When first someone commented, that someone was Tony. At the time this struck Steve as terrible, because the last person he wanted commenting on or even aware of peculiarities in his love life was Tony Stark. In retrospect, Steve would be relieved that Tony only saw the humble beginnings. (Bucky was reliable in this: He escalated. Whatever it was, Bucky could do it more and he could do it bigger.)
Tony exited Steve’s kitchen looking scandalized. “Your boyfriend,” he announced, “is sharing your other boyfriend’s tea.”
Steve looked up from a folder of layouts, a maze of Hydra bases that might or might not still be in operation (and might or might not be fictional, depending on the trustworthiness of Natasha's contacts). Hydra didn't even trust itself, and in half of the plans, the electricity and water supplies drifted off into spaces that didn't exist. It took him a second to switch mental tracks, and another to attempt to parse that sentence. “Sam’s doing what?”
“The Winter Soldier is sharing Sam’s tea,” Tony said. “You see what I mean about the name, though? So much sexier than ‘some dude named Bucky is sharing Sam’s tea,’ because, by the way, Bucky isn't an actual name except maybe for, say, a large dog. Something in the rescue family; if I ever get a Bernese mountain dog I'm naming it Bucky. Whereas my way sounds like a code or at the very least a double entendre, and either way like it's about a human being.” To Tony’s credit, he’d established that ‘Winter Soldier’ didn’t bother Bucky before he refused to refer to him by anything else. That it bothered Steve added to the appeal. Possibly for both of them. “The double entendre part is what I’m getting at, though, because I dated Pepper for a year before I was allowed to steal from her coffee cup. Do you share Sam’s tea? It seems couple-y to me. It seems intimate. Does it seem intimate to you? I don’t know, call me crazy.”
"You're crazy," Steve said obediently, and made throat-cutting gestures, as well as wide eyes that he hoped promised an explanation later if only, if only, Tony would leave it alone for now.
"Right," Tony said slowly. "Nod's as a good as a wink. Sure. I don't even know why I ask. The antics of two geriatrics who somehow managed to score the most beautiful man in all of D.C. as their live-in guide to the twenty-first century are so entirely not—whatever. I warned you. You date the most beautiful man in the city, you live with the second-most beautiful man in the city, you're always busy, they're left to their own devices. I put that out there. If Captain America gets kicked out of his own house it's none of my business."
Steve didn't whisper. He and Sam had found that whispering piqued Bucky's interest. "On the day I get kicked out of the house, which is Sam's by the way, I'll call you first just so you can say you told me so, if—" he started.
"Unbelievable. I knew it, but still. Un-believable. Captain America is perfectly willing to be a kept man, just not my kept man. You know you wouldn't have all these holes in the walls and the appalling replacement furniture if you all came and lived in the state of the art, Soldier-proof apartment I've lovingly crafted in New York, right? You're peripherally aware? I hope Sam has insurance as impressive as his eyelashes. It's fine."
"—if," Steve tapped the nearest page, "we can talk about why this cement wall needs fiber optic cables and terawatt power capabilities in the meantime. And Stark?" He switched to his most Captain America voice. "We'll be discussing how it is I come in somewhere below Bucky on your list of most beautiful men in D.C."
Tony dropped the question once he'd issued his warning, so Steve never did give him that explanation. For the best, he thought. He didn't like to discuss Bucky's recovery, the fits and starts and turns of it, with anyone but Sam and Natasha. Too much of Bucky was stretched out in files and recordings as it was; too much of his time had been spent on tables under lights and scalpels. He deserved privacy.
That, and Steve didn't know how to explain any of it. The way Buck was about food. The way Bucky was about Sam. The way Bucky was about Sam's food.
By the time he came home, Bucky was physically capable of eating. He just chose not to whenever possible. From the bits and pieces of stories they dragged out of him, Steve gathered he was out of the habit of solids and maybe even of ingesting things under his own power. But his stomach had kicked whatever they'd done to him, mostly. When he did eat, it stayed down. Which was great (in theory), because feeding him intravenously was out and there were only so many protein shakes a man could drink. (Bucky found a sewing needle in a drawer once and snapped it in half with two metal fingers before tearing out the contents of every other drawer in the house in search of more; they weren't getting a tube into his arm. And Steve had mopped protein shake off the floor more times than he cared to count, because how many shakes were 'too many' fluctuated from day to day.) It was getting him to choose to eat normal food rather than go hungry that was tough.
Until one morning Sam handed Bucky a plate of eggs scrambled with cheddar and said, "Set that on the table for me, would you? What you want to drink, man?"
