The first time is extremely public, and really, Steve should know better. Captain America has to set an example, and he can't be a moral liability to the army, even if their laws are wrong.
And when Steve Rogers can't quite bear that particular weight of the shield, he is usually smart enough to be patient and careful. He has before, with men who will - if the war is kinder to them than it has been to others - make it home without ever knowing that Captain America has been on his knees in front of them.
It's not casual sex, exactly, because nothing can be classified as casual when your entire career is wagered upon it, and because Steve will not forget the fellow soldiers with their sheepish smiles and the awkward quickness with which they jerk their pants back on. Neither is it what Steve would have preferred his relationships to be, but he knows he exchanged that life away for the chance to fight in this war.
Because of that, being careful is always a distant warning in the back of his head.
During Steve's first time with Bucky, it's a very loud warning, slightly louder than the footsteps of the men on night guard at Fort Lehigh.
But summer is thick in the air and in Steve's throat, and his partner has stripped down to the barest of army issued clothing, as they sit on beds less than a leg's width apart.
"Aren't you hot?" Bucky asks. Sweat clings to Bucky's hair, pasting it to his forehead.
"Super soldier serum," Steve reminds, and unlike the rest of the world - including those kind young men Steve's shared carefully stolen moments with - Bucky just rolls his eyes.
Steve thinks about an answer, but Bucky is leaning so close that Steve can practically taste the salt of his skin.
Then Bucky shifts on his bed and their faces are close enough that practically becomes a reality.
The televisions of this era are extremely complicated and Steve isn't too prideful to admit that figuring them out is one of the more difficult technical aspects of the world he's found himself living in.
It's frustrating, even if he has only been thawed out for a week.
So when the remote gets tossed at him, Steve catches it and very deliberately places it on the couch beside him. It's been a long day, and he has no desire to fight with late twentieth-century technology.
"Aren't you going to turn it?" the Wasp asks.
"This is a good channel," Steve answers evasively.
It is true, because watching the news helps him learn more about the world he woke up to. He's been making his way through magazines and newspapers, but he has decades worth of catching up to do, and the news lets him see the changes on people's faces.
What people say in print and what they say on their faces are often two different things. That's how things worked before he fell into the ocean, at any rate, and Steve is sure that hasn't changed.
"I'm surrounded," the Wasp says with a heavy sigh, before flying over to sit on his shoulder.
"It must be hard not having any other female Avengers," Steve says sympathetically.
"Oh, I don't mind the men, handsome. I mind the fact that all of you are all work and no play all the time," she retorts.
Iron Man doesn't look up from his paper, but he does snort indignantly.
"Playing with the filthy rich you get paid to bodyguard doesn't count," Wasp counters. "Tell him, Cap."
But Steve isn't going to tell Wasp or Iron Man anything, because his attention is diverted by the events unfolding on the screen. Wasp notices his silence and follows his gaze.
"Oh," she says. "Yeah, I guess they didn't have gay pride parades in your day, huh?"
"No," Steve says quietly. "They didn't."
She taps her foot lightly on his shoulder while the news report shows men holding hands with other men proudly and in public, next to women doing the same.
It's a tame display, in comparison to what Steve has seen heterosexual couples doing in the middle of the street since he came back, but it's far more than his time would have allowed.
"I know that people getting together with the same sex wasn't exactly common during your day." Wasp waves lightly at the screen, and Steve is entirely certain that she means well as she tells him, "But things are different now."
He could tell her that she's both right and wrong, but he doesn't. Because the disgust on the reporter's face makes him pause.
The second time with Bucky, Steve has more sense. The camp, just outside a village that would still be intact if they'd arrived three weeks earlier, is quiet and there are no footfalls of any soldiers outside their tent. Men are grouped, at least two in a tent, so no one thinks anything particularly strange about Captain America and his sidekick sharing a tent together.
Steve calculates their distance from the closest known enemy and the likelihood of anyone interrupting them in the night. The rapidly growing inner assurance that they can risk this allows Steve the time to build up the quiet little thrill of anticipation their first time had lacked.
He just has to wait on Bucky to finish cleaning up.
Bucky's been sullen and quiet since the last mission ended and Steve lies quietly, pretending that he doesn't know exactly why his normally wise-talking friend has lapsed into silence. Because there's an upside down helmet next to the Bucky's bedding, in which has been poured a quarter of Bucky's water ration for the day, that tells exactly the source.
They don't have enough water to waste, which means it's taking Bucky longer to wipe off all that blood, because when your washcloth keeps coming up covered in red-stroked water, it's hard to convince yourself that you're clean.
Steve wants to help; he wants to take the cloth from Bucky's hand and apologize. He wants to say, "I'm sorry that you had to hold the knife while I was leading the troops."
But he doesn't, because he knows that will only make things worse.
So Steve waits, until Bucky lets out a shaky sigh of annoyance and throws the cloth into the helmet. Bucky has wrung the water out so thoroughly that there's not so much as a solitary slosh. Steve waits until Bucky has slid into the bedding before he reaches out, the anticipation still throbbing lightly in his gut, and runs his fingers lightly through Bucky's hair.
Bucky rolls over and reaches for Steve's belt. Anticipation grows and any apologies Steve might have had, go unmentioned, as his mouth is claimed repeatedly by his partner.
"Ow!" Hawkeye glares up at Steve from his back, flat on the mat. "Best two out of three?"
