They did not see him smile,
Turn, like an animal,
In his cage of ether, his cage of stars.
He'd had so many wars!
The white gape of his mind was the real Tabula Rasa.
- Sylvia Plath, "Lyonnesse"
“Maybe we should wake him,” says Sam, so soft Bucky can barely hear him above the gentle hum of the quinjet’s engines. He nods at Steve, who’s fallen asleep across the aisle from them. “He’s missed you.”
“Don’t you dare,” says Bucky.
“He’s gonna be grumpy later on,” says Sam, but he makes no move to disturb Steve, and Bucky knows he doesn’t mean it. “Could’ve had six whole hours with his best friend at room temperature. Imagine that.”
There’s a bit of a bite to his voice. Bucky would miss this, if he was going to be awake to miss anything at all: Sam’s lean legs stretched out in front of them, his knee bumping Bucky’s thigh; the sweet shape of Steve curled up small like he used to be, bright blond head pillowed on Sam’s flight jacket. They’re on the home stretch now, flying away from the remains of a Hydra base in the Arctic Circle. First a pit stop in Wakanda to drop Bucky off and put him back on ice, the only place he wants to be. Then another flight for Sam and Steve back to New York, a short drive to their apartment in Brooklyn. Their apartment, which they bought and furnished and live in together.
It makes a funny feeling in Bucky’s chest when he thinks about it. Steve, back home where he belongs, with his pencils and sketchbooks and his best guy at his side. Waking up in a double bed with Sam’s head on his chest, showering together, scrambling eggs and making coffee for each other. He’s glad, he guesses, that they don’t have to be alone. That he has his own safe place to go back to after a mission, even if it’s far away from them. First the good clean adrenaline of a fight, then a long dreamless sleep, the comfort of the old routine. He’s got decades of practice at this.
It’s easier like this, anyway. Less overwhelming, thinking of his sorties into the outside world in terms of calendar squares, each one bracketed by a long blank swathe of oblivion. Peaceful.
“He’s got you,” says Bucky. The corollary, which does not need to be said but which he feels like he ought to say anyway: You’ve got him.
“Yeah,” says Sam. He stretches, and his ankle snakes out around Bucky’s calf as if to hold him in place, a little too tight to be truly casual. “I guess.”
He’s older now, more wan, not as apple-cheeked as he was the first time they met, during which Bucky vaguely remembers trying to kill him. Sam likes to refer to those days as his bad boy phase. It doesn’t feel like a long time ago, but maybe it was. The years eel away from him. His awakenings are softer, mostly routine, forgettable; the Wakandan techs bring him out at the agreed times to check on him, ask him if he feels like being awake now, and he says no, thank you, I’m good. Sam wakes him now and then when Steve needs him, and that’s good too. But other than that he sleeps. Maybe one day he’ll come out to find Sam an old man, face wrinkled and windburnt, still smiling that forthright, toothy smile, still expertly getting all of his limbs in Bucky’s personal space, with Steve steadfast at his side.
“Mission control to Barnes,” Sam says, interrupting his reverie. “You’re smiling creepily.”
“I was imagining you as a ninety-year-old,” says Bucky. That must be less self-explanatory than he thought, because Sam gives him the funny look Bucky has privately labelled his WTF Face. There should probably be a hashtag somewhere in there.
He likes it when Sam makes that face at him. He truly does.
“Seriously,” says Sam, looking back at Steve. “You sure you don’t want to let him fill a bit of his Bucky cuddle quota? Otherwise he’s gonna be unbearable, y’know, and I’m the one who has to live with him.”
Again, just the barest hint of whatever it is Sam keeps buried deep down inside, which only bares its fangs when the subject of the cryo tank comes up. Bucky deliberates, and chooses not to engage. “Leave him alone,” he says. He flexes his new arm in what he remembers used to be a menacing gesture. This one is light and sits strangely on his shoulder, the latest in a series of test prototypes. Disposable. Transient, like him. It doesn’t really matter.
