“Steve and Tony were dating?” Bucky repeated back, but the words didn’t sound any less crazy coming out of his mouth.
“Yup.” Clint squinted one eye, taking careful aim. “For almost a year.”
“But they hate each other.”
Clint took his turn. “They don’t. Or they didn’t. Neither of them will talk about what happened, but it was awful. They went from joined at the hip to opposite sides of the tower and they won’t say why. They’ve actually done a commendable job of not letting it effect the team in the field, but at home, brrr. The room drops several degrees if one walks in on the other.”
“That’s….” Bucky didn’t know what that was besides bizarre. He stepped up, eyed up the target, took a deep breath, released it, and took his shot at the end of his exhale. Bullseye.
Clint grumbled, eyeing his bullseye. “Yeah I was there when they split for good. It was… not pretty. I didn’t really get it and I was trying not to listen, but it sounded very painful. I think working together and being together just didn’t work out for them.” He shrugged then stepped up and took his turn.
Bucky was opening his mouth to ask what they’d been like when they were together when the door to the roof banged open, and he and Clint both leapt backwards.
Bruce stormed out onto the roof. “Are you playing lawn darts on my project?! That’s not grass, it’s half synthetic, half organic plant life. I’m trying to replicate Dr. Cho’s results in Korea!”
“Oh shit, he’s looking a bit green around the gills,” Clint muttered to Bucky, and Bucky muffled a laugh with his fist.
“I heard that.” Bruce pouted. “You two need a hobby.”
“Irritating you is our hobby.”
“Well, go do it somewhere else, you’re ruining the science.”
“Sorry.” The two snipers scrambled for the door and left Bruce to nurse his alien grass back to health.
Bucky followed Clint inside and to the common rooms. Bucky plucked an apple out of the fruit bowl that never seemed to empty and took a bite. Clint hopped up on the counter next to him.
“So what were they like when they were together?” Bucky asked around a mouthful of fruit. “Happy?”
“Oh yeah. I mean, it wasn’t always perfect, it’s not like they never fought, but they had that thing, you know?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You know, that, like, perfect for each other thing. They orbited around each other. It came as a pretty huge surprise, I’ll tell you that. One day they were cramming into the same armchair and eating off each other's plates and the next they were all ‘Mr. Stark’ and ‘Cap’ and leaving the room when the other showed up.”
“So what happened?”
Clint toyed with the lawn dart still in his hands. “You know I love gossip, but I feel like you should ask Steve or Tony about it. I don’t really know what happened, and I don’t wanna guess and be wrong. Whatever it was, it exploded overnight, there was at least one huge fight - I think the one I saw was actually number three - and then it was over.”
“Yup.” Clint’s watch started beeping loudly and he picked up his phone and flipped through his notifications. “I gotta run. Catch ya later, Snowflake.”
“Fuck off, Barton.”
Bucky stood in the kitchen for a while longer, munching his apple and staring blankly out of the huge picture window. Stevie and Stark, huh… The more he thought about it, the more he could see it. Sure, now they were barely speaking, but he could see how their personalities would work together, balance each other out. They were maybe both a little too serious, got up into their heads too easily, but yeah… He could see it.
Though, to be fair, he didn’t really know either of them that well. He’d only been living in the tower for about a month. Steve wasn’t the same Steve he knew back in the war and before. There were echoes of him, sure, enough that they had fallen back into friendship easily, but it was something they had to rebuild. It was like when Steve had rescued him from HYDRA in a new body. He was still Steve, still his lifelong friend, but he also wasn’t. Bucky supposed he hadn’t been the same either, in more ways than he realized at the time. They’d made it through once, though. He was confident they could do it again. No matter how much time, distance, and super-serum came between them, Steve would always be his best friend from Brooklyn.
Stark, on the other hand, was pretty easy to get to know. He filled every room he entered and wore everything on his sleeve, even if he didn’t intend to. Knowing they had been together and split actually explained a fair amount of Stark’s behaviour around Steve. Bucky had assumed they had conflict about team leadership, or something, because that was the air Stark gave off. Still, Bucky liked him. He was obviously brilliant, in an explosive kind of way, and he had welcomed Bucky into his building without a second thought.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, Barton was the one he’d found it the easiest to spend time with here. He never asked Bucky about his life as the Winter Soldier, never suggested he thought there was anything he wouldn’t be able to do. Barton introduced Bucky to New York like he was from out of state and not out of time. He’d been worried, at first, that Steve might get worried, or protective, or even possessive, but he seemed happy to encourage Bucky’s friendship with Clint, even though it meant pranks in the tower were dialed up to 11.
If Bucky wanted to ground himself to his past, he had Steve, and if he wanted to let loose and enjoy the future, he had Clint. But thinking of how the people in his life fit together like a comfortable puzzle just made him circle back to Steve and Tony.
“Hey, JARVIS?” He’d been warned, when he came into the tower, that there was a robot in the house that talked to you out of the walls, and everyone had seemed a little on edge about introducing him. Stark must have assured him fifty times that he could turn JARVIS off in his rooms if he wanted, but that was crazy. Talking, grocery-ordering robots were the absolute best thing about the future. This was the shit Stark Sr. had been talking about back at the expo all those years ago. Robots and space travel and flying cars. He got to live it. It was so fucking cool.
“Yes, Sergeant Barnes? How may I help you?” the AI replied.
“Steve and Tony, they were dating?” Always good to fact check anything Barton told you. That man spouted shit like a fountain.
JARVIS hesitated, which was unlike him. “Yes. Mr. Stark and Captain Rogers were in a romantic relationship for approximately one year.”
“And it ended.”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to divulge that information. My apologies.”
Huh. Bucky tossed his apple core in the trash and scrubbed his hands over his face. He had to start going to bed earlier. “Because Stark told you not to?”
JARVIS paused again. “Essentially, yes, that is correct.”
“Is there anything you can tell me?”
“I can tell you anything that is considered public knowledge.”
“Like from the papers and stuff? Was their relationship publicized?”
“Ah, no, my apologies. I can indeed relay and information from public media, though their relationship was not publicized. What I meant to say was that I can tell you anything, and show you any video footage, that was not considered private between one or more members of the tower. For instance, I can show you clips of Avengers gatherings and meetings that you have security clearance for, or share information from conversations that took place in front of other Avengers. I cannot, however, share anything from private conversations between two tower inhabitants, or the actions of any one inhabitant while on their own. Does that clarify my scope?”
“Uh, yeah, thanks, JARVIS.” Bucky wasn’t entirely sure if he understood the exact implications of that, but he got the gist. It was also comforting to know that JARVIS wouldn’t be sharing his private conversations or alone time, with anyone else. But it still left him in the frustrating position of not knowing what had happened between Steve and Tony. He got the impression there was some “public knowledge” he could ask for, but that he’d have to be a little more specific with what he wanted, if JARVIS was going to be able to narrow it down. He also had a strong suspicion that JARVIS was on board with Bucky pushing into this, but was skating on the edges of what his creator allowed him to do by helping.
Bucky stood, leaning against the counter, for a long time. Thoughts of Steve and Tony and the other occupants of the tower rolling pointlessly around in his mind. He was snapped out of his thoughts by a text from Natasha asking if he wanted to spar. He shook his mind clear of relationships and made his way to his room for a change of clothes, texting her back a fuck yeah.
Natasha leapt to her feet with a smile. “I love this song! Dance with me.” She grabbed Bruce’s hand and started dragging him away from their table in the VIP section of the club. Bucky watched as Bruce’s panicked eyes swept across the group, looking for help and getting none. When his gaze fell on Bucky, he gave Bruce the most obnoxious shit-eating grin he could.
“Better you than me, pal.”
Natasha laughed and tugged Bruce off towards the dance floor. Bucky leaned back in his seat and sipped the last of his drink. Unlike Steve, he could feel something from it, not as much as he used to, but he could work up a pleasant buzz. He definitely wasn’t a cheap drunk, but luckily the richest man in Manhattan was footing the bill.
Tony stood and started pointing at each of them in turn. “Clint, another? Buck, same? Thor? Cap?”
They each nodded and mumbled their drink order and Tony set off for the bar. Bucky half-listened to Thor and Clint talking about Asgardian sports while he watched Natasha and Bruce sway on the dance floor. A low rumbling sound to his left, out of place against the thumping music, caught his attention, and he turned.
Steve was growling.