Bucky set the plate on the table and got a fork, which was odd, because he didn't make a habit of going above and beyond in household duties. Steve was already eating and he kept right at it. Bucky didn't like them to notice when he altered his behavior.
Bucky speared a forkful of eggs from Sam's plate and shoved them into his mouth with the expression of someone resigned to picking up a week's worth of dirty laundry off the floor. (Not something Bucky had not done in recent memory.) He chewed, a step he often skipped, and swallowed.
"Oh," said Sam as he turned back. He handed Bucky a glass of water, which was their best bet when Bucky didn't respond to questions about what he wanted. "You want some eggs?" He sounded pleased, and Bucky recoiled.
"They're yours," he said.
"Yeah, I know, I'm saying—I'll get another plate."
Bucky shook his head. He took the water, and reached with his other hand for Sam's glass of orange juice. Sam gave it up, bemused. Bucky, who had responded to his first taste of orange juice by spitting it out on the kitchen table, and who had once poured an entire jug down the sink so that it wouldn't be in the house, took a gulp. He held it in his mouth for a second, pained, before he swallowed. Then he handed the glass back to Sam.
Steve wanted to stare at his eggs. He stared at Sam instead.
It took a second, but then Sam shrugged and drank some orange juice. "You want to share, we can share," he said, and got another fork.
Bucky didn't take another bite. Not that morning.
By the end of the week, Sam's plate was Sam-and-Bucky's plate. Bucky still wasn't eating enough, he categorically refused any food offered to him without Sam's plate as a go-between, and he drank a lot of protein shakes. But as Sam pointed out, sharing could be a way to work himself back into the habit of normal food.
"Maybe it's less pressure, you know, if he doesn't have his own plate to clean. You pathological Depression-era boys," Sam said. He bent double, panting.
Steve walked backward in circles to cool down. It would have been a good run, except he'd been working himself up to talk to Sam about this. "I'm not sure being used to leftovers is some kind of psychological triumph. You spent five minutes yesterday taking your sister to task because she threw away a perfectly good kitchen table instead of donating it, right?"
Sam laughed in the direction of his knees, then straightened, stretched his arms above his head, and bent back in an arch. "I have never in my life taken anyone to task, but in general, okay, granted."
Steve watched his shirt ride up over the plane of his stomach. "You playing dirty?"
"I don't hear you making smart remarks anymore, so, whatever works." He made a triangle around his waist with his hands and winked. "You want to see me from the side?"
"I want to make a point before you render me incoherent, thanks."
"Point away, Cap." He crossed his arms, folding into business. Steve hated that he had to.
He forged ahead anyway. "Are you okay with it, really? With the way he—with all of it?"
"I'm not saying I'm always thrilled when I wake up in the middle of the night and there's an ex-assassin sitting on our dresser sharpening a knife he's not supposed to have, fixing me with the glare of a thousand suns, but since that's exactly what saved my life when the Hydra operative climbed our wall last month? I'm coping."
"Right, and I appreciate your ability to look at the big picture when he steals your soap and sweatshirts. I just—do you think he's a little possessive? Of you?"
Sam pulled his left arm across his chest, then his right. Steve supposed it was too long a conversation for him to object to more post-run stretching, even if Sam's biceps were wicked sirens of distraction. "I don't know," Sam said at last. "Is he the one being possessive?"
"That's not what this is about," Steve promised. "He practically smacked your hand away to be sure he got the first slice of your cantaloupe this morning. I've been shrugging it all off since he honed in on you, because you're so great at figuring out—like giving him the cactus, that was perfect, he loves that thing. Taking care of it, that's the calmest I've seen him. And you seem to like him fine—"
"Hey, of course I do. The time he put a table through the wall threw me off at first, but he's grown on me. Plus it turns out I sleep better doing four or five perimeter checks before bed myself. We're a well-suited trio."
Steve raised his eyebrows. Of the three of them, Sam was the most susceptible to insomnia, and he doubted the perimeter checks were actually doing him any favors. And he nodded, because if Sam said so. "And I'm grateful that he gets so much from you, that you give him so much, but.... I don't want you to feel disrespected."
Sam burst out laughing. Steve had about ten seconds to feel offended before Sam grabbed his face and kissed him hard on the mouth. "You," Sam said when he drew back, eyes bright and brown, "are something else." He kissed Steve again, sending tendrils of delight down the back of his neck and low into his stomach. "Something special. And if I start to feel disrespected, I'll let you know. More to the point, I'll let Bucky know. All right?"
