- 1 -
Steve can’t help the relieved sigh escaping him when he gets out of the elevator and is greeted by the sound of Frank Sinatra’s crooning voice, and the heavy, mouth-watering smell of meat loaf and gravy hanging thickly in the air.
For the last two months, ever since they’ve finished their hunt for HYDRA’s scattered remains and returned to Avengers Tower, Bucky has been improving steadily and much, much quicker than anyone, including every doctor and psychiatrist and even Bucky himself, would have expected him to.
There are still bad days, of course, days when Bucky refuses to leave the familiar safety of his room, stays curled up under his blankets with the curtains drawn firmly shut and his door locked and booby-trapped, but those days are getting fewer and farther between.
Music and food are always positive signs, though. Bucky only ever cooks if he’s in an especially cheerful mood, when he’s feeling good about himself, his recovery and life in general, and needs an outlet for all his excited energy.
The butterflies in Steve’s stomach step it up a notch when he hears Bucky softly humming along to a well-known melody, but the fond and undoubtedly dopey smile falls right off Steve’s face when he rounds the corner from the hall into the living area, only to realise that Bucky isn’t alone.
Jealousy, ugly and burning, flares up in Steve’s heart at the sight of Tony in Bucky’s arms, and even though he’s loath to do so, Steve has to admit the main reason he isn’t storming right over there to pull them apart isn’t anything noble or selfless, but the fact that he doesn’t know whose place he’d rather take.
Bucky and Tony move smoothly together, their steps elegant and flawless, Bucky leading Tony with one hand on the small of Tony’s back and the metal one ever so gently cradling Tony’s right, Tony grinning up at Bucky, happy and flushed, as he follows along effortlessly with his free hand curled over Bucky’s shoulder.
Steve knows he should either call attention to himself or look away, recognises that he’s intruding on a private moment, but a disturbingly masochistic part of Steve doesn’t want him to miss a single second of this, wants him to keep watching even though it hurts.
And oh, does it ever. Doubly so, since it’s Steve’s own fault that things have turned out like this, with Bucky and Tony obviously having grown close without Steve noticing, and Steve hovering awkwardly at the sidelines, figuratively and literally.
Steve has loved Bucky for as long as he can remember, in one way or another, but has always kept quiet about his feelings, resolutely stomping down on them. Out of fear, of rejection and the repercussions, because of the guilt, at first, the guilt dictated by the times and people’s prejudices, because he’d felt they deserved better, both of them but Bucky more than anyone, something less complicated.
And then Bucky’d fallen and it had been too late, and when Steve had come out of his grief, seventy years in the future and in an entirely different world, he’d done the same thing all over again with Tony. Had pushed Tony away, conflicted, not ready to let go of Bucky’s memory or betray it by moving on, using that as an excuse to hide how scared he’d been by this new love for Tony.
There is no one for Steve to blame but himself.
“Don’t you dare,” Tony warns, half-hearted at best, obviously recognising the same mischievous twinkle in Bucky’s eyes that Steve can see, too. “James, don’t.”
Bucky blinks, feigning innocence, but his mouth is twitching and a moment later, just as the song comes to a close, he grins cheekily and dips Tony, chuckling at Tony’s indignant squawk and flailing arms.
“Asshole!” Tony exclaims through his own laughter, and then, in the perfect position to spot Steve, hanging upside down as he is, shouts a surprised, “Hey, Cap!”
Bucky glances up at Steve as well, frowning a little at what Steve suspects is a pretty sour expression on his own face. “Stevie,” Bucky says, righting Tony again, unhurried and unapologetic, not acting like someone who got caught red-handed at all. Steve isn’t sure if that’s better or worse than the alternative. “What’s wrong? You okay?”
“Fine,” Steve tries, wincing when his voice breaks halfway through. He clears his throat and swallows around the uncomfortable lump in it. “I’m fine. Tired. It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“You sure?” Bucky asks sceptically, the look he shoots Steve pointed and intense, giving Steve the feeling that Bucky’s seeing right through him. Still, when Steve nods, Bucky sighs but lets the subject drop. “C’mon, dinner should be just about done. Made your favourite.”
