It started in the rec room. Well, if Steve was honest it had probably started years before that, but consciously, as it were, it started in the rec room.
(He tried hard not to think too much about what that said about the state of his self-awareness.)
Early morning in December; the team weren't in yet, and Steve had frozen his nose off riding his bike in to the compound. There was no one around to see, so he was rubbing it with the palm of his hand as he walked into the kitchen, and there, comfortably ensconced in the corner of the counter between Steve and the coffee-maker, Bucky was kissing a girl.
Nothing new there. Steve's automatic reaction was torn between delight that Bucky had found a girl to kiss once again and childish disgust that he had to look at it. The girl was sitting on the counter, one of her legs cocked over Bucky's hip; his broad shoulders and back hid her from Steve's view, blocked her in. Gleaming metal was caressing her thigh, and Steve wondered for a moment what it must be like to let the Winter Soldier manhandle you onto a kichen counter and kiss you silly - all that power leashed, all that strength bent on giving you pleasure. The girl was making sweet, happy little noises that made Steve... uncomfortable. When Bucky hummed and laughed quietly he cleared his throat loudly.
"Oh, morning," Bucky said cheerfully, pulling back and turning round all soft-faced and happy and Jesus Christ the girl was Nat. She was a little flushed, her eyes sparkling and her hair mussed, her lush mouth swollen and wet, and she couldn't seem to take her hands off Bucky, and in that instant Steve didn't know which of them he hated more.
"Can I get a coffee before the floor show starts?" his mouth said without any intervention from his brain whatsoever.
Fortunately Bucky had known him for a century, and his laugh headed Natasha off, though her eyes had narrowed dangerously. "Still not a morning person."
"Never will be," said Steve.
"Come and get your coffee," Natasha said, deciding to smile at him, a proper smile no less. "Sorry we're misuing communal property." The smile became a grin, dark and wicked, her eyes lidded, and when she slipped off the counter in a graceful slide and Bucky wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close, her face upturned to smile at him, Steve found he was breathless.
It didn't take a genius to work out why they did it. All that time they'd had to keep each other secret was over, gone, done with, and it was obvious from several hundred miles away that they were revelling in it. Within two days of that kiss in the kitchen everyone in the compound knew about them, for the very simple reason that they were sickeningly and constantly affectionate with each other. You might have dismissed the endearments Bucky directed at Natasha as teasing – he called Wanda ‘witch’ with obvious fondness and had not lost the old habit of calling people ‘kid’ when they annoyed him – but for the look on his face when he said them. Nor was Natasha’s little smile when he used them open to interpretation.
Once and only once did Steve hear her use one for him. They had busted one of Hydra’s charming subsidiaries that liked to experiment on enhanced people, and the raid, while short, had been fairly brutal. Steve was standing in the middle of the lab with his fingers clenched around his gun. Over the knuckles of his left hand, his glove was wet and sticky with blood; it was slowly rolling down his fingers, disgustingly ticklish. The sight of this place – all lab tables and massive leather straps and neat, scientific rows of syringes – made him want to march out into the corridor, fetch that Hydra agent back, and punch him until not only his nose but his entire skull and indeed every bone in his body was shattered. Natasha’s face was white, but she gave no other sign of being disturbed. Beside Steve Bucky was rolling his left wrist with an irritated look. He’d blocked a bullet with his hand earlier, and his face, too, was too perfectly composed for it to be real.
“OK?” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, sounding annoyed. “Edge of the plate’s dented. Shitty impact angle.”
Natasha looked round; for the first time since they’d broken into the facility proper her face cleared, grimness replaced with exasperation. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“It’s what it’s for,” said Bucky, exasperated back.
“And it hurts you, darling, can’t you just dodge like the rest of us?”
Something terrible and hot swamped Steve’s chest; he didn’t know why he’d never thought of it before – Bucky had been in agony in Siberia, gone into shock – why had he not realised sooner that of course if Bucky had sensation in that arm, he would feel it every time he blocked a bullet with it? Natasha had worked it out, why hadn’t he? And the way she’d said ‘darling’, soft and sweet, as if concern for him had overtaken self-restraint…
Bucky smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling deeply, his whole face softening; he reached out with the offending hand and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Like you’re so good at that.”
Natasha’s face relaxed at last into a tiny smile as sweet as any Steve had ever seen, and when she turned her face into Bucky’s hand he looked away.
