Steve can’t remember the first time he and Bucky share a bed. If he’s being honest with himself (which he tries to do, because it’s what his ma always asked of him), it was probably a Brooklyn winter night when he just couldn’t hide the shivering anymore. Bucky probably crawled right into bed behind him, not caring that it wasn’t big enough for the two of them, and wrapped his arm around Steve’s slight body.
Either way, they’ve kept their bed frames pushed together for a long time now.
Most nights they don’t even touch (in the summer it’s too damn hot for anything but underwear, let alone skin contact), just lay side-by-side.
Steve curls on his side—being on his back when he has a cold makes him choke on the phlegm, being on his front hurts his crooked spine.
Bucky always lies on his stomach, one arm under the pillow and the other usually hanging off the edge. They learned the hard way early on that any other position makes him snore something fierce.
In the winter, when he wraps himself around Steve, they (Steve) deal with the snoring the best they can. They don extra clothes, three or four pairs of socks on Steve’s feet. Bucky crowds close to his back, tucks Steve’s feet between his calves. Steve breathes into the nest of blankets and Bucky breathes onto the back of Steve’s head. It’s nice. Cozy.
The time after Bucky ships out and Steve is training at Camp Lehigh would be unbearable, if Steve wasn’t so exhausted every night. He wakes in the morning, struggles to prove himself to Colonel Phillips, and collapses at the end of the day on top of a bed even smaller than the ones in their abandoned apartment in Brooklyn. He’s fighting to get to Bucky in every way he can, but he’s failing.
After the serum, he’s nearly too big for any cot they give him. The USO girls double up on tour, both to save space and stave off the loneliness that tends to lurk in the late nights. Most of them have someone back home or on the front, and none have a problem lending a comforting presence to a friend.
Steve is the odd man out (literally). He and Henry, who plays Hitler, are the only men who bunk with the ever-growing group of chorus girls. He’d never fit in one of the narrow beds with another person, and no one would take him up on the offer. He doesn’t try. It wouldn’t be the same anyway.
And then Azzano happens, and Steve and Bucky become Captain America and Sergeant Barnes of the Howling Commandos. Steve can’t find a good reason for him to bunk with Bucky, especially when they’re not on a mission, so he doesn’t ask.
It’s for the best, really, because he can’t stop the nightmares. The serum doesn’t work, and he never saves Bucky; stepping into the SSR bunker and finding Bucky strapped to that table, Dr. Erskine hovering with his syringes of blue; waking up one morning to find that the serum wasn’t permanent, and now he’s small (and useless) again; tearing through the Hydra factory just in time to see Bucky step from Howard’s chamber, larger than life and trembling all over; Phillips telling him he’s not enough over and over again...
Not all of his nightmares include his friends, but enough do that he can’t look Howard or Colonel Phillips in the eye, can’t bring himself to touch Bucky for fear of hurting him with his new strength.
He starts to sleep on the floor, a single blanket draped over his too large frame (something he really only does because Monty threatened to tell Peggy when he found Steve like that once), even when empty beds are available.
It lasts for a while, until a night when they’re in London for debriefing and a new mission. It’s a big one, he knows, because everyone, from Phillips to the newest aide, is on edge.
As captain, Steve is assigned his own quarters. He’s setting up his nest for the night—using the blanket and sheet and even a pillow—when Bucky bursts through the door.
“Now you listen here, Steven Grant Rogers, and you listen good,” Bucky says, steamrolling right over Steve and brandishing a stern finger in his direction. Steve raises his eyebrows but shuts his mouth. “Miss Sarah and my ma didn’t drag our four-year-old selves into Sunday school kicking and screaming for this.”
Steve smiles, remembering vague impressions of himself and Bucky pouting next to each other because all the other kids were busy playing and actually having fun. It was the first time they’d met, and at this point it’s less of a memory and more a story they’d heard over and over from their mothers. Hardly wanted to go in, his Ma’d say, smiling fondly, and refused to leave without his new best friend.
“And,” Bucky continues, his voice still angry but a smile starting around his eyes, “I certainly didn’t spend all my time hauling your sorry ass outta every fight you could throw yourself into for two decades or sit by your side through every sickness known to man just for you to ditch me the moment something better came along.”
“Buck,” Steve says, feeling like the time Joey and Frankie Giannone ganged up on him behind the grocer’s and he ended up with bruised ribs, or maybe like he’s halfway to an asthma attack: chest too tight to breathe properly.
Is that really when Bucky thinks is happening?
Bucky’s face softens then, and his hand drops back to his side. He sighs and moves to sit cross-legged in front of Steve’s pile of bedding.
“What’s going on, pal?”
His face is so open and earnest and hurt that Steve can’t bear to look at him, so he drops his gaze to his lap instead. Brave only until someone sees past the front. That someone has always been Bucky.
“I keep having nightmares, Buck, about—” not being able to save you. But no, it’s more than that. Phillip’s voice echoes in his head. “About not being enough, I guess. Failing everyone.”
Bucky sighs again. “Steve, look at me please.”
He does, and is blown away by the gentle understanding in his friend’s smile.
“Even when you were a five-foot-nothing pain in my ass, you were enough. More than enough. Now you just got the muscle to prove it, s’all.” His smile turns into a smirk, blue-gray eyes flashing. “It’s too bad they couldn’t’a fixed your ugly mug, though.”
Five heads become visible through the still-open door.
“Is it safe to come in yet, Sarge?” Gabe asks. Dum Dum’s moustache twitches when Steve raises his eyebrows at the group of them.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. Steve turns his raised eyebrows on him.
rest of the Commandos arrange themselves in a half circle around him.
“What can I do for you fellas?”
“We noticed the nightmares, Cap,” Monty says. “And that you’re sleeping less than you should.”
“Especially with the rations you’re living off of,” Morita adds.
“So Sarge here,” Dum Dum cuts in, “suggested we set up a rotation to make sure you’re actually sleeping at night.”
Steve glances around the circle, and they all nod when he meets their eyes. He looks back to Bucky,
who’s all crossed arms and unimpressed stare.
“Alright,” he sighs, then realizes he’s not entirely sure what he signed up for.
The Commandos share satisfied smiles.
As it turns out, not much changes, besides the fact that Steve is alone now even less than he was before. Before they leave his room, the boys draw up a roster of who’ll share quarters with Steve when.
Dum Dum takes the first shift that night in London. He takes the bed at Steve’s insistence (not that Steve has to push much before he agrees). Steve stays on the floor, but gives the sheet back.
Dugan snores, which is something they all knew objectively, but is much worse, it seems, when he’s on a soft surface.
The next day they’re informed of Zola’s train in the mountains. They have two more nights in London, and he’s watched over by Dernier (who mutters in French all night) and Gabe (who insists on sleeping in his own blanket nest on the ground). Then they’re heading out. The one night of transit is Monty, who easily plays cards with Steve until dawn because he’s too sick with guilt and shame to sleep.
Oddly, just having one of them in the room with him, knowing they’re watching his back, seems to stave off the worst of the nightmares.
The final night before the mission is Bucky’s, and without speaking they arrange themselves as they used to: Steve tucked up against Bucky’s chest, his feet between Bucky’s calves. It’s somewhat awkward, now that Steve’s so big, but it’s nice.
He wakes in the dark to a lungful of cold mountain air. Somehow they’ve switched positions, and it’s nice to finally be able to cradle Bucky, who, miraculously, isn’t snoring. He moves his face against the back of Bucky’s neck, relishing the warmth of his friend.
There’s a similar warmth in his chest that he tries not to look too closely at, but for a single moment Steve allows himself to imagine life after the war, if things weren’t the way they are. He rests his lips on the knobby beginning of Bucky's spine for a split second.
He shuts the thought down, but tells himself he’ll at least talk with Bucky about it, after tomorrow, when they have Zola in their grasp and the end is finally in sight.
But Bucky falls.
Sleeping alone is impossible. The Commandos try to stick to the rotation, but being near to someone other than Bucky becomes unbearable. He spends the first night back in London vomiting up all that liquor after Dum Dum comes into his room. Gabe keeps him company (but doesn’t try to touch him more than the once, because Steve starts crying when Gabe tries to rub his back).
He doesn’t make it three days.
In the end, it isn’t a difficult decision: the safety of the world in exchange for his empty, sleepless future.
He puts the plane in the water.
0. The Plan (2011)
“Has anyone ever actually seen Cap sleep?” Tony pauses to munch on a cheerio. “Besides when he was a giant Capsicle?”
He glances at the Avengers—save for Cap himself—assembled around the table in the dining-slash-living room on the communal floor (the one that used to be his and Pepper’s until she reminded him that they still had the penthouse and he donated it to the team’s use out of the goodness of his heart) of their (his) tower. And it was a rather good idea to gather everyone in a single, convenient place. Made for easier access when they needed to kick bad guy butt, or Tony had to bounce his latest idea off someone and Pepper was out of town on business and Rhodey wouldn’t answer his calls. Also: team movies nights. Enough said.
Black Widow—he really doesn’t like calling her Natasha because it reminds him of Natalie and a whole other slew of shudder-inducing memories—is as impassive as always, but Tony thinks her left eyebrow is a bit higher than normal. Maybe he can get JARVIS to run a program to decode her facial expressions. She might threaten to dismantle JARVIS’s mainframe or something equally terrifying though, so he decides to hold off for now.
Next to her, Barton looks bemused, but Tony can’t tell if it’s due to the question or if he forgot his hearing aids again.
Thor frowns and stares out the window, probably solemnly racking his brain to see if he knows the answer. The big man isn’t often in New York, between his girlfriend and Asgard, but Tony held off on bringing this up until he knew Thor would be here, because he, at least, will seriously consider his inquiry. Once they all got past the whole Loki/Battle of New York/Mother’s Drapes thing, Thor warmed
right up to all of the Avengers, but he latched onto Cap more so than the others. Something about being a fellow stranger to the developments of this century or something.
Bruce is drumming his fingers on the table, but he smiles at Tony, like he knows that Tony is actually concerned about their team leader but doesn’t know how to show it (at least, that’s how the psychotherapists would look at this situation). Tony averts his eyes.
“The captain has never slept in my presence, but that is not uncommon after battle,” Thor says. Tony knows that he and Cap get together at least once a week when Thor’s in town to catch Cap up on the movies Thor’s girlfriend’s intern introduced Thor to. He walked in on them tearing up over the end of Brother Bear together just yesterday; not exactly battle, but Tony tosses him a cheerio anyway for effort. Thor catches it in his mouth and grins at Barton as he chews it.
One by one, they confirm that they’d never actually seen Cap sleep, but that doesn’t mean much, because Widow and Barton have their own jobs with SHIELD, Thor isn’t usually on the east coast (or even on planet), Bruce rarely leaves his labs (not that Tony really does either, besides the times when Pepper gets Happy or Rhodey to drag him out), and Steve spends a lot of time out running or working out in a gym that is decidedly not one of Tony’s, despite the effort he put into making the space as authentically 1940’s as possible.
They break for lunch and collectively get distracted when Barton steals the last pickle out from under Widow’s nose and she full-body tackles him as revenge, but Tony doesn’t forget.
He convinces JARVIS (and isn’t that an indignity, having to convince his own AI to do something, but it turns out that JARVIS has grown quite fond of Captain Rogers and isn’t sure that Tony’s meddling is wanted or needed) to track Cap’s sleep habits. When he collects the data a month later, when Thor is finally back from settling some intergalactic dispute started by mead or something, it isn’t pretty.
Tony calls everyone back together, still sans Cap, who is conveniently out running. Pepper joins them this time though, and she’s accustomed enough to his particular brand of caring (not that he’ll admit that he cares out loud, mind you, but credit is due where credit is earned) that she doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he announces that Tony (JARVIS) has been spying on Cap. Bruce, seated next to Pepper, just shakes his head and shares an amused glance with her.
Tony ignores them.
“He seems to go days at a time without even napping, unless he’s doing it somewhere else where I can’t see him, and I don’t know why he’d do that when he has a perfectly good bed and couch here in the tower—” Bruce clears his throat and Tony refocuses, “right, anyway. Then, after three to five days of no sleep, he’ll collapse and sleep for five, six hours tops. Rinse and repeat.”
He pauses and brings up the video on the screen embedded in the surface of the table with a few taps to his phone screen. It shows a bird’s eye view of Cap’s bed, and Tony frowns down at it from his place at the head of the table.
“If that wasn’t concerning enough, the way he sleeps is downright depressing.”
He presses play on his phone. He’s seen this particular video no less than a dozen times.
Cap is on his side, curled up smaller than should be possible for a man his size. He’s created a kind of nest around himself with the down comforter and the blankets Tony specifically had put on Cap’s floor when he finally agreed to move into the tower, not that he’ll admit it even under pain of death. He has a line of pillows next to him, barely touching his back, held in place by a strategically positioned blanket.
Tony can’t decide if the worst part is how uncomfortable he looks in his own skin before he falls asleep, or how Cap’s shoulders shake the entire five hours and thirteen minutes he’s asleep. He tells himself it’s a good thing Cap’s in a bed at least, but it’s a hollow victory.
The video ends and everyone else is frowning at the table now too. Widow is the first one to speak.
“It was nice of you to notice this, Stark.” The corner of her mouth curves down further.
Bruce clears his throat. “How much has he been eating? With his advanced metabolism, he would’ve had to increase his caloric intake by massive amounts to be able to go so long without sleep.”
Tony hadn’t thought of that. “JARVIS?”
“Calculating now, Sir,” JARVIS replies. “Captain Roger’s meals have not changed in size since he moved in. While I cannot gauge exactly how much he eats per day, I am comfortable estimating that it is not enough for his metabolic rate, even with adequate sleep.”
“What do you propose we do?” Widow asks. Her voice is as smooth as ever, but Tony thinks he can see genuine concern in the line of her shoulders. Or maybe he’s just projecting. His psychoanalyst said he has a habit of doing that.
“You know, my good ole dad used to tell a story, on the rare occasion he was drunk enough to forget how much he hated me,” Pepper and Bruce roll their eyes but he ignores them; if he’s going to bring up Howard Stark he’s not going to be nice about it. “Right around the time Sergeant Barnes fell, there was a rumor in headquarters that the Commandos had cornered Cap because he wasn’t sleeping enough. And then people saw Uncle Gabe and a few of the others spending the night in Cap’s assigned quarters.”
Everyone blinks at him, unconcerned and not connecting the dots, and Tony (mostly) bites back a sigh. He reminds himself that not everyone can be a genius (but even if that’s the case, Bruce, at least, should have figured it out already).
“Aunt Peggy said something similar once, when I asked her. She said she’d known for a long time that Cap was having trouble sleeping, but she just chalked it up to the changes the serum caused.” No one bites, so Tony decides to switch tactics. “JARVIS informs me that for his first few months here, whenever Cap had to sleep, he slept on the floor, and never in the bedroom.”
No one jumps up or get the magnificent light of recognition in their eyes. Tony makes a face and rubs a hand through his hair.
“How aren’t you getting this? What I’m trying to say—and what all of the evidence points to—is that Cap can’t sleep without someone, well, Sergeant Barnes next to him. I mean, he put the Valkyrie into the water not three days after Barnes fell! And I’ll bet you this whole tower he didn’t sleep a wink between those two events.”
Everyone seems to have caught up at this point, and they all have varying degrees of sad expressions on their faces.
Thor looks thoughtful. “How do you suggest we remedy this then? It is not as if we can bring the captain’s shield brother back from the dead.”
Tony pauses (and it’s not for suspense or dramatic effect, he’ll swear on—well, it doesn’t matter what he’ll swear on, but it’s not for suspense). “True, none of us are exactly Cap’s dead BFF, but what if he just needs a new cuddle buddy?”
They’re all silent and he’s not entirely sure why, because it’s a pretty good idea, especially coming from him. No part of it is even life threatening.
