Tony is thirteen when he first understands that there is something missing, a distinct absence of some instinct that seems to fuel the inane and uncomfortable conversations that take place in smoky rooms a few steps removed from the achingly extravagant opulence of parties their parents throw.
They are young and restless, passing around a stolen bottle of cheap whiskey that burns in the back of their throats, nurturing the flame that already flickers in their bellies. They snuff it out with hand rolled cigarettes and laugh about how they’d like to tend to a different kind of candle, with that girl, Mrs So-and-So’s daughter, the one in the red dress.
Tony thinks about how that girl has been so patient, dancing all night with the children that only reach her knees, letting them perch on her expensive shoes as she twirls them around the ballroom, the red dress cascading behind her, an unintentional rag to a different kind of bull.
He listens as they describe what the dress hides, and can think only of his mother crying as she tries to tug a too-small gown down over her chest. They talk about the girl as though she’s a gift to be unwrapped, and he cannot imagine fanaticising about something that sounds so outrageously physical and weighed down by the complexity of human emotion. He thinks he would prefer to lay underneath the heap of a car he’s remodelling, get ‘down and dirty’ with mechanics rather than another person.
He wants to put it down to being a certified genius, to having interests with more importance. It is, instead, the first time he considers he could simply be young and naïve, even as he takes a drag of the cigarette and washes it back with the expensive scotch one of the other boys stole from the liquor cabinet.
He nods along with their crude explanations, laughs at their jokes and hopes they don’t hear the bitter undertone to his mirth. When he leaves with his parents he brushes a gentle kiss against the cheekbone of the girl they talked about and apologises in a breathy whisper against her ear. For what exactly he’s not entirely sure.
Bucky is sixteen when he stands on the docks, hefting supplies and listening to the chatter of the other boys who had used their wages in low-lit rooms with girls more desperate for money than they were. He doesn’t have any money to spare, anything that isn’t going to putting food in the mouth of his sister and his mother being used for medicine that Mrs Rogers hopes will see Steve through another bitter Brooklyn winter.
The boys he works with are young and stupid; so is he. On breaks, they tell tales of back alley conquests, women with bright red lipstick leaving marks on their collars. Bucky listens quietly, his attention a small price to pay for the hot coffee they share. Tar-like and steaming, he can wrap his hands around it, the warmth leaching into his frozen fingers, slipping down his throat and warming him from the inside out. If he’s especially lewd, makes a particularly crude joke, they might give him a second cup when he leaves for home. If he’s careful as he walks, avoiding the people who push and shove, he can carry it all the way, heat it back up and give it to Steve.
They all work hard and play harder, but Bucky has long since realised that he enjoys different pastimes. He used to think he might be like the people the others call fairies, but he has been sharing a bed with Steve since before he can remember, and never once imagined it to be for anything more than sharing body heat on nights so cold it seemed all the blankets in the world couldn’t stop the chill. He’s more aware now that he simply doesn’t care, but he fears the people he works with on the dock would think him odder for that. Even Steve, weak and sickly, keeps a book that he thinks Bucky doesn’t know about, filled with tasteful sketches of faceless girls. Bucky doesn’t quite understand it himself; he likes to date, enjoys taking a dame out to dinner and dancing, but as soon as her hand wanders beneath his shirt he loses interest. He makes the mistake of telling a girl this, once, and she slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. He wants to explain to her that it’s not like what she assumed – that he was in it for the chase and nothing more – but the words I don’t like sex get muddled somewhere in his head and he can’t quite cough them up from lungs that burn where he’s been holding his breath. By the time he’s puzzled it out, she’s left.
He decides after that not to tell anyone; how can he expect anyone else to understand it when he can’t begin to explain himself? He just catalogues it in the back of his head, listens to the stories traded on the dock and accepts his cup of coffee; at least it’s warm.