"Captain America has already bested you two times, Clint," Wanda reminds softly, her gentle voice betraying her amusement despite her best intentions.
"Best three out of five?" Hawkeye rejoins.
Steve laughs and extends his hand, pulling Hawkeye to his feet. "You are getting better," he offers and he doesn't miss the slight blush.
"You keep saying that, but I keep landing on my back every time I step onto the mat with you."
"Maybe part of you is enjoying it," Steve suggests dryly.
"Getting my ass kicked?" Clint goes for a kick; Steve sidesteps it and throws a pulled punch to Clint's bow-arm to throw him off balance. He gets a glare for it, but villains will do worse. It's best if Clint gets used to guarding that arm now, before a villain can teach him why it's important.
"Perhaps he is too busy talking to fully absorb any of the important lessons you are attempting to instill?" Pietro suggests.
No, no. Clint gives that appearance sometimes, but he's smarter than that.
Clint throws a punch and Steve deflects it, only to meet the other arm as he attempts to throw his own. "Very good," he praises.
"Stop talking like I'm a dog you're trying to house-train," Clint grumbles. "And I'll have you know, masochism is not my kink."
"I don't recall saying it was," Steve replies.
"Enjoying getting my ass kicked," Clint reminds. "That's totally masochism. Oh, wait, they probably didn't have terms for that sort of thing back in your day, huh?"
"Clint." Steve tries very hard not to sigh at Clint, and is only moderately successful. "I hate to break it to you, but your generation has not single-handedly discovered sex."
Behind them, Wanda and Pietro laugh, and Steve files those sounds away, as moments he will treasure later, along with the surprised quirk of Clint's lips. The Avengers fight a lot - more than Steve thinks teammates should - but sometimes, he thinks they are going to be okay.
"But we discovered the fun parts," Clint insists. "You guys were all missionary all the time, lights off and doors shut. I mean, did you even have blowjobs?"
Steve just shakes his head and uses Clint's contemplation on oral sex as a distraction to swipe Clint's feet out from beneath him.
"Best five out of seven?" Clint offers.
But they don't make it to sparring match number four, because the Avengers are needed. The villains are easy to defeat, and it's the civilian casualties that take up most of the Avengers' efforts. Steve isn't worried initially, because dealing with civilians is something his team is very good at.
At least, that is usually the case. Except, this time, Steve finds Clint looking concerned over a middle-aged couple, but not actually doing anything. He certainly looks like he wants to, but there's a hesitation there that Steve's never seen with Hawkeye before.
"They're .... there's a lot of blood," Clint tells Steve, unnecessarily. "The medics are on their way, right?"
"They are. But we need to stop the bleeding before then." Steve kneels down beside them. He doesn't ask Hawkeye to explain himself further; contrary to what Clint possibly believes, Steve does watch television. He's seen the hysteria.
"Thank you," the youngest of the couple says to Steve. "For not being afraid."
"I've been around a long time," Steve says to the men. "My hands have been in a lot of blood by now."
The third time with Bucky, Steve admits to being just a little bit jealous.
It's utterly ridiculous. They're in the middle of a war, and Steve doesn't have the luxury of being so petty. Besides, it's good that Bucky has spent time with his own team. Steve won't call them people Bucky's own age, because the age gap between Steve and Bucky is so small that the phrase would sound foolish.
But he's been accused of not being any fun, and maybe with his own team, Bucky has been able to find someone that could have fun.
Still, he's seen the look Toro gives Bucky. They might be unrequited - and Steve trusts Bucky enough to know that they have been - but the idea of the two of them alone irritates all the petty little emotions Steve doesn't have time to allow.
"You do know that Churchill is three doors down, right?" Bucky asks as Steve's fingers push down his pants. Bucky, always helpful, wriggles his way out of them.
"He's a bit preoccupied, and the door is locked," Steve promises. His fingers trace hipbones, and he lets out a soft sigh before dipping his head to kiss the newest of scars.
"Hmm." Bucky groans softly as Steve's mouth travels along his inner thigh. "Need to go on trips away more often, if you're going to be this fun when I get back."
"That," Steve murmurs into Bucky's flesh, "is a terrible idea."
It's been a stressful day for both Falcon and Captain America, and neither of them really feel like making a heavy dinner. Sam heats up the cans of tomato soup while Steve makes the grilled ham and cheese. They work in amicable silence, focusing on the tasks at hand. Steve breathes in Sam's scent, a combination of sweat, wind, Redwing, aftershave and the spices he's adding to enhance the canned soup.
It's a rare moment of calm, but one they continue to enjoy as they sit down to eat and tell each other about the rare parts of the day they haven't shared.
Steve likes having someone who is both a partner and a lover; it spares him the necessity of focusing on his battle exploits, because his partner's already seen them. Too often his conversations with Sharon would have focused exclusively on S.H.I.E.L.D fisticuffs and tracking down the latest threat. Treasure Sharon as he always will, there's something to be said for being able to skip the fights and complain instead about not being able to fully capture the lighting in the Scarlet Witch sketch he's worked on between the day's battles.
Sam listens, and gives no indication that complaining about the lighting in a mansion is the most ridiculous conversation he's ever been part of. He tells Steve of a conversation with Redwing, so perhaps that puts ridiculousness in perspective for them both.
They wash their plates and glasses and settle down on the couch with Sam's book and Steve's drawing pad, and Sam continues to tell Steve about his day.
