The whole thing is the television's fault.
The Soldier doesn't tend to seek out television. He is busy with things such as learning not to be a weapon, regaining his memories, and living in Tony Stark's tower without regressing and killing all the other occupants.
Sometimes that is very difficult.
His days are spent mostly in therapy sessions and informative lessons, to regain the language he's lost in decades of mostly silence and to bring him to speed on the history he can't quite remember shaping. When he has time to himself—the thought of having anything for himself is intoxicating and terrifying—he tends to read or listen to the radio. Those were the things Barnes did, and the Soldier seeks to become Barnes.
Neither the radio nor the books of this era make much sense at all, but the television is uniquely frustrating. With books, he can set the pace. Television is as fast as the radio, but in this century the radio is nearly all music, whereas television expects him to follow narratives. The Soldier struggles with casual conversations, so grasping rapid, referential dialogue and multiple plotlines simultaneously is far beyond his current capabilities.
And most television is what his therapists call triggering.
At best, some programs are tolerable. (JARVIS taught him that word and the Soldier had been sure to write it down, as it is very useful). There is one show about aliens who don't understand the world any better than he does, which is nice except for the disconcerting, disembodied laughter that frequently interrupts the narrative. And then there is the news. News programs are not unlike mission briefings, albeit far less detailed and spread over too many topics.
Bruce is watching the news when the Soldier joins him. The Soldier had been reading the first book in a series Clint loaned him, but he doesn't understand fantasy well enough to wrap his mind around the concept of wizarding school, and nor does he comprehend why he should care that he is "most definitely Hufflepuff."
Steve and the others are on a mission. Bruce is doing what Tony refers to as Soldier-sitting. They take turns and each time their team is called away, someone remains with him. The Soldier does not think it necessary, but being looked after is oddly reassuring.
As usual, the Soldier ends up tilting his head as he watches the broadcast. The news makes more sense than most television, but only relatively. He doesn't understand why there are so many reports about celebrities. He doesn't understand what a celebrity is.
The Soldier clears his throat. He knows he is allowed to speak now without waiting for permission, but knowing and understanding are not always the same thing.
"What's a celebrity?"
Bruce looks up from his tablet—he has only been half-watching—as he answers. "It's a famous person."
"Famous for what?"
"That's a real good question," Bruce murmurs, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He begins to explain about acting and singing and scandalous video tapes, but there is another news item and the Soldier automatically snaps back to attention.
The report is about gay marriage, and for a moment the Soldier thinks he's heard wrong. Gay means happy. Marriages are meant to be about love, so theoretically shouldn't they all be gay? Or…there's something in the back of his mind, some other meaning of the word he can't quite recall.
"What is gay?" the Soldier asks.
Bruce, who is still trying to explain celebrities, does not look annoyed at the interruption. He never looks annoyed no matter how many questions the Soldier has, which is pleasant. "Uh, do you know what homosexuality means?"
Weapons do not have sexuality. The Soldier has spent seventy years as a weapon and anything before that is a blur. With HYDRA, he remembers that the stress and adrenaline of missions would occasionally induce arousal in some agents. They would disappear into a safe house bathroom or other secluded space to deal with their biology, sometimes alone and sometimes together. He thinks he once walked past two agents pressing their mouths together. Were those things a display of sexuality, or only situational? Is sexuality situational?
He must take too long to answer because Bruce is pulling up webpages on the tablet. "Here," he says, handing the device to the Soldier. "Let me know if anything doesn't make sense."
The Soldier reads about the spectrum of human sexuality and the evolution of the word gay from its twelfth century roots to the present. He reads about Alfred Kinsey, the Stonewall Riots, and the implementation and repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He is reading about the Gay Liberation Front when the memories begin.
Steve was not his only friend in the time before the fall. There had been others and one of them was named Arnie Roth. He had been Steve's friend as well—most of Barnes's friends had been Steve's friends, and vice versa—but he spent more time with Barnes, because the two of them would take women on dates together regularly. Arnie, he thinks, had not really been interested in the women he courted, and it seems to the Soldier that everyone had known that but had never cared to bring it up.
"Need any clarification?" Bruce asks.
The Soldier is still lost in recollection. "Men would sometimes proposition me when I was walking home from work," he says, because weapons do not need social filters and so he doesn't have any.
"Uh," says Bruce.
"Everyone in Dumbo was very poor," the Soldier continues. "You were liable to be either mugged or propositioned on the streets at night. I think it was preferable to be asked for sex rather than to be hit."
"Yeah, sounds like it would be," says Bruce, who is now flushed.
"There were many drag clubs." And homosexual bars, cafeterias, and automats. "Steve and I lived close to the Navy Yard and everyone knew who went there, I think."
"Sailors?" Bruce guesses. He looks as if he is sitting on something uncomfortable.
If the Soldier strains his memory, he can remember the going rates and the slang for the various acts. "When I was propositioned," he says, "they would offer three dollars for bl—"
SERGEANT BARNES, DR. BANNER, THE AVENGERS HAVE RETURNED, JARVIS announces, and very much relief washes over Bruce's face.
