Bucky watches Steve slump over, gagging and dry heaving. His fingers spasm against the floor. His sweat shines in the bright light as another shudder runs through his body, and Bucky wants nothing more than to reach out to help him. A hand on his shoulder stops him. Sam eyes him sympathetically, shaking his head, pursing his lips together. There’s nothing you can do, he mouths silently to Bucky.
"This is too much," Steve moans. Bucky can’t keep himself from clenching his fist at the sheer pitifulness of the sound. His only comfort is that Steve isn’t going to die. Probably.
"So dramatic," Natasha says and rolls her eyes. "It’s a delicacy in Korea."
"I’m going to die."
"You’re not allowed to die until we’re finished and you’re out of Sam’s apartment. He’ll lose his lease if they find a dead body."
Bucky snorts out a laugh, and Steve sends him a betrayed look. They probably shouldn’t even be doing this at Sam’s in the first place. But he’s the only one of them who has his life together enough to have fresh vegetables and an actual dining table. He also regularly thinks about things like a downpayment for a house or a retirement fund or basic human hygiene. Sam’s place kinda became the group hangout by default.
Honestly, it’s a wonder he hangs out with any of them, Bucky thinks. Natasha still believes homemade tasers are acceptable birthday presents, Bucky may or may not’ve woken up in a dumpster this morning, and Steve just ate a bull penis.
Well that last one wasn’t really his fault. Except it was.
You don’t make bets with Natasha. You just don’t. She’s scarily prescient in a way that’s probably due to an excellent grasp of statistics and probability. Or it could be witchcraft. Bucky can see it going either way to be honest. Even worse, Natasha’s creative when it comes to punishments, and she takes great joy in crafting them. Only the extremely arrogant or foolish try to go up against her.
And Steve’s an idiot. Bucky probably should’ve seen it coming.
"Yeah," Sam is saying, "Try not to die until you’re at least twenty feet from the front door."
Bucky raises an eyebrow at him. "That’s the distance smokers need to stand from public buildings."
"So? Why would the rules be laxer for Steve dying?" Sam blinks and hums a considering noise. "You know what, you’re right. Make that twenty-five feet."
Steve straightens up from where he’d dramatically laid himself on the floor. He scowls at everyone. "I’ll die wherever I damn well please."
"Oh good, looks like you’re up for the next round," Natasha says cheerfully and disappears into the kitchen.
Steve slumps back to the floor, lets out a long groan, and then resigns himself to his fate. Bucky smiles. His shirt’s rucked up a little from all the thrashing and moaning. For a while, Bucky just watches the way his breathing tenses and relaxes his stomach. Even after all the excitement, Steve’s breath is still deep and even. He’d suffered from asthma when he was younger, Bucky remembers. Kids who grew up with lung problems tend to be like that—always conscious of their breathing.
Sam makes a quiet noise beside him, startling Bucky out of his reverie. And he realizes that he’d spent the last minute just staring at the exposed strip of skin between Steve’s shirt and his waistband. His face heats.
"You know," Sam says to Bucky, tilting his head back, "I had an inkling of what was going to happen. I figured it out when she mentioned borrowing my fridge. I just thought Nat would get chicken feet or jellyfish or an oxtail or something. But she’s really going all out tonight."
"Yeah." He hadn’t really thought about it, but now that Sam mentions it, Natasha really is going overboard with this. They’re only two rounds in, and she’s already pulled out the scorpions and the bull penises. He’s terrified and fascinated by what she could possibly bring out next.
A muffled clatter echoes from the kitchen, and Steve visibly winces at the sound. Sam glances around and drops his voice into a murmur. "All this, and she never once mentioned what the bet was. Neither did Steve. It makes a guy wonder."
Bucky nods. "The bet’s been going for a long time too. Half a year, at least. Nat has that thing she does with her eyebrow when—"
"Yeah, I’ve seen it. When she knows she’s winning."