So yeah. Common knowledge. Clint thought it was cute. Tony stumped around the place for several weeks acting as if Nat had jilted him at the altar, which Steve found secretly hilarious, and for once in his life actually set himself to ignoring Bucky instead of constantly trying to provoke him into a fight. Sam was disgusted, but that was because Sam refused to approve of anything Bucky did or like him in any way.
“What’s the next big step, booby-trapping a safehouse together and moving in to live in happy joint paranoia?” he needled.
“Oh we do that already,” Bucky said vaguely.
Sam turned an impenetrable look on Steve, of all people, across the breadth of the rec room dining table. It wasn’t my fault, Steve felt like whining, and kept his face impassive: hell if he was going to admit in public that they hadn’t asked him to help shift the furniture. Or, you know, told him at all. Of course Bucky had been living in some tiny safehouse-type place for months and had no furniture to move in, which was fair enough, but geez, all this time Steve had been dropping unsubtle hints about safety and normality and buying a chest of drawers instead of keeping your clothes in plastic IKEA boxes and above all about his own empty guest room culminating in Bucky moving in with someone else entirely was adding insult to injury, wasn’t it?
“Since when?” Sam said.
“Uh, since always?” Bucky said. “Wasted enough time, don’t you think?”
Sam narrowed his eyes angrily, looking for something to poke at in that statement, but Natasha had come in on the heels of Bucky’s words, and she wandered across the room – a little too innocently, Steve thought, all swaying hips and absent-minded looks – and wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind.
“Wasted enough time doing what?” She gave Sam a smile that was so bright and so happy you would have to be a total moron to miss the warning in it.
Sam was not, fondness for needling unstoppable assassins and signing up for experimental military tech programmes aside, a total moron. He said nothing.
“Not living together,” Bucky explained.
“Oh!” Natasha said, looking down at him; there it was, that softening in her face, the way her eyes lit up. “That was a waste of time. I like being able to put my hands on you whenever I feel like it.”
Bucky tipped his head back against her, long throat exposed, laughing soundlessly. Sam said, “Gross!”, deliberately childish. Steve said, “I gotta go sort out that briefing,” and abandoned his half-eaten sandwich, a glass of juice and the last ten pages of his book at a pace he, irrationally but desperately, wanted to let become a dead run.
So yeah. No hiding, no shyness, no pretense at perhaps, at let's try this, at wait and see. What must it be like to have that kind of certainty, the unshakeable conviction that you loved and were loved, that this was it: peak ascended, end of line reached? Steve had no idea. Well, he kind of did. Someone would need to mess with his head pretty damn seriously to get him to doubt Bucky or Natasha's friendship, their caring for him, the solidity of what bound the three of them together. But when he saw them smile at each other he saw the secrets in it too, and part of him ached to know what that must be like, that sharing.
It was just that he was kind of lonely, that was all. Not the way he had been before DC, but still, you know. He should try harder, go out and meet someone. Find someone with whom he could share that connection that so fascinated him between Natasha and Bucky. He should. That was all it was.
At some point it started to get on his last damn nerve. Were they ever not together?
According to Steve's one semi-reliable source (Sam - only semi-reliable because his determination to dislike Bucky continued unabated in the face of Natasha's unabashed pleasure in letting the whole damn world know how happy Buck made her), this was perfectly normal new-couple behaviour.
"They're not new," Steve said, stung into a temper by the unfairness of it all. "They've been at this for" - he waved a hand, speechless - "however long!"
"Awwww," said Sam, exaggeratedly sarcastic. "You jealous cause he's not hanging off your coattails anymore?"
"Jesus, we've never hung off each other's fucking coattails."
Sam jumped. Hell, Steve jumped. He put his half-empty beer down with an angry thunk, got to his feet, dropped cash on the bar counter, and said, "You know what, I'm a mess, I need some sleep. I'll see you tomorrow, OK?"
He was halfway across the bar before Sam even managed a goodbye.
The first few times it had been amazing and hilarious. “You do this for fun,” Bucky had said as Natasha and Steve had, with what was, in retrospect, probably inappropriate glee, dragged him into the skydiving place. “God, I’m a moron.” Not long after that he’d discovered their massive joint collection of terrible Eighties movies and very nearly wept; his face had scrunched up into a suspicious look that reminded Steve of nothing so much as internet grumpy cat pictures, prompting a sudden ridiculous urge for Steve to go over there and put his arms round Bucky’s shoulders and hug him.