"Thanks," he mutters, standing. "C'mon Bucky, let's see how everyone's doing."
They don't have to travel far before the Soldier can hear Tony and Steve arguing.
The title of this story is a reference to the 1993 Seinfeld episode, "The Outing." In it, Jerry and George are mistaken for lovers by a reporter and repeatedly use the phrase "not that there's anything wrong with that" while dispelling the notion. The episode won a GLAAD Media Award and "not that there's anything wrong with that" has since become a catchphrase among fans.
Television did exist in Bucky and Steve's day, but it was not widespread and likely would have been prohibitively expensive for them.
The show with the aliens and the laugh track is 3rd Rock from the Sun, an American sitcom that ran from 1996 to 2001. Some autistic people (myself included), especially children, find the show cathartic because they can relate to the aliens' lack of understanding of various customs and idioms.
The word gay did not come to predominantly mean homosexual until the 1960s, but it was used to refer to homosexuality at least as far back as 1922, so it's entirely possible that Bucky and Steve had heard it used that way, especially considering the area in which they lived.
The high stress and adrenaline rush of combat can cause erections. While I imagine the odds are the Soldier was around at least a handful of gay HYDRA agents in his time, he also may have witnessed a lot of "situational sexuality," wherein people in segregated environments such as the military or prison engage in sexual behaviors they would not usually partake in.
Alfred Kinsey was an American sexologist at Indiana University. His research on human sexuality in the 40s and 50s remains well-known and influential to this day. The Stonewall Riots were demonstrations against a police raid by the gay community that occurred in June 1969, in Greenwich Village, New York City. They are considered the most influential moment leading into the gay liberation movement.
Arnie Roth was a character introduced in the Captain America comics in the 80s as Steve's childhood best friend (most of his back story was given to Bucky in the films, as comic Bucky was a young child when he met Steve instead of having grown up with him). He was a remarkable character for his time period because at that point in history, the Comics Code Authority did not allow books to talk about homosexuality. Yet Marvel introduced Arnie and his partner and used them to tell stories about discrimination and acceptance.
According to Fred Van Lente, who wrote the movie tie-in comic Captain America: Homecoming, Bucky and Steve lived in Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Brooklyn. In the 30s and 40s, this would have been a very poor and culturally gay area of Brooklyn. The nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard in particular was famous for its prostitution, and there was at least one gay brothel near it.
I have no idea if three dollars actually was the going rate for fellatio in Brooklyn at that time; that bit is a reference to ameonna's Captain America story, Thirty-Six Dollars. It's a very darkly amusing story, but it deals very heavily with sexual assault, so keep that in mind if you want to check it out.
This chapter is going to get downright ridiculous. However, I just want to stress before it begins that all the ridiculous things are canon in the comics. I will provide detailed citations in the concluding author's note.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Is Steve all right?" the Soldier asks Natasha. The rest of the Avengers are exiting the hangar and returning into the tower proper, but Steve and Tony are still standing on the launch pad, shouting at each other. As an afterthought, the Soldier adds "And everyone else?" It isn't that he dislikes the others; he would prefer their continued survival. But they aren't Steve.
Natasha rolls her eyes. She looks slightly singed but otherwise undamaged. "Everyone's fine. Mom and Dad are at it again, is all. Don't worry."
The Soldier is not sure why she addresses them that way, or whether Steve or Tony is the maternal figure. He thinks probably Steve. "They're yelling."
"They're always yelling," Clint says, slinging his bow across his back. "Don't let their lovers' spats get to you, Bucky."
He blinks, watching the argument through the glass doors. Lovers?
Steve's uniform is torn in a few places. His face is flushed and streaked with dirt. "Of all the reckless, irresponsible, showboating—"
Are Steve and Tony lovers?
"You're gonna lecture me about showboating, Spangles?" Tony's suit is heavily damaged, with one leg torn almost entirely off. "I've got your USO movies on Blu-Ray, and you're gonna lecture me?"
How can Steve and Tony be lovers? Steve had Peggy, and Tony has Pepper. But…one of the words in the articles Bruce gave the Soldier was bisexual. Is that what they are? Bisexual?
"You promised you would burn those!"
Last week, Steve appeared on a news program. The reporter had asked him about Iron Man, and Steve had replied that Tony was one of "the finest men I've ever had the honor of knowing." Steve doesn't look like he thinks that now. He looks like he wants to slam his shield into Tony's head. But he doesn't raise a hand to him, even though Tony still has most of the suit to level Steve's advantage.
"And I lied. Scout's honor? It only applies to scouts. Like I'd ever give up that comedy gold."
The Soldier turns away from the doors just long enough to look at the painting hanging in the entry hall. It is of Captain America and it is roughly the size of a mattress. Tony had commissioned it. There aren't paintings of any other Avengers in the tower that the Soldier has seen.
"And you wonder," Steve says, sounding wounded even though his injuries are minor, "why your own team can't trust you."
But Steve does trust Tony. The Soldier knows this because when he first came to the tower, before he learned about privacy, he read a letter that Steve had been writing to Tony. It said that if Steve died, he would leave it to Tony to protect Bucky and keep the dream of Captain America going.
