smiled genuinely. “No, I guess not. Just didn’t think it’d be me with a problem.”

Bucky leaned over and kissed Steve on the cheek. “I already fucked up last time, it was someone else’s turn.”

“You know,” Sam started, rolling over half of Steve so he could see Bucky clearly, “I feel like this wasn’t a total loss. You didn’t spiral.” He reached a hand over to stroke Bucky’s hair.

Bucky immediately lowered his head onto the bed and turned to the side to give Sam more room to work with as he hummed back, agreeing.

Fondly, Steve said, “You’re such a cat.”

Bucky wasn’t going to argue.

“Well,” Steve began and pushed himself up, interrupting Bucky’s petting and letting Sam fall away and grouse at him in mock annoyance, “we might as well eat pizza.”

Within twenty minutes, the pizza arrived, and Steve brought it to the bathroom where Sam and Bucky were holed up in the bathtub. Steve ended up lying on the counter, eating upside down while the three of them cracked jokes and Sam washed Bucky’s hair.

Bucky decided that while they didn’t quite manage to do as they’d planned, the night still was a win. He was going to enjoy this no matter what.

*

The next time was a little better.

Bucky was back in the armchair, watching and listening to how Sam talked dirty with Steve.

“C’mon,” he murmured quietly— Bucky’s hearing would have picked it up at any volume since he was paying attention— “you’re so fucking hot like this.”

Steve was on his back again and this time, his cock was a little more game as he tried to find some friction against Sam who was teasing the hell out of him, keeping just far enough out of reach as he touched Steve all over.

“God, you’re going to let me fuck you aren’t you? With Bucky watching, and you’re going to love it.”

Steve moaned out a breathless, “Fuck,” and a moan slipped out of him as Sam kissed him, hard.

“Yeah. You’re going to love it, I know. You’re going to make some noise, so Bucky can hear just how fucking much you love it.”

Steve whimpered, and then Sam was flipping him over; Steve reached up to wrap his hands around the slats of the bed as Sam grabbed the lube and slicked his fingers. He opened Steve up, as he continued making gorgeous sounds.

Helpless sounds.

But good sounds.

Bucky found he was able to stay in the present.

He was okay, Steve was okay, and Sam was okay.

They were doing this because they wanted to. All of them.

Even when Sam was tugging up Steve’s hips and lining up to push in, and even when Steve let out a long, drawn-out moan, Bucky was still with it, keeping the memories at bay.

In fact, once Sam got started— going slow at first and letting his cock slide in and out of a very willing Steve, then faster and faster until he was pumping his hips and filling the air with the combined sounds of skin slapping against skin, fast panting, and pleasurable groans— Bucky realized he was enjoying watching them.

He wasn’t hard himself— didn’t feel any need— but by god did he love the look of concentration on Sam’s face as he tried to give Steve the best angle, and the look of pure bliss on Steve’s face that he tried to hide behind the pillows.

The room smelled of sex, and sounded like sex, and felt like sex, but it wasn’t at all like the sex Bucky remembered. This was so much better.

Sam and Steve made it better.

“God, you’re beautiful like this. You gonna come for me? Come for Bucky?” Sam leaned down and wrapped a hand around Steve’s leaking cock, causing him to whimper and clutch the bed slats harder; Bucky knew they were reinforced but he idly wondered if Steve could still snap them if he squirmed enough.

“He’s watching you, waiting for you, baby. You gonna come for us?” Sam was driving in hard and fast, jerking Steve off with the same rhythm, and soon enough Steve cried out as white spilled over Sam’s fist.

“That’s it, you got it, look at you.” Sam’s words were breathless and punctuated, and then suddenly he wasn’t far behind Steve, snapping his hips once, twice into Steve and then going motionless as he came hard.

It really was beautiful. They were so fluid and so strong, and Bucky was fascinated and honored to witness them together.

The both of them were panting, slowly coming back to themselves, and Bucky realized he was smiling, thoroughly enjoying the view.

Steve freed most of his face from the pillow to get a better look at Bucky and smiled back.

“You good?”

Bucky nodded, watching as Sam carefully pulled out of Steve, who grunted but otherwise didn’t move. He did turn to look at him, though, grinning lazily, and asked, “You thinking about joining us?”

The question was innocent enough, but Bucky suddenly felt cold.

He wasn’t ready, didn’t want a turn, didn’t want to try that, not yet, he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t ready—

“Please no... don’t make me. I don’t want to, please—” Bucky found himself begging and making himself small on the armchair, pulling his arms around in a pathetic attempt to cover himself, as if that would stop anyone from doing whatever they wanted to him.