“Are you suggesting, Stark,” Barton says, and Tony’s relieved he definitely has his hearing aids in this time, “that we cuddle Captain America?”
“Well, yes,” Tony says. Wasn’t that obvious? “To be precise, I think we should set up a rotation of who keeps him company in bed whenever he sleeps. I’m not suggesting we stage an intervention, get him to sleep or eat more, but maybe it’ll be a start.”
Pepper smiles at him. “That’s very nice of you, Tony.”
“No, not nice,” he says, but he can tell she and Bruce already don’t believe him. Damn. “Practical. We can’t have team leader compromised.”
“You think I’m compromised?” Tony jumps and turns to see Cap standing in the doorway to the stairwell (as if there aren’t perfectly functional elevators in the tower). He’s sort of shiny with sweat but not breathing hard at all. Tony sort of hates him for still looking good, despite having probably run the entire length of the eastern seaboard, or something equally ridiculous.
“Well,” Tony says, and grins, “yes.”
As this whole situation is Stark’s idea, he elects himself to be the first in the lineup. Steve is too bemused to protest one way or another, and none of the other Avengers say anything, so Steve finds himself being shoved from the communal floor with strict instructions to find Stark the next time “you need someone to smother with your ridiculous body.”
Steve stands, blinking, in the stairwell. He’s tempting to barge back in there and refuse them outright. He doesn’t know what it says about his ability to lead his team if they’re doubting him like this, but it isn’t good. What happens if (when) Fury finds out?
Steve stays there, staring at the blank gray fire door for a long time before he remembers that he had gone running before and was still sticky with sweat. He turns and jogs the two floors up to his apartment.
It’s still being renovated after Loki’s attack, so most everything that isn’t covered in plastic is bare and impersonal. Steve doesn’t mind too much. It’s a guaranteed place to sleep, which is more than he could say about New York before the war.
He moves through the empty living room and his bedroom, ignoring a sketchbook left pointedly by someone on the television tray serving as his bedside table, and takes a long, lukewarm shower.
The thing is, Steve knows he has a hard time asking for help.
He knows he tries to take on the world and refuses to let anyone shoulder the burden with him.
Hell, even the Commandos came to him instead of the other way around when his nightmares got really bad, and they were the guys he trusted first, Bucky most of all.
The Avengers’ offer feels like that, like if he takes them up on their cuddle buddy routine (and he wonders if any of them know that the only people to cuddle him were his ma and Bucky, and even that was sporadic at best) it’ll be admitting to needing help.
And though he would (usually) trust them with his life, he’s not sure he can trust them with this.
(Steve knows he’s being stupid about this, he knows it, and still.)
So he waits.
And waits until it feels like it’s been a month or maybe two and he’s swaying standing up and can hardly see.
He wonders if Erskine knew his serum would do this, would produce not only a supersoldier, but a person more (or maybe it’s less) than human, who doesn’t sleep and barely eats and is just surviving.
The thoughts are disturbing and chase away what little sleep he had been clinging to. He doesn’t think (much) about Erskine after that.
One night, Steve hunches in the darkest corner he can find, presses himself into the hard metal of the hinge of the bathroom door and his dresser’s hardware. He closes his eyes and hides his face in his knees and hopes (but doesn’t pray, because he’s not sure what type of god would allow for everything that’s happened to this world) for sleep.
JARVIS’s soft voice breaks the stillness of the room. “Captain Rogers, Sir is still awake. Perhaps tonight would be an opportune moment to approach him about his offer.”
Steve listens, because what else can he do?
He stumbles his way to Stark’s personal R&D floors (Stark claims they’re for everyone’s use, but the only people who frequent them regularly are Stark and Dr. Banner) with JARVIS’s help. JARVIS also remotely opens several doors so Steve doesn’t crash headlong into them, but Steve doesn’t notice.
And then he’s in Stark’s “super-secret” lab, which looks more like a mechanic’s shop than any sort of lab Steve has ever seen (and he’s seen a lot).
Stark is surrounded on all sides by twisted hunks of metal and what look like pieces of an engine or two and things Steve probably couldn’t identify even at his best.
He’s definitely not at his best.
Two robots are in the room, one waving a rag in Stark’s general direction and the other off to one side making a smoothie. Steve wants to be shocked, but really, he isn’t. At all.
“U!” Steve jumps, but Stark is addressing the robot with the blender (who, now that Steve looks, has “U” painted on one of its pistons). “I told you to stop with the blender or I would turn you into a vacuum cleaner. You always forget to put the lid on.”
The robot, inexplicably, seems to pout.
Stark is wearing plastic goggles and has a streak of grease across the back of his neck. He putters from one end of the workbench to the other and holds two seemingly identical parts to his face, oblivious to Steve’s presence in the room.
For a moment Steve wishes he had his shield. Something about the Starks in their element has always made him uneasy.
He shakes it off.
“Sir,” JARVIS says, “Captain Rogers is here to see you.”
Stark whirls around, ripping the goggles from his face as he goes. “Capsicle!”
Steve blinks and the room becomes hazy for a long moment. By the time his vision clears again, Stark is standing in front of him saying, “You alright? It’s like,” he checks the gadget Steve thinks is a watch on his wrist, “3 AM?”
He feels a vague sense of amusement at Stark’s confusion.
The other robot (DUM-E, its name is) rolls up and waves the rag at Stark again. This time he takes it and thanks the robot. DUM-E’s claw grabs at the air in excitement.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Stark, but I’d really like to sleep.”
Any confusion or almost-worry is overwhelmed by Stark’s glee. “Great! I’ve been waiting for you to ask for ages. My place or yours? Pep’s out of town, so it doesn’t matter to me.”
Steve looks closer at Stark. Under the manic energy and grease (there’s more on his forehead), his skin is pallid and his eyes bloodshot. He wonders if Stark has been getting any sleep lately either.
“Mine,” he says. He almost says yours out of the hope that a strange place may disorient him enough to fall asleep, but he’s had his fill of new and strange things. He’s just tired.
He’s so, so tired.
Steve lingers in the doorway as Stark uses the rag to wipe off the lingering grease (he misses most of the stuff on his forehead, and when he turns around Steve sees he didn’t get any of the grease on his neck). Stark moves around the lab, shutting down barely visible computers and turning off the blender when a pointed look at U. He pats each robot goodnight and walks back to Steve.
“Alright, Grandpa, let’s get you to bed.” Steve follows Stark back to his own floor and into his bedroom. Stark disappears into the bathroom, so Steve, already in sweatpants and a long sleeve so big he can pull the sleeves over his hands and pretend for a moment it’s 1940 again, waits at the end of the bed.
Stark comes out wearing only a (unfortunately revealing) pair of tighty whiteys.
“No,” Steve says. “Hell no.”
Stark’s eyes widen and his mouth gapes the tiniest bit. Steve isn’t sure if his shock stems from Steve’s outright refusal or swearing (if it’s the latter, he’s in for a rude awakening).
“But I always—” Stark starts. Steve glares at him. No need to make this any more awkward than it’s already likely to be. “Fine. Spoilsport.”
Steve goes to his dresser and pulls out another pair of sweatpants and gives them to Stark. He doesn’t bother trying with a shirt.
The pants fit Stark’s waist well enough, but they’re too long, so the bottoms pool around his ankles. Stark looks put out about it, pouting down at the excess fabric, so Steve squashes the urge to smile.
He and Stark move to the end of the bed and stare up at it.
“So,” Stark says. “Which side do you want?”
Steve has never really thought about it. With Bucky it didn’t matter, they usually just fell into bed at the end of the day, happy to have a mostly dry place to sleep. And lately, he just curls up in the middle.
But Stark is waiting for him to make the call (Steve knows it’s ridiculous to treat this like a mission, he knows, but it’s somehow easier that way), so he steels himself and says, “left.”
This isn’t so bad. At least, it isn’t until he watches Stark collapse on the right side. Steve takes a long, slow breath and lays on the left side of the bed, flat on his back.
He doesn’t sleep that night, instead staring up into the dark and listening to Stark mumble in his sleep (Stark also sprawls across the bed like he owns it—which he sort of does— and Steve soon finds himself hugging the edge of the mattress). It’s relaxing, almost, until Stark stops muttering formulae and starts thrashing. The only things he says then are “nuke” and “Loki” and “Pepper.”
Steve reaches out and rests his hand on the closest part of Stark, which happens to be his chest and part of his arm. He can feel the cold edge of the arc reactor press into his fingers. Thankfully, Stark calms after a few moments.
They spend the rest of the night like that.
After that, Steve makes an effort to seek out Stark every time he knows Pepper is away for more than a night or two, though after the first time he sleeps on the right side with only minimal complaints from Stark.
One night, when Stark is full of so much nervous energy he’s shaking with it, Steve suggests they stay in Starks room instead. It seems to help them both a little.
The next morning, Steve literally falls out of bed because Stark migrated in the middle of the night (how he managed to move so far, Steve isn’t sure, because Stark has the biggest mattress he’s ever seen). Stark is mumbling happily about the quadratic formula, so Steve leaves him be.
He takes the stairs down to the communal floor, hoping that someone has already made coffee so he doesn’t have to.
At first, he thinks he’s alone and he huffs in irritation.
Someone, hidden in that one weird corner of the kitchen that Natasha likes to hang out in, makes a startled noise.
Steve steps into the kitchen and sees Pepper, jetlagged and mostly put together and obviously just back from her trip to Dublin. She’s gripping a coffee mug, but when she sees it’s Steve she moves toward him, grabbing his hand and squeezing it. She gives him the most grateful smile he’s ever seen.
After a moment of hesitation, he gathers her loosely in his arms, coffee mug, rumpled pantsuit, and all, and lets her rest her forehead on his chest.
He listens to her breathing and the sound of the wind outside the tower and feels content.
After some time, Pepper pulls back and sips at her drink.
Steve makes his way to the coffee pot and grabs a mug from the cupboard (his favorite, a black mug with the red Widow mark that he’s sure Stark had to special order, along with the other Avengers-themed ones scattered about the tower). He pours himself some coffee and, making sure Pepper isn’t looking, adds extra sugar because she always makes it too strong. He’s pretty sure it’s a product of living with Stark so long.
They sip in silence.
Eventually, she places her mug in the dishwasher.
“You’re a good man, Steve.”
Steve shrugs. “So is he.”
Pepper gives him one last smile and turns away. She takes her leave just as Dr. Banner shuffles into the room; they talk quietly for a moment before parting.
Dr. Banner is wearing a purple-and-green plaid set of flannel pajamas (he sees Steve looking and flickers his eyes to the Black Widow mug Steve holds; they snort over Stark’s idea of appropriate gifts). He heads straight for the stove and soon has a pan full of scrambled eggs cooking. He shares them with Steve over more coffee, and Steve is achingly glad for his team.
Once, after the tower has been repaired and rebranded as Avengers Tower (Steve thinks it’s a ridiculous name, but no one listens to him), there’s a bad night. And it’s followed by a terrible one.
Pepper’s been gone for nearly two weeks for a worldwide conference on sustainable energy, as far as anyone has explained it to him at least, and it’s been increasingly hard to coax Stark from his lab.
The first night, he doesn’t sleep at all, but he responds when Steve talks to him and works with a single-mindedness that is concerning but more or less normal. He won’t take a break the following day, not even for a twenty minute nap.
The second night, it’s nearly four in the morning and Steve can’t get Stark to even acknowledge him enough to brush him off. It’s like Stark can’t see or hear Steve, moving around him in the lab and ignoring everything Steve says.
He’s muttering, too, about Loki and the Chitauri and whatever he saw when he went through the portal and making things safe.
Steve searches the tower from top to bottom, but Dr. Banner has locked himself into the Hulk-proof floor that only he and Stark have the entry code for, and Thor is off-world, and Clint and Natasha are missing, possibly on a mission for SHIELD. So Steve settles himself on the counter in the lab with the blender and enlists DUM-E and U to ensure Stark doesn’t hurt himself.
In desperation, Steve asks, “JARVIS, is there no one else we can call?”
“Colonel Rhodes,” JARVIS exclaims. If Steve though the AI capable of panicking, he thinks it would be right now. “Of course. I don’t know why I didn’t think of him before. I’ll contact him now, Captain Rogers.”
Colonel Rhodes arrives at 0557, still in his dress blues. He appears in the doorway of the lab and gives Steve a brief nod before walking to Stark.
“Tony,” he says.
“Rhodey,” Stark says, blinking in surprise at his friend. “I thought you were in South Korea.”
“Just got back. How ‘bout I tell you all about Korea up on your floor? You know the smell of grease gives me a headache.” And with that, Colonel Rhodes takes Stark by the elbow and gently leads him out of the lab, into the elevator, and under the massive duvet on his oversized bed. Steve trails in their wake, thankful and exhausted and terrified all at once.
Once Stark is settled (he falls asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow), Colonel Rhodes motions for Steve to follow him, and they settle on the ground against the footboard.
“Thank you, Captain, for calling me. And for looking after him.” The Colonel’s face softens with fondness. “I know Tony can be a bit of a handful, but we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s my best friend.”
Steve stays silent for a moment, not sure how to address that last part. Finally, he sighs and says, “Thank you for coming, Colonel.”
Colonel Rhodes grimaces. “Call me Rhodey.”
“Call me Steve, then.”
Rhodey pulls a deck of cards from somewhere in his uniform and Steve loses at rummy for hours, the only sounds the slide of card against card and Stark’s mumblings, until it’s noon and Rhodey sends Steve off to his own bed, saying, “It’ll be a while before he wakes up. I’ll watch him.”
Steve protests but he’s tired, so he trudges back to his own floor. For the first time in a long time, he falls asleep in his own bed without any problems and stays there for hours, curled up on his right side and dreaming of nothing.
Less than a week later, Stark and Pepper fly to Malibu, planning on staying there for a few months.
Steve, Dr. Banner, Dr. Foster, and Darcy all watch in horror as the news stations show the Malibu house crashing into the ocean. Planes are grounded because of the threat the Mandarin poses, and they have no way of getting to California unless one of them commandeers one of Stark’s vehicles and they drive it clear across the country. Steve feels helpless, like he’s 5’4” and terrible in a fight again.
They all breathe a sigh of relief when word comes in that Pepper and Stark are alright, but Steve doesn’t forget how it felt.
It takes Steve a long time to decide to visit Peggy once he finds out she’s alive.
It’s another one of those things SHIELD “failed to mention” right after he was de-thawed, and continued to fail to mention over the next several months. Steve isn’t sure if he’s angrier at them for not telling him, or himself for not looking for her—or anyone else, for that matter—until now.
He agonizes over it, and takes to avoiding his teammates around the tower. After everything that’s happened with Stark and Pepper lately, that isn’t as difficult as it used to be. Sleep is hard to come by once more, but he just grits his teeth and deals with it.
One day, soon after the new year, without really planning it, he finds himself walking from the tower and into Grand Central Station, and buying a ticket to Maryland.
Steve boards the train and settles into a corner of the first quiet car he finds. He pulls out his phone and attempts to look busy for the next three or so hours.
By the time they unload in the outskirts of DC, he’s so jittery with nerves he practically runs to the retirement center where Peggy lives now (a man jogging in jeans and a button down draws some stares, but Steve ignores them).
It isn’t until he’s standing before the front desk of the Kendal Nursing Home that Steve realizes he maybe should’ve called ahead. Or something.
“Um,” he says. “I’m here to see Peggy—Margaret Carter? I’m Steve Rogers?”
The lady seated at the desk, Sandy, according to her nametag, looks amused, and on the verge of giggling.
“I know who you are, Mr. Rogers. Ms. Carter’s family had you added to the visiting list some time ago,” she says. Steve feels a stab of guilt for not coming sooner. Sandy’s face grows serious. “I will have to see some identification, however.”