"Excuse me? Who was the one who made a suicide run into a wormhole for the good of the planet, again?"
Tony sounds as if he doesn't care what Steve thinks, but there is a room in the tower devoted entirely to Captain America memorabilia. All of it was collected before Steve was discovered in the ice. One of the items within is a business card Steve signed, which Tony bought at a charity auction for two million dollars. It occurs to the Soldier that no one else on the team has such a room. Not even Thor, and he is rarely around.
"Who was it," Tony continues, "who almost died saving your star-spangled ass?"
He is probably referring to a mission the Avengers undertook before the Soldier returned to Steve. In that mission, as the Soldier learned after the fact, HYDRA exposed Steve to a deadly toxin and then Tony exposed himself to the same toxin by insisting on providing mouth to mouth resuscitation.
The evidence is overwhelming, possibly. Certainly Steve and Tony have stronger emotions for each other than any other Avengers. And the pair is open enough about their relationship that Clint and Natasha allude to it in casual speech. The question now is what the Soldier will do with this newfound information.
In the memories that the Soldier retains, Bucky Barnes had been extremely invested in Steve's love life. He was always arranging dates for Steve, taking him dancing, nagging at him to go introduce himself instead of standing around in silence. Barnes was not very good at any of it in the Soldier's estimation, because Steve had remained without a partner, but Barnes had certainly tried.
He doesn't think Barnes would mind that Steve found a partner on his own. Nor does he think Barnes would give much thought as to the gender of Steve's partner, as long as his friend was happy. They had both been close with Arnie Roth, after all. Steve was already an outcast for his health and Barnes had been his friend regardless, so why would he have cared about another taboo?
Bucky Barnes, the Soldier decides, would be happy for Steve. So the Soldier will be as well.
He stares through the glass at Tony and Steve, still shouting at each other. No, the Soldier has miscalculated. Bucky Barnes would not be happy, because this relationship is a disaster.
Love isn't a concept the Soldier pretends to grasp. There were no mission briefings on love, no training from HYDRA on what constituted a healthy relationship. But from what little he remembers of his life before the fall and what he has learned from Disney films, love does not consist of sarcasm and continuous arguments.
The doors slide open as Tony and Steve approach. Steve appears to be starting a lecture. He is very talented at lectures. "You're willing to make the sacrifice play, fine, but you can't just dive into it whenever—"
"You fight a lot," the Soldier says, and Steve immediately falls silent.
"Bucky, no, we're not really—"
"See? You're upsetting the children." Putting his arm across the Soldier's shoulders, Tony clucks his tongue. "Listen, Pinocchio, I know it's tough to realize that your super best friend forever has a stick up his ass like a California redwood, but being a self-righteous, overbearing nag is how Cap says he cares, all right? Trust me, I learned to zone him out long ago. I don't mind."
"Tony, I—" Steve stops. He exhales. His hands clench and unclench within his gloves. "We're not fighting, Buck. It's just a debate over tactics, okay? You don't need to worry. What did you do today?"
"I talked to Bruce about where we lived in Brooklyn and the men who used to solicit me for sex."
"Uh," Tony says. He slides his arm off of the Soldier.
But Steve is smiling now. "You remember our neighborhood? That's great, Bucky. What did you remember?"
"Blowjobs were three dollars," the Soldier says. He is smiling too, a little. Steve's happiness is contagious.
"Uh," Tony says. It is loud enough to make the Soldier glance away from Steve, and his smile fades as he again focuses on the situation at hand.
There will be time for smiling after the Soldier finds a way to fix Steve and Tony's relationship.
I initially intended to take moments from the MCU for the Soldier to misinterpret, but Tony and Steve haven't really interacted all that much within the MCU yet, so I went with the comics instead.
The interview in which Steve calls Tony one of the finest men he's ever known takes place in Iron Man Volume 3 Issue 39. The giant painting of Steve on the wall in Tony's tower is from New Avengers Volume 1 Issue 3. Steve's last will and testament consisting of basically, "Tony, keep Bucky safe" was shown in Captain America Volume 5 Issues 28 and 30. Tony's Captain America tribute room shows up in Captain America Volume 1 Issue 619. And the Tony and Steve mouth to mouth sequence is from Red Zone, Avengers Volume 3 Issue 70. To see scans of all of these moments and more images suggestive of a b/romance between Cap and Tony, check out the cap_ironman livejournal's "Captain America/Iron Man slashy moments list."
The Soldier mentions that Steve would have been an outcast for his health because, in the 1930s, eugenics was legal and popular within the United States. Many disabled, ill, or otherwise undesirable women were forcibly and legally sterilized within this time. Steve, of course, would not have suffered that consequence for his health, but he would have certainly been looked down as a burden on society.
The Soldier is perhaps not the most qualified person to fix Steve and Tony's relationship.
Bucky Barnes, while not a skilled matchmaker, had at least grasped the intricacies of human interaction. Whereas Steve has to explain to the Soldier that historic sexual solicitation isn't considered a polite topic of discussion.
