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A Fine and Wholesome Direction of Energy

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When first someone commented, that someone was Tony. At the time this struck Steve as terrible, because the last person he wanted commenting on or even aware of peculiarities in his love life was Tony Stark. In retrospect, Steve would be relieved that Tony only saw the humble beginnings. (Bucky was reliable in this: He escalated. Whatever it was, Bucky could do it more and he could do it bigger.)

Tony exited Steve’s kitchen looking scandalized. “Your boyfriend,” he announced, “is sharing your other boyfriend’s tea.”

Steve looked up from a folder of layouts, a maze of Hydra bases that might or might not still be in operation (and might or might not be fictional, depending on the trustworthiness of Natasha's contacts). Hydra didn't even trust itself, and in half of the plans, the electricity and water supplies drifted off into spaces that didn't exist. It took him a second to switch mental tracks, and another to attempt to parse that sentence. “Sam’s doing what?”

The Winter Soldier is sharing Sam’s tea,” Tony said. “You see what I mean about the name, though? So much sexier than ‘some dude named Bucky is sharing Sam’s tea,’ because, by the way, Bucky isn't an actual name except maybe for, say, a large dog. Something in the rescue family; if I ever get a Bernese mountain dog I'm naming it Bucky. Whereas my way sounds like a code or at the very least a double entendre, and either way like it's about a human being.” To Tony’s credit, he’d established that ‘Winter Soldier’ didn’t bother Bucky before he refused to refer to him by anything else. That it bothered Steve added to the appeal. Possibly for both of them. “The double entendre part is what I’m getting at, though, because I dated Pepper for a year before I was allowed to steal from her coffee cup. Do you share Sam’s tea? It seems couple-y to me. It seems intimate. Does it seem intimate to you? I don’t know, call me crazy.”

"You're crazy," Steve said obediently, and made throat-cutting gestures, as well as wide eyes that he hoped promised an explanation later if only, if only, Tony would leave it alone for now.

"Right," Tony said slowly. "Nod's as a good as a wink. Sure. I don't even know why I ask. The antics of two geriatrics who somehow managed to score the most beautiful man in all of D.C. as their live-in guide to the twenty-first century are so entirely not—whatever. I warned you. You date the most beautiful man in the city, you live with the second-most beautiful man in the city, you're always busy, they're left to their own devices. I put that out there. If Captain America gets kicked out of his own house it's none of my business."

Steve didn't whisper. He and Sam had found that whispering piqued Bucky's interest. "On the day I get kicked out of the house, which is Sam's by the way, I'll call you first just so you can say you told me so, if—" he started.

"Unbelievable. I knew it, but still. Un-believable. Captain America is perfectly willing to be a kept man, just not my kept man. You know you wouldn't have all these holes in the walls and the appalling replacement furniture if you all came and lived in the state of the art, Soldier-proof apartment I've lovingly crafted in New York, right? You're peripherally aware? I hope Sam has insurance as impressive as his eyelashes. It's fine."

"—if," Steve tapped the nearest page, "we can talk about why this cement wall needs fiber optic cables and terawatt power capabilities in the meantime. And Stark?" He switched to his most Captain America voice. "We'll be discussing how it is I come in somewhere below Bucky on your list of most beautiful men in D.C."

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Tony dropped the question once he'd issued his warning, so Steve never did give him that explanation. For the best, he thought. He didn't like to discuss Bucky's recovery, the fits and starts and turns of it, with anyone but Sam and Natasha. Too much of Bucky was stretched out in files and recordings as it was; too much of his time had been spent on tables under lights and scalpels. He deserved privacy.

That, and Steve didn't know how to explain any of it. The way Buck was about food. The way Bucky was about Sam. The way Bucky was about Sam's food.

By the time he came home, Bucky was physically capable of eating. He just chose not to whenever possible. From the bits and pieces of stories they dragged out of him, Steve gathered he was out of the habit of solids and maybe even of ingesting things under his own power. But his stomach had kicked whatever they'd done to him, mostly. When he did eat, it stayed down. Which was great (in theory), because feeding him intravenously was out and there were only so many protein shakes a man could drink. (Bucky found a sewing needle in a drawer once and snapped it in half with two metal fingers before tearing out the contents of every other drawer in the house in search of more; they weren't getting a tube into his arm. And Steve had mopped protein shake off the floor more times than he cared to count, because how many shakes were 'too many' fluctuated from day to day.) It was getting him to choose to eat normal food rather than go hungry that was tough.

Until one morning Sam handed Bucky a plate of eggs scrambled with cheddar and said, "Set that on the table for me, would you? What you want to drink, man?"

Bucky set the plate on the table and got a fork, which was odd, because he didn't make a habit of going above and beyond in household duties. Steve was already eating and he kept right at it. Bucky didn't like them to notice when he altered his behavior.

Bucky speared a forkful of eggs from Sam's plate and shoved them into his mouth with the expression of someone resigned to picking up a week's worth of dirty laundry off the floor. (Not something Bucky had not done in recent memory.) He chewed, a step he often skipped, and swallowed.

"Oh," said Sam as he turned back. He handed Bucky a glass of water, which was their best bet when Bucky didn't respond to questions about what he wanted. "You want some eggs?" He sounded pleased, and Bucky recoiled.

"They're yours," he said.

"Yeah, I know, I'm saying—I'll get another plate."

Bucky shook his head. He took the water, and reached with his other hand for Sam's glass of orange juice. Sam gave it up, bemused. Bucky, who had responded to his first taste of orange juice by spitting it out on the kitchen table, and who had once poured an entire jug down the sink so that it wouldn't be in the house, took a gulp. He held it in his mouth for a second, pained, before he swallowed. Then he handed the glass back to Sam.

Steve wanted to stare at his eggs. He stared at Sam instead.

It took a second, but then Sam shrugged and drank some orange juice. "You want to share, we can share," he said, and got another fork.

Bucky didn't take another bite. Not that morning.

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By the end of the week, Sam's plate was Sam-and-Bucky's plate. Bucky still wasn't eating enough, he categorically refused any food offered to him without Sam's plate as a go-between, and he drank a lot of protein shakes. But as Sam pointed out, sharing could be a way to work himself back into the habit of normal food.

"Maybe it's less pressure, you know, if he doesn't have his own plate to clean. You pathological Depression-era boys," Sam said. He bent double, panting.

Steve walked backward in circles to cool down. It would have been a good run, except he'd been working himself up to talk to Sam about this. "I'm not sure being used to leftovers is some kind of psychological triumph. You spent five minutes yesterday taking your sister to task because she threw away a perfectly good kitchen table instead of donating it, right?"

Sam laughed in the direction of his knees, then straightened, stretched his arms above his head, and bent back in an arch. "I have never in my life taken anyone to task, but in general, okay, granted."

Steve watched his shirt ride up over the plane of his stomach. "You playing dirty?"

"I don't hear you making smart remarks anymore, so, whatever works." He made a triangle around his waist with his hands and winked. "You want to see me from the side?"

"I want to make a point before you render me incoherent, thanks."

"Point away, Cap." He crossed his arms, folding into business. Steve hated that he had to.

He forged ahead anyway. "Are you okay with it, really? With the way he—with all of it?"

"I'm not saying I'm always thrilled when I wake up in the middle of the night and there's an ex-assassin sitting on our dresser sharpening a knife he's not supposed to have, fixing me with the glare of a thousand suns, but since that's exactly what saved my life when the Hydra operative climbed our wall last month? I'm coping."

"Right, and I appreciate your ability to look at the big picture when he steals your soap and sweatshirts. I just—do you think he's a little possessive? Of you?"

Sam pulled his left arm across his chest, then his right. Steve supposed it was too long a conversation for him to object to more post-run stretching, even if Sam's biceps were wicked sirens of distraction. "I don't know," Sam said at last. "Is he the one being possessive?"

"That's not what this is about," Steve promised. "He practically smacked your hand away to be sure he got the first slice of your cantaloupe this morning. I've been shrugging it all off since he honed in on you, because you're so great at figuring out—like giving him the cactus, that was perfect, he loves that thing. Taking care of it, that's the calmest I've seen him. And you seem to like him fine—"

"Hey, of course I do. The time he put a table through the wall threw me off at first, but he's grown on me. Plus it turns out I sleep better doing four or five perimeter checks before bed myself. We're a well-suited trio."

Steve raised his eyebrows. Of the three of them, Sam was the most susceptible to insomnia, and he doubted the perimeter checks were actually doing him any favors. And he nodded, because if Sam said so. "And I'm grateful that he gets so much from you, that you give him so much, but.... I don't want you to feel disrespected."

Sam burst out laughing. Steve had about ten seconds to feel offended before Sam grabbed his face and kissed him hard on the mouth. "You," Sam said when he drew back, eyes bright and brown, "are something else." He kissed Steve again, sending tendrils of delight down the back of his neck and low into his stomach. "Something special. And if I start to feel disrespected, I'll let you know. More to the point, I'll let Bucky know. All right?"

Steve heaved a sigh and stuck his thumbs under Sam's shirt. It gave him a lot more immediate satisfaction than this conversation. "I guess that's a deal."

Sam huffed spearmint into Steve's face and stopped just short of kissing him again. "You guess, huh? That's big of you. Thanks for that concession."

"Well, I'm a big person. How do you think I snagged such a first-rate boyfriend?"

"Dumb luck," Sam suggested, so Steve fanned a thumbnail through his goatee in reverse to make him giggle ("it's not a giggle, Rogers, I am a grown-ass man") as comeuppance and kissed him before he could try any funny business back. The conversation ended on a very satisfactory note after all.

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Sam got the first explanation. Steve, bless his heart, had a hard time asking Bucky to explain himself, in the same way that little old men with frail bones had a hard time hoisting cars over their heads. Sam didn't have ninety years of Bucky-specific baggage and didn't feel that Bucky's every lapse into days of bruised silence was his personal failure, which helped when he said, "So, you think you could tell me what's going on with the food?"

Sam couldn't see Bucky's face, and didn't push his luck by turning to face him. They were watching Galaxy Quest together, so Sam was sitting on the couch and Bucky was sitting on the back of the couch, at the corner, one foot on the floor and one on the cushion. (Steve wasn't around. Steve wasn't a fan of movies about aliens.) Sam kept on watching.

"What's going on with your food, you mean," Bucky said. Eventually.

Sam dared to look over at the cactus on the windowsill (Bucky's fourth; he was experimenting with allowing the 'extras,' the ones he'd gotten after Sam gave him the first, out of his room), closer to Bucky's general vicinity. "Not really how I think of it at this point, no."

"I'll stop."

Now Sam turned to face him, because if Bucky was feeling well enough to try a pity play, he was feeling well enough to stand someone looking at him. As he'd suspected, there were downcast eyes and a hint of a pout in evidence. That worked on Steve. Steve labored under memories of a man whose face was a book that fell open to the most important page every time, who'd never needed to be any other way. Sam, not so much. (There were two expressions Bucky didn't fake—anger or fear meant it was time for Sam to beat a manly retreat and get Steve—but they were the only two so far.) "I didn't ask you to stop. I asked if you felt up to telling me, and that's all I meant. Mostly I just want to know whether you know what you're doing."

