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Elegance and Taste

Chapter Text

Rogers was standing at attention in front of Fury’s desk.

It wasn’t the first time he had been on the receiving end of a formal warning, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. The fact that it was night outside, and the rest of the office was deserted told him how pissed Fury was.

“Sir,” he put in, when Fury stopped for breath, “I understand she was running a brothel, but she was still a lady. They had no right to touch her the way they did.”

Fury steepled his fingers, looking across the desk. “Why the hell do I put up with you, Rogers?” he asked, as he always did. “The 19th century called. It wants its manners back. You are an FBI agent. You deal with criminals, you treat them like criminals, d’you understand me? You don’t ask them if they’re well or how their dog is or whatever the hell it is you’ll do next time.”

Steve’s hands balled in fists by his sides. “Sir, I can’t help thinking if we treated them like people instead of like criminals all the time…”

“My god,” Fury groaned. “How the hell did you survive on the streets of Brooklyn?” He waved away any answer Steve might have made. “Anyway, no more beating on members of your own team. Are we clear?”

“Tell them to keep their hands to themselves, and I’ll do my best,” Steve replied evenly.

Fury watched him thoughtfully, drumming his fingertips on the desk. “Good enough,” he said. “Now, why I really got you up here, Rogers. We need you to go undercover.”

Steve felt like he’d slammed into a brick wall without warning. “What?”

“You, Rogers,” Fury replied. “We need you to go undercover.”

Steve tried to gather his scattered wits.

From every dressing down that Fury had given him, all he knew was that Fury thought he could be a good agent, if he wasn’t so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned guys didn’t get to go undercover, especially guys who got flustered when they had to lie.

“Me? Why?”

Fury got up and flicked on the projector hooked into his computer. Images lit up across the wall of his office. Dozens of men, smiling, laughing, good-looking men.

If anything, Steve was even more bewildered. “Sir, what is this?”

Fury was looking at the images. He had his hands folded behind his back, and he rocked on the balls of his feet. “This, Rogers, is the Captain America pageant,” he said. “Every state sends their best-looking, most respectable young man to try and win the shield with good old-fashioned manners and chivalry and all that crap women seem to like.”

“And I’m going undercover because…?”

“If you think I’m sending you because you’re pretty, you need to take a step back, Rogers,” Fury said with a snort. “We’ve had threats against the pageant. The usual: it’s a disgrace to masculinity, it isn’t the American ideal, it’s a travesty, all the usual bullshit. We need someone in there, on the ground, who can get access to all areas.”

Steve nodded, looking at the array of pictures. “Doing what? What’s my cover?”

Fury was smirking, he could hear it in his voice. “Welcome to the Captain America Pageant, Mr New Jersey.”

_________________________________________________

Steve knew he wasn’t going to hear the end of it any time soon.

The guys had always teased him for being a gentleman, but now, he was expected to go to a competition judged entirely on how charming and proper and respectful he could be. That part, he could do. Pretending to be anything except what he was? That was the problem.

It didn’t matter how much the guys called him Pretty Boy, if he couldn’t bluff his way through the pageant and keep the young men safe.

He was sitting in front of the pageant organiser, his hands squeezed uncomfortably between his knees. Alexander Pierce was looking at him kindly, but there was also pity there, as if he could see right through him.

“You don’t seem very at ease about all this, Mr Rogers,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I hear you were nominated for this job by Agent Fury himself.”

“He thought I’d blend in pretty easily,” Steve said with a rueful shrug. “I’m not exactly the kind of guy who goes centre-stage a lot.” He looked down at his hands, then back up. “I guess I’m just kind of nervous.”

Pierce smiled benevolently. “It’s natural,” he said. “You’ve got a good reputation, Rogers, and I’ve no doubt you won’t be any trouble, even with your lack of undercover experience.”

Those were the words that lingered in his ears, long after he left Pierce, carrying a briefing package about what to expect on arrival in Miami. Fury must have told him. It only made sense, letting him know he was getting an agent on his first undercover op.

For the first time in his life, Steve stopped in at the regular bar on the way home without someone inviting him. A few of the guys were there, but he settled for sitting at the bar, leafing through the sheets and itineraries, and oh god. A swimsuit competition?

The stool beside him was pulled out.

“Hey, Rogers.”

He turned his head to find a striking red head smiling at him, a calm, knowing smile. “Uh. Hi, miss?”

“Fury sent me,” she said. “Settle your tab. We’ve got work to do.”

_________________________________________________

“This feels kinda… much.”

Natasha Romanoff looked up from her magazine, a smile flitting across her lips. “That’s kind of the point, Rogers,” she said. “The Captain America pageant isn’t all about the looks, but that’s a big part of it. You’ve got to make them pay attention.”

She had been sent, she said, as a consultant. In what, she didn’t say, but she’d already dragged him through four stores and dismissed pretty much everything they threw at him.

“I thought the contestants had to be themselves,” he said, looking at his reflection again. The suit fitted like it was made for him, dark blue over a light grey shirt. He looked like he should be some kind of lawyer or banker or high-flier. “This isn’t me.”

Natasha folded her magazine up. “You can look yourself in between the rounds,” she said, “but you’ve got to look like you stepped off the cover of a magazine when you’re surrounded by all of the others. Sure, they can get you through to the semi-finals, for security’s sake, but you have to look like you belong there.”

He adjusted the cuff of the jacket, wishing he could just put his leather bomber jacket back on over his shirt and jeans. “So I have to have a different outfit every time I show face?” he said. “Isn’t that overkill?”

He saw her reflection laugh. “Hey, as long as the bureau’s paying for it, why worry?” she said. “And you’ll have one hell of a wardrobe once you’re done.” She was suddenly right behind him, looking at him critically. “I think we’ll work with shades of blue. It suits you. And stops people noticing at the deer-in-the-headlights look you’re wearing.”

He slipped the jacket off. “This isn’t exactly easy for me,” he pointed out. “Why did Fury call you in anyway? Pageants your speciality?”

“And undercover work,” she said glibly. “You’re looking at Miss Nebraska from three years ago. Gave up the crown and got a badge instead.” She pulled him around and reached up to undo the buttons of his shirt. He was too surprised to stop her. She eyed his chest critically. “We’ll have to do something about that.”

“About what?”

Her eyes flicked up to his. “Some people like to go natural,” she said, “and that’s great for them, but this is war, Rogers. If you want to look the part, we need you to make some sacrifices.”

He looked down at his chest and the mat of hair. “No. Nuh uh. No way!”

Her eyes gleamed. “I was sent here to do a job,” she said. “I’m to prepare you for this pageant in any way I deem necessary.” She took a step closer, and he almost took a step back, even though she was half his weight and almost a foot shorter than him. “And I’m going to do it. Do you understand, Agent Rogers?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said before he could even think what he was agreeing to.

She smiled and it was almost sweet. “Good. Now go and get changed. We have a lot more to do.”

_________________________________________________

“We are now beginning our descent into Austin. Please take your seats for landing.”

People moved around the plane, sitting back down. Steve glanced at the display on the back of the seat in front of him, idly scratching at his chest again.

Natasha leaned over from her seat and smacked his hand away. “Don’t scratch.”

“It feels strange,” he said.

“Now you know how girls feel every time they shave and wax,” she said primly, crossing her legs. “If you scratch, your chest’ll be red, and no one wants to see that.”

“The only time they’ll see my chest is the swimsuit competition,” he said, grimacing, “and I don’t think that’s what they’re going to be looking at.”

Natasha snickered, looking out of the window. “Don’t blame me, Rogers,” she said. “I only picked the outfit. You brought everything else to the party.”

Steve folded his table away, but kept his schedule open in his lap.

All things considered, Natasha’s preparations could have been a lot worse. She’d grilled him day and night on his alias - Steven Grant from New Jersey - and got him a wardrobe that almost made him feel the part. Steven Grant was a High School gym instructor, so his down-time clothes were similar to Steve’s own: comfortable slacks, running pants, t-shirts.

It was the competition clothing that felt weird: tailored suits, shirts, ties. He wasn’t someone who liked dressing up or drawing attention to himself, and every time he put one of those suits on, he felt eyes on him. Maybe Steven Grant would have dressed up smartly more often, but Steve Rogers didn’t and he felt like a fraud.

Natasha leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes. “You’ll be fine,” she murmured. “Just be yourself.”

“Kind of defeating the purpose of undercover.”

One blue eye cracked open. “You know what I mean, Rogers,” she said. “You’re a nice guy. You just have to say ‘school teacher’ instead of ‘FBI agent’. All your answers to anything else are pretty much the same: you went into it because you want to make a difference, you like working with people, y’know. The usual. Just… be Mr Nice Guy that everyone says you are, and you’ll be fine.”

He nodded, breathing in then out. He closed up his file, and waited for the flight to come into land.

_________________________________________________

“Okay,” Natasha murmured, reaching up to adjust his lapel. He was wearing a casual suit that made him feel like he should be on the cover of some kind of catalogue. She fastened a tiny American flag pin to his lapel. “You have your earpiece and this is a camera. We’ll see and hear everything you do.”

“We?”

Natasha looked up at him. “You’ll meet the rest of our team this evening,” she said. “May and Hill have been prepping down here for the last week.” She smoothed his jacket over his chest and stepped back. “Don’t forget your cover.”

He looked around. “Orientation breakfast first, right?”

“You got it,” she said, pulling his arm to turn him ninety degrees. “I’ll get your bags to your room. You get on that bus and make some friends.”

Steve grimaced. “What if I forget the cover?” he asked.

“Hill and May have your back,” she replied. “One of them’ll drop you a feed line in your ear if you freeze up.” She patted him firmly on the shoulder. “Everyone’s nervous their first time, Rogers. Be a big boy and get it done.”

He gave her a look. “You know how that sounded right?”

She grinned. “What? You think guys are the only ones who get to make the sex jokes?” She waved him away. “Go and be with your people, Rogers. I want to see how much chivalry and testosterone this building can take before it caves in.”

Steve self-consciously tugged at the end of his coat, straightening it, and headed for the bus.

Pierce was there, his assistant by his side, checking names.

“Mr Grant,” he said with a smile, holding out his hand. “You’re looking sharp.”

Steve shook his hand. “Thank you, sir.”

“Rumlow, mark off Mr New Jersey.” Pierce motioned for him to get on the bus. “We’ll see you at the breakfast, Grant.”

Steve nodded, stepping up onto the bus. Most of the seats were already taken, and he recognised some of the faces from his briefing pack. Some of them were dressed up smarter than he was, others were half-casual.

There was only one seat free, beside a young man who hadn’t made any effort at all. He was in a t-shirt and jeans, and was sitting by the window, looking out. His hair was loose around his face and he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt than seemed out of place in the heat.

“Is this seat taken?” Steve asked carefully.

Dark blue eyes looked up at him and Steve could see why he was in the competition. He could have been a model for any one of the renaissance artists. “Does it look taken?” he said.

Steve took that as invitation and sat down. He looked around the bus at the array of faces, then back at his neighbour, who had gone back to staring out of the window. “I’m Steve, by the way,” he said. “Steve Grant. New Jersey.”

The man next to him looked at him through dark strands of hair. “James Barnes,” he said, then snorted quietly. “New York.”

Steve offered a smile. “It’s good to meet you.”

Barnes looked at him. “Sure,” he said, turning back to the window, and crossing his arms over his chest.

Steve watched him for a moment, until the bus pulled out. If all the competitors were are surly as James Barnes, it was going to be a long week.

Chapter Text

The orientation breakfast was being held at the conference hall that was to be the centre of the pageant events. There was a grand open dining room with far too many windows and way too many entrances and exits for Steve's liking.

The only saving grace was that there were security teams at every door, and it wasn't hard to see why. Groups of young women and men were gathered at the entrance of the building when the bus pulled up, some squealing and shrieking and waving to their favourites. Some of them tried to follow the contestants into the hall, only to come up against the security teams.

"Kinda like being in the Beatles, huh?"

Steve turned his attention back from checking the perimeter. "Excuse me?"

The man beside him was smiling. "The groupies," he said. "Pageant Queens, they call themselves. They show up at the big events."

Steve glanced over at the door, where a pretty girl was trying to talk her way around a security guard. "Never thought I'd have to be defended from a group of teenage girls," he said with a rueful chuckle.

"They can be pretty persistent," the man said. "They're not meant to get into the secure areas, but last year, there were rumours that South Carolina was kicked out of the competition because he let one into his room." He nodded towards the doors. "They're being a lot more careful this year. Kinda causes problems when one of the your contestants is caught with a minor. No girls, boys, or anyone else allowed in. Contestants only this year."

Steve glanced at him. "So that's why there's so much security?" he said, wondering if that was the cover Pierce had settled on.

"Looks like," the man said. He held out a hand. "Sam Wilson. Virginia."

Steve shook his hand. "Steven Grant."

"Jersey, right?"

"Good call," Steve said, surprised.

Sam shrugged with a grin. "Don't give me too much credit," he said. "You were the only one who didn't have a picture in the programme. Doesn't take a genius." He nodded towards the tables. "Want to find your seat?"

"They're allocated?"

Sam laughed. "Oh yeah," he said. "Can't have people playing favourites. Assigned seating with a shuffle every meal so you always get someone new." He nudged Steve. "Guess the Jersey local rounds aren't so strict, huh?"

"Something like that," Steve said with a quick, cautious smile.

Sam lead the way to a table close by the entrance. There were table plans spread across it. Sam searched them, then gave Steve a rueful look.

"Bad luck," he said. "I'm at Free. You're on Brave."

"Don't tell me they named the tables..."

"For the Star-spangled banner? Hell yeah." Sam laughed. "Catch you later, man."

Steve watched him go, then examined the floor plan to find his table. It was on the far side of the room, to the left side of the stage. He wove between tables and people, nodding and smiling in greeting, until he reached the table.

It was laid for six, but so far, only two seats were occupied. One of the young men was a blond, who raised his hand in greeting. He was already halfway through a roll thick with peanut butter, his cheeks chipmunked with of food.

"'Ey."

Steve couldn't help smiling. "Hungry?"

"God, yeah," the man said, once he swallowed. "They didn't give me any food on the plane." He wiped his hand on his pants and held it out. "Clint Barton. Iowa." He nodded to the only other person at the table. "You met New York?"

Steve hoped his grimace wasn't too obvious when he looked across at James Barnes. The man had his right hand curled around a cup of coffee, and he was still scowling.

"We met," Steve said. "Not a morning person, huh?"

Barnes glanced up at him. "What's it to you?"

"Not exactly a people person," Barton said in a stage-whisper.

"Screw you, Barton," Barnes muttered under his breath.

"I can lip-read, jackass," Barton said cheerfully. He sprawled back in his chair and waved regally. "Haul up a seat."

Steve glanced around the table. By sheer bad luck, he was assigned the seat at Barnes' right side. He sat down awkwardly, taking the napkin and laying it across his lap. Barton was already smearing another roll with peanut butter.

Barnes didn't look like he was going to say anything, so Steve turned his attention to the food, keeping his eyes down.

"Say something." The voice in his ear almost made him jump. It was a woman's voice, but not Natasha. "Morning, Rogers," the same voice said, amused. "Agent Hill. We haven't met, but you sitting like a big dumb puppy isn't going to get us anything."

Steve glanced up. Barnes was pouring himself another cup of black coffee. He was using his right hand, Steve noticed. Only his right hand. "Can I get that after you?" he said awkwardly.

Barnes looked at him, eyebrows rising, and held out the jug. "Knock yourself out," he said.

Steve poured himself a cup as Barnes added two sugars to his coffee. "So... uh... this is something, isn't it?"

The look Barnes gave him could have stripped the paint from the walls. "The cameras aren't on us now, pal," he said. "Don't need to be all goody-two-shoes."

He slouched further down in his chair, and Steve looked helplessly at Barton.

"Don't mind grouchypants," Barton said amiably. "He's not a big fan of the attention."

Steve wanted to ask why the hell he'd signed up for the pageant if that was the case, but from the look on Barnes' face, that wasn't a good idea. Instead, he nodded to Barton. "What about you? Is this your thing?"

Barton grinned from ear to ear. "Born and raised," he said. "My old pop was a Captain America finalist back in the day."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Another voice interrupted. "Finalist schminalist, Barton." Another man threw himself down into the chair next to Barton, sketching a mocking salute at Steve. "Tony Stark. Third generation Cap competitor and winner."

"You forgot to mention overconfident," Barton said, rolling his eyes. "Unless you're going for the Captain Ego award."

Stark clapped his hand to his chest. "Barton! If I gave a crap what you thought about me, I'd be offended!"

"You guys know each other?" Steve said.

Stark snatched a donut from the middle of the table. "We've run into each other at the regional heats. I like to check out the competition."

"Two words for you," Barton said. "Corporate Sponsorship. Some of us have to get by on good looks, Stark."

"Wah wah wah, I don't have any money," Stark snorted mockingly. "Wah wah Tony Stark bribes his way into the pageant." He flicked sprinkles from his donut at Barton, who laughed. "Suck it up, buddy. I got in through open competition and impartial judges."

Barton made the universal gesture for money, rubbing his thumb against his fingers.

Stark gave him a dirty look, then turned his focus on Steve. “So, Jersey,” he said. “How the hell did you manage to outfox Terry Wu? Last we heard, he was Captain Jersey.”

Steve knew the drill. He knew the back story and the reason for Wu dropping out, and he had completely forgotten every word of it. “Uh…”

Stark’s eyebrows rose. “Okay. We get it. You’re a natural blond.” He leaned closer, propping his arms on the table. “How about we try in real small words? How you win competition?”

“Don’t need to be a patronising bastard, Stark,” Barnes said irritably.

Steve looked gratefully at Barnes, who had his arms folded over his chest. He wasn’t even looking at Steve. Despite the early heat of the day, he also had a glove on his left hand, which struck Steve as strange.

“Just asking the questions, Barnes,” Stark said airily. “Inquiring minds want to know.”

A voice in Steve’s ear murmured, “Sick mother.”

“Terry’s mom got sick,” Steve blurted out, and he knew it came out too fast. “He stepped down to go and look after her.”

Barton made a face at Stark. “Told you it wasn’t hookers,” he said.

“No,” Stark said. “That’s your job. Oh, wait, you can’t afford them.”

Steve’s mouth took over before his brain could join the party. “So you know how much they cost, huh, Stark? I heard only their regulars know that.”

Clint, his mouthful of pastry, choked as he tried to laugh, and Stark had to smack him hard on the back. His dark eyes surveyed Steve thoughtfully.

“Not so dumb as you look, huh, Jersey?”

“Wish I could say the same,” Steve said, all innocence, and couldn’t miss the flicker of amused appreciation in Stark’s eyes. And to his surprise, to his left, he heard a quiet chuckle from Barnes.

He glanced sidelong at the man, but Barnes was looking up at the stage, his features taut, as Pierce climbed up the steps to the podium.

“Here we go,” Stark grumbled, snatching a pastry. “The ‘we’re all winners’ speech. Bask in it, losers. It’s all you’re taking home.”

Steve leaned back in his chair, looking around as two more men hurried to take their seats at the table. All eyes went to Pierce, and Stark wasn’t wrong. The speech was all motivational platitudes and congratulations for getting so far. Some of the contestants were looking proud. Others were looking nervous. Barnes, Steve noticed, looked even more petulant.

As soon as the speech was over and they were given leave to go and mingle, Barnes got up and walked away. Stark headed in the opposite direction, leaving Steve in Barton’s company.

“So what’s New York’s deal?” he asked, watching Barnes head for the door.

Barton shrugged. “I guess he didn’t really want to win anything,” he said. “Plus the press have been making a big deal about him being a veteran. A lot of people say that’s the only reason he got this far.”

“Well,” Steve said wryly, “it’s not his sparkling personality.”

Barton snorted in amusement. “C’mon. Let’s go be social. Schmooze. And I heard there’s jellybeans on the breakfast bar.” He sighed wistfully. “This is a place of Kings, let me tell you. Jellybeans for breakfast? I could get used to this.”

“You don’t have a stylist counting your calories?”

Barton snorted. “Do I look like a girl, Jersey?” He patted his belly. “I don’t got much but I have one hell of a metabolism. You coming?”

“For jellybeans or socialising?”

“Both. Either.”

Steve glanced around. Sam Wilson was by the breakfast bar as well. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Chapter Text

Orientation felt like being back at high school again, with senior people telling him what to do and where to go.

The whole day was scheduled for meeting and greeting people, going for fittings, photo opportunities, smiling for the camera, and by the time Steve was dropped back at the hotel, he was exhausted already.

He picked up his key from the front desk and made his way through the building to the room he would be sharing with one of the other contestants. He wasn’t someone to believe in luck, but he crossed his fingers anyway before he unlocked the door.

Karma, it seemed, was delivering every piece of bad luck he was owed in spades.

There was an open suitcase on the bed nearest the glass veranda doors, and he could see the nametag clearly enough. Barnes. Again. As if dealing with him in company wasn’t bad enough. He hadn’t seen the other man since breakfast, but he wasn’t holding out any hopes he would be in a better mood.

He padded across to the empty bed and flopped down on it, his hands behind his head.

All things considered, it hadn’t been a bad day. He’d had cues from his guardian agents when he stumbled on a question, and the photographers didn’t seem to mind that he didn’t know how to pose for his pictures. It just felt like a big deal over nothing.

He didn’t even know what he was meant to be looking for.

Unusual activity wasn’t exactly in short supply when the contestants included a nuclear physicist, a playboy billionaire - if Stark was to be believed - and a card shark from Louisiana. Maybe the agents watching and listening with him were picking up on something, but if they were, he had no idea what it was.

He sat up as the veranda door slid open, one hand moving automatically to the place where his gun would normally be. It wasn’t there, and he let his hand drop away as Barnes stepped into the room, dripping, a towel around his hips.

Steve blinked dumbly.

He knew he was staring and that he probably should stop, but he couldn’t help it. Barnes wasn’t exactly wearing much, and every inch of him was soaking from the pool. It wasn’t the fact he was in good shape that caught Steve’s eyes. It was his left arm: a full, plated metal prosthetic fixed to his shoulder.

He tore his eyes from it to look up at Barnes, whose expression flicked from angry to blank and closed.

“Take a picture,” he said curtly. “It’ll last longer.”

He turned on his heel and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.

Steve drew a breath between his teeth. Suddenly Barton’s assertions that Barnes thought he got in on a sympathy vote made a lot of sense.

It was one thing to be a good-looking war vet, but a good-looking war vet who had lost a limb in the name of his country? There was every chance he’d been voted in out of pity, especially since he didn’t fit the smiling, cheerful Captain America image.

There was a tap at the veranda door. Steve scrambled up, glancing over at the bathroom to make sure he wouldn’t be noticed. Natasha was standing on the veranda, examining the wet footprints from the pool. “We’ve got work to do,” she said.

“Nat, I’m exhausted. Can’t we…”

“Do prep for your first interview tomorrow another day? Nope.” She caught his arm. “You have some people you need to meet as well.”

Well, he thought with a rueful glance back, at least he wouldn’t have to deal with Barnes scowling at him all night.

 

_________________________________________________

 

May and Hill were waiting in the pageant centre. Agent May was going over the technical specs with some of the technicians and nodded in greeting, but Agent Hill broke off from what she was doing and came over to meet him.

“So you’re the famous Agent Rogers, huh?”

Steve glanced at Natasha, who shrugged.

“Don’t look at me, Rogers,” she said. “I haven’t been talking you up.”

“Coulson,” Hill clarified.

“Oh! Right. He’s the head HR guy, right?”

Hill grinned at him. “Y’know, I think you might have just made his year,” she said. “He’s going to be impossible when he finds out that you know who he is.”

If anything, Steve just felt more confused. “What? Why? I’m just an agent like him.”

Hill and Romanoff exchanged looks. “He really doesn’t have any idea how many groupies he has, does he?” Hill said.

“Groupies?”