"Zeke's third generation military," Sam says, as Steve stretches out on the couch to continue his sketch. The drone of the news plays quietly in the background - just in case they're needed again.
"I remember you mentioning him before. He sounds like a good kid."
"He had some problems adjusting to foster care after his parents died. But he's a good kid, and he wanted nothing more than to follow in his dad's footsteps." Sam pauses and glances over at Steve. When he catches Steve's eye, he gives a little shake of his head. "Army men."
"That's a good path for him to follow," Steve replies. "Yet I'm sensing a 'but' in there."
"Kid came to see me, told me he couldn't do it." Sam's brows furrow a bit, and he adds for an explanation, "Brought his boyfriend along."
"Yeah, I can see how that would ... be a problem."
"Doesn't want to live a lie, he tells me." Sam shakes his head. "Says he doesn't want to live 'in the closet.' The only advice I could give Zeke was that he'd have to figure out for himself."
"That's good advice. You can't make that decision for him. The army can't either, no matter how much they want to."
"Then I shook his and Kyle's hand, and they went off to have dinner at Zeke's foster parents' house."
"It sounds like he has a good support system, no matter what he decides," Steve suggests. "But you still sound troubled."
Sam sighs and rubs his face with his hands, attempting to massage away the tension. Steve lends a hand to the cause, forgoing the sketch in favor of a hand on Sam's shoulder.
"I just wonder, if my parents were still around, if I could have taken you to meet them," Sam answers. "They were pretty open-minded about a lot of things, and wanted me to figure out my own path, but this...never came up. Maybe I might have needed to keep you as much of a secret from them as I do..." Sam waves his hands vaguely. "As I do to everyone else."
And really, there isn't much to discuss on that front. They've had that part of the conversation already.
So they lapse back into the amicable quiet, Sam with his book and Steve with his drawing, until it's time for bed.
Steve does think of his own mother, and remembers the way Miss Evans, their neighbor from two doors down, would come and visit her. Steve has no evidence - nothing stronger than a smile or a greeting between friends - of what he suspects may have transpired when he hadn't been looking.
He won't ever know, Steve supposes.
But Steve likes to think that his mother would have liked Sam - and Steve's relationship with Sam - regardless.
The next time that Steve enjoys with Bucky, the rain is pouring hard against the outside of their tent. The ground is as miserable and soaked as the troops are, making their bedding cause more noise than it normally would. In an effort to be quiet, Steve remains as still as he can. He lies on his back with hand between Bucky's legs, while he listens to the rainfall and watches Bucky's face in the dark.
Steve listens, of course, for all the sounds that mean he has to move his hands or push Bucky's away. And he worries, because the tiny gasps that escape Bucky's clenched mouth sound almost as loud as the thunder in the night sky.
But no one interrupts, even when the gasps increase in speed, to match the needful thrusts against Steve's hand. Even when Bucky collapses onto his back, with a whimper not not nearly as quiet as Steve's matching one, no one stomps across the soggy field to demand an explanation.
Steve accepts that perhaps the thunder is much louder, or Bucky much quieter, than he suspects. He's relatively certain that Bucky's panting, on the other hand, is just as loud as it sounds. Worry that he might, Steve can't help but savoring the happy sound of his contented partner.
" 'M glad you're here."
"I'm glad you're here too, partner."
Bucky laughs, a slight mocking sound in the dark. It's the laugh that Bucky uses to tell Steve he's being too serious. Steve's heard it enough times that it's gone from being an irritant to being a welcome anchor against whatever else the war may throw at them.
"Toro's a mess," Bucky adds. "He met a pretty little brown-haired nurse today, and he spent the whole rest of the day going on about how attractive girls are."
"Well," Steve says, trying for diplomacy. "Toro has been having some ... difficulties lately."
"Yeah. You noticed?"
"It's been hard not to." Steve frowns. "I've been thinking maybe Jim or I should have a chat with him about - "
"No!" Bucky laughs again, this time in earnest. "No. Don't embarrass him like that. He'll figure out that liking a dame doesn't mean you don't like your own, eventually. I'm just glad you're around so I don't have to be as much of a mess."
"Glad I could be helpful," Steve answers dryly, and Bucky's soft, mocking laughter returns.
It's a wonderful sound to have to lull Steve to sleep.
Bernie's not the first love Steve's had since the Avengers found him, nor is she the second. But he does love her, that he doesn't doubt. He knows that there are probably men who could treat her better and be a more attentive, more understanding, and more there.
She's smart enough to know that, too. Yet for some reason, she still wants to spend her life with him.
Steve counts his blessings, and he tries very hard to make up for the time he spends away by being as attentive as he can when he is home.
Apparently, he can sometimes hit the mark.
"Hand massages," Bernie moans appreciatively. "I've never actually had a hand massage before."
"I live to serve," Steve says solemnly. "Would you like a back massage to go along with it?"
"Where have you been all my life, Steve Rogers?"
"Well, I was in a chunk of ice for a large bit of it," Steve teases.
Bernie laughs and moves in for a kiss, running her fingers through his hair possessively. They're worker hands, roughened and calloused, without an ounce of polish. They feel just right, contrasted against the tenderness of her touch.
Bernie breaks the kiss to roll over on her stomach, and Steve can still taste her watermelon chapstick on his lips. He massages through the thin pajama top, directing his circles and and palm rubs according to the tenseness of her shoulders.
By the time he's done, Bernie is yawning into her pillow and closing her eyes. Steve stands up and does a final check of the apartment before coming back into the room, removing his clothes and sliding into bed next to her.