Bucky screwed his mouth over to one side and shrugged his right shoulder.

"Okay," Sam said. Onscreen, Tim Allen staggered around in his underwear, then got into a limo. The wall above the TV bore a spackled scar the length of their ex-coffee table, and Sam made a mental note to paint the room one of these days. For a while there it hadn't seemed worth it, but Bucky hadn't damaged the house in weeks.

The Thermians discovered the concept of fiction. The shaft of sunlight passed the cactus by. Bucky walked over and used one metal finger to prod the pot back into the sunshine before he said, "Remember when," and stopped, and licked his lips. Sam waited, watching him, but didn't say anything. It took a while, but Bucky continued like he hadn't left a five-minute gap between words: "I smashed Steve's dresser?"

It took Sam a second to hunt that one up. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Hey, I never said because I was worried you'd take it the wrong way, but thanks. That was a hideous damn dresser."

"Right?" Bucky turned to face him, animated in an instant. "It clashed with everything. What the hell color was that, puce?" His face folded back in on itself. "But Steve liked it. And I sort of. Broke it in half. And two hours later all the pieces were gone. Next morning there was a new one. He never mentioned it." He stared at the ball of silver fuzz that was the rebutia in sunlight, then cupped a hand. His palm slid over it like a dome, the shadow painting it pale green, and then retracted so the light turned it silver again. "You whined for two hours when I broke the microwave. Acted like you were the Second Coming when you hooked up the new one."

"Man, that was a nice microwave. Plus you're lucky you didn't electrocute yourself."

"Yeah, electrocution would've been a real first for me."

Sam, in an attempt not to laugh, snorted unbecomingly.

Bucky drummed his fingers once along the windowsill, a series of clicks so close together they became a drone. "That's why," Bucky said. "I share your food. And not Steve's. Figure you'll tell me to cut it out if it bothers you."

"That I would," Sam agreed. "It doesn't bother me, so we're clear."

"I know," Bucky said, and looked Sam in the eye and smiled large and brilliant.

Sam estimated he'd gotten maybe 15% of the actual reasoning going through Bucky's head, and a grand total of nothing about why Bucky needed to share anyone’s food to begin with, but after that smile he let it drop. (In retrospect, he would be forced to re-assess his susceptibility to Bucky Barnes being a manipulative little shit.)

Chapter Text

The second time someone commented, it was Natasha. Even at the time, this struck Steve as the best thing that had ever happened. He intended to use it against her for the rest of their natural (or unnatural, cryogenically, chemically prolonged) lives. Remember that time Tony Stark noticed an oddity in an interpersonal relationship before you did? he planned to say.

What Natasha said was, "What's up with that?" She pointed ahead of them to Bucky and Sam, walking hand in hand. (So the way he and Natasha were lagging was deliberate. Information gathering. Or, because he trusted Natasha, friendly curiosity.) He was mostly thinking about the Tony thing, though, so he looked delighted, which she misinterpreted.

"Is there something you'd like to tell me about you three?" she asked, all fluttering eyelashes.

"No. No!" Steve said. "Sam's my boyfriend, Sam's with me." (He might be a little possessive.) "Anyway Bucky's still... I think he's a long way from anything like that."

"I withdraw the question." Natasha spread her hands, innocence as a moving picture. "But I'd like to ask my first one again. Seriously, what's up with that?"

Steve sighed. "I'm not sure. But it's getting him out of the house, which is great."

Natasha watched their friends, head tilted.

Bucky was using his left hand. Since he'd started leaving the house with them, since the first time he'd grabbed Sam on the way out the door and refused to acknowledge it but also refused to let go until they got back, Bucky held Sam's hand with his prosthetic one. Steve didn't know what to make of that.

Sam turned his head and his cheek curved with a smile. He swung their hands a little in the air between them. Bucky looked in the opposite direction, scanning roofs and windows, and let him. Natasha made a strange sound.

"What?" Steve said.

"I had nightmares about that guy," she said, and Steve's gut twisted. "For a year after Odessa." She saw his face and shook her head. "I'm over it. The point is, the entire time I was a spy, he was the intelligence community's bogeyman. Now I'm watching him hold hands."

Steve put an arm over her shoulders, telegraphing his movements. She leaned into him, eyes bright, and Steve dismissed the suspicion that she'd do that before she'd stop to think whether or not she wanted to. He trusted her with her feelings, and he trusted Bucky with his. "What a wonderful world," he said, smiling down at her.

"That's sure one word for it," she said.

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Grocery shopping was a big deal in their household. It involved amounts of food large enough for soldier appetites (Sam plus a super soldier and a half, at this point, and hope sprang eternal that Bucky would start eating his fair share) and transportation for said amounts of food. It involved choosing food without disgusting anyone, which was an art form. (Steve would, because he was a hero, buy Sam's precious Brussels sprouts, but he wasn't happy about it. Frying them with bacon didn't make them any less offensive, despite Sam's wrongheaded notions on the subject.)

Steve volunteered to head a party when he realized that they had no coffee or orange juice in the kitchen, and further realized that they hadn't in a few days. Sam was drinking a hell of a lot of tea and cranberry juice, considering Bucky was the one who preferred them.

"Anyone want to come with me?" he asked, radiating good cheer.

Bucky tucked himself tighter into the kitchen chair he'd dragged into the living room.

"Sure thing," said Sam, and dropped his book onto the couch. "I don't trust you with my Brussels sprouts."

"Fine," said Bucky, and dragged himself upright. "I'm not showering."

"How about some jeans?" Steve said, by way of a compromise.

Bucky considered where this fell in relation to his line in the sand and nodded. "I'm taking yours," he told Steve, and headed to Steve and Sam's room. The cuffs of the sweatpants he had on dragged slightly at his heels.

"Aren't those my... never mind," said Steve.

Sam stifled a chuckle in Steve's shoulder. "Hey, he's graduated from only stealing my stuff," he said. His voice, pitched low, rumbled through Steve's collarbone and the whiskers on his chin slid through the material of Steve's shirt.

"I can hear you," shouted Bucky before Steve had a chance to be too distracted. His hearing was nothing short of miraculous.

"Okay," called Steve. "You look great in my pants, Buck. We’re glad you’re getting more comfortable. Help yourself."

He thought about standing on Sam's right as they left the house, just to see what Bucky would do, but backed out. Shopping wasn't Bucky's favorite activity, but he was going along and wearing real pants. That was enough pressure. Instead, Steve took longer than he needed to lock the door, and behind his back Bucky's hand whirred and ticked into place around Sam's.

Steve went to Sam's left.

They used a mom-and-pop store when Bucky went with them. It was harder to buy the amount they preferred, but the lack of distant voices, glaring lights, and gleaming aisles more than made up for that. (Plus, if they needed something in bulk right then, Steve wasn't above asking for it. For Captain America, Mrs. Lopez usually found an extra sack of flour in the back.)

They walked in and Steve said, "What do we need?"

"We don't even have a list?" Sam shook his head. "This is a travesty right here. My dad would flick my ear so hard. Worse than shopping hungry, shopping with no meal plan and no list."

Steve, who could have moved his mouth along to this speech, grinned. "Sorry."

"Nah, Steve's got a plan all right," Bucky said. "Haven't you heard?"

"If you start singing that song in public," Steve said, "I'm marching right over to the baking aisle and getting the ingredients for brownies."

"Truce," Bucky said, much too fervently.

"Natasha likes my brownies."

"Natasha eats your brownies. Kinda think it's self-flagellation on her part."

"You two." Sam shook his head and started for the produce, Bucky in tow. "Fine, so I'll make salad if you guys make that funky French thing."

Steve followed, tugging the cart. "I'm game if Bucky is."

"Okay," Bucky said instantly, so either he was sure he was up to it or he hadn't been listening to the question.

Sam prodded an apple. "Tell you what, you start in on the vegetables. I'm feeling fancy. Gonna cut up some fruit on this salad." He shook his head. "We should be shopping for the week, not a meal. A travesty."

"Cross my heart, I'll write everything down in your little planner next time." Steve bit back laughter. He always meant to, it was just more fun to hear Sam gristle about it.

Bucky made a face. "I wasn't brought up for this. Pretty sure the extent of my ma's meal plan was 'you kids want more food already?'"

"Yeah, it was," said Steve, and turned to choose carrots and celery and garlic because he wasn't going to overreact. At least he wasn't going to let Bucky see him overreact.

"Don't get weepy," Bucky snapped, abruptly scornful. Steve shook his head and resolved to grab another cactus from the gardening section by way of apology. ('Overreacting' was having any reaction at all.)

"Catch," said Sam, and from the corner of his eye Steve watched him toss apples over his shoulder. Bucky obliged and placed them in the cart with the exaggerated care that had become his habit since he got distracted and crushed a pear to pulp in public.

Sure of his voice now, Steve announced, "I'm going to get beef for our funky French thing. And orange juice and coffee."

"Hey, yeah!" Sam lit up like this was a spectacular idea he happened not to have had on recent shopping runs. Bucky grimaced.

"I'm not getting brownie fixings," Steve said.

"You already weren't. I should have gone ahead. Sung your song."

"But I am getting cocoa so we can have hot chocolate," Steve amended. He tried not to be too quick about it. It was just that Bucky sometimes locked up when he felt he'd been tricked.

Sam groaned. "Or I could give up my orange juice and we don't drink hot chocolate."

"Nah, I like Steve's plan better."

"Don't you sing it." Steve reached over and tapped Bucky's arm with his fist. Slowly. Bucky let him.

A woman in a yellow hoodie walked by and gave them a second glance. Bucky's lips peeled back from his teeth.

"You guys want peaches? I want peaches." Sam threw two peaches in rapid succession. Bucky caught them both by doing something complex with his fingers and, when Sam laughed, leveled a spectacularly unimpressed expression his way. All without letting go of Sam's hand.

Fine, Steve told himself. They're adorable and I'm the luckiest guy in the world. He could still want to know where this was coming from.

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Sam turned the crossword upside down, which didn’t help but gave him a new perspective from which to be baffled. “Twelve letters,” he said, “last letter K, means double-talk.”

“Don’t tell him,” said Bucky. “It’s cheating.”

“That man doesn’t know how a crossword works. It’s cheating to look it up in the dictionary or online. What I’m doing is outsourcing. Pooling my resources.” He prodded Steve’s support beam of a thigh with his foot. “Give it up, Rogers.”

Steve buried his nose in his Sudoku. “Why do either of you think I would know the answer to that?”

Sam folded the crossword out of his way in order to glare more effectively. Sprawled on the couch with his feet in his boyfriend’s lap might not be his most intimidating position, but he could work with it. “You know what I don’t hear? I don’t hear ‘I, Steve Rogers, have absolutely no idea what a twelve-letter word ending in K that means double-talk is.’ What I hear is ‘I, Steve Rogers, am dodging the question because I’m jealous of Sam’s incredible success rate at crossword puzzles and I, Steve Rogers, am willing to sabotage him in his hour of greatest need.’”