Natasha hid a smile. “You’re the good old-fashioned pin-up of your division, Rogers,” she said. “If Fury said you weren’t picked because of your looks, he was lying.”

Steve blinked at her. Sure, they called him pretty boy, but he figured they were teasing. Hill and Natasha were looking at him with amusement, and he could feel the blush crawling up the back of his neck. “Uh…”

“That,” Hill said, shooing Natasha towards May, “is exactly what we need to stop.”

“The blushing?”

Hill shook her head. “The deer-in-headlights look when you’re panicking. The blushing is cute. People might find it endearing.” She patted Steve on the arm. “We’re been evaluating how you did today, and we need to work on your Q and A skills. You’re mixing well with the contestants and doing pretty well when you talk about them, but we need you to be more relaxed talking as Steven Grant.”

“Fury knew I wasn’t good at this when he signed me up,” Steve said self-consciously, as they walked up onto the empty stage.

“And that’s why we’re here,” Hill said. “You bring the looks. We bring the personality.”

Steve glanced at her. “And if I freeze up in the interview, it’s bad, right?”

Hill patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. “Pierce gave us the questions you’ll be asked,” she said. “We’re going to drill you on them until you sound natural. You can change up your answers until it feels like something you would say.”

“Like help help, get me off this stage?”

Hill chuckled. “Sarcasm won’t save you now, Rogers,” she said.

She motioned for him to sit down on the stool in the middle of the stage. A spotlight flicked on, dazzling him, and he raised his hand to shield his eyes.

“Why do I feel like I’m about to be interrogated?”

“You’re not wrong,” Hill said. “The interview’s in the studio tomorrow afternoon, but the spotlight should already be on when you go on, so you won’t need to squint.” She turned in the direction of her colleagues. “May, what’s tomorrow, daytime?”

May didn’t even look her way. “Rehearsals and talking to sponsors.”

“And next morning is the exhibit-thing, right?” Steve said.

Hill nodded, pushing his shoulders back and making him sit up straighter on the stool. “You get to show off your special skills.” She paused, frowning, and drew back. “Romanoff didn’t mention yours.”

Steve looked wildly at Natasha. “I was meant to bring a skill?”

“Romanoff!” Hill called.

Natasha was by their side in a second. “What is it?”

“Didn’t you mention he had to do something in the exhibit?”

Natasha looked at Steve accusingly. “I thought you read the information you were given.”

“It didn’t say I had to do and song and dance routine on my own!”

The two women exchanged looks. Hill ran her hand over the bottom of her face. “Is there anything you’re good at that isn’t standing still and looking like 100% purebred American beefcake?”

Steve’s mouth was dry. There was only one thing he could think of, and that was something that no one at work knew about. It wasn’t something he liked to make a big deal about, because it was a hobby, something he did for fun. But he had to do something if he was to get through to the next round on more than just the back of an FBI order.

“I can draw,” he finally said.

Natasha frowned. “You only have five minutes to show them what you can do. Would that be enough for a drawing?”

“If I have to, I can make it enough,” he said. “You get me a canvas, easel and oils, and I’ll do what I can.”

Hill breathed out slowly. “Well, that’s a start,” she said. She pulled a card out of her pocket. “Now, we need to make a start on the interview.”

Steve sat back in the stool. “Hit me.”

 

___________________________________________

 

It was so late it was almost early by the time Steve got back to his room.

Hill had grilled him every which way, rephrasing the questions, changing the order, testing his responses with more in depth questions. After nearly twenty-hours almost non-stop activity, all he wanted to do was fall face down on his bed and sleep for a week.

He slid the door aside as quietly as he could, and had barely stepped across the threshold when he was slammed up against the wall, a metal arm across his throat.

Barnes!

“Whoa whoa whoa!” he gasped out, grabbing at the man’s shoulders. “It’s just me!”

Barnes recoiled, and Steve groped blindly behind him for the light switch, flicking it on.

“What the hell…” Barnes rasped raggedly. He looked like he had just woken up, and maybe he had. Maybe the sound of the door opening had roused him. He looked down at his hands, then back at Steve, a look of panic on his face. “Christ, I’m sorry. I just… old habits. Guarding the perimeter.”

“It’s okay,” Steve said hoarsely, leaning back against the wall. He rubbed at his neck. “I guess I should have let you know I was going to be back late.” He searched Barnes’s face. The man was pale, trembling, and it had to be more than just guarding the perimeter that was bothering him. “You okay?” He hesitated, then reached out and touched the man’s shoulder. “James?”

Barnes recoiled back. “Yeah. Yeah, sure. I’m… I’m good.” He turned around, stumbling back to his bed. The sheets and covers were all over the floor, and he bent to gather them up, dragging them over himself on the mattress.

Steve watched him for a moment, frowning. Barnes was invisible under the sheets, and silent, so he figured it was okay to leave the man to his own devices.

He got his stuff from his own case and went to the bathroom, stripping down to his boxers and looking at himself in the mirror. There was a reddish patch on his neck, where Barnes’ arm had pressed into his skin, but it wasn’t enough to bruise.

He glanced back over his shoulder towards the room.

Of all the people to end up rooming with, he had to get the on-edge war veteran with impulse control issues. He could let the pageant organisers know, but technically, he was the one who had snuck into a room in the middle of the night and scared the hell out of the man.

He took his time washing up and cleaned his teeth before padding back through to the room and getting into his own bed. He flicked the light off, and lay back, staring up at the ceiling. He had been tired, but now, his heart was racing, and it was going to be a long while before he could get to sleep.

“Jersey?”

The whisper was so faint, he could barely hear it.

“Yeah?” he murmured.

“Don’t call me James. Only my mom called me that.”

Steve turned his head to look across at the other bed. The sheets had moved and there was a small, dark opening where he guessed Barnes’ face was. “Yeah? So what do I call you, New York?”

“Bucky.” It was little more than a whisper. “Most people call me Bucky.”

Steve managed to smile. “Okay,” he agreed. “Bucky.”

Chapter Text

If he’d held out any hope of a restful night, Steve didn’t get it.

He was woken before dawn by Barnes tossing and turning in his sleep. Steve lifted his head from his pillow, looking over at the other man. Bucky’s sheets were kicked off and he was curled up in a tight ball in the middle of his bed.

He was muttering to himself, in a mix of languages Steve didn’t recognise, but he did pick out a handful of words repeated over and over: Sergeant James Barnes - 32557038.

That sent a chill down Steve’s spine.

There were very few occasions when a soldier would resort to reciting his rank and serial number, and none of them were good. If Barnes - Bucky - was mumbling in his sleep, there was every chance he was having a nightmare, and Steve didn’t know if it was a good idea to leave him to it or to wake him.

He didn’t get the chance. Bucky suddenly sat bolt upright on the bed, gasping. The fingers of his metal hand tore through the mattress. His whole body was wire taut, skin shining with sweat, his ribs rising and falling with ragged breaths.

Bucky swore under his breath, pulling his hand from the mattress and pushing back his hair. He was framed against the faint light coming through the curtains, elbows propped on his upraised knees, head in his hands.

“Bucky?” Steve murmured sleepily. “You okay?”

Bucky’s head jerked around as if he had been struck. “Yeah. Fine,” he said tersely. “Go back to sleep.” He was off the bed in a second and headed towards the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind him, and locking it.

Steve laid his head back down on the pillow, watching the door. He didn’t know how long Bucky had been back from the war zone, but it clearly wasn’t long enough. No wonder he wasn’t happy about being in the competition, if he was still having trouble.

He closed his eyes when he heard the latch on the bathroom door being unlocked, feigning sleep as Bucky shuffled around the room. He wasn’t surprised when he heard the veranda door slide quietly open and closed again.

Steve opened his eyes and looked over at the closed door. It was barely dawn but Barnes had already taken off. Steve sat up, rubbing a hand over his face. It wasn’t as if he was going to be able to get back to sleep now, not worrying about his fellow contestant.

He got up and went over to Bucky’s bed.

The mattress was ripped almost clean through, and housekeeping were sure to notice. He stripped the covers off the bed and flipped the mattress over, hiding the damage. The last thing Barnes needed was the hotel getting antsy about damage done to their property. He replaced the sheet and pillows and dumped the blankets on top. It looked okay. No one would notice the damage if they weren’t looking.

Steve went back to his own bed, sitting down on the edge, and dug through his case for the clothes he had chosen and packed himself: his running gear. If he was going to be up at the crack of dawn, he might as well make some use of the time.

 

____________________________________________

 

In the pre-dawn light, the streets around the hotel were deserted and quiet. The air was cool and dry, and there was barely even a breath of wind. Steve stretched, then set out at his usual pace. It was just a case of doing laps of the block, because missing breakfast on account of getting lost wasn’t a good plan.

He wasn’t the only one jogging. He wasn’t even the only pageant contestant running laps. He overtook Sam Wilson once. The man was running at a sedate pace, and by the time Steve was about to lap him the second time, he couldn’t help notice Sam had picked up his speed, as if he had a point to prove.

Steve couldn’t help himself.

“On your left,” he quipped, as he ran past.

“C’mon, man!” Sam yelled after him.

Steve just raised a hand in a wave and kept going.

The sun was up when Sam finally staggered back into the courtyard of the hotel. Steve was sitting on the edge of the fountain, waiting for him.

“You want me to call an EMT?” he said innocently.

“You, sir,” Sam said, sitting down beside him, “are a jackass.”

“And I’m still faster than you, Wilson,” Steve said, grinning.

Sam just shook his head, rubbing his hand against his chest. “Up early,” he observed.

Steve shrugged, fishing for a lie that would sound plausible. In the end, the truth was easier. “I had some stuff on my mind,” he said.

“About the competition?” Steve shrugged neutrally. “Hey, man, don’t worry about it. If you weren’t expecting to be here, no one’s going to be surprised if you’re nervous.” He braced his hand on Steve’s shoulder, pushing himself to his feet. “C’mon. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to the breakfast bar before they run out of the good stuff.”

“Good stuff?”

Sam eyed him. “You guys must have it easy in Jersey,” he said. “You got more than fifty guys here who work out like crazy. Everyone’s going to be in there to load up on protein. You want bacon, you got to be there before anyone else.”

“You’ve done this before,” Steve observed as they headed back into the hotel.

“I work with veterans,” Sam said. “ A lot of conferences with ex-military guys. Some of those guys know how to eat, let me tell you. I swear I almost got into a fork fight with a guy because I tried to take the last piece of bacon.”

Steve glanced at him, considering what he knew of Bucky Barnes. It wasn’t his place to say, but maybe he could at least point Bucky in Sam’s direction. It couldn’t hurt, not when Barnes was clearly needing some kind of support.

“So, uh, how long have you been doing that?”

Sam shrugged. “Couple of years,” he said. He shook his head. “Don’t believe what they put in the brochure. They said I was some kind of psychotherapist thing. It’s nothing like that. I’m just there when I’m needed.” He shot Steve a quick smile. “Not like teaching, right? I bet those vacations are real nice.”

Steven Grant would have made some smart mouth comment. All Steve could think to say was, “It has its days.” He was silent for a moment, then added, “Teenagers think they’re god’s gift, no matter what you tell them.”

“Amen,” Sam agreed, pushing open the door into the dining room. “And hallelujah! Houston, we have bacon!”

 

_____________________________________________

 

The breakfast was less formal than the first one, even if they still has assigned tables.

Steve was seated at a quiet table where Bruce, Hank, and a second Steve from Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska respectively, were talking about science. Steve listened as he ate, but it was complex stuff, and most of it went over his head.

He was distracted as well, searching for his errant roommate.

Barnes finally showed up less than ten minutes before the breakfast bar was set to close. His hair was dragged back from his face, and he looked like he’d just showered again. He ignored everyone, heading straight for the food. He piled his plate high, then retreated to his assigned seat, keeping his eyes down.

“Hey! Barnes!” Steve groaned inwardly as Stark practically strutted across the hall towards Bucky. “Who was your lady friend?”

Bucky’s hands went still over his plate and he looked up. “Talking out your ass again, Stark?”

Tony Stark rolled his eyes. “There’s no secrets in the Handsome Games.” He flashed a grin. “I saw the red head go to your door last night. Did she volunteer as tribute, Barnes? Offer to give you a good luck kiss.”

“Stark,” Steve heard a voice speak up, and was surprised to realise it was his own. “You want to let the man eat his breakfast in peace?”

Tony Stark whirled around, hands spread. “Or maybe she’s your girl, huh, Grant? No need to be shy.”

“Jealous, Stark?” Steve rose from the table. “That some of us don’t have to pay for it?”

They had an audience now, and Tony Stark’s eyebrows rose.

“Oh, that’s how it’s gonna be, Goldielocks?”

Steve spread his hands. “I can do this all day.”

“Jersey.” Barnes’ voice was a low growl. “Shut your hole.”

Steve looked by Stark at Bucky. There was warning in his expression, but also a plea not to make things worse. “You’re right,” he said, raising his hands, palms out. “This isn’t the place to get into a fight. Stark, if you don’t mind.”

Stark looked surprised. He turned back to Bucky. “Hey, good job,” he said. “Looks like you’ve got him whipped.”

That was when he made the mistake of slapping Bucky on the shoulder, and ended up pinned facedown on the table by the man.

“Same goes for you, Stark,” Bucky snarled, then released him, and stormed away.

Stark fell down into the nearest seat, flexing his arm. He didn’t looked surprised by the reaction, and judging by the other contestants’ faces, everyone pretty much seemed to agree that he deserved it.

“What the hell was that about?”

Steve glanced over his shoulder. Barton was standing several steps behind him, tossing grapes into the air and catching them in his mouth. “Barnes or Stark?”

“Or Captain Chivalry getting all up in Stark’s face,” Barton replied, holding out a bowl of grapes. Steve rook one. “You wanna be careful, Jersey. Stark might be an asshole, but he’s an asshole with money and reach.”

Steve grimaced. “Yeah,” he said. “The best kind of asshole.” He popped the grape into his mouth, glancing towards the door, where Bucky had stormed out. “You think I should go after him?”

“What am I? Your momma?” Clint shrugged. “He’s your roommate.”

Steve nodded, heading for the door, but before he even hit the lobby, a hand wrapped around his arm.

“Keep walking, Rogers,” Agent May murmured. “We need to have a little chat about keeping our comms in and not causing a scene.”

Chapter Text

“You want to tell us what all that was about?”

May had requisitioned one of the manager’s offices and was sitting on the edge of the desk in front of Steve, her arms folded over her chest. He felt like he’d been pulled up in front of the principal, sitting awkwardly, his hands clasped together in his lap.

“Stark was being a jerk.”

“According to all intelligence we have on the man, that’s his default setting,” she said. “I wasn’t asking about him. I was asking about you. You’re here to blend in, not to get into fights with one of the lead sponsors of the event.”

Steve felt the colour drain from his face. “He’s that Stark?”

“Yes.”

He sagged back in the chair. “Right. No wonder he walks around like he can get away with anything,” he said. He looked up at her. “Are you telling me I have to play nice with him?”

May’s expression gave nothing away. “I’m saying you need to be careful where you pick your battles,” she said. “What started it?”

Steve shook his head. “He was harassing Bucky about Natasha coming to our door,” he said. “I thought it would be better to stop him asking questions, in case people start suspecting something is going on. Might be better if she stays out of sight for now.”

May’s eyes narrowed. “Bucky?”

“James Barnes. New York.”

May was very good at hiding what she was thinking, but he caught the flicker of something in her eyes. “I see.”

Steve stared at her. “What do you know?” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“About Barnes. You know something about him, don’t you?”

She looked placidly back at him. “I’ve done background checks on all of the contestants,” she said. “I know plenty about all of them.” He frowned doubtfully. “If there’s anything you need to know, Agent Rogers, I’ll tell you, but right now, we’re just watching.” She held out her hand. His earpiece and pin were lying in it. “And to do that, you’ll need to keep eyes and ears open for us.”

He picked them both up. “I went for a run,” he said. “Forgot to go back for them.”

“We noticed,” she said dryly. “Romanoff had to go through your room to find them. You might want to be a bit more careful.” She pushed off from the desk. “We need you watching and listening, okay? Anything that might trigger alarms. Anything that doesn’t fit in with what’s going on.”

Steve thought of the mattress with the hole, the metal arm against his neck. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

She motioned to the door. “Get to the fitting rooms,” she said. “Sponsor meetings start in half an hour.” He nodded, heading for the door. “And Rogers.” He paused, looking back. “Keep an eye on Barnes.”

He nodded, then stepped out, closing the door behind him.

 

________________________________________________

 

The sponsor meetings weren’t bad, just enough to make anyone cringe.

A lot of the contestants were looking for support for charities and the sponsors were looking for someone to back, a face for their product and a name. The winner was the biggest prize, but the runners up could be guaranteed at least a little support.

Steve did the bare minimum he could, and headed for the wardrobe when he was called to get prepped for the interviews. He hadn’t seen Barnes since breakfast, so it came as a surprise when the man’s reflection appeared in his mirror behind him, as he fastened his tie.

“Jersey.”

Steve offered him a smile. “Hey, Bucky,” he said. “You okay? Sorry about that stuff at breakfast.”

Bucky was leaning against the doorframe, his arms folded over his chest under his plaid shirt. He wasn’t even in a suit yet, as if he had all the time in the world. “You had a girl at the room last night?”

“A friend stopped by,” Steve replied. He saw the guarded look in Barnes’ eyes and quickly added, “Nothing like that. She works nearby and wanted to see how I was doing. She wanted me to meet some of her friends.”

“Hm.” The sound was laden with meaning.

Steve turned to look at him. “Trust me, I don’t bring girls back to shared hotel rooms,” he said. “And I definitely wouldn’t bring Nat. She’d break me like a twig.”

That earned a brief flicker of a smile. “Thanks,” Barnes said.

Steve shrugged, turning back to the mirror and frowning at the tie. He hadn’t worn one for years, and now, it wasn’t lying right. “No harm, no foul, right?” he said. He almost jumped when a hand touched his shoulder. Barnes moved like a cat.

“You’ve tied it too high,” he said, pulling Steve around and undoing the tie.

“Oh.” Up close, Steve could see the concealed shadows under Bucky’s dark blue eyes. He looked exhausted, and no wonder. He was looking at the tie, twisting the strip of fabric up and around and over and under.

“Thanks for the mattress too,” he said suddenly, quietly. “You flipped it.”

Steve nodded. “You got enough to worry about with the competition,” he said. “If you want to tell them on the last day, you can.”

Bucky drew the tie up to rest neatly against Steve’s collar, then smoothed it down against his chest with his left hand. The false hand. It felt cool through the fabric of Steve’s shirt. Bucky looked up, meeting Steve’s eyes, and jerked his hand away. “You didn’t need to do that.”

“People keep saying that to me,” Steve said with a crooked smile. “Guess I like doing what I’m not meant to.”

Bucky stared at him for a second too long. “You’re a strange one, Grant,” he said, shaking his head. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Could ask you the same thing, Buck,” Steve retorted, turning away to pull on his jacket. “And call me Steve.”

“Steve,” Bucky echoed.

“Well, it is my name,” Steve said. He checked himself in the mirror, straightening his jacket. He glanced at Bucky’s reflection. “So, how does it look? Think I’m in with a chance?”

There was an odd, blank look on Bucky’s face. “Yeah,” he murmured. “Definitely.” He drew himself up, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. “You look a hell of a lot better than half the guys out there.”

“Only half?” Steve feigned offence, looking back at his reflection.

Bucky withdrew one hand from his pocket, swaying it from side to side. “Maybe three fifths on a good day.” Steve shot a look at him, and to his surprise, Barnes cracked a small, bright smile that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Good luck.”

“Same to you.”

Bucky touched a fingertip to his brow in a half-salute, and headed out of the room.

 

_______________________________________

 

The crowd was getting geared up. The open-air studio was full, every seat occupied, and Steve was starting to get nervous. Several screens in the massive green room showed a dozen camera angles on the audience, while three more were pointed at the stage.

"Looking kinda nervous, Jersey."

Steve tore his eyes away from the screen to look at Sam. "Is it that obvious?"

"You've been smoothing your bangs every thirty seconds," Sam said with a rueful smile. "Either you're nervous or your hair did something bad and you want to punish it."

Steve lowered his hand self-consciously. "I'm not good with talking about myself," he said. "Especially with so many people watching."

"Y'know what makes it easier?"

"If you tell me to imagine them naked..."

Sam laughed. "Definitely not," he said. "That makes it worse, when you can't stop laughing." He patted Steve's shoulder. "Just imagine you're talking to someone you get along with. Could be a friend or a colleague or something. Someone you feel comfortable talking to."

"I don't normally do that in the spotlight," Steve said with a helpless smile.

"You're a teacher, right? You have to make sure people pay attention to you?"

Steve winced. "Yeah. I guess."

"Then play school teacher," Sam said, smiling. "Like you're doing a presentation for your class."

Steve nodded. In all his years at the FBI, there had been presentations to senior agents. Thinking about it that way made it sound a little easier. Sure, he was talking about a false persona, but if he pretended it was summarising a case, then maybe, he would be able to get through it without stumbling.

"Looking sharp, ladies!"

Steve blew out a noisy breath. He didn't have to turn around to know Stark had just entered the room and he felt Sam sock him on shoulder.

"Play nice," Sam muttered, his grin audible in his voice.

"Or ignore him," Steve retorted under his breath. "I can do that."

"Gentlemen." The female voice caught him by surprise. "If I can have your attention."

He almost swept his hand over his brow again, but forced his hand back down as he turned from the screens to face the centre of the room. Agent May was standing there, in the same uniform as the other pageant controllers, a headpiece at her ear.

"And here I thought techs were meant to be hairy and fat," Stark said, sauntering over to her. "Hey."

She didn't say anything. She just looked at him, and stopped him dead in his tracks. "I'm not here for you entertainment, Mr Stark," she finally said. "If you don't mind backing up, I need to be able to see everyone."

He swung around, strutting away as if it had been his idea the whole time. Steve couldn't help noticing that Stark tucked himself in between other people, out of the firing line. Steve wanted to applaud, but he knew why she was there: to keep his profile low.

She did a run down of the contestants by state, to check they were present, pausing at New York. She looked around. "Has anyone seen New York?"

"I'm here," Bucky declared from the doorway. "Don't need to send out a search party."

Steve looked over and found himself staring.

For the first time since they'd met, Bucky was looking the part in a charcoal grey suit that was cut perfectly to his figure and a black shirt open at the collar. His hair was slicked back and his face cleanshaven, and he looked good.

It was, Steve decided, an inconvenient time to notice how attractive another man was.

May nodded curtly and went back to her list, running through the last states, then ordering them into alphabetical order.

Barnes remained where he was, leaning against the doorframe.

"Someone learned how to use a comb," Barton muttered to Steve, as he was bullied into place by May.

Steve couldn't help nodding. He glanced back as New Mexico was ushered into place behind him, and Bucky was directed into the next position. Bucky didn't even seem to notice him. He was occupied using his right hand to smooth his collar and lapel.

"All right, gentlemen," May said, finger to her earpiece. "You're on in two minutes. Progress towards the stage right."

"Game faces on, ladies!" Stark called out as the doors opened. "Prepare to taste defeat."

"Can't someone just shoot him?" Someone else said in the middle of the line.

"It's not on the schedule," May said. "Go."

Chapter Text

There were so many faces and the spotlight felt hot.

He didn’t know why they all had to be lining the stage to wait for their turn to step forward, but they were. They had to walk forward when cued, do a turn of some kind front and centre, then step up onto the plinth, and get grilled by the interviewer.

Some of the guys shed their jackets and did a turn like they were on a catwalk. Steve had a feeling if he tried that, he’d get caught up in his sleeves and tangle himself in a knot. When his turn came, the jacket stayed on, but he smiled like he was happy to be there and pushed it back from his hips so he could put his hands in the pockets of his pants.

Apparently, the crowd liked that.

The cheers and applause, knowing he had done some part of it right, was comforting, as he headed for the plinth.