And the weekend after that, the way Natasha had turned up for the game kitted out in a team sweater and a baseball cap that was nothing short of adorable. “I don’t want to intrude on your, like, guy time,” she’d said when they had invited her, and Steve now needed two hands to count off the number of times he’d seen her anxious. “Our what,” he’d said, and Bucky had said, “Huh?” and then they had bitched to her for four straight hours about How Modern Baseball Had Fallen So Far, and she had laughed at them and neither dumped Bucky nor cut off contact with Steve. That girl, Steve’s Ma – having had strong opinions about baseball herself – would have said, is a keeper.
But that had been the first few times. Now Steve would about give his right hand for 'guy time'. And his left for whatever the equivalent was with Nat. She and Bucky were constantly together.
They were constantly letting everyone see they were together. they touched all the time, and Bucky had a trick of kissing Natasha's hands at parting, and as soon as he sat down anywhere she liked to slink up behind him and play with his hair, leaning on the back of his chair or his shoulders. It was, Steve had to admit, ridiculous hair. It always had been - thick and dark and with a trick of tousling itself that had once driven Bucky up the walls, but now he seemed to enjoy. When Natasha slid her fingers into it he would tip his head back and his eyes would half-close, lazy and content as a cat being petted. Steve – being the world’s leading expert in Bucky Barnes’ body language – thought that Buck even moved differently. Nothing riled him anymore, as if his and Natasha’s relationship were the calm around which the rest of the world could blow up as it chose, and yet not disturb him.
With Natasha it was more subtle – she always gave you a sense of composure and confidence. But Steve found it easy to persuade himself that it was More Than That now. Surreptitiously he watched her body language, the way she moved her hands – Natasha’s hands were always her tell. She had even let her hair grow. She tied it in messy knots or ponytails at the back of her head, more casual than Steve had ever seen her treat her hair before; it matched, somehow, with the loose, relaxed set of her shoulders, how often you saw her smile these days. Sometimes he had an urge to reach out and tug the band out, let it tumble down over her shoulders in shining waves. He loved the way she changed her hair. It was so - it was just so Nat.
He watched them both, he supposed, much more than he should. If anyone had noticed and asked him he would have said he was happy to see them happy, but the truth was that he couldn’t not watch them. When he was in the room with them both they permanently occupied a very large percentage of his attention, and he was never not in the room with them both. Steve had never before imagined a day when he would resent Natasha Romanov’s presence at ball games or lunch or Friday night beers the way he’d used to resent Bucky’s dates before the war. Natasha wasn’t some girl. She was his best friend.
Even in his head that came out wrong.
The point was – he couldn’t do anything with either of them anymore without having it rubbed in his face that they were deliriously happy with each other, and it wrong-footed Steve completely. True, he was one-hundred-percent used to resenting Bucky’s presence. You didn’t grow up in each other’s pockets since the age of four without having days where each of you wished the other one safely on the other side of the planet. Probably it was a good thing, that the light-headed burst of happiness he got when he looked at Bucky – whole and hale and safe and at Steve’s side again where he belonged – while still extant, had faded enough, that their relationship had become normal enough again, for the old exasperation to creep back in. But resenting Bucky’s presence because he, Steve Rogers, wanted to hang out with Bucky’s girl was a whole new and disturbing experience.
God he wished he’d never found out.
Sometimes in his more melodramatic moments he made a resolution to not spend so much time with them, but for god's sake, both of his best friends; it wasn't feasible. Besides, not seeing them ached worse than seeing them, recalling all those empty months at SHIELD, and - argh. No. No avoiding. Anyway, what would he say? Sorry I can't hang out with you guys, seeing you happy makes me sick? What the actual - he disgusted himself right now, he really did.
Still, he should have known that they would notice something was up. Terrifyingly competent assassin superspies! And also the only two people in the world who knew him inside out and backwards. Really, he should have known.
At the very least he should have had the common sense not to put himself on stakeout duty alone with Natasha.
The first hour they played silly word games; the second hour they passed by gleefully massacring a number of terrible movies, and sometime during the third hour, after Steve had been nicely lulled into a false sense of security and was paying more attention to the possible-Hydra-base than Natasha, she tapped his arm and said casually, "It doesn't bother you, does it?"