“That’s ridiculous.” Steve lifted his chin and sat very straight and, in general, looked so righteous that he was definitely guilty. “In fact, it’s paranoid. I’m worried about you. Anyway if Bucky thinks I know, it’s probably because he knows.”

“Nope.” Bucky, Sam could see when he craned his neck, was settling another cactus into its new home. He’d decided to let the one Steve got him earlier and two of the older ones try living in the same pot, a ceramic thing he’d found in the garage. (And that was exactly how he talked about them, "let them try living together," like they were animals that might not get along.) The pot was thirty inches across and weighed about a ton before the soil, but that, Sam supposed, was one of the perks of living with super soldiers. If one undertook a massive gardening project in your living room, he could sure as hell move it out again.

“Nope, you don’t know, or nope, you’re not telling me?”

“Nope, I have faith in you. Figure it out.”

“Trade you the answer for vacuum duties.” Sam tapped the paper on the floor, which over by Bucky’s project couldn’t quite have supported plant life but was coming up on it.

Steve had made the fatal mistake of holding his Sudoku too low. “Top row is 974618523,” said Bucky.

Steve groaned but filled it in.

“See, this is why I’m paranoid. You’re on a stealth mission to beat Steve to the finish line of his puzzles, and I’m out in the cold over here, can’t beg my way to so much as a hint.”

“We have faith in you,” echoed Steve, and smirked with all the maturity of a kid tagging into his big brother's game of I'm-not-touching-you.

“You have concerning levels of perversity, is what you have. You think you're worried, what about me?”

Bucky lifted the last cactus in, thumb and ring finger in a circle around its base, and balanced it with his pointer while he scooped dirt in with his right hand. “I’m calling this one Steve,” he said.

“Really?” Steve sounded like Bucky had announced the name as that of his first-born and Bucky nodded without making any unpleasant faces, so Sam figured this was pax after the grocery store tiff, thank God. That could have taken days.

Sam re-applied himself, flipped around to put his head in Steve’s lap (his dad had sworn by changed physical perspective for solving mental problems, and this was as much effort as he was willing to put in), and got a few of the Os into the word before he realized. “This is bullshit,” he announced. “Double-talk isn’t even what gobbledygook means.”

“Sure it is. What else would it mean?”

“It means—it means nonsense. Double-talk means someone’s trying to put one over on you; gobbledygook means they don’t know any better. Like those poor SOBs in research who could whip up UDMH in their sleep but couldn't tell you what the letters stand for. That was a terrible clue.”

Steve considered this and didn’t pay attention to where he held his Sudoku.

“Third column,” said Bucky, "416823975," and Steve swore.

“I’m going to get us a card game together one of these days,” said Sam. “Just to watch you two devolve into straight-up name calling.”

“No need if Steve can’t hold his cards right.” Bucky was pouring sand over impeccably measured and mixed soil and plant food. The twenty-pound bag couldn’t have been a strain, but he glared at it like it was.

“You know I can hold—” Steve bit that back because Bucky might not know. Sam reached up to trace the vein on the inside of Steve's wrist with two fingers, back and forth. “I’m not supposed to have to hide a brain teaser!”

“What a world,” Bucky said without sympathy, and set the bag of sand down. The five-second job took him fifteen, he put so much concentration into it.

Sam kept up his pace on Steve’s wrist. “You all right?”

“Yeah.” It came too fast. He stood, shedding sand from his trousers. “I’m gonna check on the stew.”

“Are you,” said Steve, but he was gone.

“He’ll let us know,” Sam said. Steve snorted. “Well, we give him more than point two seconds to work his way up to letting us know.”

“I can hear you,” Bucky shouted.

"Cover your super ears," Sam suggested.

"Or just tell us." Even from below, Steve looked very satisfied with himself. It was all in the jaw.

Bucky stomped back in, which was to say Sam heard him coming. There were audible footfalls involved. Sam sat up, only a little bit in case a piece of furniture got thrown.

"I'm putting that in the study," Bucky said, and jabbed a finger at the new cactus commune.

"Hey, that's—!" Steve started, and remembered to temper his enthusiasm. "That's a good idea, Buck. You want help?" The study was on the second floor and featured floor-to-ceiling windows. Bucky had been in it maybe twice.

Bucky shrugged, face pinched. "I need your phone after."

"Of course." Steve pointed it out on the coffee table.

"Why, what's up?" said Sam when Steve a) didn't ask, and b) almost imploded with the force required to not ask.

"I need to see Jane," Bucky spat, and stalked back out.

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The second explanation, Steve got over the supper fixings. Dernier had taught them to make hachis Parmentier, or at least a version of it, and Bucky's procedural memory was his strongest.

"That's not how you chop beef," he said.

"You just want the knife," Steve said, but set it down. He moved over to strain the broth in which the beef had spent all day stewing. "You know, one of the first things I told Sam I liked about this century was food that's not boiled, but here we are."

"You get homesick," Bucky said. Steve was reasonably sure he was watching for where the beef stopped and his fingers began. "Trend-chaser."

Steve laughed, only a little painfully, and opened the cupboard over the stove. "That's me. Where's the big skillet?"

"Whatever you're not saying," the knife smacked louder against the board, "would you just. Say it." Steve didn't get a chance to respond before he ground out, "If it's my arm, it's slow is all. Nothing dangerous."

The skillet was right where it always was. Steve dripped olive oil into the bottom and hung his head. "Yeah, sorry. Sure." The oil sat in a puddle in the center. He'd used too much. "It's not your arm, as long as it's not hurting you I'm not worried." He didn't look over his shoulder. "Is it? Hurting you?"

"More than normal?"

He gave up on not looking and jerked around. "You told us—"

"Kidding." Bucky shrugged, the movement easy on both sides. "Not a twinge."

Steve took a breath and held it. He used to be able to tell when Bucky was joking. Of course Bucky used to joke differently. It had been a whole performance, an act Bucky didn't want anyone to deprive themselves of. And. Bucky used not to joke about things he knew made Steve queasy. "Good, that's good," though, was all Steve said. "Then I'm sure Dr. Foster will fix it. Actually, I wanted to ask.... You're pretty glued to Sam when we go out. And it's fine! I just wondered why." He tilted the skillet and watched the oil run gold-over-black in thick prongs.

"Warm that up," Bucky said. "Or it's not going to cover the pan."

Steve looked over. Bucky was rocking the knife through the meat more than slamming it down. "Right. Thanks." He turned on the stove.

"When we were in the store today," Bucky said, "I figured out maybe... eighty-four ways to kill Sam. Depends how you count the blunt force ones. He's a lot squishier than we are. If they even killed him. They could take him instead. They got both of us. They might want him next."

Steve swallowed. It hurt. He leaned back against the stove and folded his arms over his stomach. "Bucky, uh. When you started eating Sam's food."

"I can identify one hundred six poisons by changes they cause to taste and texture." He was still chopping. "And those are just the ones I remember now. Bet more’d come back if I tasted them." He glanced sidelong at Steve and set the knife down, then closed his metal fist and reached out until it rested against Steve's arm. He left it there, pressing, cool and ridged. "They won't kill me."

"Bucky," Steve said.

"I know you won't let anything happen to us," he said. "I know Sam can take care of himself. Just. Redundant precautions."

"I get it." Steve put his hand against Bucky's fist but didn't close his fingers. "I do."

"I know you do." Bucky undid his fingers and they clicked up and down their length. He chucked Steve's chin. "You're a swell guy."

Steve grinned. It hurt, too, but he meant it. "Are you making fun of me?"

"You bet I am. You're burning the oil."

"Damn it," Steve said, and turned back to the skillet.

Bucky orchestrated the rest of the preparations such that he also got to chop the potatoes, so they both got what they wanted out of the experience.

Chapter Text

The third person who commented was Dr. Jane Foster. That was inevitable; she was the only one Bucky let work on his arm.

"This is so unethical," she said. She said it every time. "I'm not this kind of doctor."

Sam took his thumbnail out of his mouth. He never actually bit it, but Steve had seen him aggressively not bite it for fifteen minutes straight once. "I feel like you've earned an honorary degree." He hopped onto the arm of the couch and perched facing Bucky and Jane.

Steve flinched, but for no real reason as movement wasn't the problem. (Bucky wouldn't say what the problem was, which made things difficult, but he hadn't hurt Jane yet; they were ahead so far.) Steve was stock-still and probably making Bucky more nervous than Sam was, with his looming. He took a step away and forced his hands loose. "I could get some university to issue you one, I bet," he offered. "It's amazing the outlandish stuff people will do if Captain America asks them."

"I believe that, and it's sweet of you, but I'd prefer that my chapter in the history books not mention that I got a degree in bioengineering as part of a list of bizarre things Steve Rogers asked for to see what would happen." Jane yelped and jerked a tool like a stick bug from the innards of Bucky's arm. "Sorry, sorry, did you feel that?"

Bucky wrinkled his nose. "It registered."

"I'm so sorry. Okay." She sat back and stared at him for a second. "So, um. James." Her smile was fleeting. "I have some not-great news. This here is the controller for your arm. Right?” She tapped the underside of his bicep where hundreds of hair-thin wires met a box. It was easy to see; he'd twisted his arm upside-down along the back of the couch at an angle that didn't bother him but was making Steve uncomfortable. Steve bit his cheek and didn’t glare at the box. It looked menacing, like it might self-destruct out of maliciousness.

"The wires that come out of it and go into the rest of your arm," Jane continued after Bucky responded by looking in approximately the direction she’d pointed, “they transfer your neural impulses from the controller to your arm, and the wires that go this way, into your body.” She swallowed. “They’re the ones that lead to your nerves so that the controller gets those impulses to begin with. If we were doing it now we'd re-route the nerves and the wires to your pectorals and there would be electrodes as go-betweens and—Hydra just sort of stuck everything together with metaphorical putty and string. It's...." She sighed. "If you let Tony build you a new one—"

"No."

"All right! But the thing is, it turns out the controller's shell is corroding the wires. I don’t even know what it’s made of but it's… nasty stuff. It’s going slowly, but the lag in response time you told me about, it's going to get worse as the wires degrade. I assume it's deliberate, you know, to sabotage prolonged absence from... anyway.” She tucked her hair against her neck with both hands and waited for Bucky to meet her eyes. "We should replace this whole system."

Bucky looked at Steve. "No," he said. "No surgery."

"We won't." Steve stepped back in. It'd be nice to think he could physically remove the threat of anesthesia and scalpels. Sam raised his eyebrows. Steve remembered every talk they'd had about unrealistic promises but said, "Dr. Foster? We'll figure something else out."

"Yeah, there are other—there's another thing we can do, I just don't think you're going to love the temporary fix, either." She dropped her hands to her lap, shoulders sloping. "I can have Tony make a new case for the controller and a sheath for the wires. It would compensate for the damage that's happened so far and extend their shelf life for... not forever, but a long time."

