It’s clear that no one in the tower cares that Bucky and Steve share a bed, even after they realize that sharing a bed means sharing a bed naked, which means they’re fucking. It’s actually anticlimactic, since Steve had been pretty much obsessed with finding Bucky, and even though none of them actually had close friends growing up, no one thought it was just that Steve really missed his best buddy.
And the fact that Steve being Steve broke through seventy years of HYDRA programing made it pretty clear that Bucky felt the same whether he knew it or not at the time. So, finding out they’ve been, as Clint insists on saying, boning each other since the stone age, isn’t really a shock.
Except to Tony.
Natasha knows Tony didn’t really believe Steve was a virgin, no matter how much he insisted, but it’s not until Steve and Bucky move into the Tower that she figures out why he really, really needed to believe that.
“I need you to tell me.” Tony follows Steve around like a very persistent, very yappy dog. “I need you to tell me the truth.”
“I have. And I have.”
“I’m what, Tony?”
He waves his hands up and down to indicate Steve’s body. “You. And all… You.”
“I appreciate the compliment, but the answer is still no.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Tony, don’t hit on a man who has a boyfriend. You had your chance before Barnes showed up.”
“Hit on… I’m not hitting on him! He’s not even my type.” Tony actually looks offended and Steve raises an eyebrow, fighting back a smile. “But you cannot tell me that he searched for you every fucking year just because he thought America needed a hero.”
“But I can tell you that he searched for me because we fucked?”
Tony’s face twists up in horror. “Don’t say that.”
“What?” Steve says as Natasha smiles at Steve’s absolutely shit-eating grin. “Fuck? Or that I fucked your father?”
“I knew it!”
“Tony.” Steve puts his hands solidly on Tony’s shoulders. “I did not fuck Howard.”
“Captain America is always honest,” Natasha drawls. “At least that’s what he told me.”
Tony glares at her and shrugs off Steve’s hands. “I hate you both.”
The next time Natasha sees it, it’s clear from the look on Steve’s face that it’s happened plenty of times since the last one and she just hasn’t been around to witness it. Tony keeps staring at him, and Steve keeps ignoring him. Barnes just has his eyebrows raised and the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. Natasha’s pretty sure everyone else in the room is actually watching the movie instead of the drama going on right next to them.
Steve sighs. “I’m gonna make some popcorn.” He leans over and very deliberately and very thoroughly kisses Barnes, then heads out of the common room toward the kitchen. Steve refuses to use microwave popcorn, so it’s going to be a while before he’s back. Natasha looks at Barnes, and he’s wearing a sly smile, like he’s the cat who’s eaten the cream.
Normally that image might bother Natasha, but she’s not above admitting that the thought of Barnes and Steve having sex isn’t exactly a hardship to think about. Well, she’s above admitting it, just not to anyone but herself.
Tony waits less than a minute before he disappears into the kitchen behind Steve. Their voices are muffled, but she’s pretty sure that no one is wondering what they’re talking about. Tony is anything but subtle.
“You sure he’s not after your boyfriend, Barnes?” Clint asks. “He’s following him around like he wants a piece of that.”
“He can want all he wants ,” Bucky smirks. “I can promise you, once you’ve had a super-soldier, you don’t go back.”
“That is more information than I ever needed,” Bruce says mildly. “Though scientifically…”
“Nope. Uh-uh.” Sam throws a pillow at Bruce, gentle enough that there’s no chance of inciting the Big Guy. “No discussing super-soldier sex. Ever.”
“No.” Steve’s voice is loud as he walks into the living room, carrying a large bowl of popcorn that fills the air with the hot scent of butter and salt. “For the last fucking time, Tony. I did not sleep with Howard! Bucky. Please. Tell him.”
“It’s true.” Bucky levers himself up so he’s sitting on the back of the couch, stealing the bowl of popcorn from Steve and shoving a few pieces in his mouth. “Steve didn’t sleep with Howard.” Steve looks triumphant until Bucky swallows. “I did.”
The room goes silent except for the television, and even that is quieter, since FRIDAY apparently decided to turn it down. It’s almost comical how the expression on Steve’s face matches Tony’s. How they’re both gaping at Bucky. “You what?” Tony croaks out at the same time Steve straightens up and grits “what the fuck” between his teeth.
Bucky shrugs. “What? Howard was funny, smart, and hot.”