“I helped,” Tony pipes up, then crosses his arms over his chest and proceeds to glare at Bucky when Bucky snorts. “Excuse you, I so did.”
Bucky arches an amused eyebrow. “You stirred the sauce.”
“Exactly,” Tony agrees, making finger guns at Bucky. “Totally counts.”
“Whatever you say, Tony,” Bucky smiles indulgently, the fondness of the gesture not lost on Steve, planting his hands on Tony’s hips to turn him around and steer him toward the kitchen. “Think you can handle setting the table as well, big guy?”
Steve follows behind mutely, listening to them bicker and tease each other good-naturedly, his appetite completely gone.
- 2 -
It’s not unusual for Tony to retreat to his workshop, his safe-space, after a mission gone wrong, to seek out its quiet solitude, but no matter how often or regularly it happens, Steve still worries every single time.
Because Tony, despite all his talents and knowledge and genius, is horribly flawed when it comes to taking care of himself. Not in the basic sense, Tony has kept himself alive and functioning for the last four and a half decades without nearly as much help as he would have deserved, but in the way he neglects his emotional needs.
Tony is incredibly adept at fooling people into believing the show he puts on for them, a master at preventing them from seeing behind his many masks of inappropriate humour and indifferent nonchalance. Tony has an image to uphold for the public and the press, and even his friends very rarely, and only after proving themselves time and again, are allowed to get a look at the man under all the bluster and bravado.
And that man, Steve has learned, is lonely and painfully insecure, and most likely using his time alone to feel responsible for and beat himself up over things that had been completely out of his control.
Which is why Steve, a box of Tony’s favourite pastries ready as a bribe, decides to give coaxing Tony back out of his self-imposed isolation a try after three days without any Tony sightings up on the common levels.
The normally see-through glass wall and door to the ‘shop are milky white when Steve gets down to Tony’s private lab floor, though, making him pause. This isn’t Tony’s blackout protocol put into effect, but whatever it is, it’s obviously meant to provide some privacy.
Steve hesitates with his fingers poised over the number pad, then shrugs, figuring that JARVIS will tell him if he isn’t welcome, and quickly punches in his access code. The door opens without comment from the AI.
The first thing Steve notices is a suspicious lack of sound, no AC/DC or Black Sabbath or Judas Priest to drown out the noise of Tony’s machines and tools. And no machines or tools either, for that matter.
All Steve can hear is slow, even breathing coming from the direction of the old, battered couch where, when he cautiously ventures deeper into the room, Steve finds Tony, fast asleep and wrapped in a quilt Steve immediately recognises as the one Bucky normally keeps in his reading nook upstairs in their apartment.
On the side table, easily within Tony’s reach for when he wakes, are a thermos of what Steve assumes is coffee, a bottle of water, and a cloche-covered plate. Some of Bucky’s spaghetti and meatballs, Steve’s nose tells him. And there, sticking to the bottle, is a bright green post-it.
Steve stares at it for a long moment, considering. JARVIS has let him into the workshop, knowing what Steve would find. Meaning Steve’s allowed to look.
Quiet as not to disturb Tony, Steve takes another step closer so he can turn the bottle and read the post-it.
It wasn’t your fault. Stop brooding, I miss you. And eat your food, asshole.
It’s ridiculous to be angry at Bucky for taking care of Tony, the rational part of Steve’s brain knows that and appreciates what Bucky’s trying to do here, but Steve’s heart aches nonetheless at the evidence of the obvious affection shared between Tony and Bucky.
With a resigned sigh, Steve returns the bottle to its original position and places his pastries, store-bought and definitely not measuring up to Bucky’s thoughtfully homemade treats, next to Bucky’s offerings.