The interviewer was waiting with a smile. She was one of Pierce’s select presenters, a young woman called Sharon Carter. There was something reassuring about her, and when she started asking the questions, it felt easier to answer them, all the answers lined up and prepped by Hill and Romanoff.

Maybe they did sound rehearsed, but he didn’t care, as long as it was over. He headed back to his place along the back of the stage, watching as New Mexico went forward. He slanted a sideways look.

Bucky was standing less then three feet away from him. He looked like a completely different man from the one at the orientation breakfast. His back was straight, his weight set to one side, giving him a rakish look. His head was up, and there was a quizzical little smile on his lips.

He must have noticed Steve watching, because he tilted his head and raised his eyebrows.

Steve felt the heat rise in his face.

He had no reason to be staring. It wasn’t as if he’d come all the way to Texas to stare at some guy who was his assigned room mate and a pageant contender of all things. Hell, every man on the stage was attractive. He wasn’t there to look. He was there to do his job.

Even if his job was, as May ordered, to keep an eye on Barnes.

When Barnes was called forward, Steve let himself look again.

Anyone who had met Barnes at the breakfast could have believed he won on the pity vote, but anyone who saw him on the stage would believe he won on looks and charisma.

He strode to the front of the stage like he owned it, his jacket sliding casually from his shoulders and catching on the fingers of his right hand. He did a flamboyant twirl, swinging the jacket up to rest over his shoulder, and on the giant screens, his face was caught in close up as he winked at the crowd.

The roar was deafening.

Steve risked a glance along the line to California.

Tony Stark, he noticed with a smug grin, was starting to look a little nervous.

 

_____________________________________

 

The dress-down and clear-up was happening in the dressing area.

Steve dodged the worst of the chaos and headed out into the lobby where it wasn’t so ripe with the smell of fifty guys in varying degrees of nervousness and two dozen different kinds of cologne. His head was throbbing, and he sat down on the ledge of the nearest window, just to catch his breath.

He heard footfalls approaching and looked up to see Pierce. Self-consciously, he started to get up.

“It’s all right, Agent,” Pierce said amiably. “Take a moment. I know how it can get in there.”

Steve subsided back down gratefully. “I was hoping to see you, sir,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I’ve been doing okay.”

Pierce chuckled. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said you got here all on your own merit, Rogers,” he said. “You’re doing fine, and so far, none of the contestants have expressed any concerns about your presence.”

“Not even Stark?” Steve said.

Pierce waved a hand dismissively. “Tony Stark is all talk,” he said. “He plays the big man, but in reality, he just likes showing off. If he made a fuss about everyone who spoke back to him, he wouldn’t have an audience.” He hesitated, then stepped a little closer. “I will admit we’re concerned about Barnes, though.”

Steve frowned. “Oh?”

“He’s been having a rough time,” Pierce said gravely. He rubbed his chin. “As his room mate, you may be the best person to ask. Aside from that incident with Stark and the table, you haven’t seen any violent behaviour? Outbursts of temper? Anything like that?”

Steve remembered the arm at his throat. He remembered the mattress. But he also remembered the way Barnes’ hands deftly tied his tie and smoothed it delicately in place.

“Nothing I can think of,” he said. “I’ll keep my eyes open.”

Pierce’s smile returned. “Good,” he said. “He’s a good boy. I wouldn’t want anyone to think ill of him because he’s not having the best of years.”

Steve smiled placidly. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, and he certainly didn’t feel comfortable discussing someone else’s health and well-being behind their back. “I’ll watch out for him, sir,” he said.

Pierce patted him on the shoulder. “You do that,” he said. He nodded back towards the door. “I better go and see how the rest of the boys are getting on.”

Steve watched him go, then leaned back against the window and closed his eyes.

Fury was going to tear him a new one.

He always said Steve got too emotionally invested. It was just a mission, that was all it ever was, but Steve cared too much about people not to get invested. And now, while he was meant to be undercover, was the worst possible time to get invested in anyone.

“You’re an idiot, Rogers,” he muttered to himself, pushing off the window ledge and heading back into the dressing area.

 

______________________________________

 

“Where did that come from?”

By the time Steve got back to his room, Bucky was already in the shower. He emerged from the bathroom in a t-shirt and his boxers, towelling his hair dry. It was sticking in all directions. He looked over at Steve’s question. “Huh?”

“That…” Steve gestured. “The stage. The jacket-thing. The… you.”

Bucky looked at him, one side of his mouth turned up. It wasn’t the brilliant white stage smile of earlier, but it was somehow more real, more sincere. “Caught a few people by surprise, didn’t it?” he said, carefully folding the towel in half then into quarters. “I thought Stark was going to have a fit.”

Steve was sitting on his own bed. Romanoff must have busted in again, because there were a pile of art supplies that he was sifting through, laid out on the bed. “If you can pull something like that every round, I think we should set a camera just for his reaction shots.”

Bucky sat down on the end of his own bed, smoothing the towel over his lap. “Guess he didn’t bother doing his homework about me,” he said quietly. “I heard he went to most of the other finals. He didn’t bother with New York.”

Steve looked over, frowning. “Why wouldn’t he?”

Bucky slanted a look at him, then lifted his left hand. “Who’s going to beat an amputee war veteran?” He looked back down at the towel, laying his false hand down on it. “I know what they’ve been saying, y’know. That I only got in on the pity vote for the poor crippled war vet.”

“I think tonight just showed them that wasn’t true.”

Bucky tossed the towel over onto the table and lay back on the bed. "Good," he said. He grabbed the remote, flicking on the TV, and fell silent.

On his bed, Steve opened up the sketch book Natasha had delivered, running his fingers over the page. It was good quality paper. It wasn't as if he was out of practise, but it wouldn't hurt to do some drawing, to test what he could do in five minutes.

He picked up one of the pencils, and started doodling.

Several minutes later, he noticed the silence. Bucky had switched the TV off. Steve raised his eyes from the page.

Bucky was sprawled out on his side on his bed, watching Steve draw. "Your talent?" he said, without raising his eyes from the picture. It was a sketch of the interviewer and Steve lifted his pencil away self-consciously.

"So I'm told," he said.

Bucky's eyes flicked up to him, unreadable, then he sprawled back on his bed and sighed, "Draw me like one of your French girls, Steve."

It was so completely unexpected that Steve gawped at him. "Did you just..."

Bucky's face split in a grin that lit up his face, and he propped himself up on his elbows. "The look on your face!" He frowned suddenly. "Or maybe you don't get pop culture? Big jock teacher like you? Bet you don't..."

Steve lobbed an eraser at his head and Bucky ducked under it. "I've seen Titanic, you jerk," he said, unable to stifle a laugh. "I understood the reference."

Bucky's features seemed to relax, softening the tight lines in his face. "You're pretty good," he said, nodding to the book.

Steve shrugged with a quick smile. "It's just a hobby," he said. He started sketching again, and occasionally glanced at Bucky. For once, the man seemed to be open to conversation. "You're in a better mood today?"

Bucky leaned closer to the edge of the bed. "I'll let you in on a secret," he said in a stage-whisper. "Mini-bar."

Steve couldn't say he was surprised. "Before you went on?"

Barnes looked offended. "No!" he said. "I'm not that stupid!" He flopped onto his back, his right hand under his head. "Victory drink. For not screwing up."

“You didn’t look like you had anything to worry about,” Steve said.

Barnes snorted. “No. Just everyone expecting me to be some kind of goddamned mutant because of this.” He lifted his left arm again, turning his head to watch the way the light played across his fingers. He let his arm fall back down. “Jesus, I don’t shut up, do I?”

Steve smiled. “To be honest, I prefer the talking,” he said. “I thought you were going to bite my head off yesterday.”

Barnes turned his head, looking at Steve solemnly. “I don’t like people staring,” he said, the words put together so carefully, Steve wondered how many victory drinks Bucky’d had. He couldn’t remember seeing the other man at any of their meals during the day.

“Buck,” he said, “when did you last eat?”

Bucky shrugged, sitting up. “Why?”

“You wanna call for room service? Or we can go and find a take out.”

Blue eyes studied him for a long while. “You babysitting me, Grant?”

Steve closed up his drawing book. “You were bad-tempered enough before we met,” he said, not entirely lying. “I really don’t want to deal with you with a hangover. You eat and you drink some water and we make sure we don’t have to worry about that.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s not late. We could go out.”

Barnes looked down at his t-shirt and boxers. “I put in a vote for room service,” he said. “Nachos. I want nachos.”

Steve reached over for the phone. “Good plan,” he agreed. “One plate?”

Barnes raised his eyebrows. “What are we? Six? We’re goddamned grown men. Grown men don’t share a plate of nachos.”

Steve couldn’t help grinning. “Okay,” he said. “One plate each.”

Bucky nodded in approval.

Chapter Text

The sun was shining the next morning, and there was hardly a breeze.

By the time Steve woke, Bucky had already left the room. That was a good sign, at least, if Bucky hadn't been woken by nightmares again. Steve dressed and went for a brief run before breakfast, lapping Sam a couple of times for good measure.

To his surprise, Bucky was at breakfast by the time he got there. Probably avoiding Stark, which explained why there were so many others there so early. He left before the rest of the contestants came in, but gave Steve a quick nod in greeting.

Steve slipped away a little earlier than he planned to on Hill's order. She and Romanoff were waiting in one of the smaller suites off the main lobby. There was a pile of folded clothing on the desk beside Romanoff, who was smiling innocently.

"Why don't I like the look of this?" he said.

Hill looked up from the palmtop she was examining. "Are you always so paranoid, Rogers?" she said.

"Only when Natasha smiles like that," he replied.

"It's like he doesn't trust me," Romanoff said. She was sitting on the desk, her legs dangling. "Did you get your art supplies?"

"Yeah," he said. "Thanks."

She shrugged, smiling. "We figured you'd want to get in some practise before the main event," she said. "That's why we didn't bother you last night." She laid her hand on her clothes. "But after that interview..."

He winced. "How badly did I do?"

Hill turned around the screen in her hand to show him his own face. "Not too badly," she said. "Since no one knew what to expect, you didn't have a real role to fill. People were expecting a jock, but you surprised them with some of your answers, so now we have an angle to work: something a little more sensitive and creative than Captain Meatball."

Natasha picked up the shirt from the pile of clothes, shaking it out. It was more casual than the other clothing she'd picked out for him, white cotton, almost bohemian in style. "This over a wife-beater," she said. She motioned to the front. "We've smudged a little paint on it, to make it look authentic. Can't have an artist whose too clean."

It was closer to his own wardrobe than anything else she'd chosen.

"With jeans?" he said.

She nodded. "We can't dress you up too smart," she said. "Especially if you're using wet media."

He took the shirt from her, holding it up. "I can work with that," he agreed. He hesitated, then asked, "Where's May?"

Romanoff and Hill exchanged a look.

"She's in a meeting with Pierce," Hill said. "He's expressed some concern about one of the contestants."

Steve knew at once. "Barnes?"

"He didn't say," Natasha replied.

"He did to me," Steve said. "He mentioned it yesterday. Something about violent outbursts and erratic behaviour. May already told me to keep an eye on him." He looked between them. "What aren't you telling me about this guy?"

Hill hesitated. "You know he's an amputee?" she said. Steve nodded. "He was captured in the line of duty and held for several months." She fell silent and he waited until she continued. "There was torture, according to his records, and he has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder."

Based on everything he'd seen and heard in his room, there was little new information there. "So he's our prime suspect? Because he's a war vet with trauma?" Steve shook his head. "I don't think so."

"That's why May wants you to keep an eye on him," Hill said. "He's not a solid suspect, but just to err on the side of caution, we'll keep him under surveillance."

“That way, he’ll be in the clear if anything does happen,” Natasha added. “All you have to do is be a good room mate.” There was a knowing look in her eyes. “You know how that goes, right, Rogers? Nachos and things?”

He picked up the rest of the clothing. “Yeah,” he said dryly. “I think I got that covered.”

 

_______________________________________________

 

The talent section of the show wasn’t done in any particular order, so Steve ended up being on before Stark.

If the interview had been intimidating, it was nothing compared to going up onto a stage in front of hundreds of people with nothing more than a brush, a pallet, and a bare canvas. He didn’t even have any idea what he was going to draw, and his heart was pounding as he approached the easel.

He drew people more than anything, but right now, he couldn’t think of anyone he could try and draw that wouldn’t raise questions.

Sheer panic made him turn to the crowd. “Can I get a volunteer to model for me?”

A girl from the front row was picked out. She was cleared to approach by security, and admitted she was a local girl called Tonya. She beamed and blushed when he shook her hand, and showed her where to stand. The moment he had a model in front of him, it was like being back at art class, and he could put everything else aside.

When his time was up, he kissed her on the cheek and told her she could keep the painting, if she wanted it. She grinned like it was Christmas and dashed back to her seat, carrying the colourful portrait in both hands.

“Smooth, Rogers,” Hill’s voice murmured in his ear. “Not just an artist, but a charmer as well.”

Steve was just glad she wasn’t close enough to see him blush.

“Way to go Picasso,” Stark snorted as Steve walked off the stage, wiping his hands on a damp cloth. “Sesame Street called. They want their paint box back.”

Steve just stepped around him, remembering what Pierce said. Stark liked attention. Stark liked an audience. Take that away from him, and it would piss him off more than giving him more ammunition.

Behind him, he heard Stark huffing before the man stepped out onto the stage. His talent was something to do with machines and technology, and from the wings, Steve saw something that looked like a robot and sparks flying. If anyone was going to make the pageant go boom, it was going to be Stark.

“You watching this guy?” he murmured into his comm.

“Intently,” Romanoff replied.

Steve retreated further back out of the way, dodging around Nebraska and his magic kit and Louisiana, who was shuffling cards in a way that seemed to defy the laws of physics. He almost ran square into Barnes by the main doors.

“Escaped already?” Bucky wasn’t looking at him, but past him at the stage.

“Yeah.” Steve held up his paint-smudged cloth. “I need to go and scrub this stuff off before it stains.” He glanced down, at the case in Bucky’s hand. “Guitar?”

Bucky nodded tersely. “They wanted…” He paused, then started again. “It’s better if I show the dexterity of my hand.”

They wanted, Steve noted. Who were they? And why did they want that?

He patted Bucky’s shoulder - he didn’t even realise it was the metal one until it didn’t yield under his touch - and smiled. “You’ll be great,” he said. “Good luck out there.”

Bucky didn’t smile back, but he nodded. Steve watched him weave his way through the other contestants, then headed back into the main building, away from the stage, to find a bathroom and hot water.

He got back to the green room just in time to see everything go wrong.

Bucky’s hand was dexterous, it was true, but it was also stronger than a flesh hand and nowhere near as sensitive. Halfway through the piece he was playing, the strings snapped, with sharp, fatalistic discords. Bucky flinched, and his hand tightened, and the neck of guitar folded in too.

Bucky got slowly to his feet, apologised, stone-faced, and walked off the stage.

“Shit,” Steve hissed between his teeth. He broke into a run, to try and get to the side of the stage in time to meet Bucky, but by the time he got there, the man was already gone.

 

__________________________________________

 

Steve tried their room first, but Bucky wasn’t there. He ended up running all over the studio and hotel complex too, but there was no sign of Bucky. The man could be a ghost when he wanted to be.

He finally headed into the gym, looking around. A dozen of the guys were there, including Barton, but none of them were exercising. They were gathered around Stark, who was looking shaken and pale.

“What happened?” Steve asked, already suspecting the answer.

“You might want to ask your room mate,” Stark replied. He was sitting on one of the weight benches, rubbing his neck, but he lowered his hand. Steve could see the red imprint of a hand in his skin.

“Don’t say you didn’t earn a bitchsmack, Stark,” Colorado said. “Anyone who looked at him could see the guy was on edge. You’re the one who smacked him on the back.”

“Jesus Christ, Stark!” Steve exclaimed. “After what happened at breakfast?”

“I was trying to tell him he didn’t suck!” Stark protested hoarsely. “I mean, his solo had a special kind of awful about it, but…” He looked around at the men around him. “I was trying to do that nice crap we keep getting told about.”

“Did anyone see where he went?” Steve asked.

Colorado shook his head. “He was beating the punch bag pretty hard before Stark cut in,” he said. “Might be you want to leave him alone to cool off for a while. Some people need a chance to calm down.”

Steve tried the smile, tried to nod, and turned, striding back out into the hotel.

With nowhere else to look, he touched a finger to his earpiece. “You sighted him yet?”

“He just got back to the room,” Natasha’s voice was terse. “Rogers, you might not want to go in there. He didn’t look like he’d want company.”

Steve ignored her, running all the way from the main lobby through the hotel. Natasha was waiting outside the door of the room, and put out her hand to stop him.

“Steve, seriously…”

“Step aside,” he snapped. “Now.”

She looked surprised at his tone, but caught his wrist. “You need help, you call on us, okay?”

He glanced down at her hand on his wrist, then nodded. “If I need help,” he said. He jerked his head and she reluctantly stepped aside. He swiped the key card and opened the door of the room. “Buck? You in here?”

The lights weren’t on, but he heard the hiss of a breath escaping between clenched teeth.

“Get out,” Bucky whispered.

Steve closed the door behind him. “Not gonna happen,” he said quietly. He reached for the light switch, flicking it on.

Bucky had his back to the door, his shoulders hunched and tensed. Steve could hear the grate of metal on stone and couldn’t understand why until he stepped a little closer and saw: Bucky had hit the wall with his metal hand. More than once. Hard enough that the plaster had splintered and cracked and broken. His fist was buried in the stonework up to his wrist.

“Jesus, Buck!” Steve exclaimed, forgetting any nervousness and running forward. “What did you do?”

Bucky didn’t look at him, his eyes fixed on the place where his hand met the wall. The plates in his arm shifted and tightened, and Steve could see lines of pain cutting down his cheeks. “I wanted to break it,” he gritted out through clenched teeth.

Steve slowly put his hand around the cold metal of Bucky’s wrist. “That’s probably not the smartest way to do it, genius,” he said as gently as he could. “And we have to pay a shared security deposit for this wall.”

Bucky gave a small, shaken bark of laughter. “Shit,” he whispered. “We can’t just flip the wall, can we?”

“We could try,” Steve said, keeping his voice as calm as he could. He helped Bucky pry his arm free. The joints were clogged with brick dust and concrete, the hand locked in a fist. Dust scattered across the carpet at their feet. “The cleaner’s going to love you.” He kept his hands lightly around Bucky’s arm and drew him over to sit on the bed. “You mind if I clean it?”

Bucky shook his head silently. He sat still as a stone, as Steve dug out of the unused paintbrushes from his art supplies. Steve knelt at his feet and set to work cleaning the worst of the mess from the joints.

“They should let me leave,” he finally said, his voice so low Steve could barely hear it. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“So you screwed up one event,” Steve murmured, keeping his eyes on the cracks and crevices of the metal hand. “Did you even see what Idaho tried to do?” Bucky shook his head. “I don’t think he’d practised juggling with knives before.”

There was a small, soft, almost laugh. “God, Grant,” he whispered. “How much are they paying you for this?” Steve’s hand went still, his heart pounding in his ears. “It sure as hell isn’t enough?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, aiming for casual, and hitting guilty schoolboy.

Bucky slowly uncurled the metal fingers, wincing. “They said there would be someone here to help me if I needed it,” he said. “Just in case. Because things had been kind of rough.” His hands, trembling, came to rest on his knees. “I never figured they’d plant someone in the pageant.”

Steve sat back on his heels, looking up at the other man. “Buck,” he said, “I wasn’t sent here to help you.”

Bucky’s eyes lifted from the floor to meet Steve’s. He looked tired. “No more bullshit,” he said quietly. “You’re not a pageant guy. You wear a button cam. You have an earpiece. If you’re not meant to be my minder, what the hell are you?”

Steve looked down at the button cam pinned to his shirt. He lifted his hand, removed it, then removed his earpiece as well. He turned on his knees and set both of them in the drawer of the bedside cabinet.

“I’m an FBI agent,” he said, without turning back to Bucky.

Bucky made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a groan. “Jesus,” he whispered. “I knew I was in trouble, but the FBI? Jesus… I-I can’t tell you anything else… I can’t… please, don’t ask me to…”

His voice was frightened and heartbreaking, and Steve was back facing him in a heartbeat, grabbing Bucky’s shoulders with both hands. Bucky’s hands moved automatically, pressing to Steve’s chest, almost pushing him back. Steve drew back enough so he wasn’t crowding him.

“Bucky, no,” he said, his voice soft, urgent, earnest. “We didn’t come here for you, I promise you that.” Bucky was staring at him, all wide-eyed and terrified. “There were threats made against the pageant. They needed someone to keep you guys safe. That’s why I’m here. This isn’t about you, I swear.”

Bucky’s face was tense, tight with suspicion. “Then why are you being like this with me?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “Why are you giving a damn?”

Steve curled his fingers around the back of Bucky’s neck. “Because you looked like you needed somebody who would,” he said. He smiled crookedly. “My boss always tells me I get too invested in my cases. Looks like I did it again.”

Bucky’s fingers were curling in the front of his shirt. “You were watching me,” he said slowly, as if he was having trouble putting the ideas together. “At breakfast. At dinner. Any time no one was looking. Why?”

Steve couldn’t help laughing. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?” he said. “You’re not exactly hard on the eyes.”

Bucky’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Bullshit!” he exclaimed, shock and fear giving way to something else.

Steve could feel the blush creeping up his shoulders, and drew his hands back. He always did have a habit of too much contact all the time. “Um,” he said. “So maybe I should introduce myself. Steve Rogers. Less straight than Steven Grant.”

Bucky was still staring at him.

“Steve Rogers,” he finally echoed.

Steve nodded. “But if you could, y’know, not tell anyone, that would be great.”

Bucky looked down at his hands still resting on Steve’s chest. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” he said, then grabbed Steve’s shirt, yanked him forward and kissed him.

Chapter Text

Steve woke up disorientated.

It was more than being in a strange room.

It was being on the floor in a strange room, with someone else half-sprawled over him, in a tangle of sheets and blankets.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, and the man currently using his stomach for a pillow grumbled, his metal arm pushing Steve back down. “S’early.”

Steve squinted at Bucky, trying to recall exactly what had happened the night before. There had been kissing. And then, they had both stared at each other for a long while, and Bucky declared they needed beer. So then, there was beer, probably too much, and pizza, and then more kissing and…

Steve lifted his hand up, peering at it.

Oh.

Yeah.
There had been more than just kissing, but by the time they were done, they were both too wasted to even care what they looked like or how much mess they had made on each other and the carpet. Or that Steve had fallen asleep with Bucky’s hand shoved down the front of his pants.

“Buck,” he murmured.

“Shut up,” Bucky mumbled, rubbing his cheek against Steve’s chest. Even through Steve’s t-shirt, he could feel the stubble on Bucky’s cheek.

Steve moved his other arm and tugged gently on Bucky’s hair. “Kinda need to pee.”

Reluctantly, Bucky rolled off him, flopping onto his back on the floor, and Steve got to his feet. He was only a little unsteady, which was good, but he knew it’d be smart to drink at least two glasses of water to stave off any hangover.

He shambled to the bathroom, kicking the door closed behind him, and was fumbling with his pants when someone cleared their throat behind him. Steve whirled around, then groaned as the world swam a little too much. He reached out to brace a hand on the edge of the sink.

Natasha Romanoff was sitting patiently on the edge of the bath. “So,” she said, “is that what you call keeping an eye on Barnes?”

Steve stared at her, then at the door, then back. “How did you get in here?”

“You mean ‘how did you sneak by the two guys asleep and snuggling in their own drool’?” she said, standing up. “Let me think…”

Steve’s cheeks were burning. “Nat…”

She folded her arms over her chest, studying him. “I’m not here to judge you, Rogers,” she said. “Don’t ask, don’t tell and all that, but Barnes isn’t exactly stable at the moment. You really think this is a good idea?”

