It was the haircut that pushed it all out in the open.
It wasn't just the haircut, as Steve half-heartedly points out later on when he felt the need to defend himself. Mostly when Tony or Bucky was feeling affectionate and mischievous at the same time and decided that giving Steve shit was their favorite thing in life. So, fairly often.
But at the time it had been – well. It felt a little melodramatic to call it the straw that broke the camel's back. But at the time it had certainly felt like something was breaking. Not his back. Maybe his patience. Or his heart.
And it was Steve's fault.
Steve had his hand raised to knock on the door when he heard the sound of breaking glass.
For any of his other teammates, he would have knocked or stuck his head in to ask if they were all right. But Bucky had been in the tower for less than a month, and only really been Bucky again for twice that, and Steve felt he could be forgiven for overreacting a little.
The handle turned easily under his hand, the lock snapping as Steve put his full strength into it and he shoved the door open hard enough that he heard an ominous cracking sound. The door flew open and slammed into the wall behind it and Steve barreled into Bucky's room, ready for – well. Hydra agents coming through the window, or Bucky locked in combat with an assassin, or almost anything but the sight of his oldest friend standing in front of the bathroom sink, glaring at his reflection in the mirror.
Steve paused mid-stride, a half-dozen steps into the room and suddenly, achingly lost for what to do. “Buck?”
Bucky didn't look away from the mirror. His hair was shorter – cut off in uneven chunks, though it looked like he'd made some effort to even it out in places. The sight made Steve's stomach twist for a moment – not the sick clench of dread but the weightlessness of relief. He'd suggested a haircut to Bucky a few times, hoping that the change would make it easier for his friend to distance himself from the Winter Soldier and his captivity with Hydra, but Bucky had more or less ignored him each time. This had to be a good sign, he told himself as he huffed out a heavy breath, tension seeping out of him as he moved to join Bucky in the bathroom. Bucky was feeling more himself, that had to be it.
And then he saw the mirror.
It was shattered, thick lines spiderwebbing out from four different impact points and shards had fallen into the sink. Blood was smeared across it where the glass had broken the most, and a pair of scissors was jammed through it several inches deep.
Right at eye level.
Part of Steve – a part he wasn't proud of, a part he'd never, ever admit to Bucky existed – wanted to bury his face in his hands. The rest of him was just glad that the scissors had been used on an inanimate object and not turned on Bucky himself, or an innocent bystander.
And that was when Tony walked in.
“Hey, wonder twins, what's the damage? JARVIS tells me you're pulling a Johnny Depp in here and frankly neither one of you is young and rich enough to get away with that sort of thing.” Tony had obviously been down in the labs when JARVIS called him. He was wearing a faded gray hoodie and a pair of jeans that could have been painted on, drawing Steve's eyes to his lean legs. The hoodie was covered in a variety of stains and burn marks, and Tony's fingers and palms were nearly black with oil. His hair was mussed, and his fingers were leaving marks on his clothes every time he touched himself. Steve caught the edge of a handprint on the seat of his pants and had to look away before he embarrassed himself.
“It's fine,” Steve said hastily, shifting a little to block the bathroom from Tony's view.
“Uh-huh,” Tony said skeptically. He raised one eyebrow. “You've lived here for more than a year now and you still think it's possible for there to be anything in this tower that JARVIS doesn't know about?”
“Well unless there are cameras in the bathrooms-” Steve began, then stopped abruptly when Tony grinned. “No. That is not okay.”
“They're not recording,” Tony said, waving off Steve's rebuke like so much smoke. “But in the event of a medical emergency, yeah, JARVIS can access cameras and see what's going on in there.”
“No.” Bucky's voice was short and clipped, but the tension in it was clear to hear. “No cameras. Not in here.”
Tony stilled a little. He hadn't been moving, really, but he was always in motion, eyes darting from one thing to another, hands gesturing, feet bouncing, mind calculating. When he stilled it made Steve's throat tight.
“Look,” Steve said, but Tony was already moving again.