Then, crouching down at the end of the couch, Steve indulges himself by brushing a hand over Tony’s hair, smiling to himself when Tony’s face scrunches up into a cute little frown, and whispers a quiet, “Sleep tight,” before retreating and leaving Tony to his much-needed nap.
- 3 -
Bucky is pouting, there really is no other word for it, and if the situation were any less serious, Steve would definitely find the sight of him sitting in a corner of the quinjet, in full tacgear with his back to the rest of the team to better ignore them all, adorably amusing.
Steve understands that Bucky still has trouble trusting certain people, especially scientists and doctors, and that that will most likely always be the case after his time at the hands of HYDRA, and he tries to be sympathetic to Bucky’s issues as much as possible, but on this, Steve won’t budge.
They have a deal, that Bucky is cleared to go on missions again as long as he defers to Steve’s judgement when it comes to going to the infirmary because Bucky is even worse than Tony at realising when he needs medical attention, a deal that Bucky has no intention of sticking to.
Hence Bucky being in a snit after Steve has told him, no nonsense and no room for arguing, that he’ll have to get checked out once they land at the tower. Yes, Bucky has a healing factor to rival Steve’s own, and no, Steve isn’t, strictly speaking, the best at divulging injuries himself, but a knife to the face isn’t something Steve can just ignore or write off as a triviality, no matter what Bucky has to say about it.
Bucky shifts, turning his head to rest his cheek on his knees, offering Steve a perfect view of the makeshift bandage on his forehead and the tiny but genuine smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
For a second, Steve frowns, confused, but then he sees that Bucky’s still wearing the comm. link in his ear. A quick glance around the jet is enough to tell Steve that it must be Tony, flying ahead in the armour, who’s talking to Bucky. Cheering Bucky up. Making Bucky smile.
Jaw clenched so nothing of his bitterness can escape and taint Bucky’s moment of peace, Steve turns away to go and see how his other team members are holding up, and by the time they’ve arrived back home and carried Clint, with his broken leg and at least a couple of bruised if not cracked ribs, down to the medical floor, Bucky has vanished.
“Damn it,” Steve sighs irritably, not looking forward to hunting Bucky down and making him sit still long enough for a doctor to assess the damage.
He quickly strips out of the remains of his suit and changes into the hoodie and sweatpants that have been left out for him, courtesy of Tony if the huge, bright red Stark Industries logos across his chest and rear are anything to go by. Walking out into the hallway he asks, “JARVIS? Can you tell me where Bucky is?”
Steve has had a lot of trouble adjusting to some facets of the 21st century, including having someone, even if that someone isn’t human in the most technical of senses, following his every move in the tower, but having immediate access to all sorts of information is definitely something he has learned to appreciate.
“Sergeant Barnes is currently in the examination room two doors down from the one you just exited, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS replies promptly, causing Steve to pause mid-step, perplexed.
Bucky is already being treated? That’s good, of course, although odd. Bucky has always been stubborn, and coupled with the leftover fears and insecurities from seven decades of all kinds of abuse, well. Bucky having a change of heart about something as potentially triggering as a medical examination is somewhat disconcerting.
“Thanks, JARVIS,” Steve manages to croak, running the few steps to the room Bucky’s in, his mind filled with possibilities, ideas of Bucky unconscious, hurt worse than previously assumed, needing Steve.
When Steve pushes open the door, though, what greets him is the sight of Bucky sitting on the examination table, feet swinging and sucking happily on a bright pink lollipop, and Tony standing between Bucky’s legs, gloved fingers working deftly on putting stitches into the cut on Bucky’s head.
“Almost done,” Tony murmurs in Steve’s direction, never once taking his eyes off his task, while Bucky grins, waves and exclaims, “I got candy!”
“I can see that,” Steve says dumbly, taken aback by the tranquil, not at all scared or nervous atmosphere in the room. Then, shaking himself out of it, he goes to stand next to Tony, demanding, somewhat anxiously, “You know what you’re doing, right?”