She nestles up close enough to feel the warmth of her breath on his chest. "You made Joshua awfully happy today," she murmurs sleepily. "He really wasn't sure how you'd feel about him coming out."
"It can be a scary experience."
She opens her eyes long enough to give him a look. "You've never come out," she says, and it's accusing enough, even though Steve knows she doesn't mean it to be.
"I came out to you."
"I don't count."
"Of course you do." He kisses her forehead. "We're getting married. I certainly hope you count."
"You know what I meant. It would be a lot easier for people like Joshua if Captain America was out of the closet."
"I"m not sure I'm ready for that yet, Bernie."
"Bernie - "
"I'm sorry." She hugs him tightly and leans her head against his chest. "It's your decision. I shouldn't push you into it."
He kisses her, and remains quiet, watching her fall asleep.
Somewhere between the fifth and tenth time Bucky and Steve share, they manage to go on a date.
Oh, they don't actually call it that, of course. Still, while Steve may not be exactly an authority on dating - thanks to the war and the pre-serum body that hadn't been the most desirable - he's pretty sure their afternoon in the movie theatre counts.
They're calling it a "leave," even if that's not strictly true (Steve expects Namor or Torch to show up and drag them back to the war any minute.) The films are government issue propaganda, half news reels and half complete fabrication.
"Who puts this stuff together?" Bucky whispers. "It's worse than the comics they publish about us."
"We wouldn't want them to be one hundred percent truthful," Steve points out. The complete awe with which people in the theatre are watching makes Steve somewhat uncomfortable, but he can hear the whispers. They're filled with hope, and for at least as long as they are in their seats, certainty that the war is actually nearing an end. That kind of morale boosting can't be a bad thing, in Steve's eyes.
"No," Bucky snorts. He leans in closer to Steve and lowers his voice further. "Because that whole 'sneaking into your tent' thing that the army made up could sound a lot worse if they did."
He's close enough to kiss, and the mischievously glint in Bucky's eyes makes Steve want to.
Steve figures that fact alone solidifies this as a date, even if he can't actually go through with the kiss.
When Steve meets Sam for lunch, it isn't a date. They're past that stage of their relationship, and there are others in both their hearts.
But it is always good to sit down and have lunch with a friend he's shared so much of his life with, especially when something troubles him as much as the Young Avengers do.
Business hasn't been very good at the tiny cafe in a long time, and Steve knows it's just a matter of time before it leaves his neighborhood like so many before it. But for this one afternoon, Steve treasures the privacy it gives him and Sam, as he tells Sam his concerns about this new team.
Sam very pointedly doesn't draw any parallels about any other teenagers, or why an older and wiser Steve might cringe at the idea of teenagers running around trying to get themselves killed. This is possibly because Sam is one of the few people in Steve's life who do not have an ongoing antagonistic relationship with the concept of tact.
Also for that reason, Sam pauses for several minutes after Steve has finished his story, taking time to stir his drink with his straw before he says, "It was really nice of you to volunteer to give Eli blood."
There's an underlying "but" in that sentence. Steve can feel it. "He's a good kid. He almost died fighting for what is right. How could I do anything else?"
"They didn't let you get very far along in the process, did they?"
Steve frowns at Sam, who is looking at him in the same way that he used to all the time when he and Steve first met. It's a combination of fondness and exasperation, and Steve genuinely has no idea what he's done to deserve it this time. "No, not very far at all. I volunteered, and then I was told that Isaiah was taking care of it."
"Steve, you couldn't have given blood, even if Mister Bradley hadn't volunteered."
"I don't see why not."
"Because before they stick that needle in your arm, they are going to interview you. They'll ask you several really intrusive questions, and if you answer 'yes' to the right questions, you get barred from giving blood for life. " Sam stops stirring his tea and leans back in the booth. He just looks tired, and Steve feels badly for pushing him for an answer in the first place. "One of those questions is if you've ever had sex with another man. Which, of course, is the same category as prostitution."
"Why would they - "
"Because in their eyes, HIV is still our fault and none of us practice safe sex." Sam shakes his head. "So you couldn't have saved Eli's life, even if you'd wanted to. Unless you wanted to lie, which doesn't really seem like a Steve Rogers thing to do."
"It's what I did during the war to save lives," Steve says quietly.
The waitress arrives with their meals, and their conversation turns to other things, even if Steve's thoughts do not.
A war can't be fought without injury, and Steve knows that. This isn't the first time either he or Bucky have been hurt. But the longer the war goes on without ending, the more worried Steve gets each time one of them is injured.
How long can you keep on cheating death? Steve's sure that their number is going to come up one of these days, and when that happens, Steve hopes he goes first. The idea that he would live on after Bucky isn't one that Steve wants to contemplate.
Of course, his mind can't be focused on their possible deaths throughout the whole war, and it's not. But when Bucky is injured enough to put him out of commission for a few weeks, Steve goes to visit him in an army hospital.
There are so many nurses coming in and out, and Steve shakes his head at the light flirting that comes from both the nurses and Bucky.
Steve squeezes Bucky's shoulder before he sits down in a chair beside the hospital bed. There's too many people milling about, too many that could see any affection that Steve might show, so that touch is as far as they can go.
"Glad you could make it, Mister Rogers."
"Glad to be here, Mister Barnes."