"But it happened," the Soldier says.
"Right, but so did your time as the Winter Soldier, and you stopped talking about murders in casual conversation, you know?"
The Soldier has been quiet on the subject of murder since the time he put Pepper off her meal by detailing the lethal applications for steak knives. "But isn't sex a pleasant experience?" It hardly seems comparable to murder unless there is some context he's missing.
Steve goes red and shifts on his feet and begins to mutter about privacy. The Soldier frowns and tilts his head and then agrees, because Steve is always right even when he doesn't make sense. Almost always. He is clearly going about his relationship with Tony all wrong.
To successfully complete a mission, one must acknowledge shortcomings and work around them. The Soldier does not understand the intricacies of relationships, so he turns to the most knowledgeable individual within the tower: JARVIS.
REGRETFULLY, THE PARAMETERS OF MY PROGRAMMING DO NOT ALLOW FOR ME TO INTERFERE IN MR. STARK'S INTIMATE RELATIONS, JARVIS tells him. HOWEVER, I WOULD STRONGLY ADVISE YOU TO SPEAK WITH CAPTAIN ROGERS ABOUT THIS MATTER.
The Soldier shakes his head. He remembers that Steve does not like to be "fussed over," and he believes that this likely counts as fussing. So he turns to the Internet instead.
The first step of a mission is gathering intel. The Soldier thinks that the relationship must have started well—otherwise, why would it have formed?—and if he can track the progression of the romance, he may be able to spot what went wrong and rectify the issue. But there is very little about their love recorded online. No newspaper society pages, magazines, or tabloids have reported on it. The best the Soldier can find is a website called Tumblr. It contains a number of posts about Steve and Tony—grouped together under the tag of "Super Husbands" though they are not married—but they consist mostly of art or fictional, biologically improbable stories of their romantic and sexual ventures. The Soldier decides these stories may not be polite and stops reading them.
One of the posts consists of a photograph a reporter had taken of Steve carrying Tony out of a burning building. It's another incident from before the Soldier reunited with Steve. The caption on the post reads "I will go down with this ship," which the Soldier doesn't understand because there is no boat in the image.
He gives up on the couple's history and instead types "constant arguing in a relationship" into a search engine. The consensus from the first few results is that endless fighting is a sign of poor communication. The solution is to have a calm, rational discussion about expectations and how to effectively converse in the future.
"You should talk to Tony more," the Soldier suggests. "You might get along better."
Steve laughs into his sketchbook. "Or shed blood."
The Soldier frowns. Violence is a very serious problem in a relationship, but it is also something he cannot imagine Steve joking about, so he concludes that Steve must have been speaking of an unlikely hypothetical. Still, even the slightest chance of abuse is too much of a risk. He will have to try a different tactic.
He decides that he needs to learn more about Tony. Most of his information on the man comes from Steve, and Steve is often hypercritical. The Soldier seeks out Colonel James Rhodes.
"What can I do for you, Bucky?" the man asks. He says to call him Rhodey.
"Tony Stark must have many positive and attractive qualities, correct?"
The Soldier doesn't understand why Rhodey laughs so much.
Because the Soldier is now mostly rehabilitated, he is allowed to give interviews about his experiences with HYDRA and the Avengers. After meeting with Rhodey, he has one such interview scheduled with Sally Floyd of the Alternative. The Soldier brings up a search engine on his phone in transit to the interview, typing in "rekindling passion in a relationship."
The Internet informs him that it is important to remember the positive qualities of one's partner, the things that sparked the initial attraction. During the interview, the Soldier is sure to mention Tony's humor, generosity, and compassion, and Steve's bravery, resilience, and perfection. He then brings up their remarkable teamwork.
When the interview is published, Floyd has excised the portion about Steve, perhaps because the Soldier was critical of her previous coverage of Captain America during the interview. She does leave in the quote that Tony Stark is "probably very funny and caring and helps people and doesn't really mind if I speak about prostitution in the 1940s or other impolite things," as well as the mention that Tony calls Steve "Spangles."
The Soldier reads the article and then brings up Tumblr on his tablet. There is a wave of art in the Super Husbands tag inspired by the Spangles moniker. There is also a new tag, Winteriron. The first post in that tag reads "Imagine all the impolite things Barnes could be whispering in Tony's ear."
Beside the Soldier, Clint is attempting to read the article aloud, but he is also laughing too much to speak. Thor takes the paper from him, scans it, and declares the Soldier to be a talented orator. Steve has his face buried in his hands, which is a common reaction of his to the Soldier's interviews, Tony looks shell-shocked, and Pepper is on her phone attempting "damage control."
Pepper. The Soldier stares at her over the tablet and his eyes narrow, scrutinizing. Pepper spends very much time with Tony, both for work and for things such as dinners or art shows. Tony sits very close to her, much closer than he ever sits to Steve, and they often touch hands or brush their lips against each other's faces.
Is Tony unfaithful to Steve?
The Internet suggests that as Steve's best friend, it is the Soldier's job to "kick the cheating douchebag's ass." But he likes Tony. He likes Pepper. He doesn't like hurting people.
