Bucky had known from pretty much the start that Steve and Tony’s relationship was a sham, not in the least because Steve had told him so. Bucky might have felt like someone had put his brain through a blender, but he still remembered enough to know what Steve looked like when he was in love. Steve was definitely not in love with Tony. They were friends, sure, but that was it. There had apparently been some bureaucratic bullshit with SHIELD that had led to them faking a ‘whirlwind romance’ and getting married shortly after the Battle of New York. Steve had even admitted that, in all honesty, having to pretend to be in love had actually been what started their whole friendship, forcing them to spend time together and bond.
The picture Steve had painted before they even reached the tower was a fairly clear one. The whole team knew that they weren’t really together, so they spent the majority of the time just doing their own things. They went for a date night once a month and showed up to each other’s galas and events to keep up appearances. According to Steve, Tony flirted on auto-pilot so even press conferences and candid shots of them by the paparazzi only fed their image. It was a good arrangement. Tony hadn’t been interested in anyone since his experience in Afghanistan, after all, and Steve still felt too loyal to Peggy to even think about pursuing anything new with someone else. It worked for them.
Bucky had taken all of that in stride, not together enough himself to be able to really absorb the implications of it all. When they actually did reach the tower, he’d only met Tony and the others in passing before more or less secluding himself as much as possible. His main points of contact were Steve and Sam, though he saw Natasha from time to time as well. It wasn’t until at least two months later than he actually began to start venturing out into the common areas of the Avengers’ floors and interacting with the team a bit more.
That was when he started noticing that not everything was as plain and simple as Steve had made it seem.
Bucky was a world class assassin and had been an exceptionally gifted sniper even before that. His observational skills were quite keen. It took him all of three days to figure out what Steve was too oblivious to see. Tony Stark wanted to make things work between them. Romantically.
He was always the one to arrange their little dates and outings, taking special care to make sure they catered to Steve’s interests. He made sure to keep up appearances even when it was just the team around, sitting beside Steve for everything from meals to movie night to team meetings. When he looked at Steve, there was wistful longing in his eyes. Still, something about it didn’t seem quite right to Bucky. There was lust there, on Tony’s end, but it was low-key and there didn’t seem to be any real sexual tension, even the one-sided kind. Bucky knew Tony’s history. Physical attraction would definitely be an important factor to him in a loving relationship. If he was really in love with Steve, Bucky would expect to see more ass-staring or awkward boners when they sparred or something.
It didn’t make any sense, but Bucky knew better than to try and talk to Steve about it. He obviously didn’t have the slightest clue what was actually going on. That, or he had dug himself a deep, deep pit of denial and had decided not to come out anytime soon. Either way, he was useless. Luckily, Bucky knew someone who never failed to give him good advice in this strange, modern, free world.
“It’s a thing,” Natasha told him simply, tone disinterested and eyes on the knife she was sharpening. She and Bucky sat side-by-side at her kitchen table, each working on their own armaments. “This is as close to a long-term, committed relationship as Tony has ever come. He put on an act, but he’s always just been looking for someone to connect with. He knows there’s no real future there between him and Cap, but he can’t keep himself from hoping. After things didn’t work out with Pepper, he knows this could be the last chance he gets.”
“He’ll never see Tony as more than a very good friend. Steve’s focused. You know that better than anyone. Right now? His focus is everywhere but on Tony. Tony is a given quantity in his life. He knows where they stand, or at least he thinks he does.” She considered her own words for a moment. “Which might be leaving Tony even more hungry for affection that he would be otherwise. Nevertheless, they work well together, and Tony would never let any of this interfere with their work in the field. He has a quite impressive ability to compartmentalize.”
It was a hefty compliment, coming from her, but Bucky still felt unsettled by their conversation. It seemed cruel, he supposed, to dangle everything someone wanted just barely outside of their grasp. Not that Tony seemed displeased with his lot in life. He seemed very happy, in fact, to have the team there and to be able to spend time with them, even Bucky. Tony and Steve truly were good friends, too.