Before Steve decides to have the conversation with Bucky, he technically discusses it with two other people. The fact that both of them are people Steve has had past relationships with doesn't actually cross his mind as inappropriate; Bucky discusses parts of their life together with Natasha on a regular basis. They've both had the fortune of having good, solid partners and that hasn't simply vanished just because those relationships ended and new ones have begun. Bucky wouldn't be the type of man Steve loves as much as he does, if Bucky could simply ignore all that Natasha had meant to him at one time.
But although he doesn't feel guilty for discussing over the idea with Sharon and Sam, Steve does feel a twinge of remorse when Bucky shows up to meet him for lunch.
Bucky strides into their apartment cheerfully, with a bright and welcoming smile, glancing around the apartment as he enters. "I see no Avengers, former agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or other accomplices," Bucky notes. "Which is significant, since some of the Avengers like to think they still live in your basement. I also don't see any food." Bucky reaches up and tugs off the cowl, grinning at Steve suggestively.
Steve almost hates to break the mood. Not only because he'd prefer to do what Bucky is suggesting to having this conversation, but also because he doubts the conversation will go nearly as well as what Bucky would like to do.
"I could make us something, if you like," Steve suggests.
"See, some people might have a problem with being invited home for lunch under the false pretense of being offered food," Bucky says with a shrug. "But I am certainly willing to be an exception to that rule."
"Actually, I asked you here so we could talk."
"What was so urgent that it couldn't wait?" Bucky asks. "Do you finally want to be Captain America again?" Bucky's hand reaches for the shield on his back, and Steve shakes his head quickly to forestall the offer.
Bucky frowns in disappointment, but the shield stays on as he sits down on the couch.
Steve hesitates before sitting down. His instinct is to sit across from Bucky, but he sits down on the couch beside him instead. He tells himself it's less confrontational this way.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking about our relationship," Steve begins, and Bucky laughs.
It's a Bucky laugh, not a Winter Soldier one. It's the kind of laugh he doesn't hear very frequently these days, and Steve misses it. "You sound awfully serious, Steve. That's never a good sign."
"Why not? Our relationship is serious, isn't it?"
Bucky's laughter subsides, but he continues to grin at Steve. "Yeah, but that tone's only fitting for either a break-up or a proposal."
"I'm not breaking up with you," Steve assures him, and Bucky gives him a grin full of confidence that would fool everyone but Steve.
"Well, I hope you aren't going to propose. I know lots of things have changed, but I'm pretty sure we still can't get married in New York."
That was as good of an opening as any. "No, we can't. But I think we should be able to, if we wanted."
Bucky squirms around, far more deliberately than he ever did in the war, so that his back is against the arm of the couch. "I feel like I've known you long enough that I should be able to tell where this conversation is going. And yet, I can't."
"I've been doing a lot of catching up since I came back." He gives a rueful smile. "Not as much as the last time, but ... I was gone for a while."
"Yeah, you want the time in days or minutes?"
Steve impulsively reaches over and squeezes Bucky's hand. "Most of my focus has been on Norman Osborn and the Avengers' actions, but there were domestic developments too."
"Ah, this is about people continuing to be assholes about people like us, then?" At Steve's nod, Bucky continues, "When you were gone, Sam and I watched a lot of news coverage. Not so much with Natalia, since listening to people curse at the TV screen in Russian is not really my idea of a fun time."
The image makes Steve laugh and the fact that both Sam and Natasha took care of Bucky in their own ways makes Steve feel better about not getting back sooner. "Sam's always been a good guy. One of the best."
"Is this the point where we deviate into negotiating a threesome? Because let me assure you, I might be old, but I am liberated enough to enjoy that."
"I think Sharon might have something to say about that."
"Hey, we can invite her too. You always did have terrific taste in dames."
Bucky's mouth is close, and Steve gives in to the desire to steal a quick kiss. "I don't quite remember you being this focused on sex."
"Well, we can go with your memory's mistaken, I grew up a lot, that was before you fucking died on me, I'm trying to distract you, or I just wasn't as free to express my want back then. Take your pick."
Steve takes a deep breath, then plunges on ahead. "We could be a lot more open, if we wanted. With everyone."
"What kind of open?"
"The kind where we're ... out."
"Steve, no offense, but your friends like to go crazy a lot. Which I realize sounds like I'm throwing stones, but that's pretty much how Norman Osborn got in charge, wasn't it?"
"I'm not sure that's entirely fair -"
"Look. I like being an Avenger just fine. They're not quite the Invaders, but they're more or less decent. And they love you a lot, so that's in their corner. But as often as they go nuts - and Fury might have exaggerated in his history of the Avengers, but I doubt that Sam did - I'm just not comfortable with sharing something that could be used against us if the enemy ever found out."
"That's ... I didn't mean come out to the Avengers, Bucky."
"Then what -" Bucky carefully slides his hand out of Steve's as the realization dawns. "You want to come out to everyone?"
"To the public, yes." Bucky doesn't answer immediately, and Steve quickly adds, "You wouldn't have to come out, too, but I think that Captain America could send a powerful message -"
"Steve. The minute you come out, it won't matter whether or not I want to. People will figure out we're together. Or worse, I'll have to suffer through innuendo after innuendo of 'which Avenger is Steve Rogers fucking?' that you know will be on every stupid newscast around the world." Bucky runs his fingers through his hair in agitation. "The only person that could possibly enjoy that is that crazy reporter who thought you were out of touch because you have the good sense to hate the internet."