Natasha knows practically everything and her skill set involves seduction, so the Soldier chooses to trust her with his suspicions.
"What's up?" she asks, sucking on a frappuccino. The Soldier suggested they walk to a coffee shop so there would be no chance of Steve overhearing. He does not want to break Steve's heart or cause unnecessary conflict if his instincts are wrong.
"I think Tony is committing infidelity," the Soldier says.
Natasha looks surprised and the Soldier feels relieved. Natasha is much more perceptive about emotions than he can ever hope to be. If she has not noticed, then he must be mistaken. "What makes you think that?"
The Soldier lays out his concerns: Steve is Tony's partner but Tony is much more affectionate and initiates more casual touch toward Pepper, Tony spends more time with Pepper than he does with Steve, and Steve and Tony are always arguing and, judging from their sleeping arrangements and varying schedules, have probably not had intercourse in a long time.
As she listens, Natasha's face has a blankness the Soldier thinks is deliberate, but she can't keep her lips from twitching. He is not sure how to read the expression and it worries him. Natasha waits until he has finished to speak. "You think Stark and Steve—you think Stark's cheating on Steve with Pepper?"
"I think it is a reasonable conclusion from the evidence presented," the Soldier says.
Natasha's head drops down, face in her hands, seemingly overcome with emotion. Her shoulders are shaking and the Soldier is horrified. He was right. Tony is unfaithful and he has no idea how to react.
Natasha visibly struggles to compose herself as she straightens. "It's not what you think, Bucky."
"Then we can save their relationship?" The Soldier tries not to hope, but if there's a chance he can protect Steve from heartbreak, how can he not leap at it?
She hesitates before she speaks, deliberating, but then she smiles and there's a sparkling light in her eyes that the Soldier has never seen before. "We can certainly give them a night they'll never forget."
While the Steve/Tony ship is commonly referred to as Stony, it's also known as Super Husbands. Winteriron is the Bucky/Tony ship name.
The picture of Steve carrying Tony from a burning building is in reference to the cover of Iron Man Issue 172, often called the "Gone with the Wind" cover among fans.
Sally Floyd, reporter for the Alternative newspaper, is a character from the comics. During the Marvel comic event Civil War, she has an interview with Captain America in which she insinuates that he's out of touch with modern day America, which could be a plausible argument except in that comic, she says that he doesn't understand the country because he's not into MySpace or NASCAR.
Steve is stepping out of the shower when his phone chimes.
[text received from: Tony Stark] Come up to the penthouse :)
Since when does Stark use emoticons? Holding in a sigh, Steve wraps a towel around his waist as he tries to come up with a suitable excuse to decline. He's just sparred with Thor, body covered in fading but still aching bruises, and he's exhausted and can think of no place he'd rather avoid more than Stark's penthouse. Not at the moment. Stark is tiring enough when Steve hasn't been exerting himself, and while Pepper is an absolutely lovely person and the only one interested in talking with Steve about all the artistic developments he missed while in the ice, Steve doesn't understand her interior design sensibilities at all. Just the look of the penthouse puts him slightly on edge.
A request from Stark for his presence, without prior planning, usually points to some harebrained scheme. Steve feels the start of a headache flickering in his temples though the serum should make that impossible. He's just resolved to send a simple "No thank you" in reply when he thinks of Bucky.
"You fight a lot," Bucky had said. And "You should talk to Tony more, you might get along better." And then that disaster of an interview, when Bucky had spoken as if the world revolved around Tony. Steve knows what his friend is trying to do: back in their day, Bucky would threaten to beat anyone who annoyed or heckled Steve senseless. And now it's been drilled into Bucky that violence is bad and friendship is good, so the emphasis has shifted from threats to goading them into getting along.
Bucky isn't even in the tower today: Natasha took him to the book store and, so far as Steve knows, they haven't returned. Still, he can't help but imagine Bucky's face upon finding out—though why would he, ever?—that Tony extended some form of an olive branch and Steve brushed it aside. Bucky always had a talent for pouting, but when he does it these days he looks like the whole world's turned against him. And really, hadn't it?
So Steve sends back "I'll be there in a few minutes," dries his hair, throws on some clothes, and steps into the elevator.
It takes him longer than it should to realize the floor of the elevator is covered in rose petals.
Whatever game Stark is playing, Steve is not amused.
Every apartment within the tower has its own kitchenette, though everyone tends to use the kitchen on the communal floor these days. But the penthouse has a full kitchen that actually sees some use thanks to Pepper's sensitivity to gluten and desire to avoid cross-contamination. Someone must have been cooking there because when the elevator opens, Steve catches the scents of garlic and marinara. But that isn't the first thing to grab his attention; what he notices first is the trail of rose petals along the floor.
The petals lead into the dining room. The tablecloth is white and dotted with yet more petals—how many flowers had to die for whatever Stark's trying to pull?—as well as candles, providing the only light in the dim room. There are only two chairs: one occupied by Stark, and one directly to his right. Before each chair is an identical plate of spaghetti and glass of wine.