He wanted to reply that at least Bucky didn’t mind that Steve had been lying to him to keep his cover. He wanted to say that it didn’t matter if it seemed a bad idea from the outside, because right now, it felt good. He wanted to point out that Bucky was sleeping, safely and quietly out there, instead of tossing and turning and screaming.

Instead, he turned to the sink and turned on the faucet, letting hot water rush over his hands and wash away the evidence.

“How much trouble will I be in?”

“If I report back?” Natasha shrugged. “May won’t be thrilled. Fury’ll be pissed.” She breathed out long and low. “I won’t report back, not unless there’s something I need to report. You don’t need the pressure, and he really doesn’t.”

Steve’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you.”

“You just keep both eyes on him, okay?”

Steve nodded as he turned back to face her. “Any word on other suspects?”

She shook her head. “Stark and his pyrotechnics got some intense checks,” she replied, “but so far, no one has a reason for blowing this place up.” She shrugged with one shoulder. “We’re keeping an ear to the ground, but nothing yet. Pierce keeps on saying he’s sure it’s nothing, but no harm in being safe.”

“Right,” Steve murmured. “And warning us about Bucky. He says a lot, doesn’t he?”

“He’s got a national event to run,” Natasha said. “He has to keep eyes on any problems.”

“Bucky isn’t a goddamn problem,” Steve said sharply.

“I have a contestant from California who could press charges that say otherwise,” Natasha reminded him. “And a hole in the wall out there that’ll need an explanation. He might be a great guy, but he’s got a temper and has lashed out more than once already.”

“I know,” Steve said more quietly. “I know, Nat.” He glanced back towards the door. “I’ll keep my eyes on him. You keep your eyes on the others.”

“Watch out for an army of the most attractive men in America?” Her lips twitched. “It’s all work, work, work, isn’t it?” She inclined her head towards the door. “You sure you just want to keep one?”

He gave her a look. “Right now, what I want is to take a leak in private,” he said.

She touched her fingertips to her temple in a mock-salute. “See you at the swimsuit competition, Rogers.” Her eyes flicked down his body and back up. “Every inch of you.”

He shoved her towards the door, rolling his eyes.

 

____________________________________________________

 

Steve Rogers wasn’t good at undercover.

However, when it came to his liaisons, that was one thing he was excellent at keeping those to himself. No one at the bureau knew or needed to know about his preferences, and the only person who did - as far as he knew - was now Natasha.

Before he and Bucky headed out to breakfast - after Steve was pinned up against the wall and kissed so hard he could have sworn his lips should have been swollen - he tentatively asked Bucky if he would be okay keeping it quiet.

Bucky just gave him an amused look. “I was doing undercover ops when you were still in FBI day care,” he said before pulling on his plaid shirt over a scruffy T-shirt and striding out of the door.

He was as good as his word.

When Steve walked into the dining room, a dozen eyes turned to him, as if surprised to see him alive. He glanced around the room and saw Bucky at one of the tables, looking grimmer and surlier than before.

Sam materialised at his side as he spooned cereal into his bowl. “Hey, man, you okay?” he asked, his voice low and concerned. “Colorado said you went after Barnes last night.”

Steve could tell everyone within hearing range was waiting to find out what had happened. He added some milk to his bowl, then nodded towards the door. “Walk with me,” he said.

It was sunny outside and he led Sam out to the fountain in the courtyard, sitting down on the edge of it, stirring his cereal through the milk. Sam sat down beside him, propping his forearms on his knees.

“So, what happened?”

Steve looked at him. “He just needed someone to talk to,” he said. “He’s been having a bad time. Vet and all that.”

Sam winced. “Yeah,” he said. “Figured as much. It’s like he’s two different people right now: the one for the cameras, and the one that everyone else is seeing here. You think he’s going to be okay for the rest of the pageant?”

Steve chewed pensively on his cereal, then nodded. “As long as Stark doesn’t keep on sneaking up on him, I think he’ll be okay.”

“Speak of the devil…”

Steve glanced at Sam, who was looking towards the gates of the building. Tony Stark had just rolled up in one of the biggest, fanciest sports cars Steve had ever seen. He frowned. “He’s not been staying here for the pageant?”

Sam snorted. “He was sharing with Colorado for the first night, but kept on taking off. Something about a lab and work to do. Man’s got to be running on a sleep deficit now.”

They watched as Stark swung over the side of the car, then reached down into the passenger seat, pulling out a long, flat rectangular box. He checked it over, then spun around and sauntered into the courtyard, stopping short at the sight of them.

“Ladies,” he said.

Steve took another mouthful of cereal rather than saying anything.

“Hey, California,” Sam said. “Kinda overkill to keep your suit flat for the final, isn’t it?”

Stark rolled his eyes. “Laugh it up, Virgin…ia,” he said. “I’m looking for New York.”

Steve stopped chewing, his eyes narrowing. “Why?” he asked, once he had swallowed.

“I could tell you,” Stark said with a sniff, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

Only Sam’s hand on Steve’s arm stopped Steve from rising to the bait. “You tell us or we don’t tell you,” Sam said.

Stark looked from one to the other, then at Steve’s cereal bowl. “Doesn’t take a genius, boys,” he said, heading the direction of the dining hall. Sam let go of Steve’s arm and scrambled up after him.

“Stark!” Steve yelled after him.

For a guy weighed down by a case, the man put on an impressive turn of speed, and Steve knew he’d be in even more trouble with May if he was seen tackling Stark like a quarterback in the middle of the hotel lobby. Better to keep close and see what the man was up to.

As always, Stark burst into the room, grabbing every bit of attention.

Steve was watching for Bucky and saw the way he visibly shuddered.

“Hey, New York!” Stark called out. “Got you a toy.”

Bucky shoved his plate away from him and got up. “I’m not interested,” he said, moving towards the door, but Stark got right in front of him. “Get out of my way.”

Steve was there a second later, catching Stark by the shoulder. “You heard the man.”

Stark shrugged Steve’s hand off. “Okay, okay, okay,” he said. “I know we didn’t exactly get off on the right foot…”

“Or any foot,” Bucky said coldly, arms folded over his chest.

“Semantics,” Stark said, waving one hand. “Point is I’m trying to do something nice here, okay? To make up for the whole…” He moved his hand in an imitation of slapping Bucky on the shoulder again. Bucky recoiled. “See! That! That’s exactly what I’m trying to make up for!”

Bucky stared at him. “Why?”

“Because I’m a nice guy? Because I like the warm fuzzy glow of my once-a-decade good deed?” Stark shrugged. “Just call me a gift horse.” He held out the case to Bucky. “I did some calculations. This should work.”

Bucky looked suspiciously down at the case, then back at Stark’s face. “What is it?”

Stark sighed impatiently. “It’s not a bomb, okay? It’s safe, I promise.”

Bucky reluctantly took the case, clearing a space at the nearest vacated table. He flipped the lid open and Steve could see the frown creasing his forehead. Bucky looked from the contents of the case to Stark. “This is a joke, right?”

“No!” Stark said indignantly, swooping in closer. He lifted out the object from the case: a guitar, but with a solid metal neck. “I did the calculations on the pressure you must be exerting with your hand, and found the right kind of metal to tolerate the pressure without too much loss to the sound quality. Can’t make promises about the strings. I only had six hours. But this one won’t snap like a twig when you go all duelling banjos on us.”

Bucky stared at him as the guitar was pressed into his hands. “You made this? For me?”

Stark beamed like it was Christmas. “Yup,” he said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked on the balls of his feet. “I just wanted to make sure that when I wipe the floor with you, it’s on even terms.”

Around the room, people relaxed at those words.

Even Bucky snorted. “Anyone ever tell you you’re full of it, Stark?”

“Every day before breakfast,” Stark replied. He waved Bucky away. “Now go, be… musical or whatever.”

Bucky ran his fingers over the strings, cradling the neck in his metal hand. It didn’t sound quite the same, but it was good enough. He laid it back down in the case. “Thanks, Stark,” he said, sounding surprised.

Stark shrugged. “It’ll make it even more satisfying when I spank you in the final,” he said, then held up his finger, “and not literally, for any of you kinky perverts.” He looked around the room sternly. “Tony Stark does not spank just anyone.”

“That’s not what I heard!” Barton’s voice piped up from further across the room.

Stark swung around. “Barton!” he yelled, stalking off across the room to find the man.

Steve glanced at Sam, then headed towards Bucky, who was looking at the guitar in bemusement.

“So a new toy?”

Bucky nodded. “Looks like,” he said. “Didn’t see that coming.”

“You and everyone else here,” Sam added, approaching from Steve’s other side. He whistled. “That’s a pretty piece of hardware.”

“Yeah,” Bucky murmured, staring at it.

“You know what you’re gonna have to do, right?”

Bucky looked up, as if registering Sam’s presence for the first time. “What?”

“Kick his ass in the final,” Sam said, grinning.

Steve put out his hand, touching Sam’s arm. There was something about the look on Bucky’s face that worried him. He didn’t look pleased. If anything, he looked worried, even scared. “You okay, Barnes?”

Bucky closed the lid on the case and picked the case up. “Better do what the man said,” he said, his voice a little too brittle. “Catch you guys later.”

Steve watched him go, frowning.

“Huh,” Sam murmured, watching him too.

“You see it too?”

Sam nodded slowly. “For a guy who could win this, he doesn’t look happy about it.”

 

___________________________________________

 

Most of the day was spent prepping for the afternoon and evening competitions.

Or, more accurately, since every one of them would be on display in their swimming trunks, pretty much every single guy headed to the gym to make sure everything was as good as it could possibly be.

Steve didn’t bother.

He had more to worry about than his abs, and he didn’t really feel like spending the rest of the morning surrounded by competitive guys pulling weights.

Instead, he went for another lighter run, then headed back to his room to shower and freshen up. He was about to swipe the key card when he heard the voices inside the room, one raised, and familiar. He leaned closer to the door, frowning.

“I told you!”

Another voice spoke, this one someone Steve didn’t recognise. “You can’t back out now, Barnes. Pierce got you this far. You know what you have to do.”

There was a muffled thump of Bucky’s fist hitting the wall. “I don’t have a choice, do I?” he said sharply. “He’s the one who runs this freakshow. What the hell does he need me for? Any one of those guys…”

“You know why it has to be you,” the other man said.

Bucky was silent. “Fine,” he finally said. “Now get out.”

Steve backed away from the door, darting lightly along the corridor to the corner that led into the main halls. He barely made it before the door opened. Steve took a breath to steady himself, then walked around the corner, as if he was just returning.

He walked square into Bucky’s visitor, catching his arms to keep him from falling, all bluff embarrassment and apologies for not looking where he was going. It didn’t take him a second to recognise the man: Brock Rumlow, Pierce’s assistant.

Rumlow looked him up and down. “Looking good, Grant,” he said.

Steve smiled like he meant it. “Thanks,” he said, “but I better get back. Shower before the main event and all.”

Rumlow nodded, walking by him, and Steve watched him go.

There was something about the guy that rubbed him up the wrong way, and it didn’t help to know he’d been pressing Bucky into doing something he didn’t want to do.

“Nat,” he murmured, fingertips to his mouth in case anyone was watching, “Do some digging on Brock Rumlow. The deeper the better. I have a feeling there’s something going on with him.”

“On it,” Natasha’s voice came back at once. “Any reason?”

Steve turned back in the direction of the room. “Just a hunch,” he said. “Can you go deaf for a while?”

Natasha sighed. “Are you about to do something dumb?”

“Probably,” he replied, reaching up to remove his earpiece. He swiped his key card over the panel on the door as he slid his earpiece into his pocket. The sound of guitar music filtered out as he opened the door. “Hey, Buck.”

Bucky didn’t look at him. He was sitting on the bed, slowly picking out melodies on the guitar, his metal fingers moving cautiously, testing the limit of the new instrument.

Steve closed the door behind him. “How’s Stark’s gift?”

Bucky shrugged. “He was right about the sound quality,” he said, his tone so casual he might not have been arguing with Rumlow less than two minutes before. “It’ll work.”

There was a tension in the air that hadn’t been there before, not even when Barnes was at his most hostile. It wasn’t directed at Steve. It was gathered around Bucky, smothering him. His whole body was curved, tense, over the guitar.

Steve approached, sitting down opposite the man on his own bed. He didn’t say anything until Bucky reluctantly lifted his eyes.

“Hey. What’s going on?”

Bucky propped his arm on the body of the guitar, and looked down at it, his fingertips lightly plucking the strings. “You ever get caught up in something bigger than you,” he said, his tone distant, “and by the time you think you can get out, it’s too late?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Steve said with a wry smile.

Bucky almost laughed, then shook his head. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just cold feet.” He pressed his palm to the strings, silencing them. “You want to use the shower first?”

Steve rose, nodding. “I guess,” he said. He paused halfway to the door. “Bucky, if there’s something wrong, you can tell me. You know that, right?”

“You’re not my Oprah, Rogers,” Bucky said, and he almost sounded like himself. “Go shower. We don’t have much time before they throw us out like meat to the wolves.”

Steve turned and headed towards the bathroom. He glanced back to see Bucky putting the guitar away, looking grave and tired. There was something wrong, but if Bucky didn’t want to say, he knew he couldn’t push.

By the time he emerged, Bucky was gone.

Chapter Text

Natasha had eyes on Barnes, and that had to be enough for now.

Steve knew he still had to go through the whole charade of the pageant, even if he just wanted to go after Bucky. There were lives at stake, Bucky’s included, and that meant he had to head back to the TV studio for the swimwear competition.

No one could give him a reasonable explanation why they had to strip down to the swimwear. Barton furtively told him that they tried to replace it with something more macho, but rumours were that the female judges insisted the round had to be kept in.

The changing area was chaotic, and the best he could do was find his swimming trunks and a quiet corner to try and get them on without anyone noticing. It wasn’t that he hadn’t changed in front of guys before, but he hadn’t done it in front some of the best-looking and physically-fittest men he had ever seen in his life.

He was struggling with holding a towel around him for modesty in one hand and his trunks with the other when a shadow fell over him.

“You want a human shield?”

He looked up gratefully from his awkward crouch. “You wouldn’t mind?”

Sam held out his hands. “Gimme the towel,” he said, holding it up like a curtain in front of Steve. He averted his eyes politely, and only looked back once Steve took the towel from him and looped it around his hips. “Better?”

“Much,” Steve said. “Thanks.” He looked Sam up and down, frowning in indignation. “I thought fitted trunks were mandatory!”

Sam looked down at his shorts, then back up with a grin. “Who told you that?”

Steve made a mental note to throttle Natasha. “Doesn’t matter now,” he said, fiddling with the waistband of his trunks.

Sam put his hands on his hips and examined Steve ponderously. “If it’s any comfort,” he said, “I don’t think you got anything to worry about.”

Steve felt like he was about to go as red as Sam’s shorts. “Thanks,” he said, “I guess.” He looked around the room. “You see Barnes? He took off earlier.”

“Again?” Sam winced. “Someone’s got to have words with that kid. He really shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t sound like he’s coping.”

Steve couldn’t help nodding in agreement, but he kept thinking about the conversation he’d overheard between Barnes and Brock Rumlow, the deputy of the director of the Pageant. Rumlow said that Pierce needed Bucky to be there. He couldn’t even begin to figure out why that was, especially when Pierce was voicing concerns about Barnes’ well-being.

Maybe it was innocent: a war vet doing well in a pageant would do a hell of a lot for support for disabled veterans.

As much as Steve hated to admit it, it probably brought in a bigger audience as well, because so many vets tried to stay out of sight to get on with putting their lives back together. To see a good-looking, charming veteran who appeared to be coping enough to enter - and come close to winning - the Captain America pageant could make a difference.

He didn’t have time to worry about it when May showed up, earpiece in again, and started herding them towards the stage like sheep.

The crowd were already whooping and cheering by the time Steve made his entrance onto the stage. The roar crashed in on him like a wave, and he felt the blush starting at the middle of his chest and accelerating upwards.

"Looking good, Rogers," Hill's voice was in his ear. "Very rosy."

"I hate you all," he breathed, smiling like he meant it as he tried not to fall on his face.

The audience was a blur of faces in front of him as he stepped up on the main podium. He was meant to strike a pose and Natasha had told him all the best ways to show himself off, but every single one of them went out of his mind.

At a loss for anything else to do, he brought his right hand up and touched two fingers to his temple in a jaunty salute, hoping his smile didn't look too much like a grimace.

There was a snort in his ear.

"Hate. You," he murmured through clenched teeth as he stepped down and walked to the back of the stage. With the spotlight off his face, he asked under his breath, "Barnes?"

"Backstage," Hill replied. "Romanoff saw him go in past security, and May has eyes on him and pretty much everyone else." She sighed. "Now I know why May wanted to be on the tech crew."

Steve shook his head with a wry smile as he made his way back into the wings.

It didn't take him more than five minutes to find Bucky. The man was keeping to the edge of the room, and while he was in his swimwear, he still had his long-sleeved shirt over the top. He didn't look happy, and Steve could guess why.

It was one thing to walk out onto a stage fully-clothed, but almost-naked was so much worse. And for someone who was famous in the competition for being an amputee, Bucky had to know everyone would be curious about his prosthetic.

Steve wove his way over, dodging around Hawaii and Texas.

"Hey, Buck."

Bucky tore his eyes from the stage entrance, less than five metres away. He was seventh in line to go on, last in the group. His expression relaxed a little at the sight of Steve. His eyes flicked down, lingering for a moment too long, then back up. Steve felt warm glow spread across his skin again.

"You know there are laws against wearing dental floss in public, right?" he said. He almost sounded like himself, but his voice was too sharp and brittle.

"Don't blame me for this," Steve retorted. "I swear they want me done for indecent exposure."

"I can see that." Bucky's eyes went back to the stage. Five people remained between him and walking out there. "Christ, this should be easy."

Steve patted him on the shoulder. "Sam gave me some advice," he said, "for my interview. Maybe it'll help..."

"If this is the imagine-people-naked thing," Bucky said shortly, "you've got it covered there."

"Or not," Steve said, looking down at himself.

To his relief, Bucky snorted in amusement. "You're a card, Jersey," he said, shaking his head. He curled his fingers into fists. "I know they're just waiting to see it. Come and see the freak show."

"Come and see the hero," Steve murmured. "Buck, they know why you have it. They want to see the man who was brave enough to sacrifice so much for his country. That's why they want to see you."

Bucky looked at him, a strange, wistful look in his eyes. "You say it, and I could almost believe it," he said.

"Because it's true," Steve replied simply.

"New York," May's voice interrupted them. "You're on in two."

Steve squeezed his good shoulder. "I'll be waiting on the other side," he said. He moved off before Bucky could stop him, making his way behind the set to the exit at the other side of the studio, where the contestants came off the stage and back into the wings. From there, he saw Stark strutting to the front of the stage. Even though it was evening and the open air studio was only lit by spotlights, the man was wearing sunglasses. He tilted them down, smirking at the cameras, and Steve rolled his eyes.

He could see Bucky standing uneasily in the wings, his shirt still in place. He had unbuttoned it at least, and May was standing beside him, talking to him quietly. Bucky looked across the stage at Steve, who smiled and nodded encouragingly.

The voiceover called out his state and Bucky took a deep breath, then shed his shirt. He flashed Steve a small, quick smile, then put on his stage-smile and strode out. Anyone who hadn't seen him backstage would believe he was calm and confident. He practically swaggered all the way to the front of the stage, nodding in approval as the crowd roared. When he stepped up onto the plinth, instead of striking motionless poses like everyone else, he spread his arms at shoulder height and twirled on the spot, then swept into a dashing bow.

Steve couldn't help applauding along with the crowd. Bucky knew how to play them. He singled out someone in the audience and blew a kiss to them, before turning back and saunter towards the stage exit. He managed to keep the smile on until he stepped out of sight of the audience. Steve saw him stagger, and brace his good arm against the set.

He was by Bucky's side in a heartbeat, catching his left arm.

"You okay?"

Bucky nodded. "I never want to do that again," he said, breathing raggedly. The plates of his arm were shifting under Steve's palm, a echo of tensing muscles.

Steve hauled him upright and back into the changing area. Bucky's body was tense as a wire and damp with sweat against Steve's. His skin felt cold against Steve's side, but that was probably just the dread of being stared at.

"At least we have a break to change," Steve said, ignoring the curious looks being directed at them.

Bucky dropped down into one of the vacant chairs. "Thank Christ," he said, swiping his right hand over his face. He scowled around the room. "What the hell are you staring at?"

The rest of the lingering contestants scattered. Bucky’s temper was already legendary, and Steve could only squeeze his shoulder, not sure what to say. He couldn’t have been more relieved when Sam approached, instead of running like everyone else.

“You did good.”

It was a simple sentence, quietly spoken.

Bucky looked up at him. “You don’t need to patronise me,” he said, his voice too tired to be sharp.

“Not patronising,” Sam said. “You didn’t fall on your ass or give a salute like this dork.”

“Hey!” Steve protested.

“Suck it up, man,” Sam said, grinning at him. “You looked like a dork.”

“I missed that,” Bucky said.

Sam promptly did an impression with a boy-scout look of earnestness on his face. Bucky stared at him, then turned his head to look up at Steve.

“He’s got you pegged,” Bucky said. “Perfectly.”

Steve snorted, folding his arms.

Sam leaned down towards Bucky. “You think he’s forgotten he’s mostly nekkid?” he said in a stage whisper.

Bucky’s lips twitched. “Looks like.”

Steve looked down, startled. He had. “God damn it, Wilson!” he groaned. “Buck, you should get dressed. I need to go find my pants.”

Behind him, he heard Bucky laugh as he strode away.

Chapter Text

Steve was in the middle of fastening his shirt when Natasha's voice hissed in his ear.

"Rogers!"

He knocked his elbow against the mirror, then winced. "Yeah?" he muttered under his breath.

"Good call on Rumlow."

He looked around guardedly to make sure no one was paying attention to him. "Details?"

"Can't talk now," she muttered. "Ever heard of Crossbones?"

Steve's hand went still on his buttons. He was a violent mercenary on the FBI most wanted, known for international terrorist acts. There was never any evidence of his real identity, but most people speculated on ex-special forces.

"Rumours," he muttered. "Affiliated?"

"No." She was silent for so long, he thought she was gone. "We think it's him."

Steve swore out loud. He realised people were looking at him, and he gave them his most harmless smile. "Sorry. Problems with my tie." He eased his way between the other men and headed out into the deserted lobby. "Natasha? Where are you?"

"Get back to your post, Rogers," Hill snapped in his ear.

"Where's Nat?"

"Somewhere your chatter isn't going to help." Hill's voice was terser than it had been. "We need you back where you’re meant to be . You've got a job, Rogers. Let Romanoff do hers."

He stopped where he was, his finger to his earbud. "Hill, give me details. What are the chances that it is Crossbones?"

"There are a few coincidences in timelines," Hill said. "We've got people working on it now to confirm it before we make any moves, but right now, we need you to be behind the scenes. You need to be in your suit for the countdown to top ten."

"We know I'm already in the ten," Steve snapped. "I think this has to be a higher priority."

"Rogers," Hill's voice was sharp as a blade. "You will get your ass back into that room and keep your eyes on those boys. We're here to keep them safe, do you hear me? Romanoff has eyes on Rumlow. Now you do your goddamned job."

Steve clenched his teeth. "Yes, ma'am," he said shortly, turning and stalking back into the dressing rooms. She was right, but after seeing Rumlow upsetting Bucky so much, it didn't feel right to just sit back and wait.

He was cornered by May the second he walked back into the room.

"Barnes is missing," she said abruptly. "After you left, he shook off Wilson and headed out."

"We have the next round coming up," Steve said. "He wouldn't..."

But that was the problem. He would. Bucky had bailed before, and shown up at the last minute.

Steve swore under his breath, running a hand over his face. "And Romanoff is busy."

"Happy coincidence, guys." Both of them tensed at Romanoff's voice. "Barnes just walked in on Rumlow."