“JARVIS, you heard the man, no cameras. Disable everything in this room unless Barnes instructs you otherwise directly, or he moves out, whichever-” He stopped at Steve's side and his eyes widened as he took in the scene in the bathroom.
“Not the best time,” Steve said quietly, blocking Tony's path with one arm. He wanted to pick Tony up and carry him out of the room, but he couldn't decide if it was to protect Bucky's pride or Tony's physical safety. He didn't really think Bucky would hurt anyone – he didn't want to think Bucky would hurt anyone – and Bucky and Tony had gotten along well over the last few weeks. But he knew how abrasive Tony could be to someone who was still feeling raw. And Bucky was still so raw it hurt just to look at him sometimes.
“Holy shit, Barnes, that is not a good look on you.” Tony nudged Steve's arm out of the way and slipped past him. “That is... what are we calling that? Shaggy is the best I can come up with and that's – well, let's just say it's definitely not a compliment. I know that's not how you guys did it in the Forties, I have seen pictures.”
There was a second where no one moved. Tony, with one hand on his hip, smearing oil over his jeans. Steve, braced to avert whatever reaction Tony's usual tactless honesty provoked. And Bucky, staring at Tony now, instead of the mirror, eyes wide and slightly hollow, blood dripping off his hand into the sink.
And then he laughed.
Just a chuckle, short and breathy as if it had been startled out of him. But probably the first laugh Steve had heard from him since before he shipped off to a war neither of them had really come home from.
Tony made a 'get it over with' gesture. “Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, Cousin It. You still look like a drunk hobo with the DTs used you as a practice dummy for his intro to cosmetology school.”
“I thought Cousin It had a lot of hair,” Steve said.
“Not the point. The point,” Tony said, jabbing a finger at Bucky, “is why on God's earth you thought doing whatever all this is was a good idea.”
“I-” Bucky blinked, his lips pulling back from his teeth like a sneer, like an animal baring its teeth. “I need a haircut.”
“Well you do now,” Tony said. “I thought the grungy hippie thing was working for you, though. What brought this on?”
Bucky frowned at him. “I needed-”
“Yes, I heard that part. Did you want a haircut?”
Bucky didn't look at Steve. He very, very clearly, did not look at Steve. “I. I don't – it wasn't-”
“Hey.” Tony's voice went soft and quiet, a tone Steve had heard him use with Bruce and Clint and the occasional innocent bystander or injured civilian. “I get that it's been a long time since anyone expected you to make choices or have opinions. But if you don't want to do something, you don't have to. Except pay taxes, but honestly, I have a guy, he's brilliant, we can work on that. But the rest of this – your hair, your body, your decision. Do you want a haircut?”
Bucky's metal hand twitched against the sink. “I- well I do now,” he said. Some of the hollowness had faded from his eyes and there was a touch of humor in his voice.
Tony rubbed his hands together. “All right then. I know a guy. Not the same guy who does my taxes, a different guy. I have guys,” he said, drawing out the 's'. “Lots of them. I'll introduce you to the others later on. Haircuts first. Oh, you might want to do something about the blood? Money talks, but they'll still call the cops if they think you just murdered a dude.”
Bucky looked down at his right hand, then back up to the mirror as if he'd forgotten about it entirely.
“Actually, do not use that sink. There's broken mirror everywhere, you'll probably end up slitting your wrist and dying and I will not let you die with that haircut.” Tony snagged the sleeve of Bucky's shirt and nearly dragged him out of the bathroom. “Come on, we'll clean you up en route. Do you have shoes? Put on your shoes. Are those loafers? Nevermind we can buy shoes on the way.”
And then Bucky was gone and Tony with him, and Steve was left standing in the bathroom doorway, looking at the broken shards of mirror and the bright red drops of Bucky's blood in the sink and the knowledge that this was all his fault.
He removed all the pieces of broken mirror and wiped down the sink, then went in search of a vacuum cleaner to make sure he didn't miss anything. He was maybe more meticulous than he strictly needed to be, but glass shards could work their way anywhere and he didn't want Bucky getting hurt. And once he'd vacuumed the carpet near the bathroom, he couldn't stop until he'd done the entire thing.
