Part of Tony’s new Reunited Avengers Initiative involved scheduled “team building” outings. He felt lukewarm about it at first, thinking it was kind of pointless—they’ve already spent years living and fighting together—but pushed it forward with Pepper’s words of encouragement. Natasha had rolled her eyes, but smiled and shrugged. Clint agreed mostly because he just thought the idea was funny, plus Nat was game. T’Challa respectfully declined, insisting any non-Avengers time he had needed to be spent in Wakanda, which everybody understood. Thor was happy to join in whenever he was on Earth. Steve being the team player that he was, thought it was an excellent idea…which meant so did Sam and Bucky. And nobody was stupid enough to ask Hulk.
Today’s adventure was at the Bronx Zoo.
It was the perfect type of day to spend outside, the sun was out enough to warm the pavement and warrant t-shirts and shorts, but not so hot to be stifling. Tony, Pepper, Clint, and Natasha were sitting one next to the other along a row of benches, eating ice cream cones and joking together. Steve and Thor were across from them, leaning forward against a wooden fence opposite the flamingo exhibit. Sam and Bucky were a few yards down the path, pointing and laughing at a rogue swallow wreaking havoc on the tall, pink birds. Steve couldn’t help but smile watching them. He looked to his hands clasped together on the fence before noticing Thor watching him.
“You seem very happy, Steve,” he mused, with no hint of sarcasm.
Steve scoffed, but maintained his smile. “You say that like it’s a rarity.”
Thor took a breath in and turned around, crossing his arms and resting his backside against the fence. “I didn’t mean—”
Standing up straight, Steve put a hand out. “I’m sorry. It’s just…sometimes it does kind of feel like a rarity, you know? With all the shit we have to deal with.”
“I know,” Thor replied, clapping a large hand down on Steve’s shoulder. “I just mean to say that it’s okay. I know you feel a sense of responsibility to the world and to us. And I know you intrinsically feel extreme guilt when times are going well for you—” Steve opened his mouth to interject, but Thor continued, “—But it’s okay to relish in these times. There are always going to be people struggling whether it’s here or out there,” he waved a hand towards the sky, “and we will always try to help them. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t ever have the right to be truly happy yourself.” His eyes very pointedly slid from Steve’s to behind him where Bucky and Sam were chatting.
As he followed Thor’s gaze, Steve’s entire face turned pink. He couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact as Thor removed his hand and patted his chest a few times. “If you ever want to discuss anything, Steve, I am a friend who will gladly listen.”
Steve was still staring at the asphalt under him as Thor bounded over to the group on the benches and bellowed something about Tony and his ice cream cone that made the rest of them laugh. Finally looking back to the birds, Steve let out a shaky breath. His eyes wandered slightly before he glanced at Bucky, who was staring at him with a concerned look on his face.
Steve shook his head, trying to convey that nothing was wrong, but Bucky had been around the kid long enough to call his bullshit. He flicked Sam on the ear, laughing at his angry “hey!” and bounded towards Steve.
Steve forced a smile. “Nothing, Buck, it’s just…” He glanced over at Thor who was giving Steve a soft, but painfully sincere grin.
Bucky looked to Thor then back to Steve. Lowering his voice, he joked, “is there something going on between you two that I need to know about?”
That produced a genuine laugh from Steve who slung an arm around Bucky’s neck, leaning close. “If there was, would you be jealous?”
Bucky’s lips twitched as he fought back smirk, but his reddening cheeks told Steve the comment hit its mark. “Of you?” Bucky fired back. “Of course I’d be jealous, just look at him.”
“You’re such an asshole,” Steve tightened his hold as Bucky laughed.
Smoothly and swiftly Bucky ducked out of Steve’s elbow and punched him on the shoulder. Winking, he added, “you can get me back later.”
“Alright grandpas,” Tony called as he stood up. “If you two are done flirting already, I say we head on home.”