It was so quiet, there was no way anyone else would hear it in the loud club. But Bucky’s augmented hearing, and the fact that his metal arm rested against Steve’s side, meant he could hear and feel the low vibration in his chest. He followed Steve’s line of sight across the club.
Tony leaned against the bartop, resting on one elbow, hip cocked. The bartender was close on the other side, his head tilted towards Tony as he filled a glass from a nozzle. He was tall, thin, and good-looking, in a relentlessly modern way, with his dark hair expertly styled like he’d slept on it all night. One arm was a full sleeve of tattoos that Bucky’s sniper eyes could make out perfectly, even in the dark club. He was young, younger than any of them, but old enough to be fluttering his eyelashes at Tony. He smiled wide and Tony cocked an eyebrow, pushing his tinted glasses down his nose and looking over them. The bartender laughed outright and said something black with a grin, pushing the finished drink across the bar. Even though he had all his drinks, Tony didn’t move away and neither did the bartender.
Bucky leaned over, close to Steve. “Working on your latest super power?”
Steve startled back, his eyes snapping to Bucky and the slightest hint of colour bloomed on each of his cheeks. “What?”
“Oh, I assumed you were trying to develop some kind of laser death vision, what with the ‘looks-that-could-kill’ glare and the growling.”
Steve’s flush deepened and spread down his neck. “I wasn’t - “
“There is no way to finish that sentence believably, unless it’s ‘I wasn’t not having a serious jealousy attack all over my ex-boyfriend.’”
Steve’s eyebrows reached for the ceiling. “How do you know that?”
Bucky shrugged. “If I hadn’t known before, I sure as shit would know now.”
“Urgh,” Steve groaned and lowered his forehead to the table. Bucky glanced at the others but Thor and Clint were still deep in conversation.
“If you still like him that much, why did you break up?” Bucky pressed.
“It’s not that simple, Buck. We broke up for a good reason.” He leaned back in his chair again, seemingly unable to keep his eyes from flicking over to the bar again. Tony was still chatting. “This is just… residual.”
Bucky scoffed loud enough that Clint glanced over, then turned back to Thor. “Bullshit.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it, please? We’re supposed to be having fun.” Steve looked miserable.
Tony returned with the drinks, which drew Natasha and Bruce off the dance floor, and it wasn’t long before they all fell into their usual, comfortable chatter. It was nice, being out with the gang. Bucky had a pleasant buzz going after drinking enough to kill a lesser man, and he liked these people. They were his people.
Exhaustion seemed to hit them all at once, the conversation lagging as they all leaned into the table. Bruce finally yawned, and Tony declared the evening over, pulling his phone out and calling Happy. They piled into two town cars, Steve, Clint, Bruce, and Thor in one, and Bucky, Tony and Natasha in the other. The three of them squished into the back, Tony in the middle, and it was only a few blocks before Natasha’s head fell to Tony’s shoulder and her eyes drifted shut.
“We’re getting too old for this shit, Stark,” Bucky joked.
“You might be. I’m still young and spry.”
“Oh yeah? Is the next mark of the Iron Man suit going to come with the walker built in?”
Tony chuckled. “Even better, it’ll fly itself and fight the baddies while I sleep inside.” He turned his head towards Natasha and brushed his lips lightly over her hair. Bucky smiled, turning away and pretending not to notice. For all the bluster, Tony could be astonishingly sentimental.
“So why’d you and Stevie break up?” Bucky tossed out, hoping he might catch Tony off guard enough that he’d blurt out honesty. Instead, the interior of the car dropped several degrees.
“Barton is a fucking gossip,” Tony bit out with a startling amount of venom.
“I asked,” Bucky lied easily. “There’s obviously something between you.”
“There isn’t.” It was cold and final. “You don’t have to give me the shovel talk, Barnes. Whatever fling we had is well over. That much was clear, at least.” His gaze floated over Natasha’s head to stare out her window, the words more to himself than to Bucky.
Bucky thought about pushing it, but decided not to. Both Tony and Steve clearly didn’t want to talk about it. Fine. He’d figure it out himself. He was nothing if not tenacious, and their stubbornness on this topic just made him want to tear it apart even more. They obviously cared about each, and if they couldn’t recover their romantic relationship they should at least try to repair their friendship. Or if they refused to try, Bucky would, dammit. Operation: Stubborn Jackasses was underway.
Despite being exhausted at the club, Bucky couldn’t seem to fall asleep once he got into bed. He laid there for over an hour thinking of nothing, until his insistent bladder became too much, and he shoved out of bed with a frustrated growl and padded off towards the bathroom. Properly awake now, he slumped down into his desk chair instead and poked his computer. It was some mad Stark tech that was half-JARVIS, half-future magic, as far as Bucky could tell.
He trawled the internet uselessly for a while, his brain off, but his body still refusing to relax enough to go back to bed. Bucky liked the internet, it was an amazing balance of truly useful information and absolute garbage. 2am was made for absolute garbage and Bucky killed a solid hour before he got bored with videos of people falling off trampolines and cats getting stuck in blinds.
“JARVIS, you said you could share non-private information with me, right?”
“And that includes conversations that were had in front of other people in a way that makes them public, right?
“Clint said.... He said he was there when Steve and Tony broke up, or for one of their final fights, does that mean that was public?”
Bucky hesitated. Even though JARVIS seemed to think he had the right to share the video, it still felt like prying. Was Bucky above a little prying, though? Definitely not, he decided. If it was too personal, or made it clear their friendship wasn’t worth saving, he’d leave it alone, but he had to know. “Play it for me, JARVIS.”
His desktop disappeared and was replaced with a large video recording. Clint was sitting in an armchair in the common living room and Steve was in the kitchen, making food. The video started to play, and Tony entered the room.
“Oh, so that’s it?” Tony said, advancing on Steve immediately. “You wait until I’m busy with SI then move all your stuff out of the penthouse? Fucking great, Steve. Real mature.”
Steve tensed, then set down his knife. Bucky knew him well enough to see the burning anger in his eyes, though he kept it contained, ever afraid of being the bully. “I was trying to avoid awkwardness.”
Tony barked out a humourless laugh. “Well fucking fail on that, buddy.”
“Tony…” Steve warned.
“Don’t you dare.” Tony’s voice was razor edged, his face twisted in agony. “Don’t spout that ‘for the good of the team’ bullshit again. Stop hiding behind Captain America. If you really want to leave me, say so. Tell me you don’t love me anymore, tell me you don’t want to be with me anymore. Say it,” he hissed.
There was a horrible, gut-wrenching moment when they just stood there fuming at each other. Steve swallowed audibly, dropped his eyes to the floor, then rolled them back up to meet Tony’s dead-on. “I don’t want to be with you anymore.”
Tony flinched like he’d been shot, deep hurt flashing across his face before he schooled it back into rage. “Fuck you.” He turned and whipped out of the room.
There was a long moment of deeply uncomfortable silence, while Steve gripped the kitchen counter and breathed in a horribly controlled way, and Clint stared at the door Tony had blown through. Clint opened his mouth to speak and the video cut off.
Bucky sat still, processing what he’d just seen. It barely answered any of his questions, as well as raising quite a few new ones, but there were a few things he was absolutely sure of now. One, things had been serious between them. Love wasn’t a word Steve would have thrown around lightly, so Tony bringing it up meant they must have gotten that far. Two, Steve still had deep feelings for Tony. He’d carefully said, “I don’t want to be with you anymore,” instead of “I don’t love you anymore,” and after what Bucky had seen in the bar, there was no question.
He had JARVIS play the video three more times, on the last replay watching Clint squirm uncomfortably in his chair throughout the short conversation. He’d hoped he’d get a little something more, but even though it wasn’t much, it was enough to convince him: those two idiots cared about each other and the ice between them wasn’t making either of them feel good. Maybe love wasn’t something they could go back to - he’d have to find out what had come between them in the first place to judge that- but something had to be salvageable here. Operation: Losers in Love was getting serious.
At the very least, focusing on this would give him something to do with his time besides dick around with Clint all day. Not that that wasn’t the best fun he’d had in a long time, but Clint was away a lot and he had little else to do with his copious spare time.
He was pulled out of his musings by a twinge in his metal arm. He clenched his hand into a fist, lifted his elbow bent, then stretched it out. When it moved, he felt the stuttery sensation that meant one of the connections was loose. “Lights, JARVIS,” he called out, and the room was bathed in clear white, light.
He pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk, revealing a large metal case. Keeping his left arm tucked against his side, he hauled the case out with his right and carried it over to the table by the door. He hooked a chair with his ankle and pulled it up under him, settling down with his arm on the table and the case beside it. He popped the latches, lifted the top, and swung open the trays of tiny tools. He grabbed three allen wrenches, tucked two of them between his teeth, then set to work with the other.
Two hidden screws released one of the large top plates which also revealed the screws for the maintenance panel. Swapping wrenches, Bucky worked the panel open easily, collecting the hardware in one of the empty sections of the case. A yawn hit him hard and he grumbled as he worked, finally tired enough to fall asleep, but stuck doing the fix until it was done. The panel off, he set to work poking methodically through the wires inside in a practiced order, searching for the loose one. He tapped one and the nerves in his shoulder sizzled with what he could only describe as a combination of heat and tickle. He pulled the wire off, checked the connector wasn’t damaged, then plugged it back in. Sweet relief washed over his arm. He did a hurried diagnostic and when all was clear, he set to work putting the arm back together. Halfway through screwing the maintenance panel back on, he was struck with an idea.
There was no way he could get Steve and Tony alone together, they would both resist that idea absolutely, but if there was one thing they both seemed to like to do, it was help Bucky out. Steve, obviously, was desperate to be of use, practically following Bucky around some days asking if he needed to know how to use a microwave, or explaining uber - wrong - for the nine thousandth time. Tony, oddly enough, seemed equally invested. He obsessed about food for some reason, insisting that Bucky wasn’t adding enough to the automated, weekly grocery order and sneaking endless piles of new technology into Bucky’s room whenever he left the tower, despite him needing very little of it. He was pretty sure he was on his eighth TV, but that still didn’t mean any of the shows on it were worth watching.
So, if they were too upset to be pushed together, maybe Bucky could pull them in instead…
His hand paused then began twisting the allen wrench the other way. The panel back off, he dug around for a minute until he found the thin blue wire nestled at the bottom. He popped it free and all sensation died in the arm. It was one of the few that wouldn’t be uncomfortable to live with for a little while. He quickly put the casing back together, packed up the tools, and put the case back in his desk. It was weird having the arm dead to the world, and he’d have to be careful not to crush things by accident picking them up, but it’d be worth it, if this played out the way he wanted.
He managed to catch a few hours of deep sleep, and he felt so rested when he woke up that he wondered if the connection he’d fixed had been bothering him for a while without being strong enough to notice. He pulled on his clothes, only ruining one button with an overtight grip from his metal arm, then asked JARVIS to call Steve for him. After a moment, Steve’s worried voice came through JARVIS’ speakers. “Bucky?”
“Hey, Stevie,” he let a little uncertain waver into his voice. “I could use a hand with something, you busy?”
“Of course not. I’ll be there in two minutes.”
It was enough time to shove some toast in his mouth. Steve knocked then came in without waiting for a response, forehead twisted in concern. “Are you okay?”
Bucky swallowed a mouth full of rye and jam and tried to look like he might not be okay. “My arm?” he started. “It’s acting up. It happens sometimes, the connections get loose. It’s basically gone dead, I have no sensation in it at all. I was hoping… I thought maybe Stark…?”
Steve was nodding. “Yeah, of course he’ll help you Bucky. If anyone can figure it out, it’s him. JARVIS can you let Tony know that Bucky’s coming down and why?”
“Of course, Captain.”
Bucky shuffled but didn’t move towards Steve. He dropped his eyes then let a hint of Winter Soldier tension slip in when he brought them back up. Steve flinched. “Could you come with me, Stevie? It’s not that I don’t trust Stark, I just… the last time someone touched it, I wasn’t - I don’t really trust myself. I wouldn’t want to hurt him or something, by accident.”
Steve swallowed hard and nodded. Bucky felt briefly bad about deceiving him, then had a clear and vivid memory of the time twenty-one-year-old Steve had sworn up and down they were going to a dance with two girls waiting and dragged Bucky to another enlistment drive instead, and all the guilt evaporated. Besides, it was for a good cause.
Tony was up to his elbows in what looked like massive speaker stacks when they arrived, but he dropped everything when they pushed into the workshop. He met them halfway, eyes on Bucky. They flicked almost imperceptibly towards Steve, then settled back on the arm. “Arm acting up, huh?” Bucky nodded. Tony looked at him in silence for a long time and Bucky started to feel uneasy, wondering what he was thinking. Finally, Tony shrugged. “Can’t say I haven’t wanted to get my hands on that glorious piece of tech since day one. Let’s do this.”
Bucky sat where Tony indicated, and Steve hovered nearby, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Tony pulled a few drawers out of a large case and dumped their contents on the floor, before pawing through them and coming up with a handful of precision tools.
Bucky had to hand it to him, Tony figured the arm out almost instantly. He poked around for a bit, clearly deciphering, then dove in, confidently working the screws loose and whipping the panel off. Steve shuffled closer when the inner workings were exposed, eyeing the wiring with curiosity. Bucky looked up at him encouragingly. Tony poked a wire and Bucky’s fingers twitched, making the two men jump. He suppressed a smile.
Steve pointed at the guts of the arm. “What does that do?”
Tony looked up for a second, calculating. “That connects the embedded nerve translation circuits to the sensitivity sensors under the metal panels.”
Buck had to admit, he was impressed. Tony really was an engineering genius, and if he ever actually needed a fix for his arm that he couldn’t do himself, he knew who he’d go to for real help. Tony poked around for a while, with Steve watching, and Bucky let his gaze wander across the workshop, hoping they’d be drawn into each other. Steve couldn’t seem to rein in his curiosity, despite trying, and after a tense moment, he pointed at another part of the arm’s inner workings.
To Bucky’s surprise, Tony took it as an invitation to go all out. He took out the finger control module and handed it to Steve with a, “hold this,” then began explaining the entire design of the arm in great detail as he worked his way through it. Steve hung on his every word, asking the occasional clarifying question, but mostly just following along. Bucky had to bite his lip to keep from smiling. Something had thawed in that moment, and he felt like he was getting a glimpse of what had been - Tony caught in the beauty of flawless engineering, Steve caught in the beauty of Tony’s mind. He’d always had a thing for teachers, and Tony was a natural teacher.
There was one glorious moment, when Steve and Tony, leaned in so close their foreheads almost touched, met eyes over the arm and something vibrant and electric passed between them. Bucky felt it leap to his spine and shudder its way down to the floor. Then it was gone as soon as it began, snapped off as they both let out a cool breath and leaned back.
“That better?” Tony asked, and Bucky looked down to see the little blue wire had been found and re-connected. He tapped a finger against the table and felt the thud, as real as if it had been his flesh hand.
“Yeah, that’s it, thanks.”
Tony gave him that inquisitive, calculating look again, but didn’t say anything. He started putting the arm back together, Steve assisting, now that he understood. In only a few minutes, Bucky was back in one piece. He flexed and stretched to make sure all was well, then gave Tony a nod.
Tony tossed the tools in the pile he’d made on the floor and turned back to his speakers. “Let me know if it acts up again. Happy to help.” Something had closed off again and Bucky took the hint, not wanting to ruin the brief moment of comfort the other two men had shared by overstaying their welcome. He thanked Stark again, then followed Steve out of the workshop.
After the tentative success of the arm, Bucky used every opportunity he could to get Steve and Tony together, with him in the middle as an intermediary. He couldn’t use the arm too often - it hadn’t needed servicing at all for the first month he was here, and then suddenly all the time? - so he found other ways to draw them both in. JARVIS was a surprisingly useful wingman, letting Bucky know when they were both alone, or in easily ambushed locations.
More than once, Bucky “accidentally” swapped his phone for Steve’s only to head down to the workshop to hang out with Tony. When Steve found his missing, he’d inevitably ask JARVIS where it was then, being the nice guy he was, he’d go down to retrieve it himself.
Once Bucky had them in the same room, it took surprisingly little effort to get them sucked into some activity. Avoiding each other before had clearly been a self-protective measure to maintain their distance as it was remarkably easy to get them to forget they were supposed to hate each other. There was still a lot of tension, obviously, and Bucky had to carry the conversation himself, more often than not, but when Steve came down to get his phone, he stuck around, and when Bucky asked Tony to come help him with the video game system while Steve was reading a book at his side, Tony didn’t turn tail and flee as soon as it was working.