"Course not," Steve said absently, because whatever she was talking about he would fake it till he made it to make sure she was happy. Then he frowned. "What doesn't bother me?"
"Me and James."
"It bothers me that you call him James," said Steve, scrambling to get his thoughts together. He didn't actually need the binoculars at this distance and she knew it, but he lifted them anyway and peered through them, feeling like an idiot.
"I like teasing him," she said. "I like knowing enough about him to be able to tease." He could hear the smile in her voice when she added, “I like having every name that belongs to him, even if he doesn’t use them himself.”
Steve had heard Bucky call her Natalia often enough to understand that that probably went both ways. He refused to turn to her. "I'm - I'm glad you're happy."
"Are you?" Very soft.
He was horrified. "Nat, of course!" Now he made the mistake of looking at her; the dim light shone on her hair, and her face was solemn and curious, her mouth pursed. "I -" he said, and found words had failed him. For an age they stared at each other. Her eyes, more gray than green in this light, flicked over him from head to foot, studied his face minutely.
Steve drew a sharp breath. Natasha's lips parted, her eyes wide, something like understanding blazing up in them; then Steve broke away from her gaze and turned back to the window, something clenching in his chest, and behind him he heard her sigh softly.
"I don't know," Natasha said. "I don't know which -" Or if both. But the idea of that made her breathless, aching with something half fear and half hope. "But you should have seen his face." Poor darling; even at Peggy Carter’s funeral he had hidden his pain better. Only the knowledge of how badly he would take it had kept her from putting her arms around him and holding him close and promising – things she had no right to promise; not without James.
Sometimes she wanted to cackle hysterically, thinking of the mess she'd dumped herself in: escape your handlers and try and be a real person and mourn, if you can bear to, your long-lost love, and maybe, maybe learn to trust someone else, someone who from time to time reminds you of said love on some subconscious level you can't begin to understand; and now discover that his long-lost love (fine, best friend, whatever) is also yours, and please untangle that Gordian knot of feelings by morning, Agent Romanov, and don't let it impair your ability to do your job in any case. The mess that had resulted from her decision to act on her attraction to Bruce had been a paradise of restful peace in comparison.
And now this. Typical Steve, she thought, torn between resentment and hilarity, not to want what was under his nose until someone made him think he wasn't allowed to have it. Twice over, no less!
"I can imagine," James said, and heaved a sigh that gusted against her bare shoulder. Her back was pressed to his chest, her head pillowed on his bicep; every now and then his left hand would caress her. His leg was thrown over hers, trapping her in the bed. She had never felt so safe. Or so wanted. Yet - for the first time she let herself imagine it: Steve's smile and his dry humour, his big hands on her body - on James', oh god. What would they look like, together? What would it be like to have them both? From where she was standing it looked a lot like simple math: the more you loved like this, the more you were loved like this, the happier you were...
And then, surely, some bored god or other would find her out and strike her down for it; hubris, and utterly amoral besides, to seize so much for yourself. Natasha swallowed. "If we -"
"It's Steve," said James. "Clueless is his middle name. And reacting badly to unexpected feelings his other middle name."
Natasha made a noise which, despite a great deal of teasing, she always refused to admit had any resemblance to a giggle. Then an unpleasant thought arose. "You're not worried about what he'll do, are you - if you talk to him?"
"Huh?" James said blankly. Then, "Oh! No. Although, he's never talked about it."
"I think this is the point where I make a joke about men never talking about anything important to them," Natasha said dryly. She was fairly sure they did talk, actually, though it was quite possible that they didn't do so in express words. They had a trick sometimes of moving in tandem that looked telepathic. The funny thing about Steve was that he told you about himself when he thought it would do you good. He was not very good at simply sitting down and reminiscing because he wanted you to know something about him.
The fact was, that man needed to be hugged more often. If she'd ever thought he would let her, Natasha would have happily taken a sledgehammer to that glass wall with which he fenced in his personal space...
Well, no. It had not been about let, all this time. It had been about reciprocate. Natasha was no coward, but she didn't fight hopeless causes when there was no one to be saved by it, either.
"Funny." James kissed her shoulder, and she felt his smile against her skin. "Any rate, I'll... feel him out. How hard can it be?"
Natasha laughed. "You've known him for a century, you tell me." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "And then what? I've never had a threesome before."