When he realized he was dawdling so he could be there when Bucky and Tony got back, he gave himself a mental kick, asked JARVIS to let him know when they got home, and went down to the gym instead. Beating up gym equipment was a tried and true coping strategy – hell, even his shrink approved. Or had, before SHIELD went under and took her with it. Steve wondered vaguely if she had been Hydra or if she was just unemployed now.
The gym bag was leaking sand all over the floor when JARVIS informed him – hours later – that they were back.
He blinked sweat out of his eyes, dragged in a deep breath. “Okay,” he said to the empty room. So he'd screwed up. He should have seen Bucky's silence on the subject for what it was. He should have realized that his repeated comments might come across as an order that should be followed.
He should have remembered how long it had been since Bucky had been allowed to have any free will without the consequence of having his mind and memory erased.
He should have done better.
And Tony – it stung, a little, that Tony saw so clearly what Steve had missed, that it was Tony who had coaxed a laugh out of Bucky, dragged Bucky off, taken steps to give Bucky the care Steve had missed. It stung that neither one of them had appeared to even consider asking Steve along. But it was probably for the best. Steve had spent the last two months hovering over Bucky – he had to be sick of it by now. Spending time with another human being was probably going to do Bucky a world of good. And Tony was – Bucky liked Tony, or at least was more at ease with him than any of the others except Natasha. Tony was safe. Tony was kind and strong and he gave so much of himself all the time, usually without even thinking about what he was doing.
If the idea of Tony giving of himself to Bucky made Steve's stomach twist unpleasantly, it didn't bare thinking about. Bucky was going to be fine. Tony would take care of him.
Yes. It was probably all for the best.
He stopped by his room to shower first, letting the hot water ease some of his tension and trying to wash away some of the anxiousness he felt. It would be fine – Bucky wouldn't blame him for making such a thoughtless mistake.
Even if, Steve had to admit as he ran a towel over his hair, he probably should.
The door to Bucky's room was closed, and no light escaped from underneath. Steve stood there for a long minute, staring at the splintered wood from his abrupt entrance earlier and debating with himself whether or not to knock. But if Bucky had wanted company he'd have left a light on, at the very least, so Steve turned around and headed back past his own room, toward the elevator.
Tony's floor was supposed to be personal, just like Steve's and Nat's and the others', but at some point it had become more of a communal area than, well, than the communal areas. Tony's living room and kitchen were where most of the team's socializing was done and they all more or less came and went as they wanted. Steve thought it would be different if Pepper still lived there, though Bruce and Natasha had both lived here when she was still in residence and had made themselves just as comfortable then. Steve knew he couldn't have done it, couldn't have made himself at home in Tony's space if part of it had still belonged to Pepper. Some things even super-serum didn't make you strong enough to handle.
All the lights were on when he stepped off the elevator to Tony's floor. A small pile of shopping bags and packages had been dropped unceremoniously by the elevator. Steve recognized at least two of them as shoe stores and suspected Tony had carried through on his threat to buy Bucky new shoes. “Tony?” he called as he turned the corner into the living room. “Sorry to bother you so late, but-”
His mouth snapped shut so fast he almost bit his tongue. Bucky was laying down on the couch, Tony knelt beside it. He was leaning over Bucky, murmuring something in a soft voice that Steve didn't catch. One of his hands was stroking Bucky's head, his fingers combing through the strands and pausing to curl around the back of Bucky's neck.
“Really,” he said, in a voice he barely recognized. (Big man in a suit of armor) “This struck you as a good idea?”
Tony glance up at him, then back at Bucky who was blinking at Steve as if he'd just woken up. “What-”
“I get that this is how you solve your problems, Tony, but did it occur to you that it might be a nice change of pace to keep your hands to yourself for once?” Tony had gone completely still, not even his eyes moving as he stared at Steve. “What were you thinking?”
"Thinking?" Tony echoed. "What the hell is your problem, Cap?"
"My problem is that I leave you two alone for one day and suddenly you decide it's a good time to make a move!"