Steve hands it over without complaint and shoves his hands in his pockets as she verifies, basically, that it really is Captain America standing in front of her. Steve wants to laugh, but doesn’t.
“Well then, Mr. Rogers,” Sandy says, smiling again, “Welcome to Kendal Nursing Home. Darius, come here! Darius here will show you to Ms. Carter’s room. Have a nice day!”
He thanks her and takes his driver’s license back, turning to follow Darius, a gentle looking man in scrubs with a friendly smile.
Darius leads him through the surprisingly complex hallways, stopping in front of a nondescript door without even a nameplate.
Steve moves to open the door. Darius stops him with a hand on his forearm.
“She’s having a good day, but that may change,” he says softly. “I’ll wait out here, if that’s alright.”
Steve nods and tries desperately not to think about how Peggy now has good days—and presumably bad ones.
He opens the door, and it feels like his heart stops, almost skipping painfully like it once did, long before he met Peggy.
She’s sitting up in a hospital-style bed, pillows propping her up. The room has a few pictures, but not as many as he’d expect from what he knows of the life she lived.
He was expecting this, he was, because it’s been nearly seventy years and she’s in her nineties, like he should be, but it hurts, damn it, to see her so timeworn and frail, instead of youthful and unstoppable like he remembers. Her hair is completely white, her skin wrinkled and spotted; Peggy is, undeniably, old.
It kills him, a little.
“Peggy,” he says, stepping closer to her bed.
She looks up, sees him, and gasps.
“Steve?” Peggy asks. “Steve, you’re alive.”
He covers the distance to her bed in a few strides and nearly collapses in the chair by her side. He chokes out, “Yeah, Pegs, I’m alive. I’m here.”
She’s trembling, visible now that Steve’s closer.
“It’s been so long,” she whispers, “so long.”
“I know, Peggy. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says, and then she’s crying and so is he and he’s clasping one of her soft hands in both of his. He says he’s sorry over and over until she cries herself to sleep.
Steve checks that she’s truly asleep before he buries his head in his hands and allows himself the great, heaving sobs he’d held back for her sake.
It was inevitable, he knows, for everyone from the war to grow old. It’s how the world works. But knowing Colonel Phillips and the Commandos and Howard Stark are all dead is very, very different from seeing one of the best people he’s ever known like this. It feels like a bullet to the side, or a gut punch from the Hulk.
He bawls at Peggy’s bedside for an indeterminable length of time, grieving for her and Bucky and the life he used to know.
Then he pulls himself together, wipes the tears from his face (but doesn’t try to hide the signs that he’s been crying, because he’s always been an ugly crier and still is), and lets himself out.
He pulls up short when he comes face-to-face with Darius. Steve had forgotten he had said he’d wait.
Darius looks distraught.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Rogers,” he hurries to say. “We should’ve known seeing you after so long would upset her.”
Steve stares at his earnest, upset face for a moment. Darius looks so young, suddenly. Steve wonders if it’s because he actually is young, or if it’s because Steve feels every single one of his ninety-four years.
“It’s okay,” he says, and lets Darius lead him from the building.
By the time he boards the train back to Manhattan, a sort of numbness has spread throughout his chest and blanketed his mind into nothingness. He sits and stares at his hands the entire ride. Nobody bothers him, though he didn’t make it to a quiet car this time.
Steve doesn’t think, just lets his feet carry him to the Avengers Tower and up the endless stairs to his own floor.
He bypasses everything and curls into a tight little ball in the center of his empty bed. He dreams of seeing all his friends old and withered and slipping away from him, and then of a world where he lost Peggy on the train and de-thaws to find Bucky dying in a hospice bed.
He wakes and can’t decide which is worse, the dream or his own reality, so he buries his face in a pillow and tries not to think about either.
The second time he tries to visit, the staff turns him away, because Peggy is having a Bad Day.
The third time, they manage to hold a conversation about her life these past decades until Steve has to go to the bathroom. When he returns, she doesn’t recognize him at all.
The fourth time is much of the same. When he gets back to the tower, he’s exhausted and nearly heartbroken. Steve manages to drag himself into an elevator, and then out of it and onto his generic couch that one of Pepper’s people picked out for him. He sits there for a long time, staring at the blank TV. Eventually he gets sick of that, so he tips over onto his side and draws his feet up and closes his eyes, too tired to make it to his bedroom.
That’s when Clint falls from the ceiling vent.
Not that Steve knows it at first. He hears a clang and a thud and “fuck!” He sits up and turns so he can see behind him.
It’s Clint, covered in dust and muttering to himself, “I swear Stark stopped cleaning the vents just to spite me.”
Clint stands, wincing, and pouts down at the brightly colored shards of plastic that were under him.
“Aw, nerf gun,” he says. Then he sees Steve. “Cap! Just the man I was looking for!”
Steve raises his eyebrows at him.
“Ah, well,” Clint shifts and rubs the back of his neck, “not really, but you were on my list of people to see, swear.”
Steve flops back down on the couch.
“Uh, you okay there, Cap?”
Clint is silent for a moment. When he speaks his voice is soft, as if he’s talking to a wounded animal (Steve would be offended, if he didn’t feel more than a little wounded right now). “How about I sit with you for a bit?”
There’s nothing but the not-firm-but-not-soft couch cushion under his head and it’s straining his neck, so Steve doesn’t protest when Clint shifts him enough to pillow Steve’s head on Clint’s thigh.
He doesn’t quite fall asleep, but he drifts to the sound of Clint’s tuneless humming.
When Steve comes back to himself, the room is darker and Clint is still there. The TV is on but muted.
“Doesn’t it bother you to not have the sound on?” he asks. It’s an action movie, and (according to Stark) the sound effects are the best part of an action movie.
Clint doesn’t respond, just continues to hum.
Steve sits up. Clint jumps. His hands fly to his ears.
After a moment, Clint says, “Cap, didn’t know you were up!”
Steve studies him and notices, for the first time, the hearing aids tucked discretely behind his ears.
Clint sees him looking. “Ah.”
“Well,” Steve says, laughing at himself, “I did ask if it bothered you not to have the sound on. Guess not.”
Clint grins. “I didn’t want to wake you up. Doesn’t bother me anyway, I’ve seen this a million times, I don’t need the sound.”
Steve remembers, then, about how Bucky used to always maneuver them so Steve’s good ear was closest to the radio or phonograph, and how he always picked a middle seat at the pictures so Steve could see everything, even if they were on a double date and Bucky’s girl was eyeing the back row. How Steve would always protest that he was fine, Buck, honest, and how Bucky never listened.
“I haven’t seen this one,” Steve says.
Clint grins and turns the volume on.
The fifth time he visits Peggy, they talk about Steve’s life in the twenty-first century so far until Peggy asks him in a trembling voice to leave, please.
When he gets back to his floor of the tower, feeling like his heart has been ripped from his chest and thrown away, both Clint and Natasha are sitting on his couch.
Steve doesn’t question it, just lets them manhandle him onto the couch. Natasha curls into his side and Clint pillows the back of his head on Steve’s thigh, his legs hanging over the arm of the couch.
Natasha picks a sci-fi thriller, according to the guide, and turns the volume up every once in a while when Clint isn’t looking. It’s sweet but also hilarious, because halfway through the movie Clint frowns and checks his hearing aids. Steve tries not to laugh.
The next time he sees Clint, it’s because Steve seeks him out.
Natasha’s been on a mission for SHIELD the past two weeks, mid-level cover (?), but her comms went out three nights ago and she hasn’t made any attempt to reach them or SHIELD by other means.
Steve is on the communal floor, having breakfast with Thor and Pepper, when the news comes in. He finishes his coffee, wolfs down the rest of his eggs, and excuses himself.
Clint isn’t on his own floor, or Nat’s, nor is he in any of the gyms. Stumped, Steve sits on the closest bench and thinks.
“JARVIS?” he asks.
“Yes, Captain Rogers?”
“Do you know where Clint is?”
“I believe Agent Barton is in the ventilation system.”
Of course. Steve is a little embarrassed he didn’t think of it before. Unfortunately, his shoulders are too broad to fit into the vents (something he discovered right around the time he learned to never, under any circumstances, make a bet with Maria Hill). So that means waiting.
“Do you know where Clint is most likely to exit?”
“Calculating now,” JARVIS says. “Based on past experiences, the archery range.”
Steve wants to bash his head on a punching bag a few times for not putting that together on his own, but only thanks JARVIS and makes his way down a floor to the ranges.
Clint isn’t here yet, so he waits. It’s nearly an hour before Clint drops from the ceiling and rolls to break his fall. When he sees Steve he doesn’t say anything, just pulls out his bow and starts aiming at a target.
Steve follows his example, picking up one of the extra practice bows Stark keeps on the far wall. He’s never been trained in archery, but once he shoots a few arrows he finds that outside of the motion itself, it isn’t that much different from calculating what angle to throw the shield. The arrows don’t come back, obviously, and his aim isn’t perfect, but he can see why Clint enjoys it.
After a while, Clint puts his bow down. Steve is quick to do the same; his fingers are aching.
Steve doesn’t want to impose on Clint so he hangs back when Clint heads to the door, but figures the nod he gives Steve is meant to encourage him to come along. So he does.
The take the elevator back to Clint’s floor, where they watch a silent black-and-white film of Clint’s choosing. The next one on the channel has sound, but Clint mutes it.
Steve sits with him until well after dark and then nudges him the slightest bit. When Clint has turned his hearing aids back on, Steve asks, “How do you feel about having a cuddle buddy?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Clint gape at him.
“But I’m supposed to be your cuddle buddy!” Clint says. He’s pouting, which Steve counts as a success.
He shrugs. “As long as someone is being cuddled, does it matter who initiates it?”
Clint ponders that logic.
“Nah,” he says, then brandishes a finger at Steve. “But don’t you dare mention this to Stark. Or Tasha.”
Steve holds up his hands.
Clint’s bed is, of all things, round and absolutely covered in pillows. He sees Steve eyeing it and snorts.
“Tony’s idea of a gift. Turns out, it’s really comfy.”
Steve doesn’t have anything to say to that, so he keeps his mouth shut.
Without Steve having to ask, Clint lends him sweatpants and a shirt, which is great because he’s in jeans and his shirt is too tight to sleep comfortably in. The sweatpants are tight at the ankle instead of loose like he normally wears, but Steve finds he doesn’t mind.
Steve goes to the bathroom and contemplates just stashing a toothbrush on everyone’s floor, because he hates trying to brush his teeth with just his finger. When he opens the door he sees that Clint has curled up right in the middle of the bed. He doesn’t move, even after Steve spends a long five minutes staring at him in exasperation.
He considers physically rolling Clint to one edge, but Clint looks vulnerable in the middle of his nest of pillows and blankets, so Steve just sighs and wedges himself into the pillows along one curved edge.
For a moment, all Steve can hear is his own heartbeat, amplified by the way he’s cocooned.
Then Clint asks, “So what do you do in the airport security line if your belt is sewn to your pants?”
Steve sighs and rolls over, even though it means curving his body backward slightly to keep all his limbs on the mattress.
“What? I lose things easily!” Clint says.
Steve closes his eyes and pretends he didn’t hear anything, but he can’t stop himself from smiling.
He has to roll back onto his right side almost immediately, but even that can't wipe the smile from his face.
3. Dr. Banner
He continues to visit Peggy, but with less regularity than before, because Steve’s fairly certain neither of them can withstand more.
Sometime in early March, JARVIS contacts Steve around 1 AM, as he’s half-heartedly trying to draw Natasha and Pepper smiling together.
“Captain Rogers, if you’re not otherwise occupied?” JARVIS asks, as polite as ever.
“Not at all,” Steve says, thankful for the excuse to set the sketchbook down. “What’s up?”
“Dr. Banner appears to be getting frustrated. His vitals are raising into the warning zone and Sir is still in the Hamptons. Perhaps you would consider approaching Dr. Banner about your bed sharing arrangement tonight?”
Steve is already on his feet and asking, “Which floor?”
He finds Dr. Banner in the elevator. Steve steps through the doorway and glances at the panel. The only button lit is for one of the basements, where the Hulk-proof chamber is.
Steve slouches back against the wall and shoves his hands in his pockets—or tries to at least. The sweatpants he’s wearing don’t have any. He crosses his arms instead.
Dr. Banner doesn’t say anything. Steve can hear his breathing, the ragged, uneven quality of it.
It he’s being honest with himself, Steve doesn’t know what to do. It’s clear Dr. Banner is truly struggling to maintain his composure until he makes it into the Hulk chamber; Steve’s presence probably isn’t helping him keep his worry under control.
He lets Dr. Banner get off the elevator without saying a word.
Whatever Dr. Banner is working on must not be cooperating, because JARVIS contacts him again the next night. Steve makes sure to get in the elevator before Dr. Banner can call it.
The next night, he gets all the way to Dr. Banner’s research lab, which is much more laboratory-like than Stark’s is.
They walk to the elevator in silence, but when the doors close Dr. Banner sighs.
“Did Tony put you up to this?” He asks, rubbing the bridge of his nose where his glasses normally sit.
“Nope,” Steve says. He shoves his hands in his pockets. “JARVIS.”
The elevators in the building don’t play music (and haven’t since that time Stark programmed them to play each Avengers’ “theme song” whenever they took the elevator; that idea lasted until all six of them squeezed in together and the system temporarily shorted itself in its confusion. Steve heard Pepper took away Stark’s tinkering privileges for a month after that), so it’s silent for a while. Steve is pleased to notice Dr. Banner’s breath evening out some.
They’re nearly at the Hulk-proof floor before Steve says, “I’ve been having a hard time sleeping. Mind being my cuddle buddy?”
Dr. Banner gives him a wry look, like he absolutely knows what Steve is doing, but he doesn’t get off when the elevator doors open. Steve keeps his satisfied smile to himself.
Dr. Banner presses the button to his own floor. When the elevator doors open and they step out into Dr. Banner’s floor, Steve is pleasantly surprised. The walls are a warm brown color, unlike Steve’s, which are still generic off-white, and his furniture is all low to the ground and comfortable looking.
Steve follows Dr. Banner into his bedroom. The bed is just as low as the couches and coffee table, and he suspects it’s maybe just the mattress and box spring right on the floor.
“I usually sleep on the right side of the bed,” Dr. Banner says. “I hope that’s alright?”
Steve thinks of his almost compulsive need to face the middle of the bed, how he always seems to sleep on his right side. Then he looks at the way Dr. Banner is clasping his hands together, as if he’s desperately trying to not wring them.
“It’s not a problem, Doctor,” Steve says.
Dr. Banner smiles thinly and disappears into his bathroom. When he comes back, he’s wearing red and gold striped pajama pants and a baggy long sleeve.
Steve is already in sweatpants, so he decides to sleep in the button down he was too lazy to change out of earlier (he doubts Dr. Banner will be comfortable with Steve sleeping shirtless, or that he’s be willing to lend Steve a shirt, like Clint did).
Dr. Banner turns down the top of the comforter, fussing of it until the line of it is perfectly straight and there are no creases. Only then does he pull back the right side far enough for him to get into bed. He sees Steve watching and works his jaw for a moment before smiling.
“Sorry. It helps… the other guy if I keep a routine.”
Steve shakes his head in a way he hopes is accepting instead of dismissive. He thinks about how Bucky always used to take his right shoe and suspender and left sock off first and says, “I don’t mind.”
Dr. Banner gets into bed.
Steve walks around to the far side and climbs on the bed. It’s harder than anything he’s ever slept on, save the frozen forests of Europe in the middle of winter. He’s surprised by its firmness for a moment before he considers how much of his life Dr. Banner must have to keep rigid in fear of angering the Hulk.
Steve lies down. Out of habit he faces the middle of the bed. Dr. Banner, he sees, is flat on his back, both hands folded over his chest.