Tony stands there, mouth still open. Steve, on the other hand, turns on his heel and marches out of the room. Natasha’s not sure who says the “oh shit” or if it’s all of them. Barnes looks at the popcorn and frowns.
“Probably shouldn’t have said that, huh?”
“You what?” Tony flaps his hand at Bucky. “Why the hell did I hear all about him my entire life then?”
Bucky shrugs. “Have you seen him?”
Natasha finds Steve in the gym. There are three of Tony’s reinforced punching bags leaking out on the floor and Steve’s knuckles are bloody through the tape. She can picture the skin splitting and then knitting together again and again. It’s a mixture of disgusting and fascinating. “I find it hard to believe you didn’t know he slept with other people.”
“I didn’t know he slept with Howard.”
“What’s wrong with Howard?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with him. It’s like Bucky said. He was smart, funny, and hot. Rich too. A real fucking catch.” He hits the bag and sand starts leaking out. Natasha comes over and catches his hands.
“Is this the part when I remind you that Barnes is head over heels in love with you, and if he wanted Howard, there’s a look-alike here in the tower?”
“Tony’s not Howard.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate you saying that.” Natasha starts unwinding the tape to expose the unbroken skin of Steve’s knuckles. “You did hear the first part, right?”
“Love doesn’t have anything to do with a war zone.” He looks at her and balls up the tape, smashing it into something too small for the amount of it there is. “You know that as well as I do.” He tosses the tape toward the trash can and then pulls the broken bag off the hook, carrying it over to the wall where the other ones are.
“I found love in a war zone.”
Steve’s smile makes her regret the words as soon as they’re out of her mouth. It’s no secret that she and Bucky were lovers once upon a time, but hurting Steve isn’t her intent. It’s never been her intent. “Guess Buck’s just better at it than I am.”
“You found yours in a war zone.”
“You’re wrong.” She’d thought his smile couldn’t get any sadder, any more twisted. She was wrong. Apparently about more than one thing. “Well, not completely wrong. I’ve loved Bucky since I was twelve years old. Bucky was bisexual in a time when it wasn’t safe, and he had a willing partner right there.”
“No one’s ever asked him, have they? You’ve all just assumed. Maybe he loved Howard. He loved you. He’s never in his life been in love with me. He loves me. I’m his best friend. But it’s nothing more than that.” Steve hooks up another heavy bag and reaches for the tape, wrapping his hands again. “It’s amazing what you can learn to live with.”
It’s possible that she’s a little more than her average level of murderous when she storms into Steve and Bucky’s rooms. Bucky’s sitting on the couch, frowning at his tablet. One hand is on the back of the couch, throwing knife held loosely in his fingers. “Natalia.”
“Did you do it on purpose?” Her hand is curled around a Widow’s Bite, rubbing the top of it with her thumb.
“Embarrass the hell out of Tony? Yes.” He looks up at her and holds her gaze. “Hurt Steve? No. That I didn’t intend.”
“You use him.”
“No. Yes, but no. Took advantage maybe. Take advantage. I do love him. With all my heart. I would do anything for Steve. Die for him. Live for him. I’d follow him into hell.”
“You’d fuck him.”
“Yes. That too.” He sets the tablet down, but he spins the knife between his fingers. “I never lied to him though.”
“And you’re okay with that? With this? That he’ll never look for someone else? Someone who can love him?”
“He found Peggy.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“I’m an assassin whose only hold on the heart of James Barnes is through the man who deserves better than me and always has. I didn’t sleep with Howard after Steve showed up. And Tony’s not wrong. Howard did want Steve. But he wanted Steve for who he became, not who he was.”
“No one can love him for who he was anymore. You’re the only one left.”
“So let him go?” Bucky’s smile is more of a grimace. “I never had a hold on him, so I can’t set him free. And how far would he go?”
“Steve makes you feel human because you’re keeping a part of his soul hostage.”
“You don’t believe in the soul, Natalia.” He stands up and walks toward her, predatory even though his knife has disappeared. He curves his hand along her jaw and looks down at her, his eyes hot. “Yours, his, or mine. I never asked him to take on what he’s carried.”
“But you knew he would.” She steps back so he’s not touching her. “I’ll give you this, you certainly put on a convincing show. Didn’t realize the Soviets and HYDRA trained you to be that good of an actor.”