They talked, they played games, Tony showed them his work - and used them as guinea pigs more than once - and all in all, Bucky felt like his plan was working.
There was still something missing, however: the reason for their breakup. Despite spending all that time with Steve and Tony, neither of them let slip about what had broken them, or even about their relationship at all. They both seemed determined to plow ahead as if nothing had happened, and it was driving Bucky crazy.
After about two weeks of Operation: Why is The Most Messed Up Member of the Team in Charge of Morale?, Bucky gave in and went to Natasha. He found her in the gym, balanced on her palm in a flawless, one-handed handstand. She didn’t move when he strolled across the floor to her side. “You asleep?” he asked.
Bucky dropped to the floor beside her and started stretching out his hamstrings, figuring he might as well do something worthwhile while he was here. “Always knew you slept upside down, like a bat.”
“You want something. What is it?”
“How do you always know that kind of thing? It’s fucking creepy.”
Nat tipped her legs wide into an overextended splits, then dropped forward and rolled up to her feet. “Well, as much as I’d like to preserve the mystery, it’s because I asked JARVIS where you were about two minutes before you came through that door and he said, ‘He’s on his way down, I believe he’d like to ask you something.’”
“Cheaters live longer. Want to spar?”
“I’ll kick your ass,” she warned.
They were silent for the first several minutes of their shared workout, the only sound in the gym their increasingly ragged breathing as they wrestled each other to the floor over and over. Finally, with Natasha’s face pinned between his thighs as he tried to wrangle her arms under control, Bucky broached the subject. “You were around when Steve and Tony broke up, right?”
Natasha reached up, wrapped her arm around his neck and flipped him face first into the mat. “Sure. I was in and out because of SHIELD missions, but I was around.”
Buck squirmed in her grasp, eventually giving in and using his metal arm to shove her to the side. They broth sprung back to their feet, circling. “So what happened? Why’d they break up?”
Natasha held up a hand and Bucky relaxed out of his ready pose. She crossed the gym to her water bottle and took a swig. “I don’t really know. They didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. I wasn’t actually here for the very end, I was doing recon for another mission, but I heard about it from Clint. They’d been in a bad way since the last mission we’d done as a team so I wasn’t surprised, but it was a shock that things went wrong in the first place. They always seemed so happy together.”
“When did it start going bad?”
“Right after that mission… when was it…? I can’t remember the date, but it was the Rocky Heights mission. You can probably look up when it was if you have SHIELD clearance, or Clint can get it for you. Why?”
Bucky shrugged. There was little point in lying to Natasha. “I’m trying to figure it out. They seem like they’d be good together and I want them to be happy. Also, just trying to fill in all the gaps I missed, you know?”
She nodded. “If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”
Sweaty, bruised, and happy, Bucky limped up to his room an hour later and slumped into the shower. Sparring for exercise and training and fun, instead of sparring like your life depended on it was a wonderful new feeling. And one they could share, having had similar experiences of combat training in their lives. Natasha wasn’t necessarily the easiest person to get close to, but once she trusted you, she was an amazing person to have on your side. More and more, he found himself overwhelmed with gratitude that after it all, he’d ended up living somewhere with more than just his old best friend back, but a whole team of new friends, all wonderful in their own ways.
And he wanted to give back to them, that was part of it. Natasha he could wrestle with, Clint he could hang out and harass the others with. Bruce liked a friend to cook for and someone to lecture on his science, and Thor was into anyone who was down to party or would listen to him talk about Jane. But for Steve and Tony, all he could think was to repair this rift between them.
Natasha had said the turning point was around the time of this Rocky Heights mission. If he could find out when that was, maybe some more information about the mission - who was living at the tower then, at least - maybe he could narrow it down. Unfortunately, he didn’t have SHIELD clearance so he couldn’t get the info himself, and Natasha was unlikely to give it to him. She’d mentioned Clint for a reason, and Clint was who he would ask.
He stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. He glanced at his watch. Asking Clint would have to wait; he’d left two hours ago for a week-long mission with no civilian contact.
Bucky rubbed the towel over his hair, then tossed it in the laundry and pulled on a pair of boxers. He downed a water from the fridge and pondered his mission. Operation: Just Kiss and Make Up Already, You Idiots, had been going well, but he was running out of ways to push those two together, and things felt plateaued. Steve and Tony were polite and amicable around each other now - job well done - but it hadn’t quite pushed into friendly, and affectionate was still a long way off. He needed to ramp it up, push them out of their comfort zones.
He couldn’t use the arm again, but maybe if he needed their help in another way? Pretend to have some kind of emergency and call for help?
“Hey, JARVIS? Can you lie?”
“I am able to lie, yes. I’ve been programmed to understand when it is kinder to be tactful, rather than blunt. I can also withhold information, if I deem it necessary to protect someone.”
“So, could you tell someone in the tower that there was an emergency when there wasn’t? If someone was in distress, or, or -“ He looked around the apartment and the rumpled sheets on the bed caught his eye. “- having a really bad nightmare?”
“I’m afraid not, no. I cannot say I have sensed something when I haven’t.”
“However…” Bucky perked up. “You are more than welcome to set up emergency protocols. Basically, a word or signal from you would activate the protocol, which is usually to contact another inhabitant in the tower. They must agree to be attached to the protocol, but if the contact approves it, you can activate the protocol whenever you like.” There was a pointed pause. “Whether the emergency is genuine or not.”
“Ah, okay, thank you JARVIS. Can an emergency protocol have two contacts?”
Bucky grinned. “JARVIS, I’d like to set up an emergency protocol.”
JARVIS checked with Steve and Tony, informing neither that the other was a contact as well, and when both readily agreed, the protocol was put in place. Bucky merely had to say the codeword and JARVIS would call them both for help.
Bucky didn’t want to use his new tactic so soon after setting it up, so he waited a few days. Instead, he spent his time training in the gym, learning how to make curry with Bruce, and convincing Steve and Tony to spend more time together.
The night before Clint returned, Bucky decided it was time. He waited up until it was late enough that he should be in deep sleep. He pulled on sleep clothes, splashed a little water on his shirt so it would cling to his skin like he’d sweated through it, and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. He called out the codeword, and JARVIS acknowledged the emergency protocol.
Bucky took several rapid breaths and tried to access the constant terror and rage he'd felt as the Winter Soldier. It pushed a shot of adrenaline through his veins, got his heart pounding, and twisted his face with fear. Steve was the first to burst through the door.
“Bucky what’s wrong?”
Before he could answer, Tony appeared behind him, hair wild, shirt on backwards. “What happened?” he asked, squinting at the two of them.
Bucky let his jaw drop and forehead crease. “I’m so sorry. I think I accidentally set off all the emergency protocols. I - “ Bucky ducked his head and toyed with the edge of his blanket. “I had a nightmare and I think I panicked a bit. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Steve let out a long slow breath. “As long as you’re okay.”
Tony somehow sighed with his whole body, then made a beeline for the coffee maker which started producing coffee on all its own, much to Bucky’s surprise. He supposed Tony had a protocol in the entire building where coffeemakers burst to life wherever he went. He poured two cups, then rifled around in Bucky’s fridge. He came up with milk and a soda. He handed the soda to Bucky, put a different combination of milk and sugar in each of the two mugs, then handed one to Steve without a word.
Tony walked around to the sofa so his back was to Steve, but Bucky caught Steve’s expression. He was staring mournfully at the mug of coffee like it was everything wrong with his life, but also his most prized possession. He took a shaky breath, smiled, and Bucky could swear he blinked back a tear. Tony collapsed onto the armchair next to the sofa with a huff, drawing Bucky’s attention back to him.
“What happened?” Tony asked again, blinking at Bucky over his mug.
“I had a nightmare,” Bucky repeated. “I called you by accident.”
“Right. Sorry, still booting.” He tipped back the mug, and Bucky watched his throat move as he chugged half of it down without taking a breath, steam still leaking from either side.
Steve settled on the couch between Bucky and Tony’s armchair, looking mostly put back together again from his coffee breakdown. “Yeah, he does that. I have a theory that he burned all his taste buds off so many times he doesn’t actually have any anymore. Or iron tongue, maybe? I’m not sure.”
Bucky chuckled and cracked his soda, touched that Tony would know what he wanted and understanding a bit what Steve’s feelings towards the coffee might be. There was something open and easy in the nighttime air. Tony was too asleep to filter himself, and Steve was letting his feelings slip onto his face more readily than usual. It was a wonderful feeling and Bucky didn’t want to let it go.