Hill bit of a profanity. "You got ears on them?"

"Negative."

"If Barnes is working with Rumlow..."

"He's not," Steve said tersely.

"You can't be sure of that," May said. "You've known the man two days."

Steve looked at her. "That's long enough for me to know whether he's involved with a known terrorist."

May gave him a flat look, then glanced over her shoulder. "You need to finish dressing, Jersey," she said, catching him by the arm and pulling him back towards the dressing area. "You're on in five."

Steve reluctantly followed her back, exclaiming in surprise when she turned on him. She practically pinned him against the wall, undoing the mangled knot of his tie and retying it for him.

"You're going to go out there," she said, her voice low and dangerous, "and you're going to make yourself look good. Don't think about Barnes or Rumlow or anything except getting through to top five. We need you back here. One of us isn't enough."

Steve nodded warily. "Yes, ma'am."

One side of May's mouth turned up. "Good boy," she said, stepping back. She strode off, snapping out orders to the other contestants.

"Word to the wise, Rogers," Hill said dryly in his ear, "Don't mess with May."

"Yeah," Steve said, smoothing his tie down. "I get that."

He was being herded into position when he saw the door open and Bucky edge back in. He broke out of formation, and got a sharp swat in passing from May as he headed towards the other man.

"Hey, Buck," he said, dodging around a couple of men. "Where'd'you go? I tried to find you."

Bucky's smile was quick and almost convincing. "Just had to go freshen up," he said and Steve's heart sank. He'd hoped he had the measure of the man, but if Bucky was hiding what he was doing, how could he be sure he wasn't wrong? After all, Bucky said himself that he was good at going under cover.

It must have shown on his face because Bucky frowned.

"You okay?"

Steve tried to smile. "Just worrying about something going wrong," he said, wishing that he didn't have Hill watching and listening to everything he said.

To his surprise, Bucky's hand caught one of his and squeezed it. "You'll be fine."

Steve looked down at their hands, then back up at Bucky's face.

Bucky flushed and released his hand, then brushed by him.

Steve turned to watch him go. "Bucky." Bucky hesitated, looking back. "Good luck."

One side of Bucky's mouth turned up. "You too, punk."

Steve headed back into formation, aware of May glaring at him. He self-consciously adjusted his tie again. He was three people away from his entrance to stage left when he heard Natasha's voice sharp in his ear.

"Rumlow's headed backstage."

May's hand was suddenly on his arm, her grip iron tight. "Keep moving, Jersey. You have a contest to focus on."

He nodded stiffly, striding out onto the stage.

Every one of the contestants was lined up there, and Steve scanned along them, watching out for Bucky. The cheer that rose when Bucky walked out was louder than the one Stark received, and Bucky raised his hand in salutation. He was smiling, but it was a tight, fixed smile.

Sharon Carter was standing at the front of the stage, going through her spiel and announcing the top ten, and Steve didn't care enough to listen. He felt like he was balanced on a knife-edge, waiting for May or Natasha to fill him in on what was happening.

He didn't hear his name or acknowledge it until Nebraska reached over and knocked him on the shoulder.

"You're through, Grant!"

Steve stared at him, then back at the front of the stage. Stark was already down there, and Bucky. He tried to smile, but he had a feeling it was as forced and fixed as Bucky's as he made his way forward.

Sam joined them a moment later, slapping him warmly on the shoulder, and he wished he could be enthusiastic about it, but he saw Rumlow standing at the edge of the stage, half-hidden in the wings. He started to move before he could think.

"Stand down." Hill's voice was sharp in his head.

He almost flinched, stumbling, and heard startled sounds from the audience.

Sam caught his arm.

"You okay, man?"

Steve looked back towards the wings. Rumlow was gone. "Yeah," he said with a grimace. "Lost my footing."

Sam raised his eyebrows doubtfully. "Okay," he said. He slung his arm around Steve's shoulder and waved with the other hand. "Just smile and wave. We're top ten. Don't want you to lose, just because you almost fell on your ass."

Steve forced his eyes forward and smiled until it hurt. "No," he agreed. "We wouldn't want that."

Chapter Text

Steve was already on edge.

Being in a suit was bad enough, but being in the top ten, he had to showboat again in full-blown monkey-suit, all bowtie and crisp lines. Bucky shot him a wry smile as they took their places on the stage in the spotlight, but Steve knew neither of them really wanted to be there.

Rumlow had made himself scarce, but May said she still had eyes on him, and he was safely closed up backstage.

That was something at least, so he tried to play the part and smile for the cameras when Sharon Carter approached his plinth. It was an interview, and he’d rehearsed for it, but he couldn’t remember a thing he’d rehearsed and he had Sharon Carter asking questions in one ear, and Hill’s diatribe to their backstage team in the other.

He could tell by the look on Carter’s face that he’d blown it, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

There was a potential terrorist holed up backstage. There was a genuine threat hanging over everything. The man who he had been a bit too intimate with might have some part in it, as much as he didn’t want to believe it.

His head wasn’t in the game anymore.

Sam caught up with him as they headed backstage.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in a undertone. “You sucked, man.”

Steve shook his head. “Long story,” he said, “and I can’t tell you right now.” He looked around, searching for Bucky. “Maybe after this is all over, I can fill you in, okay?” Sam nodded, still frowning. Steve clasped his shoulder and managed a brief, genuine smile. “Well done on top ten, Sam. You deserved it.”

“You too,” Sam said. He caught Steve’s arm before he could move away. “Steve, if you need any help, you just ask, okay?”

Steve nodded with a brief smile. “If I need help,” he agreed, then headed off after Bucky.

He found the other man sitting in one of the dressing areas, his back to the wall, his head resting against it. Bucky’s eyes were closed, and he almost looked at ease, except for his hands that were tightly clenched into fists.

“Hey, Buck.”

Bucky’s eyes flicked open. “You got through. Good for you.”

“You too,” Steve murmured.

Bucky sat up with a wince. “Yeah,” he grunted, “big surprise there.” Steve could see the way he flexed his metal hand. “I’d have to fall head-first off the stage and land with my head between the judge’s tits to lose.”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “Some of those judges look like they’d enjoy that.”

Bucky snorted, rubbing his other hand over his face. “You know why I got as far as I did. So does everyone else. If I don’t make top five, there are at least a dozen newspapers that’d call it a scandal for the poor war vet.”

Steve pulled over another chair. “Buck, if you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.”

Bucky didn’t look at him. “You know I can’t back out now,” he said. “I can’t let people down. They need me to be the poster boy for other veterans.” He laughed unsteadily. “Got to show that some of us are getting by. That we can do shit like this, even after everything.”

Steve stared at him. “That’s why you’re doing this?”

Bucky looked up from his hands. “Hey, don’t get all impressed,” he warned, pointing a finger at Steve. “I’m not doing this to be some dumb hero. It’s just a competition. I’m not doing anything a whole load of other guys couldn’t do. Hell, Barton got here, and he’s a dumbass.”

“It’s not that,” Steve said, lowering his voice, “Buck, it just seems like you’re being pushed into doing something you didn’t want to do.”

Bucky shrugged, getting up and undoing his tie. “It’s not exactly where I wanted to be,” he said, turning away from him. He smoothed out the tie, setting it down on the nearest make-up table. “But they said it’d help. You don’t get many vets on TV or doing stuff like this.” His fingertips tapped on the edge of the desk. “It’s got to be a good thing, right?”

Steve got up and put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “You’re the bravest man here,” he said softly.

Bucky looked at him, the expression in his eyes heartbreaking. “I’m not brave,” he said. “I’m scared shitless. If I screw this up, if I can’t hold it together, I’m gonna undo everything I’m trying to do.”

Steve didn’t even bother glancing around before wrapping Bucky in a tight hug. Bucky clung to him, just for a second, then shoved him back, rubbing at his eye with one fist. “Doing what scares you is braver than doing nothing,” Steve said. “Even if you do screw up, you screwed up trying and people will see that and appreciate that.”

Bucky sat back against the edge of the make-up table. “I guess,” he said. He drew an unsteady breath and released it. “It’d be so much easier if I didn’t have to show off with the guitar.” He laughed unconvincingly. “Hell, if they’d let me show them my work-out routine, it’d probably be more impressive than me trying to play Stairway to Heaven.”

Steve sat back down in his chair, thinking. He couldn’t believe Bucky was in on any terrorist scheme, and he wanted to make sure that anyone who might be targeting the pageant knew that they weren’t facing a bunch of lightweights.

“Fight me,” he said.

Bucky looked at him in confusion. “What?”

Steve grinned. “You said you want them to see your workout routine. You’re combat-trained and I’m used to sparring with people. How about we give them something to look at?” He spread his hands. “I don’t want people to think I’m just some pushover artist.”

“You’re meant to do the same talent again,” Bucky pointed out. “You can’t just change it up, just because you can’t be assed painting again.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “This isn’t about painting, Buck,” he said. “This is about showing what we’re best at. I’m better at hand-to-hand combat that five-second oil-paintings.” He pushed himself up off the seat. “How about it, Barnes? You do your solo, and then we go on and show them what a vet and an FBI agent can do together.”

Bucky stared at him, then leaned a little closer. “You know we’re not meant to do that in front of a live audience, right?” he murmured, the glint back in his eye.

“It would raise the ratings, wouldn’t it?” Steve said with a snicker. He knocked Bucky’s arm with his own. “How about it? You want to try and kick my ass?”

“Try?” Barnes’ eyebrows shot towards his hairline. “What the hell do you mean try? You think you’re that good, huh?”

“I don’t think,” Steve said.

“You got that right,” Bucky interrupted, earning a glare.

“I was saying,” Steve started again, “I don’t think. I know.”

“Sure you do,” Bucky said. He studied him for a moment. “Okay, Mr Grant. Let’s say I do my guitar-thing. You get the pleasure of going out there and telling them you’re screwing up their planned programme. Are you ready for that?”

Steve thought of Pierce, always talking Bucky down, and of Rumlow, the man who could be the real threat to the competition. The thought of pissing them off and showing them what he would be capable of doing to them warmed him.

“Y’know, Barnes,” he said, smiling. “I think I am.”

Bucky grinned at him. “Okay. I’m in.”

 

_____________________________________________

 

 

Hill wasn’t happy.

She wasn’t about to leave the control booth, though, which was why May was the one who hustled Steve into a side room under the pretext of doing random spot-testing for steroids.

“You want to do what?” she said without preamble.

Steve sighed impatiently. “Hill told you already.”

May nodded grimly. “What makes you think it’s a good idea to take an unstable war veteran, who has already shown signs of a violent temper, and challenging him to a fist fight in front of the cameras on one of the biggest networks?”

“Because it’s what he knows,” Steve said just as shortly. “This isn’t his world, May. That’s why he’s having trouble dealing. If I spar with him, it’s something he knows and he doesn’t have to playact for five minutes. I think it’ll help him.”

May’s expression was inscrutable. “I don’t think I have to repeat the part about violent temper, do I?”

Steve rubbed his forehead. “Look, May, I’ve spent time with this guy,” he said. “He’s not what everyone thinks he is. He’s just had a hard time. If you don’t trust him, can’t you at least trust me to watch my own back?”

She pursed her lips, a line furrowing her brow. “It’s not my call. Hill?”

Hill didn’t reply at once, but when she did, she sounded resigned. “I get the feeling that no matter what we say, Agent Rogers is going to do whatever he pleases,” she said. “Fury warned me about your insubordination, Rogers. You’re just lucky you’re pretty.”

Steve grimaced. “Agent Hill, I’m not doing this to be insubordinate,” he said. “I really think this could help Barnes. You sent me in to protect these guys. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hill sighed. “Why did you have to bring logic into this, Agent?” she said, and he knew from his tone that he’d won her over. “Fine. Do what you feel you need to, and we’ll keep eyes on Rumlow and find out what we can about him. Barnes is your responsibility. He so much as sneezes the wrong way, your neck is on the line.”

“Understood,” Steve said, breathing out in relief. He hesitated. “Can you get someone to bring my running gear over from the hotel?”

May gave him a look. “She’s right,” she said. “You’re lucky you’re pretty.” She glanced at her watch. “Hill?”

“On their way,” Hill replied. “You’re on last in this round, so we have a little time. You get out there and keep eyes on Barnes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, heading back towards the door.

“And Rogers,” May called after him. He paused, looking back. “Be careful.”

He met her eyes and nodded. “I always am.”

She snorted. “You’re a terrible liar, Rogers.”

One side of his mouth turned up. “So I’m told,” he said, then slipped back out into the dressing room to get rid of his suit.

Chapter Text

“You can’t be serious.”

Steve shot Sam an amused look. “You think I can’t take him?”

Sam rubbed his forehead. “That’s not what I said, Jersey.”

Steve was leaning against the edge of the table, and Bucky was sitting in the chair beside it, legs stretched out in front of him.

“He thinks I’m going to kill you to make people forget my solo,” Bucky observed.

He had been on already and played his guitar. Thanks to Stark, it held together, and he finished, but while it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great either. He’d walked out into the wings and straight to Steve, to make sure he wasn’t about to back out of their plan.

Sam gave him a look. “Maybe you got everyone else fooled with the ‘I’m such a badass’ routine,” he said dryly, “but you’re not that good, Barnes.” He looked back at Steve. “Have you ever sparred anyone who was in Special Forces?”

Barnes tensed in his seat. “What makes you think I was Special Forces?”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Man, I work with vets,” he said. “I’ve seen all kinds. You’ve got Special Forces written all over you.” One side of his mouth turned up. “Hell, you can disappear in a hotel complex with lights and cameras everywhere. You’d have to be Special Forces to do that.”

Bucky sank down in his seat. “Shit.”

Steve looked down at him suspiciously. “Oh, I see how it is,” he said. “You were going to be all helpless and wounded vet at me, then kick my ass in front of everyone?” Bucky slanted a glance up at him through his lashes, and the faintest of smirks tweaked his lips. “You are such an asshole, Barnes.”

“You didn’t want to win anyway,” Bucky pointed out. “I was going to help.”

“Wow,” Sam said dryly. “I have never heard anything so noble in my whole life.”

Barnes snorted. “I have to take out the competition somehow,” he said. He tilted his head to raise his eyes to Sam, his smirk curling his lips. “You’re next.”

Sam laughed. “I’m quaking in my boots,” he said. “Bring it, Tin Man.”

For the first time, Bucky actually laughed. “Nah,” he said, getting up from the seat. “I don’t take candy from babies.”

Sam feigned shock. “Did you just… Jersey, I think New York just insulted me! You better kick his pasty ass from one side of the stage to the other for me.”

Bucky rolled his shoulders and flexed his arms. “He can try,” he said, walking towards the backstage entrance. “See you on the stage, Jersey. Hope you brought your band aids.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied, grinning. “And I’ll make sure we have a pretty nurse to put them all over you when we’re done.”

Barnes turned, flipping the bird with both hands, before spinning back around and disappearing into the darkness backstage.

Steve straightened up from the table, stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders. He’d shed his suit and was in his running pants and wife-beater, ready for the match. He knew he should have warmed up more, but it felt better to see Bucky at ease and relaxed, even laughing.

“You going to be okay?” Sam asked.

Steve smiled. “He won’t hurt me, you know that,” he said.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “He’s okay, but he’s probably also an incredible badass when it comes to fighting and you’re a phys ed teacher from New Jersey. He might not try to hurt you, but try not to hurt yourself to make him look good.”

“This isn’t about making him look good,” Steve said.

“Sure,” Sam said. “You’re letting him do what he’s best at in your talent spot. Anyone ever tell you your martyr complex is showing?”

“I didn’t come here to win this,” Steve said, squatting down to tie the laces of his sneakers.

“You really didn’t, did you?” He looked up at Sam. There was a curious, thoughtful look on the other man’s face. “Why are you here, Grant?”

Steve straightened up. “If you ask anyone I work with,” he said, “it’s because I’m pretty.” He hesitated. “It’s a long story, Sam, and right now, I have a Special Ops soldier waiting to kick my ass in front of a live audience.”

Sam nodded. “After this, you and me are going to have a talk,” he said, “and maybe, an ice pack for you.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah,” he said, glancing towards the stage. “I think I’m gonna need it.” He saw May there, and she nodded. “Wish me luck.”

Sam snorted. “How about ‘don’t die’? Is that luck enough?”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Steve sighed. He jogged over to May, who was looking out onto the stage.

“You’re still going through with this?”

“Yup.”

She sighed, looking him critically up and down. “Protect your centre,” she said. “Watch his eyes. And don’t let him hit your face. If you get through to top five, you can’t have a busted nose. It throws off the whole look.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “I’ll do my best,” he said.

“You’d better. The Bureau’s reputation is riding on you not ending up whipped.” She stepped aside and motioned for him to go on.

Steve took a breath then stepped out into the spotlight. His easel was set out, but he ignored it, walking to the front of the stage. A microphone was set out for him.

“Ladies, gentlemen, everyone,” he said, trying his best not to clasp his hands in front of him like a scared kid. “This part of the show is where I’m meant to show my talent. I’m pretty good at painting, but there’s something I’m better at and I want to show you what I can do.” He looked down at the judges. “I know it’s not exactly regular, but would it be okay?”

The judges conferred and Steve looked out over the audience. Pierce was off to one side of the stage, in the front row, and he looked puzzled, maybe even a little suspicious.

One of the judges rose, and declared that an exception could be made.

Steve bit back a grin. He took a few steps back. “I’ll get someone to take my paints away,” he said, waving to May, who swept in with two techs, “then I want to introduce you to my glamorous assistant. You know him as Captain New York: James Barnes.”

There were cheers and applause as Bucky strode out from the wings, but Steve could also tell people were confused. There was no good reason a contestant would want to share the stage with anyone else, in case their rival stole their thunder.

A glance at Pierce told Steve that the man was alarmed by the development.

“So, James,” Steve said, turning his attention back to Bucky, “you volunteered to help me demonstrate my talent.”

Bucky’s face was lit up in a grin. He’d changed out of his suit into loose pants and a t-shirt, and was shifting from one foot to the other. “That I did, Jersey,” he called, loudly enough for the microphone to pick it up. He spread his hands and inclined his head in a mocking bow. “Bring it.”

Steve moved into position opposite him. “My talent,” he said conversationally, on the audience’s behalf, “is mixed martial arts.” He was looking at Bucky as he said, and saw Bucky’s eyes widen in surprise. “With a couple of black belts.”

He was the only one close enough to hear Bucky’s hiss of “You bastard!” a second before Bucky blocked his first kick with his metal arm. Bucky was fast too, twisting his arm to catch Steve’s ankle and flip him.

There were a chorus of groans from the audience.

Steve curled into a handspring and leapt back up, grinning. He could see Bucky’s stance had changed completely, defensive and wary. The look on Bucky’s face, though, was exactly what he had hoped for: he was beaming like it was Christmas.

They circled one another, then Bucky lunged. Steve dodged, but it turned out that was all part of Bucky’s intent, as he used the momentum of his lunge to drop, landing down on his hands and spinning his leg around to scythe Steve’s legs out from beneath him.

Steve went into a shoulder roll, twisting his legs to catch one of Bucky’s to jerk him onto his back. Somehow, Bucky managed to break free, springing up and back on both feet.

Steve was still low to the ground, palms spread on the stage, and raised his eyes to see Bucky’s fist coming straight for him. He shoved himself sideways, rolling onto his back and flipping back to his feet.

He didn’t hesitate before leaping into a spin-kick that caught Bucky across the right hip and sent him flying. Bucky landed like a professional, tumbling and bracing hands and feet to keep himself from skidding off the edge of the stage. He looked up at Steve, his hair dishevelled around his face, grinning like a wildcat.

Steve shifted his weight from one foot to the other and raised his eyebrows. He curled the fingers of both hand, beckoning in challenge. Barnes actually laughed, his eyes dancing and ran at him at full speed.

Steve was ready to lash out on the defensive when Bucky slid to his knees, the momentum driving him right at Steve. He swung his left arm in, mercilessly knocking Steve’s legs out from beneath him and bring him down hard on his back on the stage. He was over Steve in a heartbeat, between his legs, his arms pinning Steve’s legs to his sides. Steve’s hips were hauled up inches from the stage, his back arching awkwardly.

They were both panting, and Steve looked up at Bucky. “I thought we agreed we wouldn’t do this on stage,” he hissed.

Bucky folded, snorting, and Steve managed to twist one leg free. He whipped it up over Bucky’s shoulder, jerking him off-balance and flipped them both, bringing Bucky down on his back, pinned in place by Steve’s thighs.

“How is this better?” Bucky gasped out, grinning. His arms snaked up around Steve’s waist from behind, his fingers lacing together over Steve’s belly. Next thing Steve knew, he was skittering across the stage, and Bucky had twisted free.

He scrambled back up onto his feet in time to duck under a right hook. He backflipped to avoid a follow-through uppercut, kicking Bucky square in the chest and knocking him back on his ass. He landed back on his feet, looking across at Bucky with a grin. The other man was in a defensive crouch, but straightened up, smoothing down his t-shirt.

Steve turned back to the audience, suddenly aware of the roar of noise. It had all been pushed back during the fight, when the world had tightened down to just him and Barnes, but now it swept in on them like a wave.

“James Barnes!” he yelled, gesturing towards Bucky, who swept in an extravagant bow. He looked more at ease than Steve had ever seen him before, and he threw Steve a salute before running backstage. Steve bowed to the audience, and touched two fingers to his brow in salute as well.

He’d barely set foot backstage when he was slammed up against the nearest wall by Bucky, both of them hidden in the shadows and the tangles of curtains.

“You sneaky son of a bitch,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “You didn’t mention you were a goddamned ninja.”

Steve shrugged as much as Bucky’s grip would allow. “You didn’t mention you were Special Forces,” he said. “All’s fair in love and war, Barnes.”

Bucky huffed noisily, still breathless from the fight. “Asshole,” he whispered, before crushing his mouth to Steve’s. Steve laughed into the kiss, bringing up one hand to smooth Bucky’s hair back. He only pulled back when footsteps approached.

They broke apart and stumbled back into the light.

May raised her eyebrows. “If you two are done throwing off the programme?”

Barnes grinned at her. “I think we’re good,” he said.

She nodded curtly. “You go suit up,” she said. “Top five is being announced after the next commercial break.”

Bucky glanced at Steve, who nodded.

As soon as Bucky was out of earshot, May inclined her head. “Feel better now?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Steve said primly.

“Of course you don’t,” she scoffed. She glanced back over her shoulder. “He looked happier, so if that was your plan, good job.”

One side of Steve’s mouth curled up. “So you’re not going to give me a lecture on how sloppy I was?”

“Why would I do that?” she said. “I bet on him taking you down at least three times. Hill is the one you should be worrying about.” She grabbed his arm. “Come on. Time to get you suited up again.”

“Hold on! You bet against me? With Hill?”

She gave him a look. “We have to entertain ourselves somehow,” she said, “and you just made Romanoff a hundred bucks richer.” Her lips twitched. “What? You think we just let you do it out of the goodness of our hearts? Your training against an ex-Special Forces operative? I’m pretty sure Hill and the guys had popcorn.”

Steve gaped at her. “So you’re using me for sport now?”

She patted his arm. “Don’t feel bad about it,” she said. “At least it’s not just about your face anymore.”

Steve groaned. “No one’s ever going to let me live this down, are they?”

May chuckled. “Not for a good long while,” she said.

Chapter Text

Steve made the top five.

He couldn't believe it when his name was called and had to be shoved forward by Alaska, to a roar of cheers and applause. Pierce had only been able to guarantee a place in the top ten, but no one said anything about him getting top five. It was all on the judges' decision.

It wasn't a big surprise when Bucky was put through as well. Stark, Sam, and a man Steve hadn't met, Isaiah Bradley of Florida, made up the full five.

They were all lined up along the front of the stage, and Steve couldn't help feeling kind of lost. He wasn't meant to be top five. He wasn't even meant to be there at all. He felt like a fraud, especially knowing all the guys who had worked so hard to be in the competition.