"Are you that ashamed of me? Of us?" Steve doesn't mean to say it. It's a pretty terrible thing to say, and he can see just how terrible it is, written all over Bucky's face.
"How can you even ask that?"
"I shouldn't have," Steve acknowledges. "But if you aren't, I don't see why you're so against it."
Frustration seeps into his voice, and Steve tries to keep it under control. They've gone through too much to let this one conversation - no matter how important - change everything.
Bucky stands up then, and Steve is almost certain he's going to storm out the door and slam it behind him. "You used to have a secret identity once. Don't you remember that? Hell, Steve, you fought and were willing to die for the right for every one of us to keep a secret identity. Yet you're trying to force me into revealing a very real part who I am to the world."
"I would never force you." Steve's voice raises a bit at that point.
"No, because you guilting me into doing something isn't the same as forcing at all." Bucky grimaces and tugs at the cowl self-consciously. "I'm already playing a role that I'm not comfortable in for you, so that you can go do this great other thing that you think is so important. Isn't that enough?"
"What you're doing as Cap is important, Bucky. I just don't know why you can't see that this is even more important."
"If it was that important, why didn't you come out before? Why did you wait until you were the top cop of the world? Don't you think it would have made just as much impact to come out when you were dating Sharon? Or Sam? Or -" Bucky breaks off and waves his hand in agitation. "One of the other ones. Maybe it would have meant more if you'd come out when you were living what appeared to be the heterosexual ideal with Sharon?"
Because he was a coward, Steve thinks. Because other things kept being more important. Those explanations are on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't say them, because there's no way to say them without making it sound like he's calling Bucky a coward or unimportant. "If I was going to come out when I should have, it would have been when Toro was having problems."
Bucky rolls his eyes. "I've met Ann Raymond. Toro figured things out just fine on his own, unless you think Toro was the kind of asshole to marry someone he wasn't in love with. Which he wasn't." Bucky crosses his arms. "Not to mention that the army would have kicked you right out."
"They're still kicking people out," Steve argues. "Why don't you understand that, Bucky? They're people like us, just like you said."
"I understand fine. I understand that you think you can do for people like us what you did for the registration act. What I don't understand is why you seem to have forgotten that there is a large portion of the world that hates people like us more than they hate any supervillain."
"Maybe we can change that."
"No, we can't."
Steve rubs his eyes tiredly. "And what about us? Aren't you sick of hiding from everyone? We've been doing it for years, Bucky - all the sneaking around in tents and locked doors. I'm just...tired of it."
"Well," Bucky says softly, "I guess that's the difference between us, Steve. Those are bad memories for you, but for me, they're the memories that I clung to after you made me remember who I was. They're the memories that kept me from putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. They're happy memories for me, Steve, and I will never be tired of them."
They don't actually eat lunch that day, nor do they eat dinner together. Mostly, after the way their argument went, Steve is just happy when Bucky makes his way home and slides into bed next to him.
Neither of them bring the argument up again.
Liberating camps in Germany is both the most fulfilling part of the war and the most wretched. The sights that Steve sees in them, the way that people have been treated, makes Steve hurt all over. He's never had any doubt throughout the war that Hitler is a terrible man and that what the Nazis have been doing is awful. He's read the reports.
But seeing it in person, and seeing the people that have been hurt is so much different than reading intelligence reports. It makes him simultaneously angry enough that he wants to start hitting everyone responsible for this and perhaps never stop, and sad enough that he wants to sit down and cry.
They should have made it here earlier, he thinks.
Yet, amidst all of the hurt, Steve gets to see the survivors rejoice as they leave. Much of it is quiet and low key, and much is undercut by losses that the prisoners have faced during the war.
But it's there, and Steve knows that when he thinks of this war, he will remember their happiness as much as he remembers everything terrible that has accompanied it.
"Those two aren't anymore brothers than you and I are," Bucky whispers quietly to Steve, with a nod to two male prisoners who are hugging each other tightly.
No, Steve suspects they aren't brothers either.
"It's a reasonable time to get caught up in the emotion of the moment," Steve chides sharply.
Bucky shakes his head. "I hope they don't get too caught up. For their sakes."
Things remain strained between Bucky and Steve. Steve hates that fact, but he's not certain how to undo the tension, because he still means everything he'd had to bring up in that fight.
He still feels just as strongly about every single point.
It leads to a lot of uncomfortable moments of pause between them. It's the first time since Bucky's come back that Steve feels like maybe they aren't going to make it.
So he has lunch with his best friend, in the comfort of Sam's apartment, in order to sort through things. Sharon hasn't quite moved in yet, but there's enough of her belongings spread around, and enough of her scent still lingering on the furniture, that she might as well have.
"You can spare me the long story," Sam tells him as he sits down at the table across from Steve. "Sharon says you've been brooding for a month on the job, and the kid's been brooding just as long. You're having a coming out crisis, aren't you?"
Steve accepts his chopsticks and asks with an amusement he doesn't really feel, "Most people would just assume we'd had a fight, Sam."
"Oh, I assume you had a fight. I assume you had a colossal fight. You've been mentioning things, Steve. Tiny things here and there, about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, about the marriage amendments that keep passing or failing. I know what's working in that brain of yours. And I know how the kid works."
Steve opens his takeout and prods it experimentally with his chopsticks for a moment. "I practiced that conversation over and over in my head, and none of it went the way I'd hoped."