“Hey, relax, it’s okay.” Sam’s voice wasn’t stern, wasn’t an order, but it had enough of an edge to make Bucky stop talking. “It’s your choice when you want to do that— if you ever want to do that. No one’s going to make you do anything. We agreed you were just watching tonight, remember? Steve just meant we want you to cuddle with us. Share the afterglow, if you want. Only if you want.”

He was so quick to reassure Bucky of his choices, even if they seemed absolutely impossible in the moment.

Bucky was panting, trying not to tip over into hyperventilation. He heard Sam’s words, he heard them.

He was just having a hard time making sense of them.

“Bucky, it’s okay. You can stay there or you can come here. We’re not telling you what to do, and no one’s going to make you do anything.” Steve was speaking quietly, and Bucky glanced up to see that both of them were half-sitting up, purposefully unthreatening.

They were naked, after all.

Bucky found himself snorting at the unexpected thought that their nakedness didn’t matter— Sam and Steve could run around all day bare-assed and balls out, and still kick ass.

The mental image served as an abrupt end to his panic.

“Bucky?” Steve’s face was pinched with concern.

“I’m okay, sorry. Just needed a moment.”

“No worries, take your time. We’re just here.” Sam pulled himself up to a full sitting position, and reached behind him to grab the cleaning supplies they’d left there earlier— wipes, water, and a little baggie.

Bucky watched as Sam methodically cleaned up, from wiping himself and Steve down, to offering Steve water after drinking himself, and throwing away the condom that finished everything off nice and tidily.

It was only a couple of minutes before he was done, and Bucky had finally made his decision.

“I want to come over. Just to lie down, please.” He couldn’t help but hurriedly tack that on.

“Just to lie down.” Steve agreed and tucked his legs out of the way. Sam moved over a bit and then there was a clear space between them for Bucky.

It took a long time for Bucky to move. He’d made the decision, sure, but executing it was another matter.

Sam and Steve were patient though, and eventually Bucky found himself pushing away from the armchair and walking over to the bed. He knelt on it, and carefully scooted around Steve until he fit in the middle. He hated that he made sure to be on his back as a last defensive strategy, but either they didn’t notice, or chose not to mention it.

“We’re not going to touch you unless you ask.” Sam said, very clearly keeping his hands down. Steve only shifted enough for him to watch Bucky.

Bucky’s heart skipped a beat at the thought. “Not yet. Please.”

Sam smiled at him, repeating, “Not yet.”

“We’re just going to lie down here. That’s all.” Steve agreed, and they all made themselves comfortable. It should have been weird; the three of them lying side-by-side in bed, almost ramrod straight so that they wouldn’t touch each other. But it felt good.

Felt safe.

They were willing to do this for Bucky.

He found himself saying, “I want to keep trying.”

“Then we’ll keep trying.”

*

They kept trying.

*

“Can I watch you masturbate?”

Sam spat out his drink and started to cough.

Bucky stepped back out of the line of fire and then patted Sam on the back when he kept coughing.

“You can’t just blurt out something like that without warning!” Sam finally managed, after hacking out most of his coffee.

Bucky grinned, proud that he managed to catch Sam off guard. It felt normal, the silly banter and little pranks, and every time he could pull one off it felt like a step in the right direction.

“That’s what she said.” Sam stared at him, then dramatically rolled his eyes as he turned away to grab a kitchen towel to pat himself dry.

He grumbled good-naturedly, “You’re incorrigible.”

Bucky smiled lazily. “Does that mean we can do it?”

The smile slipped from Sam’s face, leaving behind a furrowed brow that Bucky didn’t like at all.

Putting the towel down with a quiet finality, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

It felt like Bucky’s stomach suddenly dropped to the floor, and he couldn’t believe that just a second ago he had been so happy.

Sam continued, “Steve’s not even here right now. I mean what if…” He left that question unspoken.

Bucky felt himself shrinking, literally and figuratively as he realized he needed to be anywhere but here.

This had been such a stupid idea.

Stupid to ask.

Stupid to even think it could be done.

Stupid to choose—

“Bucky. Look at me, please.” It was gentle and pleading, nothing at all like an order. Bucky still looked up.

Sam still looked concerned, but it felt different this time. “I don’t mind trying, Bucky. I’d love to jack off with you watching. I’m just worried about you not having a contingency if things go sideways. You know I don’t want to step into that role for you.”

Bucky nodded stiffly, dropping his gaze. “Yeah, I know, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, I’m glad you did. You want this, but you caught me off guard. Let’s try and figure it out together, okay?”