She leaves for a mission the second she can, disappearing into the night on Maria’s orders, grateful for the reprieve. When she comes back, FRIDAY informs her that Mr. Stark hasn’t left the lab for the last four days, Doctor Banner left for India the day before, Agent Barton went home, and Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers are in their quarters.
Natasha really needs a drink.
She goes to the common floor and helps herself to Tony’s top shelf vodka, drinking it in one long, smooth swallow. She shivers a little at the taste, immersing herself in it. She pours herself another and settles onto the couch, taking off her boots and stretching her legs out to rest on the coffee table. FRIDAY turns on some music, unobtrusive and subtly relaxing.
“FRIDAY said you were back.”
Opening her eyes, Natasha looks over at Steve and Bucky. They’re holding hands and smiling, but now Natasha can see the cracks in it. “Yeah. Just got in.”
“You mind company?”
“Sure. Are you two going to leave and going to invite some people over for me to talk to?” She smiles to take the sting out of the words, and she’s relieved when Steve smiles and drops into one of the chairs. She can’t help staring a little. Steve doesn’t sit in the chairs now, not since Bucky had come back. Barnes sighs quietly and sits on the edge of the couch cushion nearest Steve. He reaches out with his leg, wrapping his foot around Steve’s ankle.
“Nah. Afraid you’re stuck with us.” He looks her over from head to toe, and it’s assessing, as if making sure she’d made it home in one piece. “How was Sumatra?”
“I was never in Sumatra.” She takes another sip of her drink, making this one last. “What’s Tony up to?”
“Modifications on the suit. Or possibly turning it into a time machine. I’d gotten so used to tuning him out about Howard, I don’t think I was paying very close attention. Not that I’d have understood what he was talking about.”
Bucky huffs and crosses his arms over his chest, looking at Steve with the annoyance he always gets when Steve puts himself down. Natasha raises an eyebrow and pulls her legs in, tucking them underneath her and turning slightly so she’s facing them more fully. “What about you two?”
“Kissed and made up,” Bucky informs her. His shoulders are tense, and she wonders how much of that is true.
“Buck.” Steve shakes his head. “We’re fine. We’re going out tonight. To a club that Tony told us about. See if we can meet people.”
Natasha raises her eyebrows slightly. “Meet people. I thought you kissed and made up..”
“We did. But since he deserves to be happy and I’m bad for him...” Bucky’s voice stays flat, but she can tell from Steve’s face that it was Bucky’s idea in the first place. He looks down at his hands and Bucky kicks Steve’s ankle. “Besides, what could be more fun than making Captain America dance with the little people instead of his USO showgirls?”
“I didn’t dance with them.”
“Stevie, you couldn’t manage a dance with an inanimate object.”
“Dancing’s different now.” Steve mutters and Natasha’s eyebrow goes up a little further. “Less… Footwork.”
“You’ve been dancing, Rogers?” Natasha asks
He shrugs despite the fact that his shoulders are hunched. “I told you I didn’t need you to set me up on dates.”
She huffs a laugh, letting it widen in response to Bucky’s narrowed eyes as he looks from her to Steve. “Can I come?”
“Sure.” Steve shrugs. “Though I can’t promise either of us are coming home.”
“Don’t worry, Rogers. I’m a big girl. I can take care of finding my own way back.”
Watching Steve dance is a revelation.
He’s dressed in gray slacks and a dark-blue dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the top two buttons undone. He’s got a woman in front of him, his hands on her hips, and a man behind him, fingers hooked in Steve’s belt loops. Natasha’s fairly certain that, if they weren’t wearing clothes, they’d definitely need some lubrication.
The girl reaches up behind her and wraps her arms around the back of Steve’s neck, tugging his head down for a kiss. Steve keeps it light, but the minute he’s done, the guy takes advantage and turns Steve’s head to do the same.
There’s a low growl behind Natasha and she bites her lips to keep from smiling. “You’re not dancing, Barnes.”
“Neither are you, Natalia.”
“I’m waiting for my turn with Steve.”
“You’re not funny.”
She turns her head so she can look at him. “I’m not trying to be.”
“You will not go home with him.”
She smirks and sips her drink. “Who would you be jealous of?” She hasn’t been in love with the man Bucky Barnes used to be for a long time. She’d long ago convinced herself that he was as much of a ghost as everyone thought. Even if she hadn’t, the man sitting next to her isn’t the man he was, isn’t the man she loved. “I think you might be confused about how you feel about him.”