The issue soon becomes clear: Steve never sleeps on his left side. At best, he’s uncomfortable. His skin feels too tight, like he’s about the go into combat.
Steve flips over, but this is worse, because—even though objectively he knows it’s Dr. Banner, he just saw him—he can’t see who’s behind him. The skin between his shoulder blades prickles.
Dr. Banner’s breaths are so even Steve knows he’s still awake. He wonders if this is another part of his routine.
Steve closes his eyes and hopes for even an hour or two of sleep. He tosses and turns for a long time before exhaustion takes him.
He comes to for a moment, close to dawn, when the sky is starting to lighten. There’s something touching his feet.
Steve shudders and wriggles closer to the edge of the bed.
He falls back asleep.
It’s bright when Steve wakes to an arm and a leg thrown over the side of his body. For a breathless moment, he’s back in Brooklyn, 1938, and it’s Bucky behind him and the war hasn’t happened (yet).
Then he registers the bulk of his own body and the build of the person behind him.
Dr. Banner. Of course.
He tries not to let it sting too much.
Steve tries to move and Dr. Banner’s limbs clamp down on him. He can’t get out of bed until Dr. Banner wakes up, or else he risks accidentally setting the Hulk on the entirety of the Avengers Tower.
He shifts a little again, and that’s when the other issues makes itself apparent.
It’s not like he and Bucky never woke up with a morning erection, but that had been Steve and Bucky. Steve likes Dr. Banner well enough, but the truth of the situation—that Steve has managed to forget, until now—is that he’s basically sharing a bed (and other things, currently) with a work colleague.
This probably isn’t going to be fun.
Steve closes his eyes and pretends that he’s still asleep. It takes some time for Dr. Banner to stir. He grumbles and groans. Then, so quiet Steve can barely hear it, Dr. Banner whispers into Steve’s back, “Betty.”
Steve tenses, against his better judgement.
Dr. Banner is awake in an instant. After a heartbeat, he seems to realize who he’s wrapped around and he leaps from the bed.
Steve can hear how Dr. Banner’s breathing is speeding up, getting less steady with every inhale, so he stays where he is, still pretending to sleep.
After nearly a minute, Dr. Banner curses and practically runs from the room.
Steve waits another minute before sitting up.
“JARVIS?” He asks.
“Yes, Captain?” JARVIS replies.
“Can you make sure Dr. Banner is okay?”
“I’ve already alerted Sir to the situation. He arrived early this morning from the Hamptons. He is on his way to the containment floor with blueberries and tea.”
“Thank you,” Steve sighs, and silently thanks whoever is listening (the universe, maybe) for sentient AI programs that are smarter and more subtle than their makers.
He makes his way to his own living room and hopes Dr. Banner is okay.
Thor is probably Steve’s favorite member of the team (not that he’ll say that to anyone—the last thing he needs is a bunch of superheroes and superspies vying for his attention) because, even in light of Steve’s astounding lack of knowledge about this century, Thor doesn’t coddle or demean him.
It helps that most days Thor knows just as much as Steve does about Earth in the twenty-first century, but Steve will take all the help he can get at this point.
Still, after the awkward night with Dr. Banner (he still won’t look Steve in the eye, despite all of his reassurances that really, it’s fine), Steve isn’t excited at the prospect of sharing yet another teammate’s bed. Even Thor’s, for all their camaraderie over being behind the times.
His hesitance to approach Thor is solved when Thor is called off-world to handle another dispute that Odin couldn’t be bothered to care about. From what he’s gathered, those instances happen less now that Loki has been imprisoned and Thor has ties to Earth, but they still occur occasionally.
So he soldiers through the bone-deep exhaustion that not even the serum can keep at bay and grits his teeth against the nightmares that always come when he can’t avoid sleeping any longer.
He’s been out of the ice for a year. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way.
It’s nearly a month before Thor comes back (planetside but not New York, because Dr. Foster and her intern Darcy are off chasing some new phenomenon that can only be viewed from deep in the Amazon Rainforest). Steve sucks it up, because he isn’t going to come between their reunion, even if he is starting to admit that it’s gone too far.
He has started eating more though, and more often, under JARVIS’s watchful eye. Stark set JARVIS on him after Steve refused to share beds again and Steve would resent the AI for that, but he knows his teammates (especially Stark, no matter what he says) care about his wellbeing.
A week after Thor’s initial check-in, there’s a knock on Steve’s door. He knows who it is without having to ask JARVIS (or check the peephole Stark had complained about but installed anyway when Steve said he couldn’t always rely on JARVIS’s help), because no one but Thor ever knocks. Natasha just appears on random pieces of furniture, Clint falls from vents, Stark barges in, and Dr. Banner never visits his floor, but no one but Thor ever actually knocks. Even Pepper, on the rare occasion that she visits him and not the other way around, tends to just follow in Stark’s wake.
When he opens the door, however, Steve is surprised to find not only Thor, but Dr. Foster and Darcy as well. Steve tries to smile.
“Friend Steven! I apologize for my absence but Father could not handle both the Vanir conflict and the Enchantresses,” Thor says as he claps Steve on the shoulder, beaming. Steve is glad, and definitely not for the first time, that he has the serum. Thor would have broken the old him in half. “I explained your situation to my Ladies Darcy and Jane, and they have agreed to help you in your plight.”
Steve raises his eyebrows at Darcy, who he’s met but doesn’t know very well.
“What Thor means is that where one of us sleeps, the others follow,” Darcy says, raising an eyebrow in return. Steve thinks that revelation over, but if she expects him to handle it poorly she’ll be sorely disappointed. He can see the way Thor looks at both of them—he’s honestly not sure how they all missed it before—and he’s not one to judge how relationships form (because he’s pretty sure it’s not just sex, but even if it was he wouldn’t bat an eye. He got up to some pretty interesting stuff himself in the late thirties, not that he’ll tell them that).
“What Darcy means,” Dr. Foster cuts in, “is that Thor told us what was going on and we figured the more the merrier. But if you don’t feel comfortable with Darcy and I-”
“Or our lady bits,” Darcy interjects, leering.
“—being here,” Dr. Foster continues, completely ignoring her, “then we can leave. We’ll respect your decision either way.”
Steve wants to laugh in Darcy’s face because he definitely doesn’t have a problem with lady bits, but he doesn’t want to make this weird. He bites the inside of his cheek.
“It’s fine, Dr. Foster,” he says instead. “Like you said, the more the merrier.”
Thor laughs and Darcy smirks in a way that vaguely resembles Natasha, which makes Steve uncomfortable so he doesn’t dwell on it.
It’s still mid-afternoon and they’re all too keyed up to think about sleeping, even though Steve feels like he’s about to drop (he’s felt that way for approximately eleven days though, so it’s nothing new), so he makes them dinner. The four of them sit around his table and laugh over his unambitious offering of spaghetti with the meatballs Darcy made (the meatballs are delicious and Darcy is surprisingly silent about the recipe). Thor tells him that the meal is on par for their little trio, as he doesn’t quite understand Midgardian appliances, Dr. Foster can’t cook, and Darcy is usually too busy looking after Dr. Foster to make extravagant dinners. Dr. Foster blushes but doesn’t object.
After, Darcy turns on the TV and picks a movie off of Netflix (she was the one who introduced it to Thor, who in turn introduced it to Steve) while Jane and Steve set up a game of Rummikub.
Thor says he isn’t up to playing a game and curls his big frame into one of Steve’s armchairs to watch the movie (Steve glances up at one point about halfway through their second game and sees a tire—blowing up a rabbit?—so he keeps his attention on the tiles instead) with Darcy propped up against one huge leg.
It’s quiet and familiar, even with the new board game and the clear sounds of the television in the background, and Steve finds himself relaxing almost against his will. The tiny apartment he shared with Bucky was nothing like his floor of the tower with its glass walls and lofted ceilings that make sounds bounce around weirdly. But being with Bucky was sort of like this is—comfortable and cozy.
When he looks up again the movie is ending (and he really doesn’t want to know why a tricycle and its gang of sentient tires are contemplating taking over Hollywood). Darcy is asleep and Thor blinks blearily down at her, a gentle smile on his face.
Dr. Foster has beaten him three times already and is likely to beat him a fourth. Steve isn’t sure if it’s due to his exhaustion or if he’s really just terrible at Rummikub. Bucky always beat him at gin rummy (as did all of the Commandos, minus Monty, who was even worse than Steve at card games), so maybe it’s his skill level.
But damn if he isn’t tired.
Steve turns his attention back to the game just as Dr. Foster lays down her final tiles. She grins down at the table and then up at him. Steve blinks in response.
“Oh, what time-” Dr. Foster checks her watch. “Oh!”
Steve sweeps the tiles off of the table and back into the box with a single hand, then stacks the trays on top. It isn’t until he closes the lid that he realizes he has no idea where it came from. Maybe Pepper or JARVIS had it stocked here?
Dr. Foster stands and reaches for Darcy. Thor intercepts her and Steve watches them look softly at each other. Thor unfolds from the chair and bends down. When he stands he has Darcy in his arms. He turns to Steve.
“Friend Steven,” Thor says, at a much quieter level than normal, “shall we join the Lady Darcy in her slumber?”
Steve considers turning him down, knowing that they would be fine with it, that Dr. Foster would shepherd Thor and a sleeping Darcy from his floor to theirs, and that none of them would bat an eyelash.
But he’s so tired, and looking at the three of them—Darcy cradled against Thor’s chest, Dr. Foster’s small hand on his arm—and he doesn’t want to try and sleep by himself tonight. Maybe with three of them, there won’t be room for Bucky in his nightmares.
Steve smiles at Thor. “Is down here alright or do you guys want to go to your floor?”
“Here will be better,” Dr. Foster says lightly.
They follow him into his room and Thor lays Darcy down in the bed while Dr. Foster takes off her socks (Darcy had shown up with no shoes on and already in her pajamas, which seemed odd at the time, but now he figures there was probably a reason for that).
“When the three of us rest together, Lady Jane is at my front while Lady Darcy is at my back. When we discussed this,” Thor glances at Dr. Foster, “we thought you might feel most protected with a shield brother at your back.”
It takes him a moment to work the arrangement out in his head, but when he does Steve blinks at Dr. Foster. They weren’t going to put him on an end?
“It you aren’t comfortable with that it’s alright, Steve,” Dr. Foster says.
But he is comfortable with it. He trusts Thor with his life, and Steve can’t remember the last time he was held by someone larger than him (before the war, before Bucky shipped out and Steve signed up and everything went to shit—). Suddenly he craves it.
“No, that’s alright.” He clears his throat, blinks two, three times. “That’d be great.”
They all change into pajamas—Steve takes the bathroom so no one feels uncomfortable—then he allows himself to be arranged between Thor’s broad chest and Jane’s delicate back. Darcy snores behind them. Thor stretches an arm over both of them, and Steve feels completely, blessedly surrounded, better than any blanket-and-pillow situation he could ever manage.
“Goodnight, Captain,” Thor says. “Sweet dreams my lady.”
He’s asleep within minutes, not really minding that he’s lying on his left side.
Steve wakes up with hair in his mouth and a knee digging into his ass.
Since they’re above the majority of the city, the light on the ceiling is faint at best, which tells him it’s still hours before dawn.
He spits out the hair (Steve isn’t sure if it’s Dr. Foster’s or Thor’s—he isn’t even sure who he’s facing at the moment) and tries to wiggle only to realize that he’s stuck in place by the press of bodies around him. The pillow that’s supposed to be under his head is missing. He blinks until his eyes have adjusted enough to make out shapes.
There’s a large shadow against his front. Must be Thor. Steve wiggles again but doesn’t get anywhere this time either, Dr. Foster clinging to his back with surprising strength. The knee is still pressing sharply into his ass. Somehow Dr. Foster’s left arm snuck between his elbow and his side and is grasping the front of Steve’s shirt. Thor’s right arm is draped over Steve’s shoulder, hand likely disappearing into the mass of Dr. Foster’s hair (which is all over Steve’s neck and likely was in his mouth a few minutes ago).
He shifts a third time when the knee doesn’t go away. That only results in… a pinch?
Steve looks down the line of Thor’s body to see Darcy’s arm thrown over Thor’s waist, her hand on Steve’s ass. She must have her face pressed into Thor’s lower back, which can’t be comfortable, but it doesn’t seem to deter her.
He tries to fall back asleep, but now that he’s aware of everything he can’t stop shifting. Somehow, none of the other three wake up in the following hour or so that passes.
After the first fifteen minutes or so Steve begins to realize how warm being in the middle of a four body pile up is. After thirty Thor shifts, presumably to get closer to Dr. Foster, but as Steve is sort of in the way he ends up with his nose smashed into Thor’s collarbone. After forty-five he’s starting to feel a bit lightheaded from the lack of fresh air in his section of the intern-superhero-scientist sandwich.
Darcy’s hand is still on his ass.
Around the hour-fifteen mark, he realizes that her fingers have begun to knead the flesh of his left butt cheek.
He can’t see anything but her arm, which shakes when she laughs.
“I take it our lady bits didn’t freak you out then, Captain?” Her voice isn’t even scratchy from lingering sleep. He snorts.
“Lady bits scare me about as much as man bits do,” He says. She laughs again.
Behind him Dr. Foster groans. The hair against his neck slides away as she rolls onto her back. Cold air hits his (slightly sweaty) skin and he sighs in relief.
“Darcy, leave him alone,” Dr. Foster says. She, at least, sounds almost completely asleep still. Darcy responds but Steve doesn’t pay attention, instead taking the opportunity to save his nose from the clutches of Thor’s chest. He checks over his shoulder to locate Dr. Foster, and, despite his bed not really being big enough for the four of them (something his nose and ass are now painfully aware of), there is room for him to roll off of his side.
Dr. Foster seems to drift back to sleep and Steve must as well, because when he opens his eyes next the room is bright and the bed empty.
He wanders into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes, and finds a folded piece of paper with his name on it next to the coffee pot, which is half full and hopefully still warm (he hates microwaved coffee). He picks up the note.
My Jane has received word of stellar anomalies that will best be observed in Sydney. I am planning on escorting her and the lovely Darcy (damn straight –Darcy), but do not hesitate to contact myself or the ladies if you are in need of our company once more.
P.S. Perhaps in the future, we can “cuddle” in our room… Tony made us a modified bed that should be big enough for the four of us. —Jane
Steve pulls a mug from the cupboard, pours himself a cup of coffee (thankfully still mostly hot), and leans back against the counter. He breathes in the smell of it, looks out the window, and breathes out a sigh.
His shoulders feel loose and his eyes aren’t struggling to stay open. Steve checks the time— nearly noon. He’s taking his first sip when he realizes he didn’t dream of Bucky or the ice all night.
He can’t feel guilty. He won’t let himself.
It causes a small panic in Avengers Tower when the powers-that-be ship Steve down to DC. Stark tries to gift Steve a suit that can be controlled remotely from New York, for when Steve “needs a body to cuddle.” When Steve turns him down, Stark offers to fly down every weekend instead. Steve puts his foot down, saying he’ll manage, thank you. Stark pouts.
Clint offers to keep him company on the drive down in the moving van Stark insisted on renting for Steve’s small amount of belongings, and after some deliberation Steve takes him up on it. They don’t talk about it, but Steve can tell Clint is worried about him too.
It turns out that everyone’s fears are unfounded, because when Steve finally manages to juggle two boxes, a duffle bag, the shield, and his keys in order to unlock and open the door, they step into the apartment to find Natasha already perched on the kitchen counter.
“Shit, Nat!” Clint cries, dropping the box he’s holding. He frowns down at it. “Aw, box.”
Steve cringes and checks the label. CDs. Not too bad then; most of them were gifted to (more like forced upon) him by Tony when he “found out” Steve had “never even seen a record player before” (Steve had owned a goddamn phonograph in the thirties for Christ’s sake).
