One of them is usually dead, to begin with--
The punching bag slams against the wall, shatters. Steve shakes out his hand.
"You okay?" Bucky asks. He’s leaning against the door, arms crossed across his chest. The grin sneaking across his mouth suggests he’s not actually worried. The soft snicker confirms it. Steve blushes; heat spreads from between his shoulders up to his ears, and he rubs a hand across the nape of his neck.
"Fine," Steve says. He bites his lip so he doesn’t smile.
"Fine," Bucky says.
"Alive, at least," Steve says. He looks at Bucky as pointedly as he can manage.
Bucky draws first blood.
Steve breaks one of Bucky's fingers, snap.
A cut across Steve's ear. His cheek.
A punch, kick, legs slamming against legs. Against floor. A grunt. Thump. "блядь."
Natasha looks at the two of them, tangled on the floor, bleeding. She walks back out into the hallway. Her heels clacking against the floor like an old Browning Machine Gun. Steve catches his breath with an ease that still feels faked. He presses a finger against a bruise on his chest, already healing.
Bucky spits. "Damn," he says.
Steve pulls his t-shirt over his head, rips it in two. Hands half of it to Bucky, then uses the other half to wipe his face. "Sorry," he says. Bucky is studying his finger. He hisses as he tests the way it bends. "You want I could," Steve adds. He tears a small strip of fabric from the shirt. Bucky holds out his hand.
"Thanks," Bucky says. Steve starts to wrap his finger. "Tighter," Bucky says, and Steve complies. "Yeah. Good."
The door snicks closed, and Steve tenses, ready for battle. Natasha swings her shoes in one hand, head tilted to the right. She doesn't blink. She tosses them two bottles of water, a towel. White.
"Thanks," Steve says. He finishes his water in one go.
Bucky's throat works as he swallows, and he stops drinking when the bottle is only half-empty. He twists the cap closed. Looks up at Natasha. "How long you there?" he asks.
"Long enough," she says.
Bucky snorts. "Long enough," he echoes.
Natasha smiles. Steve concentrates on binding Bucky's finger.
Bucky's dead, is the thing of it--
Bucky's hunched over his desk, maps and schematics everywhere. He presses a Negra Modela against his forehead as he flips through the pages. Natasha sits cross-legged at the center of a circle of knives. A frilly pillow near her knee. She picks up a knife, tries to fit it down the front of her dress; the hilt sticks up too far, and she pulls it out. Tries again with another.
Steve coughs. "So," he says, "I've been reliably informed I was a real jackass the other day."
"No kidding," Bucky says. He scribbles something with a stub of a pencil. Crosses it out.
Natasha sighs. Mutters something in Russian under her breath, too fast and mumbled to catch. She tosses a knife at the target on the back of the closet. A bullseye. Of course. She starts polishing another blade, testing the sharpness on her finger. A spot of red, and she sucks her finger into her mouth.
"So," Steve says. He forces himself to look at Bucky, at the line of his neck as he leans over his work. "Hey, I'm sorry."
Bucky grunts. Snaps his pencil between his fingers. "Fuck," he says. He rummages in a drawer for another pencil, dumping papers and clips and pens onto the floor. "Kid, I'll make you sorry." He doesn't sound like he means it.
"Anytime, anyplace, hotshot," Steve says. He punches his right fist against his left palm. Repeats it a couple of times like Tim and Johnny from the old neighborhood. He even grunts like Johnny. Once.
Bucky bites his lip. Says, "Ooh, I'm scared" between bouts of laughter.
"I do not know why I put up with either of you," Natasha says.
Bucky sticks out his tongue, wiggles it. Makes a kissing sound. "It's my mouth," he says.
Steve's face goes hot. He can't think of the right thing to say. "I," he says, "I-"
"Good with your mouth, too," Natasha quips, "If Sharon's to be believed."
"Well," Steve says. Bucky tosses Natasha his lucky penknife--"Fine, you win," he says--and Natasha smiles like she's going on assignment in a heretofore unknown nuclear stronghold in Iran. "We, uh, that is. We brokeupagainlastnight, so," Steve finishes.
Natasha throws Bucky's penknife back at him. Blade out. It misses his ear by an inch, maybe less. "I am the king!" Bucky crows. He pulls his penknife out of the wall. "Um, sorry about Sharon, Steve," he adds. "I'm sure you'll kiss and make up any day now."
"Sure," Steve says. He holds in the urge to kick his foot out. There aren't any rocks to send flying.
"Two months, tops," Natasha says.
"Two weeks," Bucky adds, and he holds up his penknife, twirling it between his fingers.
"Stop betting on my love life!" Steve says.
"King James," Natasha says. She pulls out a gun, gesturing with it as she talks. "Stop betting on Cap's love life. It's not nice. Now finish those reports before we end up leaving without them."
"I should," Steve says. He gestures toward the door. Starts inching in that direction.
"You could help me with these damned maps," Bucky says. He runs a hand across his chin, scraping against the stubble. He tosses Steve a pencil, two pads, a paper tube. Steve catches them all in one hand. Slides down so he's sitting on the floor, back against the wall. He opens the tube. Pulls out a couple of oversized maps. "Use those to draw me something I can carry."