“I think you should mind your own business.” Bucky slides off his stool and walks over to one of the men leaning on the bar. He’s obviously some kind of gym rat with the sort of muscles that come from trying too hard. But he’s tall and blond, and she’s relatively certain Bucky has no idea what he’s just done.
She sees Steve watching him -- them -- and he extricates himself from his partners, weaving his way back to the table as they give up on him and move together where he’d been between them. Natasha takes a sip of her drink as he comes over and grabs his leather jacket. “You’ll be okay to get home?” He looks over his shoulder to where Bucky looks about two seconds from dragging his dancing partner into the bathroom.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine. You?”
Steve gives her a tight smile. “I’m not going home.”
“Where is he?”
Everyone looks up when Bucky storms into the kitchen. Sam’s got a bite of pancake halfway to his mouth and Clint looks about ready to turn around in the doorway and walk right back out. “Uh. Who?” Tony asks. His voice is tightly clipped, and he doesn’t look at Bucky. Natasha’s not sure he has since Bucky had said what he said about Howard. As much as he’d been upset about the thought of Steve sleeping with Howard, the fact that it was Bucky seems to have hardened something inside of Tony.
“Steve,” Bucky snaps. “You’ve got a tracker on him. You always do. Where is he?”
“Calm down, Sparky.” Tony pulls out his phone and taps a few buttons. A map appears in the air next to the table with a single dot flashing red, white, then blue. “He’s been there approximately five hours without moving. Heart and blood pressure are both normal, though they have been elev… Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Captain America is cheating on his assassin boyfriend.”
James’s growl sounds twice as dangerous as it had the night before. “Address.”
“No.” Natasha meets James’s eyes and holds them. “He’s not your boyfriend. So you will do nothing. He’s alive and functioning normally. That’s all any of us need to know.”
“You know nothing.” James sneers.
“I know what you told me, and I know what he told me.” She doesn’t look away. “Unless one of you was lying, then you’ll stay right where you are.”
James grits his teeth and growls again, turning sharply and leaving the room. The fact that they can even hear footsteps is the equivalent of him stomping his feet. Clint finally comes in and sits down. “Do I want to know?”
Sam shakes his head. “No. I mean, I’ve got no idea what’s going on, but I feel really safe telling you no.”
“You know,” Clint states as Steve walks through the room, “it should be illegal for anyone to make the walk of shame look that good.”
Natasha snorts and Sam makes a low hum of agreement.
“What shame?” Steve asks as he flips them off before heading to his and Bucky’s apartment. Clint takes one look at Natasha then heads for the vents. Natasha rolls her eyes. “FRIDAY.”
“This really does go against protocol, Agent Romanov.”
“Whose protocol? I’m guessing not Tony’s.”
Sam looks from Natasha to the ceiling and back. “You are not going to spy on them.”
“You don’t have to watch.”
Sam grumbles, but doesn’t look away as FRIDAY pulls up the image of Bucky and Steve’s main room. Bucky is sitting in the corner in one of the chairs, arms crossed and eyes murderous. Steve walks in and nods to him then heads for the bedroom, shedding clothes on his way to the shower.
“We are not watching that,” Sam reaches over to cover Natasha’s eyes, wisely pulling his hands back at the look she gives him.
Steve disappears out of sight of the cameras and the shower starts up. Natasha smiles wickedly. “FRIDAY. Split screen with Barnes.”
Bucky’s on his feet and pacing, his metal hand clenching, then relaxing. It looks like he’s going to take another pass across the room when he whirls around and slams his fist into the wall instead. The plaster breaks and Bucky’s arm is buried to the elbow. Sam squeaks and flinches at the impact, grabbing one of the pillows and holding it in front of him. “I hate it when he does shit like that.”
Natasha just nods, her gaze flicking back to the bedroom where Steve’s coming out of the bathroom in just a towel. He takes it off and tosses it into the hamper, and Natasha swallows. “Oh my.”
“Seriously?” Sam asks.
“What? Despite popular belief, I’m only human.” She takes her eyes off Steve as Bucky walks into the room.
“Where were you?”
Steve bends over to pull on his boxers, and Natasha hears Sam swallow at the same time she does. “Out. That was the whole point, right?”
“You didn’t tell me you were leaving.”