Natasha unfolds her legs and drops silently to the tile floor.
“Just wanted to let you fellas know I’m transferring to DC too, so you can tell Stark his plan to engineer a fake disaster in order to kidnap Cap and bring him back to New York is unnecessary.”
Steve isn’t sure who that’s directed at, but seeing as this the first he’s heard of such a plan, it’s likely Clint. Either way he’s sure Stark will get the memo.
Clint and Nat share a look that Steve pretends not to see in favor of putting his boxes right on the kitchen floor. He drops the bag as well and sets the shield on top of the whole pile. He’ll sort them into the right rooms later.
When he looks up, Natasha is escorting Clint past him into the hallway to the front door. Steve follows them. Natasha opens the door and Clint is halfway through it when he turns around.
“Don’t worry, Cap,” he says, “there’ll always be a floor for you in the tower. If, you know, the politicians are too much for you to handle.”
Steve wonders if any of the Avengers remember that he was a Senator’s dancing monkey at one point, but doesn’t say anything. The moment he got a bit of leeway, after all, he went against direct orders on the off chance that he could bully his way into and out of Nazi territory to save his best friend. Maybe they have a point.
Natasha closes the door with a click. Steve raises his eyebrows at her. He gets one lazy one in return.
“You know Stark does it because he cares.”
Steve sighs. “I know.”
Natasha nods. “I’ll be seeing you, Rogers.”
Instead of some super-secret spy move (like disappearing when he blinks, which is what he was honestly sort of expecting, because Natasha loves to propagate spy rumors like that), she opens the door and closes it quietly behind herself.
And he does see her.
Natasha determinedly worms her way into his life in a way she hadn’t bothered to before. They eat lunch together when they’re both in the Triskelion (she likes to drag him away from his piles of paperwork to sit side-by-side in the cafeteria). They train together Tuesdays and Thursdays until his missions start up. She knocks on his apartment door at least once a week.
His first mission with the STRIKE team is ostensibly a success, but Steve isn’t sure he can trust Rumlow (he definitely doesn’t like the man, but he knows he doesn’t have to like Rumlow to work with him). Steve tells Fury, too.
Next mission, Natasha drops into the seat next to his on the quinjet.
Sleeping in an unfamiliar room actually seems to help, for the first month or so. He tends to manage a couple hours at a time, three nights a week, and he almost feels… good. Not as good as he did waking up squished between Dr. Foster and Darcy and Thor, but he feels alright.
It lasts until he has to jump from the quinjet and his ‘chute doesn’t deploy.
That night is not pleasant, nor are the ones that follow.
Two and a half weeks pass with no sleep. Steve knows that it’s starting to affect his ability to lead in the field. His paperwork is definitely suffering.
Steve lets himself into his apartment and drops the shield by the shelves. He sighs and rubs his face before peeling the top half of his suit off. He lets it hang around his waist as he walks to the bedroom, not bothering to turn a light on.
Steve flails for— he’s not sure. The light switch. The door. His shield (the goddamn shield that he left in the goddamn hallway—). His uniform top. His dignity.
The bathroom light flicks on, illuminating Natasha’s silhouette. Internally he flails around a bit more for his dignity, even though he knows it’s a lost cause. She may never mention it again, but Steve will always know that Natasha witnessed this unbecoming moment, and she’ll silently hold it over him for the rest of their natural lives.
Steve strips off the rest of his uniform (with one hand making sure his boxer briefs don’t go down with the rest of it). Natasha doesn’t move and Steve doesn’t even pretend to preserve his modesty. It’s not like he didn’t spend all that time in the army, or traveling with a bunch of showgirls who had absolutely no qualms about changing in front of each other. And it’s not like Natasha hasn’t seen a mostly naked male body before.
“You here to talk about the mission?” He asks as he sits on the edge of the bed to pull his boots from his aching feet.
Natasha pads from the bathroom to his dresser, not bothering to turn a light on, which Steve consciously doesn’t comment on. She opens the third drawer and throws a shirt at him, the repeats the process with a pair of sweatpants from the bottom drawer.
“Do you want to talk about the mission, Rogers?”
Steve looks at the clothes in his hands and shakes his head.
Natasha hums and settles on the other side of the bed as he pulls on the shirt and pants. He briefly wishes she grabbed one of the loose long sleeves instead of a workout shirt, but doesn’t want to get up for a new one. He doesn’t think he can.
Steve lifts the covers and Natasha worms her way under them. He follows suit. They face each other, Steve on his right and Natasha on her left, and in the darkness of the room he can barely see the curve of her shoulder.
When did she turn the bathroom light off?
“Goodnight, Steve,” Natasha says. Has she ever called him by his first name? Steve can’t remember.
He closes his eyes, thankful for his teammate and how steady and calm she makes him feel in that moment.
Natasha is a no-good, dirty rotten, traitorous blanket thief.
Steve wakes in the middle of the night because he’s chilly. Not cold, or shivering, but certainly not warm. He peers into the darkness, still facing the other side of the bed. The shadows sharpen and Steve can see the giant burrito blanket that is supposed to be Natasha.
She even took the sheet.
Steve frowns at the Natasha-lump. Should he try to get some of the covers back?
He reaches out and tugs on a loose corner of the comforter. The Natasha-lump shifts threateningly. He retracts his hand. He’ll figure something else out.
Natasha starts to stay over every night they aren’t on a mission. Steve is under no illusions that SHIELD isn’t monitoring his apartment in one way or another, but no one says anything, so either no one cares or Natasha is handling it (he isn’t under any illusions on that one either).
He quickly learns to stash an extra blanket under his side of the bed. Then multiple, because Nat is very good at stealing them out from under him.
They don’t always sleep though.
A lot of nights Steve can’t bring himself to share a bed with someone who isn’t Bucky. Some nights Nat gets a look in her eye that reminds him of the helicarrier and Loki and New York.
Those nights they play cards, or drink in the kitchen (neither one of them gets drunk, but they do it anyway), or sit side-by-side on the couch with the TV off, not saying a word. It’s nice, having someone who understands even a little.
Months pass and Steve watches them go with a comfortable detachment. He isn’t happy, in DC, but he isn’t numb like he often was in New York.
When the Smithsonian exhibit opens, he doesn’t plan on going. Nat convinces him, saying at the very least they could see the collection of his friends’ things that probably got mixed in with Steve’s. He caves.
Nat is curious and attentive as they move through the exhibit, asking questions about most of the things they pass. She wants to know what the Commandos were like, how the seven of them managed to pull off some of the tactical maneuvers they used, if he had ever been to Russia.
She lets him hold her hand tightly when they see the video of Peggy and doesn’t comment. It’s hard to see, made harder when Peggy starts to tear up at the end. He doesn’t sleep that night. But generally, he’s fine. Or better, at least. That doesn’t stop Stark from threatening to stop in for ‘surprise visits,’ or Clint from actually showing up every month or so (he wonders how Clint feels about Nat staying at Steve’s so often, but Clint doesn’t bring it up so Steve doesn’t either), or Thor from sending Steve enthusiastically encouraging texts every time he has service.
It also doesn’t stop Nat from trying to set him up.
They’re in the Triskelion’s cafeteria, Steve hunched over a pile of sandwiches while Nat picks through a bowl of pasta salad (she doesn’t like the tomatoes they put in it, says they’re too sour).
“Nicole from HR is totally your type,” she says, completely ignoring him (and how does she know his type? Does he even have a type, anymore?). “Or there’s Robbie, that cute intern in mailing.”
Steve doesn’t blush. Much.
“Don’t think I didn’t know.” She points her fork at him for a moment before returning her attention to the food. He concludes that Darcy is a horrible gossip. “All I’m saying is that if you find someone I might actually be able to spend some time in my own apartment.”
The ham and cheese turn to cement in his mouth, weighing his tongue down, the bread gluing his teeth together. Steve drops his gaze to the table, cold all over. He hadn’t meant to take over her life—
“Hey,” Nat says, voice soft and soothing, the way it gets when he wakes up from a nightmare of cold-cold-cold. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just want you to be happy, Steve.”
Steve forces himself to meet her eyes and smile. He doesn’t tell her he isn’t sure he can be happy anymore. From the look in her eyes, he thinks she understands anyway.
He isn’t hungry anymore, and checks his cell phone.
“Looks like it’s time I get back to work. I’ll see you later, Nat.”
He leaves the sandwiches behind and she lets him, not commenting on the fact that there’s still twenty minutes left in both of their breaks.
Within five minutes of their first meeting, Sam Wilson has Steve figured out.
It’s your bed, right? It’s too soft.
The softness isn’t the issue, not really, but yeah. His bed. Even with Nat as his regular cuddle buddy there are times when he wakes, shaken and disoriented, not understanding the largeness of his own body, the size and softness of his bed, the slight form of the person next to him, so obviously not Bucky that it stings, even now. There are times when he has to cocoon himself in sheets and pillows and let Nat wrap herself around him (those nights she never steals the blankets). There are still times when he has to sleep on the floor, or not at all, or lock Nat out of his apartment because he doesn’t deserve to be alive and in bed with a beautiful woman (even if it isn’t sexual in the slightest) while Bucky is dead.
Steve doesn’t say any of that. He isn’t sure Sam will understand.
Instead, he gives him a line about marshmallows (which isn’t untrue, but. But—) and is as grateful as he’s been since he found Bucky alive on that table when Nat texts him for extraction.
The Lemurian Star is a fucking mess and he’s never been this goddamn angry at Natasha and SHIELD.
Fury shows him the helicarriers and for a moment Steve wants to go back in the ice, just so he doesn’t have to deal with this.
The thought only lasts for a second, but Steve is still ashamed.
He and Natasha don’t get another chance to share a bed before SHIELD/Hydra is crashing down around their ears and she’s leaving to develop some new covers. He thinks she might have crawled into his hospital bed one night when he was still delirious from pain, both physical and emotional, but he doesn’t ask.
In the wake of everything, Steve is left with a near stranger, a brainwashed-but-somehow-still-alive best friend who is loose in the world, and the feeling that what little of a life he’d managed to construct in this century is in pieces.
Two days after Steve’s released from the hospital, Clint knocks on Sam’s back door, looking about as beat up as Steve had a few days ago.
“Are you okay?” Clint asks. Steve just sort of stares. “Stark sent me. He says he would have come himself, but he has some things he needs to wrap up.”
Steve moves out of the doorway and follows Clint into the kitchen, where Sam is making pancakes for lunch (turns out, that’s one of the few things he can make consistently). Sam gives Steve a look when he sees Clint, but doesn’t say anything, just starts making another bowl of batter.
Clint turns down a shower in favor of collapsing at the kitchen table. Steve joins him and they sit in silence until Sam sets a heaping plate of pancakes on the table. Steve levers himself up to gather the syrup and butter. Sam gets the silverware. Clint snores a little.
He wakes up again when Steve starts doling out the food, and falls upon his plate with the desperation of someone who hasn’t eaten a full meal in several days. Steve doesn’t try to talk to him, instead focusing on his own pancakes.
Eventually Clint leans back and pats his stomach. “My cover was blown mid-mission. Turns out my support was Hydra.” He picks at something stuck in his teeth. “Do you know where Tasha was heading?”
Steve has no idea. He shakes his head.
“Damn,” Clint says, sounding unperturbed. “I’ll have to track down her really old hideouts. Like, Soviet-era bunkers. There’ll probably be cobwebs. Gross.”
Sam laughs a little into his pancakes. Clint turns an appraising look on him that Sam doesn’t seem to notice.
“I’d better head out if I’m gonna have any hope of catching her.” Clint pushes back out of his chair, laying a napkin on the plate (Steve’s pretty sure he didn’t use it). “Nice to meet you, Sam. You make a mean pancake. Keep an eye on this one, will you?” He jabs a thumb in Steve’s direction. “Doesn’t have a lick of common sense.”
Sam laughs again, and stands to shake Clint’s hand. “I’ve noticed.”
Steve elects to ignore them. He hugs Clint and sees him to the door. He’s still watching Clint when he trips on a crack in the driveway and goes sprawling.
Objectively, Steve knows that Clint is a highly talented special agent and not a half bad spy, but he hopes he’ll find Nat before he injures himself further.
Steve’s still shaking his head when he goes back to the kitchen, where Sam is standing with his arms crossed.
“I am not running a superhero bed and breakfast, Cap.”
Steve just grins and gives him a what’s a guy to do? look that had most of Brooklyn and the Allied forces eating out of the palm of his hand, once upon a time. Sam looks less than impressed.
He isn’t sure what it means that Sam is so willing to hunt a ghost with him after so little time. (Is it the uniform that inspires such blinding confidence in near strangers? Or is it actually him, Steve?) Regardless, he’s not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. From what he’s seen Sam is a good man, and has already proven himself more than some of the people he’d been working with for months at SHIELD.
Steve doesn’t bring up the cuddle buddy thing for obvious reasons, though he’s almost sure Nat took Sam aside and told him about it before she left. Sam doesn’t push the issue one way or another.
They start their road trip with a rented minivan (Sam’s still a little touchy about driving and says he picked the minivan because it has extra room for supplies. Steve think’s it’s because he won’t be too torn up if it’s destroyed) and separate rooms whenever they stay at a hotel. Despite what he managed to donate to charities before his handlers at SHIELD caught on and advised him against it (now, he’s left wondering if they were actually Hydra too, and didn’t want Captain America donating his money to homeless LGBT+ youth and other similar causes; assholes), Steve still has a lot of money, so he foots the bill.
Knowing that Bucky’s alive—and has been in Hydra’s hands ever since he fell—negates any advantage he would have gotten from sleeping somewhere new. The guilt and self-loathing manifest in nightmares of cold and ice and metal arms that keep him up all night, and after a week he stops trying.
It takes them nearly that long to decipher the file Nat gave them while simultaneously tracking down locations where Bucky might have gone. With all of the files that Nat dumped on the internet, it’s a slow and frustrating process. They drive to a tiny town in Florida to have something to do and set up shop there for a few days until they have a few definite locations.
The first Hydra base—which is really just a storage warehouse in Georgia—that they hit is in ruins by the time they get there. The second one, a safe house in west Tennessee, is still smoking.
Sam never says anything, even though Steve knows he looks terrible and probably isn’t eating as much as he should. He lets Steve nap in the car, which means he drives far more than his fair share, but since it’s the only sleep Steve’s getting at this point, he doesn’t say anything. Some days Steve just crawls in the back of the van and curls up amid their gear for an hour or two. He wonders if that’s the real reason Sam insisted on a minivan.
It isn’t until he nearly falls asleep at the wheel twice in quick succession that Sam gets a stubborn furrow in his brow.
When they stop for the night, Sam asks for one room with two beds. Steve trails in his wake as he searches for the room with a worrying amount of intent.
“I’m going to grab some things from the car,” Sam says. He closes the door behind himself. Steve is left sort of clutching the straps of his shield bag and staring at the two beds.
He’s not sure what the convention for picking a bed is in the 21st century. In the army—on the rare occasion the Commandos got bunks and he was with them instead of in a private room—it was first come first serve, and the poor sucker who was last was usually left trudging to the bunk in the far back because no one else could be assed to walk that far. Is it the same now? Sam was in the Air Force. They probably work the same way.
But what if Sam has a thing for being closer to the door? What if he hates air conditioning and wants to be as far from the unit as he can manage? What if—
Steve doesn’t quite realize he’s stalling (or working himself up to some sort of anxiety attack, even through his exhaustion) until Sam comes back and Steve is still standing there, now cradling his shield to his chest.
Sam lays a hand on his arm briefly before moving to put his own bag on the far bed.
Steve can almost feel the tension drain out of him. He drops the shield on the bed and unslings his other duffle back from his shoulder.