An arm was slung around his shoulder, too heavy and cold to be anyone but Bucky's.

"Look at you, Jersey," he muttered close to Steve's ear. He was waving with his other hand, and his smile almost looked convincing. "You're a honest-to-god pageant contender."

"Only because I kicked your ass," Steve muttered back.

Bucky snorted, squeezing Steve's shoulder with his metal hand. "Keep telling yourself that. I have video evidence that says it went down differently."

He released Steve as they filed off to stage-right, where May was waiting with her clipboard. She met Steve's eyes and gave him a slight nod, then herded him - along with the other four - to the centre of the room.

"Gentlemen," she said. "We have enough time for you to take a few minutes to catch your breath. The audience is getting a display by the Cheerleaders of the Toros." She looked around at them. "Be changed and back here for the last round of interviews in ten minutes." She almost smiled. "And congratulations on top five."

As soon as she strode away, the five finalists exchanged looks.

"It's so sweet that they're giving you a hope in hell," Stark said with a wistful sigh. "Almost makes you think you deserve it."

Sam snorted. "Sure, California," he said. "Remind me, who sponsors this event?"

"Excuse me," Stark said with a haughty sniff. "I happen to get by on good looks. The fact I'm richer than all of you put together? Just a bonus."

"Oh, come on!" Sam exclaimed, rolling his eyes.

"Let it be, Wilson," Florida said. His voice was deep and surprisingly soft for a man as big as he was. He smiled, shyly. "Let the boy have his illusions."

Stark turned an appalled look on him. "I thought you were meant to be the nice guy, Bradley."

"Only compared to some," Bradley said. He nodded to each of them. "Excuse me, fellas. I wouldn't mind five minutes quiet."

He headed off.

"Charming man," Stark said dryly. "But not a bad idea. Drinks are on me."

"It's an open bar, Stark," Sam said with a snort.

Stark waved a hand. "Semantics," he said. "As you so kindly pointed out, I sponsor this event, ergo my money, ergo my bar, ergo drinks on me. Sort of. And hey, if all of you get wasted and fall of the stage, I'm not going to complain."

Steve snorted. "We're not all lightweights like you, Stark," he said. He glanced at Bucky, who was looking distractedly towards the door. "You want a drink, Buck?"

"No. Thanks," Bucky said, stepping back. "Bathroom break."

Steve didn't need to look at him to feel the tension radiating from him. "You okay?"

Bucky tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. "With you guys as my competition? Sure." He glanced back towards the door. "I'll be back in five."

Steve reached out as Bucky moved away. "Buck..."

Bucky didn't look at him. "I'm good," he said. "Top five. Almost over, right?"

Steve released his arm with a sigh, and watched as the man walked away. He knew Sam was standing right beside him.

"You know he's lying, right?"

Steve nodded unhappily. "He doesn't want to be here," he said. "I thought the sparring would help."

"It did," Sam murmured reassuringly. "Maybe not as much as you hoped, but I was watching on the monitors backstage, and you helped. Trust me."

Steve looked at him. "Y'think so?"

Sam patted him on the shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "C'mon. Let's have something to drink before we go and get grilled by Pierce."

Steve grimaced. "Yeah," he said. "That's going to be fun."

While Sharon Carter was the interviewer for the general interviews, Alexander Pierce himself was conducting the top five interviews.

For all that he ran the pageant like a professional, Pierce unsettled Steve. He wasn't sure why. Part of it was the way Pierce spoke about Bucky, like he was a liability. Knowing that Pierce was the very person to push Bucky into staying, it felt wrong. Steve wanted to believe his concern was genuine, but if he was really so concerned, he should have let Bucky leave.

But that was the problem.

Pierce was a businessman and he had an interest in keeping people's attention on his pageant. Bucky was doing that for him. Even if Bucky was unstable, he brought in an audience with his looks and his history. That had to be good for Pierce's business.

It just bothered Steve. The idea of using people like that, to turn a profit and keep people watching.

"Just smile and pretend like you like him," Sam advised.

"You don't?"

Sam shrugged as he poured them both a drink. "I never really met him," he said. "I mean, I did the whole shake-hand photo op on day one, but that's it. He hasn't come anywhere near me since." One side of his mouth turned up briefly. "Guess I'm not exactly what he considers Captain America material."

"Then he's got his head up his ass," Steve said shortly.

"As compliments go," Sam observed with a smile, "I think I like that."

Steve couldn't help smiling, accepting his drink. With Sam at his side, he couldn't ask for follow-up from Hill, but he could hear their exchanges clear as day.

"Barnes has returned to the storage room," Romanoff's voice was quiet. "He has a keypass for the door."

"Do we have override access yet?" Hill asked tersely.

"Awaiting confirmation."

Steve must have been staring into middle-distance, because Sam knocked him on the shoulder.

"You okay, man?"

Steve blinked, turning to him. "Huh?"

"You were a hundred miles away."

He put down his glass, undrunk, and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, just worried about Barnes."

"Can't give help if he doesn't want it," Sam murmured. He drained his glass and set it down. "You want to go find him? We have time."

"Right now, I don't think it'd help," Steve admitted, wondering if he could believably explain how he knew exactly where to find Bucky. He pushed a hand through his hair, then offered Sam a wan smile. "I was kinda hoping to be sitting out for the rest of this. I didn't plan on getting this far."

Sam chuckled. "I bet," he said. "You show up, the New Jersey wild card. You paint, you fight like a pro, and everyone loves you. What a problem to have."

Steve couldn't help laughing. "Yeah, yeah, I'm just that awesome," he said with a roll of his eyes. He looked around the room, then frowned. Rumlow was talking to Stark, who was looking at him with irritation. “Give me a second, Sam.”

He headed towards the men, and to his surprise, saw something like relief in Stark’s eyes.

“Hey, Stark,” he said, “Rumlow.”

Rumlow nodded curtly. “Grant. Can I help you with something?”

“Actually, I kinda wanted to speak to Stark?”

Stark batted Rumlow’s chest with the back of his hand, waving him away imperiously. “You can pick my delightfully-overburdened brain later,” he said, walking towards Steve. “Goldielocks wants to speak to me.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Goldielocks?”

Stark grinned at him. “It’s that or Tightpants,” he said. “Your call, blondie.”

"I'd prefer my name," Steve said.

Stark looked at him as if he was speaking another language. "Hmm. No." He flung an arm around Steve's shoulders. "So, Jersey, what's up?"

Steve tried to resist the urge to shake Stark's arm off his shoulder. If he was going to help the guys on the ground, maybe Stark - as sponsor - knew more than the others did. "Rumlow looked like he was bothering you."

"And you swept in to save the day?" Stark clutched his chest. "Jersey, I'm flattered, but you're not my type. You're too..." He gave Steve's shoulder an exploratory squeeze. "Yeah, no. I don't do people who have muscles bigger than my head."

Steve brushed his arm down. "You're so full of it, Stark," he said with an impatient sigh. "I was trying to help you out."

For a moment, Stark's stage-smile vanished and he leaned a little closer. "Don't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you," he said in a low voice. Steve raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Stark took a deep breath, then said in a whisper, "I'm... grateful."

Steve snorted, but Stark's expression didn't change. "Wait, you're serious?"

Stark shoved his hands in his pockets, and rocked on the balls of his feet. "He's Pierce's personal watchdog," he said. "Got to keep the golden goose nice and fat and safe." He rolled his eyes. "I swear to god, it's like having a really annoying shadow."

It didn't make sense.

If Rumlow was the mercenary they suspected, his MO didn't usually lean towards bodyguarding.

"What's so special about you?" he said without thinking.

"Have you met me?" Stark said with a grin. "You think billionaire playboys this good-looking grow on trees?" He waved around the room. "He likes what I bring to the party. I scratch his back, he scratches mine, and how about that? My share-prices rockets and it's a merry Christmas for everyone. Yay!"

"I forgot what an ass you are," Steve said with a crooked smile.

"More fool you," Stark said amiably. "What you see is what you get, Jersey. Better get used to it, because it's about to be King." With that, he sauntered away towards the changing area, humming loudly enough for anyone in the vicinity to hear him.

"You get that?" Steve murmured under his breath.

"Loud and clear," Hill's voice came across the comm. "We'll look into it. You should change."

Steve glanced up at the clock. May would be back in moments. "Yes, ma'am," he said.

Chapter Text

The top five were lined up to go on.

They were set to be interviewed in alphabetical order, on surname, but all of them had to be present on-stage together. May was making last adjustments with the techs, fitting each of them with a microphone pack.

Broad-backed leather chairs had been arranged on the stage. It looked more like a gentleman’s club than a pageant. Pierce was standing at the front of the stage, regaling the audience with the bios of each of the five, while they waited.

“I think I forgot my smoking jacket,” Sam quipped with a sidelong look at Steve, as May adjusted his pack under his suit.

“You think he’ll give us some of his best scotch from a crystal bottle?” Bradley’s deep voice added. “Looks like some old guys fancy parlour, don’t it?”

Steve was unsurprised when Bucky grit out, “He’s doing it to make himself look good. This isn’t about us. It’s about him.”

“Easy, tin-man,” Stark said with an impatient gesture. “He just wants us to be comfortable.”

Steve had to disagree, looking out at the stage.

It was set up to suit people like Stark and Pierce down to the ground: elegant, rich, and not the kind of place Steve knew any of the rest of them would go. It was like pressing their noses to the window of a 5-star hotel and knowing they were about to walk in with jeans and t-shirts.

“Maybe you feel comfortable with that kind of stuff,” he said, “but I liked the stools they had before. This all feels too… much.”

The others nodded in agreement.

Stark looked at them in surprise. “Oh, come on!” he said. “He’s just making it kinda fancy because you’re top five and now, you don’t like it?” He shook his head. “I don’t get you guys. You want the rich and famous stuff, and then he gives you great chairs and a nice set and you’re weirded out? I don’t get it.”

“You wouldn’t,” Bucky said. He’d been more abrupt since he’d come back from the backroom of the hotel. Natasha still hadn’t gained access to find out what he’d been doing in there, but whatever it was, it had put him on edge.

Stark frowned at him. “What’s that supposed to mean, Robocop?”

“It means you should take your dollar-coloured glasses off and see how the other half live once in a while, California,” Barnes snapped. He had little enough patience for Stark, but now, he was fidgeting, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, and that wasn’t like him. He didn’t normally let anyone see how worked up he was.

Steve reached out and caught Bucky’s arm. “Easy, Buck,” he murmured, squeezing gently. He shot a warning look at Stark, who seemed willing to take a hint for the first time. “C’mon, buddy, it’s almost over.”

Bucky nodded tightly. “Yeah. It is.”

Steve slid his hand up to press Bucky’s shoulder, kneading at the taut muscle. “We ready to go yet?” he said to May.

May glanced out onto the stage. Pierce was just winding up his speech, and motioned towards the wings. “Okay. New York. You first.”

Bucky shuddered, and Sam stepped forward. “We’re doing alphabetical, right? How about we invert it? I don’t mind saying my piece first.”

May studied him, then raised an eyebrow. “That okay with you, Barnes?”

Bucky nodded curtly. “Thanks.”

Sam smiled. “Don’t mention it,” he said, before striding out.

Steve could see the surprise and confusion on Pierce’s face, but he turned his attention back to Bucky. “You going to be okay?”

Bucky pushed his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “God… I-I thought it’d help, but it’s making things worse.” He looked fearfully up Steve. “I’m gonna to screw up, Jersey. I’m gonna screw up and everyone’ll say it’s because I’m fucked up in the head.”

Steve caught the back of Bucky’s head with his other hand. “You’re not,” he said gently, catching the other man’s eyes, holding them. “Look at me, Buck. Listen. You’re going to go out there, and you’ll be fine. All he’s doing is asking some questions. You can answer some questions, right?”

Bucky nodded, licking his lips nervously. “Just some questions. Yeah. I can.” He took a shaking breath and reached up with one hand to clutch Steve’s forearm. “Just some questions. No big deal.”

Steve squeezed his shoulder and the back of his neck gently. “Atta boy.”

“There something you guys aren’t telling us?” Stark said, hands on his hips.

“Something like you’re meant to be on stage?” May said sharply.

Stark yelped, spinning around and hurried on.

Bucky huffed out a tight laugh. “Shit. Shit, Steve, I’m sorry. I’m… this is all bullshit.”

Steve leaned closer conspiratorially. “We’re in a beauty pageant,” he whispered. “What made you think this was going to be normal?”

For a moment, Bucky just stared at him, then he let his head fall forward to rest on Steve’s shoulder, blowing out an unsteady breath. Steve just let him rest there, kneading gently at Bucky’s neck and shoulders.

“Jersey,” May murmured a moment later. “You’re up.”

Steve wished she hadn’t said anything, but he reluctantly pushed Bucky back. “You’ll be okay, Buck.”

A broad hand touched Steve’s shoulder. “I’ll be with him until he comes on,” Bradley said, offering Bucky his gentle smile. “We’ll be good, yeah?”

Bucky ran his trembling right hand over his face. “Yeah,” he rasped hoarsely. “Go, be articulate.”

Steve shot May a look, and she returned it with a small nod. “We’ll take care of things back here,” she said. “Go on.”

It was amazing just how difficult it was to keep a civil tongue in his head when Pierce rose from his ostentatious leather chair to greet him. He managed a tight smile, and sat down in the third chair in the set, leaning back, and propping his elbows on the arms, his hands knit in front of his midriff.

“So, Mr Grant,” pierce said, smiling that benign smile. “Steven. How have you been finding the pageant?”

“Be careful,” Hill’s voice was sharp in his ear.

Steve looked back towards the wings, where he could see Bradley had an arm around Bucky’s shoulders and was talking to him quietly. “It’s not what I expected,” he said, looking back at Pierce. “I mean, I wasn’t meant to be here, anyway, but now that I am, I think I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Pierce’s expression remained passive and amiable. “Care to elaborate?”

It was hard to think about anything but the man in front of him, but Steve could see Bucky from the corner of his eye. He knew Sam was right beside him. He thought of all the other people he’d met in the past two days.

“The people I’ve met here are all incredible people,” he said. “Some of them have had bad times, some of them work so damn hard at what they love, and some of them are jumped-up billionaires who mean well.”

Tony raised his hands and bowed at the waist, earning a round of laughs and applause. Steve had to smile at that.

“If I’d never come here,” he continued, “I never would have met them. Some of these people are showing me how to be a better person, in ways I never expected, and I hope I’m showing some of them the same thing.” He glanced at Sam, even at Tony, with a smile. “I know it’s a competition, but whatever happens, I think I made some real friends by coming here.”

There was applause from the audience.

“Sweet, Rogers,” Hills’ voice murmured in his ear. “You got some insulin to take the edge off all that sugar?”

Pierce was clapping along with the audience. “That’s good to hear, Mr Grant.”

Steve’s gaze swung back to him. “Yeah,” he said, “and believe me when I say that if anyone tried to hurt my friends, I won’t be happy about it.” He laughed warmly. “You’ve all seen what I can do when I’m happy. You don’t want to see what I could do when I’m not.”

Hill groaned and he could picture her knocking her head on the desk.

Steve couldn’t care less.

His eyes were still fixed on Pierce, who was still smiling, but it wasn’t reaching his eyes at all.

“Thank you, Steven Grant,” he said. “How about we bring out our next contestant?”

Steve just smiled, warmed by the knowledge that he had just pissed Pierce off.

Chapter Text

The final interview went okay.

At least, from Steve's point of view, it had gone well.

From the constant litany of swearing in his ear from Hill, she was less than pleased by the fact he'd kind of sort of threatened Alexander Pierce in front of a live TV audience.

He and the other members of the Top Five filed off into the wings, where May was waiting. He winced, awaiting the inevitable glare, but instead, she offered him a fleeting smile and what looked like a nod of approval.

"Gentlemen," she said, as they congregated, "you have fifteen minutes to change again. You may not leave the changing area." The last was said with a deliberate look at Barnes. "The judges are currently deliberating. We have one more procession and then the announcement of the winner." She looked at Steve. "Jersey, a word."

As he was led away by May, he heard Stark say, "Okay, either he's in trouble or he's sleeping with the crew."

It was echoed by the sound of a hand meeting flesh in a swat and a yelp.

"New York!" Sam exclaimed. "If you gotta hit him, don't aim for the head. We don't wanna damage the braincells he's got left."

To his relief, he heard Bucky laugh unsteadily. "Okay, Virginia. And Stark? Shut your hole," Barnes said. "Not everyone thinks like you."

May led him into a small room off the main room. To his surprise, Hill was waiting there, sitting on the edge of a table. She nodded to May, who withdrew from the room and closed the door.

"Hill, about the interview..." he began.

"Can it, Rogers," Hill said curtly. "Ear-piece out."

He removed it, closing his hand around it to smother the sound. "What is it?"

"We're keeping this off the line," she said. "We think the audio transmissions have been compromised, and we don't want the suspect to know."

"Rumlow?" Steve guessed.

She nodded tersely. "We got confirmation through. We can't 100% confirm that he's Crossbones, but he's former black ops and there are too many coincidences on the timeline for it to be chance. We think he's the one who got the tap on the line, but we're making like we don't know until this is over. Let him think we're oblivious."

"What if he heard the chatter earlier?" Steve said.

"Too late to speculate now," she said. "Rogers, there's more."

There was something in her expression that filled him with trepidation.

"It's about Barnes, isn't it?"

She nodded gravely. "He was in Rumlow's unit," she said. "By all accounts, they stayed in touch after Barnes was discharged."

"That doesn't mean anything," he said.

"Steve, I know you like this guy..."

"No," he snapped, "that's nothing to do with it. You didn't hear the way Rumlow spoke to him. Bucky doesn't want to be here. He's been pressed into it from the word go. I thought it was just Pierce, but now, I think Rumlow might be part of it as well."

"Part of what, Rogers?" Hill asked. She sounded tired. "Pierce is the one who brought the threats to our attention. Pierce is the one who let us into the pageant. This is his shining moment. Why would he do anything to jeopardise that?" She shook her head. "Maybe he doesn't even know about Rumlow's past."

"Or maybe he arranged for him to be here," Steve said stubbornly.

"Why?"

Steve's shoulders sagged. "I don't know," he said honestly. "It just feels wrong. There's something going on here, and I don't think it's anything to do with the pageant."

Hill's expression was unreadable. "You've got blinkers on," she finally said. "Barnes was covert ops for years. He might be playing you."

The thought had occurred to him, but every time he considered of Bucky's nightmares and the tension that was freezing the man up, he knew it couldn't be a fake-out. No one could maintain that level of anxiety as a role.

"Just look into Pierce," he asked quietly. "I was right about Rumlow. I think Pierce is part of whatever's happening."

Hill gazed at him silently, then nodded, straightening up from the edge of the desk. "Does your hunch give you any idea what this might relate to?" she said. "Somewhere to start? We can't just request all his records. He's been in public service for decades. We don't have the time or the bodies to deal with that."

Steve ran a hand over his face. "I don't know," he said. "I know he has Rumlow watching Stark. Maybe something to do with that? They're in business together, Stark said."

There was a sharp rap at the door, and May opened it, leaning in.

"We need Jersey to get suited up," she said.

Steve glanced at Hill, who nodded, dismissing him. “We’ll look into it,” she said, “but our focus has to be Rumlow. He’s our most likely suspect at the moment.”

It wasn’t what he’d hoped for, but it was all he knew he was going to get.

He followed May back out into the main room, grateful to see his final suit was laid out for him, all deep blue lines over a crisp white shirt. Plain and simple, even if it was a lot sharper than the suits he had at home.

He was combing his hair into place when Bucky appeared at his side, gazing at Steve's reflection.

"Looking good, Jersey," he said quietly.

Steve smiled. "You too, New York," he said, turning to look Bucky up and down. He was in a smoke-grey suit that made his eyes look even bluer over a white shirt. The top button of his collar was undone. "That's a good colour on you."

Bucky made a face. "I just wear what they tell me," he said.

Steve recalled the nightmare of his shopping trip with Natasha. "Believe me, I know how that is," he said. He straightened his jacket then patted Bucky firmly on the shoulder. "How about we go and see if we can't win this thing?"

Bucky's smile wavered. "Yeah," he said, falling into step alongside Steve. He exhaled a long, slow breath. "Who'd'you think'll take the shield?"

In female beauty pageants, the winners got a crown. In the Captain America, they got to lift the shield. There was some story that it was about knights and chivalry, but no one really remembered anymore. It used to look like a regular pointed shield, but as time went by, it had changed shape and design until now, it was like an oversized frisbee ringed in red, white, and blue, with a star right in the middle.

Steve shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "I think you've got a pretty good chance."

Bucky snorted, as they made their way up the stairs to stage left. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I got this far, and that's enough." He gave Steve a crooked smile. "I'll let you in on a secret, Jersey. I got to hold this year's shield already."

Steve looked at him in surprise. "How did you manage that?"

"They had it backstage," Bucky replied. "Pierce's guy, Rumlow, let me see it."

"Hustle, boys! You're late!" May called.

Bucky hurried up the steps to the stage, but Steve felt like his feet were weighed down.

The shield.

It had to be the shield.

He caught May by the arm urgently. "The shield," he said. "We need to keep it off the..." She looked beyond him and he turned, staring in horror. The shield was already on the plinth in the centre of the stage. He looked back at her. "Get Nat. She needs to take out Rumlow. Crossbones uses remote detonators, so we get him, we stop it." He jerked his head towards the stage. "I'll deal with that."

May nodded. "Keep it low-key," she said, snatching her radio off her belt. "Go."

Steve followed Bucky out onto the stage, forcing a smile on his face as he lined up with the other finalists.

If he had the choice, he would have grabbed the shield and run, but Rumlow was out there, and if Steve was right, if the shield was booby-trapped, Rumlow would have it in his sights, ready to trigger it with a remote detonator. Nat had to disarm him before anyone could make a move.

Sharon Carter was standing at the front of the stage with Pierce, smiling.

"Gentlemen, the moment has arrived!" she said, as an envelope was carried over from the judges table. She took it and held it out to Pierce, who took it with a slight bow.

"Thank you, Sharon," he said. "Gentlemen, no matter who takes the shield, you are all winners." He broke the seal on the envelope, withdrawing the card. "The fourth runner-up is Florida!"

Bradley raised a hand as the audience applauded. He didn't look disappointed or surprised, and he patted Bucky warmly on the shoulder before walking towards the wings. Steve turned his head to watch the man go, and a motion above the stage caught his eye.

A flash of red hair told him Natasha was up there.

It made sense. Rumlow would need to have the shield in view.

"The third runner up," Pierce continued, "is New York!"

There could be no mistaking the relief written all over Bucky's face. He winked at Steve in passing, as he headed towards the wings.

A rattle above made Steve's eyes dart up. Natasha was out of sight, but he could she shadows cast below the gantry: she was struggling with someone up there, and he had no doubts who it was. For the first time, he hoped to at least come second place so he could stay on the stage.

"Second runner up," Pierce's voice cut through his attention. "New Jersey!"

Steve swore under his breath, walking towards the wings as slowly as he could. He was only halfway there, when Pierce announced Sam as the first runner up, which meant Tony Stark was the winner of the pageant.

Tony Stark, who was a business partner, whose business and success lined Pierce's pockets.

Steve spun around, almost crashing straight into Sam as Pierce lifted the shield and handed it to Tony. Tony beamed and strode to the front of the stage, raising it to the cheers of the audience.

"Whoa!" Sam exclaimed, stabilising them. "What the hell..."

"Get down!" Steve yelled, shoving him aside.

He tackled Stark and snatched the shield from him, catching him by surprise.

"Jersey, what..."

Steve ignored him, flipping the round shield over in his hands, searching for the incendiary. It was blended in to the metal of the shield and he cursed, tugging at it. Stark, indignant, protested and snatched at the shield. Steve knocked him on his ass with a punch.