“Man,” says Sam. “That thing would be a lot scarier if I hadn’t watched T’Challa’s engineers 3D print it in about thirty seconds.”
Thirty seconds for an arm. The calculations spool out without conscious thought. Two minutes for all four limbs. He wonders how long it would take to print a torso with all organs fully functional, a head with no trigger words implanted. A pretty face, a killer smile. A man who can walk and talk and tell corny jokes and crush up old copies of the New York Post to stuff in the toes of his best friend’s hand-me-down shoes. A man who will go home with Steve and Sam and walk through the calendar one day at a time, without hurting anyone.
“I have to go back in,” he says. He looks up at Sam, his head so damnably clear under the intolerable weight of consciousness. He wants to sleep. A few more hours and he will be back in the tank, watching the glass fog over until he can no longer see their faces. “You know I have to. You would too if you were me.”
Sam ducks his head, then, looks down at his hands. He has such elegant hands, bird-boned, long-fingered, even if they are chafed and sooty at the moment. Bucky knows he understands. This is why they get along, or don’t get along, so well.
“He’s not the only one who’ll miss you,” Sam says at last, and then it’s Bucky’s turn to dip his head and look away.
“Hey, king cat,” says Sam when they land in Wakanda.
“Bird,” says T’Challa. Laugh lines gather in the corners of his eyes. Then they hug.
Bucky catches Steve’s eye quite by accident, and sees in his face the same curious mixture of fondness and longing that he feels when he looks at Sam. He smiles a little, feeling wistful, missing them both already, and Steve smiles back. They’ve never really needed words, the two of them.
He hates it, shaking awake like this. He remembers enough of Before to know that it used to be worse—at least now they put him on a thermal bed and wrap him up in heated blankets, and there are kind nurses who will hold his hand while he rides out the worst of the shivers—but today Sam is watching through the glass window of the lab, and for some reason that seems to magnify everything a hundredfold, bringing each light and sound and stray sensation closer to him. He wonders if Steve felt like this, coming out of the Vita-Ray chamber for the first time with Peggy Carter’s eyes on him.
It doesn’t seem to have been very pleasant for Sam, either. “I didn’t know it was like this,” he says, once they are in the recovery room and Bucky is left alone with him and a steaming flask of hot chocolate. He’s a little wide-eyed. “You coming off the ice, I mean.”
“So don’t wake me up every time Steve stubs his toe,” Bucky says, without any heat. He’s a full two months away from his annual routine awakening, but it’s always good to see Sam. He’s not sure if he’s ever said so. “What’s the emergency now?”
Sam regains his footing at that. Banter is easy, and covers a multitude of woes. They are good at this. “Dude, you have no idea. I nearly woke you on the Fourth of July because Steve was eating birthday cake in front of the TV with that Howling Commando documentary on repeat, and it was so tragic, but I didn’t think T’Challa would let me use his airspace just for that.”
Bucky isn’t sure about that. If the King will let Sam get away with singing soft kitty, warm kitty under his breath whenever they are in the same room for more than five minutes, he’ll probably let him get away with anything. “Wilson. What is the emergency. He better not be in medical again.”
“Nah,” says Sam. “He’s busy with his art show and I need a plus-one to Stark’s thing tonight. Hope you don’t mind.”
Bucky stares. His brain, long since revved into full gear now that the cold of the tank has fled his bones, commences a thorough scan of his surroundings for objects, preferably soft and fuzzy, that he can throw at Sam without causing lasting injury. His options are mostly limited to pillows and blankets, all of which he would rather keep for himself. Sam bursts out laughing. “God, the look on your face. I’m just kidding. Nat’s dug up intel on another Hydra base just outside Kiev. We could probably deal with it on our own, but she said you might want to come see this one.”
His memory conjures up disjointed images of a chair surrounded by wires and beeping machines, of thick cast-iron restraints around a wrist he no longer has. “If it’s another fucking chair, I don’t want to see it.”