“I don’t think I can sleep again for a while, do you guys want to watch a movie?” He tried to slip a little bit of please into his voice to entice them both to stay.
Tony’s eyes flicked to Steve with some unease, but then he shrugged and nodded, knocking back at least half of his remaining coffee. Steve, however, turned sharply to look at Bucky as if he could dissect him with his eyes. It was the same look he’d given him when they first saw each other again after he’d been released from his brainwashing. As if he was looking for Bucky inside a body that could be filled with anyone. Bucky tipped his head in silent question, but Steve shook it off.
“Sure. Something with action or I’ll fall asleep,” Steve finally said.
“You’ll fall asleep anyway, cupcake,” Tony quipped, then froze. He took a steadying breath, his eyes flicking to Steve’s again, uncertain. Steve gave him a small smile, and Bucky suppressed a screech of victory. They both shifted awkwardly, but it was a slightly altered kind of awkward - closer to first date awkward and farther from ex-boyfriend awkward. Bucky put them out of their misery by asking JARVIS to put on Die Hard, and they all settled in.
Steve was close against his side and, wrapped in his blanket, Bucky felt unusually warm and safe, curled up on the couch. Tony was right, Steve fell asleep before the movie was even halfway over, tipping onto the arm of the couch and breathing softly. Bucky tucked his feet under Steve’s calves to keep them warm and let him sleep on. As the movie neared its end, he glanced up at Tony, but the words he’d prepared got stuck in his throat.
Tony was staring at Steve’s sleeping face with utter, open adoration. He’d tilted sideways a little in his chair, his empty coffee cup still clutched in his hands. His whole body yearned towards Steve. His eyes were fixed on Steve’s face, which was soft with sleep. Bucky had never seen Tony so uncontrolled, so on display. His face was caught between affection and deep, painful sadness. His hands twitched on the mug, as if they wanted to reach out and brush Steve’s shaggy hair out of his face. He bit his lips like they longed to press against Steve’s forehead. Bucky found his own breath catching, completely entranced by Tony’s expression.
When the credits started to roll, Tony snapped away from Steve, and Bucky looked away. When he looked back, Tony had schooled his expression into something more put together.
“I think I might be able to sleep a bit,” Bucky said, stretching. “Thanks for staying up with me.”
“Sure. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?” He mumbled it dismissively, but Bucky saw the pain in his words and his heart clenched. He wondered if next time Tony woke up sweating, scared, and alone, he’d call Bucky, or - hope against hope - Steve to keep him company through it.
“You can leave him,” Bucky said. “I’ve got a blanket.”
“Nah, he always does in his back when he sleeps like that and then you have to hear about it all the next day. Super-soldier my ass.”
Tony bent over, and reached a hand out. Bucky held his breath, not wanting to break whatever spell had fallen over them tonight. Tony rested the hand on Steve’s shoulder, rubbing a little, eventually dropping to a crouch in front of the sofa by Steve’s face. Steve blinked awake, smiling when he saw Tony’s, then frowning as he came fully awake.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“No worries.” Tony kept the hand on his shoulder. “Bucky’s going to sleep so we should go back to bed.”
“Okay.” Steve staggered up to his feet, rubbing his hands over his eyes.
“Thanks,” Bucky repeated, and they shot him matching, sleepy smiles.
“Anytime.” Steve rested his hand on Bucky’s shoulder as he walked past, side-by-side with Tony. Bucky took their mugs and rinsed them, one eye on the door as they shuffled out. The last he saw, they were standing close together in the elevator, the doors sliding shut and blocking them from view.
Bucky grinned. That was worth a lost night of sleep.
In the light of day, some of the previous night’s easiness was lost, but they had still jumped ahead from where they’d been before. Tony cracked jokes just for Steve and grinned when he got a laugh. Steve stood close beside Tony while they gathered in the kitchen for lunch.
Clint got back from his mission late that night and Bucky slipped away from where the three of them had been hanging out in the workshop to meet him. He caught Clint just as he was coming in the tower.
“Hey, pal. How’d it go?”
“Not bad.” Clint clapped him on the back in greeting, and they headed for his rooms together. “I could tell you but - “
“You’d have to kill me?”
“Oh fuck no, I’m not sure I even could. I was going to say, I could tell you, but I just fucking lived through it, and all I want is a shower and pizza.”
Bucky laughed. “Fair enough. You handle the shower, I’ll handle the pizza?”
“Deal. Roof in twenty?”
Twenty minutes later, Bucky nudged the door to the roof open with his foot, a stack of pizza boxes in one hand and a six-pack in the other. Clint was already there, feet dangling off the edge of their favourite spot, wild wind whipping the water out of his damp hair.
Bucky set the food and beer down then dropped down beside him. They ate in silence for a while, gazing out at the brightly lit New York night. The sky was too washed out with light pollution to see many stars, but Bucky could imagine them if he closed his eyes. The pizza was perfectly greasy and salty, and the beer bitter and refreshing. It wouldn’t be enough to affect him, but he didn’t mind.
“How’s Operation: Cupid going?” Clint asked.
“Pretty good, I’ve managed real smiles from both of them in the last couple of days. I actually need your help with something, though.”
“Natasha says they broke up right after the Rocky Heights mission? I need some more info on that to nail down the timeline.”
Clint thought for a moment. “Yeah… that was definitely it.I actually think... Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was right after that mission that everything imploded. It was an awful mission too, everything went to shit. I was in a perch and missed a lot of what went down, but I remember the two of them arguing on the comms.”
“Hmm. Maybe that’s what started it all? Fighting in the field?”
Clint shrugged. “Maybe. They’ve always fought. A lot. But it was always more like debate than fighting, I guess? Like, even when they were screaming at each other it never got personal, they just disagreed a lot. But it seemed to work for them. Then we had that mission, and after that, they fought, but it was suddenly really personal.”
“Tony said something about Steve claiming it was ‘for the good of the team’?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that was about.”
“Can you get the mission info?”
Clint chewed another slice of pizza, thinking. “Not from here, but from inside SHIELD, yes,”
Bucky shot him a look. “That sounds like you’re not supposed to be able to have it.”
‘Well, I can get you the dates and stuff from my own mission reports, but that won't help you much. If we think something about the mission tore them apart, we need to see the compiled reports, and that means Coulson’s office.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re scheming?”
“I’m always scheming.”
“Why do I get the feeling your scheme involves me?”
“All the good ones involve you, Boo Boo.”
Clint flipped open the pizza box and pulled a pen out of his pocket. He started planning, sketching notes and diagrams on the cardboard. By the time he was done, it was decided. Next week, they were going to break into SHIELD.
Two nights later, Tony invaded Steve’s apartment - interrupting a rapidly heating discussion of the top ten list of 21st-century junk food - waving a handful of tickets. “Grab your purse -“ he gestured at Steve “- put on your fancy arm -“ he ruffled his hand through Bucky’s hair, getting a smack in response. “We’re going out.”
Steve waved the half-empty bag of Cheetos in the air, spraying fluorescent orange cheese dust over the counter. “We’re doing science.”
“Where are we going?” Bucky asked, squinting at the tickets in Tony’s hand. He caught the word “Garden” on the corner. “Knicks?”
“Yup. V Heat. Killer seats. Get your coats and foam fingers, we’re gonna be late.” Tony grabbed Steve’s jacket off the hook on the wall and tossed it over his head. Steve grumbled.
Manic Tony was Bucky’s favourite Tony. He was all glittering smiles, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and flirting indiscriminately. And god, he could talk, sometimes continuously for hours without a breath. The first time he got to see Tony in that state, Bucky panicked. Surely, of all the annoying shit Stark did, that level of crazy would put a strain on Steve and Tony’s still shaky relationship. But, after one glance at Steve’s face, it was clear Steve loved him like this. Tony had bounced off the walls, yammering incessantly about his work, and Steve had blinked adoringly back at him, giving as good as he got with the innuendo.
Now, Bucky was used to it, but it never failed to bring a smile to his face. Tony hustled them out of the apartment, barely giving the two of them time to stuff their pockets full of disturbingly sweet “froot” snacks before they were shoved out the door. Bucky considered coming up with some excuse as to why they should go without him, but Tony so obviously expected all three of them to go - had showed up with a ticket for Bucky without question - that he couldn’t help the little surge of pleasure knowing he’d been thought of. Bucky knew eventually he’d have to start phasing himself out and giving them time together as a couple, but for now, they still seemed to need and want him there, so he would enjoy it while it lasted.