"Rogers!" Natasha's voice rang over the yells of the audience, amplified in his earpiece, and he looked up. The gantry was half-collapsed, hanging from the ceiling. She had Rumlow, her thighs around his throat, but the man was dangling, and in his hand, out of her reach, he was fumbling with a detonator.

Steve didn't even stop to think. He drew back the shield and hurled it as high and far from the audience as he could. It curved through the air and as it hit the back of the stage, it exploded.

Chapter Text

The fire was being brought under control.

Natasha was still being treated by paramedics, but Rumlow had been swept away by the EMTs, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. Part of the stage gantry had come down on him when he tried to make his escape. An agent had been sent with him, to ensure he didn’t try to run off again, when he regained consciousness.

Steve saw May corralling the rest of the contestants safely into the backstage area. She met his eyes, jerking his head for him to join them. He hesitated, looking around for Pierce, and only withdrew when he saw Hill heading towards the man.

The backstage area was buzzing, and as soon as Steve crossed the threshold Tony Stark was right in front of him.

“There he is!” he exclaimed, grappling Steve in a hug.

Steve looked down at him, his hands up awkwardly. “Um. Okay?”

Stark pointed a finger up at him. “You just save my life and all you can say is okay?” He looked at May. “He got hit in the head, right?” He looked back at Steve, then around at the other faces surrounding them. “If he can’t recognise gratitude when I do it, it has to be head trauma, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m doing it okay, the gratitude-thing…”

“Hey, Stark,” Sam approached the man and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just breathe, man.”

Stark nodded, and for a second, his smile looked brittle and unsteady.

Steve felt a pang of pity for the man and pressed his hand to Stark’s other shoulder. “You’re going to be okay, Stark. You weren’t hurt?”

Stark shook his head with a wavering smile. “Nah. All good.” He was trembling under Steve’s hand. “God,” his voice broke, “who do you almost have to be assassinated by to get a drink around here?”

Steve looked up at the gathered crowd. “Back it up, guys,” he said. “Barton? You here?”

Clint shoved his way through. “Jersey?”

“You know what this guy likes to drink,” he said. “Go and get it.”

Barton touched a fingertip to his brow and darted off, as Steve gently steered Stark through the scattering group to the nearest chair and helped him sit.

He crouched down by the chair, looking up at Stark. The man was ashen, and even though he was trying to sit still, one of his legs was twitching, his foot drumming anxiously on the ground beneath him.

“Stark,” he said, and when that didn’t get a response, he tapped Stark’s cheek with the back of his hand. “Hey, Tony.” Dark eyes snapped to his face. “Tony, listen to me. You’re going to be fine. We’ll figure this out. Is there anyone you need? Anyone out there we can get for you?”

Tony nodded. “Pepper. I need Pepper. Pepper needs to be here. She’ll…” He laughed and it cracked halfway. “God, she’s going to be so pissed. Rhodey too. He-” He took a shaking breath. “He said he’d be here too.” He snatched the drink that Barton had brought over, downing it in a gulp. “Another. Straight up.”

Steve unfolded up, glancing at Sam. “Can you stay with him just now?”

Sam nodded. “Course,” he said. He looked Steve up and down. “You okay?”

Steve nodded. “Fine,” he said, then hurried towards May. She was standing in front of the main doors, arms folded, expression grim. “Are we on lock-down?”

“For now,” she agreed. “What do you need?”

“Stark has people out there,” he said. “We need to get them in here. He needs people he trusts right now.”

“Names?”

“All I could get was Pepper and Rhodey. That mean anything to you?”

She nodded, lifting her radio. “I’ll get it done,” she said. She nodded towards the far side of the hall, where Bucky was slouched at a table. “You need to look in on Barnes. You seem to be the only person he feels safe around here.”

“You want eyes on him,” Steve said without malice.

“We need to cover all bases,” she replied. “Hill is keeping eyes on Pierce. You get Barnes.”

Steve nodded. “Let me know when we get something,” he said, then headed over in the direction of Bucky. The other man, looked up at him as he approached, and he looked almost as pale as Stark. “Hey, Buck.”

“Hey?” Bucky said hoarsely, sitting up. “Hey? Jesus Christ, Steve, what the hell were you thinking?”

Steve pulled another chair out from the table. “Damage limitation,” he said.

“Damage limitation.” Bucky’s voice was flat with disbelief. “You just took a fucking bomb in your hands. If you hadn’t…” He slammed his hands against the edge of the table, shoving his chair back and rose. “I can’t…”

“Buck…”

Bucky whirled around. “Don’t,” he snarled. “Don’t act like this is nothing. I’ve seen too many people die to know that, you son of a bitch.” He clenched his hands, turning away. “I’m not ready to see more people die, Rogers.”

“Buck,” Steve said again, more softly, catching his shoulder. “I know it’s not nothing. You think I would have done that if there was any other choice?”

Bucky stared at him. “And that’s all it’s about, isn’t it? Doing whatever you think you have to and almost getting yourself killed.”

Steve moved a step closer, and Bucky didn’t retreat. “I’m okay, Buck,” he said, keeping his voice low and calm. “It’s almost all over with and we can go home. You can get back to New York.” He lifted his other hand and lightly cuffed Bucky’s cheek. “Hey, maybe we could even meet up for pizza or something, if you’re anywhere near Brooklyn.”

Bucky was staring at him blankly. “You’re asking me on a date?”

Steve’s shoulders lifted. “Near-death experiences make me realise what I don’t want to miss,” he said. “Call it what you like. A date. Or if you prefer, a pizza and maybe some sex and beer.”

Bucky laughed unsteadily. “And they say romance is dead.”

Steve knocked him on the shoulder companionably. “I did it politely,” he said. “That’s something.”

“Sure it is,” Bucky said, shaking his head. He eyed him. “Why Brooklyn?”

“Because I’m lazy and can walk most places there.”

Bucky stared at him. “You’re from Brooklyn?”

“Yeah. So?”

“How the hell didn’t I hear about tall, blond, and tight-assed in my own neighbourhood?”

Steve’s face lit up in a grin. “Well, that’s just convenient,” he said. “Lived there most of my life.”

Bucky’s mouth twitched in a smile. “I think we might need to get to know each other better, Jersey-boy.”

“I look forward to it,” Steve replied, then frowned at the sight of several agents moving towards them, too purposefully to just speak to him.

“What is it?” Bucky asked, turning to follow his line of sight. “Friends of yours?”

Steve stepped forward, alongside Bucky. “Hey, guys,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“We need you to stand aside, Agent Rogers,” a woman he recognised as Agent Hand met his eyes. “Now, if you would.”

Steve hesitated, then moved out of their way.

“What’s going on?” Bucky said, frowning.

“James Buchanan Barnes?”

“Yeah,” he said, taking a step back. “What is it?”

“We need you to come with us.”

Bucky looked at Steve in alarm. “Steve?”

“It’s just protocol, right, guys?” Steve said, trying to reassure him as much as he could. “You’ll be asking all the guys questions?”

Agent Hand gave him a pitying look, then turned her attention back to Barnes. “You’re under arrest, Mr Barnes, on suspicion of attempted murder.”

“What?” Steve didn’t know which of them said it first.

“I didn’t do anything!” Bucky protested, backing away.

“You’re got the wrong person!” Steve added, putting himself in their path. “Why would he do this?”

“We ask the questions, Rogers,” Hand snapped. “We have DNA evidence and his fingerprints on the incendiary. That’s enough to charge him. Stand aside.”

“Steve,” Bucky looked at him desperately. “Steve, you know I didn’t do this! You know I didn’t!”

“Yeah,” Steve replied, watching helplessly as they locked cuffs around Bucky’s wrists. “I’ll get you out of this.”

As he watched them walk Bucky away, he wished he knew how.

Chapter Text

Even though all the contestants were meant to be restricted to the backstage area, Steve didn’t care anymore. He’d waited half an hour for news, and none was forthcoming, so he stormed across the room, heading for the main doors, to go and find Hill and find out what the hell was going on.

May put herself between him and the door. “Can’t let you leave, Grant.”

“May, I’m going to see Hill,” he said tersely. “If you want to stop me, you’re going to have to do it by force.”

Her eyes narrowed at him, and he knew it was probably a bad idea to say such a thing to the woman known only in legend as the Cavalry. “You really think that kid is innocent?” she said. “Even if I tell you his military records show he has experience with explosives?”

“I know he’s a scared guy who never wanted to be here in the first place,” he said, low. “I know he needs help. And I know the only reason he’d have for trying to take out Tony Stark is the same reason everyone in this room would have.” He shook his head. “Something isn’t adding up here, and I don’t want them to make that mistake.”

May studied him in silence for what felt like a long time. “If you’re wrong about this,” she said, “this is all on you. Are you willing to take that chance for this guy?”

Steve could only nod. “No one else will,” he said. “Melinda, please.”

She sighed, then stepped aside. “I hope you’re right, Rogers,” she said.

He flashed her a smile. “Thank you,” he said, darting out the door.

There were agents everywhere, which wasn’t a big surprise, and they were putting cordons in place to keep the media in check. Tony Stark wasn’t just a sponsor of a pageant. His business was international news, and an assassination attempt meant that the pageant was suddenly getting a whole lot more attention than before.

Without his badge, Steve wondered if he might just be corralled back towards the backstage area, but a couple of the agents who were keeping things in check recognised him and waved him on to the command room and Hill.

She wasn’t alone.

Pierce was sitting in one of the chairs, listening to the ongoing discussion, looking passive and benign. He looked too calm, especially since his business partner had almost been murdered in his pageant. Anyone else would have been furious or showing something.

“Agent Rogers?” Hill said, noticing him. “You’re meant to be backstage with May.”

“I needed to have a word with you, Agent Hill,” he said, keeping his tone as respectful and calm as he could. “Privately, if you don’t mind.”

She rose from the desk she was sitting behind. “Excuse me, Mr Pierce. Gentlemen.” She motioned for Steve to follow her, leading him into an adjoining room lined with chairs. She waited until he was in then closed the door very firmly and quietly. “You have something to say, Rogers?”

“Barnes is being framed,” he said without hesitation. “He told me before we went on that Rumlow let him hold the shield before the final. That was why his finger-prints were on the device.”

Hill passed her hand over her eyes. “Rogers,” she said gently, “that’s an awfully convenient excuse for him to give you. No one else was meant to handle the shield, but he and Rumlow both have their prints all over it, and you want me to believe it was just him ‘holding’ it?”

Steve put his hands on his hips, and looked up at the ceiling. “I don’t know what I can tell you,” he said, then looked back at her. “Maria, you know I wouldn’t say something unless I thought there was something weird going on.”

“Yeah,” she replied, crossing the floor to sit down on one of the chairs. “That’s the only reason I’m in here with you and not out there, making small talk while searches and traces are running.” She tapped her fingertips on the arm of the chair. “What I can tell you so far is that Barnes has shut down. They took him to the nearest police station for questioning, but he’s not saying a word.”

Steve remembered their conversation only a couple of days earlier, about the reason that Bucky was discharged from the army. “Hill,” he said carefully, “please tell me Agent Hand didn’t put a guy who was tortured for information in an interrogation room.”

Her eyes widened, as she realised his implication. “Shit!” She snatched her phone, dialling. “Hand. Yeah. It’s Hill. Terminate the interrogation. Do it now. Get him out of that room and into the holding area. No! That is an order, Agent!” She cut the call and looked up at Steve, a grim set to her features. “We need to know what happened in that room, and why he was holed up in there with Rumlow.”

“I can do that,” Steve said at once. “Let me do the interrogation. He knows who I am.”

Hill’s eyes narrowed. “He does?”

Steve faltered. “Uh. Yeah.” He shifted his weight self-consciously. “I might have told him, on the second night.”

“Christ,” Hill groaned. “You are never going undercover again, you hear me, Rogers?” He nodded and she pushed herself up from the chair. “Okay. You head down to the central police station. There’s a car out front to take you. Get as much as you can out of Barnes.”

“What about Pierce?”

One side of her mouth turned up. “What do you think the searches are for, Rogers?” she said. “You told me to look, and we’re going as deep as we can.”

He blew out a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said. “I know I might be wrong, but if there is anything…”

“We’ll find it.” She jerked her head. “Go. Deal with Barnes. We’ll deal with what we can here.”

Steve made a detour back to the backstage area. May cracked open the door, looking out at him suspiciously. “May,” he said quietly, “Stark’s friends are in now, right?”

“Both of them,” she agreed.

“Okay, I need you to get Sam Wilson,” he said. “I think I’m going to need him.”

She didn’t even ask why. The door closed briefly, and when it opened again, Sam was with her.

“Hey, Jersey,” he said, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Barnes needs our help,” Steve replied. “I’ll fill you in, in the car.”

Sam fell into step beside him. “Yeah,” he said, “like about how you can walk in and out of an FBI blockade with no one asking any questions, and how you knew there was a bomb in that shield, and how the hell I didn’t make you before, Mister FBI agent.”

Steve glanced at him as they headed towards the front door. “You guessed?”

“I guessed you were something,” Sam admitted, “the second you threw a bomb like it was a goddamn Frisbee and didn’t freak out about it. FBI being here, just kinda was one plus one.”

Steve opened the door of the waiting car. “I think you pretty much covered everything I was about to tell you,” he said.

“The general idea, yeah,” Sam agreed, “but now, I need details.”

During the ride from the hotel to the station, Steve filled Sam in with as much information as he had, leaving out his own suspicions about Pierce’s motives. Sam didn’t interrupt, only asking a couple of questions here and there, and as they pulled up, he looked at the building.

“I guess Barnes isn’t exactly in a good way?”

Steve nodded grimly. “That’s what I’m worried about,” he said, climbing out the car. “I don’t know if I can help him, but I figure you could point me in the right direction with your experience.”

“Can’t say I ever was involved in an FBI case before,” Sam admitted, as they headed up the steps to the building. “You really think he had nothing to do with this?”

“The more people that ask, the less my answer is going to change,” Steve said quietly. “I don’t think he had any part in this. I think someone was using him, and he’s the only person who can help us find out who.”

Sam caught his arm. “Steve, we go in there, he might not be happy to see us,” he said. “If he’s been put in a situation that’s triggered him, he might be too far gone to help right away. Could be violent too. You just have to know that, before we go in.”

Steve breathed out slowly. “Yeah,” he said, “I know, but I can’t just leave him to deal with it on his own, Sam. You know the signs. I need you there to pull me back if it looks like things are going south.”

Sam looked up at the doors. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this.”

Steve took the lead, heading up into the building, and wasn’t surprised when Agent Hand was there to meet him. She looked concerned, and that was a small reassurance.

“How is he?” Steve asked, following her through the building.

“Better now he’s out of the interview room,” she said. “I’m sorry, Rogers. We weren’t briefed about the cause.”

Steve nodded, then brushed her aside as they reached the holding area. Bucky was sitting on a bench in the corner of the room. He looked like hell, pressing into the corner, his cuffed hands held tight against his chest, as if to protect himself. If that was better, Steve didn’t want to think about what he must have been like in the interview room.

“Buck?”

Bucky’s head snapped up, his eyes wide like a frightened animal. He saw Steve, and the relief on his face almost broke Steve’s heart.

“The keys,” he said, without looking away from Bucky. “I want him uncuffed, and everyone else out of here. Just me and Sam.”

Hand passed the keys over, and he heard her snapping orders. There were rushing footsteps, and then silence, as he crossed the floor and knelt down in front of Bucky.

“Here,” he said, “let me get those.”

Bucky held out his hands, trembling, and watched intently as Steve unlocked each cuff. “I didn’t think you’d come,” he admitted in a small, fragile voice.

Steve looked up at him, tossing cuffs and keys aside. “Well, I’m here now,” he said, wrapping his hands around Bucky’s. He jerked his head. “Sam came along for the ride. Figured we’d need at least one person with brains around here.”

Bucky nodded unsteadily, his hands clumsily clutching at Steve’s. “Don’t let them take me back in there,” he whispered. “Please. I know it’s not… it’s not there.” His voice was breaking. “I know it’s not. I tell myself it’s not, but it feels like it is.”

Steve knelt up, drawing one hand from Bucky’s to wrap it around the back of the other man’s neck, kneading at it. “I know,” he said gently. “They won’t take you back in there, I promise you that.” He let Bucky clutch at his arm with his metal hand, almost to the point of pain. “We need your help, Buck. I need your help.”

Bucky shook his head. His eyes were too bright and he looked like he was going to cry. “I didn’t do anything, I swear,” he whispered. “I don’t know why people think I did it.”

“Hate to say it,” Sam’s voice murmured, “but you were kinda a grumpy asshole.”

Bucky’s laugh was tight and explosive. “So I don’t do happy-face all the time? That’s it?”

Steve leaned closer, pressing his brow to Bucky’s. Bucky shivered, leaning into him. “They’re setting you up, Buck,” Steve said softly, keeping his voice even. “We need to undo what they were planning. We need to work out what they were doing. You’re the only one who can help us work that out.”

“They?” Bucky said, and Steve nearly bit his tongue. He wasn’t meant to be biased, and he knew it, but he couldn’t help it. Bucky stared at him. “Pierce,” he said suddenly, sharp with anger.

“What about him?” Sam prompted.

“He wouldn’t let me leave,” Bucky said, keeping his eyes fixed on Steve. His breathing was unsteady and his hands were holding onto Steve tightly, as if it was something to ground him. “I wanted to quit after regionals. Pierce… he came to my apartment. Told me it would be good for veterans to see someone like me.” His breath was hissing through his teeth. “Said he’d get me help. All I got was Brock.”

“Brock?”

“Rumlow,” Steve supplied quietly. “He’s not exactly a helpful guy.”

Bucky laughed sharply. “No. He’s not,” he said, “but you were.” He shook his head. “Why’d they put you in with me, Steve? They knew I was losing it. Why’d they think it was a good idea to shove you in a room with a crazy guy?”

Steve stared at him. “Because they wanted me to see what they saw,” he said. “They knew I’d be reporting on suspicious behaviour.”

Bucky’s head fell forward, until his forehead was resting on Steve’s shoulder. He was shaking with silent mirth. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Bet they didn’t realise they’d sent me Agent Boyscout to look after me.”

Steve swatted him across the back of the head. “I was never a boy scout,” he said indignantly.

“Sure,” Sam said with a snort.

Bucky lifted his head enough to look at Steve. “You’re a shit liar, Rogers,” he said, bracing his hands on Steve’s shoulders. He took slow breaths, and Steve matched them, until they were breathing in time with each other. “You knew about him too, Virginia?”

Sam shook his head. “Golden boy decided to fill me in on the way over,” he said. “Nothing like trust between friends, am I right?”

Bucky looked at Steve. “They said my fingerprints were on the bomb,” he said finally, his voice flat. “They said the evidence shows I was there. They kept on asking the same questions over and over and I didn’t know what to say and they kept asking.” The tremor was back in his voice, the pitch rising. Steve saw Sam’s urgent, worried look.

Steve caught Bucky’s hands, pulling them to rest on his own chest, holding them there. “Buck, we’re here,” he said softly. “We’re good, okay? Look at me and breathe with me, okay? In and out. Nice and slow.”

Bucky met his eyes and nodded, trying to even out his unsteady breathing. “You look like you’re going to propose,” he whispered minutes later. “On your knees and all that shit.”

“I can think of better things to do on my knees,” Steve said, then felt his face flush when he heard a snort from Sam. He squeezed Bucky’s hands again. “You said Rumlow was meant to help you, Buck. Did he ever do anything?”

Bucky hesitated, then lowered his eyes. “I guess a narcotics charge is better than murder, huh?” he said unhappily. “He got me medications. Stuff that isn’t approved here.” His eyes darted up. “It was just… stuff to calm me down before the competition. No big deal, right? I kept some of it in the store room near the backstage area, just in case I needed it.”

“The one with the key card? Where Rumlow showed you the shield?”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Why?”

Steve smiled. “I think we’re on the way to getting you out of here, Buck.”

Chapter Text

Outside the police station, a siren wailed.

Sam was sitting with Bucky, talking quietly to him while Steve was on the phone to Hill.

They were making progress, of a kind.

Hill had listened to everything Steve relayed to her, sent someone along to the store room, and found Bucky's cache of medication hidden on a shelf, exactly where Bucky said it was.

"We're going to have them analysed," she said. "I don't know the brand, but from the description we've found on the database, they look right. Right shape and size and stamp."

"But?" Steve said.

"But if he's been taking them every time he went into that room," Hill replied, "he should have spent the whole pageant with his head in the clouds. They're powerful tranquilisers, according to the health reports on them. They were banned in the States because they were considered too potent."

Steve looked across at Bucky. He had his hands clasped tightly together, squeezed between his knees, but he was looking at Sam, listening to whatever he was saying. "Hill, you've been watching the footage," Steve murmured. "Did he ever look even a little sedated to you?"

"Not once," she admitted, her voice low. "We’re rushing the analysis, but it looks like you could be right about him being set up."

Steve closed his eyes in relief. "I want to bring him back to the hotel," he said. "It'll be safer for him there. He can be classed as in my custody if need be, for the paperwork, but we can't put him in a cell."

Hill was silent for a moment. He could hear the sound of her footsteps on the polished floor, and a door closing. "I'll arrange matters here," she said. "There'll have to be agents on both doors, as guards. Make sure he knows that."

"Shouldn't be a problem," Steve confirmed. "Sam might be staying in with us as well."

"Sam?"

"Wilson," he clarified. "Virginia."

"Ah." He could picture Hill nodding. "May mentioned he was helping out. I'll get his name okayed."

"What about the checks into Pierce?"

Hill was silent for a moment. "They're in progress," she said. "Still looking for a concrete motive before we can touch him, but a few things have showed up that we need to look into." She sighed. "Just keep Barnes secure and out of sight for now."

"We'll get back to the hotel and lay low as soon as possible," he assured her.

"The car'll be waiting out front in fifteen minutes," she said. "Keep it discreet."

Half an hour later, Steve was opening the door to the hotel room, Sam and Bucky close behind him. Bucky had a cap on and was carrying a stack of pizza boxes, his head down, and no one - except agents - had given them a second look.

"I can't believe," Sam said, as he closed the door behind them, "that you made the FBI pull over for beer and pizza."

"He's on a power-trip," Bucky murmured, setting the boxes down on the table and removing his cap. He was still looking tense, but not as much as he had been. "Agent Rogers, superagent."

"Screw you, Barnes," Steve said amiably. "You're just jealous that I have a shiny badge."

Bucky turned to look over at him, and lifted his left hand. "You know what I have that's shiny?" he said, uncurling one finger.

Sam snickered. "Real mature," he said, meandering over to flip open one of the pizza boxes. He glanced at the hole in the wall with a frown. Steve shook his head, and Sam got the message. "This is on the agency, right?" he asked. "Crime-fighting pizza?"

"As long as you kept the receipt," Steve replied.

Sam's face fell. "Shit."

"First rule of FBI school," Steve said, deadpan. "Always get a receipt."

Bucky threw the cap at him. "You're a jerk, Rogers," he said, picking up one of the pizza boxes, and sitting down on the floor at the foot of the bed. He stretched out his legs in front of him, perching the box on his lap, and looked down at the pizza.

Sam sat down at the table instead, popping open one of the bottles of beer and offering it down to him. "You're probably not hungry, are you?"

Bucky shook his head. "I know I need to eat something, though," he said quietly. He took the beer bottle and gulped down a couple of mouthfuls, then set it down beside him. "If I throw up, it's nothing personal."

"Hey, I didn't make the pizzas," Sam said. "I'm not gonna be offended."

Steve snagged the last box, sprawling down beside Bucky. "You don't have to eat more than you can manage either," he said. "I'm sure we can finish off any leftovers."

"By we," Sam put in, "he means him. Guy's got one hell of an appetite. Bet that's why he made us stop for pizza."

Steve knocked his knee against Bucky's. "One of the reasons," he said, a hint of playfulness in his tone as Bucky took another mouthful of beer. "Promised you beer and pizza, after all."