"So do that." Bucky had gone pale and he was still staring at Steve. "That doesn't sound so bad."

"No, it's not, it won't hurt, it's really not a huge deal, in and of itself," Jane rushed. "Totally arm-related, no surgery. It's just that, you know, this is the controller. It... controls everything. There'll be a few seconds there while I hook it up to the new shell where it won't work. So your arm will be, um. Sort of off. Just for a few minutes.”

Sam leaned in and touched Bucky's right arm. Bucky scowled and shook him off, but his eyes lost their glassy sheen. Still he glared into the middle distance without responding.

"James," Jane said. "Not today. Okay? I can't do anything about it right this second. You've got time to decide."

Bucky stared at her for a while, but she was used to that. Finally he nodded.

"Right. Okay. Good! I'm just going to... close this up for now." She started screwing things back in place. "Hey, but, you noticed something was up and asked to see me, though, that's terrific!" Her head snapped up, expression mortified. "Oh, I didn't mean—I know I'm the arm doctor. I'm not prying. It just sounds like that means you're doing better. Which isn't my business. Never mind."

"It's fine," Bucky said. "Thanks. For doing this. And talking to me while you do it."

"Yeah, totally, no problem, I can't actually stop talking, so it's not that tough for me."

Steve walked Jane to the door in order to thank her himself. Halfway through their goodbyes she looked past him and said, "Wow, he really is doing better."

Steve glanced over his shoulder, and yes, that was new. Bucky had collapsed against Sam in what would have been, had he used either arm, a hug. Instead both hands were limp at his sides. Sam had locked his arms around Bucky's back and was swaying a little under the weight of him.

"I mean, good," Jane said. "Captain, I'm really sorry. I wish I didn't have to keep giving him bad news and band-aids."

Steve's smile stretched too tight and snapped. "I know how you feel," he said.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

The procedure wasn't bad. Bucky grabbed Steve's wrist near the beginning and Steve ended up without feeling in any of his fingers. But he stayed—present—which was better than Steve had expected. Afterward, Bucky spent about three hours moving his fingers, crushing things, and at one memorable point, juggling remote controls. When he was satisfied he'd regained full control, he celebrated by hugging Sam. Not picking Sam up and spinning him around. But. It looked like a near thing.

Sam was the one who'd talked him into it, or maybe calmed him down about it. Bucky came over bloodless on the idea of turning his arm off, but he did the same over the idea of his control of it slipping, so it was hard to say when he'd decided which bullet to bite.

The evening after Dr. Foster broke the news, dinner had been… subdued. Bucky used his right hand to fidget with silverware and didn't eat. Finally Sam had said, "I ever tell you guys about the time—the times—my wings shut off while I was in the air?"

Steve had a very small emotional breakdown. "What?" he said, at the same time and in the same tone as Bucky.

Sam grinned. "Well, look at that. I take it the floor is mine?" He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. "First time, it must have been... '06? Huh, maybe '07. See, now it was summer, I remember because the cicadas were insane that year and I was sweating bullets a couple thousand feet up, but," he whistled, "I had the schedule engraved on my brain, I could still tell you—04:45 reveille, 08:00 drills, 17:00 and finally some damn dinner—but what are dates when you're in training, by which I mean suspended in eternity—"

"Sam," said Steve.

"Ninety-seven and the patience of a teenager. Shameful. You wait and see whether I get you anything for your hundredth birthday."

"I'm not the one telling stories like a grandpa does! Do you happen to remember whether it was on a Tuesday? Maybe you had pie for dessert that night?"

"I'm going to need zero participation from the peanut gallery, or you're not getting this story at all." Sam lorded this over them for a few seconds before resuming. "Anyway, it was part of training with the wings. We had to be ready in case they got knocked out, had to be able to take the fall, reboot if we could, regain control. And if that didn't work, abort and go for the parachute in time. It's a lot to think about with the wind shaking you upside down and a banshee in your ears." He paused. Steve wanted to think it was about teasing them, about drawing the story out. Sam kept smiling but the lines around his mouth had changed. "We'd spent five weeks in freefall training, but it's... one thing to jump out of a plane in that mindset, you know, ready to just control your fall. Different when you're up there on your own power and then you lose it. A lot of guys dropped out after one go at that trial."

"Are you," said Steve, and stopped.

Sam shook his head. He'd stopped smiling. "Only way to trust yourself to stay up there is to make every square inch yours, including the wings. Especially the wings. You make—and the wings make, they've got all these damn sensors—these adjustments to the currents every second. They cut out and you're not adjusting, you're not going with anything, you're just getting pummeled." He shrugged. "So, you know. I did it in training, over and over. I got so it didn't bother me." Pride propped his voice up. "Only had to use the parachute once." He took a bite of salad and tapped the tines of his fork against the plate while he chewed. They dinged just slightly out of sync. "Then it happened overseas. Just the one time. No warning, no control, bullets making damn patterns on their way by me. Not much of a comparison." He laughed, sudden and genuine. "I lost it. Didn't reboot, didn't deploy the parachute, didn't do squat. All I could think about was the wings snapping around like scrap metal, how a second ago they were part of me and now they didn't even matter."

"That's funny?" Bucky looked at Steve. "Is that funny?"

"Uh," said Steve.

"See, they didn't matter, is the thing," said Sam. "Riley caught me." He met Steve's eyes for half a second and then broke away, face full of smiles and arched eyebrows. "I don't know," he said piously, "just some food for thought. Lord knows what made me think of it. One of you super beings want to pass me the vinegar?"

"Fine," said Bucky.

He'd texted Jane the next day to give the go-ahead. (Steve knew when Bucky sent texts because Bucky refused to get a phone, and used Steve's instead. He rarely deleted the messages he sent. Whether this was a lapse in paranoia or a trust exercise, Steve didn't feel up to sussing out.)

Now his arm was back to full functionality, Sam got a hug, and to top it off Bucky (who normally could just about cope with the two of them and Natasha socially) said, "We should have Jane over, right? To... eat. Or something. So she doesn't think we just use her for her brain."

Steve grinned until Sam poked him in the ribs and started a fight that gave Steve an admittedly thin pretext to literally pick him up and spin him around. And get kicked in the shins, but all's fair.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

For a few nights after Sam’s story, and even for another after Jane fixed Bucky’s arm, Steve thought Sam had gotten away with it. Dragged out Afghanistan and Riley and then folded them away again with their creases still sharp. By the fourth night he knew that wasn’t true.

“You don’t gotta pretend,” he said, voice clumsy with sleep. He buried his nose in the back of Sam’s neck and heaved an arm across his side. “You can get up if you want.”

“Well, I can’t now, truth be told, because this weighs a ton.” Sam laid his fingers over Steve’s and then between them.

“I’ll move. Any second. You wanna go watch infomercials?”

“Nah. You know your bat-eared asshole best friend can hear the TV set? And I’m not talking about the volume. He can hear that it’s turned on. He says it rings.”

“Probably because of that time he pushed it off the table instead of using the power button.” He felt so warm. He ran hot now and it had taken him years to get used to—still bothered him sometimes—but it was different to be warm like this, under too-thick covers on a too-soft bed with Sam just right beside him. It was his favorite feeling. “I’ll buy you a new TV. How about classical music?”

“I might take you up on that one. The music, not the TV. If you ever move your arm.”

“Any second,” Steve repeated. Sam’s shoulder blades shifted against his chest and his abdomen rippled under Steve’s hand. Steve nuzzled into the back of his neck, into the seam of his shoulder where the skin was tender. “You know how handsome you are?” he said and was instantly embarrassed.

Sam laughed, which banished the embarrassment. “You can’t even see me.”

“Can too.” Steve kissed his shoulder, as wetly and obnoxiously as possible. “Okay, here.” He hauled his arm off and rolled onto his back. The bedroom air struck his face cold and scentless after being so close to Sam.

“My hero.” Sam kissed his forehead, an instant of warmth and peppermint and sandalwood, and then he was gone again. “I’ll be back when Camille gets tired of me.”

“Hey, no—” He sat up. “I’m coming too.”

“Steve, go back to sleep.”

“I will. If it takes too long I’ll just drop off on the couch, you know I will.” He shoved the blankets back and stood. “Let me—let me, all right?”

Sam shook his head, but only in surrender. “You’re pretty good-looking yourself,” he said, and slid an arm across Steve’s back to clasp his shoulder, tugging him along to the stairs. “For a guy who won’t put his socks away.”

“At least I don’t organize them by color. I’m messy, but that’s bizarre.”

“That was an accident,” Sam announced with a look Steve imagined was meant to be quelling. It was a tough one to pull off with those brilliant brown eyes. He pushed Steve toward the couch. “I only have three colors of socks! And if you keep bringing it up, it’s going to accidentally happen to your drawer and Natasha’s going to get a picture of it.”

“Have you ever fought fair? In your life?”

“Listen, Rogers, you came with a trump card attached and that shit is not my fault.” He dropped a CD into the player and started skipping tracks. The CD player took the prize as their most unbroken piece of tech, since Sam was the only one who used it. They’d gone through three radios before they realized Bucky wasn’t upset, just destroying them in lieu of turning them off. (And another since then because Bucky didn’t trust that the radios weren’t transmitting both ways, but the point stood.)

Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” wavered from the speakers. Steve stepped in behind Sam and folded his arms around him again, fitted against him so Sam could drift off standing up if he wanted. “I came with a lot of stuff attached,” he said, voice lower even than the music. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want—I’m grateful. But I didn’t want you to have to do stuff like this on our account.”

“Yeah?” Sam hummed and leaned into him, muscles wound nowhere near relaxation yet but his head lolling against Steve’s shoulder. “We should have gotten a duplex maybe? You’d split your days, and I’d never know about the time he threw you out a window and he’d never know the upper human limits of how badly I can burn breakfast when I don’t get a real night’s sleep in a week?”

Steve laughed into Sam’s temple and rocked side to side with the music. “That was pretty foul. You’re lucky we put up with you.” Sam swayed with him and it felt like a gift to be able to do this. To be big enough to hold someone.

“Yeah, and all my stuff’s here. Probably wouldn’t have moved it for you two assholes.” Sam’s hand curled around the back of Steve’s neck, the pads of his fingers firm through his hair. “I knew what I was doing. I’m glad I did it. Okay?”

“Okay.” He brushed his hand over Sam’s eyes and eyelashes swept his palm like moth wings.

It didn’t help, probably. They were still there at 03:00 when Bucky passed them on a perimeter check (or did a perimeter check in order to pass them) and at 03:15 when he came back in and coiled into his relocated kitchen chair. Sometime after four Steve fell asleep on the couch and Sam was still listening to imaginary fish on repeat. But the next morning Sam slept in and woke calm, and Steve made breakfast without burning anything, and it felt like a good omen.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

Sam got the third explanation, because he wanted to be able to look out the damn windows in the study. They were the only windows in the house big enough that Sam could phase the frames out of his peripheral vision and just—look. There was no question Bucky was doing better, and his newfound comfort in the study was part of that. It delighted Sam to see. Mostly. Except.