They both fall into a contemplative silence as they try to piece the clues together. Bucky first realized there was a bet going on Steve’s birthday. The one where Natasha gave him a taser jury-rigged from a disposable camera. Steve loved it immediately, and Bucky’d had words with her after that.
It’d been too many people crammed into a too small apartment. Towards the end of the night, he and Steve had spilled out of the living room and onto the balcony where the night air cooled their faces. They’d both been a bit sloppy drunk then. The only reason they managed to stay standing was because they were leaning against each other. They’d sat on the floor and eaten cherries, spitting the pits over the railing. The fireworks earlier in the evening had tapered off, but there were still the scattered whistles and crackles of the neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers. He’d always liked that about Steve’s birthday. Even though those were Fourth of July fireworks, Bucky liked to think the people celebrating in the streets were just for Steve.
Natasha found them waiting for the sun to rise. She’d arched her eyebrow and smirked down at Steve, and Bucky immediately knew then that she was winning. He had no idea what it was, but she was winning it.
"She’s surprisingly awful at poker once you’ve noticed the tell," he says aloud, and Sam snorts.
The grumble of a blender drifts into the living room, causing Sam to bolt upright. He runs to the kitchen, shouting, "Don’t you dare, I use that for protein shakes. Natasha!"
Bucky chuckles and settles down in his seat. Steve cracks an eye open at him. The warm contentment that Bucky always feels when he’s alone with Steve begins to creep through him. There’s a softness in Steve’s expression as he watches him.
Then his mouth twists and his face crinkles as he says, "I can still taste it."
"Your fault for betting against Natasha fucking Romanoff."
"I thought I’d win," he grumbles.
Bucky laughs at the affronted expression on Steve’s face. "You don’t win against Natasha. She concedes to a draw when she gets bored, and you count yourself lucky for coming out unscathed."
"There’s a first time for everything. I really thought that’d be the one." Steve huffs and pulls himself off the floor just long enough to tumble into Sam’s empty chair. He’s settled himself on it backwards, his legs straddling the seat, his arms folded on top of the chair. His hair flops in his eyes. Bucky doesn’t brush it away from his face, but it’s a close thing.
"What even was the bet?" he asks.
Steve’s shoulders hunch, and he buries his face into the crook of his elbow. The nape of his neck goes slowly turns bright red. Bucky pokes the skin just above the collar, and Steve jolts up at the contact. His face is splotchy with embarrassment. Bucky’s never found anything more endearing in his life.
"It’s just a stupid bet. It doesn’t really matter now," Steve mutters. He’s looking down and away from Bucky’s eyes. The color in his cheeks has spread to his ears too. "I thought I could win it because it was about me. I mean, you should know yourself better than anyone else does. Why wouldn’t I take the bet?"
"Oh Steve," Bucky sighs. "You shouldn’t make bets about yourself with anyone, let alone Natasha. You’re great, but seriously, you’re the least self-aware person I know."
"Thanks, Buck. That makes me feel so much better."
"No, I mean, it’s just—you thought you weren’t good enough to make a living off of your art, and here you are. You still think your career’s a fluke even though you worked fucking hard for it. And you’re always acting like you gotta prove yourself to us. Like you still gotta earn your place here when you’re basically the only reason we all stayed friends after college. You never even noticed that I—" Bucky fumbles and skips over the sentence, grateful that Steve’s looking too overwhelmed to pick up on the stumble. "So yeah, you’ve got no self-awareness. You’d lose every bet anyone could ever make about you."
Steve stares at him in complete shocked silence. Bucky’s honestly kind of proud of himself for doing that. It’s not often that he can leave Steve unable to come up with a witty comeback. He savors these moments when they come, and he sure as hell is enjoying it now.
Steve’s mouth works open and close several times before he starts to say, "You—"
"And now, it’s time for Round Three," Natasha declares as she sweeps back into the living room. "I hope you’re hungry, Rogers."