It was only ever in the quiet moments, in the soft ones where Tony let his guard down, that Bucky was able to see that he was bothered. He would spend all night draped across Steve’s chest for movie night, only to get a wounded, melancholic look when they parted ways to go to their separate bedrooms. He always tucked his hand away in a pocket, as if hiding it, whenever Steve dropped it as soon as they walked from public into a more private area. He all but showered Steve with gifts, both bought and of his own creation, but seemed to wilt when Steve only gave him a cordial thanks, if a heartfelt one. It wasn’t like Steve didn’t appreciate them, just that they didn’t mean the same thing to him that they meant to Tony.
Bucky had been in the tower for four and a half months when he realized the Problem. It had snuck up on him, slowly and without his knowledge. By the time he realized what was happening, it was already too late. He’d started watching Tony because of his unique role in Steve’s life and then out of curiosity about their dynamics. Now, though, Bucky watched Tony for an entirely different reason.
Tony laughed at some stupid joke Clint had made, his entire face lighting up, and Bucky felt a tightness in his chest in response. He drank in the joy on the other man’s face, the little, crinkled lines by his eyes, the wide grin revealing sparkling, perfect teeth. His eyes were whiskey gold and twinkled with humor behind long, dark lashes. Even from across the room, Bucky’s super soldier senses could pick up the barest hint of his rich cologne.
Bucky wanted to lick his way up the column of Tony’s throat to kiss him on his plush lips, wrapping his arms around Tony’s waist and pulling their bodies flush against each other to feel his heat and the hard lines of his muscles. It didn’t help that Tony had been at SI today and was dressed in a sinfully-tailored suit, the top three buttons undone and tie hanging loose to reveal his clavicle.
Bucky jerked his gaze away and back to the tablet in his lap as Tony finished up his conversation with Clint and headed towards where Bucky and Steve were sharing the couch, backs against the armrests and feet shoved under each other’s thighs to keep away the January chill. (Not that JARVIS didn’t keep the tower at a blissfully warm and comfortable temperature. There were just an awful lot of windows on the communal floor and there was only so much that could be done.) He tried not to grimace when Tony bent down to smack a kiss against Steve’s cheek.
“Honey, I’m home! How was your day?”
Steve just rolled his eyes at the term of endearment and held up his own tablet for Tony to see.
“I’ve been running the numbers from our past few missions. I want to work some extra maneuvers into our next team practice that I think might be useful.”
Steve didn’t ask how Tony’s day was and, even though he had plenty of times before, the absence of it now rankled Bucky. He glared at the ring on his best friend’s finger.
“Sounds like fun. Just let JARVIS know if you want him to add any new simulations. He should be able to fabricate a bit more freely after the last round of upgrades.”
“Thanks,” Steve said, shooting Tony a quick grin. “I’ll make sure to do that.”
“How about you, Robocop?” Tony asked, shifting his attention over to Bucky. “Get up to anything terribly interesting today?”
“Oh, you know, same old, same old. I think Sam is about to start refusing to go out on jogs with Steve and me anymore, though.” He felt inordinately pleased by the bark of laughter that drew out of Tony. “How was your day?”
Tony gave a dramatic groan and pout, which Bucky couldn’t help but smile in response to.
“It was terrible, awful, horrible,” he lamented pitifully. “I had to go to meetings and do paperwork and I didn’t even get a chance to sneak off to R&D even once.”
“A tragedy,” Bucky agreed, trying to school his expression so he could nod solemnly. “I’m surprised you were able to survive it.”
“Me, too, Buckaroo, me, too… But now I’m going to enjoy my new freedom by changing out of this suit and ordering us in an absolute feast. I’m starving. What are you thinking? Chinese or pizza?”
“Chinese,” Bucky and Steve answered together, overruling Clint’s shout of, “Pizza!” from the other side of the room.
Tony laughed again as he headed down the hallway toward his private elevator that would take him to his floor.
“Both it is! JARVIS, if you would be so kind?”
“Already taken care of, Sir.”
“This is why I love you, J!”
Bucky didn’t openly stare at his butt as he walked away, but it was a close thing.