"Morning," he grunted through a bone-clamp of a hug, his view of the sky obscured by six feet of super soldier.

Bucky, who could have used a shower, nodded his dear greasy head against Sam's cheek.

Sam levered an arm free and set his mug of coffee on the desk, congratulating himself on not spilling it this time. And on not collapsing once yet. He’d seen Bucky make some dazzling calculations about height, angle, and weight in the field, but his policy at home seemed to be that Sam’s unenhanced self should be more than equal to the oncoming pounce. “How’s it going?”

Bucky made a sound that wasn’t as disdainful as it could have been.

“Hey, cool. I’m doing well myself. How do you think Plant Steve and the Cacti are feeling?”

Bucky broke away to check on them, poking at sand and soil with a flesh finger. “Not dead.” He crouched and rotated the pot until the cactus farthest from the window was the cactus nearest to the window. It also put him, and the pot, more squarely between Sam and the window as a whole. “Or sunburned. You know they can get sunburned? Fuckin’ cactus gets a sunburn.” He shook his head at this perversity and fitted his hand to the cactus known as Steve. It was a near-perfect match; Steve looked like a mitten. “You don’t have to call it Steve. That just shut him up.” He took his hand away and pointed at Sam’s coffee, raising an imperious eyebrow.

“Man, we need to work on your social skills, because one of these days you’re gonna do that thing where you snap your fingers when you want something, but to Natasha. Likely to get your arm broken.” He handed the coffee over, though. He shouldn’t be drinking it to begin with, the trouble he’d been having getting to sleep.

Bucky made a face that probably indicated trust in his own ability to keep his arm unbroken regardless of Natasha’s stance on manners, and took a gulp of coffee. He did that thing where he held it in his mouth despite the distaste in his expression, then handed the mug back. “I’ll ask nice if you switch back to tea.”

“Uh-huh.” Sam gathered, from Steve’s reactions, that Bucky used to pound coffee down like any other self-respecting American soldier in the 1940s. But if the man preferred tea now, that wasn’t the worst possible change. More importantly—

Sam stepped back and hitched himself up to sit on the desk. It put him off to Bucky’s right. Bucky had turned to test cactus spines against his thumb. He shifted his weight in the same direction without looking up.

“I like calling it Steve. I think the daisy-looking one should be Sam. ’Course I also think you wouldn’t have to make incredibly indirect apologies if you didn’t yell at him every time he’s happy for you, but what do I know.”

“It’s a star cactus. It can be Sam if you don't tell Natasha they have names.” Bucky bent his fingers around its ribs. “It’s gonna lose the daisy soon. They’ll go to sleep for the winter. I’ll have to stop feeding them.”

“Hey, cool. Hopefully Plant Sam is better at sleeping when it’s supposed to.” He leaned to the far edge of the desk to grab a pencil. Bucky’s boots (it was seven in the morning, Sam was barefoot, of course Bucky had combat boots on) creaked as he compensated for the new angle. “Okay, so you’re waiting for me to get shot at, am I right?”

Bucky jerked to his feet quickly enough to put the lie to any relaxation implicit in his crouch. “What’d Steve say?”

“So that’s a yes.” When Bucky looked brutally betrayed, he shook his head. “He didn’t tell me anything. I just figure it’s the exact kind of thing you’d admit to if he asked. And the exact kind of thing he’d back off if you told him.” He scrubbed a hand across his jaw. “Man, the two of you. Look, you get that you being shot isn’t preferable to me being shot?”

“I wouldn’t get shot. I’d block it.” He swung his arm in an illustrative arc. Sam winced, but he missed the window.

“Sure, okay, but it’s not your—”

"You come in here every morning.” Bucky’s tone hovered near accusation.

“I do, yeah.” He rallied; just because Bucky didn’t believe in sticking to one topic of conversation didn’t mean Sam had to play along every time. “We need to talk about—”

“I want to see you in the morning.” He stalked over to stand right in front of Sam. He was usually careful not to loom over people. Lately, if they’d been this close, it was because they were hugging. It was different when Sam could see his face and his expression was waging war with itself. “You can both stop flipping your fucking lids when I remember things. I remember plenty. I remember Steve. Times and places he wasn’t I remember him. If I’m not sure where I am. He doesn’t. He could be anywhere.”

“But I couldn’t,” Sam said.

“You’re only here.”

A couple of the Steve-and-Bucky related broken pieces of Sam’s heart cracked some more. “Aw, man,” he said, and stood back up. “Get in here.”

“If you have to look out the window,” Bucky said, and prodded him around to face that way before grabbing him from behind. It was still a little like standing underneath a collapsing building and trying to hold the roof up, but Sam dug his heels in and leaned his full weight back while Bucky split his between leaning forward and pulling Sam in, and Sam figured he could manage. A few minutes later he adjusted that to ‘definitely.’ The balancing act wasn’t so different from navigating air currents. And as long as the plates didn’t shift and pinch him, the metal arm was a good solid weight across his chest, sort of comforting, apart from its vaunted Kevlar-like abilities. Both of his super soldiers gave great hugs.

Chapter Text

The fourth time someone commented, it was Nick Fury. Because that was Steve’s life.

It could have been a lot worse. Every time Steve told Bucky that what he’d had volunteered for wasn't the same as what had happened to Bucky, he seemed on board. And every time he brought the subject up himself, Steve had just spent longer asleep and had better handlers in Fury and Phillips. Add to that the fact that Fury had been one of his last targets, and the man showing up unannounced could have ended brutally.

But no. And this was better, it was just. Steve felt unprepared to explain to former director Fury why the former Winter Soldier was sitting on Steve's boyfriend's lap.

Because the universe hadn't made a habit of arranging things to suit Steve, Fury slipped inside the second Steve opened the door, practically before Steve recognized him. He respected the need for disguises, but the man was wearing a white polo shirt and a fedora with a little feather in it. Steve tried not to let that slow him down when he said, "Sorry about this, sir," grabbed him bodily, and moved him into the corner near the door where Steve could stay in front of him.

Sam was up and crouched in response to the flurry of movement when he recognized Fury and relaxed. "Hey," he said, "how you doing?"

"That remains to be seen," said Fury.

Steve huffed and kept an arm over Fury's chest. "I said I was sorry. Sam, could you maybe...?"

"Oh, shit, right. Hey, Bucky! You want to come out here and stay real calm for us?"

Bucky emerged from tending the cactus garden in his room (he had about ten of them just in there by this point) and saw Fury. It took him a second too, in Steve's defense. Then he realized and his chin dropped and his teeth clenched and his hands came up. In general, it looked like it was going to be bad. Steve's stomach dropped. "Hey, no," he said, trying to anticipate which of the household items in arm’s reach were about to be used as projectile weapons, "Buck, it's fine, he just wants to talk."

"That's all he has to do," said Bucky. Sand dropped from his flesh fingers when he curled them. Sam stepped closer to him, though not between him and Steve, not while he still might start something. That was the rule. The rule of thumb, Sam called it when he broke it.

"Fury, why are you here?" said Steve, and really hoped that if it was to recruit him for a mission then he wasn't feeling honest.

"I'd like to talk to you about some of Natasha's information and add some I got on my own." Fury's response came drumbeat-quick, an impatient staccato. Being penned in by one super soldier while another decided whether or not to tear down the house to get to him was a minor hiccup in his day, Steve imagined. "I understand you've had some trouble recently. Having this conversation now would help you avoid trouble in the future. Hydra’s trying to establish a base in Fairfax."

Bucky stepped forward, but not in Fury's direction so much as Sam's, which was hopeful. "If he tells you to go somewhere. Will you?"

"He's not my boss anymore," said Steve.

Bucky nodded and grabbed a handful of Sam's shirt over his stomach. "Or you?"

Sam shrugged and picked Bucky's fingers loose before his shirt could rip. "He's never been my boss."

"Fine." Bucky gave up the battle over Sam's shirt. His shoulders settled back and down, out of their pre-murder hunch. "Sit down.”

"Sure," Steve said, "yeah, that’d be the polite thing." As long as it didn’t end with Nick Fury shooting his friend it was a good idea from where he was standing. Sam was closest to the couch, so Sam sat down first. Bucky dropped into his lap.

Steve stopped.

"Huh," said Sam, and craned to peer over Bucky's shoulder. "We doing this?"

Bucky leaned back and only slightly sideways. It didn't grant Sam much of a view. "We are," he said, unruffled.

Sam bent forward to hide his face against Bucky's back and his shoulders shook a few times, so apparently Sam was fine with it. Bucky looked as serene about Sam laughing as he was about sitting in his lap in the first place. So.

"I'm going to," said Steve. "Uh. How about some tea? Coffee? Anyone else want some?

"I'd kill for a cup of coffee," said Fury, "figuratively speaking. Why don't I help you with that."

"Thanks, that'd be swell," said Steve, and beat a full-on retreat to the kitchen. He turned the electric kettle up, poured coffee from the pot, and tried to head things off at the pass. "You're probably wondering how Bucky ended up here."

"No," said Fury. "I worked that one out on my own. This world, there's not a lot I have faith in, but you and Wilson on a mission to recover a long-lost friend? I figured I could count on you finding him."

"Oh," said Steve, and then, "Thanks. You want sugar?"

"I want," said Fury, "to know why the Winter Soldier is sitting on Sam Wilson's lap. Rogers, he doesn't even fit there."

Steve found he'd rather extrapolate from what he did know than admit that he was just as surprised as Fury. "There's a way in which this is your fault," he said.

"I'm listening. And I don't take sugar." His tone suggested that sugar was for lesser men.

Steve shrugged and heaped it into his own mug. "Your being here sets him on edge. You have to admit, you'd have a hard time shooting Sam past him."

"What I admit is that Wilson probably has a hard time breathing past him." Fury accepted the mug Steve handed over and sipped from it without waiting for it to cool.

"Careful. You didn't even check to see if I'd poisoned that, so if we stand here too long gossiping about mutual acquaintances, I'm going to get the idea we're friends."

"Ha," said Fury. "Ha. Ha.”

Steve grinned.

“On that note, I have a present for you.” He reached into the pockets of his shorts—because he was wearing Bermuda shorts, and Steve was never going to recover from the sight—and handed over a package the size of Steve’s palm. “It’s from Natasha,” he added quellingly.

“Oh, thanks.” She’d written TO STEVE ;) on the brown wrapping paper, so he tore it open. Inside was more brown wrapping paper and the message KIDDING IT’S FOR SAM DON’T OPEN IN FRONT OF NICK! LOVE ME AND JAMES XOX.

“She said to tell you not to open it in front of me,” Fury said once he’d seen the message and accepted his defeat.

“Got it.”