Sam uses the bathroom first, so Steve changes into his favorite long sleeve and a pair of sweats that should probably be washed. After Sam clears out of the bathroom, Steve brushes his teeth and splashes some water on his face. He knows he needs to shower, but the exhaustion is dragging at his limbs. He’ll do it in the morning.
The light in the room is already off when he opens the door, so he carefully makes his way to the bed. The shield is where he left it, but he doesn’t care enough to put it on the floor. This won’t be the first time he slept with it as his only company.
Sam is silent as Steve gets under the covers. He lies facing the middle of the bed, and, beyond, Sam. Once Steve is settled, the only sound is the rattle of the air-conditioning unit.
When that shuts off, the sound of his own breath is deafening.
“Cap—Steve,” Sam says into the darkness. He sounds tired. “I know this is gonna be hard for you, that knowing your friend’s alive is probably making everything worse.”
Steve doesn’t say anything.
“I’m not gonna be your therapist. That’s not what I’m here for. But I will be your friend. And if that involves sharing a bed or a room or a minivan, I will. I got your back, man.”
Sam hums in response. The air-conditioning kicks on then, so Steve rolls onto his other side, the door to his front and Sam at his back.
He manages nearly a full night of sleep. The rest of the time he spends staring at the ceiling, wondering what he’d done to deserve such incredible people in his life.
Their search for Bucky—and, by extension, the remainders of Hydra in the country—quickly evolves into a serpentine road trip of the US after the sixth Hydra post they come across has been torn to shreds and there are still no signs of Bucky. They take their time, stopping whenever they want to see random roadside attractions, lingering in sad mom and pop diners that were last decorated sometime in the sixties, staying a few nights in any city or town that catches their eye.
Sam sticks to what he said the first night they shared a room. He’s a great friend (with an incredible taste in music, so Steve quickly cedes radio rights), and doesn’t try to be Steve’s shrink.
They’re somewhere in the Midwest—all they’ve seen for days was the flat stretch of cornfields, spreading out in all directions—when, after Sam requests a room with two doubles, the desk clerk says, without glancing up from his computer screen, “You know, rooms with one bed are cheaper.”
Sam looks at Steve. Steve looks at the counter. It isn’t like his bank account is suffering or anything, even after over three weeks of staying in alright hotels and eating on the road. He realizes that Sam is offering the opportunity for Steve to get a new cuddle buddy on his own terms.
Steve has no doubts that Sam is completely aware for the fact that he’s pretty much stopped sleeping outside of the minivan again (he tries to be quiet when the nightmares wake him, but sometimes he can’t keep himself from crying out when he wakes from another dream of Bucky falling, or the Red Skull dissolving in the face of the tesseract’s power, or Colonel Phillips telling him he’s not enough before shifting into Stark, who says, over and over, that everything special about Steve came from a bottle).
“Sure,” he says, “may as well save some money.”
Sam claps him on the back and takes the keys from the desk clerk, whose gaze still hasn’t left his monitor.
It’s sort of weird to open the door and see only one bed. Sam doesn’t seem bothered. While he uses the bathroom, Steve sets his stuff on the right side of the bed and changes.
He can’t remember, now, which side of the bed Bucky slept on.
When the lights are off and they’re both in bed—Steve on his right side, facing the middle, and Sam on his back—it’s still bothering him. How could he not remember something like that, after they spent so many years side by side?
Steve drifts off to sleep, uneasy.
He wakes from a nightmare of Bucky going down in the Valkyrie with him, but Steve being the only one to wake up in SHIELD headquarters, a nurse telling him they had to dispose of the spare.
He’s sweaty and trembling all over, and it takes him a moment to notice that Sam’s hand is on his face. Steve squints, trying to see past the finger nearly poking him in the eye.
Sam, as far as he can tell, is fast asleep still and laying spread eagle across most of the bed. His hand is in Steve’s face and his leg is shoved mostly under Steve’s knee.
Steve tries to roll away from the hand only to find he’s already at the edge of the bed.
He sighs. Figures. At least Sam doesn’t snore.
A week later, Steve discovers that Sam does in fact snore, but only, apparently, when drunk.
When they reach the Grand Canyon, Steve refuses to get out of the minivan. If he can’t see it with Bucky, then he won’t see it at all.
One night, when they’re in Oregon and have been traveling together for two months, Steve turns the lights off and Sam sighs.
“We gotta talk about this.”
Steve grunts noncommittally, and gets the feeling Sam is giving the ceiling an unimpressed stare.
“You know,” Sam says, his voice soft, “it took me a long time to forgive myself after Riley died. I did a lot of stupid things before I realized I wasn’t helping anyone, let alone myself. Riley may have been a dumbass sometimes, but he would’ve kicked my ass if he’s seen the way I was acting.”
Steve remembers thinking, the first time they met, that Sam wouldn’t understand what he was going through. And the next time, at the VA, Sam told him about Riley, but Steve still hadn’t put two and two together.
Sam had watched, helpless, as his wingman fell to his death. And unlike Bucky, Riley stayed dead.
He knows what Sam is trying to say.
“Alright, Sam,” he says. “I’ll work on it.”
He tries to remember how good of a friend Sam is when he wakes up around 3 AM to a foot in his face.
Sam’s phone gets a text from an unknown number when they cross the Oregon-California border.
Come visit me in Malibu. I have new toys for everyone involved.
Steve only has to look it over once to know it’s Stark. They figure they’ll go along with it.
The take their time in California, enjoying the final leg of their trip. Steve isn’t exactly sure what the situation is with Sam’s job, but the one time he tries to ask Sam only says he’s got it covered.
When they get to Malibu, Sam gets another text with directions to the most ridiculously opulent house Steve has ever seen.
“This is crazy,” Sam mutters, clutching the steering wheel, as they stare at the gate while it opens. “First Captain America and Black Widow show up at my house. Then Hawkeye. Now I’m going to spend the afternoon with Ironman.” He peers at Steve, who doesn’t have the heart to tell him it’ll probably be more than a single afternoon, knowing Stark. “Plus, Iron Man texted me. Iron Man, Steve. Do superheroes not have any personal boundaries?”
Steve laughs as they park. “Stark definitely doesn’t.”
The minivan is a little worse for wear after they’ve dragged it back and forth across the country, and it looks even shabbier next to Stark’s cars, which Sam just barely refrains from running his hands over.
JARVIS opens the front doors for them. Sam whistles when JARVIS says, “Captain Rogers, Mister Wilson, welcome to the recently renovated Malibu house.”
That’s an understatement if he ever heard one. Steve still remembers seeing the house crash into the ocean below, again and again in slow motion on the news. He wonders how they managed to rebuild so soon, but thinks of how fast Avengers Tower was fixed after Loki. Maybe it’s just a Stark thing.
The house is certainly something though, there’s no denying that.
JARVIS directs them down the stairs to a work room very similar to the one Steve saw in Avengers Tower, only with more cars.
The glass door slides open. One of the robots—DUM-E, maybe—lifts its claw and waves. Steve waves back.
Stark looks up from whatever he’s been doing. There’s grease all over his cheek.
“Capsicle!” He yells. “Ah, and flappy bird. Welcome to my humble abode.”
Sam lets out a disbelieving sound. Steve grins at him and mouths, “You get used to it.”
Sam gives him a look that he thinks means which part?
Stark pulls off his gloves and waves them over to a series of tables all covered with sheets.
“Like I said, I have presents. Think of it as a thank you for toppling an evil agency—again, in your case, Grandpa. First, for our resident bird,” Stark steps up to the first table and pulls off the sheet with a flourish.
It’s a new pair of wings.
Steve claps Stark on the shoulder as they watch Sam gape and ghost his hands over the suit.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve says.
Stark scoffs. “Don’t thank me yet.” He steps up to the second table and gestures. “Now for you, Cap. I wasn’t sure what to do at first. I asked myself, what do you get for the man who already has a perfect body and the world’s largest metal Frisbee?”
Steve chuckles a bit, but stops when Stark pulls the sheet away.
The table holds only a small book, which, on closer inspection, is a photo album. He flips through the pages and is shocked to see pictures of the Avengers intermingled with ones of Peggy, Bucky, Howard, and the Commandos, both before, during, and after the war. There’s even one of Erskine and Phillips, the doctor smiling and the colonel scowling at something off camera.
He can vaguely hear Stark in the background, saying, “Pepper helped a lot on this one actually. Turns out she has a lot of contacts in the antiques community. Some of them are copies, but most people could be convinced—”
But then he stops listening, because the very last photo in the album is of a petite blonde woman, cradling a tiny baby to her chest while standing on the steps of a building. She has a stubborn set to her jaw that’s achingly familiar.
It takes a while for him to emerge from the fog that seeing his Ma again creates, but when he does it’s to see Sam strapping on his new wings while Stark flits around enthusiastically, explaining all the upgrades.
Steve goes to stand by Stark as the wings unfurl. He bumps Stark with an elbow and gets jostled in return. They watch Sam twist and flex while on the ground for a minute before Steve asks, “What’s on the third table?”
“A new, lighter arm for Robocop, when he shows up. If he wants it.” Steve has to look at the ground to hide any tears that might fall. “I took a look at the specs in the files Widow dumped. The Soviets really did a number on him, and Hydra only made things worse. It’s the least I can do.”
Steve glances at him from the corner of his eye. Not only is that a lie, but if Stark dug deep enough into Nat’s data dump to find the specs of the arm, he surely saw the list of confirmed kills. He thinks about asking Stark, but figures he wouldn’t say either way.
Sam lands in a crouch from where he was hovering a few feet above the ground.
“Anyone feeling pizza? I’m starving.”
Later, when Stark gets a glimpse of their trusty minivan, he insists on calling the rental company to outright buy it so they can burn it or bury it at sea, or something equally as dramatic.
Steve is offended on behalf of the poor thing.
He and Sam stand to one side and watch Stark rant about the state of the oil dipstick. Sam says, “It’s a little dusty.”
That’s an understatement. Steve can’t even remember what the original color was at this point.
Stark stomps over. “I am putting out a national warning: Captain America and his feathery sidekick aren’t allowed to rent a vehicle. Ever.”
They laugh at him. They learned very quickly that if Steve’s guileless I’m Captain America and I need your help face didn’t get people, Sam’s natural charm usually did the trick; if they want to rent a car, they’ll manage.
That night, as revenge, Stark insists on all three of them squashing into Stark’s monstrous bed. Steve insists that Stark goes in the middle, in the hopes that his and Sam’s natural tendencies to sprawl will cancel each other out.
Instead, he wakes sometime around dawn with at least five limbs thrown over him (someone’s elbow is inching dangerously close to his groin), as well as incoherent mumbling and snoring (they didn’t even drink last night).
He shakes his head and stares at the ceiling until Stark jerks awake with a yell, which causes a chain reaction of jumps and lurches. The rogue elbow finds its mark and he winces, but all in all, Steve doesn’t mind too much. Even if his friends are ridiculous and have really pointy joints.
Stark drops them off in DC via his private jet on his way back to New York. He gives Steve a look and says something to Sam that sounds suspiciously like floor of the tower as they go to leave.
They’ve been back in DC for twelve days when Steve decides he’s going to move back to New York. He has a whole list of reasons as to why it makes the most sense, logistically, but all Sam says when he tells him is, “alright.”
Steve stares at him. They’re in the kitchen, making sandwiches for lunch.
Sam is decidedly unimpressed. “What, Steve?” Did you think I would say no?” Steve shrugs. “I’m not your minder. You’re a grown man, you can do what you want. If going back to New York is what you want to do, I’ll support you.”
Sam points a butter knife covered in mustard at him. “I just want to make sure you aren’t getting your hopes too high.”
Before he boards his train to New York, the shield and a single bag in tow (he didn’t bother with most of the things in the apartment where Fury was shot), Sam pulls him into a hug and says, “I’ll always be here if you need me. I’m gonna miss you.” As the train reaches New York, Steve finally admits that Sam was right, about hope. Steve was hoping— well. He isn’t sure what he had been hoping. DC is an okay city and Sam is the best friend he could ask for in this century, but it isn’t home.
Turns out that Avengers Tower doesn’t feel much like home anymore either, especially with Nat and Clint gone and Thor spending nearly all his time planetside with Dr. Foster and Darcy. Pepper is busy running Stark Industries and keeping Stark from trying to help. Dr. Banner hardly ever leaves his lab.
The common floors feel empty and almost haunted without his team filling them to the brim with their antics.
So, with JARVIS’s help, he finds an apartment in Brooklyn that’s out of the way and sort of rundown. Brooklyn is almost nothing like what he remembers, but his shabby third floor walk-up feels familiar in a way that Stark’s grand tower and Sam’s comfortable town house didn’t.
The apartment has two bedrooms and the smallest bathroom he’s seen since before the war, but after two weeks Steve convinces his landlord to let him take out part of the wall that divides the kitchen from the living-slash-dining room. He throws himself into the project, and by the time he’s done there’s one large great room with the kitchen on one side and the TV on the other. It’s satisfying work, and he’s proud of the end result, even if the great room could use more windows (since there’s another apartment that shares that wall, however, he’s pretty sure the landlord won’t agree to that idea).
Steve gets reacquainted with Brooklyn. He runs every morning and volunteers his afternoons at the local hospitals and libraries. Sam calls him Sundays around noon, when Sam’s church gets out, and he washes his dishes by hand every night. Tuesdays are for laundry runs, unless there’s an emergency—in that case, he uses the tiny unit that Jean, the nice young woman with two small kids that lives below him, has.
(He may or may not moonlight as Captain America when there’s trouble in the boroughs, but since there’s nobody left to stop him, he figures it won’t harm anyone.)
Steve paints the walls with colors that remind him of the 1930s, and Bucky’s blue jacket, and Peggy’s lipstick. He picks out furniture slowly, a piece or two from every little second-hand shop he visits. He especially likes the stores that refurbish old items—his entire set of dining room chairs is composed of mismatched paint and upholstery. Once the living room area is complete, the photo album from Stark gets a place of honor on the coffee table.
Months pass, until one morning he wakes and realizes two things: though he sometimes wakes feeling cold all over, as though he had just frozen in the Valkyrie again, he can’t remember the last real nightmare he had; and he’s lonely.
So lonely, in fact, he adds swinging by the tower at least once a week to his routine. Even if none of the others are in, JARVIS is an exceptional conversationalist.
Some days, it feels like he’s holding his breath in anticipation, and he’s not sure why, but those are the nights he tends to dream or not sleep at all.
Winter sneaks up on him, and before he knows it Christmas is right around the corner. Stark and Pepper decide to vacation in Malibu for the holiday week, and at the last moment they drag Dr. Banner along with them. Thor, Dr. Foster, and Darcy visit Asgard. Sam is with his extended family in Harlem and he offers for Steve to come with him, but Steve figures he’s already imposed on Sam enough and turns him down. Clint and Nat are nowhere to be found.
Steve spends the day by himself, his only company the tiny fake Christmas tree Sam had mailed to him the week before. He contemplates visiting his ma’s grave, but the thought of what she’d have to say if she caught him outside in December for an extended period of time makes him cringe. Instead he stays home and opens Stark’s photo album to the last page.
New Year’s Eve, Nat and Clint appear on his couch. Steve absolutely does not jump or drop his bowl of popcorn. Much.
(How they got in he isn’t sure, because he was between the couch and the front door while he was making the popcorn, but he wouldn’t put it past them to have climbed through his window while he was distracted.)
Clint launches himself at Steve before he can say anything. He spits out a mouthful of hair and looks at Nat over Clint’s head.
She looks good, so he tells her so. Her hair is sandy blonde and boyishly short and in her face. It makes her look impish and young.
Steve pats Clint on the back a few times then untangles from him. He asks, “What are you guys doing here?” as he moves to hug Nat. She rubs his back a little, and when they separate he ruffles her hair. She glares, but it’s harmless and they both know it.