Bucky looked up again, a shard of hope trying to lodge itself somewhere in his heart. “Really?”

Sam offered a smile. “Yeah, really.”

“But,” Bucky stopped himself with a thought, “do you want this? Just because I…chose something I want, doesn’t mean you have to go along with it.” A humorless laugh escaped him, “Your world doesn’t revolve around me, as much as it probably feels like it sometimes.”

Sam walked back to Bucky and reached out to hold his mismatched hands. “You’re right, it doesn’t. I’ve got my own wants and needs. But luckily,” he squeezed both of Bucky’s hands even though he could only feel the one, “our wants and needs tend to cross over more times than not. And this is one of them. I’d love to keep working on this, and get an orgasm or two out of it. Not a big hardship, after all.”

Sam smiled, showing his teeth, and Bucky couldn’t help but close the distance and hug him. Arms wrapped around him automatically, and Bucky loved that he could always count on that, at least.

“We just gotta be smart about this, okay?”

Bucky nodded and hummed his assent. Then he thought about it.

“What if we text Steve to let him know? And then if it goes sideways, you can always call him, or put him on the screen?”

Sam loosened his grip so he could face Bucky. “That could work. I think he’s in some meetings right now, but I’m sure he’d step out if we needed him. From what I gathered, they are more the kind that he’s just expected to be present for anyway.”

Bucky smiled at the wink Sam gave him.

“Why don’t you go wash up and then come back here? I’ll text Steve to let him know what’s going on.”

Nodding, Bucky stepped back and turned to go down the hallway. He stopped after a foot and looked back. “Thank you, Sam. Really.”

Sam looked up from his phone and grinned at him encouragingly before focusing on the screen again— no doubt to text Steve the details.

Cleaning up didn’t take too long— a quick rinse in the shower— and Bucky figured Sam had sent him away to settle down. Both of them.

It was only a couple of minutes before Bucky was back in the living room in fresh sweats and a shirt.

He had chosen these clothes.

They weren’t as restrictive as what he wore the first couple of times, and Bucky wondered if that meant he was trusting himself more— to stay present and not freak out. The one time he spiraled after watching Steve and Sam go at it, he hadn’t even thought about the clothes for himself, realized it would never have made a difference back then, so why would it now, in a spiral of panic? Bucky decided to opt for comfort over a useless defense.

Sam had everything ready on the table in front of the couch. He was in the living room, and Bucky hadn’t expected that; he would have assumed Sam would want to be in the bedroom, like they normally were.

He must have been thinking too loudly because Sam explained, “Figured since it’s just the two of us, we don’t have to be so formal about it. Plus, this way you have more options to retreat to instead of from.”

Bucky nodded and settled himself on the long part of the couch. Sam’s supplies of lube and tissues were on the other side, so it seemed right.

Sam walked to the kitchen and came back with a couple of water bottles. He handed one to Bucky who took it wordlessly, and then Sam got comfortable, sitting down and taking a long drink.

It almost seemed surreal; Sam wasn’t ignoring Bucky, exactly, but he obviously had his own groove. It made sense— Bucky had asked for masturbation, and that was what he was getting.

Bucky watched as Sam let his head fall back onto the couch and allowed himself to sprawl; his hands rested on top of his thighs and then his right hand moved over the front of his sweatpants, lazily rubbing himself through the fabric.

It was slow, Sam was teasing himself, and Bucky could just imagine Sam’s cock filling out, even if he couldn’t see the evidence of it just yet. He wasn’t sure how long Sam dragged it out, but eventually he slipped his hand under the waistband of his pants, and presumably, his boxers.

Was he even wearing boxers? Bucky guessed he must be— he usually did. Or had he taken them off for this?

Either way, Bucky could now spy an obvious bulge in Sam’s sweatpants and it wasn’t just from the way he obviously took himself in hand. Sam was still keeping the strokes light and unhurried, and Bucky wondered if he just liked the skin-on-skin contact, since he hadn’t lubed himself up yet.

Bucky was so focused that he almost startled when Sam spoke.

“This feels so weird, man.” He gave a dry chuckle and turned his head to look at Bucky head-on. “How are you doing?”

Bucky swallowed once before deciding on his next words. “I’m fine. Hard not to be, watching how gorgeous you are like this.”

Sam raised an eyebrow and his strokes came to a hesitant stop before he shook his head and carried on. “You’re just full of surprises.”

Bucky realized Sam hadn’t asked him to be quiet, necessarily, which made him ask, “Isn’t that a little rough? Without the slick?”