“I told Natasha.”
Steve pulls a t-shirt on over his head. “So what, Buck? You agreed with her. Remember? ‘It’s not fair to you, Stevie. You deserve better than this. You deserve someone who can’ --” Steve trails off and shakes his head. “Love you. Me. Right? Because you don’t.”
“Not the way you want.”
“What do you know about what I want, Bucky?”
“We shouldn’t be watching this,” Sam whispers. Natasha agrees with him, but she’s not sure she can ask FRIDAY to turn it off. She doesn’t like seeing her friends in pain, but she also thinks she might be part of the cause of it this time.
“You want me to be in love with you.”
“No.” Steve laughs, and it’s an ugly sound. “I want to be with you. I want to love you. I want to be around you and be there when you have nightmares and when you just want to sit and read a book or cook something. I want to be there when you figure something out and look so damn happy. I want to be there when you’re frustrated and miserable and content and angry and excited and every goddamn thing you can be. If you want someone else, then go. Find them. Be with them. Be happy with them. But until then, I am happy. I was happy. I’ve loved you since I was twelve and that hasn’t changed a single goddamned bit since then, and you were very clear from the start what you felt and didn’t. And that didn’t stop a damn thing, did it?”
“It’s not fair to you.”
“Name one fucking thing in my life that’s been fair!” Steve laughs, and the sound is thick with tears. “I’ve never asked for fair.”
“You deserve it. And more. You’ve always deserved more than you thought you did.”
Steve straightens to his full height and sucks in a breath. “You want me to leave? You want this to be done? Us? Whatever this is that we’ve got going? You tell me that and it’s done. You tell me you don’t want me here in your bed, in your room, on this floor, in your life and I’ll go. But if you think for one second that’s going to make me fall in love with someone else or forget about you, then you don’t remember a single thing about our past. About me.” He brushes past and Bucky steps out of the way. “I’m having breakfast. Let me know if I need to pack.”
Nobody sees either of them for days, but they’re both on the roof in minutes when the call goes out for the Avengers. Bucky interjects into Steve’s plans, smoothing them out in ways that don’t require any suicidal leaps or sacrifices. They both fight like they’re of one mind, Bucky covering Steve’s back and Steve equally at Bucky’s six. Gun and shield fire in sync and it doesn’t take long before there are hundreds of giant ant people dissolving back into real ants while Hulk holds a raving mad scientist by the throat.
Hill shows up as Bruce relaxes, taking the bad guy away in cuffs. Scott is communing with the ants, suggesting they head somewhere they’re less likely to get stepped on, and then they all pile back in the helicopter while Tony, Rhodey, and Sam fly back to the tower. Barnes and Steve are sitting across from each other, both tense now that the battle is over.
“So.” Natasha drawls. “Welcome back to the land of the living, you two.” Barnes glares and Steve shrugs, looking away. “What’s been going on?”
It’s James’s turn to shrug, and Steve crosses his arms over his chest. Clint looks at Natasha and mouths “not it” in her direction. She’s about to say something else when James speaks. “Steve’s been seeing Kevin.”
“Who the hell is Kevin?” Tony’s voice comes over the comms and Bucky inhales sharply.
“He’s not my --”
“Well, I’d call him your fuck-buddy, but that’s more my job, isn’t it? Was my job.”
Steve levels his gaze at Bucky and waits until Bucky meets his eyes. “Actually fuck-buddy was my job. And you fired me.” Steve stands up and moves to the front of the helicopter, his back to the team as they get closer to the roof. He’s the first out of the copter, jumping off before it’s completely landed and heading into the Tower.
Bucky is shaking, and Natasha isn’t sure if it’s from rage or some other emotion. Regardless, she wraps her fingers around his wrist loosely. “Come with me.” She shakes her head when he opens his mouth. “No arguing.”
Natasha bypasses the armory and heads to the gym. She moves to the center of the mat and motions Bucky forward. “What?” He asks. “One battle today wasn’t enough for you?”
He dodges the Widow’s Bite and it fizzles uselessly on the floor. After that they’re silent, moving around each other like a dance, close and then far away, dips and turns and sharp execution of moves, fluid and sleek.
“And playing dumb.” She uses his arm as leverage and wraps her legs around his throat. He grabs her and rolls forward, pulling her off and lunging for her as she gets to her feet. She slides between his legs and kicks him in the small of the back. “Steve’s boyfriend.”