"How did you hope it would go?" Sam asks. "That Bucky would agree to come out, you'd hold a press conference, and the world would have you a giant coming out party?"
"Something like that. You think I'm being unrealistic, too?"
"I think you are jumping feet first into the idealistic territory that you are well-known for."
"So, that's a yes?"
"Steve... you know I dated men before and after you. My desire to stay in the closet isn't what ended you and me, but there were relationships where my partner wanted to come out and that did end the relationship. The kid doesn't want to come out, you do. For a lot of us, that's a deal breaker."
Steve sighs and pokes his rice irritably. "I know."
"I'm not saying either one of you is wrong. I'm saying that you are going to have to decide what's more important to you: staying with the kid, or trying to change everyone's mind about queer people... Yes, Steve, you can quit making that face. I know you don't like that word. Which would be another interesting challenge for you coming out."
Steve makes another face and pokes the rice particularly viciously before eating. They pass the rest of the day in a different topic of conversation, and Steve doesn't let the conversation wander back.
It's a week and a half after the conversation with Falcon that Steve has the decision made for him. In the middle of what should be a perfectly normal day overseeing one of the Academy's lessons, he gets a call stating that the Avengers have been attacked. Bucky is hurt.
Steve shows up immediately. It turns out to be nothing more than a broken arm.
"I never thought," Steve murmurs hotly into Bucky's ear later that night, "that Ultron would ever have anything to do with my decision to stay in the closet."
Bucky laughs and presses up against Steve, and all is right in the world.
Mostly, at any rate. The insistent nagging is still there, in the back of his head. But Steve very consciously ignores it.
Steve and Bucky lie together again just after Bucky's 20th birthday. They're returned from celebrating, Bucky sober enough to still hold a gun and sober enough for Steve to give what Bucky asks for.
Steve doesn't like the smell of alcohol, and he doesn't think he ever will, but there is a whole body worth of Bucky to explore and taste. He easily by-passes the lips, and Bucky returns the favor, by similarly occupying his mouth in matching places on Steve's body.
"Mmm," Bucky says lazily as they get dressed again. "One of my better birthdays." He yawns and lies back down, evidence of their actions hidden by the costumes.
"It worked out pretty well for me too, partner," Steve says warmly.
Bucky chuckles and rolls over to sleep. "I wonder," he says sleepily, half to himself and half to Steve, "What you and I will be doing after this war is finally over."
Steve runs his fingers lightly through Bucky's hair, pleased that the war is so close to being over now that they can finally give voice to this type of conversation, no matter how fleetingly. "Whatever it is, I'm sure we'll be doing it together," he answers.
They really do keep making remote controls and televisions more and more complicated. Steve is able to use them, of course, with much more clarity than in those first few weeks after being found by the Avengers. But he still thinks the entire system is a little silly and far more complicated than it need be.
But Steve has the television on softly in the background, as he discusses the results of Hank's latest findings. As ridiculous as the products are, they're still the best way to keep in contact with the outside world's reactions. And as much as Steve thinks it is a flaw in the government's abilities, sometimes news reporters are able to capture events as they transpire much more quickly than anyone else.
Besides, Steve can't miss the opportunity to catch an Avengers press conference.
"I must confess," Hank says, in the middle of his report, "that although I may be only a Secret Avenger at the present, it is good to see our team so well represented."
"You're just as much of an Avenger as the ones on camera right now," Steve insists.
"Yes, yes, of course." Hank beams at him and tilts his head towards the screen. "Still, there was a time I thought the public would never embrace us this way again. It is good to be proven wrong."
Steve acknowledges that thought with a nod of his head. Their discussion turns back to the artifact, which looks like a giant vanilla bean to Steve, but Hank assures him is much more important. On the screen, Maria Hill ends her speech and opens up the floor to questions.
The questions are standard enough, asking Tony about Stark Industries, Thor about the invasion - nothing particularly new, and Steve is sure Thor has to be annoyed at answering questions about the invasion a year after the fact. But his team are pros, and they show no sign of agitation.
The questioning eventually comes to Bucky. "Captain America," a sharply dressed male reporter says, "what are your thoughts on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"
Steve feels a sharp twist in his gut, one that matches the nagging impulse that hasn't left the back of his mind in the months since he made the decision to not come out.
"Oh, my," Hank says, and his attention turns entirely to the screen. Steve senses that there will be no further discussion of the vanilla bean until the conference is over.
That's just as well; Steve wouldn't be listening.
"I'm not sure what that has to do with the Avengers," Bucky says evenly.
"It has everything to do with the Avengers. You're our first line of defense against any major threats, but Don't Ask, Don't Tell doesn't really apply to you. It does apply to the first line of defense against every other type of threat, though," the reporter insists. "Besides, you're Captain America. You have to have thoughts about it."
"I think Don't Ask, Don't Tell probably sounded like a good idea when it was conceived," Bucky answers guardedly. "But since it's obviously being used as a way to remove 'undesirables' for no other reason than their sexual preference, of course it should be repealed."
There's a nervous twitter in the audience, an excited sound of news reporters latching on to something more headlining grabbing than they'd probably thought they were going to get.
Steve's gut twists again, reflexively.
"What about the military heads who claim it will damage the military cohesion?" another reporter asks.
Bucky snorts and Steve places his forehead in his palm. "Oh, Bucky. We are not at Fort Lehigh anymore. Please do not insult the generals."