“It’s not that,” says Sam. His gaze is uncharacteristically tentative, even skittish. He looks at Bucky like he’s an open wound, like something too precious to hope for. “We might’ve found the last copy of your trigger words. You don’t even need to go into the base. Just hang around outside and watch while we blow shit up.”
Bucky draws a deep, steadying breath. “Okay,” he says. This again. He can do this. If Sam thinks it’s worth waking him for, then it must be. “Okay.”
Then he drains the last of his hot chocolate and lobs the flask at Sam, as gently as possible, because he has a reputation to keep up. “Anyway, I hate you.”
Sam relaxes a little. “Dude,” he says, with audible relish, “don’t I know it.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” asks Bucky.
It’s just a book. After all these years on ice, after Zemo and the fiasco the media likes to refer to as the new Civil War, it’s just a ratty old book with a big star on the cover. His star. It’s familiar in a way that makes his stomach feel a little off-centre, its weight in his hands a sick, unwholesome sensation. But with Hydra mostly destroyed or in hiding, it’s just a thing—dormant, inanimate, a loaded gun with no one to pull the trigger.
Just like him, he thinks.
“Burn it,” Steve suggests. “Eat it. Shred it and throw the pieces in the sea.”
They’re sitting outside the quinjet, watching the pyrotechnics from a safe distance while Sam and Natasha finish their last sweep of the base, making sure there are no survivors, no backup copies of the book in his hands. Bucky already knows there are none. Things like this inspire greed and desperation in people, and with that comes secretiveness. Like lotto numbers, or a troll with a magic word. He pages through the book—gingerly, half expecting his mind to go into a tailspin at any moment—but he’s rusty with written Russian, and the text makes little sense to him.
“Maybe,” he says uncertainly. He wonders how many decades of research have gone into this book. If maybe somewhere between its covers, there’s something that can cure cancer or make clean energy or fix the ozone layer. He’s not sure he really has the right to destroy it. “I’ll think about it.”
He shuts the book and tucks it away at the bottom of his rucksack. Steve is watching him with a strange look on his face, so he adds, “You doing all right, Stevie?”
“Hell, yeah,” says Steve. His expression smoothes over. His smile does not reach his eyes, but it seldom does anyway. He rummages in his own pack and comes up with a Ziploc bag of apple slices. “Here, split this with me.”
“I thought people in the twenty-first century only ate MREs,” says Bucky, grinning, but he takes one of the slices. It’s still crunchy, and the juice spills over his tongue, sweet and tart and fresh. It’s too good to be true. “Fess up, did you bring these special for me?”
Steve shuffles his booted feet. They’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee on the edge of the loading ramp, the straps of Steve’s armour squeaking against the plates of Bucky’s latest test arm. “Yeah, well,” he says. “First time I saw you in Bucharest, you’d just come back from buying fruits. I don’t think you ever got to eat them.”
Bucky barely remembers his last days in Bucharest, for once not because the memories have been taken from him but simply because of the passage of time. So much else has happened. It’s such a trivial detail, such a Steve thing to remember three or four years later, that for a few seconds his throat closes up and he can’t speak. He’s almost forgotten how it was with Steve, how natural it felt to be around him, just sitting in companionable silence on the fire escape while Steve smoked his asthma cigarettes and Bucky read aloud from H. G. Wells. How they move together on the field like the three heads of Cerberus, he and Steve and Sam, trading the shield back and forth as easy as a thought.
Maybe, he thinks, with a sudden, stifling sense of dread, maybe it’s already too late to hold on to those things. Maybe they’re slipping away from him even as he thinks he’s just getting them back. Every day he spends in the tank is another day they grow apart, Steve and Sam’s lives twining closer together while his own frays and decays. Maybe one day he’ll wake up and Sam will be a pair of angel wings on a headstone and Steve will be the one who doesn’t remember him.
“Your art show,” he says, knowing it’s a non sequitur but unable to correct the trajectory of the conversation. These days, words sit less easily on his tongue than weapons in his hands. “Stevie. Your first art show, and I won’t be there.”