To say that Bucky had witnessed a few fights between Steve and Tony would have been a huge understatement. At least a third of their interactions seemed to be knock-down, drag-out fights. Never violent, but certainly vicious. They were just radically different people who came at things from radically different perspectives and, while they were both good men who wanted what was best for the world, those visions didn’t always line up.
Steve was an idealist who wanted to believe that everyone was as good as he was, just because they could be. Tony was more of a realist, with a whole batch of trust issues that meant he was more than just a little bit cynical. So, they clashed. A lot. Neither one of them was right all the time, and they always both had decent points to make. Natasha or Bruce usually ran interference for the issues that they weren’t able to resolve themselves and their fights never, ever lasted. They were both happy to move past it as soon as the fight was over, not holding on to hard feelings. It probably helped that their bickering rarely got personal.
“Look, Tony, I know you didn’t have the best relationship with Howard, but I’ve already accepted the invitation to the event and if you don’t come-“
“Then I was busy. I’m the owner of one of the largest companies in the world, Steve, not to mention an Avenger and a consultant to multiple government and scientific agencies. I’m known to be quite busy. Besides, I barely show up to half of my own events. No one will bat an eye if I miss someone else’s.”
“He was your father! What’s one night, Tony? Really? I really don’t understand why you have to be so difficult about this.”
Tony’s expression was thunderous, and Bucky almost wanted to excuse himself from the room to escape the brewing explosion. He didn’t, though. Moving so much as a muscle might bring him to the attention of the two fighting men and that was the last thing he wanted. He didn’t normally mind wading into the midst of a fight between them, knowing neither of them were likely to turn on him, but with Howard involved… Well, it just didn’t seem like such a good idea, all things considered.
“I have no interest in spending numerous hours of my life that I’ll never get back at an event where every person in attendance will feel the need to tell me what a great man my father was and how sorry they are for my loss. That was what the wake was for over two decades ago. Most of the people there won’t even have ever met him, they’d just be brown nosing.”
Steve huffed in frustration.
“That’s all anyone does at any of these events. You complain about it all the time, but you still go when it’s for the good of your company or the Stark Foundation. Now I want to go to one and it’s suddenly the straw that breaks the camel’s back?”
“Yeah, I’m selfish. What’s your point, Cap?” Tony sneered, his expression twisting into something ugly. Bucky wanted to make it go away. It didn’t look right on Tony’s face. “I thought you knew that going in to all this.”
“I thought I did,” Steve spat right back, “but sometimes you still manage to surprise me.”
The flash of hurt never even made it onto Tony’s face, never left his eyes, but Bucky managed to catch a glimpse of it before it was hidden away completely.
“Well, you know how I hate being predictable.”
Tony turned on his heel and stormed out before Steve could get another word in, for which Bucky was pathetically grateful. No doubt their fight would only have gotten worse from there.
“That was fucked up,” he said, as soon as the genius had disappeared around the corner.
He was probably headed down to the lab to try and hammer out his anger, possibly literally, with a few projects. Bucky would have to go down and check on him in an hour or so after he’d had a chance to cool off. If he followed now, Tony would only feel cornered and get defensive. Bucky could understand how that felt.
“He’s being unreasonable,” Steve sighed, visibly deflating. “He’ll come around. I’ll talk to Pepper, maybe. She’s always been better at handling him than I have.”
Bucky’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline, turning to give Steve an incredulous look.
“You’ve got the wrong idea here, punk. I was talking about you.”
“Me? Tony’s the one-“
“Who builds all your gear?” Bucky cut in to finish Steve’s sentence. “Lets you, me, and the rest of the team live here for free? Helps finance the relief efforts in every city where we have a mission, whether the damage is our fault or not? Is personally responsible for providing enough clean energy resources to communities all over the world that air pollution is predicted to be cut in half over the next ten years? Oh, yeah, Stevie, I can definitely see where your dumb ass gets off calling a man like that selfish.”
“He called himself that.”
“And you fucking agreed with it! Don’t bullshit me, Stevie. I’ve known you too damn long for that. You’re supposed to be his husband, man.”