The confused shock on Tony's face disappeared to be replaced with a hurt anger that made Steve's throat hurt. "Oh, fuck y-"
Bucky touched his shoulder.
Tony's mouth snapped shut. He looked at Bucky, then pressed his lips together. “All right. I think it's time for me to head back down to the lab. You two can make yourselves at home.” Bucky didn't try to stop him as he stood and stalked toward the elevators with a long stride that was supposed to look angry – and he probably was – but Steve had known him long enough to see the defensive hunch of his shoulders, the way his brow furrowed as he deliberately avoided looking at Steve.
Great. Twice tonight one of his closest friends couldn't stand to look at him.
Steve almost opened his mouth to call him back, to apologize or... or something. But the elevator arrived almost instantly and Bucky was slowly pushing himself up off the couch.
“I'm sorry,” Bucky said in an even tone.
His hair looked better, Steve thought almost inanely. Tony's guy had done a good job with it. It was a little longer than it had been in the past, and a little spikey in places, the way men seemed to wear their hair these days. It was a few shades lighter than it had been as well, more of a blond tint to it. It was strange. But it was nice, too.
“Don't apologize,” Steve said heavily. “I'm sorry. I'm getting everything wrong today.”
“I'm sorry,” Bucky said again folding his arms over his chest, “because I remember just enough to know that if I'd been more myself, I'd have never let you act like such a goddamn jackass.”
That startled a laugh out of Steve. “Well, that's fair enough.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Are you okay?”
“No,” Bucky said, in a tone that indicated that any idiot should have known as much. “But I'm better than I was this morning. I'm not going to wake up one day and be that guy you used to know. You get that, right?” His voice was thick, but his gaze steady. “I really need you to get that.” He glanced down at the floor. “I need you to be okay with that.”
“I know.” Steve crossed the room until they were just a few inches apart, reached out to touch one hand to Bucky's shoulder. “I see him in you sometimes, and that's probably hard for both of us. I just want to help.” He tucked his hands in his pockets and grimaced. “I might have been a little jealous.”
Bucky shrugged. “Yeah, well, I'm sure finding me using your fella as a human pillow wasn't what you were expecting.”
“I- Tony's not my fella. He's not my boyfriend.” Steve ignored the way one of Bucky's eyebrows slowly climbed up his forehead. “No, I meant I was jealous that he was helping and I had made things worse. I'm sorry for that. And for the haircut comments. I should have let you make the decision yourself.”
“You didn't put the scissors in my hand or cut if off yourself, so it's not your fault.” Bucky let his arms drop and some of the defensiveness melted away with it. “Look, I like Stark.”
“Okay,” Steve said too quickly. He took a half-step back toward the elevator, as if he could avoid whatever Bucky was going to say, but made himself stop. “Yeah. He's – he's really-”
“He gets it, a little.” Bucky said. “He wasn't a prisoner as long as I was but – they unmade him, too. He doesn't get that look on his face when I talk about something that happened. Neither one of us is the same guy we used to be before they took us. The only difference is, he made himself into someone new and I'm still trying to figure out what's left of me. You gotta let me figure that out, Steve.”
“I know. I'm sorry.” Steve licked his lips. “For what it's worth, Buck, I think a lot of you is left.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see. Tony though – he never knew Bucky Barnes. And he never saw what the Winter Soldier was capable of. He doesn't expect anything from me, good or bad and that's kind of amazing right now. This isn't the first time we've talked, and it probably won't be the last. You okay with that?” He smirked a little, and it wasn't exactly the expression Steve had seen a million times before, but it was something like it. “Because if you aren't, you're gonna be disappointed.”
“I'm fine with it. Anything that helps.” It hurt to say it, some part of him still wanting to insist that Bucky was going to be all right, that he – that they both – could be the way they used to be again. But Steve wasn't stupid and he knew that was his own damage rearing its head. No one could really be the same after what either of them had lived through. And Bucky was here and alive and that was more than enough.
Steve cleared his throat and deliberately changed the subject. “So.”
“So,” Bucky echoed in a voice as dry as the Mohave.