Steve’s eyes grow misty, but his jaw starts to jut out in a familiar look of determination, the one he always gets when he’s about to do something painful and difficult and For the Greater Good. It’s a funny combination. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Buck, I—look, we all understand why you gotta do this. If you still want to go back on ice, that’s your choice.”
Bucky looks down at his hands, one shiny, one sunburnt. They could probably print him one that looks like flesh and blood if he asked. “Sam says you’re lonely.”
“That’s not the point,” says Steve. The mulish cast to his expression intensifies. “This is about you. You can take as much time as you need.”
But I want to see the art show, Bucky thinks. He wants to see Steve in a penguin tux, introducing his latest series of paintings to a throng of journalists and art students, so proud, so earnest. He wants to watch Sam grin his lovely brilliant grin, drinking champagne out of a flute glass and telling everyone who will listen how great Steve is. The days grow short and grey, swabbed clean with antiseptic, and each one is a wound he cannot feel.
Steve’s palm comes to rest, cool and heavy, on Bucky’s knee. “I did a blood test last month,” he says. “According to Dr. Cho, my remaining life expectancy is about six hundred and ten years. So I can wait, Buck. Any time you’re ready to come home, I’ll be waiting.” He gives a watery smile. “Don’t worry about me.”
That’s a long time to be alone, Bucky thinks, but he doesn’t say so. He only says, “Six hundred and ten? We’ll be living on the moon by then,” so he can see Steve’s mouth invert into a smile, if only for a while.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” says Sam. “We went to all that trouble to get your book and you’re still going back in there?”
They are in Sam’s guest room in the Wakandan palace, alone for the first time since the mission. Bucky looks at him through his hair, still damp from the shower. Sixty minutes until they begin the procedures that will put him back on ice. “I have to,” he says. He doesn’t know how else to explain it.
“Like hell you do,” says Sam. He’s pacing around the room, quick, long, jerky strides with his hands stuffed in his pockets. “We destroyed your trigger words, don’t you understand? We brought guns and grenades and fucking computer viruses into that place and we razed it to the fucking ground, literally and figuratively, so it would be safe for you to live your life again. If that still isn’t good enough for you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
He stops pacing abruptly and rests his forehead on the window-pane. Bulletproof glass; Bucky knows because he asked, because Sam comes here often and he only comes here for him. On the other side is a velvet twilight strewn with silver stars. His servos whir, loud, impotent. He wants to go over and put his arms around Sam. He wants to get in a fight. Gunshots and fisticuffs he can deal with in his sleep, but not this.
“Sam,” he begins. His tongue feels too big for his mouth. “I thought you understood. Bad things happen whenever I come out of cryo. You’ve seen them happen. They’ve happened to you.”
“We dealt with them,” says Sam in a remarkably Steve-like voice, flinty and impenetrable. “We can deal with them again.” He turns around to face Bucky, dark-eyed, thin-lipped, arms held rigid at his sides. “Steve can be all selfless, all I’ll wait for you even if it kills me, and he means every single word he says. But I’m not like that, Barnes. I don’t know how he does it.”
Looking at Sam, with the bright lights of the room reflected in the window-pane and the tender midsummer night spread out beyond, Bucky arrives at a conclusion he did not want and immediately wishes he never had. This isn’t about Steve. Steve has six hundred and ten years to wait and the stubbornness to outlast the earth itself. Sam has maybe forty or fifty if he’s lucky, and luck is not a thing they count on in their line of work.
“Sam,” he says again, hoarse, raspy, like the broken piece of machinery he is. “That’s not—” What do normal people say when things like this happen? “I didn’t mean,” he says, carefully, “to hurt your feelings.”
A pause. Sam glances out the window, and then back at Bucky. When he speaks again his voice is easy once more, though his eyes are still hard. “Nah, don’t flatter yourself,” he says, already moving towards the door. Bucky takes a step forward on instinct, then falls back again, helpless, when Sam tenses up. “You do you, man. I just liked having an arch-nemesis around. Made me feel like a real superhero and all.”
