"All right, I have a question for you. Oh, but you don’t have to answer it. I feel like if you don't answer it though, you're kind of answering it, you know…"
“Was that your first kiss since 1945?"
“No,” Rogers had said, looking away from the road to glare at her. “I’m 95, I’m not dead,” but if he thought that was the end of it; well, he didn’t know her at all. She found that the best time to ask Rogers personal questions was when he was deeply engrossed in something else. Missions were good (if he wasn’t actually in mortal danger), and driving (though he sometimes looked like he wanted to dive out onto the road), but the best time, she found, was when they were sparring or playing sports: climbing, kendo, squash.
Rogers was a pretty good squash player and she had just smashed the ball above the service line when she turned to him and said, ambushing him, “So who’ve you been kissing, Rogers?” He looked at her, startled, and nearly got hit in the face by the ball, which flew past him. “5-4,” she said, smiling.
He jogged distractedly after the ball, bounced it up on his racquet, and glared at her. “None of your business,” he said, and then lobbed the ball high and sent her racing to the back wall for it, and then they were panting and dodging past each other, racquets swinging. The thing was, Rogers wasn’t a liar – if he said he’d kissed someone, then he had, but SHIELD had been watching Rogers pretty closely since he'd come out of the ice and he'd never been sexually, romantically, or even socially linked with anyone—in fact, Rogers's lack of a life was so total that his surveillance detail was considered a plum assignment: easy work. Natasha'd been determined to facilitate an introduction or two—to women Rogers might really like, or women who'd at least push him down and fuck him, which wouldn't be the worst thing for him. Meaningless sex wasn't nothing, she thought; he shouldn't knock it till he tried it.
But that didn't solve the mystery of who Rogers had been kissing—and then she remembered Tony's last Christmas party, which had started in festive, almost hysterical, merriment (Christmas music blasting, pine boughs and mistletoe everywhere, heaping piles of oysters and a 20-foot tree covered in tiny Avengers figurines) and ended in a bacchanal of drunkenness, gluttony and techno dancing. Some people had fallen, shrieking and laughing, into the champagne fountain—that was when Natasha herself had decided to call it a night—but Steve had been there, too. She thought he'd left early; the place had been teeming with people, and she couldn't imagine that it was his scene. But the mistletoe; there had been lots and lots of it—and lots of playful kissing and groping as a consequence.
She stopped, letting the ball fly past her, and said, a little breathlessly, "Was it at Christmas?"
Rogers stared at her, face flushed from the exercise, and then looked down and spun his racquet around and around in his hand. "I—when I was in the USO, there were lots of girls," he said. "Showgirls—though you had to be careful there—but also girls in every town we visited, crowds of them: huge numbers. All the men..." Rogers tightened his hand on the racquet. "All the men had gone overseas already."
She raised her eyebrow. "So you were the most eligible guy in the country."
Rogers shot her a narrow look. "That's what Bucky said. Yeah. I was the last eligible guy in New York. And then they put me on tour. Millions and millions of women—and me."
"Pretty good odds." Natasha smirked; she'd never considered this. "You sly dog. So did you—"
"I didn't do anything," Rogers said sharply. "Mostly I was done to. I mean, it was exciting, at first," he admitted. "All these dames reaching for you, trying to kiss you and touch you and—other things," he added awkwardly. "Especially when—I mean, no girl had ever looked at me twice." Rogers laughed, a little harshly. "Actually, no girl ever looked at me once. So I mean, I—I let a couple," he said, and Natasha felt her smile dying on her face; this wasn't turning out to be the happy story she'd hoped for. "It wasn't...." He frowned. "I mean, it was fun and all, but. I don't know. It wasn't me. I wasn't there."
"Anyway." Rogers turned, fetched the ball, and bounced it up into his hand. "Tony's party was like that. Crowds of people, strangers, all wanting to be close to you because—I don't know. They don't know themselves, probably. A couple of dames kissed me—the mistletoe, I guess—and then I ended up in a quiet corner with one of them, let things go a little further. I'd been in my skin longer, I thought it would maybe be different. But it wasn't. She was nice, though," Rogers said, and bounced the ball on the glossy wood floor a couple of times. "And real nice about it when I said I had to go."
He made as if to serve, and then darted a glance at her. "Anything else you'd like to know?" he asked, and she could feel the hostility steaming off him; he'd answered her question, but he'd resented it.