“Mmm, a little. Can be worse, but it doesn’t feel bad just yet. I’m enjoying the feeling right now.” He closed his eyes as if to emphasize the point.

“I can see that. Must feel really good.”

Sam hummed in agreement. “It really does.”

“Will it feel even better with the lube?” He didn’t mean for it to come out an almost-growl.

Sam groaned and slipped his hand out of his sweats. “Fuck….” He opened his eyes and Bucky could see they were a lot more dilated than they were just a moment ago.

Bucky did that. Bucky’s words and interest did that.

Sam continued, “Yeah, it will.” He reached for the lube and uncapped it, squeezing out enough to coat his hand. With his clean hand, he started tugging the sweats down, lifting his hips just enough to slide the material down and expose his cock.

No boxers, Bucky noted.

Sam’s cock was filled out already, hard and rising, and Sam immediately wrapped his hand around it, sighing as he stroked and spread the lube more evenly.

“How’s that feel?” Bucky asked, wanting to hear it.

Sam gave another contented sigh, saying, “Feels great.”

“You look great. God, your dick is so pretty.”

A laugh was startled out of Sam, but it didn’t escape Bucky’s notice that Sam gripped himself tighter and sped up a little.

“Glad you’re enjoying the view.” Sam was starting to get a little breathless.

He was reacting and responding to Bucky’s commentary.

“It’s literally the best view.” He couldn’t help the honesty from coloring his voice, and Sam’s hips twitched into his hand. “You gonna fuck your hand? Feel how good it can get?”

Sam moaned this time, and his hips rolled with more dedication. The strokes were starting to speed up, and Bucky watched as Sam found his rhythm— his hips and legs undulated as his hand really got to work.

“Fuck, you’re beautiful, Sam.” Bucky was in awe, getting pulled along as Sam started panting and letting out his little noises. “You gonna come?”

“Oh, fuck…” Sam groaned out and his mouth dropped open as he caught his breath— he made sure to catch himself, but otherwise rode out the orgasm. His legs shook faintly with muscle twitches, and when he finally let out his breath, it was all in a rush.

Bucky found himself smiling, completely happy, and even a little proud that he had managed to help Sam in some small way.

“My god, the mouth on you…” Sam told him, a smile of his own lighting up his face.

“Is that a good thing?”

“I mean, I enjoyed it, if you couldn’t tell.” Sam took a big breath and then heaved himself to a more appropriate sitting position, reaching for the tissues to clean himself.

“Oh, I could definitely tell.” Bucky’s grin was almost hurting his face. He was so fucking pleased with himself to have seen the whole thing through.

No spirals, no triggers, and no memories. Just pure enjoyment of the moment, and peace.

They lapsed into a momentary silence as they both basked in the afterglow. Eventually, Sam spoke, getting up and saying, “I’m going to clean up and wash my hands, and while I’m gone, why don’t you think of something you’d like? I think you deserve something awesome today too.”

He grabbed the supplies and disappeared to his bedroom, where Bucky heard the sound of running water after a little bit of rummaging.

Sam’s wording had been purposefully vague with no pressure, and Bucky knew exactly what was intended: If Bucky wanted sex, he could ask for that now; if not, then he could make a choice for something else.

And he knew that if he couldn’t make the choice, Sam would give him an out anyway.

Luckily, by the time Sam returned and settled back on the couch, Bucky had already made his decision.

“I want you to touch me again. My hair.” Bucky quickly clarified, knowing Sam would probably have known what he meant anyway, but still not risking any misconceptions.

Sam nodded and grinned as he agreed, “Sounds good. Do whatever you want to get comfortable, I’ll be here.”

Bucky loved that Sam always managed to put the ball back in his court, letting him work through his issues on his own, but offering support if he ever needed it.

He found himself kneeling, but this time by choice. It was comfortable to settle in between Sam’s legs and let his head rest on a thigh. He even wrapped an arm around a leg to ground himself better, leaning against the couch and tucking his own leg under him so he wasn’t completely on his knees.

He was present and alert, and comfortable. It was what Sam wanted, and more than that, it was what Bucky wanted.

Sam, for his part, didn’t say a word and let Bucky maneuver and shuffle until he was in the right position. Even then, he took the time to ask, “You ready?”

Bucky hummed in agreement, and then there were hands in his hair, petting him and stroking through the strands until goosebumps slowly rose along Bucky’s skin in the very best way. Chills ran through him every now and then when the feeling got almost too good, and then it started all over again.