"Tony." Steve can practically hear his own disapproving stare.
He expects a wisecrack, a smart remark, something to make sense of what's going on. Stark just looks at him like he's lost or mildly concussed, before gesturing to the chair beside him. "Take a seat, Cap."
Steve sets his jaw. "What is all this?" He's not in the mood to be a guinea pig if Stark's taking cooking classes. Or developing some sort of nanobot-infested foodstuffs. Or anything the man is up to, honestly.
"Take a seat," Stark repeats, and he doesn't continue until Steve, tensed and frowning and not at all amused, is in the chair. "This," he says, "is spaghetti alla marinara, served with Chianti." Usually Stark speaks at a hundred miles a minute, stumbling over his words in excitement or humor, but now he's slow, almost like he can't believe what he's saying. "We're meant to eat it. Then we're meant to follow the flowers—" Here Stark points, with a trembling hand, at the rose petals continuing down the hall. "To, uh, to the master suite."
"And what's in the master suite?" Steve asks through gritted teeth. Whatever punch line this is building up to, it's not worth it.
"Apparently," Stark says, voice breaking, "a variety of lubricants and a copy of the The Gay Kama Sutra."
Steve finds himself unable to speak.
"It's been bookmarked," Stark continues, "with both red and black slips of paper. The red, see, are the, uh, are acts we can complete in time to shower and redress for tonight's eight o'clock showing of The Phantom of the Opera. The black signifies the acts for when we return home."
Steve makes a choking sound as Tony's hand, still shaking, brings the wine glass to his mouth.
"I know, I know. Andrew Lloyd Webber? What were they thinking? I mean, The Book of Mormon's playing. At least they could have sent us to Pippin."
"Are you drunk or just nuts?" Steve manages. His eyes are about to fall from his head.
"Both, but I didn't plan this."
The last, fraying strand of Steve's patience snaps. "You texted me!"
"One, no I didn't, Natasha stole my phone. The only reason I even know tonight's agenda is because JARVIS filled me in. Two, lower your voice. Your Soviet Murder Barbie's around here somewhere and you don't want to get him pouting, do you? I swear, the man's frowns could be distilled and weaponized, they're that good."
Steve's words fall dead in the air. He can't make the information fit in his mind; it's like trying to load a magazine into the wrong gun. "I—Are you saying that Bucky—"
"Made us dinner and thought long and hard about how we'd ride each other? Yes, I am saying that. Not sure why he chose spaghetti. You think that's just because it's easy, or has someone shown him Lady and the Tramp?"
"Why?" is all Steve can manage.
"Excellent question, Spangles, really gets to the point of things. Exactly what I would—and did—ask in your position." Stark runs a hand through his hair, shaking his head. "And unlike most of my questions about Astro Boy—like why didn't a ghost assassin secure his hair and why did he spend five hours last Monday holed up under the kitchen sink—this one actually has an answer other than 'HYDRA works in mysterious ways.' Your friend, you see, is under the impression that we're lovers."
Steve could not, if pressed, describe the sound that he makes beyond that it's involuntary and very loud.
"That's about what I said too." Stark takes another drink.
"Just a take a moment, Cap, let it sink in."
"Why—" He's almost shouting and Steve has to stop, then force himself to breathe and lower the volume. "Why would he think that we're lovers?"
"I guess I'm just irresistible that way," Stark says.
"Well, Natasha, helpful as always, decided to teach him about polyamory. Cleared this whole date night with Pepper and everything."
Is this happening? Is Steve dreaming this? "But she must have told him—"
"Pepper," Stark says, jamming his fork into the pasta, "thinks Barnes is 'just darling' and wants to have him organize my next evening out with her. It's his new hobby, she says, fixing my relationship with you, and she couldn't bring herself to crush his ambitions."
He's numb, stunned, as if he's coming back out of the ice all over again. "We have to tell him."
Stark pauses with the fork halfway to his mouth and shakes his head. "Not tonight."
"This isn't funny, Tony. We can't go around screwing with his head or once he works it out he'll think we're no better than—"
"You don't go up to a kid on Christmas morning to tell them there's no Santa." For the first time since Steve sat down, there's a look on Stark's face other than incredulity. Steve's surprised to find that it isn't humor, but sympathy. "This might be the first time he can remember ever having a positive impact on a situation, ever being able to offer help. And if we tell him that he's wrong, that he didn't understand, we'll just be underscoring that he's worthless and stupid and every other lie HYDRA put in his head. So let him have tonight, okay? We can tell him we've decided to see other people later."
Steve sighs, taking a drink of his own from the glass before him. He's going to let Natasha have it as soon as he sees her again, but fine. Let Bucky consider tonight a victory. "Agreed."
There's a moment of silence save for the clinking of silverware on their plates.
Stark clears his throat. "We should probably make out a little. Just to make it convincing."
"It's for your friend's health."
"Oh, so it's true, then? What Natasha says about how you can't kiss?"
"I am not going to kiss you." Steve's also not going to drive his fork through Stark's hand, which takes considerably more restraint.