“A little bird told us you had Christmas alone, so we decided to drop in,” Clint says. He pauses, looking peeved as he realizes he used a Stark-level bird reference.
“And by that he means JARVIS,” Nat adds.
Steve, a little bemused, lets Clint steer him onto the couch while Nat salvages the popcorn bowl. They settle on either side of him, Nat picking up the remote to flip through the channels. Clint gives his input on everything, which she ignores. She eventually picks a movie that Steve doesn’t recognize, but as he watches he’s pretty sure it’s some sort of extremely clichéd romcom.
Nat curls into his side a little while Clint leans back against the arm of the couch and puts his feet in Steve’s lap.
He falls asleep like that, content with his teammates beside him. He wakes alone, a note on the kitchen counter the only remainder of the two (it tells him to check his phone, which has a new background of Nat taking a selfie with Clint and Steve behind her, still asleep. He smiles and leaves it—it’s certainly better than the generic “patriotic” one Stark had set months ago in Malibu), and finds he doesn’t mind the emptiness of his apartment quite so much anymore.
Two days after the New Year, Steve opens his apartment door to start his morning jog and comes face-to-face with Bucky.
Bucky looks—well, he looks like Steve imagines he might’ve had he grown up in this century. His hair is still long and pulled back in a ponytail so messy half of it is hanging loose. His clothes look a little worse for wear, but not any more so than what most of the twenty-somethings wear now, and he’s wearing a glove on his left hand.
He has a cut above his right eyebrow. When Steve finally looks him in the eye he sees the flat expression and realizes this maybe won’t be a happy reunion. He squares off to the door, just in case.
The corner of Bucky’s mouth twitches like it always used to.
Steve has to blink a few times before he can move out of the doorway to let Bucky in.
He’s imagined this moment a thousand times since the bridge, but now that he has Bucky in front of him, he has no idea what to do.
Bucky walks down the front hall and toward the far end of the great room, where the couch is. Steve trails in his wake. He sits on the couch, leaving Steve standing with no idea what to do. He could almost laugh at his life if it wasn’t his.
“Can I get you anything to eat or drink?” Steve manages to ask. Bucky shakes his head, so Steve sits on the armchair, which (hopefully) is a neutral and nonthreatening distance from the couch.
Then he just looks at Bucky, who looks mildly amused.
“Bucky—” Steve says, and any expression at all on Bucky’s face shuts down. He’s terrifyingly blank.
“That’s not my name,” Bucky says, and his familiar voice is so flat it’s like salt on an open wound. Then his words catch up to Steve, and they make that previous pain feel like a mostly healed bug bite.
“I’m sorry, Bu—” Steve catches himself and swallows the rest of the name down. “What would you like me to call you instead?”
Bucky is silent. Steve bunches his fists up in his lap and stares at them. He can hear people in the street and a group of children shrieking in laughter, a sound that hasn’t changed since their days growing up in Brooklyn. He wonders if Bucky can hear it too.
He wonders if Bucky even remembers their Brooklyn.
“Barnes,” Bucky—Barnes says finally. “Call me Barnes. Please.”
Steve nods and doesn’t comment on the choice. He keeps his eyes on his hands.
The children move on and all Steve can hear now is their breathing—his own short and just barely uneven, Barnes’ long and carefully measured.
“Do you—” Steve stops and clears his throat. “Is there anything you need?” He desperately wants to ask if there’s anything he can do to help, but he isn’t sure it will be taken well.
He can’t see Barnes’ face, won’t let himself look, so Steve isn’t quite sure what expression Barnes is making when he asks, “Can I stay here?”
Steve doesn’t hesitate to say yes.
He doesn’t go for his morning run, instead retreating to his favorite little reading nook in the nearest library, the one filled with old armchairs and the small table with a decorative lamp on it. He’s not sure leaving Barnes alone in his apartment is a good idea—though he’s more worried about Barnes leaving than any damage he might inflict on Steve’s things—but he needs to call Sam and he can’t do it in the apartment unless he wants to risk Barnes hearing everything that’s said.
Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t answer the first time he calls him, nor the second or third times he tries.
Steve drops the phone into his lap and buries his face in his hands. He breathes and breathes and tries to decide what to do.
His supposed-to-be-dead best friend is in his apartment right now, refusing to answer to the name Steve’s called him since the day they first met, when Bucky stuck out his hand and said the name’s James Buchanan Barnes and Steve, all of four years old and already plenty stubborn, had decided there were too many Jameses in Sunday school and called him Bucky instead. Steve has no idea what Barnes remembers of the past—if anything at all—and doesn’t know how to ask.
More pressingly, a part of him (that sounds like Sam and Nat rolled into one) thinks, Steve has no idea how dangerous Barnes is, or how much of Hydra’s programming is still floating around in Barnes’ brain. Old Mr. Mills from next door certainly won’t stand a chance against the Winter Soldier; nor, for that matter, would anyone else in his apartment building.
Maybe he falls asleep or maybe he zones out so badly he completely loses himself to the static in his mind, but when he comes back to himself it’s because someone is shaking his shoulder.
He looks up and sees, against all odds, Pepper standing in front of him, looking as impeccable as always in a cream colored sweater dress. Steve gapes at her for a moment.
“I thought you were in Malibu,” he finally says.
Pepper gives him a thin smile and settles into the armchair next to his, crossing her legs and smoothing out a wrinkle in her dress. She says, “Tony’s had JARVIS running scans throughout the city for the—” she gives a tiny cough, “—Sergeant Barnes since you moved here. We were flying back today when he received an alert that Sergeant Barnes was on your block.”
Steve can only imagine Stark’s reaction to that. Pepper inclines her head at him like she knows what he’s thinking.
“JARVIS then told us you had left and suggested a few places you may be.” She looks down at her lap for a moment. “Right now, Tony is outside of your apartment building. Well, hovering above it. In the suit, in case you need help.”
Pepper gives an apologetic smile.
“I know Tony can be a bit much,” she says. “But he means well. And, since we have no idea what sort of state Sergeant Barnes is in, his caution is probably a good thing.”
Steve decides not to tell her that he’s already agreed to let Barnes stay with him. Knowing Stark, he’d send a suit to the apartment to act as a watchdog.
Pepper leans forward and takes one of his hands in both of hers. “Steve, we’re just looking out for you. Are you okay?”
He smiles and meets her eyes and says, “Everything will be fine. I promise.”
She looks at him like she knows he’s lying, but she doesn’t say anything else about it.
They sit together for a minute. Steve can’t hear anything but the soft hum of the air system, heating the old building as well as it can. Pepper’s eyes dart from the art on the wall to the shelves that close off the nook from the rest of the library.
Eventually, she says, “I could give you a pep talk, but that’s not an ability I inherited along with Stark Industries.” She laughs under her breath, and it’s derisive enough that it’s probably at herself. “So I’ll just say this. Tony—when he was dying from the arc reactor, he lashed out. In ways I didn’t usually understand, then. But now—” She takes a deep breath. Her hands are clutching his.
“It’s alright,” he cuts her off. Her grip on his hand relaxes somewhat. “I understand.”
Pepper tilts her head and frowns at him, more confused than upset.
“Just remember that sometimes you can’t save someone,” she says. “No matter how hard you try.”
Steve smiles at her as she stands to leave. They say goodbye and promise to do dinner at the tower sometime. She takes two steps and he adds, “You can tell Stark to stand down. I’ve got this.”
She looks at him over her shoulder for a moment and doesn’t say anything before she turns and walks away.
He checks his phone, but there’s nothing from Sam.
Steve walks home in silence, listening to the cars passing by and the people around him going about their business. He wishes, somewhat hysterically, that it would snow.
He trudges up the steps to his apartment and opens the door.
Barnes is on the couch where Steve left him, but, Steve realizes when he walks around to the front of it, he’s now asleep.
Steve leaves him there and goes to grab a clean set of sheets, glad he had listened when JARVIS suggested a two-bedroom apartment. He changes the sheets on the guest bed, alert for any noises from the great room, but there’s nothing. He isn’t sure if it’s because Barnes is still asleep or if he’s just that quiet now.
(Before the war, Bucky was as quiet as a bull in a china shop.)
When he starts fluffing the throw pillows that Pepper helped him pick out, Steve knows he’s stalling.
He walks back to the great room, intending to put the pile of dirty sheets he’s clutching in the laundry bag that lives in the back of his closet.
The couch is empty.
Steve crushes his instinctive urge to tear through his apartment until he finds Barnes. Instead, he puts the old sheets in the laundry bag and counts to ten in his head. Then he checks the bathroom, the pantry in the kitchen, the hall closet by the front door.
Barnes is nowhere to be found.
Steve sits on the freshly made bed in the guest room and buries his face in his hands.
Against his better judgement, Steve tries to sleep that night.
He wakes from a nightmare where Bucky was the one to fall from the helicarrier and Steve couldn’t find him through the murk of the Potomac.
Steve throws himself out of the bed and curls his body into the corner. He draws his legs up to his chest, wraps his hands around his ankles, and shudders into his knees. Steve can feel the tightness catching in his throat. He clenches his jaw and tries not to make a sound. The closet door hinge digs into his back. He presses himself into the pain.
Something scrapes on the wooden floor.
One of the first things he did when he moved in was to make sure all of the doors in the apartment made noise, exactly for this situation.
Someone is in his home.
He tries to remember where he left his shield, but his mind is full of the river. He keeps seeing glinting fingers disappearing into the water’s depth.
Someone is in the apartment. He needs to find the shield.
“Hey pal, take a breath for me.” Barnes’ voice is soft and familiar.
Steve grits his teeth until he’s sure he won’t say something he’ll regret, and then lets out a breath. Smooth, almost warm leather touches his bare shin before a hand wraps around his calf. He wonders if Barnes’ metal arm puts off enough heat to seep through the glove. Or maybe Barnes’ had had his hand tucked in close to his body earlier.
“That’s it,” Barnes says. “Can you look at me?”
Steve lifts his head and tries to make out Barnes’ features. It’s too dark, but he imagines he can anyway. He says, “You left.”
Barnes makes a quiet sound. He doesn’t ask what Steve means, which is good, because Steve isn’t sure what he meant.
Barnes lightly squeezes Steve’s calf before he lets go and stands up. He doesn’t offer Steve a hand. Steve stands on his own and watches Barnes walk from the room.
When Steve wakes in the morning, he almost feels like he’s floating in the Potomac again, detached from the world and out of air. He dresses for his run, adding a hat when the weather app warns for the possibility or snow.
The couch is empty, as is the kitchen, but the door to the guest room is closed, so Steve allows himself to hope as he quietly closes the front door behind him.
He runs faster and longer than he has since they thawed him, until he can feel every part of his body straining. Then he runs back to his little apartment in Brooklyn.
Steve is limping a little as he climbs the stairs to the third floor. He thinks he may have pulled something in his left knee, and he idly wonders how long it will take to heal.
Barnes is sitting at the kitchen table with two cups of coffee in front of him. Steve’s hurt knee almost gives out. He sits down across from Barnes slowly, both for the sake of Barnes and his own aching body.
They sit. Barnes doesn’t say anything, only reaches for his coffee mug. Steve follows suit. Barnes takes a sip and says, “I hate microwaved coffee.”
Steve smiles into his mug.
“What made you think it was a good idea to run to the Bronx in the middle of winter?”
Steve stops smiling.
“Just… burning off some steam,” he says, and carefully puts his coffee mug back on the table. He drops his hand to his legs.
“Some steam.” Barnes’ stare is as flat as his voice when Steve chances a look at him. “Was this related to me? Because I can—”
“No,” Steve says. He doesn’t know what Barnes was about to offer, but he doesn’t want to. “It had nothing to do with you.”
Barnes is still staring at him, both hands wrapped around his coffee, like he knows Steve is lying. Maybe he does, but Steve has no way to tell.
They don’t say anything; the only sounds are the hum of the refrigerator and the slow, deliberate sips as Barnes drinks his coffee. Steve doesn’t drink his, even though he knows it’s rude.
“So,” Barnes says, setting his mug on the table in front of himself, “What happened last night?”
Steve deliberately doesn’t tense, only grips his thighs under the table. Barnes reaches out and picks up Steve’s abandoned coffee. He takes a sip and makes a face at the cup.
“It was nothing,” Steve lies.
Barnes looks up from the mug and pins Steve in place with his gaze.
“Just a nightmare,” Steve amends.
Barnes nods absently. Steve wonders if he remembers back during the war, when the Commandos stood by him, despite his nightmares and trouble sleeping. He breaks eye contact, in case Barnes can understand what he’s thinking.
Whether he can still read Steve or not, Barnes stands then, picking up both coffee mugs and placing them in the sink. He walks down the hall and out of sight. Steve hears the guest room door close.
Steve sits at the table for long time, but Barnes doesn’t make another sound. Finally, he gets up and walks to the bathroom to shower.
His knee is perfectly fine.
Barnes disappears for a week and two days.
Steve doesn’t sleep.
It’s Sunday, so Steve shortens his run and sits at the desk in front of the only window in the great room, waiting for Sam to call.
When he does, Steve pointedly doesn’t talk about Barnes and Sam, bless him, doesn’t bring him up.
“So have you picked up any hobbies?” Sam asks. He’s been encouraging Steve to do something ever since the aftermath of DC settled enough for him to properly address Steve’s I don’t know.
Sam doesn’t count the libraries and hospitals as a hobby, because he says Steve spending his time being selfless is too intrinsically tied with Captain America at this point for Steve to truly know if he enjoys it. Steve wants to tell him that he’ll always want to help people, Captain America or not, but doesn’t argue.
Steve stares at the scratched surface of the desktop. In the waste bin tucked under the desk are exactly two crumpled attempts at sketches like he used to draw before. One was of Peggy, and the other Bucky— or was supposed to be, but Steve couldn’t keep Bucky from looking like Barnes and vice versa.
“No,” he sighs. “I tried drawing again.” Sam makes an encouraging noise. “It’s not the same. I can’t— my fingers.” Steve flexes his hands, not wanting to say it felt like he didn’t even know how to draw anymore.
“I’ve heard drawing is like any other skill,” Sam says. “You have to practice regularly for it to actually be a skill.”
Steve makes a noncommittal sound and asks Sam about his nieces. Sam is quick to change topics. Steve wonders what he did to deserve such a friend.
Barnes is still gone the next day, but there is a large collection of art supplies on the coffee table surrounding the photo album, which is open to a rather striking picture of Natasha with long, deep auburn hair.
Steve sits on the couch and laughs and cries in turn.
One night, not long after the art supplies appear, once he’s finished washing the dishes, Steve shuffles to his room with the intention of spending the night on the floor beneath the window with a book and a blanket.
When he pushes the door open, Barnes is sitting on the edge of his bed.
Something in his chest eases, a tightness he didn’t even know was there.
Steve hesitates in the doorway until Barnes gives him a look, and then he turns to pull clothes out of his dresser. He changes in silence, not bothering to leave the room. Either Barnes remembers their past and has seen this all before, or he’s a highly trained assassin. Some skin won’t rattle him one way or another.
He turns back. Barnes is now reclining against the headboard. Steve didn’t hear him move.
Barnes pats the bed next to himself, which, thankfully, is on his left. Steve climbs onto the bed and leans back on the headboard too. He doesn’t look at Barnes.
They don’t move for the rest of the night; the only sounds are those of Brooklyn at night drifting up from the street.
Steve maybe dozes for a bit right before dawn, and when he wakes Barnes is gone.
They continue on this way, with Barnes leaving for a week or so and Steve not sleeping when he’s gone. Then Barnes will show up in Steve’s bedroom and they’ll invariably fall asleep without saying a word.
Steve hates it, but at least Barnes is alive, and willing to see Steve.