"I like to know things," she said simply.
"Yeah," Rogers said, and smashed the serve hard.
The next time she ambushed him with a question—"So would you have married Peggy Carter, if things had been—" Rogers flung his racquet across the court and said, "I'm not playing with you anymore."
She wasn't fazed by other people's emotions; they usually worked to her advantage. "But would —"
"In a heartbeat," Rogers said tightly. "In a God damned—" and then he was turning on his heel, grabbing his towel and heading for the men's room. She wasn't afraid of that either, just pushed in after him and watched a couple of guys leap and cover themselves before running away. She rolled her eyes: nothing she hadn't seen before. Rogers was glowering at her in disapproval, hands on hips.
"You met her in Europe?" she continued on.
Rogers looked impatient, irritated, armpits dark with sweat. "I met her in New Jersey. She turned up at the base where I was training. I—you saw her picture there, on the wall."
So she had. "Yes. Her and Howard Stark. Who was the other fellow?"
Rogers looked away. "Colonel Philips, Chester Phillips. He wanted to keep me in the lab, try to duplicate the formula. I only ever got to Europe because of Senator Brandt—he put me with the U.S.O. And then when I found out about Bucky..." Rogers shook his head slowly, lost inside his memories. "It was only Peggy who thought I could do more. She believed in me. I owe everything to Peggy...."
Natasha frowned at him; she'd missed something. "Wait, what about Bucky?"
"Hm?" Rogers raised an eyebrow; he'd only half heard the question. "He would have married someone; he was spoiled for choice. Not like me. Bucky always had dames around him, they were hanging off the trees for him, and he used to—" He caught the way she was staring at him, and frowned. "What did you," he began, and then he said, tensely, "I don't know what you're asking," and then he got up and went to shower, and Natasha sat there, trying to work out exactly what question he had answered.
"How long have you been in love with him?" she asked, and Rogers wouldn't even look at her; just put on the Jeep's turn signal and pulled off at the nearest exit onto the Strada Statale. She'd known there was something he wasn't saying, and now she knew what it was.
She'd thought she understood them. Friends since childhood, sure, but that was kid stuff: Rogers and Barnes had gone to war together. That kind of bond, that kind of grief—she knew what it could do to men in particular, and so she hadn't been surprised when Rogers took up with Sam Wilson, who'd lost his own wingman, or to learn that Rogers sometimes went down to see Sam at the V.A. and ended up sitting in meetings, always in the back, always quiet, not talking but listening intently.
She hadn't even been surprised the day Sam called and told her to get her ass down there, stat—because Rogers had been blindsided by an Iraq vet of twenty who'd survived having his leg blown off by an IED only to have his best buddy kill himself four months after discharge. The vet had refused to talk about it with Sam or anyone else, but somehow he'd gotten talking to Rogers, and then he was unbuttoning his shirt and revealing a large, painful-looking tattoo that covered his entire chest and arms: I LOVE YOU BROTHER, it said in an elaborate script. WAIT FOR ME, with his friend's name and the date and a picture of a folded-up flag and a helmet and a pair of boots and blood and flames—not great art, but full of terrible sincerity: the only way the guy could express himself. Rogers had been reduced to tears at the sight of it, and then the vet had begun to cry too, and then they'd talked for a long time with their arms around each other's necks.
"He's better than a therapy dog," Sam said wearily, "but I've got to get this guy home, so I need you to take Rogers," and so she'd gone and pried Rogers out of the situation and taken him home. She'd tried asking a couple of questions in the car, but he was gone: not listening. He'd only said, "I can't get a tattoo. I don't even scar," and then he'd looked out the window and gone quiet the rest of the ride.
That all made sense to her: Rogers was suffering from a grief that was both terrible and terribly common—even banal. A grief that could recognize itself in a kid who'd served in a different war in a different country in another century entirely. The loss of a compatriot, a buddy, a comrade in arms.