He shoulders out through the door and into the hallway. “You are a real damn superhero,” says Bucky with feeling, but he’s already gone.
This time he puts off the procedure and doesn’t go into cryo right away, even after Steve and Sam leave in the quinjet. It’s strange, having this much control over his own sleeping and waking. He just says, “I need some time,” and the techs acquiesce immediately, simple as that.
So he spends a day or two wandering around the palace, or at least the parts of it he has access to. With the exception of the doctors, for whom he is something of a curiosity, no one pays much attention to him. They are never discourteous, let alone unkind. It’s just that everyone here—from the King all the way down to the little flying robot-drone who brings Bucky his meals—has a role to play in the running of the palace, like muscles and sinews working seamlessly in a panther’s powerful legs, and he has no part in that. He’s just a guest, an outsider, the strange white guy T’Challa keeps in his fridge for reasons no one is entirely sure about.
It’s not a bad thing. He’s no one’s tool. He has nothing to offer. No longer the Asset, just a liability, housed and clothed and fed because he is human and so, he is told, deserving of humane treatment.
In the evening of the second day, he finds his way to the royal suite and gets permission, with less difficulty than he expected, to see the King. T’Challa is working at his desk, surrounded by floating holographic screens, but he dismisses them all with a flick of his hand when Bucky comes in. “Sergeant Barnes,” he says. “May I help you?”
Even sitting, he holds himself with a lithe, fluid grace that’s hard to look away from. Bucky never knows whether to bow or salute or start running for his life. “I just thought,” he says, wishing words came easier to him, “maybe you should have this.”
He pulls out the Red Book. The flicker of recognition is subtle—the narrowing of T’Challa’s eyes, the tightening of his jaw—but Bucky has been trained too long and too hard to miss it. After a few measured seconds T’Challa says, “Why would you offer me that?”
Bucky shrugs. “Your father died because Zemo wanted it. Wanted me. I figure if there’s stuff in here—in me—that might help anyone, you should have it.”
He pictures the spidery writing in the book, nestled and waiting between the thick leather covers. Secrets so many people have killed and died for; secrets embedded deep in his own brain. Distantly, from somewhere in the chambers of his chest, he can feel his heart rabbiting.
“It’s yours to dispose of,” says T’Challa. He does not touch the book, and his eyes do not leave Bucky’s face. Then, less sternly, more kindly, as if he knows what Bucky is thinking—“I have no use for it.”
Bucky knows then, explicitly, what he guessed on the first journey here from Siberia with his arm in screaming ruins, and has trusted in ever since: that T’Challa, like Steve and Sam, is the sort of man who is who he says he is; that Bucky’s stay here is unconditional and will always be; that there will be no more missions or surgeries or experiments except those he chooses for himself. Hydra made a key to his head and he is holding it in his hands, his to do with as he wishes.
“Okay,” he says. He exhales, long and loud and shaky. “I thought you would say that. But it felt right to ask you first.”
T’Challa smiles. Like Sam, he looks older, wearier, no longer the brash young prince Bucky remembers from Bucharest and Berlin. The earth spins on while he sleeps, and he will never be able to catch up. “I appreciate it. Thank you, Sergeant.”
“No,” says Bucky. “Thank you.”
He does go back into cryo, but not before he feeds the book page by page to a bonfire on the palace grounds, breathing in the heady perfumes of the rose gardens and the firewood and the sweet scent of its burning.
The next time he wakes, it is the King himself who helps him out of the tank, and Steve’s face hangs big and bright and moon-pale on a screen above the bustle of the lab. Bucky doesn’t have to ask to know that something is terribly wrong. A timestamp blinks at the bottom of the screen: the middle of the night, almost a year since the last time he was awake. It feels like yesterday that he was eating apple slices with Steve on the ramp of the quinjet—literally, it was more or less yesterday for him. The world has turned without him again, leaving him asleep in his private winter.
“What,” he says, coughing. His vocal cords have forgotten how to work. The head doctor snaps a command, and someone brings him a glass of water.