Steve heaved a sigh and stuck his thumbs under Sam's shirt. It gave him a lot more immediate satisfaction than this conversation. "I guess that's a deal."
Sam huffed spearmint into Steve's face and stopped just short of kissing him again. "You guess, huh? That's big of you. Thanks for that concession."
"Well, I'm a big person. How do you think I snagged such a first-rate boyfriend?"
"Dumb luck," Sam suggested, so Steve fanned a thumbnail through his goatee in reverse to make him giggle ("it's not a giggle, Rogers, I am a grown-ass man") as comeuppance and kissed him before he could try any funny business back. The conversation ended on a very satisfactory note after all.
Sam got the first explanation. Steve, bless his heart, had a hard time asking Bucky to explain himself, in the same way that little old men with frail bones had a hard time hoisting cars over their heads. Sam didn't have ninety years of Bucky-specific baggage and didn't feel that Bucky's every lapse into days of bruised silence was his personal failure, which helped when he said, "So, you think you could tell me what's going on with the food?"
Sam couldn't see Bucky's face, and didn't push his luck by turning to face him. They were watching Galaxy Quest together, so Sam was sitting on the couch and Bucky was sitting on the back of the couch, at the corner, one foot on the floor and one on the cushion. (Steve wasn't around. Steve wasn't a fan of movies about aliens.) Sam kept on watching.
"What's going on with your food, you mean," Bucky said. Eventually.
Sam dared to look over at the cactus on the windowsill (Bucky's fourth; he was experimenting with allowing the 'extras,' the ones he'd gotten after Sam gave him the first, out of his room), closer to Bucky's general vicinity. "Not really how I think of it at this point, no."
Now Sam turned to face him, because if Bucky was feeling well enough to try a pity play, he was feeling well enough to stand someone looking at him. As he'd suspected, there were downcast eyes and a hint of a pout in evidence. That worked on Steve. Steve labored under memories of a man whose face was a book that fell open to the most important page every time, who'd never needed to be any other way. Sam, not so much. (There were two expressions Bucky didn't fake—anger or fear meant it was time for Sam to beat a manly retreat and get Steve—but they were the only two so far.) "I didn't ask you to stop. I asked if you felt up to telling me, and that's all I meant. Mostly I just want to know whether you know what you're doing."
Bucky screwed his mouth over to one side and shrugged his right shoulder.
"Okay," Sam said. Onscreen, Tim Allen staggered around in his underwear, then got into a limo. The wall above the TV bore a spackled scar the length of their ex-coffee table, and Sam made a mental note to paint the room one of these days. For a while there it hadn't seemed worth it, but Bucky hadn't damaged the house in weeks.
The Thermians discovered the concept of fiction. The shaft of sunlight passed the cactus by. Bucky walked over and used one metal finger to prod the pot back into the sunshine before he said, "Remember when," and stopped, and licked his lips. Sam waited, watching him, but didn't say anything. It took a while, but Bucky continued like he hadn't left a five-minute gap between words: "I smashed Steve's dresser?"
It took Sam a second to hunt that one up. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Hey, I never said because I was worried you'd take it the wrong way, but thanks. That was a hideous damn dresser."
"Right?" Bucky turned to face him, animated in an instant. "It clashed with everything. What the hell color was that, puce?" His face folded back in on itself. "But Steve liked it. And I sort of. Broke it in half. And two hours later all the pieces were gone. Next morning there was a new one. He never mentioned it." He stared at the ball of silver fuzz that was the rebutia in sunlight, then cupped a hand. His palm slid over it like a dome, the shadow painting it pale green, and then retracted so the light turned it silver again. "You whined for two hours when I broke the microwave. Acted like you were the Second Coming when you hooked up the new one."
"Man, that was a nice microwave. Plus you're lucky you didn't electrocute yourself."
"Yeah, electrocution would've been a real first for me."
Sam, in an attempt not to laugh, snorted unbecomingly.
Bucky drummed his fingers once along the windowsill, a series of clicks so close together they became a drone. "That's why," Bucky said. "I share your food. And not Steve's. Figure you'll tell me to cut it out if it bothers you."
"That I would," Sam agreed. "It doesn't bother me, so we're clear."
"I know," Bucky said, and looked Sam in the eye and smiled large and brilliant.
Sam estimated he'd gotten maybe 15% of the actual reasoning going through Bucky's head, and a grand total of nothing about why Bucky needed to share anyone’s food to begin with, but after that smile he let it drop. (In retrospect, he would be forced to re-assess his susceptibility to Bucky Barnes being a manipulative little shit.)