Steve groans and sags into his chair. "I really don’t want to know what it is."
"Well, I’d initially planned on a sardine smoothie, but someone—" she glares back at Sam who’s following her from the kitchen, "—was feeling protective of his blender. So we’re going with beef tongue for now."
Steve starts to look even more nauseous than before. Sam slides close to him and mutters, "Eat the fucking tongue, Steve. I saw the other things she had in the fridge. Trust me, the tongue is the easiest one."
Natasha gleefully deposits the plate in front of Steve. God, Bucky can actually see the individual tastebuds. It’s made that much more awful by the fact that it manages to simultaneously be both tongue-like and vaguely phallic. Steve grimaces as he cuts into it with a knife.
But once the tongue is cut up into smaller less recognizable pieces, it does seem to go down pretty easy. "It’s chewier than normal beef, but that’s about it, I guess," Steve says. "How many rounds left?"
"Two," Natasha replies. "And next we have a true Chinese delicacy: bird saliva."
Sam raises an eyebrow and leans over to Bucky. "That’s birds nest soup, right? She’s making it sound a lot worse than it actually is," he says, too quietly for either Steve or Natasha to hear.
"It’s spit that came from a bird’s mouth, Sam."
"It’s literally one of the most expensive foods in the world. What the hell kind of bet did he lose?"
Bucky shrugs. "Steve just said it was something about himself. That’s why he accepted it in the first place."
"There’s definitely more to the bet than that. That shit’s $2000 a pound."
"What did you think I meant when I said it was expensive?"
"It’s bird spit."
"Quiet in the peanut gallery," Natasha calls.
Steve stares down at the little soup bowl like it’s the barrel of a gun. It’s filled with a vaguely yellow gelatinous liquid. Even knowing how expensive it is, Bucky still wouldn’t ever consider eating it.
"This is it. This is what kills me," Steve says, though it’s somewhat half-hearted. He'd worked most of the dramatics out of his system with the bull penis.
"Just drink it," Natasha says. "If anything was going to kill you, it would’ve been the scorpions."
"I hate you."
Steve brings the bowl close to his face, visibly steeling himself. He tips it back and downs the whole thing like a shot, swallowing as quickly as he can. "Okay, that’s salty. I really didn’t want to learn that bird spit is salty."
Sam claps Steve on the shoulder. "Just one round to go."
Natasha smiles ominously and drags Sam back into the kitchen with her. Their bickering starts up almost the moment they step into the other room. Bless his heart, Sam seems to be trying to convince Natasha not to use the more deadly of the exotic foods in the last round.
"Five rounds," Bucky says, shaking his head. "What were you so spectacularly wrong about that you promised five punishment rounds to her?"
Steve scowls. "Why’re you so hung up on this? It’s just a bet."
"And I haven’t seen five full rounds since Pepper proposed to Tony. Rhodey was adamant that Tony was going to be the one to bend the knee."
That particular bet punishment had spanned almost a year. Rhodey could withstand any torment in the short term, but it was the slow paranoia stretched over eleven full months that really got to him. Natasha’s mellowed out somewhat since then. Or people’ve just learned not to make such large bets with her now. They mostly stick to small single-round punishment bets these days. Who’ll win such and such game, what band will be playing that night at the bar, what color Sam decides to repaint his apartment. All the larger bets about who’ll propose and who’ll fall in love have tapered off a long time ago. They used to make a lot of bets about love now that Bucky thinks about it.
Bucky looks at Steve and sees that he’s blushing again. All the way down to the collar. "You said the bet was about you?"
Steve sighs, scrubbing a hand through his hair. Bucky watches the fine strands tangle and bunch around his fingers. Steve’s refusing to meet his eyes. "Yeah, it was."
"Five rounds in a bet about you." He hums in his throat. "So who’d you fall in love with?"