When they went back to the living room, the scene was largely unchanged though Bucky had to have heard them talking about him. (Well, 85 to 100 he'd heard them; his hearing did meet its match in his equally miraculous ability to tune things out.) Sam had at least maneuvered to sit more behind Bucky than under him. He'd also abandoned any attempt at dignity and was peeking out from beside Bucky's shoulder. "So let's talk about Hydra," he said, and wrapped both arms around Bucky's waist. Steve, quietly, fell even more in love.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

Steve waited obediently until the house was theirs again before he handed the package over. He also made the executive decision to wait until Sam was standing up before he handed the package over, because he was starting to worry about circulation issues if he gave Bucky an excuse to sit there much longer.

“She let him bring it,” Bucky said with distaste when he saw Natasha’s handwriting.

“Natasha likes Fury,” Steve pointed out, in the interests of maintaining the trend of Bucky not attacking him. “A lot. If we go into Fairfax with him and you expect her to run any more errands for you, you might want to remember that.”

Bucky, deprived of Sam to sit on, took his put-upon expression to his kitchen chair.

Sam finished the unwrapping and produced a child’s barrette decorated with a large plastic daisy. He stared at it for a second and then burst out laughing. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to tell her!”

“You weren’t. Because I wanted to.” Bucky looked pleased with himself.

“I don’t get it,” Steve said.

“Don’t worry your pretty head about it,” Bucky said. “You’ll get wrinkles.”

“I’ll tell you later,” Sam promised, and clipped the daisy to the collar of his shirt, where it sat like the gem on a necklace. "How's it look?"

"Swoony," Steve said to see him laugh again, and kissed him when he did.

Bucky looked even more pleased with himself. Which was good. Although, granted, he looked that way because he was giving flowers to Steve’s boyfriend.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

"Nope," said Sam the next morning at breakfast, holding his spoon up to ward Bucky off. (Steve wondered why he'd imagined it would be a one-time thing.) "Not on these chairs. Dude, half your insides are metal. You weigh like three hundred pounds."

"The chair'll hold up," said Bucky, not breaking stride. "I kicked one across the room once. It was fine."

"Once?" said Steve, and took another bite of cereal.

"Maybe twice," said Bucky.

"Twice?" said Steve.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," said Bucky. He hovered at Sam's side.

"The depth of everyone's concern for my furniture is sweet." Sam wagged his spoon. "But I meant because, on a wooden chair, your three hundred pounds would be murder on my thighs."

Steve considered telling Bucky he could sit on his lap, but then realized he couldn't say those words out loud.

"Fine." Bucky sat on the chair next to Sam. "You come here."

"Yeah?" Sam ate some cereal and gave this due consideration. "You know that's the opposite of protecting me from stray bullets."

"It's not." Bucky's face didn't change (it could take his expression a few seconds to catch up) but he sounded deeply offended. "It'd be like in the study. I'd hear the window break and move you."

"Right, right. Silly of me. Pass the Chex," he added, beckoning at Steve. Steve topped his own bowl off before handing it over; who knew when he'd have another chance at it. "All right," he decided, "but we're not doing this at dinner. My dad didn't raise one single Wilson to sit on anyone's lap at the dinner table."

Bucky nodded with a smile straight from the 1930s, one that said we'll see.

"Oh boy," Steve sighed. "Hey, you guys talked about that? The... protection detail?" That explained the times he'd passed the study in the morning and found Bucky curled over Sam's back like a shell over a snail. He hadn't intruded. The word 'intimate' sprang to mind.

"Not really," said Bucky. He slid Sam into his lap and the cereal over in front of them.

"Kind of," said Sam. "This one changed the subject." Bucky shrugged and went to work on the cereal previously known as Sam's. Sam kicked Bucky's ankle to move his leg out and turned to get comfortable on Steve's best friend's thigh, which was a sight to behold. "You know what, I could get used to this. We should install cushions on these things, Steve."

"You don't need a cushion," Bucky said, aggrieved and, thanks to the food, sloshy.

"Don't talk with your mouth full." Steve flicked a piece of cereal at him. Bucky caught it and ate it.

"For dinner I need a cushion."

Bucky winked at Steve. "We'll see," he said.

"Oh boy," Steve repeated.

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Sam waited until that night to raise the subject. At night in their bedroom (before Bucky snuck in to sit on the dresser and keep watch like sleep was for other people) was their best bet for privacy. Not a sure thing—unless the bedroom was magic Bucky could hear through its walls as well as he could the rest—but so far he hadn't acted like he listened to them in there. He didn't go out of his way to disguise eavesdropping, so. Best bet.

"Hey," he said, "about earlier."

"Yeah?" Steve marked his place in A People’s History of the United States with a broad finger and grabbed another fistful of popcorn.

"Keep it over the bowl. I swear if I wake up with a kernel poking my side again, I will stick it up your nose while you sleep."

He dropped half of the handful back in the bowl and grinned, unrepentant. "What about earlier?"

"Bucky and I did talk a little bit about the protection detail thing. Because I guessed, not because he volunteered the information. I’m bringing it up because he played me like a violin. Or I guess like he played you.”

Steve let his book fall closed. “He did not!” Sam waited for Steve’s Bucky Barnes defense instincts to make way for his equally unflagging trust in Sam’s judgment. “What are you talking about?”

“Let me guess how it played out. He told you he’d been protecting me and the entire conversation ended right there?”

“No! Well, yes, but—wait, what worked on you?” Steve rolled onto his side to look Sam in the eye. Sam grabbed the popcorn bowl before it could spill. Super soldiers were not tidy creatures.

Sam didn't want to tell him that there was one more way he couldn't help Bucky as much as he wanted, so the fact that he couldn't tell him felt like cheating. "Sorry, man, but he was pretty upset when he thought you told me the protection thing. Probably a betrayal of confidence to give this one up."

Steve, who was fiercely protective of Bucky's privacy right up until it came to privacy from him personally, whereupon he got pissy about Bucky's privacy, pursed his lips but nodded. “You don’t think he’s lying.”

“Not even a little. I just think we should be aware he’s parceling out the truth in breadcrumb form, where and when it shuts us up.”

“I should say something. Right? If he’s filtering for our benefit, I should tell him to just lay it all on me.”

“Nah, he’s not doing it for our benefit. He’s doing it for his. Which is good, you know, boundaries. I just don’t want either of us under the impression we’ve gotten the whole truth because what we’re hearing sounds right.”

“Come on, now you have to tell me what he said to you.”

“I have to do no such thing. Use your imagination.”

“Put me in the right ballpark,” Steve said, and poked his thigh.

Sam grabbed his finger and stroked up the back of his hand. “You remember him taking care of people, he brought up a way he’s taking care of someone. I’d like him to take care of himself, he brought up a way he’s taking care of himself. That’s all you’re getting.”

"Do you ever—" Steve flipped onto his back again. Sam confiscated the popcorn bowl entirely and Steve didn't notice. He stared right on through the ceiling. "Do you ever think he might be interested in you?"

Sam reached over and pushed Steve’s hair back so it stood up all in spikes. "If I thought that, I wouldn't be living in his pocket, Steve, goddamn. What a way to screw with the guy's head."

"I know." He craned his neck, shoving his head back into the pillow, and drew both hands down hard over his face. "I'm being... sorry."

"Look, two things. One, I'm sitting on his lap, so if he were interested, I would know. Two, if it bothers you that much, I'll stop. You get that, right? He's a comfy dude, but only if we're not making you the opposite of that."

"No," Steve said. "No, sorry, I'm just—I might've spent some time after we found Bucky worrying it'd be too much for you... for us. You signed on for a mess dating me, but this is a whole other level. And then it turns out you're better with him than I am, so I found the next worst thing to worry about. I'm dramatic that way, you can ask Peggy."

"Okay, I've got it easier because I didn't know him and he didn't know me. That doesn't make me better. And you know what, Peggy may already have mentioned."

"Did she? Good." He groped with one hand for Sam, the other still over his eyes. "No, I'm being stupid. Never mind." He curled an arm under Sam's shoulders, lifting him and rolling him closer with as much effort as Sam had put into moving the bowl of popcorn. "I pictured doing this without having to ask so much of you.”

“That one you may have mentioned.” Sam rolled the rest of the way over to straddle Steve's hips. “Have I mentioned how worth it you are?” He chased the blush down Steve’s neck with his lips.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

The fourth explanation, Steve got. Maybe because Bucky and Sam were too locked in the dinner standoff to bother with explanations. (Steve's contribution was to light candles and wear a suit to dinner, which he felt was supportive of his boyfriend's position on the formality of the meal. Sam disagreed but only once he stopped laughing long enough to voice an opinion, so Steve called it a win.)

"How long," Bucky said, "do you think. Before he gets sick of the dinner thing."

It was easier for Steve to talk to him while they worked out. His speech jarred less when it could have been pull ups distracting him halfway through sentences. And the chatter reminded Steve to take it easy. If Bucky felt up to sparring after, it was better for him to be more worn out than Steve was. He stopped punching the bag and wiped his shirt across his face. "Hell, I don't know. He hasn't kicked us out yet, though. Gotta figure his tolerance for nonsense is pretty high."

"We should both wear suits," said Bucky, not quite between sit ups, suspended with his knees curled over the bar. "Tomorrow night."

Steve laughed aloud, half-startled. "Yeah?"

Bucky curled up and straightened in midair, perpendicular to the floor. Steve's stomach muscles tightened in sympathy. It didn't look like much for either of them anymore, but Steve didn't have metal halfway through his ribs and spine. "More candles. Maybe some roses. You can make something fancy. To eat." His head dropped back, his torso unmoving, suspended still, and he smiled.

Steve laughed again, on purpose this time, and partly to cover the bite in his throat at that sweet dopey smile. Sometimes Bucky's expressions were so different, veering between microscopic and cartoonish as he relearned the art of them. And then sometimes they were just what he remembered. "I can sure try," he said. "You'll have to find me a recipe and be willing to eat some burned chunks."

Bucky snorted. "We could order in."

"Or you could help me. I'm not a total disaster in the kitchen with some help, I hope you've noticed."

"We could order in," Bucky repeated, and Steve nodded. If Bucky meant any of this, then 'tomorrow night: have a specific meal, wearing a specific outfit' was already a lot of long-term planning.

"I'll ask Tony for suggestions," he volunteered. "By text," he added when Bucky frowned. "He's in New York." Bucky still hadn't moved beyond shifting the angle of his neck. "Hey, you doing okay there?"

"A guy tears one muscle," said Bucky, but drifted inch by inch back down. He dropped from the bar and caught himself on his palms, shifted his weight and lifted his left hand behind his back. "Bet I can do push-ups. Like this."

"I've seen you do push-ups like that, Buck. No need to convince me." Bucky did them anyway. Steve started re-wrapping his knuckles. He might have lost his nack for recognizing a joke from Bucky, but he knew a sparring day when he saw one.

Bucky sparred pretty much like he'd fought before they were on the same side, sans the weapons. He was still relentless. He appeared at every opening; Steve never really got off the defensive. Learning to tire Bucky out first had been a godsend in that it avoided actual injuries. He wasn't even sure sparring at all was a great idea, except that for a few hours afterwards Bucky relaxed like he'd checked something off a list.