Once the “team building” idea really took off, Tony bought and converted a charter bus for the rides to and from destinations that were too close or too awkward to fly to. Apparently, says Tony (who was convinced by Pepper), some of the most valuable bonding time happens during the transportation. This afternoon, Clint fell asleep splayed across two plush seats, while Sam was doing everything in his power to annoy him without waking him up. Nat and Pepper were sitting up front making casual conversation with their friend and driver, Happy Hogan. Tony and Thor were in the middle, sitting across a small varnished table discussing the definitions of science and magic, while Steve and Bucky were in the back, quietly sitting next to each other, dozing, hands brushing.
After dinner that night, Steve was brushing his teeth in his and Bucky’s suite on the topmost floor of the facility. The fact that they shared it should have been a clue to Steve that everyone—or at least Tony—had an idea of what was going on between them. When he first brought Bucky back, it was written off as a “safety precaution.” If anything were to go south with Bucky, Tony didn’t want him left unsupervised. As time went on and Bucky got better, the suggestion of Bucky moving into his own room was brought up to which he replied, “why would I want to downgrade to a room when Steve’s got a whole suite?” So that was the end of that.
After rinsing his mouth and patting cool water onto his face and neck, Steve padded out of the bathroom into the master bedroom, pulling off his tank top and throwing it towards the closet doors. He let out a sigh and flopped onto the bed where Bucky lounged, reading. He set the book on his nightstand and reached over, combing his metal fingers through the front of Steve’s hair.
“What were you talking about with Thor today?”
Steve looked up from under his long lashes before sighing again and sitting up. “You.”
Taking Bucky’s hands in his, Steve rested them in his lap. “Do you think I’m intrinsically a guilt-ridden person?”
The laugh that burst out of Bucky’s mouth took Steve slightly by surprise. “Do I think—Steve, doll, I think you don’t know how to operate without having some kind of chip on your shoulder.” Seeing the look on Steve’s face, Bucky quickly continued. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing necessarily, but you do hold yourself to an impossibly high standard. Understandably. You’ve been repeatedly thrust, though voluntarily, into roles that require a huge amount of responsibility and that can wear on anyone—even you.”
He slipped a hand out of Steve’s to place it gently on the side of his face. “You’ve never been able to not stand up for what you believe is right. You feel it’s your duty. And because of that, your stubborn ass has gotten both of us into trouble more times than I can count.”
Steve chuckled at that as he leaned into Bucky’s hand. Bucky spent a few moments searching Steve’s glassy eyes before asking, “did Thor say you were?”
“Well, he was right wasn’t he?”
Bucky ignored the self-deprecating remark and asked, “What brought that up?”
Dropping his hand to the bed, Bucky started, “me? Why, because he thinks you should feel bad about us?”
“No, no, no, he—”
“Because I’ll kick his ass. God or not, I swear I will—”
Steve scoffed and Bucky shot him a look, but didn’t argue.
“Buck, no. He just…” Steve's ears blushed for what felt like the tenth time that day. “He said that I looked really happy lately and that just because there’s a lot of suffering in the world doesn’t mean that I…don’t deserve it.”
“Wait.” Bucky shifted on the bed, creaking the frame. “Are you telling me you don’t think you deserve to be happy? And that’s what you feel ‘intrinsically’ guilty about?”
Steve broke their eye contact, chewing on his bottom lip and scrunching his eyebrows together.
Bucky snaps. “Steve. Look at me.”
When his head rose, Steve realized there were tears welling up in Bucky’s eyes. “I have never met anyone in the past fucking century of being alive who deserves happiness more than you.” He pinched at the bridge of his nose. “And it kind of really pisses me off that you don’t think that. Do you really have that shitty of an opinion of yourself?”