“Then how about at least trying to be a decent fucking friend?” Bucky snarled, his patience reaching its limit. “Tony does a hell of a lot for all of us. So what if he doesn’t want to go to a single event? Seems to me that we should be respecting that instead of getting in his face over it.”
Steve gave him a disapproving frown, clearly not buying what he was selling.
“Howard was his father, Bucky, and a great man. He deserves to be remembered with respect.”
“Well, you didn’t grow up with him, did you, Stevie? You know he and Tony had a strained relationship at best and even if they didn’t, why should you be the one dictating how Tony remembers and does or does not memorialize his father?”
“Maybe not, but he was also my friend. I’m going to this event.”
Despite the fact that he’d been shying away from getting physically confrontational with Steve since his return, Bucky had no issues with stepping closer and getting in his face now.
“I’ve got no problem with that. You make whatever choices you want to for yourself, but if you make Tony go to that gala, you’re not going to like what I end up doing.”
Steve couldn’t have looked more shocked if Bucky and hauled off and punched him in the nose.
“Was that a threat?”
And then Bucky turned and left, too, not in any mood to deal with Steve for a second longer. Besides, his heart was pounding in his chest, panic edging across his mind at the fact that he had, indeed, just threatened Steve. That was probably why he didn’t notice the genius darting away and into the elevator before he could get caught.
Bucky loved Steve, he did, but Steve was also a stubborn idiot and a jackass. Everyone might think he was this angel of goodness and justice, but Bucky knew the truth. Steve was like a chihuahua. He looked sweet and innocent, but he’d start yapping his head off the second anybody looked at him wrong. That was why, as much as Bucky hated it, he wasn’t surprised when Steve still went ahead and managed to talk Tony into attending the gala with him. Steve had a bad habit of not listening to other people after he’d already decided he was right. He probably figured he could handle Bucky yelling at him for it later.
Too bad for him, that wasn’t Bucky’s plan at all.
Bucky still struggled to be more like the man he’d been back before the war, before HYDRA got their hands on him, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten all his tricks. He still knew all the moves; they just didn’t feel as natural as they once had.
The suit Bucky wore was one that Tony had bought him, though that wasn’t saying much since Tony had bought practically his entire wardrobe. It was a sleek, classic black number, perfectly tailored with satin-edged lapels. He matched it with an equally back shirt and a thin, blood red tie. His cufflinks, in a matching red, were shaped like stars. He didn’t so much shave his face as he trimmed up and shaped his stubble, leaving it looking just on the attractive side of ‘I don’t give a fuck’, and swept his hair into an artful bun. He had to buy a scent specifically for the occasion, since he didn’t actually own one, but that wasn’t a terrible inconvenience. Luckily, Hugo Boss had the perfect one for the occasion. He borrowed the mascara from Natasha.
“Eat his heart out,” she’d instructed him fondly, patting his cheek while handing over the requested tube.
Bucky still wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the statement, but he was choosing to take it as encouragement for now.
There were a number of specifically-cleared SI drivers and cars at the disposal of the Avengers, should they ever need one. Bucky picked out an older-model Rolls-Royce, all beautiful lines and purring engine. He thanked the driver before opening the door and stepping out onto the red carpet of the Howard Stark Memorial Gala.
It wasn’t the first one that had been held, that had been five years after the man’s death, but it was the first one since Steve had been revealed to the world as having been defrosted. Tony had never attended before, but the organizers sent him an invite to every one. This year, they’d sent invites to Steve and Bucky as well. Bucky had originally declined the invitation since, even if the public didn’t know he’d been the one to end Howard’s life, it seemed in rather bad taste for him to attend. After his discussion with Steve, however, he’d gotten back in touch to change his RSVP.
He swanned in fashionably late, just enough to have missed the larger media frenzy out front but not enough to draw attention for being too late. He knew for a fact that Steve and Tony had arrived over an hour ago and scoped the room for them as he did his best to fade into the crowd. He wanted to stand out, but not yet.