“Bucky,” says Steve from the screen. He has a black eye and a vivid purple bruise on his jaw. “Buck, you gotta come. They’ve got Sam.”
Bucky has lived a hundred years, about three-quarters of which he’s spent in and out of laboratories and operating theatres. He prides himself as something of a recovery room connoisseur. He used to wake from cryo strapped to a cold metal table under blinding fluorescent lights, sopping wet and shaking so hard he’d nearly bitten through his tongue. Compared to that, his cosy lounge in the Wakandan lab—complete with heated mattress, a photo album of Steve and Sam on the bedside table and a little carved panther at the foot of the bed, watching over him with bright emerald eyes—is practically heaven.
Sam’s isn’t too bad. They’re in some cushy private hospital in New York—Bucky keeps forgetting how rich Steve is now—and he’s been unplugged from most of the machines, so the place looks more like a normal bedroom and less like something out of Bucky’s nightmares. He just has an IV drip and bandages around most of his torso, and Steve’s phone plugged in and playing Marvin Gaye on the nightstand beside him. An inside joke, Bucky supposes, one of those intimate points of reference that spring up like toadstools between people who’ve been in love a long time. (Steve himself is out walking off the dinosaur-grade morphine they had to give him so they could dig the bullets out of him. Sometimes Bucky hates his friends.)
He’s at Sam’s side in a split second when he hears the first sound from the bed. Sam blinks up at the ceiling; then his bleary eyes focus on Bucky’s face. Remembering his own post-cryo dry mouth, Bucky pours a glass of water for Sam and holds it to his chapped lips. “Drink.”
Sam does, just a little. “Look at that,” he croaks, when Bucky sets the glass back down on the nightstand. “It’s you, cryofreeze.”
“Yeah,” says Bucky. His voice trembles. He has gone without sleep for seventy hours, most of those violent and harrowing. Past experience suggests that he can carry on for at least another twenty-four without losing combat functionality, but the stuff behind his eyelids feels woozy and wobbly, and he thinks he might cry. “Thought I’d lost my nemesis there for a bit, bird brain.”
Sam gives a cracked laugh, winces, and stops abruptly. “Yeah, well—” He catches his breath. “Just my luck the bad guys wanted one of Cap’s boyfriends for a hostage and the other one was off chilling somewhere.”
Bucky pulls the worst scowl he can muster. “Are you still mad at me?”
“’M giving you the cold shoulder,” says Sam. He wheezes a bit at Bucky’s expression. “I dunno, actually. Kinda hard to tell. I’m seeing four of you.”
Bucky has to smile. Without thinking, he finds Sam’s hand with his flesh one and squeezes. “Pain meds. You’re high as fuck.”
“I’m high as fuck,” Sam agrees happily. He still sounds winded. “And you’re here. Just the icing on the cake.”
Bucky tries to force his mouth back into a frown. It won’t go. “Steve woke me.”
“’Course he did,” says Sam. “Damn him. Keep telling him to let you sleep.”
“Oh?” asks Bucky. “Is that why I haven’t seen you in a year?”
He’s not angry, not really. He was almost due for his scheduled waking anyway, and then he would have been able to Skype with them both. It’s what they agreed. He just wishes—
He just wishes they’d needed him enough to wake him now and then, in between.
“Figured we should respect your wishes,” says Sam. He blinks slowly at Bucky, like a cat. “Shouldn’t bring you out every time one of us gets a boo-boo. Fucking selfish.”
The trouble with that, Bucky thinks, is that he doesn’t know what his wishes are. First time in decades he has free will, and he hasn’t the faintest notion what to do with it. Typical. But he only says, “You’ve got three broken ribs and a gunshot wound. You’re allowed to be selfish.”
“That so?” asks Sam. He grins, so broad and beatific it makes Bucky’s heart hurt. “Might have to go back to sleep for a while, then. You still gonna be here when I wake?”
“Yeah,” says Bucky, without having to think about it. “Sure.”
“At room temperature?”
“Yeah,” says Bucky. His eyes sting. “Don’t worry, birdie. Go to sleep.”