Bucky growls and rounds on her. Natasha dances back, then heads for the wall, running up a few steps and launching herself at him. She grabs the metal arm and brings her knees up under his chin, knocking his head back.
“You don’t like the thought of him being with someone else. Possibly falling in love with someone else.”
“He won’t.” He throws her off of him and strides toward her, punching down. She rolls out of the way of his fist, whipping her knife across his wrist. Barnes hisses and grabs her wrist, twisting it until she drops the knife. His blood drips onto her and the tinge of iron in the air makes Bucky’s eyes narrow.
“He might.” She ducks under his arm for the knife, her heel slamming into his head as she arches her back. Barnes goes with the momentum, rolling away from her. “How many nights has he spent at home since the first one?”
Barnes turns and charges her, his eyes dark with fury. She’s too close to the wall to move back and he’s too fast to go to either side. She goes to duck, but before she can, his metal hand is wrapped around her throat and she‘s pinned to the mat-lined wall. He’s not squeezing at all, and the darkness she’d seen has disappeared from the blue of his eyes. He lets her go. “None.”
“But you’re not worried.”
“No. Kevin is a lawyer. Boring. A… He can’t keep up with Steve. Can’t… Steve can’t love him.”
“He maybe can’t love him like he loves you,” Natasha agrees. “But he can love him.” She lets the words hang in the silence of the room. “I’m no expert on love. I think that’s abundantly clear. But I think maybe you should rethink what being in love is all about.”
“You’re the one who told me to let him go.”
“If you didn’t love him.” Natasha smiles. “Apparently you don’t, and this is the result. How’s it working out for you?”
She honestly doesn’t mean to spy this time. In fact, given that Steve left the Tower every night, she’d pretty much given up on either of them getting their heads out of their asses. But they walk into the gym as she walks into the observation area. They head toward the side by side salmon ladders and wordlessly start working them, which is ridiculously like porn. One of the few kinds Natasha is willing to watch. “How’s Kevin?”
Steve glances over at Bucky quickly then turns back to stare at the wall. “Fine.”
“What does that mean?”
Bucky starts down, and they’re both moving at the same pace. “You don’t know what being happy means?”
“Not what I asked.”
Steve exhales in a way that has nothing to do with the exercise. “We don’t know each other that well. Why? You looking for me to move out?”
“Why is that your first reaction? Maybe I just want you to be happy.”
“I was happy.” Steve starts back up, going faster than before. “I was perfectly happy. Of course, I was apparently an idiot. But at least I was a happy one.”
“What do you mean?” Bucky stops, hanging on the bar, waiting until Steve’s even with him.
“Because I thought maybe…” Steve shakes his head and starts moving again, but Bucky follows him, not allowing Steve to outpace him. Steve finally drops to the ground, bar left too high for anyone. Bucky works his way to the bottom and then stands in front of Steve.
“Nothing. It’s stupid and it has nothing to do with anything, so just… Just drop it, okay?”
Bucky grabs Steve’s arm as he tries to pull away and jerks him back until they’re looking at each other. “Tell me.” He clears his throat. “If you love me. Tell me.”
Steve jerks back like he’s been slapped. “Really? That’s your weapon now?” Natasha can see Steve’s hands shaking, and she wants to call out some emergency to end this before it ends everything. “Fine. I thought maybe I was the only one. Maybe I had a chance to… to at least be something special, even if you didn’t love me.”
“You’ve always been something special to me, Steve.”
“I have a meeting I need to get to.”
Bucky hasn’t let go of Steve’s arm, and he tightens his grip when Steve tries to pull away. “I don’t want you to see him anymore.”
“You don’t get a say in it.”
“I don’t like it. That you’re with him.” Barnes makes it seem like every word is like a fish hook tearing through his skin. “I don’t want you with him.”
“I don’t give a fuck about what you want.”
“I don’t want anyone else.” Barnes says the words quietly, and Natasha can see the white around his fingers where he’s holding Steve. “Even with Howard. With the others. I didn’t want anyone else. You were… I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. I didn’t think I’d survive. And I… I missed you. I made sure they didn’t… weren’t like you. Look like you. Never blond. Never blue eyes. Because I didn’t want that if it wasn’t you.”
Steve exhales shakily. “What do you mean?”