At some point, Sam put on the TV and watched some British show that Bucky only half-heard, too blissful to care or follow along.

That was how Steve found the both of them when he got home.

Bucky assumed Sam had texted him at some point, which explained why Steve didn’t even bat an eye at the scene in front of him. Still, Bucky was actually giddy to tell him everything; about how amazing Sam was, and how they managed to enjoy everything so effortlessly.

But when he opened his mouth to speak the words, he found nothing came out.

Not a sound.

Not a thought.

Not a breath.

He couldn’t say a single fucking word, and in an instant, Bucky realized it was because he hadn’t been given permission to speak.

It had been a while since that particular trigger had been set off, but it was clearly still active and alive somewhere deep in Bucky’s brain.

He had no idea what had caused it this time, and was actually pissed; he’d just had a wonderful day… how could this be his slip up?

His heart thumped harder in his chest the more he tried to fight, anxiety creeping in until he felt the edges of his vision starting to dim.

Steve must have seen his rising panic, because the first words out of his mouth were a stern order.

“At ease.”

Bucky inhaled deeply and then rushed out a breathless, “Thank you.” The panic fizzled out, leaving him feeling loose again.

Sam’s hand in his hair retreated. “Oh shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t notice.”

“It was only a moment. Not your fault.” Bucky was quick to placate him. It wasn’t his fault.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault but Bucky’s.

Except....

...that wasn’t really true, was it?

None of this had been Bucky’s fault from the beginning. HYDRA fucked him over again and again until they made him into what he had become.

That was what his therapist kept trying to point out to him, at least, through her indirect comments and games.

And it was what Steve and Sam always told him whenever he surfaced from a spiral.

Bucky tried out the words for the first time, rolling them around his mouth like a foreign language. “And it’s not my fault.”

Steve didn’t miss a beat, “Exactly. Not your fault either.” He sat down on the couch next to Sam, and facing Bucky. “I heard a little bit about your day. Want to tell me about it?”

Bucky did. Bucky very much wanted to.

It didn’t take long to find his giddy mood again as he regaled Steve with his earlier adventures with Sam, finally finding it easy to speak freely.

*

Sam and Steve had just finished having sex, and were in the middle of cleaning up after themselves when Bucky blurted out, “I want to try.”

Steve paused, condom in hand, and the frozen tableau should have been hilarious except for how it wasn’t.

“What exactly do you want to try, Bucky?” He was serious, despite the ghost of the smile that remained on his face from cracking a joke with Sam moments earlier.

“Sex. With someone else. Like, one of you guys, obviously, but just to try it. I don’t know...” Bucky rambled.

Sam crawled across the bed so he could face Bucky properly. “What kind of sex are you thinking about, here? I just want us to be on the same page.” He nudged Steve when he saw that Steve still hadn’t moved. Steve jumped, and then continued his earlier actions of throwing away the trash.

“I don’t think I want to try fucking, yet.” Bucky said hesitantly, “But, I don’t know, a handjob? Blowjob?”

“You’re not sounding very sure about this, Buck.” Steve pointed out, sitting down on the bed, facing Bucky as well.

Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, letting out a frustrated sigh. This wasn’t going the way he’d imagined moments earlier. “I am, I promise I am. I’m just not picky about how we get there. Can we just try?”

“I hear you, but we gotta talk this through a little before we rush into things, remember? We always do.” Sam sounded cautious.

Bucky could feel himself slumping further back in his usual armchair, a creeping feeling of defeat threatening to take over. It was unfair, though, and he knew it. Sam had a point; they always talked about everything they did beforehand just in case something negative popped up.

“Fine. I want Sam to jerk me off until I come while Steve kisses me in the middle of the bed. Is that enough talking?”

Steve tipped his head in acknowledgement of Bucky’s decision. “I mean, that’s a pretty solid plan.”

Sam pushed Steve over who let out an indignant yelp. “Just like that? You both don’t get to make me into the bad guy for wanting to take this slow. Not today.”

“I’m not trying to!” Steve pushed himself back up. “Bucky’s told us what he wants, and now we decide how to proceed, right? Let’s talk this out.”

Sam sighed but turned back to Bucky to ask, “What made you want to try this now?”

Bucky squirmed a little bit, feeling his cheeks warm. “It was nice. Seeing you two together tonight. And I… I don’t know. I felt something? And I want to be more a part of that.”

Sam leaned in. “What did you feel?”

Bucky blushed a little more. “Warm? Good? Safe.” He nodded to himself. “Yeah, I felt safe. I’m ready to see how far this can go. See how far I can go.”