Tony makes a deeply offended noise in the back of his throat. “Excuse you, Captain Doubtful, who do you think did all the delicate work on the Arc Reactor? I essentially performed open heart surgery on myself a couple of times there. This,” he says, waving the hand not currently holding the needle and thread at the almost closed wound, “is nothing. Sugar me up, sugar.”
“You did what?” Bucky hisses, clearly sharing Steve’s feelings on the idea of Tony operating on himself, but obediently removes the lollipop from between his lips and pops it into Tony’s waiting mouth. “We’re going to have words about that, you know. Lotsa words. Not nice words.”
Steve wonders if they’d say yes if he asked for a lick of that stupid, lucky lollipop, then winces and dismisses that thought as incredibly creepy.
“What’s done is done,” Tony points out, infuriatingly reasonable for a change. “I’m alive, mostly fine, and done!” he proclaims and picks up a pair of scissors from the tray next to Bucky to snap the thread. While carefully bandaging the cut he goes on with, “Keep this dry and come to me if it starts oozing or something doesn’t feel right, okay?”
“Yes, sir!” Bucky grins and gives lazy salute, accepting the lollipop Tony passes back to him.
“And try not to get stabbed in the face again, huh?” Tony chides playfully, but with a layer of very real concern underneath.
Bucky nods, equally serious, closing his eyes and humming softly when Tony brushes a kiss over the uninjured side of his forehead, one hand curling into Tony’s shirt to draw him in and hold him close for a moment, Bucky’s chin on Tony’s shoulder and Tony’s face tucked against Bucky’s neck.
“All right. Pizza and beers?” Tony asks as he steps back, offering Bucky a hand.
“Garlic bread an’ panna cotta, too,” Bucky adds and accepts the proffered hand to hop down from the table, not letting go of Tony as they make their way across the room.
They’re almost at the door when Bucky glances back over his shoulder, arching his eyebrows at Steve. “You comin’?”
“Go ahead,” Steve says, forcing a smile, and very deliberately does not look at either their linked hands or their shiny, candy-pink lips. “I- I’ll be right up.”
That stutter earns him twin frowns of worried confusion. “You sure?” Tony wants to know.
Steve gives a jerky nod. “Yeah.”
“’Kay,” Bucky allows, clearly not entirely convinced but taking Steve at his word for now, tugging Tony along by the hand and out of the door.
As soon as they’re gone, Steve thumps his head against the closest wall, groaning miserably.
- 4 -
It’s a combination of unfortunate circumstances and extremely bad timing; Tony walks into the communal living room and one of the characters in the movie Steve and Bucky are watching falls, screaming loud enough for it to actually register with Tony and make Tony look up from his tablet just in time to see the movie character hit the water face-first, arms flailing and eyes wide in fear.
Tony makes an anguished, strangled sort of sound, the tablet falling from suddenly slack fingers, and dives for cover between one of the armchairs and the wall before Steve has even fully realised what is going on.
Bucky, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have the same problem. “Shit,” he curses and jumps up from the couch, sending the remote clattering to the floor and popcorn flying everywhere.
Wedged into his hiding spot, Tony is staring straight ahead with unseeing eyes, knees drawn up to his chest and hands scratching at his arms, rocking back and forth, muttering to himself and trembling all over. His breathing is erratic, a too fast wheeze that has his otherwise ashen face slowly but steadily turning red with lack of oxygen.
Bucky approaches cautiously, no sudden movements, but stays in what would be Tony’s field of vision at all times. He gets within about three feet of Tony before Tony spooks, bringing his hands up to shield his head and letting out a string of frightened, breathless whimpers.
“Tony, you’re okay, you’re safe,” Bucky starts, speaking very firmly and very clearly, ignoring the way Tony flinches when he kneels down in front of him, not yet touching but close enough to let Tony feel his presence. “You’re safe, Tony, whatever you’re seein’ right now, it ain’t real. I promise you, it ain’t real, nothing of it. You’re in your ugly fuckin’ tower in Manhattan, it’s the year 2015 and you’re safe. You’re in Manhattan, in your tower, you’re safe. Ssh, hey, Tony, it’s okay, you’re safe.”