"Uncle," said Steve when he landed on his back and absorbed a blow from Bucky's right arm with both of his and felt his ulna creak. "Uncle, you win!" Bucky retreated in degrees, ticking backward, then collapsed at his side. Steve stopped bothering with the struggle to get up. "Hey," he said once his breath came easier. "Speaking of dinner, though."

Bucky didn't make any of the 'please, continue your thought' sounds most people did, but Bucky never did that anymore.

Steve soldiered on. "And meals in general." He rolled his head to the side. Bucky stared at the basement ceiling, unblinking. "Sam had a point about it not being the most effective way to defend him."

Bucky looked at him now, a crease drawing itself between his eyes. "I can move fast enough."

"I know. I'm not saying it wouldn't work. Just that if all you wanted was to protect him, this wouldn't be how you'd do it."

"Huh." He turned his head back. "What else do I want?"

"We used to touch all the time. Now we do if we're sparring, and you touch Sam when you can say it's about protecting him. And we keep asking you about it, which I guess doesn’t help. I think we’re going about it wrong. You don't... it doesn't have to be so practical, or have a reason at all.”

Bucky burned holes through the ceiling and Steve mapped his profile with his gaze like he'd draw it later. It didn't change and didn't change and when it did it was into another smile. Bucky hoisted himself onto his elbow and looked down at Steve. "You want me to touch you, Rogers?"

"No. Yes! No, I mean, I don't want you feeling like you need an excuse."

"You're jealous," Bucky announced. He smiled wider. "You should have thought of the protection detail story first."

"I'm not jealous. Wait, I don't even know who I'm supposed to be jealous of." Steve studied Bucky's unflagging smile, a bright wide thing he mostly used these days during The Three Stooges. His re-introduction to those movies was Natasha's fault and Steve had yet to forgive her. "Are you—were you trying to make me jealous?"

"I like you," Bucky said, and dropped the smile. He looked hard at a point to the left of Steve's eyes.

"Well, thanks." Steve tried to make it sound like a joke, like there hadn't been days when he wondered.

"But I shot you a bunch and you were fine. Natasha too. Sam's a good..." his eyes tracked farther away from Steve's, over to the wall. "Reminder. That I need to be careful. With people. It wasn't a priority with Hydra. If I messed a guy up there were ten more just like him. Plus I think I was disciplined for.... There were more important things. Than one person." He opened and closed his hand and the plates growled along his arm, under the weight on his elbow and up to his shoulder. "Easier to be careful with this one," he said. "It only does what I tell it to."

"Oh," said Steve. "I'm glad," he rallied. Bucky wasn’t any more impressed by upset over his time with Hydra than he was with happiness over his recovered memories. "It's good you're working on that."

Bucky met Steve's eyes. "There aren't ten more guys just like Sam."

Steve had been waiting for Bucky to look back at him and now he didn't know what to do with it. "Not even one."

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

After Steve had taken a shower, Bucky—who hadn't—pushed him onto the couch, collapsed on top of him, and went to sleep. Sam walked in on them, managed not to burst out laughing, and mouthed 'be careful what you wish for' before backing out of the room. Without even handing Steve a blanket, which Steve felt was a bit much.

Chapter Text

The fifth time someone commented, it was Natasha again. At this point, Steve was fine with it.

“How long do you have?” Steve asked, checking the shield against his back.

“Six hours.” Natasha holstered her second Glock beneath her jacket. It was visible to the trained eye, which Steve imagined meant she had five other guns that weren’t. “I’ve got a flight to catch.”

Steve jostled Sam with his elbow and caught him on the rebound. "Bet we can finish this in three?"

Sam leaned into him, shoulder blades arching under Steve’s arm, and looked spectacularly kissable. "Two and a half or I'll owe you,” he caught himself, “a favor."

"You're on."

"Two hours and fifteen minutes, and you'll both owe me favors," Natasha countered. "Why are you boys in a hurry?"

"Oh," said Steve brightly, "no reason."

“Two hours flat,” Bucky said. “And I’m not doing any dishes all week.” He’d been ready since Steve and Sam woke up that morning—not impatient, because he didn’t get impatient when he had work to do, but somewhere beyond prepared. Jeans and the grocery store to get vegetables were pulling teeth, but full combat gear and a Hydra base to attack were giving candy to a baby. (“You don’t have days like that?” Sam said when Steve pointed it out. Which was fair. “I don’t want all Bucky’s days to be like that,” though, he’d responded.)

They polished off the base in Fairfax either in two hours on the dot, or in two hours and twelve minutes, depending on whether one counted the time they’d spent breaking in.

“How does that not count?” Natasha moved the ice pack from her knee to her shoulder. “Give me another one of these. How does it not count? We couldn’t have done anything to them if we didn’t get in. That’s the most basic part of an attack. Accessing the people you’re attacking.”

“Too basic. If that counts,” Bucky tossed her another ice pack. “So does transportation time. You want to count it because you got us in.”

“Garbage.” Natasha caught the pack without looking up. She and Bucky got more comfortable around each other in direct proportion to the increase of weapons in the vicinity, and the van was packed with them. “You’d count it if you got us in by punching the doors open. I used cyber violence, is all.” She looked up at the driver’s seat. “Fury’s got people on cleanup. Why aren’t we moving?”

“Actually.” Steve dangled the keys in her direction. “Do you want to drive? Bucky back to the house, specifically, and we’ll catch up?”

Natasha raised her eyebrows but didn’t ask questions. “I want a picture of Sam wearing his daisy.”

“Printed and framed,” Bucky seconded.

“Done and done,” Sam said. “I mean, you know I don’t have enough hair to wear it, right? But I will personally put it back on my shirt and take that selfie.”

Natasha took the keys. “Then we’ll see you back at the house, boys.”

Three hours later, they did. Which was all more or less according to plan, except Natasha took one look at them and said, "Really?"

"What?" Steve smoothed his hair back in case he could retroactively throw her off the trail.

That’s why I’m babysitting? You can't carve out time on your own?" She collected a handful of weapons from the coffee table and started storing them about her person. She managed to do so in the manner of a woman deeply disappointed. Steve hadn't realized you could disappointedly pocket a handful of micro-EMPs. He wondered how many garrotes there had been on the table before Natasha shared with Bucky.

"We're sorry," Sam tried.

"Say it with flower pictures," said Natasha.

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Steve didn't care that Natasha had noticed. He cared that Natasha was correct. He and Sam couldn't, on their own, find the time alone. Also....

"You know this is your fault, right," said Sam when Steve raised the subject. Steve did know.

Bucky had woken from his Steve-and-couch nap three weeks earlier and wandered off without a word. Steve hadn't noted it at the time, but Bucky must have felt exceptionally well-rested, because he'd slept alone maybe three times since.

Steve and Sam were used to working alone time around Bucky by now, even in their own room, since he had a habit of appearing there in the middle of the night. Steve had stopped leaving things on top of his dresser; they ended up crushed or lost beneath it to make way for Bucky's vigil. But that wasn't every night, and only once they'd fallen asleep. (It came with its own set of problems, especially at first—Steve had woken up confused and thrown a lamp at Bucky one time—but those, too, were problems they were used to.) What they weren't used to or prepared for was Bucky outright bunking in with them.

It wasn't a problem the first time it happened. Steve was half-asleep and Sam was reading The Brothers Karamazov because he’d lost a bet to Natasha: not the most private moment Bucky had interrupted with a demand for the wifi password. "How do you even get signed out?" Sam asked.

"I sign out on purpose." Bucky reached over Steve to hand Sam the laptop (nominally Steve's) and sat on the end of the bed.

"I knew it!"

"It wasn't a secret."

"Okay, so why do you sign out?"

"To see if I can hack into our neighbors' signals. And their computers."

"Bucky," Steve protested.

"I can." Bucky dragged himself halfway up the bed between them to stare down at Steve. "I don't do anything to them. Just check. Ms Santiago across the street orders a lot of cat litter online. I can see in her house though. She has five cats. It's not to hide the odor of a corpse."

"No, no," Sam said as he handed the laptop back. "Hold up, Steve, leave the moral implications alone one sec—"

"I crashed into the Potomac for the opposite of this," Steve told the pillow.

“I crashed into the Potomac for exactly this,” Bucky told him. “Apparently.”

"—I’m a practical man, I need to know this one practical thing. So you can hack all of our neighbors. Why is it you don't just hack back into our signal when you're done?"

"That'd be." Bucky turned this over and pushed himself along the bed, the rest of the way toward sitting between them. "Rude."

"But you're not gonna go all out and memorize the password, either. You know, my life with you two is so much more... it's definitely much more something."

"Back at you," said Steve, and buried his head under the pillow.

When he woke up the next morning Bucky was still right where he'd been last night. He hadn't even lain down, just slipped sideways after his arm. The laptop jabbed Steve's shoulder. He raised his head to find Sam—If he's not there—but he was, head against Bucky's thigh and arm crooked beneath Bucky's knee. The coal-stroke lines of his eyelashes cast shadows on his cheekbones.

Steve looked back at Bucky and jumped a little because Bucky's eyes were open now. He smiled, apologetic, and whispered, "Morning."

Bucky nodded like that had been an observation.

"How's your neck?"

Bucky moved his head until something cracked. "There."

"Next time you could lie down," Steve said, and nudged Bucky's foot with his from the other side of the blanket. Bucky's feet were dead white. "Under the blanket."

"Okay," said Bucky. (This really was Steve's fault.)

Bucky's comfort level with intimacy (Sam aside) fluctuated, and a wide swing in one direction usually foretold a wide swing in the opposite direction. Steve expected a stunt like overnighting in their bed to be followed by a whole lot of cold shoulder. Instead, he tended his cactuses in the living room and only swore at the plants in Russian three or four times. When Steve asked if he could draw him while he worked, he said, "Fine." He didn’t change his mind and leave as soon as Steve started; the sketch didn't even disappear from Steve's book to turn up in the form of confetti clogging the kitchen sink.

All of which contributed to a general relaxed mood in the house. Steve was maybe euphoric with relaxation. Steve maybe shouldn't have drawn Sam next. Especially not while he was doing the crossword, his face scrunched and the end of the pencil tapping against the gap between his teeth and his breath doing funny things with irritation.

About the most that Steve could say for himself that evening was that he got them behind a closed door and out of their jeans before he launched them both onto the bed. Sam’s hands rucked up under his shirt, Sam’s knees bracketed his hips, Sam’s lips grazed his ear, and Steve lost track of every part of himself but the nerve endings. He was the biggest guy in any room but under Sam’s fingers he felt contained, engulfed, as if Sam had spread to fill all available space. He slid his thumbs beneath the hems of Sam’s boxers, named muscle groups with his fingertips, vastus, adductor, biceps, because Sam was whole and here and safe, and Steve could have drawn his legs from memory but didn’t have to. Fortunately he liked Sam’s face too much to miss out on it, and he opened his eyes again halfway through a kiss. Fortunately because then Bucky opened the door. Sam yelped and rolled off Steve, who was already yanking the blanket over them.