But then she had gone with Rogers to the Italo-Austrian border to look for the Winter Soldier, and so she was there when he found the hidden Hydra base that had quartered the patrol that had stumbled upon James Barnes's body back in '44—and the thing about the fucking Nazis is that they were organized as all hell, and so they'd kept a box, with a carefully typewritten label, of Barnes's personal effects right up there with their personnel records and mission reports and ammunition records and pay stubs. And Rogers had had a nervous breakdown right in front of her, sitting down hard on the floor and sobbing as he rummaged through the cardboard storage box. Grief, she'd thought, turning away a little, trying to give him some space while still keeping an eye on him, but then he was pressing some navy blue fabric—part of a jacket?—to his face and suddenly she saw that there was more to it than that. Because there was something tangible – visceral – about the way Rogers was clutching that jacket, breathing it in; he was missing not just his friend, the person, the soldier, but the body that had been inside that jacket. She stared at him, shocked, and thought: holy shit, he was in love with him.
Rogers wouldn't let the box go, even after he'd pulled himself together enough to put Barnes's things back inside. He just walked out with it, clutched hard to his side. She'd given him a little time to put himself together – maybe not enough, as it worked out. Now a hotel loomed in front of them; Hotel Pontechiesa, Cortina d'Ampezzo, at the base of the mountain – too beautiful a place to be near the site of such suffering. She felt the bitterness herself –that there should be chalets here, tourists skiing over what should have been Barnes's grave – and it hadn't even been her friend. Her more-than-a-friend.
Rogers pulled the Jeep to a stop; it was cold enough, even inside, that she could see his breath. "No more driving today," he said. "I can't do it; I'm exhausted," and then he said: "From the moment I was born. From the minute I could breathe," and he was out of the cab and going around to the back to get his box before she understood that he was trying to answer her question the best way he knew how.
They found Barnes two days later, in an underground shithole of a base in Poland that had been on a crumbling map tucked away with Barnes's effects – and Rogers had had a sixth sense about it the second they dropped through the rotting metal door. "He's here," Rogers said breathlessly, straightening. "I know it," and it had been up to Natasha to pull her gun, because hell, maybe he really was.
He was – the Winter Soldier was collapsed beside a cot inside a prison cell made of iron bars. The door hung open. His eyelids twitched, and then he looked up at Rogers and struggled to raise a gloved hand – and it was Natasha who saw he meant STOP, who saw the flashing red light on the Winter Soldier's metal arm beating in time with a light on the far wall – though when she grabbed Rogers he nearly whirled around and punched her lights out. "Wait," she gritted out, "the room's wired, he's trapped."
Rogers's eyes widened as he looked back, but now he could see it – the door was open but there was a faint ripple to the air around the doorway that meant some kind of electrical current, a forcefield. Natasha went to the wall – there was a computer console, not an interface she recognized – and began to work at it. There were different parts to the thing, she saw, that had to be turned off in sequence – a homing beacon in the Winter Soldier's arm had forced him to come here; an ultrasonic resonator was keeping him within twelve feet of the beacon's source; the forcefield had confined him further. The irony, she thought, as she switched it off – was that he'd been forced to return to a facility that had long been abandoned – God only knew how old this failsafe mechanism was; it looked Soviet.
"Hurry up," Rogers said tightly, as she knocked out each device. "Come on, please—" and he was through the door into the cell the second the light flashed green, dropping onto the cold concrete floor besides the Winter Soldier and carefully lifting him up. Natasha turned, one hand on her gun as the Winter Soldier clutched Rogers's shoulder and muttered, "Steve…" — and if she'd been worried that Rogers would break down, well, she needn't have, because Rogers was all business: "Bucky, are you wounded? Can you stand? When was the last time you ate?"—and she understood the last question when she saw the empty ration tins scattered across the cell floor. A leaky tap dripped rusted water.
"I can stand," Barnes said, but he was filthy and pale and weak. "I'm all right, I—" and she knew right away from the casual way Rogers pulled Barnes against him, from the completely unselfconscious way that Barnes clung to him as he tried to get his feet under him, forehead pressed against Rogers's shoulder like a drunk, that they'd been lovers in a spit-swapping, aggressively physical way. This was no airy, spiritual love; military poetry. These were bodies that knew each other.
Rogers pulled Barnes's arm around his shoulder, slung his arm around Barnes's waist. "We're getting out of here," he said, but Barnes was already half passed out in his arms.
Airlift to airlift to airlift till the last helicopter, sent from Stark Industries, and it didn't matter how many EMTs or doctors bent over Barnes, Rogers refused to move beyond arm's reach, grimly putting on a mask and scrubs and just planting himself in that polite, "Sorry I can't do that," way that he had.