Steve doesn’t know how long it takes, but Bucky keeps up that stream of reassurances until Tony lowers his hands, blinking sluggishly and still somewhat uncomprehendingly at his surroundings.
“Hey, well done, gorgeous, welcome back,” Bucky praises and smiles, bright and loving and calming all at once. “I’m gonna touch you now, ‘kay? Gonna hold you and help you breathe, all right? C’mon, sweetheart, c’mon.”
With a lot of Bucky’s gentle coaxing, Tony eventually allows Bucky to take him by the arms and tug him close, more or less into Bucky’s lap so they’re chest to chest.
“That’s it, baby, that’s it,” Bucky soothes, draping Tony’s boneless arms over his own shoulders and carefully guiding Tony’s face to the crook of his neck, both his hands on Tony’s back, pressing them even closer together. “Now, breathe with me, yeah? In and out, jus’ like me. Feel what I’m doin’, that’s it. I got ya, darlin’, everything’s all right, you’re safe.”
Steve finally snaps out of his shock when Tony changes from a limp weight against Bucky to a crying, clinging mess, hesitantly padding over to the two men curled up on the carpet together.
Tony is trying rather unsuccessfully to talk between sobs and sniffles. All Steve manages to make out is Afghanistan and cave and couldn’t breathe, but that’s more than enough to send cold shivers down his spine.
“Buck,” Tony croaks out helplessly, and Bucky tightens his hold on him, rubs his back and kisses his hair, murmuring, “I know, dollface, I know. I got ya.”
There comes a wet, hiccupy laugh from Tony at that. “Dollface. Really?”
“Ssh, lemme take care of you, sugar,” Bucky whispers back, pressing his grinning mouth to the crown of Tony’s head.
As unobtrusively as possible, Steve sneaks into the kitchen to go get them some water and snacks. This, he can do and, maybe, providing at least that much will make him feel like a little less of a failure.
- 5 -
Bucky is screaming, loud and full of pain and fear, and Steve’s on his feet and running before his brain is fully online, his eyes still half-closed.
This is not a regular nightmare, Steve knows instinctively. This is one of the night terrors Bucky can’t usually escape by himself, the ones that leave him trembling and vomiting and either crying or punching things, sometimes both, for hours after.
Steve doesn’t hesitate or think before throwing open Bucky’s bedroom door, stumbling and only just catching himself on the doorframe when he comes to an abrupt halt because Tony is already here.
Tony is already here, in Bucky’s bed, wearing a pair of briefs and what is definitely one of Bucky’s shirts, covering Bucky with his whole body and humming softly while Bucky is trying his damndest to make himself as small as humanly possible and hide himself away under Tony.
The implications of what he sees don’t compute with Steve at first, but once they do, he turns on his heels and leaves, quietly closing the door behind himself as not to be discovered. He makes it back to his own room before his legs give out, crawls under his sheets and pulls one of his pillows over his head to block everything out.
It’s selfish and stupid and unfair on Bucky and Tony, but right then, Steve just can’t deal.
He wants to be happy for Tony and Bucky, and underneath the hurt and the sorrow he is, he really, truly is, he’s just not ready to show it yet. He will be, Steve will make himself be ready and happy, by force if necessary, but not tonight.
Tonight, Steve is going to mourn for not one, but two loves of his life.
It takes Steve a long while to find sleep again after finally admitting to himself that he’s lost and needs to move on, so he’s understandably groggy when, before the sun’s even up yet, he’s woken by someone making themselves at home next to him in his bed.
“Wha’?” Steve slurs hoarsely and still muzzy with exhaustion, which is probably why he doesn’t protest when Bucky is more or less shoved against him, merely sits up against the headboard and brings up his arms to wrap them around Bucky.