Tony wakes up in a cave in Afghanistan and it is dark and dirty in a way that is not familiar to him. His life is tethered to a car battery, and technology has never been so crucial to his livelihood until now. He spends countless hours between four mud walls and misses everything under the sun; his phone, his cars, Pepper, Rhodey, his ‘bots, food, a decent shower, alcohol, his bed. By God, he even misses Hammer, sincerely regrets not having a chance to part with one last quip. He does not miss sex, and there on a dusty cave floor with a piece of machinery strapped to his chest, he decides he is not going to do it anymore. He has spent years of his life very carefully cultivating a public persona designed specifically to make his father roll in his grave, but he doesn’t want to pretend anymore. If he can miss so much, realise so achingly suddenly how dearly he holds those things close to him, he wants to spend the rest of his abysmally short life cherishing them. He doesn’t have time to pretend anymore.
He knows there are words for it now, but he has never felt the need to use them before. He enjoys dating both men and women; when journalists asked him how he identified, he snapped off a quick genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. He does not want to name this part of himself either, but he takes comfort in knowing there is a word for it. A word means a label. A label means it applies to someone else too.
So Tony builds a suit and it flies him out of the boundaries of terrorists and into the constrictions of ignorance. He says goodbye to a doctor with a kind heart and a steady hand and when he is told don’t waste your life he decides to do everything within his power to make it worthwhile. He goes home, and he doesn’t even try to pretend again.
Bucky wakes up in a world that is seventy years ahead of the last time he was himself and listens to someone tell him he has spent seven decades under the control of someone else. He feels as though someone has plunged him in ice water, and there is a tickling in the back of his mind that reminds him; that has happened before. Someone has plunged him into ice water, and he had not liked it. He kicks and screams and struggles himself into a drugged oblivion. Steve is there when he wakes up again, standing next to a man that he sometimes calls Tony and sometimes calls Iron Man and sometimes calls Stark and it all makes Bucky’s head spin. Steve warns him that Tony/Iron Man/Stark is Howard’s son, but that he and Howard didn’t get along, and Bucky shouldn’t mention him. Bucky is still trying to match a picture he has in his head of Howard – standing on stage and grinning like a madman, kissing showgirls like that was what he was paid to do – to someone who was a father. He decides that it might just be easier to forget about Howard altogether.
He claws his way through days where he doesn’t want to crawl out from under the covers and earns his hard fought sanity. Steve tells him time and time again how proud he is and Bucky stops feeling ashamed for being a little bit proud of himself. He sorts through parts of himself, bit by painstaking bit, and is startled to remember, as Parker suggests a game he calls ‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’ one lazy night in the communal lounge, that he did not enjoy sex.
He attended all the SHIELD briefings, knows that this is normal now, that Steve happily calls himself gay and Tony (Tony, not Stark or Iron Man but Tony, the man who fixes his arm and makes him smoothies and tells terrible jokes that make Bucky laugh and Steve clench his jaw) mentions candidly that he is ‘not straight’. He knows there is a word for it now, and he rolls it around on his tongue, tries asexual out for size and is thrilled to discover it fits perfectly. When it comes to his turn he states blandly that he’s asexual, so he wouldn’t fuck anyone, and he’s a former assassin, so he’d probably kill them all. Tony lets out a short bark of laughter, the kind Bucky has come to learn means that the sound was shocked out of him. It feels good, warms him more than any mug of tar-like sludge the men used to produce on the docks. He has stopped feeling ashamed for being proud of himself, and he is starting to learn there are lots of reasons he should be.
Tony tells everyone that his special brand of ‘not straight’ means he doesn’t like sex. He winks at Bucky though, and mentions snuggling is not off the table.
Bucky goes to his first Pride and Tony manages to create a temporary paint for his metal arm for the occasion. The first time Bucky doesn’t wear long sleeves his entire left side is covered in rainbows.
Tony falls asleep on top of Bucky during movie night, and Bucky decides snuggling is not off the table for him either.
Bucky takes Tony out for dinner and dancing and this time, when it gets to the end of the night, a chaste kiss earns him a sleepy smile instead of a sharp backhand.
They are comfortable together, and they are happy. There is no pretending, only pride. When Bucky listens to stories told by his friends he joins in on the laughter, recounts disastrous attempts at sleeping with the girls he used to take on double dates. When Tony sees a red dress he no longer thinks of a patient girl, dancing with children on her feet.
Together, Bucky and Tony dismiss the need for bitten tongues and whispered apologies. There is no need for anything but them.