He felt more confident, and then was vindicated when Sam leaned back on his hands, relaxed. That was usually a sign that Sam was on board.

“Those sound like good reasons to try something tonight. Steve’s right, you did tell us what you want, and we want to respect that. And also reinforce your choice. But you have to know we don’t want to push you past where you’re comfortable. Not here, not in the bedroom. We will stop and bail out if it goes wrong.”

“I know. I know.” Bucky reiterated. “That’s why I feel good about it. Because you won’t let anything bad happen.”

Steve grinned. He turned to Sam, who nodded. “I’m fine with it if you are.”

Steve opened his arms towards Bucky, saying, “Let’s do this, then!”

It was silly and harmless, and Bucky loved it— it lightened the mood again— so he pushed himself up from the armchair and stripped off his clothes quickly, leaving them in a pile on the floor. He didn’t want to think about that, so he quickly crossed the couple of feet to the bed and Steve’s embrace. Letting himself be pulled onto the bed and manhandled over Steve until he was in the middle— Sam had moved too and was already on the other side.

They were on either side of him, touching him and being careful. It probably should have felt claustrophobic, probably should have triggered him— would have, even, a short time ago— but instead, he only felt cherished and loved.

“You say the word, Bucky, and we stop.” Steve told him seriously. He ducked his head closer and then waited, giving Bucky the choice whether to close the distance.

Bucky did.

Kissing Steve was always one of Bucky’s favorite things— something he never had to think twice about— and now, facing him, he could indulge to his heart’s desire. Sam was behind him, trailing his hands up and down Bucky’s back— kneading into the skin in some places and smoothing out goosebumps in others. At one point, he even let his nails drag slightly, the feeling delicious as he raked patterns in circles.

“This is supposed to feel good, remember that.” Sam murmured, his mouth following his words along Bucky’s shoulder and back. Bucky nodded and kissed Steve again while he let his hand slide backwards to pull Sam closer to him. The skin-on-skin contact felt amazing, and Bucky felt himself respond to it, his cock filling out.

He didn’t always get hard watching them, but tonight had been more intense than usual and he wanted to chase that feeling through to the end. That was why, when Sam slid his hand down along Bucky’s hip to reach around and brush the backs of his fingers along his cock, Bucky pushed into the touch. Sam took the invitation and wrapped his fingers around him, already slicked with lube— when had he done that?

Bucky didn’t worry about it for too long, since all that mattered was that it felt nice. Sam formed a loose grip and started with a rhythm that Bucky appreciated.

He appreciated Sam’s accompanying kisses even more, along his neck and down his spine. He could feel Sam’s breath and taste Steve in his mouth, and he was caught, not knowing which he liked more. Steve brought a hand up to his face, caressing him gently, and Bucky melted under the touch, wanting more.

Sam tightened his grip a little, sweeping his thumb under and over the crown of Bucky’s cock. It felt good, a little oversensitive, but good. He was distracted by Steve, though, when he moved his hand past Bucky’s cheek and into his hair; his fingers curled— slightly scratching Bucky’s scalp— and Bucky straight-up moaned.

“You like that?” Sam asked, speeding up his strokes a little. He also scooted even closer, pressing into Bucky’s ass and pushing him further into Steve— he was sandwiched in the best way, skin-on-skin everywhere.

“Yes, please.” Bucky broke Steve’s kiss in order to pant, feeling overwhelmed in all the right places. Steve pulled his hair slightly and Bucky’s eyes nearly rolled back in his head.

“Good. We want you to feel good.” Sam kissed his shoulders, ducking down to even press his lips to the seam where skin met metal, and Bucky shivered. He could only hum back in wordless agreement.

Steve got a better grip on his hair and pulled Bucky back into a searing kiss, and then he was spilling over Sam’s fist and gasping into Steve’s mouth.

Helpfully, Sam stroked him through it, but it got too sensitive too quickly, and Bucky whimpered, bringing his hand up to push Sam away gently.

Sam took the hint and kissed him instead, leaving behind a trail of pleasure across Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky could only bask in their combined attention; Steve peppered kisses on his face, and Bucky’s body felt like jello beneath their skilled mouths.

“How’re you doing?” Steve murmured, leaning back enough to speak, but still brushing his lips across skin.

“Really good. I could be kissed all day.” Bucky was being honest— if they just kissed him forever, Bucky would melt into nothing and float away on pleasure.

Steve chuckled, “I would love to kiss you all day.”

“Same.” Sam piped up behind him. Bucky felt him rustle around for a moment, and he realized Sam was probably just cleaning off his hand. “What about touching you? How was that?”