They ended up in the Tower, with Rogers sleeping in Barnes's bed while he was hooked up to machines and wires; Rogers had evidently stopped giving a damn what anybody thought of him, if he ever had given a damn. The clinginess wasn't one way, either; Barnes had curled on his side and locked his metal fingers in the fabric of Rogers's shirt like he thought Rogers might disappear while he was sleeping. Rogers couldn't have gotten away even if he'd wanted to, not that he seemed to want to.
In fact, Rogers seemed happier than she'd ever seen him: some tense, pinched expression on his face had smoothed out. He sat there, propped against the headboard and reading while Barnes slept quietly beside him, and he didn't even look irritated when Natasha showed up to visit, carrying flowers.
"How's it going?" she murmured.
Rogers's smile wasn't even forced. "It's good," he said, and glanced at Barnes. "He's good."
"Any new information?" she asked.
"No, but it's going to be okay, they say – he's got a lot of toxins to work out of his system, but it's better every day," and Natasha was glad to hear it. Barnes had looked terrifyingly close to death those first few days, and then he'd had the shiny, faintly seasick look of a drunk: someone for whom the world wouldn't stop moving. He looked better now: he was sleeping peacefully and his color was coming back.
His metal hand had Rogers pinned, and maybe a better person wouldn't have taken advantage of it, but she wasn't that person. "I still don't understand, you know, how it worked between you and him and Peggy." She smiled ruefully. "You said you would have married Peggy."
Rogers's mood was such that he just shook his head and laughed at her. "You're relentless."
Natasha smiled wider. "Hey, thanks!"
"Is it…not rude anymore to ask people about their private lives and relationships?" Rogers rolled his eyes as he slid his bookmark into his book and closed it. "I ask merely for information."
"Not between friends," she replied, taking a chair beside the bed. "I want to know all about you."
"I don't know anything about you," Rogers said.
"That's because you never ask," she said; and that was true: he never asked her anything personal.
"Yes, because it's rude," Rogers said.
"Rude is culturally relative," Natasha said with a shrug, and then: "Was it him? Was it her?"
He put his book aside. "It was him, it was her." He groaned. "I can't believe you can ask such a…"
"Look, it's okay if you had a boyfriend and a girlfriend," Natasha told him. "We have a whole vocabulary for that now," but he looked shocked at her words. She raised a questioning eyebrow.
"That's not—" Rogers was staring at her. "It was different back then. Everything was different."
She tilted her head at Barnes, sleeping nearly in his lap. "Doesn't look that different."
"But it was. Bucky—I couldn't live without Bucky. Peggy was—something else entirely."
"But you would have married her, you said," Natasha pressed.
"Sure, if she'd've had me," Rogers clarified, "but that wouldn't have changed—" He seemed suddenly frustrated. "Look, Bucky was seeing this girl, Marianne, and he probably would have proposed to her if the war hadn't— She was okay, you know? Marianne. I liked her—and she liked me: Bucky would never have married a girl who didn't like me. That was just, that was just the way things were."
Natasha shook her head incredulously. "But how was it supposed to work? You'd marry Peggy, get a little house somewhere, and then the Barneses would live down the street and come over for drinks and cards like something out of the..." She trailed off, frowning; like something out of the fifties. Rogers was staring at her with no irony whatsoever; and of course, that would have been the fifties for them. He and Barnes would have hung out in the garage on the weekends, drinking beer and tinkering with the engine of an old car. He would have had both of them—had been planning to have both of them—and he'd never had a thought about it except Bucky would never marry someone who didn't like me.
Rogers stared into space; now he was thinking about it. "Yeah, I guess," he said uncertainly. "I mean, we never got that far, with everything that happened – but I guess that's what would have happened."
"Huh," Natasha said, and sat back to think about that, and it was only then that she realized the man himself was awake. James Buchanan Barnes was still tucked up against Rogers's left side, but now she could see one pale blue eye staring at her. He didn't say anything, though; not then, anyway.
"He's full of shit," Barnes later told her. "You have to take that into consideration when you talk to Steve –that he is completely and utterly full of shit, and he doesn't even know it half the time," and when Rogers jerked around to look at him, eyebrows up: "I love you, but you're talking complete shit."
"What?" Rogers protested. "What did I say that was—?"
Barnes was worrying his lower lip ragged. "I was never gonna marry that girl, Steve."
"What are you talking about?" Rogers said. "I was there. You said—"
"I lied. I said it so you'd marry Peggy."