He dozes off for a while himself. He distinctly remembers seeing Steve come into the room, and being stricken by how marvelous and comforting it is to see him in civvies, whole and unhurt, with earbuds dangling around his shoulders and a sketchbook in his hand. There might have been hugging involved. When he wakes, Sam is still out cold and he’s curled on the couch with his head on Steve’s shoulder and a heavy arm around his waist. Steve squeezes him a little, and Bucky makes a contented noise in return. He maybe wants to stop time in its tracks so he can keep this moment forever.
“Sorry we had to call you,” says Steve, voice muffled by Bucky’s hair. His cheek is a solid, grounding weight on the top of Bucky’s head. “I don’t think we’ve ever let you get through a full year without waking you up.”
“That’s all right,” says Bucky, and he means it. “I missed you.”
Steve gives him an assessing look. “But you were frozen.”
“When I was awake,” says Bucky. He snuggles deeper into Steve’s arms. “Every damn time I was awake. I missed you.”
“Me too,” says Steve. He sounds like he might be crying. “God, me too.”
Bucky reaches up, feels around clumsily, and pets the crown of his head. “How was your art show? I’m sorry I missed it.”
“It was great,” says Steve. He sniffs. “I saved you a flyer to stick in your notebook. Buck, I know it’s asking a lot, but can you stay a few days, just until Sam is better? I’ll be with you the whole time, I swear, I won’t let you out of my sight, it’s just—it’s so much easier when we’re all together.”
You don’t know the half of it, pal, Bucky thinks. Now he’s here, he doubts if he’ll ever be able to leave either of them again. “Yeah, Stevie,” he says, lacing their fingers together. There’s a silver ring on Steve’s right hand, with a star flanked by outspread wings. Bucky’s never seen it before. His heart beats once out of time, so sharp, so painful, he thinks he might keel over. “I promise.”
By the third day Sam is well enough to sit up in bed, and Bucky insists on spoonfeeding him chicken broth. (Steve backs him up when Sam grumbles, and then tactfully leaves them alone to run a marathon around the hospital or whatever it is he does in his spare time.) “Didn’t know you and Steve got married,” he says.
Sam looks down at the ring on his own hand, identical to the one Steve has, and sighs. “Not married,” he says. “Didn’t want to do it without you. It’s just, I don’t know, like a symbol or something.”
Bucky swallows. “When?”
“Last year,” says Sam. “After Steve’s show. We had a third one made for you. Got your name carved on the inside and everything.”
The world liquefies, and goes hazy and diaphanous at the edges, and Bucky has to pretend to drop his phone so he can lean down and blink violently. “But you were mad at me,” he says, when he comes up again.
Sam doesn’t try to deny it. “Furious,” he says. “Been furious since the first time you went under, actually.” He makes a wry face. Bucky holds out another spoonful of broth, and he opens his mouth for it and swallows. Bucky can’t look away from his lips. “I told myself it was about Steve at first, you know? That I was pissed on his behalf because you two had something, because he’s been pining for you longer than I’ve known him, and you just up and—”
“Abandoned him,” says Bucky.
Sam shrugs, a stiff, careful motion. “Then I figured I was lying to myself. That I was fucking pissed on my own behalf because hell, I thought we had something. And then I lost you, and man, I’ve had it up to here with losing people I love.”
Bucky’s grip is unsteady on the spoon. He has to put the bowl down. “Sam, I nearly killed you. I went two years without hurting anyone and somebody said a few words and I threw the man I love down an elevator shaft. I can’t—”
At a loss, he tears his hands through his hair. A few strands snap off, caught between the plates of his metal fingers. “Steve’s more or less indestructible these days, but you’re not. I can’t risk hurting you.”
“Well,” says Sam, with a soft, sad smile, “I managed to get hurt all by myself anyway.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re a fucking asshole,” says Bucky, and Sam laughs.