"The smaller the better," Natasha adds.
"Right," Steve says. He rolls out one of the maps in front of him. Licks the tip of his pencil and begins to draw.
Steve falls asleep on the floor. Wakes up with pencil smudges on his cheek, barely stiff, alone.
They're all breathing, for once--
"Go," Tony says.
Steve doesn't ask twice. He runs.
The cabin is hidden by forces Steve wants to know nothing about. One minute he's staring into an endless forest of evergreens, the next a clearing appears. Smoke puffing up from the chimney. Steve rubs his hand over his eyes. Puts one foot in front of the other.
Natasha opens the door before Steve can knock.
Is he okay, Steve doesn't ask. He steps inside. Follows Natasha--barefoot and silent as they cross the hardwood; his own boots loud and echoing and obvious--into the back room. "Bucky," Steve says.
"Asleep," Natasha says.
Steve sits on the edge of the sofa. It creaks beneath his weight.
"A few bruises, a cracked rib," Natasha adds. She sits down in the leather chair across from him, legs crossed. Bucky lets out a rattling snore, and she smiles. "He'll be fine in the morning. Better than fine."
"Of course," Steve says.
Natasha reaches across to take one of his hands between hers. Steve inhales, relaxes his muscles one by one. Bucky continues to snore, whistles alternating with train track grumbles, and Steve listens to it like it's an Ella Fitzgerald record.
"C'mon," Natasha says. She releases his hand with a quick tap and stands. Steve stands with her. "I'm starving. Let's go rummage in the kitchen to see what Tony Stark's idea of eating rough entails. I'm guessing there's at least one jar of caviar."
"Fondue," Steve says. "I bet there's a fondue pot in one of the cabinets, good cheese in the fridge."
"Wine," Natasha says.
Steve offers her his arm, and she wraps her arm around his forearm. Fingers resting against his wrist. Her callouses rough and familiar.
Steve wonders for a second what it would be like to kiss her.
Her waxy lipstick, mouth cold as vodka.
The heat of her, pressed against him.
Bucky's hands against his throat, shoving him against the nearest wall.
Steve trips over the edge of a rug; Natasha catches him before he can fall, and his face catches fire.
"Food," she says, "Before you faint of hunger."
Steve opens the refrigerator and pulls out a block of cheese, a loaf of suspiciously fresh-looking crusty bread. Three jars of caviar--each with a different label--are lined up on the top shelf, next to a squat little jar of mustard.
"Do you actually want caviar," Steve asks, "Or did you just want to prove Tony'd have it?"
"Either, really," Natasha says. She kneels down and opens the cabinet nearest the oven. She pulls something out; places it on the counter top with a metallic clank. "Your fondue pot is here, too."
Steve tosses her the block of cheese.
Natasha pulls the cork out of a bottle of red wine with a penknife. Drinks from the bottle and then offers it to Steve. "C'mon," she says, "This is actually the good stuff."
He takes the bottle and lifts it to his mouth. It mostly tastes like wine to him; less tinny than some of the really bad stuff, but just a touch too close to vinegar and tobacco and dirt. He swallows a small sip and hands the bottle back to Natasha.
"I knew that 'can't get drunk' line was just a line," Bucky says. He's pale, but standing.
"James," Natasha says.
"Buck," Steve says.
Bucky walks into the kitchen carefully, steadily. "Just a flesh wound, kids," he says. He flashes the smile that charmed girls from Manhattan to Coney Beach and back again, the smile Steve has never been able to resist. Not death, not rebirth, not death again has ever changed that. "What's for dinner?"
The fondue congeals, turns lumpy. They throw the entire pot in the trash.
Steve's alive, is the thing--
Natasha sits on the edge of Bucky's bed with her hand over Bucky’s heart. Bucky smiles, runs his fingers along her arm. Steve knocks on the edge of the door frame. Bucky isn't wearing a shirt. Natasha's bra is black and red. Steve feels overdressed, still in uniform, and his fingers twitch for his shield.
You want I should close the door?, he doesn't ask. You want I should come in?
"I was just going to," Steve says.
"Stay," Bucky says. He chuckles to himself. Sits up. Natasha wraps her arm around Bucky's shoulders, leans into his side. Her skirt bunches up a little as she tucks her leg beneath her. "Or, hey, you can go and we'll pretend this never happened. But Natasha and me, you should stay."
Steve leans against the door frame. Says, "Oh."
"Yeah," Bucky says.
Steve looks at Natasha, watches as she kisses the underside of Bucky's jaw. "Yeah?" he asks her.
She smiles. Her lipstick smudged against Bucky's skin. Steve takes two steps forward, stopping when his knees bump against the edge of the mattress. His hands reach out of their own accord: his right lands on Natasha's shoulder, the left on Bucky's chest. He leans forward. Bucky's lips are chapped, the skin around them raw and stubbled. When Steve pulls back to breathe, Natasha presses a quick kiss on the spot where Bucky's teeth drew blood.
"Okay," Steve says. "Yes."