Bucky smiled, “So good. Between Steve pulling my hair and you scratching my back, it was so good.” He didn’t really have any words to describe how relaxed he felt.

Sam’s hand returned— clean— to Bucky’s hip, stroking a soothing thumb back and forth over the bone. “That’s good. You did great. First time having good sex in a while, huh?”

Bucky grinned in reflex, and then tried to think of the last time he’d had good sex. He knew that nothing with HYDRA counted— Gretchen had made that very clear, if Sam and Steve didn’t also outline the finer points— but he kept coming up blank. What even was good sex? What they had done tonight was fun, and he liked being touched, but he was realizing that he probably would have been just fine without Sam getting him off.

Bucky frowned, a fissure cracking through his good mood. He kept thinking, and realized that he’d never cared too much anytime he’d actually gotten off. Any time some asshole bothered to help him through it, he definitely had other things on his mind at the time, obviously, but even when he masturbated he never really thought much past something quick in the shower.

Maintenance, more than anything.

“Bucky? You still with us?” Steve brought Bucky back to the present.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry, I was just…thinking.”

Sam pulled away, which Bucky hadn’t really meant to cause, and asked, “You sure? You wanna tell us if we’re edging into territory we need to know about?”

Bucky closed his eyes and then felt Steve pull away a little. His eyes shot open and he whined, reaching out to both of them so they wouldn’t leave him alone. They responded immediately and let Bucky pull them in, but were silent in a way that meant they were waiting for Bucky to speak. Bucky arranged himself so he was on his back— he could balance between Sam and Steve easier without having one behind him, but it was also his way of avoiding having to look either man in the eyes. His gaze was fixed solidly on the ceiling.

“I think they took something else away from me. Something else that’s broken.” Bucky whispered, feeling shame flush his face with heat. He had asked, and asked, and asked for this to happen, for Sam and Steve to help him be okay with sex, and he now realized it was all for nothing.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked cautiously. He still had a hand on Bucky’s stomach where Bucky had silently placed it.

Bucky took a breath, realizing they were going to be so confused, when he had enjoyed the night so much. Hell, he was confused himself all the time, but he owed it to them to try to explain.

“I liked you guys touching me.” That, at least, was an easy fact.

“Okay. You mentioned that earlier, and it definitely seemed like you did.” Bucky could feel Steve’s eyes on him.

“I really liked it... but I don’t think I cared about the orgasm as much.” Bucky closed his eyes, refusing to allow himself a glimpse of their reaction.

“As in, it triggered something you’d rather not repeat?” Sam ventured, and Bucky could hear the slight apprehension in his voice.

“No, no.” Bucky was quick to reassure him— whatever this was, he would never let Sam think it was his fault.

No, this was all on Bucky.

“Like, it was alright, I guess. But it’s not like I would have missed it if we had just… hung out…” He trailed off, feeling utterly lame. He could picture every time he’d watched Sam or Steve reach their own peaks, and the look of utter bliss on their faces; he was pretty sure his own emotions were nowhere near the same.

He felt his eyes snap open when he heard Steve chuckle.

Sam immediately raised himself to look over Bucky’s head at Steve and flatly asked him, “What?”

The tone was a little sharp, and Bucky appreciated his coming to Bucky’s rescue.

Steve laughed again and shook his head, a hand coming up to his chest as he set off another round of giggles.

“I’m— sor—” He chucked again and then took a deep breath to calm himself. Bucky glanced at Sam out of the corner of his eye and was glad that the look of murder wasn’t directed at him. Steve ignored it and ran his fingers along Bucky’s collarbone, gently getting his attention.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh.” There was still mirth in his voice, but his expression was a little more serious. “I just… remembered.”

Bucky’s curiosity was piqued, but it was Sam who asked, “What did you remember?”

Steve gestured to all of Bucky before bringing his fingers back to bare skin, saying, “You’ve never really cared for sex, Buck. That’s not new. God,” Steve brought his other hand to his face, almost hiding another grin, “you were such a flirt with everyone. Took girls out, danced real close, lounged in bars with a girl on each arm, but....” Steve grinned again, a huff of laughter coming through his nose, “Everyone knew you could be counted on to show a girl a good time without asking for anything in return. It’s why they all liked you so much, because you never pressured them and were always the perfect gentleman.”

Bucky frowned. “That doesn’t mean…”

“It means when you got home after one of your nights out, you crawled into bed with me and tucked me close. Didn’t matter if I was already asleep or not, or if it was the dead of summer and both of us sticky and sweaty— you were a cuddlebug. And you never brought a girl home. Not once.”