“So when you said you liked Stark-”
“You are just as pathetic now as you were back then,” Bucky said. “I throw a thousand pretty girls at you and never once do you tell me I should be looking for a fella.”
“I like girls, Buck, I just – look shut up.”
“Hopeless. And you went and accused him of molesting me when he was only trying to help.” Bucky shook his head. “You are sleeping on the couch tonight.”
“I am not,” Steve said. “We aren't even-”
“Which just makes it sadder,” Bucky said. “Because that guy is so far gone on you that it's embarrassing. The only thing more embarrassing is the way you start salivating every time he walks by in a pair of jeans.”
“Just go apologize already,” Bucky said. “He didn't deserve that.”
Steve nodded because there wasn't really anything to say to that. “You look good, by the way. Different, but good.”
Bucky ran his metal arm through his hair. “Yeah. Seems to be a theme with us, doesn't it?”
Tony was where Steve knew he would be.
The workshop was dim. Tony hadn't bothered to bring the lights up all the way when he'd come down and now most of the sprawling space was darkness and shadows. The only lights Steve could see where the ones directly above Tony's workstation, and he paused a moment at the top of the stairs to watch, intrigued as he always was, to see what Tony was building or creating this time.
But Tony wasn't working. Instead he sat in a chair beside his workstation, the chair tipped back precipitously far and his feet propped up on the table. He didn't move for several long moments and Steve thought he might have fallen asleep.
He hesitated, unsure if waking Tony to apologize was really the gracious thing to do, but if nothing else Tony should be sleeping in a real bed – or at least the cot he had set up in the corner of the workshop – and the chair looked like it was ready to tip over if Tony so much as twitched wrong. And Steve knew Tony well enough now to know that he'd sleep better if things were put to rights between them anyway. Tony tended to dwell on arguments, taking even minor disagreements entirely too much to heart, in Steve's opinion. And this was – Steve had basically called him a slut up there, accused him of taking advantage of a friend. That wasn't something Steve could leave to fester. Not even for one night.
He moved finally, and the lights switched on above him to light his way down the stairs. Tony stirred, woken either by the lights of the sound of Steve's approach, and he sat up, dropping his feet to the floor and blinking rapidly to clear his eyes.
Steve didn't know what to say when he finally stepped off the last stair. Tony looked half-awake and his hands were laying flat on the workstation, his shoulders already taking on the same defensive hunch. It was wrong to know that Steve himself had put it there.
“Thank you,” he said, because he knew it would be more easily accepted than an apology would. “I should have said that before.”
Tony smirked. "No need to thank me, Cap. You know I jump at the chance to take advantage of traumatized veterans. If you'd come in just a few minutes later maybe you'd have been thanking me."
“Don't,” Steve said quietly. “Don't talk about yourself that way. It's bad enough I did.”
Whatever Tony had been expecting, that didn't appear to have been it because he just snapped his teeth shut and looked away.
“Thank you for helping Bucky today. I know that he feels safe with you and that's – it means a lot to me that you reach out to him. And I'm sorry about busting up his bedroom door,” Steve added a little sheepishly. “I can fix that.”
“I already called it in.” Tony folded his hands on the table and looked at them instead of Steve. “I'm not trying to infringe on your friendship with Barnes or anything.”
“God, no.” Steve crossed the last few feet between them and leaned a hip against the side of the table. “It's not your fault I'm an idiot. I was pushing him too hard. I just couldn't see it until someone else came in and handled it better. So thanks. For helping out. You've helped him out a lot in the last few weeks. He feels safe with you.”
“That's all it was – upstairs,” Tony said. “He needed a minute. I was just-” He stopped and obviously struggled for words, something Tony almost never did except when it was desperately important that he not be misunderstood. “I wanted him to feel safe. I wanted him to know he was safe with me. I'm not sorry for that,” he added, “and I'm not going to apologize. He can't heal without a safe space and-”
Steve ducked his head and blinked against the sudden heat behind his eyes.“And I wasn't giving him that. I know.”