Tony’s car appeared as if by magic and they piled in. It was a rowdy trip to the game. Tony was in fine form, and Steve and Bucky were already high on sugar and silliness. When they arrived, it didn’t escape Bucky’s notice that Steve and Tony carefully danced around him, leaving him with no choice but to take the seat between them. It didn’t stop them from talking over him, however, leaning in on either side to joke and discuss the game.
They were both more into the game than Bucky was, or at least more knowledgeable of the current roster, since Bucky was still catching up. He was a fast learner, though. Steve and Tony had gone, before, when they were together, and even before that, as friends, so Bucky leaned back in his seat, sipped his beer, and grinned as the warm arms on either side of his pressed closer and closer. About halfway through, he mumbled something about another drink and pushed out past Steve. He got a refill, then waited at the top of their aisle, watching. Tony and Steve’s heads dipped close, leaning over Bucky’s empty seat, then Steve’s head rocked back in laughter. Bucky grinned. He loved it when they made each other laugh, or the times he made one of them laugh. Knowing they were that comfortable around each other was a win. Seeing blonde hair brush brown was a win.
Bucky trotted back down the stairs and shoved at Steve, nudging his arm instead of squeezing in front of his knees. Distracted by the game, and - gloriously - by Tony, Steve shifted away, into Bucky’s seat, next to Tony. Bucky smiled into his beer, turning his attention back to the game. Then something jabbed into his side - Steve’s elbow.
“Hey, Buck. What do you think of their new point guard?” Steve asked when Bucky turned towards him.
He shrugged. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen the old point guard. “Not bad. Rookie, shows it. But he’s got a nice arm.”
“Yeah, Tony thinks it wasn’t worth the trade.”
Bucky shrugged again, then reached across Steve’s lap to shove his hand in Tony’s snacks. “Stark thinks a lot of crazy-ass things,” he replied around a mouthful of popcorn.
That sent Steve into a full lecture on last season’s trades, gesturing emphatically between them, looking to each, in turn, for support. Bucky watched his arm-flailing, brow-creased vitriol with barely disguised delight. He got it, why the two of them had worked. How could Stark see Stevie go off like that and not love him? How could Steve get dragged off into adventures like this with someone as crazy as Tony and not love him back? It just made sense; they were drawn to each other, and Bucky could see why.
Then Steve said something absolutely appalling about the quality of the Knicks offensive rebounds, and Bucky was pulled out of his musings and into the discussion. The resulting argument carried them through the rest of the game, drinks at a bar after, the trip home, and halfway into Steve’s apartment before, as one, they realized it was 2am and they were all exhausted. Bucky fell asleep that night with a smile on his face. Another score for Operation: These Two Assholes Are So Clueless About Offensive Strategy, They Deserve Each Other.
As the day of his planned heist with Clint approached, Bucky continued to put his effort towards bringing Steve and Tony together at home. He pushed them to spar with him, to take him out in New York to eat and see the things that had changed since he’d been there last. He ate most of his meals with both of them, poking with JARVIS if one of them didn’t show up around dinner time. They hung out in Tony’s workshop, they hung out in Steve’s kitchen, and they hung out on Bucky’s couch. It was wonderfully comfortable and happy.
Everyone in the tower had adjusted to the idea of seeing them all together, often surprised if Bucky showed up somewhere alone. What Bucky didn’t expect was the boost in team morale that came from Steve and Tony getting along again. He got the distinct impression that no one had realized just how much impact their rift had had on the team, but now that they were talking again - laughing and joking even - the whole tower seemed to relax.
The night of his special mission with Clint loomed up out of nowhere, and he realized he was going to have to cancel his standing dinner arrangement with Steve and Tony without them suspecting. He wandered down to the workshop, hoping to catch Tony and let him know, then ask Tony to tell Steve, giving them yet another reason to talk to each other, but he was surprised to find Steve already there. They’d come forward leaps and bounds, but Steve and Tony still seemed hesitant to be alone together, as if a chaperone would prevent the conversations they were clearly avoiding having from rearing up.
Bucky wandered over. Steve’s ears were bright red and Tony was grinning. “Hey.” They swung apart.
“Hey, Buck.” Steve smiled at him. “Is it time for our run already?”
“Ah, no, not quite. I actually came down to ask you something.”
“Oh, we have something to ask you too.”
He waved a hand at them. “Shoot.”
The two men shared a glance. Tony was the one to speak. “I have a gala tomorrow night and I need a plus one. I can only take one though, and the host did a bunch of hint hint nudge nudge that she wanted it to be an Avenger. Is it alright if the two of us go?”
Bucky’s heart flip-flopped in his chest. A date? It likely wasn’t really a date, all of the Avengers did this kind of publicity thing together all the time, but Tony choosing to ask Steve? That was something. Bucky had a brief flash of regret that he couldn’t go too. He wanted to watch them reconnect, be there and experience it with them, as he had all along, but they needed this. He had always known a time would come when he had to step back, as much fun as it had been getting here. And the timing was perfect.
“Yeah, of course. Timing’s perfect, actually. Clint and I were going to hit some clubs tomorrow. I was going to ask you if -“ He altered his story quickly in the moment. “- if you wanted to come, but better you hit the gala.”
“Text me if you head home,” Tony said. “I might want to join you if the gala doesn’t go too late and you’re still out.”
“Sure.” Bucky turned away, grinning. Everything was going right. Steve and Tony were going on an almost-date, he’d successfully set up a cover for his planned misadventures with Clint, and he might finally get the last piece of the puzzle he needed to solve this mystery once and for all.
Bucky pressed himself against the wall in the dark, listening to the slight squeak of Clint unscrewing the air vent cover.
He crouched down. “So how pissed are they going to be if they catch us?” he whispered.
“Depends who does the catching,” Clint replied. There was a small clang and the vent came loose. Clint set it aside. “If it’s security I can probably talk us out of trouble using my badge and a little name dropping. If it’s Coulson, there’s a good chance I can charm or bribe our way out of it. He thinks my antics are cute, despite regularly declaring otherwise, and you can probably get your hands on some really cool stuff that Cap has touched, like his underwear or hairbrush or something.”
Clint sat back on his heels and Bucky could just make out his eyes, glinting in the dark. He gestured towards the open air vent, then started to crawl in. He paused and pulled back out, turning towards Bucky. “If it’s Fury, we’re fucked.”
“Good to know.”
Clint disappeared into the vent, and Bucky crawled in after him. It was too tight to turn around and he wasn’t interested in doing the whole thing backwards, so Bucky left the cover off and hoped no one would notice it and sound the alarm. They crawled along, trying to be as quiet as possible. Clint knew the way, apparently having done this ‘like a thousand times,’ so Bucky just focused on not ramming his face into the other man’s ass every time he stopped to get his bearings.
Right around when Bucky’s knees were reminding him that he was in his nineties and definitely too old for this shit, Clint slammed to a stop and Bucky had to smack a hand against the back of his shoe to prevent a traffic accident. “For fucks sake,” he hissed.
“We’re here!” Clint fiddled with something for a moment then disappeared. Bucky crawled up and saw the opening in the vent, and below, Clint swinging into a office. Bucky grabbed the edge of the venting and followed him down, dropping down silently onto his feet. Clint walked over to a bank of filing cabinets and pulled open a drawer with confidence.
“Really? I thought this was the future. Paper reports?”
Clint shrugged. “Phil’s old-fashioned.”
Bucky arched an eyebrow. “Phil?”
“Shut up.” Clint pulled out a wad of files, split them in half and handed one stack to Bucky. “I still don’t fully understand his filing methods so this is the closest I can get. The mission will be filed by number, but flip through until you find Rocky Heights.”
It took longer than expected. After two hours, they’d made a dent, but the reports were either specifically designed to be confusing, or just so proprietary for the SHIELD system that it was hard to see where they’d find the info they needed.
They pawed through file after file, spreading paper around the office and generally settling in. The building was so quiet, the edge of threat faded, and they got sucked into their work. Clint finally stood with a groan and stretched out his back. “I’ll be right back.” He walked towards the door.
“What?” Bucky hissed. “Where are you going?! We’re supposed to be stealthy.”