"Neither have I, actually."
Again she laughed; she never ever laughed so much as when she was with him – it wasn’t, she sometimes thought, even that James was so much funnier than anyone else she knew, but just that he made her so damn happy she was prepared to laugh at anything. "There goes your reputation."
"Only in the one area." James snugged her closer, kissed her shoulder again, the side of her face, her ear; Natasha shivered, letting her body move with his, heat building up, sweet anticipation; she could still feel him from earlier, and suddenly she wanted to fall asleep with pleasure humming through her and their bodies still joined, knowing that there was no real need for them to move apart, ever again. "Everything else, I assure you, is entirely up to advertising standard -"
Up, yes. Natasha wriggled her ass against him, biting her lip against a snigger. "You're terrible."
"I know, I know. I adore you, though."
The words made something melt liquid hot in her chest. She sighed softly, catching his left hand in hers and raising it to kiss his fingertips. "I love you too." She shifted to lie on her back in the curve of his arm, looking up at him. His pale eyes were bright with amusement and hot with growing lust, and he was biting his mouth; the lush soft mouth that had first taught her pleasure, showed her how to smile. Natasha touched it, stroked his face. Put through hell, and dragged himself out the other side determined to do good with what he'd been made, to never hurt an innocent again; his courage and his strength took her breath away sometimes. All that, and what he chose to be, as much as he could, was - kind. "I love you."
James kissed her, and she wound her arms around his neck, and neither of them spoke of Steve again that night.
Of course, to Bucky's way of thinking, the real question was, if both, temporary or permanent? Steve had never been fickle, but he had always been unpredictable when it came to his own feelings. Hurt pride and pre-emptive mistrustfulness had characterised most of his teenage years, and though Bucky had laughed it off to Nat he did sort of wonder if he would get a sock in the jaw for suggesting that Captain America might be, as Monty had once put it, bent as a nine-bob note. Steve had a tendency to accept things in others that he was mortified to admit to in himself. Vulnerability, for instance...
Though he said it as probably shouldn't. Natasha had asked him how he felt about the entire business that morning, and Bucky had looked at her and said, taken aback, "Who, me?"
Idiot had been the politest thing she'd called him. Bucky still didn't know whether to be contrite or laugh hysterically. Yes, Barnes, you get a say in whether or not you and the woman you love invite your joint best friend into your bed. (And/or your life, insofar as he was not already in it.) Moron.
Was he attracted to Steve? Duh. Those shoulders, and that perfect ass; the deep voice, and the grace with which he moved; the sound of his laugh, his flat, deadpan sense of humour that sent people into panics when he chose, because they couldn't tell if he meant it or not. The movements of his hands when he sketched, and the clear blue eyes that had been looking at Bucky the same way since they were four years old... And what of the Nat-and-Steve-together angle? Bucky gave it due consideration, and found it good. He enjoyed listening to them tease each other; he loved watching them work together. Even all these months later it made him glad to know they’d had each other, while he'd been - well. Sometimes Steve would look at Nat and his gaze would go hot, wanting – much the way he’d let himself look at Carter – and Bucky would think, wow, yeah, imagining Nat’s lithe body, her softness and her grace, tangled up in Steve; two different kinds of strength, matching each other.
Was he in love with Steve? Christ. After a century, how the fuck did you tell? Was it fair to compare his feelings for Nat with his feelings for Steve? Physical attraction aside - the jump of joy in his chest when he saw either of them, how easy and relaxed he always was in their presence, the abyss of horror when he pictured not being close to either of them -
Natasha made him feel whole; she always had done. Her competence and her smile and the kindness she tried so hard to hide had coaxed something human, something worth loving, out from behind the dead-eyed shell of the Winter Soldier. The trust she'd given him had humbled him even then, and her touch, her nervousness and her desire, had taught him again how to be gentle, solicitous, tender; how to love. She hadn't stopped there: they had given each other laughter back as well and a sense of adventure, even hope. The fact that years later and after everything he had done to her she had had the guts, the sheer unparalleled nerve, to stand in front of him again and say, I want you, stay with me, floored Bucky completely. Selfish to the bone, he'd grabbed a hold of her then and knew he would never let go...
Steve was different. He didn't coax; he demanded. He didn't wait patiently, or offer his own vulnerabilities in exchange for yours; half the time he was determined he didn't need your stupid help, and the other half he laid his plans without consulting you and just expected you to show up anyway.