Steve stiffens and finally looks at Bucky. It isn’t until he does that Bucky realizes just how much Steve’s been avoiding his gaze this whole night. He’s always been a straightforward person. He doesn’t waver or shift his eyes away. He’s the kind of guy who stares people down without even realizing he’s doing it. But he hasn’t once looked Bucky straight in the eye until just now.
"I think I might have an idea," he says when Steve doesn’t respond.
"Yeah, I bet." Steve’s scowling down at his hands. Every line of his body is stiff and angry.
"Was it really that—" Bucky clears his throat, feeling how dry it suddenly is. "Was falling in love with me really that unbelievable?"
Steve sighs. "It was a long time ago. I hadn’t really thought it through, and so when Nat started talking, I dunno—I thought I’d win. I wasn’t in love with you back then. It never even occurred to me that I could be until she brought it up. And I still wasn’t for a long time after that. And then you had to be all—" he waves a hand vaguely and scowls. "So I lost the bet."
"You lost the bet," Bucky says.
"And it’s your fault, asshole."
Bucky smiles helplessly and presses a hand against the back of Steve’s neck, feeling the short hairs against his palm. Steve’s still huffy, just about one step removed from outright pouting. "If it makes you feel better," he says. "I would’ve lost the bet almost immediately."
"It doesn’t actually," Steve grumbles. "You weren’t forced to eat a bull’s dick just now."
"I’m sure Nat can come up with something equally horrifying for me."
"Just shut up and take responsibility," Steve growls, and then he’s yanking Bucky forward.
Their faces come together clumsily. They knock noses and teeth the first couple tries, but eventually they do hit the right angle. Bucky lets out a slow exhale against Steve’s mouth, feeling a warm breath puff against his own. He feels a bit like he’s melting. The press and slide of another person’s lips, and the tight grip that Steve’s got on his collar. Like he’s afraid Bucky will back out if he lets go. Steve’s the same in this as he is with everything else, Bucky thinks. A little too direct, a little too impatient, a little too much fervor, a little too much tongue and teeth. A little too much of everything to be honest. He throws himself in headlong like he’s trying to prove himself even here.
And Bucky pushes forward, trying to show that Steve doesn’t need to win him—he already has him. It’s a lot to convey without actually saying anything, and he’s not sure if he gets the point across. It’s still an excellent kiss though.
"Oh, so that’s what the bet was," Sam says somewhere behind them.
They break apart, red-faced and panting like honest to god teenagers. It would be embarrassing if Bucky wasn’t enjoying the novelty so much. He turns and grins widely at Sam and Natasha. And then the taste hits him.
"Okay, as much as I enjoyed this, that tastes disgusting," Bucky says, wrinkling his nose. "I don’t even want to know what that is."
Steve scowls. "At least, you’re only getting it second hand. I had to put it in my mouth and swallow."
"It’s probably the bull penis. I heard it helps with virility," Sam says.
Steve’s face goes impossibly redder. Bucky suppresses a chuckle as he turns to Natasha who’s been quiet since she left the kitchen. She has a dangerous gleam in her eye.
Bucky eyes the plate she’s holding. "I really shouldn’t be asking, but what the hell is that?"
Natasha absent-mindedly glances down at the slimy white pile. It kind of reminds Bucky of brain matter. "Oh this? It’s cod sperm. Sam negotiated me down."
"You’re really going to make Steve eat that?" He feels queasy just looking at it.
"I really don’t think this is the worst thing he’s had tonight," Natasha says, smiling wickedly. "But no, I think I’ll let him off the hook for now. Hold this for a second."
Bucky accepts the plate of—sperm. He tries not to think too hard about it as he peers down at the wet jiggling pile. Yeah, he’s definitely nauseous now.
"It’s lucky that I bought extra. We still have leftovers," Natasha says to herself as she digs her phone out of her pocket. She has possibly the most terrifyingly gleeful expression on her face. Bucky watches her dial a number and hold the phone to her ear.
"Clint, you’re coming over. Yes, right now. You just lost a bet."