“And we…?” Bucky felt compelled to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

Steve smiled, sweet and genuine. “You know we’ve had sex, Bucky. We tried it a few times, but it was never something you cared for. You loved getting me off, but if I ever tried to return the favor, you wouldn’t let me. So we just laid in bed after.”

The heavy stone in the pit of Bucky’s stomach seemed to lighten a little.

“And you didn’t mind? You don’t mind?” He couldn’t help but ask, feeling almost timid.

“What, lying in bed with you? Touching you and being with you? No, Bucky. I promise you I don’t mind.” There was laughter in his voice again, like Bucky was being dense— and maybe he was— but he loved hearing Steve say the words anyway.

He felt lighter, and slightly giddy at hearing that he hadn’t been changed by HYDRA. Not in this, at least.

Turning so he could face Sam a little better, he asked, “What about you? Do you mind?”

Sam’s face had already softened, hearing Steve’s side of things, and at Bucky’s question, he offered an encouraging smile. “Of course I don’t mind. I want you to be comfortable, whatever that means for you. If you don’t want to have sex, we’re okay with that. Honestly.”

“Can I have a kiss instead?”

Sam answered by leaning in and pressing his lips against Bucky’s, softly. He brought a hand up to Bucky’s nape and tugged him close, deepening the kiss and making Bucky feel like he could melt.

Breaking apart, Sam said, “You can have as many kisses as you want. You can have anything.” Bucky felt his face heat up, and Sam caught it. “What do you want?”

It took him a moment to articulate what he wanted, before realizing Steve had already given him the words for it. “Can we cuddle?”

Immediately, and emphatically, they both agreed and Bucky found himself going where he was directed, with Steve figuring out the logistics of the best skin-to-skin contact including all three of them. It was like that, entangled and pressed close, him in the middle, that Bucky felt right.

Safe.

Happy.

Warm.

Steve’s fingers trailed lightly along Bucky’s flesh arm, raising goosebumps in its wake, and Bucky hummed contentedly, relaxed.

“I like that.”

Steve pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “You always have, even back then. I used to do this when you asked. And when you didn’t.” He kissed him again, and Bucky sighed, turning the same breath into a yawn.

A phrase came to mind. “Soft tickles.”

Steve hummed in agreement. “Exactly.”

Sam, ever so watchful, followed Steve’s lead, and trailed his own fingers up and down Bucky’s side. Soon Bucky was melting into dual caresses. His eyelids were heavy and he realized he was exhausted; all the touching was working to quickly soothe him to sleep.

“This is so much better than an orgasm.” He mumbled tiredly.

Bucky heard Sam and Steve chuckle, and he knew they were happy to do this for, and with him.

Soon Bucky was under, a nap catching him off guard.

*

Later, after they dragged themselves out of bed and into the kitchen to scavenge for food, Steve was in the middle of assembling peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for them when he said, “You know. You made quite a lot of choices today.”

Sam was sitting on top of the counter, watching Steve. He was playing with Bucky’s hair, who had backed up into Sam’s space, mismatched arms resting lightly on Sam’s thighs. “That’s true, you have.” Sam agreed, scratching lightly and causing Bucky to shiver. “I’m really impressed.”

Bucky curled his fingers against Sam’s sweatpants, picking a little at the pills he found, and he realized that he had made quite a lot of choices.

Demands, even.

“Is that…” he began, thinking about the last time he shut down, compared to the last time he had completely spiraled into himself— it had been a while— “is that a good sign?”

Sam stopped playing with his hair, opting instead to curl against Bucky and wrap him in his arms, tugging him against Sam’s bare chest. It was easy for Bucky to lean back and relax into the embrace.

“I don’t know. I think so. I mean, you’ll probably have setbacks at some point in the future, but we know how to work through those now, don’t we?” He kissed Bucky’s temple. “And I don’t think we’ll mind if you keep asking us to cuddle with you. For practice, of course.” Sam teased, but he softened it with another kiss, and Bucky grinned.

“If that’s what it’s going to take, then so be it.” Steve said, handing Bucky a sandwich.

Bucky took it and offered it to Sam, who took a large bite. Bringing it to his own mouth, he tore a chunk off and chewed, savoring the mix of flavors.

He got peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth, but he still voiced his agreement, garbling out, “So be it.”

There was no question that he was going to have tougher days than others— he was no stranger to the concept that was his life. But, he realized, every day seemed to get a little bit easier.

Not easy.

Just, easier.

And that was okay.