And yet. And still. The quiet, sharp-faced, perpetually angry boy had grown into a man who had no concept of backing down, no idea of giving way; he would fight and fall on his own terms, and no one else's. The arrogance of it was Bucky's favourite thing about him - he was always furious because people were always being hurt, and dammit if everyone took the position that it was none of their business what the fuck kind of world were they building. And Steve was kind - he had always been kind; clumsy with it once, these days Bucky saw the way Steve kept a soft, quiet voice for injured witnesses and kids, watched how people hung off his words and brightened like sunshine when he encouraged them. Steve didn't make him whole in the way Natasha did - there was nowhere left for him to step into - they had fit themselves around each other for more than twenty years, and there could be no 'letting go', any more than Bucky could have hacked his own organs out of his torso. That was to say: he could have, but he liked living too much to ever risk it.
Permanent? It had been since 1922. If Steve had screwed himself up at last to crossing the final river, Bucky figured it was only polite to do the same. Happiness overtook him all of a sudden; he had an urge to whoop, and then to dance.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, one of those winter mornings where the light comes down brightly, reflecting off the snow and shining in the clear air, and Steve's office was round the wrong side of the building; in his worse moods he suspected Tony of doing that on purpose. Either way, he'd taken his work and repaired to the rec room, dawdling and doodling in the margins of papers while his team passed in and out and the sunlight filled up the room and made him think of summer skies and white, empty canvasses waiting to be painted on and the long-lost pleasures of snowball fights with Bucky.
Hard on the heels of that memory, the man himself arrived. Steve glanced up - no Nat? - shot him a crooked grin, and looked back at his papers; Bucky laughed.
"You don't need to look virtuous for me."
"Well, for my own self-respect, then," said Steve easily. But he put his pen down and watched Bucky make coffee - the easy stance, the broad shoulders relaxed, the line of his back captivating. Steve smiled. Bucky had made him a cup too, without asking, and put it down in front of him on his way past to the windows; the light was so bright it almost haloed him as he stood there and squinted out.
"Yeah, it is." Steve dropped his eyes again to his coffee mug as he sipped, so only heard Bucky come back across the room. "Hmm?"
"Nothing," Bucky said, settling in the armchair closest the table, where - though his back was to the main door - he had a perfect view of Steve. "Carry on."
"Thanks," Steve said dryly, and tried to do just that; but it proved impossible to shake the awareness that Bucky was watching him. Bucky had neither book nor newspaper nor phone on which to read either in electronic form; he simply sat there, with his legs crossed and his left arm laid along the back of the chair, sipping coffee and watching Steve. Every now and then he would shift his hand and the light would catch it...
Steve said, "You're looking at me."
He didn't need to look up to know what smile Bucky was wearing. "I've been looking at you since we were four years old. You'd think you'd be used to it by now."
Something hot and aching unfurled in Steve's chest and crawled into his throat to lodge there. For long moments they fell back into silence; then a woman's heels in the corridor, and the door to Steve's right opened, and Natasha walked in.
"Morning," she said, and now Steve looked up; there was something soft in her tone, something new and sweet. She was biting her lower lip and looking at Bucky, and he was smiling at her, and suddenly her face broke into the same lovely smile she always wore when she looked at Buck, and had never turned on Steve. He clenched his hand on the pen so hard it was an effort to keep it from breaking. Silence; silence. Then the lovely citrusy scent of her shampoo filled his nostrils, and her warm weight leaned on his shoulder; only training kept him from jumping out of his seat.
"Oh, the boring reports," she said, laughing by his ear, and then she ran her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, casually affectionate. "D'you want another coffee?"
"No, thanks," Steve said, and cleared his throat. Natasha hmmed, and left him to get herself a mug, with a stroke of her hand down his arm in farewell that set Steve's heart pounding.
"I'll see you later, then," Bucky said, unfolding himself out of the armchair and kissing Natasha lazily on his way to put his mug in the sink. "Mmm." Her fingers touched his face; she was smiling into the kiss, leaning up against him.
"See you." All girlish and in love. Bucky dropped a kiss on her forehead and came round the table, and before Steve knew what was happening that big warm hand had gripped his shoulder and run down his arm the same way Natasha's had.
"Come to dinner Friday?"