"I think that in 1941, the 'military heads' thought women and blacks were going to damage the military cohesion, too," Bucky answers, and Steve cringes at the terminology. Oh, the press is going to eat that up in all the wrong ways. "They were wrong then, and they're wrong now, too."
For Bucky, it's a subtle comment. For the Avengers, Steve will be answering comments on that reply for far longer than the next year.
He's grinning at the screen, anyway.
Another nervous twitter in the audience, and Steve allows his gaze to wash over the Avengers and Maria Hill. The Avengers are watching Bucky, all of them seasoned enough to know that you usually guard your answers to the press much more carefully than this. Maria looks like she is contemplating ending things right now.
But she doesn't and a third reporter speaks up. "How do you think the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, will feel about your comments today?"
Bucky's mouth twists into a smirk. "Somehow, I don't think he'll have a problem with them. He'll probably wish I had cushioned my replies a little better."
"You really don't think he'll care?" the first reporter asks skeptically, and Steve's gut twists yet again.
Bucky frowns at the reporter. "The man was willing to give his life for civil rights. How could you think that he would have a problem with me telling you that a law that restricts civil rights is stupid and should be repealed?"
"He's from another time," a fourth reporter speaks up. Steve vaguely recognizes that this press conference is getting out of control, because the reporters aren't even being called on anymore. "They had different ideals then."
"You're saying that you don't think Steve Rogers ever fought alongside any gay people?" Bucky asks.
"I'm saying that it is natural to assume someone from his period might have a problem with the gay lifestyle," the fourth reporter answers.
Hank rolls his eyes. "I keep trying to have hope for the reporters from that station. They keep dashing my hopes, I'm afraid."
Steve doesn't answer, because he's far too invested in what Bucky will reply.
"So, despite the fact that you must have records on Steve being for women's rights and black rights, you're implying he's homophobic?" Bucky asks. His voice is very calm and the reporters don't know him well enough to recognize how bad that is.
The Avengers are looking at Maria Hill now, wondering, Steve supposes, why she hasn't ended the conference.
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing that he hasn't accepted the lifestyle," the fourth reporter says. "There are a large portion of Americans who also have a problem with it. Unless you think they're wrong, too?"
Bucky waves his hand dismissively. "I'm not interested in talking about the large portion of Americans. I'm interested in talking about how very non-homophobic Steve Rogers is."
"If you're so certain of that," the first reporter demands, "why are you the first Captain America to make any comments on Don't Ask, Don't Tell? If Rogers was so pro-gay rights, why didn't he ever make comments on Proposition 8?"
It's a fair point, but it still stings.
"Because he's from a different time," Bucky answers steadily. "And the time he comes from, things like 'I think we should be able to get married if we wanted to' are things you say to your partner in private."
"Oh, Bucky. I think you just accidentally did what you fought so hard for me not to do," Steve mutters into his palm.
"Sometimes accidents are a blessing," Hank says warmly.
There's another nervous twitter in the press core, this one full of confusion. "I'm not sure I understand what you're saying," the first reporter says. "Are you indicating that Steve Rogers is gay?"
"Nah, he likes the dames, too. I think the word you're looking for is bisexual," Bucky answers flippantly.
Steve is very sure that he can hear Sharon's laughter from down the hall, which tells him that she's watching the press feed too. Steve isn't sure whether he wants to laugh or cry.
The nervous twitter increases in noise level as the reporters' voices fight over one another to be heard. "Who are you to out him like that?" a fifth reporter demands.
"That's a good question," Bucky answers. He pauses for a moment, then shrugs. "Oh, fuck it. I'm his boyfriend."
The nervous twitter explodes then, and Steve is pretty sure he will remember the looks on the Avengers' faces for the rest of his life.
"And with that, this press conference is over," Maria Hill announces, and the Avengers are ushered out of the public eye.
"That was certainly more interesting than my findings on the artifact," Hank says. "I do hope you were ready to be out of the closet, however."
Steve gives into the urge to laugh at that point. "You could say that."
The first time Steve and Bucky are together after Bucky outs them on national television is extremely private, which is a nice contrast to the way the day has gone so far.
It's twelve hours after the press conference, and Steve has been answering calls all day. Some have been supportive, some have been infuriating, and some have been completely obnoxious. Some have been calls from old friends, wondering why they have never been told.
It's been a long, frustrating day, but Steve is still more at peace than he's been in the past year.
"We're not going on Oprah," Bucky tells him as he slips into bed. "And you need to tell Barton that no, you wouldn't have fucked him if he'd swung that way."
"I don't even want to know," Steve answers.
"Good. President call?"
"He wanted to hear my thoughts on Don't Ask, Don't Tell... and if the rumors about Churchill and Roosevelt were true."
Bucky twists around to look at Steve. "There are rumors about FDR and Churchill?"
"Apparently." Steve slips an arm around Bucky. "You okay with all of this?"
Bucky shrugs. "I guess I have to be. It's not something we can take back, is it?"
"Are you okay with it? I mean, I'm sure people have been assholes today."
"Some, have, yes... But it's still a relief. Mostly, I'm confused about why you came out, though. You were so against it."
"You wanted to come out as a political statement. I didn't want our life to be used as that... I came out because I wanted to tell the whole world how wonderful my boyfriend was," Bucky answers. "And I know that our life is still going to be used as a political statement, but ... reasons matter."
Steve pulls Bucky closer, and spends the rest of the night making sure that Bucky knows that Steve is happy to tell the whole world about how wonderful his boyfriend is, too.