Clint glared at him. “Well, I don’t have a magic Winter Soldier bladder, okay? So I’m going to very stealthily take a piss down the hall. Don’t worry, Snowflake, I go to this school, I know all the secret back ways.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, and Clint flipped him off before slipping out of the office door. With a sigh, Bucky turned back towards the files. He knocked the stack over and picked one at random - no dice. Another, nothing. Anoth- wait. He went back to the second one. It wasn’t the right mission, but it referenced the Rocky Heights mission with a number.
Bucky pawed through the files until he found the right number and ripped it open. Bingo. He flipped page after page, utterly absorbed, his mouth falling open and his heart pounding as he devoured the mission report. It all made sense.
Rocky Heights was a code name for a HYDRA base in China, one Bucky had spent quite a bit of time at, as the Winter Soldier. He remembered it. And this mission - they’d been trying to extract an asset, a human asset. Him. It was his rescue mission, and it had gone wrong and Steve and Tony had fought after - but why? He flipped through the pages of Coulson’s report until he got the After Actions from each of the team members. He flipped through them, Clint’s, Natasha’s, Steve’s, then Tony’s.
It finally all snapped into place.
The door clicked open, and Bucky opened his mouth to share the good news but stopped when he saw Clint’s panicked face. “What?”
“I heard voices. They were almost on top of me and I had to skedaddle in here, but I think they heard something and they’re on their way.”
“Seriously?! You’re a super spy,” Bucky hissed. “How did you not hear them sooner?”
“I have terrible hearing,” Clint explained. “My eyesight is so good it made the rest of my senses worse.”
Bucky gaped. “That is not how that works.”
“Fuck you, let’s - “ he cut off as they both heard voices coming down the hall. Clint pressed his ear to the door. Terry the security guard, he mouthed. Another voice, his eyes widened Phil. The voices were almost even with the door when they heard the third loud and clear and the both blanched.
Clint scrambled for the vent, and Bucky flew after him. They hauled themselves up, abandoning the mess and started speed crawling back towards the exit. As they hustled, Bucky couldn’t help but smile to himself. He had the answer, they’d been idiots, but it was also crystal clear how they could have come to this. It was all wrong though, it’d be so easy to bring them back together, all he had to do was explain.
Clint stopped, then, a moment later, disappeared as he tumbled out onto the grass. Bucky tried to follow but got his foot caught on the lip of the vent and there was a brief struggle. Clint tried to help, but they were both still running hot on the adrenaline of nearly being caught and ended up collapsing on the ground together laughing maniacally, Bucky’s foot still stuck in the vent.
It took them a moment to get under control, the situation so absurd it couldn’t be anything besides hilarious. The alarm hadn’t sounded, so either the three of them hadn’t gone into Coulson’s office yet and seen the mess, or they had decided it wasn’t a real threat.
“I’m going to be in so much trouble,” Clint gasped out between peals of laughter.
Bucky was gone into the place where he wasn’t making noise anymore, just holding his ribs together and praying for access to oxygen. “How - how will they know - you,” he choked out.
“Coulson will know. He always knows.”
That set Bucky off again, and it was a long while before he was able to work his foot free.
“Worth it?” Clint finally asked, still cackling.
“Absolutely.” Bucky stood, then hauled Clint to his feet beside him, grinning. “I know what happened.”
As soon as they got back to the tower, Bucky shoved Clint out of the elevator at his own floor and slammed the button for the penthouse. He flew out as soon as it slid open and marched up to the penthouse door. He turned the doorknob just as JARVIS said, “Might I suggest - “ and pushed it open. Steve and Tony were standing close together by the window but stepped apart when Bucky burst in.
“Bucky!” Steve exclaimed, immediately blushing deep red.
“Sorry,” Bucky halted, took in the room, remembered that Steve and Tony had plans tonight, but was too high on adrenaline and excitement to process why they might be here instead. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just have news, and it can’t wait.”
Tony and Steve glanced up at each other, quick, but full of something, and Bucky was temporarily distracted by the weight in that look. But he was so eager to share what he’d found, he barrelled on. “I have to tell you this, it’ll change everything. Sit.”
They shared another look, then walked over to the couch and sat, curious eyes on Bucky.
“I know about Rocky Heights,” Bucky explained, and both men tensed. “But hear me out. It didn’t go down the way you guys think it did.”
Bucky took a deep breath and, confident he had their rapt attention, dove in. “Three months ago, the Avengers came together for a mission that was nicknamed ‘Rocky Heights.’ The objective? Extract the Winter Soldier from a HYDRA base in China and bring him back to SHIELD for deprogramming.”
Steve’s eyes widened, and Bucky couldn't tell if he was impressed or angry. He plowed ahead. “The team was forced to split at some point and things got hectic. The HYDRA forces were stronger than expected and the comms kept cutting out, changing channels rapidly to overcome the base’s jamming tech. Steve was faced with a decision - there were three directions he could send his team, but everyone except Natasha and Tony were occupied. He sent Natasha one way, and Tony the other, leaving the third way unguarded. Unfortunately, that break in defenses was the how HYDRA was able to smuggle the Winter Soldier out and it took another two months to recover him. Me.” Bucky trailed off, feeling a bit nervous. That much he was confident about, but the rest he’d strung together. He hoped he was right.
“After the mission Steve broke things off with Tony, claiming it was bad for the team that they were together. But there are three things you don’t know.” That earned him twin looks of surprise. “One - Tony didn’t go the way Steve told him to. He went the other way.” Steve’s gaze swung sharply to where Tony say on his right. He opened his mouth, but Bucky held up a hand, stalling him. “Two - Steve chose to send Tony the way he did because he thought it was the safer option and he was worried about Tony being in danger on his own.” Bucky paused to take a breath and Steve and Tony burst into stunned chatter, talking over each other.
“Hey!” They quieted.
Then Steve took a breath and spoke carefully, voice level. “You went the other way?”
“Of course! I was there and you were outside the base, there was no way you knew which was the best choice. The basement was the most likely direction, so that’s the way I went.” Tony spluttered. “I thought you dumped me because I disobeyed you in the field and you blamed our relationship.”
Steve opened and closed his mouth a few times. “I - I didn’t know. I thought you went down the corridor like I said, and they escaped out of the basement.”
“No, it must have been the other way, no one was in the basement.” Tony shifted to face Steve fully. “If that wasn’t it, then why did you dump me?”
“I didn’t - I don’t like that wording, Tony. I didn’t ‘dump you.’ I ended things because - because I sent you that way during the mission for the wrong reason. I thought of you facing the Winter Soldier - sorry Bucky - alone, and I panicked and I sent you the way I knew was wrong because I was scared. That doesn’t make me a very good leader.” Steve took a shaky breath. “It didn’t work though. I still worried about you like crazy, being separated didn’t make it any easier. If anything, it made it worse… You thought I broke up with you for disobeying me?”
“I would never - you disobey me all the time.”
‘That was my point!” They stared at each other for a long moment. “Some of our arguments are suddenly making a lot more sense.”
Steve laughed, and Bucky’s heart swooped in his chest. They were smiling at each other now. It was working. His stomach was full of butterflies. Then Tony’s attention snapped back to Bucky. “You said three things.”
Bucky nodded, filled with jittery excitement for his final reveal. “I wasn’t there.”
“I wasn’t at that base that day. The intel was faulty. No one escaped with me because I was never there. All three directions were wrong. Where you finally caught me? That was the soonest you could have. Those extra two months aren’t on either of you.”
The room fell into stunned silence. When no one spoke after nearly a full minute, Bucky couldn’t stand it anymore. “So… the reasons you broke up, they’re silly. It didn’t happen the way you thought, so you can - you can get back together… right?”
Steve and Tony shared another one of those loaded looks that were starting to make Bucky nervous.
Steve was the one who finally spoke. “That wasn’t really it, Buck. I mean I’m glad you found this out, it colours everything in a new light and I’m sorry we couldn’t get you out sooner, but it is a relief to know there wasn’t anything we could have done differently. Still, our worries about working together and being together were legitimate. It’s hard. It affects the team. The mission was a catalyst, but probably part of why we both accepted it without pushing for the details was because it was brewing for a while before that. I was scared from day one that loving Tony would make it hard for me to lead. That the team would feel it and resent him, us.”
“And I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stand up for myself, have a voice of my own in the team without the conflict ruining our personal relationship,” Tony added. “So as soon as we felt like both of those things happened, it all went kaboom.”