“I wanna give you that third ring,” Sam says. “I wanna put it on your weird-ass 3D-printed hand. I wanna show you off to my ma even though I only get to see her in video calls nowadays. I want so many things, I think I’m gonna lose it, you feel me?”
“Yeah,” says Bucky fervently.
“But I don’t want to pressure you into coming out of cryo for me,” says Sam, all in a rush. Bucky has never seen him so flustered. “For us. Neither does Steve. That’s not it at all. But you said I could be selfish, so if—“
“Shut up and give me the ring, Wilson,” says Bucky hoarsely. His face feels hot and damp. “Can’t look at your dumb face when I’m in cryo, can I?”
He goes back to Wakanda one more time, less to pick up his things—he doesn’t really have any—than to say goodbye to T’Challa in case their paths never cross again. Doubtful, consdering the size of the superhero industry, but Bucky doesn’t want to take anybody’s kindness for granted. Sam is discharged the same day he gets back to New York, and a chartered car picks them up from the hospital and drives them to their place. Sam and Steve’s place, and now Bucky’s, too. He can’t stop fidgeting with the silver ring on his hand the whole drive there. He’s getting a proper arm made now that he’s out of cryo for good, but for now it’s on his latest test-drive prototype, which seems to make Sam smile.
He loves making Sam smile.
“I told you he’d love the apartment,” Steve tells Sam when they get there, and Bucky immediately begins a sweep of the place. Two bedrooms, a study, windows that look out over the rooftop of the next building, good sturdy teak furniture they can kick over and use as a barricade in case of an emergency. But mostly he likes the cheerful sky-blue wallpaper and the photos on the walls, the trappings of home. Steve and Sam, smiling on the beach with the sea glinting green-grey and silver behind them. Sam sharing a sundae with his nieces. Steve with an old woman in a wheelchair. Natasha giving Sam and Steve bunny ears. Bucky’s cheeks feel taut and strange, and he realises he’s smiling.
“He’d better love it,” Sam is saying. “I mean, we chose it with him in mind.”
Bucky’s grin widens. “Really?”
There are pictures of him too, but they are sketches and paintings signed with a little S.R. squiggle in the corner. Some of them are of him the way he was in the old days, with his short pomaded hair and soft-eyed babyface, but more of them are of him as he is now: shaggy mop, metal arm, frowning mouth. “That one's our favourite,” Sam says, coming up beside him to point to a particularly frowny pencil sketch.
Bucky laughs. He can’t help it. He draws Sam into his arms, gently, aware of his still-healing ribs, and—before he can think better of it—leans down to kiss him. Sam makes a surprised sound, and then a happy one, and kisses back. He feels so perfect cradled against Bucky’s chest, all lean muscle and smooth skin, and his lips are so soft, the press of his tongue confident and insistent. “Aww,” says Steve from where he’s been watching across the room.
He better not have been taking photos. Or maybe he better have. “C’mere, Stevie,” says Bucky, without letting go of Sam.
“Yeah, I want a kiss too,” says Steve, padding across the rug to them.
“Ugh,” says Sam, half into Bucky’s mouth. “Wait your turn, I’m an invalid, I get all the special Bucky privileges.”
But he pulls away so that Steve can lean in from behind him and press his own mouth to Bucky’s. It takes a bit of manoeuvring so they don’t accidentally crush Sam between them, but they manage it. Steve is taller, so Bucky has to tilt his head back to meet his lips, his cheek flush against Sam’s temple, his arms around them both. Steve’s kiss is shyer, sweeter, and they bump noses and Steve starts to giggle, which sets Sam off too.
“Ugh,” Sam says again, as they break apart and Steve turns to nuzzle his nose into the soft hairs at the base of his neck. It looks nice. Bucky makes a mental note to try that at the first opportunity he gets. “Look at you, you’re disgusting. I feel like there should be a chorus of nightingales and a glitter shower or something.”
Bucky presses their foreheads together. “Shut up, Wilson.”
“You wanna make me?” asks Sam.
Bucky grins at Steve over his shoulder. He’s super glad he came out of cryo. “Yeah,” he says. “I think I will.”