“Aw, Steve.” Tony scrubbed his hands over his face and stood, coming to lean against the table beside Steve. “That's not true. Trust me, knowing someone's pulling for you is huge. You'd chew your arm off for him and he knows it. Nothing's going to make a guy feel safer. He just doesn't want to let you down. Me, he's got nothing invested in. He can't let me down. It's not better, Steve, it's just easier sometimes.”
“He can't let me down, either,” Steve said quietly. “I think I need to find a way to show him that.” He nudged Tony's shoulder with his. “And I'm sorry. Whatever I was going through doesn't make what I said upstairs okay. I shouldn't have spoken like that to anyone, let alone a friend. I'm sorry. And I won't do it again.”
“Yeah it was a little out of character for you.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “A little jealousy goes a long way, I suppose.”
Steve bit his lip. “Try a lot,” he admitted, a little ruefully. “Jealous you were helping where I couldn't. And... you two did look kind of cozy for a second there.”
Tony shook his head. “You know I'm not putting the moves on Barnes, right?”
“I know. I've seen you put the moves on people,” Steve added. “It's usually pretty obvious.”
“Well, not as obvious as all that, apparently.” Tony nudged Steve's shoulder back. “Not if you think I've been putting the moves on Barnes.”
“I didn't really think...” Steve's protest died on his lips.
“So this is awkward,” Tony said. “But Barnes called down here about two minutes before you showed up and told me to do this. If this is a joke, punch him, not me.”
And then he slid his hand down Steve's arm to cover his hand, tangled their fingers together. Steve didn't move as Tony raised their joined hands to press a kiss against each of Steve's knuckles.
“I-” Steve swallowed. He wanted to drag Tony into his arms, he wanted to press kisses on him hard enough to leave his mouth bruised. He pressed his free hand against his thigh and carefully squeezed Tony's fingers. “Bucky told you to do that?”
“Actually, he told me to give you something to think about besides his fucking hair and then threatened to kill us both if we ever gave him any details of what that something was.” Tony was smiling against the skin of Steve's wrist and he pressed another little kiss against his pulse. “Am I off base here?”
“I-” Steve's breath left him in a shuddering exhale that made Tony's eyes widen and go dark. “No,” he said, a little hoarsely as he tried to speak through the tightness in his throat. “No, you're right on target.”
“Yeah?” Tony's tongue darted out to trace Steve's pulsepoint, and Steve felt his knees go weak and watery. “You aren't going to be all noble and let me go be with Barnes?”
“If you wanted to, yes. But you two would kill each other inside a week.” Steve raised his free hand and curled it around Tony's hip, urging him closer until there wasn't any space left between them, their joined hands trapped by the press of their bodies.
“And we wouldn't?” Tony teased.
“We'd last longer than a week.” Steve slid his hand around to press against the small of Tony's back. He felt hungry in a way he wasn't used to feeling, his arms aching to be full and the heat spilling through his chest and belly desperate to be answered. The way he felt – it was too intense to be relief, to tight to be just happiness.
"You think so?" Tony asked. He touched Steve's waist with his free hand, just a brush of fingers over Steve's shirt, but it was enough to make him shiver. "I'm very high-maintenance."
That was true, but Steve wasn't without his own baggage. And Tony was the one who gave him a place to live outside SHIELD, he was the one who remade Steve's uniform after each battle, stronger and sturdier each time. Tony was the one who walked up to a compromised former assassin and reminded him he was allowed to want something. Tony made Bucky laugh, just for a moment. Steve thought if he hadn't already loved Tony a little, he would have after that. "I want to kiss you. Can I kiss you?”
In response, Tony surged upwards, catching Steve's mouth in a quick, hot kiss. Steve barely realized what was happening before Tony was pulling back. Steve made a sound low in his throat and pulled Tony in tight, pressed them together from hip to chest and claimed another kiss. This one was deeper, longer, and Steve let go of Tony's hand so he could cup the back of Tony's head instead and hold him there as Tony's lips parted and let him inside.
When Tony finally pulled away for breath, Steve followed him, pressed his forehead to Tony's. “We're gong to last much longer than a week,” he said before catching Tony's mouth again and pressing him back against the workbench.