“You are… Were. Are. I don’t want anyone else. I don’t want you to want anyone else. I want to rip his head off his body and turn it upside down and impale it on his spine because he touches you.”
“That… That is a little more graphic than I needed.” Steve looks at the floor then looks up at Bucky. “I keep thinking I’m hearing what I want to hear, Buck. And I can’t do that. I can’t… I can’t believe something that isn’t true. Not if I want to survive it.”
Barnes inhales and then blows his breath out his nose. “I…” He stops and takes another breath, holding it before exhaling again. “I couldn’t love you and leave you, love you and be strong enough to survive you finding someone else, love you and watch the asthma or the pneumonia or fever get you. I couldn’t… I couldn’t love you and survive that, Steve. So I couldn’t love you.”
“I know you didn’t.”
“I couldn’t. But…” Bucky’s gaze flits up in Natasha’s direction, and she wonders how long he’s known she was there, and if Steve knows as well. “I couldn’t. But I did. Do.”
“You do.” Steve sounds disbelieving then he laughs. “You love me.”
Barnes reaches out and touches Steve’s jaw, tracing his lower lip with a metal thumb. “I love you. I’ve loved you since I can remember, and I tried to replace it with women, with other men, with anything so that it wouldn’t hurt. But it did. It does.” His breath shudders. “I was lying to myself. Pretending that I didn’t feel what I felt. Pretending meant nothing would hurt me, nothing of me could hurt you.”
“You were wrong. It did hurt. It does. And I’m not that little kid anymore.”
“No. You’ve changed. You’ve changed here.” He touches Steve’s head. “You’ve changed here.” He rubs his hands up and down Steve’s arms. “But you haven’t changed here.” He touches Steve’s chest over his heart. “And hurting you with indifference seemed safer than --”
“Hurting has been easier than not for a long time. Even hurting you. Maybe especially you, because then I was punishing myself too.”
“What was your excuse in Brooklyn?”
“The way you looked was bad enough. The way you looked at me was dangerous. So I gave you what I could in private. The only thing I could give you.”
Steve steps back, out of Bucky’s grasp. He looks fragile despite his size, tentative like she’s never seen him. “Why should I believe you now? How do I know this isn’t a lie? Saying what I want to hear so everything goes back to status quo?” He shakes his head. “Everyone knows that you don’t. Everyone knows that… That’s not what we are. Everyone knows.”
“Since when has something everyone knows been true?”
“There are a lot of things that are.”
“Since when has something everyone knows about us has been true? About you.”Bucky takes a step forward, but doesn’t touch Steve again. “I’ve fucked up. Been fucking up since the thirties. Let me make it right.”
Natasha turns and leaves the room, not sure she can stand to watch to find out what Steve says in return.
Tony demands another movie night, attendance required by any Avenger or Avenger-adjacent person in the tri-state area. It’s only Pepper who keeps him from putting out a global call for them all to watch Apollo 13, though Bruce does Skype in so he can watch it with them.
There’s a giant pot of Sam’s mom’s homemade spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread spread out on the table along with shredded cheese, raw vegetables, and fruits. As usual, there aren’t any strawberries. Everyone’s already a few bites into their plates when Steve and Bucky walk in.
They still look tentative but, to Natasha’s eyes, they also look hopeful.
“Should we expect any emotionally fraught confessions from you elders tonight?” Tony asks before taking a bite of garlic bread. His voice is light, but it’s clear he’s still nervous about what the answer might be.
“Your dad and I both talked about Steve while we were fucking,” Bucky says with a smile sharp enough to cut glass. “Emotional enough for you?”
Tony glares at them both. “I fucking hate you.”
“He’s just kidding, Tony.” Steve settles down next to him and bumps their shoulders together. “Any other secrets I know about Howard are safe with me.”
“What about Mr. Cold War over there?”
“Don’t worry.” Bucky sits on the arm of the couch next to Steve. There’s something new in his eyes, something surprised when he looks at Steve, like he keeps expecting him not to be there. “He knows how to shut me up.”
“I liked you both better when you were hiding in your room.”
Bucky laughs and slides down into Steve’s lap. He rests his head on Steve’s shoulder, smiling wickedly at Tony. Natasha can’t help smiling, because she knows whatever’s coming next will definitely be evil. And entertaining. “By the way, Stark.” He leans in to Tony and smiles, slow and hot. “Have I ever told you you remind me of your dad?”