He spotted them on the far side of the room, talking to a few veterans that Steve seemed to attract at every event he attended. It was really only due to how well Bucky knew him that he was able to spot Tony’s discontent. He covered it admirably well, but, to be fair, Bucky supposed he’d had a lot of practice. There was a tightness around his eyes and mouth that was a dead giveaway, though. It was a shame, since Tony was normally so pleased when Steve draped an arm around his waist.
Or, well, considering Bucky’s plan, maybe it wasn’t such a shame after all.
He drew himself up, pressed his shoulders back, and pasted a lop-sided grin onto his face before heading their way. As could only be expected, he was stopped several times along his path to talk with various other guests and he did his best to be charming while getting away from them as quickly as possible. At least the delays gave Steve and Tony time to notice him before he made it all the way over. Steve looked surprised and delighted to see him, though Tony’s eyes held only confusion and an inexplicable hint of hurt.
“Buck! You didn’t say you were coming tonight!”
The grin Bucky offered Steve in response was enough to stop him from wrapping Bucky up in a hug, sensing something was off.
“Oh, you know,” Bucky said with false cheer, “you seemed so adamant about how important it was, I figured, if Tony couldn’t miss it, I certainly didn’t have an excuse to miss out.”
Something like fear flashed across Steve’s face and Bucky reveled in it even as Steve stepped in closer and lowered his voice to make sure they weren’t overheard. Tony just stood watching them with wide eyes, clearly not having expected the acidity in Bucky’s tone.
“What are you doing, Bucky?” Steve asked, a warning in his voice. “Nobody wants a scene. You want to start something, we can do it back at the tower. There’s no reason to ruin the night for anybody.”
“Oh, you mean like you ruined Tony’s by making him come in the first place?” Bucky challenged. He gave a sharp, fake laugh. “Not to worry, Stevie. I was pretty upset about it for a while, but I have to admit, I’m glad I came. How else would I have gotten to admire such a fine view?”
He let that old Brooklyn drawl seep into his voice as he gave Tony a long look over, startling the man into a faint blush. Huh. Bucky hadn’t known he did that… It was a good look on him.
Bucky ignored him as he prowled toward Tony.
“What do you say, doll? Care for a spin around the dancefloor? I can guarantee I’ve got better moves than this guy. Or we could just jump straight to the good part and you could let me take you home.”
Tony was staring at him with wide eyes and a slightly gaping mouth. It wasn’t often that the genius got so caught off guard and Bucky relished the fact that he’d been the one to make it happen. He also relished the way Tony’s eyes were dilating as they looked at him in his suit.
“Bucky!” Steve cut in with a hiss, glancing around at the other nearby guests. “What are you doing? Tony and I are married! He’s taken!”
Bucky snorted indelicately and gave Steve a flat look.
“Yeah, taken for granted. It’s not my fault if you haven’t learned to appreciate him by now. It just means I don’t feel guilty about sweeping in to show you up. After all,” he continued, switching his attention back to Tony, “it just ain’t right for such a pretty thing like you not to be appreciated. Now, what do you say about that dance?”
Tony seemed to have gotten himself back under control by that point, but amusement was causing the corner of his mouth to twitch upward in a grin. That was good. Bucky was more than prepared to back off if Tony wasn’t on board with all this. He was glad that wasn’t the case.
“Leave the man my father loved above all else for his best friend at my father’s own memorial gala? Why, Mr. Barnes, it doesn’t get much more scandalous than that.”
Bucky stepped in close and wrapped an arm around Tony’s waist to pull them flush against each other.
“You know what would be even more scandalous?”
Tony’s eyes dropped to a half-lidded gaze, both of them ignoring Steve’s choked-off, mortified noise. Served that punk right.
“Tell me,” Tony demanded, voice dripping with a seductive purr that sent a shiver down Bucky’s spine.
“If I gave into the temptation I’ve been feeling for months and kissed you right here in front of all these people.”
“I’ve been getting a little restless with married life anyway.”
Bucky was pleased to find out that Tony tasted every bit as good as he looked.