"Do it for the Vine," Clint whispers, his phone out and glinting in the candlelight, betraying his position behind a houseplant.
Steve jumps and swears and before he can even think to respond, Bucky comes vaulting from the kitchen, hissing in Russian as he chases the archer out. Steve's Russian isn't nearly at Bucky's level, but he thinks he catches the words "romantic atmosphere" amidst the shouting.
He is settling back into the chair when Stark darts forward, pressing his lips to Steve's right as Bucky comes slinking back through the shadows. Bucky's smile gleams in the candlelight as much as his arm does, and that's the only thing keeping Steve from wringing Stark's neck.
"Once we get to Broadway, though," Stark says, turning his attention back to his plate, "we're gonna exchange those tickets."
Astro Boy is a manga and anime series by Osamu Tezuka about a robot.
The Soldier can hear voices as he trudges down the hall.
"—isn't funny, Natasha," Bruce is saying. "You have to tell him the truth."
"It seems the bond of trust could be irreconcilably broken by this falsehood." That's Thor's voice. The team, save for Tony and Steve, are gathered in a common room. Good. The Soldier believes he requires much of what his therapists call moral support.
"I knew him in Russia," Natasha says. "Before they burned the last of the humanity and common sense out of his mind. And he would think it's hilarious."
"You can't know that for—"
"I explained the concept of lying as a joke once," she says. "It took about an hour for him to understand but the second he got it, he tried to convince me that every dog in the world had suddenly turned blue. He'd laugh about this. He'd be glad that I didn't treat him as if he were made of glass."
Clint says, "Man, I want a blue dog," just as the Soldier steps into the room.
His distress must be visible on his face—that means he is regaining affect and his therapists will be pleased—because they are all looking at him with concern. "You okay, Bucky?" Bruce asks.
He manages to sit down before the distressed whimpers force their way out of his throat. The sounds are like that of a wounded animal and now everyone else looks distressed.
Thor's arm is around his shoulder, impossibly solid and almost as comforting as a touch from Steve. "What ails you, my friend?"
His voice is muffled because he places his face in his hands, his breathing ragged. "Steve and Tony broke up."
The Soldier hadn't understood what "break up" meant when Steve and Tony had called him to the penthouse an hour ago, staring blankly until Steve elaborated.
"It means," Steve had said, "that we've done a lot of thinking about what's best for us and for Pepper and everybody else in the tower, and we think it would be better if we were just friends instead of—"
Steve had choked there so Tony had finished: "Lovers."
"But you kissed," the Soldier had said, numb.
"It—it's not that we don't enjoy each other's company." Steve's face had gone red. "We don't hate each other, okay? We're very good friends, but we're better as friends. We, uh, we just don't want the same things from a relationship, and that makes us argue."
"But you kissed," the Soldier had said.
"And I will miss that." Tony had rubbed his hand up and down the Soldier's back. "That look in his eyes the other night? I'll cherish that forever. But there's more to a relationship than kissing, you know?"
"Like sex?" Should Soldier have concentrated more effort on that? What if Tony suffered from some sort of sexual dysfunction—Steve couldn't, the serum in his body wouldn't allow for it—and the book that the Soldier and Natasha had marked for the couple was seen as an insult? What if a lack of intimacy tore apart the relationship? Perhaps he should have been researching impotency. He was not sure how old Tony was, but that could possibly be an issue.
Then Tony was the one stammering too much to speak.
"No. No, Bucky," Steve said. "That—you don't need to concern yourself with that. It's nothing physical, we're just not right for each other."
"The physical was great," Tony had added, reaching across the Soldier to poke Steve in the ribs. "Fantastic. Felt like a dream sometimes, it was just too good to be true—"
"What did I do wrong?" the Soldier asked. "Was the spaghetti not good?"
"It's not like that." Steve pulled him close. "What you did was great, Buck. And you're a wonderful cook."
"Regular gourmet," Tony said. "Maybe go with a hint less oregano next time, though."
"The whole night was very thoughtful," Steve had continued. "The food was great, the, uh, the book was…was very thoughtful, and The Book of Mormon was, um, innovative and—"
"What's the book of Mormon?" The Soldier was very sure the book Natasha had chosen was called The Gay Kama Sutra. They had spent a long time examining it together and he hadn't seen any mention of Mormonism.
"One of the best musicals of the last decade," Tony said. "Might be a little over your head, though. We should start introducing you to Broadway, you'd probably like—"
"But the tickets were to The Phantom of the Opera." Natasha had assured the Solider that The Phantom of the Opera was extremely romantic, even though it was about a murderous disfigured man. He hadn't understood that, but Natasha was more knowledgeable in these matters.
Tony had shrugged. "Right, but I have taste."
"Then it is my fault." The Soldier's stomach sank.
"No." Steve's voice was forceful and he'd shaken the Soldier a little. "Bucky, this has nothing to do with you, okay? You gave us a wonderful night together and we're very, very happy about it. And we'll be happier from here on out, because this is the best choice for us. Everything's gonna be fine, I promise."
"But," the Soldier had said, miserable. "Where are you and I going to live?"