The butterflies in Bucky’s stomach abruptly turned to churning acid. That was it? He’d gone through all this and they didn’t even want to save it? Something deep in his gut was twisting and cracking, like the mortar they’d used to patch the Winter Soldier back into Bucky was weakening. “So that’s it?” he managed to choke out.
Steve shook his head. “Then you got us talking again.” He was smiling now, nervous, but also hopeful, and Bucky risked a little hope himself. “Tonight, I’m sorry, we lied. There was no gala, but we needed a chance to talk to each other, and we didn’t want you to get your hopes up in case it didn’t go well.”
“So we talked - we were still talking when you showed up, but I think we’d pretty much got through the gist of it.” Tony glanced at Steve, and Steve nodded, smiling. “The things we’re afraid of, they’re always going to be there, whether we’re dating or not. And if we’re together, at least we’re facing them as a united front. Neither of us wanted to be apart, neither of us stopped loving each other, and this freeze out wasn’t working any better than before, so why rob ourselves of that happiness?”
Bucky could feel the grin spreading across his face. They were getting back together. He’d never felt happiness like this before. A warm, comfortable satisfaction pooled in his gut. It felt kind of like family.
Steve went on, “You also helped us see that the team is compromised by our relationship either way. We thought we could pull back and keep it professional and it would be fine, but we’ve noticed the difference since you got us hanging out again. It’s like the tower was holding its breath and it’s been let out. I didn’t realize how tense everyone was until they weren’t anymore. We did that, and it wasn’t fair.”
Bucky looked back and forth between them. “So it’s okay? You figured it out? You talked?”
Tony grinned, then reached over to poke Steve’s thigh with his finger. Steve caught his hand and wound their fingers together, blushing, and Bucky’s heart started beating out a samba in his chest. “We talked,” Tony confirmed.
“All we did was talk, though,” Steve blurted out, turning back to Bucky, his forehead creased and mouth twisted oddly.
Bucky stilled, trying to read Steve’s expression. He looked… embarrassed. That was weird. “Okay?” he tried.
“I just didn’t want you to think - I mean we wouldn’t do that to you.” Tony nodded along as Steve spoke.
“Um.” Buck attempted mindreading again, to no avail. “Do what?”
“It didn’t seem fair,” Tony tried, “to go behind your back. After everything you did - I mean, it was pretty obvious. The arm? I’ve read your file cover to cover a hundred times, I know it by heart. The only thing SHIELD knew about you when they took you in, was that you could service the arm yourself. They caught you on tape no fewer than fourteen times taking it completely apart and putting it back together again.”
Steve smiled. “And nightmares, Buck? Really? You’ve always had nightmares, your whole life, even long before the war. And there was only ever one thing that helped.”
The memory hit Bucky full on and his mouth dropped open. “... going for a run.”
“Yup. You always ran after, no matter what time it was, and then you’d go right back to sleep. I know you’ve changed, but I feel like that instinct would still be there. I know you didn’t have a nightmare that night. Then the other stuff, the sparring, the dragging us out on dates, pushing us together. And it all started immediately after you found out we used to be together? It was pretty obvious.”
“So we decided to talk about it.” Tony took over. “But just talk,” he added hastily, and Bucky felt once again like he’d lost the plot.
Then he got it. “Oh. Oh. Right. Well, you probably want to, uh, do the not talking things, so I’ll just -“ He got up and made for the door but the other two men sprung to their feet as well.
“Wait!” Steve cried, and Bucky screeched to a halt. “We weren’t - we weren’t saying no to you.”
“You put all that effort into this, Bucky, you were right,” Tony said. “You wanted to bring us together, and it worked.”
They were looking at Bucky, twin hopeful, happy expressions on their faces, and Bucky was utterly at a loss. “Yeess… you’re welcome? I’m happy for you two. I’m glad you two are together, and I’m sure you want time just the two of you, so I’ll go.” It was harder to say than he’d expected. He was going to miss this.
“No.” Tony had adopted the tone he might use to explain to someone that he cannot, in fact, see the giant, neon orange, french-speaking elephant in a jumpsuit that they are seeing. “You wanted to bring us together. That’s what we want too. Us.” Tony drew a triangle with his hand, connecting Tony to Steve, then Steve to Bucky, then Bucky to Tony. “Us” had somehow become three syllables.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Steve tried, more tentatively, as if he was finally realizing that Bucky was legitimately confused. “You spent all that time bringing us together… we thought... you were always there with us… And we talked about it just the two of us tonight because we knew our link was the damaged one and we wanted to make sure it was repairable before we talked to you. And it is, and so now we’re talking to you.” Steve drew the triangle shape again, less confidently this time, and Bucky watched his hand move. Something clicked into place.
“Three…?” Bucky tried, and Tony started nodding. “You thought I wanted a - a three person relationship.”
“Didn’t you?” Tony asked.
“No.” But even as the word slipped out of his mouth, and Steve’s face fell, and Tony tilted his head in confusion, Bucky realized that wasn’t right. It wasn’t that he didn’t want it, he’d never considered it. He didn’t know it was an option. It had never crossed his mind that either of them might think about him that way, let alone both of them. And he’d been so obsessed with bringing them together that he hadn’t realized what he’d created - a three. Seeing them together, seeing them happy, it made him happy, and not just because he loved them, but because it completed something in him that he didn’t know he was missing. Those other two sides of the triangle.
“- so sorry and I just honestly didn’t think that you would -“ Bucky realized Steve was stammering out an apology and he held up a hand sharply, cutting him off.
“No. Don’t - don’t apologize. I need to just - huh.” He looked at Steve’s open, nervous face and Tony’s confused one. God, he loved them both so much it hurt. He loved how insanely Tony chugged boiling coffee, the way he talked to himself even if you were right there, and the frequency and delight with which he set fire to things. He loved how passionate Steve was about everything, how he smiled at Bucky like he was the answer to some unasked question, and that he hadn’t lost his Brooklyn accent completely. And the two of them together, that was amazing, that was the goal, but if they’d have him too? If he could have those things for himself? “I want it.” It didn’t come out as confident as he’d like, so he tried again. “I didn’t think of it, that’s not what I was trying to do, but I want it.”
“Are you sure?” Steve frowned at him. “If that’s not what you were - we don’t want to push you…”
“No! I mean yes, I am sure, I do - that’s a thing people do? We can do that? I never.... Yes, I want it - you - both of you. Ugh,” Bucky scrubbed his hands over his face and into his hair. It was overwhelming, like having a box full of puzzle pieces you loved to sort and admire and run your hands through suddenly coalesce into a finished puzzle all on their own, and the picture wasn’t anything like what you expected.
But it was a beautiful picture.
A hand covered one of his, and he moved it away from his face. It was Steve. He brought their hands down, clasped together now, and Bucky’s heart stuttered at the contact. Steve moved slowly, hesitantly, giving Bucky time to back away, but he didn’t, he leaned in and their lips pressed together. Steve’s kiss was warm and soft, not demanding, but somehow grounding.
When they pulled apart, he turned and Tony was on his other side. It felt weird, and titled somehow, the only thing in this crazy, future world that had actually thrown him for a loop, but good too, that he could lean forward and draw Tony in for a kiss as well. Tony’s hand went to his hip and the kiss deepened, more urgent, more heated than Steve’s had been. He fretted, that when they separated, Steve would look disappointed, or jealous, or worried, but all he looked was... oh. Turned on.
“Um. Yeah. So remember the not-talking you were recommending earlier? I vote for that. If that’s okay.” His face was bright red, but he didn’t seem to be able to pull his gaze away from Tony’s mouth long enough to do more than stare at Bucky’s instead. Tony laughed and slipped a finger through one of Steve’s belt loops, pulling him close. It was such an easy, loving gesture that Bucky melted with spine tingling affection for the both of them.
“I think that can be arranged,” Tony rumbled, low and seductive. He turned his heated gaze from Steve to Bucky. “Bucky?”
Bucky looked back and forth between the two of them. His mind was still catching up to everything that had happened in the last hour. “Three?”
Both men broke into wide grins. Steve slung his arm around Bucky’s waist, the other resting on Tony’s shoulder. “Yes. Three. Always.”
Bucky nodded. “Yes.”
“Yes!” Tony whooped, dragging them both towards the bedroom. They all stumbled together, laughing and grinning, pawing at each other. Tony pulled them both in and kissed each of them, first Bucky, then Steve. “Thank god I have an enormous bed.”
Operation: Three’s Not a Crowd, After All - Complete success.