Steve was fighting back tears now too, not expecting his innocent question to completely strip him raw and leave him totally exposed. “There’s so many other people out there, Buck, people whose lives are torturous and look at me just sitting here in this billion dollar building in a warm bed, well-fed, with the absolute love of my life—”
Bucky put both of his hands up, stopping him mid-sentence. “Steve, you do remember we lived through the Great Depression, right? You remember being sick and frail and hungry and cold every day of your damn life? You fought through fucking World War Two, Steve. You singlehandedly saved my life a few times and hundreds of others.” Bucky’s voice rose in pitch, “Remember intentionally crashing an entire plane, literally sacrificing your life to save the lives of millions? You got unfrozen 70 years later and still kept fighting for the good guys. You’ve fought aliens—aliens, Steve. You’ve helped save the world, I—” Bucky’s voice cracked and he let his head fall into his hands.
Steve didn’t know what to do or say. All of what Bucky just said was fact, so why wasn’t Steve convinced he was right? What tore Steve up inside the most was seeing how upset he made Bucky, not whatever deep-seeded insecurities he had about himself.
Bucky finally straightened up, eyes red, as he roughly rubbed the back of his flesh hand under his nose. “If anyone doesn’t deserve to be happy after the kind of life they’ve lived, it’s me.”
And Steve’s heart broke into a million pieces. “No, Buck, I didn’t mean it like that,” he stammered, “that’s not why I brought it up. Fuck...”
“I know it’s not, I’m just trying to give you a little perspective.”
Steve looked into Bucky’s raw eyes, kicking himself for being so insensitive and stupid. “Bucky—”
“No. Goddammit Steve, shut up.” He pointed a shaky finger in Steve’s face. “You’ve done so much good for this world. Way more than it deserves. And if you ever, ever, find yourself thinking you don’t deserve every single amazing, perfect, wonderful thing in the whole fucking universe, you tell me. Okay?”
It’s a whisper, but Steve replied, “okay.”
Making an irritated noise, Bucky rolled off the side of the bed and bounded into the bathroom, nearly slamming the door off its hinges. After a few minutes, Steve heard the faucet run for a couple seconds before Bucky finally emerged. He stood in the bathroom doorway, running hands slowly through his long brown hair.
“I’m sorry,” Steve blurted out. “That was a really thoughtless thing to ask you.”
Bucky gave him a gentle smile. “There’s nothing for you to apologize for, dollface. I’m sorry for turning it around on me.”
Steve outstretched his arms and wiggled his fingers. Bucky let out a deep breath and shuffled towards Steve’s side of the bed, completely collapsing on him. Steve laughed lightly into the crook of Bucky’s neck, breathing in the deep, heady scent of his skin.
Voice muffled, Bucky grumbled, “it’s not a contest, Steve.” He rolled off Steve’s warm body, so they were both lying flat on their backs. The comforter and sheets rustled as Bucky turned his head. “You don’t need to earn a certain amount of brownie points in order to deserve a contented life. Even if that was how it worked, you’d have enough banked up for all of us.”
“It goes both ways, you know,” Steve replied, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t hit a certain number of ‘bad points’ and then get doomed to misery forever. Life’s more complicated than that. Especially when you’re not the one in control of gaining said points.”
Steve rolled to the side and kissed Bucky on the temple. “I’m sorry I upset you.”
Bucky’s eyes roamed around Steve’s face, “It just breaks my heart, hearing you think that way about yourself. You make me so mad sometimes, you know that?”
Laughing, Steve sat up, crossing his legs. “Yeah, I know. Sorry for that too.”
“No you’re not,” Bucky snorted, walking on his knees to his side of the bed.
Steve smirked. “No, I’m not.”
Shutting off their bedside lights, they settled in for the night, Steve cocooned inside their plush dark grey bedding, Bucky lying flat on his back, just under the top sheet. Steve leaned over and kissed Bucky long and slow. “Goodnight, sugar.”
Gently biting Steve’s bottom lip, Bucky replied, “’night, doll.” A few long moments passed in the darkness of the extravagant room, the only sound the humming white noise of the air conditioning.
Steve was almost asleep when Bucky stirred and whispered, “You awake?” almost inaudibly.
A few more moments passed.
“Am I really the love of your life?”
Steve smiled to himself. “You know you are.”
Bucky didn’t reply at first, but Steve could practically hear him beaming.