Tony smiles, soft and pleased, and comes to join them, taking Steve’s other side and nuzzling his face into Steve’s neck, inhaling deeply and peppering tiny, feather-light kisses over every inch of skin he can reach. Bucky, meanwhile, has slid a hand into Steve’s hair, scratching at the back of Steve’s head, and is nosing at Steve’s cheek, breathing out contented little noises.
Steve has had an embarrassing amount of dreams that have started this way. “I-“ he squeaks, grimaces and clears this throat. “What?”
“We,” Tony says, lips moving across Steve’s jaw, “got tired,” nibbling at Steve’s chin, “of waiting,” he finishes and kisses Steve.
Before Steve has the chance to decide if this is real or if he’s having a stroke, Tony is nudged aside and Bucky is taking Tony’s place, swiping his tongue over Steve’s bottom lip and giving it a teasing nip, then pressing their mouths firmly together.
“Don’t hog Steve,” Tony whines, but there’s laughter in his voice and his eyes, when Steve opens his own and looks over at him, are sparkling with mirth. “So rude, honestly.”
“Shut up,” Bucky snorts, grabbing Tony by the back of the neck to reel him in for a kiss.
“What?” Steve asks for the third time, a little miffed when Tony and Bucky separate and the show’s over.
Bucky smiles, leaning down to gently bump his forehead against Steve’s. “We got tired of waitin’ for you, punk.”
“And it recently came to our attention that you might not be aware of the fact that we were, you know, waiting for you,” Tony continues with an apologetic wince, shrugging sheepishly. “So we took action. In the hopes for some action,” he leers, waggling his eyebrows and yelping when Bucky reaches out to flick his ear.
“I’ve been in love with you since I was eight years old, Stevie,” Bucky says, expression so tender that Steve wants to fidget under his attention, suddenly uncomfortably, awkwardly aware of all his limbs and how he doesn’t know what to do with them. “Times were pretty shitty, though, and I figured, well, you like both, women an’ men, unlike me, so you had a chance, you know? At a normal life, wife an' kids, a house with a garden and a dog an’ everything. And you almost had it, with Peggy, an’ I was happy for you, as happy as I could be watchin’ the guy I love make eyes at another woman. But then I come here, to the future, and you’re obviously in love with someone else. Again.”
Steve inhales sharply, fingers flexing where they’re holding onto Bucky’s hip. “I-“
“Get this,” Tony cuts him off, silencing Steve with a pointed look. “I’ve been flirting with this guy for, ugh, ages when, all of a sudden, his first great love comes back from the dead. I’m crushed, naturally, because how am I ever going to compete with that, right? Wrong. Turns out, first great love guy never got any further than I did. Was scared that I’d stolen away our guy. Yeah, our guy. We got talking, Bucky here and me. I convinced Bucky you were madly in love with him, and he did the same for me. With you. And why fight if we can share? Have you and each other? So we started feeling each other out, testing the waters, so to speak, to see if this, the three of us, could work. Only, it never even crossed either of our minds that you’d doubt our feelings for you.” He raises a sardonic eyebrow at Steve. “Honestly, Steve, cupcake, honeybug, it’s kind of obvious how crazy we are about you.”
“Dumbass,” Bucky adds, tisking.
Tony nods his agreement. “Total dumbass. We love you. I love you, Steve, come here,” he sighs, sprawling all over both Steve and Bucky, pecking first Bucky’s cheek and then kissing Steve, deep and unhurried.
Steve doesn’t notice he’s crying until thumbs brush the tears away from his cheeks, both Bucky and Tony petting him and stroking him and kissing his hair. “You too,” he chuckles, disbelieving but incredibly, immeasurably happy. “I love you too. Both of you. I love you. So much.”
“We know,” Bucky and Tony reply in unison, turn to smirk at each other, and actually high-five like the immature, inappropriate assholes they are.
Steve’s immature, inappropriate assholes.
Both of them.