"We're staying right here." Steve stroked a hand down the Soldier's hair. "This is still our family, Buck. We're still friends and we both love you very much and you and I don't have to go anywhere."
"Yeah, no one's forfeiting custody this time around." Tony put his hand on the Soldier's shoulder. "It's not like when I lost Natasha and Happy to Pepper."
The Soldier had only stared. "You're Natasha's father?" That seemed chronologically improbable.
Tony laughed a lot. The Soldier hadn't understood, but at least the man wasn't heartbroken.
The Soldier doesn't feel much like laughing now. Or smiling. Or doing anything beyond staring into the distance and contemplating his failure.
The others aren't letting him do that, though.
Bruce has his left hand and is telling him it's okay. Thor, still with his arm over the Soldier's shoulders, tells him his efforts were commendable. Clint takes his right hand and says it was inevitable.
"But," says the Soldier, "they kissed." He's seen Enchanted and he knows that kisses aren't just magic; they are also the ultimate expression of love.
"So did Jesus and Judas," says Clint, and the Soldier only stares.
"Uh, savior of all mankind and the guy who betrayed him to the Romans."
"But I don't want Steve to be betrayed to the Romans!" The Soldier is horrified. He is not sure what the Romans would do to Steve, but if betrayal is involved it must be something awful.
"He won't be." Natasha smacks Clint in the head. "Listen, Bucky. Do you realize how much you've helped Tony and Steve?"
"But they broke up." Breaking is the opposite of helping. The relationship was in a bad enough state, and now he's destroyed it.
"And sometimes people are happier when they break up," she says. She is carrying on before he can protest; Natasha doesn't leave people much room to argue against her. "The point is, they weren't even talking before you got them to have dinner, were they? They might have stayed together just out of habit and really hurt each other before they figured out what they wanted if it weren't for you."
The Soldier thinks of Steve and Tony shouting at each other. They did do that a lot. They weren't shouting when they explained their separation to him.
"Definitely." Clint releases his hand. "You've spared them all kinds of pain. All kinds."
Natasha elbows Bruce in the ribs, and the doctor sighs. "It is for the best, Bucky. Most break ups are just a bunch of screaming and fighting. You gave them the chance to rationally discuss what they wanted and to come to a decision based on respect and understanding. You helped a lot."
"I helped?" the Soldier repeats. The thought make things hurt a little less. It also sounds too good to be true.
"You did," says Natasha. "Need a minute to let that sink in?"
"Why don't you guys pick out a movie or something?" Natasha asks the others. "Give him some time to think."
They make their way out of the room while the Soldier stares down at the floor, trying to make sense of humanity. It's not the first time he's tried to work it out, and he very much doubts it will be the last. "Tumblr's going to be so upset," he says finally, mostly because it's the only conclusion his mind can draw.
"Tumblr will survive," Natasha says. She had begun holding his hand when Clint released it, and she strokes it now.
"You did. You were very helpful."
The Soldier isn't sure what to make of that. He thinks Bucky Barnes would be glad to help Steve, whether the help was a breakup or a marriage, and so he tries a small and hesitant smile. "I helped."
"You're a good friend, Bucky," Natasha says. She is quiet for a moment and then that strange and sparkling light is back into her eyes. "Hey, I know something else you could help with."
"What?" He likes helping. And the Soldier thinks that the more helping he is doing, the less time he will have to think about Steve and Tony's failed romance.
"Clint really wants a blue dog."
"But his dog is yellow."
"Well then." She smiles. "We'll just have to find a way to fix that, won't we?"
The Soldier is at a loss for ideas, but luckily the Internet has many helpful suggestions.
In the Marvel comics, wherein the Soldier is mostly a product of Department X as opposed to HYDRA, he was used to train recruits in the Red Room facility, where Natasha Romanoff was trained as an assassin and spy. They fell in love during the time they spent together. Whether or not any of this back story carries over to the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains to be seen, but for the purposes of this fic they did know each other in Russia.
"Did you hear? All dogs are blue now. Every single dog in the world is blue" is a line of Abed Nadir's in the "Advanced Criminal Law" episode of the show Community, and served as the inspiration for the Soldier's attempt at making a joke that Natasha mentions. I made this allusion mostly because it is such an awful attempt at a joke that it actually becomes amazing the more I think about it, and also because Abed's actor Danny Pudi cameos in The Winter Soldier, and so Community and Captain America are forever linked in my mind.
The Book of Mormon is a stage musical from the creators of South Park and is about two Mormon missionaries stationed in Uganda. I imagine Steve went into it with no idea of the subject matter, expecting some uplifting story about the power of faith. If you don't know what the musical is like, just check out its song "Hasa Diga Eebowai" to get a good idea [although before you do, a warning for extremely not safe for work language, blasphemy, and talk of a lot of really awful things, albeit played for comedy].
In Iron Man 2, when Tony and Pepper have fought and Natasha and Happy are working for Pepper, Tony comments that he "lost both kids in the divorce."
Commercial hair dyes are not safe to use on pets, but there are animal-friendly dyes in existence.