When Barnes isn’t around, Steve tries to stick to his routine. He runs, volunteers, washes his dishes, and talks to Sam every Sunday.
He still feels like he’s holding his breath most days, but at least now he knows why.
Thor, Dr. Foster, and Darcy appear on his doorstep about a week before Valentine’s Day (this is because, Darcy informs him as he cooks spaghetti and she shapes the meatballs that she made him leave the kitchen for when she was mixing them, they wanted to check in on everyone before they all go to Asgard for Valentine’s Day proper).
The four of them laugh and share stories at his tiny, refurbished table, seemingly made even tinier by Thor’s massive bulk. They fall asleep watching TV, Darcy in one armchair and Steve in the other with Thor sprawled out on the couch and Dr. Foster cradled against his chest.
Steve doesn’t tell them about Barnes.
They leave the next day, with Thor promising that they’ll be in New York for Steve’s birthday at the very least.
He tries to draw after they’re gone, hoping to capture their happiness at being together on paper and keep it with him now that he’s alone again.
The pencil sits awkwardly in his grasp, his hands feel too large and clumsy. He rips the paper in his frustration when he tries to erase a bad line, so he crumples up the sketch and puts it in the waste bin under the desk.
It’s nearly St. Patrick’s Day (his ma’s favorite holiday, to see their heritage celebrated, even if just once a year) before Steve realizes what’s been happening.
He’s lying in bed, flat on his back with Barnes curled up next to him. There’s still a noticeable gap between them, but Steve could touch Barnes if he reached out.
Steve thinks back on that first night, when they both sat stiffly at the head of the bed.
Then he counts the nights and realizes it’s only been three days since he last saw Barnes.
And it dawns on Steve. Barnes has been easing them into whatever arrangement this has become. Whether it’s for Steve’s sake or Barnes’, Steve isn’t sure, but he’s too deliriously happy in that moment to care.
Steve still gets nightmares, still has times when he can’t sleep, even with Barnes at his side, undeniable proof that his best friend isn’t dead.
He still sees Bucky falling, or being tortured by both Dr. Erskine and Zola. He sees the Winter Soldier killing the Avengers one-by-one, or sitting blankly in one of those fucking chairs Steve and Sam had stumbled upon in the basement of the abandoned safe house in Tennessee. He opens the door to see Barnes bled out and dead on the mat Pepper gave him as a housewarming gift.
But by far the worst thing is when Barnes dreams.
His nightmares happen far less often than Steve’s, though Steve thinks that maybe that just means he has nightmares when he isn’t in Steve’s apartment.
One night, towards the end of March, Steve wakes for no discernable reason. He stays still and silent, and after a heartbeat, he hears Barnes whimper.
Every last one of his instincts tell him to leap from the bed and fight until whatever is plaguing Barnes leaves him. But he knows it isn’t that simple, not anymore, so he doesn’t move, barely breathes.
Now that he’s paying attention, he can feel Barnes trembling through the mattress.
Barnes doesn’t wake up, but he also doesn’t make another sound.
Steve understands now, lying on his back close to the edge of the bed, watching Barnes’ shadowed shoulder from the corner of his eye. He understands why his team was so worried for him. If he looked anything like Barnes does in this moment, he’s surprised they didn’t shove him into one of their beds every night.
Steve shifts to relieve some of the tension building in his lower back and Barnes flinches in his sleep, curling further in on himself.
Barnes has never, not once, flinched around Steve in the three months he’s been back. Steve feels his heart break and wishes he could know every time Barnes has forced himself not to react something Steve did, so he could never do those things again.
He wakes in the morning to tears drying on his face and an empty bed.
They’re most of the way through April before Barnes stops leaving in the morning.
He won’t go running when Steve offers (he always offers, just in case). Some mornings he’s gone before Steve gets back, but others, like today, he’s waiting for Steve with a cup of coffee in each hand and the promise of more brewing in the kitchen.
Steve starts watching the sun rise, just because he can.
Stark visits, and for once Steve is glad Barnes is gone, because he and Stark will either get on like a house on fire or immediately start trying to kill one another. He’s not sure which is more likely.
Stark flits around his apartment, asking invasive questions about “Robocop” and complaining that Steve hasn’t been to the tower in ages, and he had his own floor and everything, so why wasn’t he there instead of this tiny piece of shit in Brooklyn (no offense, of course)?
Steve sits on the couch and listens as Stark tinkers with his kitchen appliances and rambles about nothing. Eventually, Stark sits down next to him, and they watch a baseball game (not the Dodgers though, because that is one too many betrayals for Steve to suffer in one lifetime) and flip through the photo album. Steve remembers Stark’s offer about Barnes’ metal arm and tucks the information away for later.
Barnes comes home that afternoon once Stark has left, the tip of his nose just barely red from the last bits of the brisk winter air that have been clinging to the city for weeks now.
He smiles at Steve when he sees him. It’s bright and almost content and Steve thinks about how true spring is right around the corner.
Steve spends Mother’s Day at the cemetery where his ma is buried. He leans against her tombstone and thinks about what his life has become. For once, he’s glad about it.
That night, Steve can feel Barnes’ breath ghosting over the bare skin of his arm, and goosebumps break out across his whole body.
He’s certain they’re on the edge of something. He’s not sure what, but Steve knows it’s coming, soon, and it’s going to probably change everything.
Two days later Barnes stays the night, and the whole day after, and that night again.
He’s so close to Steve’s body that he can feel the heat radiating from Barnes.
The next night Barnes’ nose is pressed into the dip between Steve’s bicep and deltoid. Slowly, so he doesn’t spook Barnes, Steve lifts his right arm.
Instantly, Barnes curls into Steve’s side and sighs lightly. Steve drops his arm back onto the bed, elbow bent enough to follow the curve of Barnes’ spine.
They lay there, breathing softly. Steve hadn’t realized how silent his life was until Barnes was there, amplifying every noise and quiet moment simply by being present. Steve finds he doesn’t mind the quiet. But still—
“Stark— Tony offered to build you a new arm,” Steve half-whispers. “If you want.”
It takes a long time for Barnes to answer. Steve would think him asleep if he couldn’t feel the steady, sort of fast beat of his heart.
“This isn’t,” Barnes says. “This isn’t how we used to do it.”
Steve is confused for a moment until Barnes shifts further into his side and oh.
Barnes remembers (at least, he remembers that, but Steve would bet everything he has that it’s not the only thing).
He presses his closed mouth to the top of Barnes’ head and tries not to cry. It only sort of works.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Steve says, and lifts his arm and rolls onto his left side. Immediately, Barnes turns and reaches with his arm and tugs Steve just so against his body.
It’s awkward, because Barnes is wider and more solid than he was when he was just a kid from Brooklyn (no, not just, never just anything—) but Steve is still taller. He brings his knees up and tucks his feet between Barnes’ calves. He can feel Barnes’ hot breath on the back of his neck.
Steve knows this hasn’t fixed everything, know it’s barely scratched the surface, but he also knows it’s a good start.
For the first time in three years (or seventy, depending on how you look at it), he feels like he’s really home.
(But not really.
The first time they ride the subway together, Barnes grips Steve’s hand tightly with his own. Steve does his best to keep other people from jostling Barnes, putting his body between Barnes and the rest of the car. When they get back to the apartment, Barnes is still holding his hand. Steve asks him if he’s okay. Barnes laughs and says, “Pal, I’ve ridden the subway before. Maybe I just wanted to hold your hand.”
Barnes let Stark replace his arm, and Steve cries at the wonder on his face when he wakes up to a lighter, less painful version of the thing the Russians forced on him.
They argue over who kissed whom first. Barnes insists it was him, and Steve will admit that Barnes laid one on him in the middle of Target when they finally found a copy of the new Adele album. But Steve tells him about a cold mountain top, the night before they lost each other, and a kiss on the back of Barnes’ neck. Barnes says it doesn’t count if he doesn’t remember it.
In December, Barnes says he’d like to try out for the Avengers. Stark laughs and says it doesn’t work that way, but it doesn’t escape their notice that the Avengers’ handler contacts them soon after about starting on psych evals.
On New Year’s Eve, almost exactly a year after Barnes first showed up on his doorstep, as they watch the ball drop, Barnes asks Steve to call him Bucky again. Steve hugs him hard and says, “Whatever you want.”
Bucky laughs, but Steve means every word.)
It’s May again when Steve and Bucky receive an “official summons” from Stark for that night, with specific instructions to bring their pajamas, as if they aren’t at the tower at least every other week already. Though the pajama requirement is new.
“Should we go?” Bucky asks from his spot on the floor. He’s taking up a lot of space. Steve steps over him (and accidentally stubs his toe on Bucky’s side) on his way to the kitchen for more coffee.
“Knowing Stark, probably not.”
Steve sips his coffee and grimaces; it’s cold. He weighs his choices and decides cold coffee is still better than microwaved coffee.
Bucky pulls himself into a sitting position. His hair is disheveled and falling out of its bun. Steve hides his grin behind his mug. Bucky asks, “Are we going?”
Steve turns toward the sink so Bucky can’t see his long-suffering expression. “Of course.”
Bucky still cackles. Steve somehow stubs his toe harder on his way back.
They arrive at the tower that night and find everyone, even Sam (who says he’s in town to celebrate the year anniversary of saving Captain America’s ass. Steve asks him if he means getting his ass kicked by a jogging ninety-five year-old. Sam ignores him), assembled on the communal floor. Only Dr. Foster and Darcy are missing, because they’re presenting at a conference, according to Thor (well, Dr. Foster is presenting, but since Darcy has officially been promoted from intern to assistant, she went as well to keep Dr. Foster out of trouble).
Steve hugs everyone while Bucky gives handshakes and back slaps and a high five to Clint. It’s been a long time since he’s seen everyone together like this, and it makes him smile. Nat’s hair is shoulder length and red again, and Steve marvels at how fast time goes (Thor’s hair is the longest of the group, a fact that makes him beam with pride when Stark tries to tease him about it).
Then he notices that the living room portion of the floor has been hidden from view with a large curtain, and Steve becomes suspicious of whatever Stark is planning.
Nevertheless, he enjoys a rowdy dinner of takeout with his teammates (and Pepper). They laugh and reminisce over everyone’s best mishaps. The story of Steve’s attempted foray into the ventilation shafts is brought up; Bucky, who’s hearing it for the first time, thinks it’s hilarious.
When dinner is over and all of the dishes piled in the dishwasher, Stark draws everyone’s attention by climbing on a nearby chair.
“Dear friends, ancient relics, and former Soviet assassins,” Stark starts. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve can see Bucky pumping his fist a little, smug to be included in all three categories. “We are gather here today to celebrate the official admittance of Robocop into the Avengers Initiative.”
Everyone claps and hollers. Steve thinks he can see Bucky blushing faintly. He definitely isn’t pumping his fist now.
“And so,” Stark continues, groping behind him at the curtain hanging from the ceiling. Steve suspects this is going to be interesting. “It is my honor to present, in commemoration of this auspicious event…”
Stark pulls the curtain. It collapses to reveal the biggest mattress Steve has ever seen, taking up all the floor space in front of the TV where the couches used to be. It makes Stark and Pepper’s bed look like a twin mattress.
“...The Av King!”
Steve isn’t sure what anyone else is thinking, but he’s not entirely sure what he’s thinking, either. This is a new one, even for Stark.
Finally, Dr. Banner asks, “Av King?”
“You know, Avenger King,” Stark says. “It’s like Cal King, right J? JARVIS helped me pick out the name.”
“Correct, Sir,” JARVIS says. Steve gets the feeling JARVIS is rolling metaphorical eyes.
“Stark, this is a terrible idea,” Nat says. “What’s the point of it?”
“Oh hush. According to Buzzfeed, it’s supposed to be a bunch of ottomans pushed together, but I thought to myself, I can do better. And now that the Av King is finally here, I’m ordering a mandatory Movie Night once a month, starting now, where everyone has to be on the Av King.”
Steve looks around at everyone. This is the first time in over a year they’ve all been together when there wasn’t a world threatening emergency. Stark said the mattress “finally” got to the tower, but Steve thinks it’s probably been done for a while and Stark was waiting for the best time to call everyone together. Steve smiles.
“...No, Clint, archery club is not a valid excuse for missing Movie Night,” Stark is saying. “The only exceptions that will be made to the rule will be true incidents of saving the world that can’t be rescheduled.” He tilts his head, thinking. “And Jane, because otherwise she won’t talk science with me.”
Dr. Banner grumbles about how he talks science with Stark all the time. Stark waves him off.
“You can’t be serious, Tony,” Sam says. “I live in DC.”
“Oh can it, bird brain (“Hey!” Clint cries. “I thought that was my nickname!”) I gave you the wings, didn’t I? And there’s always a floor for you here in the tower.”
Sam crosses his arms and stares at Stark.
Steve looks at Stark, how hopeful he seems. He sighs.
Beside him, Bucky must interpret what that sigh means, because he leans over and whispers, “I told you we shouldn’t’ve come.”
Steve kisses his cheek, which placates him, at least. He looks at Stark and says, “Sure, why not.”
Stark jumps from the chair and claps Steve on the shoulder (when he thinks Steve isn’t looking, he also shakes his hand and mouths ow).
“Cap!” He says. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”
With Steve supporting the idea, the rest of them cave. At Stark’s insistence, the group disperses to change into their pajamas.
Bucky won’t stop laughing when Steve discovers his clothes are missing.
Bucky refuses to give him the clothes he was wearing, so he has to walk to the communal floor in just his briefs, Bucky still laughing behind him.
Steve knows one of the Avengers took his clothes, and he begins to suspect Nat once she walks in. She looks way too gleeful when she sees him.
Clint is the last person to come back, in a pair of those slim sweats he favors. They’re a surprisingly soft shade of blue that reminds Steve of something he can’t quite place. When he sees Steve, Clint gapes. “I didn’t know underwear was allowed.”
That sets Bucky off again, leaning on his knees for support and gasping for breath.
Steve crosses his arms and tries not to pout. “They aren’t. Someone stole my pajamas.”
Everyone laughs at that. He’s nearly positive that Nat’s the culprit now. She looks like she’s close to tears.
“Steven,” Thor says solemnly. “I would not wish you to suffer this indignity alone.”
Then he grins and pulls his clothes off, until he’s left in just his boxers. Sam whoops, Stark whistles.
That gives Bucky and Clint the idea to also strip down (a stern look from Pepper keeps Stark in his cut off and pajama pants. Stark pouts). Steve resists the urge to groan and instead snags Clint’s sweats, because he’s not sleeping in the same bed as all of his teammates in just his underwear. Nat is frowning though, so Steve forgoes a shirt, because he’s learned by now that if he ruins her fun too much she’ll do something worse later.
They settle onto the Av King, arranging themselves in no particular order. Bruce gets to pick the first movie, an honor he passes off to Thor. Steve and Stark tease Sam about wearing leggings to bed (“they aren’t leggings! They’re jogging pants!”). Bucky worms his way over until he’s practically on top of Steve.
Pepper is the first to fall asleep, curled up next to Stark, sometime during the second movie. She starts a chain reaction. Next is Thor, Clint, and Nat, all piled together. Bucky follows, and after him are Dr. Banner and Stark. Stark drops off in the middle of their argument about the plausibility of the Matrix in reality. By the end of the third movie, even Sam is asleep, and Steve is the only one awake.
He stares up at the ceiling and realizes it’s been four years since he dethawed and found himself in this foreign world. Since his team, still strangers, strong armed him into letting them care about his health, even if he didn’t, like the Commandos once did.
He’s surprisingly content here, surrounded by the people who have become his family. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.
(Even if Bucky has become something of a limpet in his old age, and Sam insisted on putting his foot in Steve’s face for “old time’s sake” and fell asleep that way. Steve figures you can’t always win.)