"Sure," Steve said, fixing his gaze on some safely neutral point slightly to the side of Bucky's right ear, and couldn't quite relax even after Bucky had left, because Natasha was still here and saying, "Oh good, Steve, I'm glad," and smiling like a summer's day.
He didn't go to dinner Friday.
They had spent all week touching him, and it was driving Steve insane. Bucky had always touched him - physical affection was important to him, not just for or from girlfriends - he liked it, giving and receiving. Natasha never had, particularly; Natasha had never touched anyone but Bucky much, unless you counted the kids. (The memory of her arms around him in the church after Peggy's funeral warmed Steve all over, even now. How good it had been to let her hold him up, just for a minute...) And now here they were - touches to his chest or back in passing, Bucky's arm over his shoulders, hand ruffling his hair, Natasha leaning her weight against him; before Steve took the drop out of the Quinjet during their last mission she had leaned up and kissed his cheek. For a week they both showered him with affectionate touches every time they passed him in the hall, and left Steve torn between resentment of whatever hi-la-ri-ous campaign they had going and desperate adoration of them both; he kept leaning into their hands like he was freezing to death and they were the only source of heat left in the world.
So he bailed on Friday, like a coward. Steve took a ridiculously long shower, the hot spray pounding down on him and the steam in the room comforting, and then flung himself into bed with a book. The truth was, it made him sulky. They had no right - no right to go around flaunting how happy they were and then to start touching him like that, fond, lingering, absent-minded, as if it was inconceivable that Steve not be there to touch. Nobody touched him, in this time. You didn't hand out absent-minded physical affection to Captain America as if he was - as if -
Dammit, they touched him the way they touched each other. Nat's soft little smile; the laugh-lines around Bucky's eyes...
Steve shuddered all over. Then he said, "You idiot," out loud, to himself and the room and the world in general.
Then he snapped his bedside light off and wrapped himself in the duvet and resolutely made himself sleep.
This was no time to start thinking.
The next morning he was woken by the doorbell ringing. Cursing, Steve crawled out of bed and proceeded to stumble through his apartment like a drunk on a bender. What time was it even? For god's sake. He opened the door without checking the spy-hole, ready to snarl at his unwanted visitor, and just like that the sun came out and everything was beautiful, because Natasha was wearing the cutest green woolly hat imaginable, and also because Bucky’s nose was red and his lips were chapped and neither of them had any business being so damn adorable at these outside temperatures, this early in the morning.
"Good morning, starshine," said Bucky, straight-faced. "Were gonna drag you to brunch, but then we thought, wait, Steve hates mornings, better bring pre-breakfast."
"I don't hate mornings," said Steve, like an idiot. The smell of doughnuts rising from the box Bucky was waving at him was undercutting all his higher brain functions. What was left of them was busy drooling over Bucky's thighs in those jeans. "I mean I do but I manage."
"You know, you're lucky you're cute," Natasha said fondly, hustling him back inside the apartment, and Steve caught her elbow without thinking and stared down into those green eyes and said, mesmerised, "Am I?"
"Very," Bucky said.
"Lucky, or cute?"
Natasha started to laugh. There was a little thump as Bucky dropped the doughnut box on the hall table, and then he stepped up close behind Nat and reached over her to wrap his cold hand around the back of Steve's neck, pulling him close; Steve flinched and shivered from head to foot. It wasn’t the cold.
"Both," Bucky said.
"Go me," Steve said, breathless - Natasha Romanov was pressed against his chest and he wasn't wearing much, he had an excuse.
"Yeah," said Bucky, eyes bright, and Natasha said, “Come here, you – you doofus,” as if so exasperated with him that Coop and Lila’s vocabulary was her only fallback. And Steve – Steve slid an arm around her shoulders to hold her close and wrapped the other hand around Bucky's bicep and let himself fall, eyes half-closed, mouth parted, unsteady with joy.
This was no time to start thinking either.
Long hours later, impossibly warm and impossibly happy, Steve rested his chin on the top of Natasha's head and leaned back against Bucky's shoulder and said, "Promise me something, though?"
"God, he's demanding," Bucky said fondly.
"I have certain inalienable vetos about breakfast foods," Natasha said, yawning happily.
"Promise me no PDA," Steve said.
"What!" came back the chorus of indignation, and Steve started laughing, delighted and in love.