Rogers looked poleaxed. "But, but why would you—"
"I dated girls so you would date girls." Barnes looked at Natasha and said: "You could still do that back then—be a bachelor, if you went out enough. Too much man to settle down." He looked back at Steve. "And then I said what I said so you'd marry Peggy. Because Peggy was special. She was good for you, and I didn't want you to miss out on that because of—" His jaw twitched. "You know."
Rogers was staring at Barnes like he'd never seen him before. Even when Barnes was the Winter Soldier—on the bridge, on the helicarriers—Rogers hadn't looked at him like that.
Barnes turned back to Natasha. "He was never queer; not like me. He was just scrawny, girls didn't look at him. But I knew that someday he was gonna find somebody, and he did." He looked at Rogers and repeated, almost defiantly: "And you did. And she was great. So I was right to—" and before Natasha knew what was happening, Rogers had pulled back his fist and socked Barnes hard in the mouth.
"Whoa," Natasha said, blinking. "That escalated quickly."
Barnes was rubbing his jaw. "Hey, that was a good punch."
"Yeah, I've been working out," Rogers replied, and then Barnes was rushing him and they were fighting like boys but with a lot more damage, crashing into and totally smashing the glass coffee table and then Stark's whole freestanding bar. "You had no right!" Rogers said through his bloody mouth.
"I did. Hell. I had to live with myself—boy, did I," and Barnes grabbed him by the collar in a way that totally would have worked when Rogers was ninety-five pounds, but was not going to work today.
"Don’t even," Rogers threatened, and nearly put him through the wall, and then the elevator opened and Pepper Potts let out a little shriek. “Steve Rogers!” and they both stopped and mumbled, "Sorry."
Pepper turned, wide-eyed, to Natasha, who just shrugged. "Things got a little out of hand," she said.
Rogers was flushed and panting, and though he was under control, now, he was still clearly furious. "That was my choice. You had no right to go making that decision for me, you asshole—"
“Well I did, so suck it up,” Barnes said back, a little thickly; he was carefully adjusting his nose, which looked broken. "What, you weren’t gonna marry Peggy? You remember how it was. We weren’t going to be registering for no wedding china – it would have been fear and misery and shit on a stick—"
Natasha nodded and murmured, "The closet."
"What closet?" Barnes put his tongue in his cheek. "We were so poor, we didn't have a fucking closet."
Steve's mouth worked. "You can’t possibly think—"
“Yeah, I can, I really can," Barnes shot back. "Jesus, the ego on you, it’s unbelievable. I'm sorry you’re only a supersoldier and not the immortal controller of all men’s minds like you clearly want to be. But I get an opinion here, too,” and Steve sighed then and scrubbed his face and said, “All right, yeah.”
“Wait, that’s it? That works?” Natasha asked, and Barnes shrugged.
“Works for me,” Barnes said. “He gets up his own ass, he needs to be smacked around a bit.”
Steve twitched a little guiltily, and then mumbled to Pepper, "I'll replace the—the bar there. I'm sorry," and then, irritably, at Bucky: "I have all this money, for the first time I don’t mind spending it. I’d buy Stark a new bar every two weeks for the pleasure of punching you in the face."
"Well, you're probably going to have to save up," Barnes said, unperturbed. "That was some handcut Tuscan marble over there.” He went to the tap behind the broken bar and came back with two dishtowels of ice. Rogers accepted his grudgingly. "Look, someone had to step up," Barnes said, "and someone had to step back." He smiled thinly. "You had a choice about how to be – I didn't."
"I didn't either, the way you fixed things," Rogers said, a little bitterly.
Barnes's face clouded and he looked away. "You have all my sympathy," he said, "believe me," and he moved to step away but Rogers put a hand on his arm.
"But you can choose now, right? So choose now," Rogers said, and then, more plaintively, "Choose me now," but Barnes just pursed his lips, and then his mouth curled up into a wry, wicked smile.
"Sorry," he drawled, slowly shaking his head, "but I never had any damn choice about you," and Rogers just reached out like it was nothing and pulled their mouths together, easy as breathing. They kissed like they owned each other.
Rogers shot a quick, embarrassed glance at Natasha when they broke apart, and she stifled a grin. "So," she said, teasing, "was that your first kiss since 1945?" and Barnes wasn't even looking at her when he said, faintly, "Yeah, actually. Maybe. Yeah, I think maybe it was."