"Hey, Buck," said Steve with all the cheer he could muster. Steve could muster quite a lot of cheer. (Sam had suggested that irritation actually increased Steve's reserves of cheer.) "You need something?"

"Nah." Bucky, unceremonious and unselfconscious, and apparently also unconscious of what he'd walked in on, dropped onto the bed next to Steve.

"Oh," said Steve. "Good, that's great." He shifted toward Sam, which maybe hid the fact that he was hard but didn't help, especially since Sam had thrown both arms over his eyes and started laughing, bare throat bobbing, chest rippling under the thin blue cotton of his shirt.

"Just," said Steve, and thanked God that he hadn’t made it out of his underwear either. "Just gonna bunk in here tonight?"

"Yeah," said Bucky, and stole Steve's pillow.

Sam curled up under the blanket with a hand over his mouth and his elbow in Steve’s side.

"Okay," said Steve. "You hit the light." He gave up on his pillow, which was just as well. Bucky still had it the morning after when Steve woke to find Bucky had worked his way over Steve and into the middle of the bed.

Sam still hadn't left in the middle of the night.

Since then it had been, nightly, more of the same. Plus Bucky developing a sixth sense for any point during the day when Steve and Sam had gotten too secure in their isolation. But he did things like—

“Don’t.”

“I just want to check them!”

“That’s why there’s a window.” Bucky swung around Steve and sat on the stove, legs planted in front of the oven door.

“Now I can’t see through the window.”

“Life’s tough. Open it and I’m telling Sam.”

Steve sat in the nearest kitchen chair and stared at the timer on the microwave. “I made the damn cookies.”

“You’ll ruin the damn cookies.”

“One of these days I’m going to pay half Sam’s mortgage, and then I’m going to be able to tell you I’ll do what I like under my own roof.”

Bucky braced his heels against the oven door. “I’ll get a day job. Pay the other half.”

Which—admittedly the back pay issue was more complicated legally for Bucky, but he was entitled to as much as Steve—Bucky snapped his fingers, derailing Steve’s train of thought, and pointed at the radio. It was closer to him than to Steve. Steve got up and turned it off anyway.

The sugar cookies came out fine, aside from the occasional lump of baking powder. Sam congratulated Steve on not messing with the oven door before its time. Bucky snickered and ate three cookies, none of them Sam’s.

And there it was, everything Steve could ask for: Bucky spending time with and talking to him on purpose without Sam or training as a lure, Bucky eating, Bucky joking around. So he didn’t mention it when Bucky also did things like—

Five minutes into Star Wars, which Steve was not going to misunderstand any more jokes about even if it did have aliens, Bucky disappeared into his room.

“Do you want us to switch movies?” Steve called after him, but there was no response.

“Let him have some time,” Sam suggested. “The man helped me do the dishes earlier, he’s probably all interactioned out.” And, a few minutes later, “I don’t remember the desert part taking so long. When does James Earl Jones come back?”

“Who’s that again?”

Sam looked intimately wounded until Steve cracked and laughed. “You’re a menace, Rogers. I confide my deepest teenage crush and you gotta give me grief about it?” He grabbed the back of Steve’s neck and tugged him over for a kiss.

Steve leaned back along the couch, pulling Sam with him. He was working his way up to making a crack about Sam convincing him to shut up, except that Sam had shut him up already. Sam’s fingers spanned his ribs, and if Steve worked his thumbs a little harder into the notches on either side of Sam’s spine he’d sag down on top of Steve just so—

The back of the couch creaked. Bucky had taken his boots off, which was nice, since his next move was to shove them down between Steve’s side and the couch.

Jesus,” said Sam, starting back. “We’re getting you a bell.”

Bucky, face lit by the wash of pale yellow light from the screen, appeared to consider this. “No,” he decided.

Steve was 90% sure that was a joke, and risked a laugh. Bucky might, maybe, have smiled back. The light wasn’t great.

He and Sam disentangled themselves; Steve crossed his legs. It was a painful operation. Bucky slid down the back of the couch to sit between them with remarkable aplomb for someone who’d spent his late teens and early twenties doing his damnedest to get Steve a partner.

He’d watched the rest of the movie with them, or looked at the screen, all the way through. He ended up half-curled under Sam’s arm. Steve thought at the time he imagined it when he saw Bucky wink at him. And once again, neither Sam nor Steve brought it up, even to each other.

Natasha was right: They had lost the ability to find time on their own. Systematically.

"You're not wrong, but do you think it's deliberate?" said Sam when Steve broached the subject (Bucky being, miracle of miracles, in the shower).

"Do I sound crazy?"

"You don't, I just want us to be sure it's not a coincidence. I'm gonna have a hard enough time keeping a straight face during this conversation as it is."

"He asked if I was jealous, the day he took a nap on top of me. I said I wasn't. He's a sore loser."

Sam snorted. They paused, but the shower was still running. "This," Sam lowered his voice, "from the man who once gave me the silent treatment for three hours straight because I beat him at Scrabble. No one even cares about Scrabble, Steve."

"You do the crossword all the time! It gives you an advantage!"

"Stop trying to cheat with French words and who knows what how high you might soar. Also, we're getting off track. Three weeks is a little long for a coincidence, but I'm going to feel like real asshole if it turns out he's just, I don't know, at a clingy stage of his progress."

"It started the day I said I wasn't jealous. In 1928, I bet I could find him more times than he’d find me playing hide and seek, and we spent the summer lost because every time one of us pulled ahead the other expanded fair ground. Once we were gone so long our parents got the police involved. He might not remember that, but he's still the same person, sort of."

"Point."

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The fifth explanation, Sam got with Steve. He got it from Bucky's lap, too, which made it difficult to do with a straight face. He'd had every intention of sitting on the couch cushions like a normal person; it hadn't worked out that way, which was the story of his life recently.

He and Steve were united in their conviction that a conversation needed to happen and now, although not on how much Sam should be there for. (Sam believed this was between the nonagenarians and he should clear out once they got a confirmation or a denial out of Bucky, since he wasn’t the one who’d misspent his youth building a nonstop competition with a man who could now crush a brick in one hand. Steve believed 'all right, but leave us alone sometimes so we can get laid' wasn't his plea to make alone.)

Bucky walked in, saw their faces, and stopped drying his hair. "What," he said.

"We need to talk to you," said Steve.

Bucky tossed the towel on the floor, which looked dramatic but was just how he dealt with towels. "Is it." He considered. "Serious."

"A little bit," said Sam, who seriously felt deprived.

"It's not a huge deal," said Steve, who seriously preferred passive aggression.

"Fine." Bucky joined them by the couch, looped an arm around Sam's waist, and sat them both down, Sam in his lap. "There," he said. "Fire away."

Sam pressed his knuckles to his mouth, trying not to laugh. At least Bucky had great thighs. They didn't make for bad sitting. Steve did that pissy thing with his immense shoulders and sat down across from them on the chair. "Uh, Buck," he said. “This thing with Sam. Is any part of it—you know—”

Sam leaned far enough to the side that he could get a look at Bucky’s face. "Are you messing with Steve?"

"Yes," said Bucky.

"Well," said Sam. "Glad that's out there. Easier than I thought it'd be, I gotta admit."

"All right," said Steve. He looked flummoxed, but forged ahead. "Would you stop, please?"

Bucky's mouth tugged down into a colossal scowl. "Everything. Or just the stuff I was doing to mess with you?"

Steve looked at Sam, who shrugged. "I'm pretty set in your ways about the hand-holding at this point. What exactly have you been doing just to mess with Steve?"

"Grabbing you every time you guys try to screw." He looked shifty and hid it only belatedly with more scowling.

"Yeah?" Sam said once he was sure he’d surgically extracted any tone from his voice.

"You’re pretty in my lap. But. Steve’s face when I put you there is nice too."

"I don't make any face," said Steve, and then, "You do think he's a looker!"

Bucky smiled. It was an awfully sweet smile for someone who was celebrating the victory of driving their dearest friend halfway around the bend. "Jealous," he said.

Steve balled his hands up on his knees. He looked like he might laugh and also like he might punch someone. "Fine," he said. "Uncle."

Bucky wrapped his other arm around Sam's waist and leaned back into the couch, which wasn't the worst victory dance, in terms of Sam's comfort. It did make Steve’s nostrils flare, mostly on the downside. (It was a little cute. Just a little.) "Are you mad?"

"I'm," said Steve, "confused."

"We competed all the time before. You like before." Bucky dropped his head foreword until his chin rested on Sam's shoulder, which made it impossible to see his expression. Possibly the idea.

"Oh." Steve's face collapsed into that delighted-but-guilty thing he often wore in relation to Bucky. "Yeah, we did. But Bucky, we didn't compete over people."

Bucky grunted. "How come?"

Steve's head dropped. He looked up from under his eyelashes at Sam. "Because it would have been wrong."

"Uh-huh," said Sam.

"And there wasn't any point," Steve admitted. He shrugged and ended in a slump. "You won before we could start. I was a little abrasive."

"You were." Bucky sounded contemplative, but he used that same tone for 'I remember now' and for 'you might be lying for all I know.' He shrugged and burrowed into Sam's neck. "I win. So yes. I'll stop getting in the way when you two are busy. I don't have to stop the other stuff, though."

"Uh," said Sam, and wished they'd addressed this before Bucky came in, because Steve was burning holes in the point where Bucky’s chin dug into his shoulder. "None of it bothers me. Still wondering if it bothers you, Steve."

"Damnit," Steve burst out. "Look, Buck, is this—do you want—to be with Sam? Because I know you don't think so, Sam, but from where I'm sitting it sure looks like he does."

"Nah." His jaw dipped deeper into Sam's deltoid. "I just like him a lot. And I like bothering you a lot."

Sam threw up his hands, and managed to do it without hitting Bucky in the face despite his emotional duress. "For real, is there any chance I can opt out of this one? You two wanna work through it on your own? I've made it this far without laughing my ass off at this five-year-old bullshit but I'm running out of fortitude."

"Don't bother," said Steve. He eyeballed Bucky for a second but apparently 70 years, a couple of comas, and some brainwashing didn't affect his ability to take a straight answer from the guy once he'd finally asked a straight question. The suspicion drained out of him and he grinned broad as a sunflower. "We're good."

"How abrasive," said Bucky. "With examples."

"Nope," said Sam, "Five-year-olds. I'm out," and he detangled himself.

"You're such a jerk," Steve told Bucky, and grabbed Sam when he tried to walk by. "Hey, isn't it my turn?" He planted Sam on his lap, and a kiss on Sam.

"Gross," said Bucky, grabbing a pot of cactuses in each hand, "don't do that in front of the kids," and he left the room.

“Wait,” said Sam, “wait. All we had to do the whole time was just not stop sucking face.”

“I don’t feel any smarter than you do right now.”

"Don't tell Natasha about this," Sam said at the same moment Steve did.

"I'm telling Natasha," Bucky announced from deeper in the house.

Steve dropped his head against Sam’s chest. “I come with a double trump card, now.”

“Yeah.” Sam tilted his face back up to kiss him. “Still worth it. I even kind of like your trump cards.”