Bucky promptly choked, spluttering. He raised his eyes to Steve, mopping his chin with the sleeve of his shirt. "You son of a bitch," he said hoarsely, and the slight curl of his lips, a shadow of a smile was enough to make Steve grin at him.

"Why do I get the feeling I don't wanna know what that's about?" Sam inquired.

"Because Agent Rogers is an ass," Bucky replied, nudging Steve's knee with his own. He hesitated, then picked up a slice of the pizza. His eyes flicked between them. "I better not be the only one eating," he said.

Sama promptly snatched up a slice of his own pizza. "You know what we're missing? We got beer. We got pizza. We got a trashed hotel room. We either need sport or a rock band."

"Well, we all heard Buck's repertoire," Steve said, earning an elbow in the ribs from Bucky. He grunted and added, "so I'd go sport."

Bucky grumbled something muffled by a mouthful of pizza, and Steve didn't need a translator to guess what he was saying.

"I guess that was a second vote for sport?" Sam said, getting up.

There was some basketball game on. Steve didn't really care who was playing, but it was good enough to be a distraction. He and Sam flipped a coin for a team to support, and they yelled enthusiastically in turn.

Between them, gradually, little by little, Bucky was relaxing, leaning against Steve without even realising. He didn't manage more than two slices of pizzas, but he finished two bottles of beer, the second one cradled - empty - between his chest and his upraised knees, his pizza box abandoned on the floor.

His head kept lolling forward, but he kept jerking himself awake, until Steve nudged Bucky's shoulder with his own.

"You should get some sleep, Buck," he murmured.

Bucky shivered. "Want to stay awake," he said, and there was something about the tone in his voice that reminded Steve of their first night in this room.

Steve put his hand lightly on Bucky's forearm. "When you want to sleep," he said, "you can sleep by me. Might help if you've got someone by you, huh?"

Bucky laughed unsteadily. "Is it that obvious?"

“There’s probably a doctor who can give you something, if you need help,” Sam added.

Bucky shook his head tightly. “Not until I know what I’ve been taking for the last week,” he said. He breathed out unsteadily. “I just…. I’m safe here, right? With you guys, I feel like I’m safe, but…” He shook his head.

Sam leaned down and clasped his shoulder. “You’re safe here,” he promised. “Your brain’s gonna be telling you a thousand different things, but if you trust Steve here, you know he won’t let anyone do anything to you.”

Bucky looked at Steve, and there was a hollowness in his features that hadn’t been there before. He searched Steve’s face, almost desperately, his breathing just a little too fast, his eyes just a little too wide. Steve tried his best to smile reassuringly.

“You trust me, Buck?” he asked softly, his hand sliding up to rest on Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky’s tongue darted out to wet his lips, and he nodded. “Yeah, Rogers,” he whispered.

The empty bottle slipped from his fingers, rolling away across the floor, and Steve found himself with an armful of shivering veteran. He wrapped Bucky up in his arms, murmuring nonsense to him, one hand kneading the back of Bucky’s neck, the other rubbing slowly up and down his back.

“I’m tired,” Bucky whispered faintly.

“Want to try and get some rest?” Steve asked softly, when Sam nodded in quiet approval. “Maybe just get you comfortable? Can’t feel good sitting in your fancy pants after so long.”

Bucky gave a small, tremulous laugh. “Yeah,” he said, drawing back, just a little, his hands against Steve’s chest. “Riding up a hell of a lot.”

“You could shower.”

Bucky’s fingers curled into Steve’s shirt and he took a shivering breath. “No. Thanks. Change. I want to change.” He raised his eyes to Steve. “Maybe rest.”

Steve looked up at Sam. “Buck’s things are under his pillow,” he said, nodding towards the bed. “Could you…”

“You put my stuff under my pillow?” Bucky said, almost sounding like himself. “You’re not my mother, Rogers.”

“Can it,” Steve said shortly. “You leave the place looking like a kid went through it, I treat you like a kid.”

Bucky snorted, snatching his t-shirt and boxers out of Sam’s hand. He looked guardedly towards the bathroom. “I’m leaving the door open,” he warned them, getting up unsteadily, and heading towards the smaller room.

“Got nothing we ain’t seen before, Barnes!” Sam called after him.

“Yeah,” Bucky’s voice echoed oddly off the tiled wall as he stripped, his silhouette visible through the doorway, “only mine is human size and doesn’t need a magnifying glass.”

Sam shot an amused look at Steve. “He always this sassy?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Steve replied with a wry smile. “This is a slow night.” He pushed himself up off the floor to sit on the end of his bed, and unlaced his shoes. “How people think he’s a charming gentleman, I’ve got no idea.”

Bucky’s shadow fell through from the bathroom, across the floor. “Covert ops,” he said. “Steve, we got any band-aids?”

Steve looked up.

Without his long sleeves hiding his arms anymore, Bucky’s right wrist was visible, and there were marks there that Steve hadn’t noticed before, fresh marks. He rose, crossing the floor at once, and caught Bucky’s hand.

The cuffs, he realised. Bucky must have been straining himself against them. The wounds weren’t deep, but they were crusted in blood and raw.

“I don’t think we’ve got a first aid kit,” he said. “Sam?”

“Give me five minutes,” Sam said, rising and heading to the door.

Steve nodded over to the bed. “C’mon,” he said. “Sit down and I’ll clean them for you.”

By the time Sam returned, Steve had cleaned the worst of the bloodstains away with a bowl of warm water and a cloth from the bathroom. Bucky hadn’t said a word, just watching him, not even making a sound.

“Got some gauze, antiseptic, and bandages,” Sam said, setting the box down on the edge of the bed. “Told them we were tattooing each other’s asses.”

“You wish,” Bucky whispered, as Steve started dabbing the antiseptic on his wrist.

He didn’t even flinch. He just breathed quietly, steadily, in and out, watching Steve’s hand. His fingers were twitching from time to time, but even when Steve started binding up his wrist, he didn’t move.

“That feel okay?” Steve asked, sitting back.

Bucky nodded, looking down at it. “My own stupid fault,” he murmured. “Whole thing. I should never have come.”

“Buck,” Steve said, touching his thigh. “Don’t. You don’t need to think about that.”

Dark blue eyes looked up at him. “Yeah,” Bucky said quietly, a small, tired smile on his lips. “I guess I did meet you. That’s something.”

“And making Sam feel like the fifth wheel,” Steve said. “Always big fun, right?”

“And people thought you were nice, Jersey,” Sam snorted. “What the hell were they thinking?”

Steve squeezed Bucky’s thigh, all too aware of how warm the man’s bare leg was under his hand. “I think he’s onto us,” he said.

Bucky just laughed, brief and quiet. He hesitated, then covered Steve’s hand where it lay. “You were serious? What you said earlier?”

Steve met his eyes. “Absolutely,” he said. “Anyway, someone was going to have to share, and since he’s the new guy, I figured Sam should get to have his own space.”

“Careful, Rogers,” Bucky said, looking down at their hands. “You’re almost being nice to Fifth Wheel.”

“Fifth Wheel has ears, thank you,” Sam put in. “Also, Fifth Wheel’s gonna stay up and read for a while, if you guys don’t mind.” Steve shot a look up at him. Sam smiled briefly, then said to Bucky, “I figured you might want to keep the light on, Barnes, and I’m not exactly sleepy.”

Steve nodded in gratitude, knowing Sam was doing it to help Bucky feel safer.

“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll go change. Buck, you make yourself comfortable.”

He took his time in the bathroom, cleaning his teeth, and stared at his reflection in the mirror. If there was news, Hill would have told him. The fact there wasn’t anything was getting him on edge. He sighed and dashed water onto his face. It wouldn’t help, getting wound up, not when Buck needed him to be calm.

By the time he came out, Bucky was curled on his side on the bed, as far away from the exterior doors as he could be, his back to Sam, who was seated upright on the other bed, watching Bucky with concern. Bucky was tense as a wire, and when Steve sat down on the edge of the bed, he saw the other man shiver.

“Okay, Buck?”

“Not even a little,” Bucky whispered.

Steve stretched out beside him. “Tell me what you need.”

He’d barely finished speaking when Bucky rolled over and buried his face in Steve’s shoulder, wrapping himself around Steve, trembling. He felt stone cold, and the white of his bandage against Steve’s chest looked even starker.

Steve reached down and tugged up the blankets, murmuring comfortingly, until the tension in Bucky’s body dissipated enough for him to nestle more comfortably against Steve’s side. His breath was rapid and warm against Steve’s neck, and Steve stroked his hand slowly up and down the back of Bucky’s neck, soothing.

It took a while before the shivers subsided, but when they did, Steve could feel Bucky breathing in time with him, slowly in, then out, in then out.

“Hey, Fifth Wheel,” Bucky murmured, his words slurred with exhaustion.

Sam glanced over from the book he was holding. “Yeah?”

“Well done on second.” Bucky’s voice was slower, sleepier. “Shoulda been first.”

Steve squeezed his neck. “Thanks, Buck,” he murmured. “Feeling the love.”

Bucky shifted his head to look up at Steve. In the half-light, his pupils were wide and black. “You didn’t want to be here,” he murmured. “Wouldn’t wish that on you. Or me.” He laid his head back down. “Fifth Wheel wins.”

“He talks a lot of bullshit, doesn’t he?” Sam said softly, smiling.

“Mm. Can hear you.”

“I know, New York,” Sam said with a quiet chuckle. “Don’t change things, but thank you.”

Bucky’s thumb rose in a half-hearted thumbs up, as he buried his face back against Steve’s neck and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Bucky was sick only a couple of hours later.

Steve wasn't surprised, and he helped the other man through to the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub as Bucky brought up what little food he'd eaten. When the worst of it was over, Bucky braced his arms on the seat of the toilet, his head propped up in his hands.

"Christ," he muttered. Steve filled a glass with water, offering it down to him. Bucky took it gratefully, sipping it. "Thanks." He grimaced. "Not my finest hour."

"You're holding up pretty well," Steve murmured, rubbing Bucky's taut shoulders comfortingly.

Bucky laughed tightly. "Just," he said. "Should thank Pierce for getting you here."

"Nothing says thank you like a kick in the crotch," Steve said solemnly.

Bucky's lips twitched. "I like your thinking. And a knuckle sandwich as a bonus?"

"Both," Steve said decisively. "Can't have anyone say that we do things by halves." He nodded back. "You want to go back through? We can take the trashcan in case you need it."

Bucky nodded, and Steve helped him back up and through to the other room. Sam was awake, and it looked like he'd called room service while they were in the bathroom. A plate of dry toast and crackers was set out on the table.

"Just in case," he said. "Might help settle your gut."

Bucky grimaced, but nodded. "Probably a good idea," he agreed reluctantly, approaching and sitting down.

"You should get some sleep, Sam," Steve said, sitting down on the other chair. "We'll try and keep it down."

Sam nodded. "You need me, just yell," he said, padding back to the bed. He was down to his boxers and a vest as well, and didn't even bother pulling the covers over himself as he fell face-first into the pillows.

Steve looked back at Bucky, who was watching Sam. He had a cracker in his hand and was turning it over between his fingers. “He’s a good guy,” Bucky said quietly. “Knows what it’s like.”

“Yeah?”

Bucky’s eyes flicked back to Steve. “His story to tell,” he murmured. He nibbled cautiously on the edge of the cracker. “Everyone has something.”

Steve snagged one of the pieces of toast. “It’s what makes people people.”

“With wisdom like that, you should be writing for Hallmark,” Bucky muttered, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips. He set down the cracker, picking up the still-warm toast instead. He managed to eat half of it, but to Steve, it looked like every bite was a trial, washed down with gulps of water.

“Don’t push yourself,” Steve murmured, when Bucky swallowed hard and scowled at the remains of the toast. “We can get something easier after some sleep.”

Bucky looked back in the direction of the bed. “Yeah,” he said quietly, and Steve saw the way his eyes flicked to Sam, snoring quietly in the other bed.

“I’ll stay up,” he said, realising what the trouble was. “What’s it called? Watching your perimeter?”

The tension seemed to leech out of Bucky’s body. “You would?”

“I don’t sleep much anyway,” Steve said, rising. “C’mon. You need your beauty sleep a hell of a lot more than I do.”

“…the hell you say?”

Steve looked over his shoulder with a grin. “Oh, come on, Barnes. I’m so much prettier than you.”

“You got hit on the head, right? When that thing exploded…” Bucky’s voice suddenly trailed off, and before Steve could turn to see what was wrong, Bucky slammed into his back, his arms tight around Steve’s waist. “Don’t ever fucking do that again,” he whispered. “Don’t.”

Steve twisted around in his arms, lifting his hands to frame Bucky’s face. “I can’t make any promises, Buck,” he said, “but I don’t do it on purpose. It’s my job. I was there to protect you guys. That’s what I did.”

Bucky stared at him, then reached up, his right hand curling behind Steve’s head, and pulled him down into an urgent, desperate kiss.

Steve was the one to draw back, moments later, and knocked his brow against Bucky’s. “That isn’t rest,” he pointed out.

Bucky just looked at him for a long moment, his fingers curling in Steve’s hair, nails dragging against his scalp. “No,” he agreed, his voice rasping. Reluctantly, he drew back. “How’d’you want to do this?”

In the end, Steve propped several of the pillows up against the headboard, and Bucky half-sprawled into his lap, only a thin pillow and Steve’s boxers preserving his modesty. If Bucky nestled closer deliberately, Steve tried his best not to notice.

Instead, he started dragging his fingers through Bucky’s tangled hair, smoothing it back, untangling knots. He hesitated when Bucky shifted.

“Okay?” he asked quietly.

“Mm. Just… keep doing that,” Bucky murmured, his eyes half-closed, his fingers kneading at the pillow beneath his head.

Steve wasn’t surprised when Bucky’s breath evened out only a few moments later.

How long, he wondered, had the other man gone without physical contact? If he tried to keep up the pretence that he was okay, without any family around to support him, who would have known that even just a friendly touch would have helped?

In the half-light of one of the lamps, Steve watched him sleeping.

Even when he was at rest, Bucky’s brow was furrowed and his features tightened, as if in the throes of some nightmare. Steve brushed his fingers gently across his brow, murmuring meaningless nonsense, and gradually, Bucky subsided again.

It was a long night, but in the end, Bucky slept close to four hours without waking, and Steve considered that a small victory. When he did wake, he did it silently, his eyes suddenly snapping open, squinting around.

His military training, Steve realised, would never fully be gone.

“Morning,” he murmured. His own eyes felt heavy with lack of sleep, but his first priority had to be Bucky.

Bucky pushed himself back and up, onto one arm, peering up at him. “Steve?”

“Yeah, pal,” Steve said with a smile. “Still here.”

“Still here,” Bucky echoed, as if he couldn’t believe it. He pushed himself upright, knuckling at his eye with his right hand. “What time…?”

“Early,” Steve replied, stretching his legs. He checked his watch. “Just coming up on six.”

Bucky looked at him in surprise. “Six? I slept that long?”

“Looks that way,” Steve murmured with a smile. “If all else fails, I’m one hell of a pillow.”

Bucky scooted to the edge of the bed, getting to his feet. “I’ll say,” he said. He glanced across to the other bed where Sam was still asleep, then looked back at Steve. “I should probably clean up. If you want to sleep, I think I’ll be okay.”

“I can stay up if you need me to,” Steve replied.

Bucky shook his head with a small smile. “I’m good. I’ll leave the bathroom door open and yell if I need anything.”

Steve wondered about protesting, but his eyes were too heavy, so he nodded in agreement, sprawling down onto the bed. He got less than an hour before he was woken by a sharp rap at the door. It was echoed by a crash. He lifted his head, blinking drowsily. Bucky, his hair still damp and in fresh clothes, was standing by the table. It looked like he’d stood up so fast that he’d knocked the chair over.

“Whas’it?” Sam mumbled sleepily, shoving himself upright in the other bed.

“Rogers.” Female voice outside the door. It took Steve a moment to register it, then he scrambled out of the bed, staggering over, and opened the door. Agent Hill looked him up and down. “You look like hell,” she informed him, then stepped around him into the room, letting him close the door behind her.

“Whoa!” Sam exclaimed, pulling his sheet up to cover his chest in feigned modesty. “Lady on the deck!”

Bucky snorted, bending to pick the chair back up. “Dumbass,” he said, though Steve noticed he didn’t take his eyes off Hill.

Hill glanced at Sam, raising an eyebrow. “Should I cover my eyes?”

“You saw the swimwear competition?”

Her stern expression gave way to a brief smile. “Of course.”

“Too late for my dignity, then,” Sam said, setting the sheet down.

“Guys, this is Agent Maria Hill,” Steve said, going over to stand by Bucky, who was tense in the chair. Steve put his hand on the other man’s shoulder reassuringly, then looked over at Hill. “Any news?”

Hill sat down on the end of his bed. “You could say so,” she said. “We got the results on the drugs they’ve been feeding you, Barnes. It definitely wasn’t what it said on the box.” Bucky caught his breath, looking up at Steve, then back at Hill. She continued, “They’d reshaped some pretty powerful stimulants and made them look like the drugs they said they were giving you. Side effects we know about include violent aggression, mood-swings, and paranoia.”

“Jesus,” Bucky whispered.

Steve squeezed his shoulder. “Told you we’d find proof,” he said. “That explains why you’ve been having such a bad time.”

“Are the side effects permanent?” Sam asked. “Or will there be any lasting problems?”

Hill shook her head. “Not that we’re aware of,” she said. “From what we can tell, they’re only triggered as long as the drugs are being used. Once they’re out of the bloodstream, they shouldn’t cause any more trouble.”

Bucky’s elbows came down so hard on the table that the bottles and plates on it rattled, and he buried his head in his hands. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly as he tried to catch his breath.

Steve was on his knees beside the man in a split-second. “Look at me, Buck,” he said, quickly. “Look at me.” He wrapped his hand gently around the back of Bucky’s neck. “You’re okay. You’re going to be fine.”

Dark blue eyes looked at him. “They were fucking drugging me, Steve,” he said hoarsely, his voice breaking. “They were setting me up to be their fucking patsy! The lying bastards said they were helping me!”

Steve nodded grimly. “I know, pal,” he said, keeping his voice calm for the both of them, “and they’re going to pay for it.”

Bucky turned his attention back to Hill. “Tell me you have something on them.”

“Rumlow came to a couple of hours ago,” she said. “He confessed to the bombing, which we expected, since he was the one who detonated it, but he’s not saying anything about who got him in to do it. Romanoff asked to be the one to interrogate him.”

Steve smiled grimly. “Good,” he said. “He deserves that.”

“Romanoff?”

“Natasha,” Steve clarified for Bucky.

Bucky frowned, then said, “Break-you-like-a-twig Natasha?”

Steve nodded. “The very one. And that’s what she’d do to someone she likes.” He looked back at Hill. “What about Pierce? If Rumlow won’t roll?”

Hill’s smile said it all. “Even if we can’t tie him to the bombing, our noble Mr Pierce is far from innocent,” she said. “It started with an unpaid parking ticket, but overnight, we’ve uncovered a lot of short-selling through dummy corporations and under-the-table dealing. Enough for us to issue a subpoena.”

“So why bother with the bombing at all?” Sam asked. “If he was already getting rich off the back of the stock market?”

“Because he was trading in Stark Industries stock,” Steve guessed before Hill could reply. “That’s what this was all about, wasn’t it? If Stark died, the share value would go crazy.”

Hill nodded. "An hour before the finale, he went short on Stark Industries stock. Short sales, options, swaps, and then we start getting technical. Skye says it'll take the lawyers at least six months to untangle all of it, but if Stark died and the share price tanked, Pierce stood to make around two hundred million.” She smiled. “As it stands, he's in the hole to the tune of five." She got up from the bed, smoothing down her jacket. For someone who had been up the whole night, she didn’t look it. She offered Bucky a smile. “If you want to go out for some fresh air near the front door in about fifteen minutes, you might see something to make you smile. Even make it a fond farewell, if you move fast. Wear those sturdy, steel-capped boots you had on, on the first day.” She nodded to Sam. “Virginia. Nice to…” Her eyes flicked over him, glinting, “see you.”

Without a backward glance, she turned and walked from the room, closing the door firmly behind her.

Bucky tilted his head to look up at Steve. “Did your boss just give me permission to go and kick Pierce in the balls?”

“That’s Hill for you,” Steve said with a crooked smile. He patted Bucky on the knee. “Officially, she just told you to get some air.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, a slow smile spreading on his face. “I like the unofficial translation.”

Sam was still staring at the door. “Is it just me,” he said, “or is she kinda hot in a scary way?”

Steve couldn’t help laughing. “You haven’t even met Romanoff yet,” he said.

Sam looked at him. “Please tell me I’m gonna.”

“When this is all over,” Steve promised, “I’ll make sure of it.”

Chapter Text

Technically, no one could say Bucky kicked Alexander Pierce in the balls.

Technically, because no one saw it happen.

Steve was too busy getting the security details from the two men who were escorting Pierce - in cuffs - to the car. Sam was too busy keeping a watch on Bucky’s perimeter. And if anyone asked Bucky, he was too busy filing his nails to say why Pierce ended up folded on his knees on the ground, clutching his groin.

“Feel better?” Steve inquired as they watched the car pull away.

“Mm.” Bucky was smiling. “It’s amazing how a bit of casual violence improves the day.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Barnes,” Sam said lightly. “Old guy tripped on his shoe lace and fell is all.”

“Mm. Yeah. Shoelaces are treacherous that way,” Bucky agreed. He was trying his best to keep his face straight, but it didn’t last long. He looked at Steve. “You hungry, Rogers?”

Steve met his eyes. “You want to eat?”

Bucky hesitated, then nodded. “I think I could,” he said.

“All the guys’ll be there,” Sam said.

Bucky nodded. “I know,” he said, “I figure I should probably meet them without being drugged senseless. Let them know I’m not some kind of punch-crazy badass.”

Steve slung an arm around his shoulders. “Two down,” he said. “Barton seems okay with you too. And I think Stark has you pegged. He made your guitar, after all.”

“I guess,” Bucky agreed as they headed back in the direction of the hotel complex.

With the news of Pierce’s arrest spreading like wildfire, the dining hall was buzzing with conversation. No one noticed them as they entered, until Stark - flanked by a man and woman - rose suddenly at his table.

It didn’t help that he started clapping, drawing every eye to the people he was looking at.

Steve cringed. He always hated it when people paid attention to him, and he leaned closer to Bucky to mutter, “So about the punch-crazy badass thing: is that still on the table? Because right now, I could use that.”

Barnes gave him an amused look. “Suck it up, Agent Rogers,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear him. “You’re a regular hero. You saved Stark’s life, you saved me, and you got the bad guys.”

To Steve’s complete mortification, he started clapping too, and Sam - grinning like a cat - joined in, whooping.

“Boys!” Stark called out, “Let’s hear it for Agent Rogers of the FBI!”

The applause spread around the room, every man there standing up and clapping, and Steve buried his face in his hand. “You’re all bastards,” he muttered under his breath. “I’m going to kill every one of you.”

Bucky threw an arm around Steve’s shoulder. “Hey, you’re the one who saved us,” he said. “You’re just gonna have to deal with the fact we appreciate it.”

Steve snorted, stomping towards the breakfast bar and aggressively filled a couple of plates, shoving one at the grinning Bucky.

“Oh, come on, Rogers,” Bucky said, trailing after him as he headed towards one of the tables nearest the door. “You love it.”

Steve turned his head to glare at him. “I hate you most of all.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky said more quietly, his expression softening into something young and nervous and hopeful as he sat down at the table beside him.

Steve leaned into him and pressed his mouth to Bucky’s. “It’s true,” he murmured as Bucky’s metal hand curled into his shirt.

Bucky’s lips twitched against his. “You’re an ass,” he murmured.

“Should have seen that coming.”

Steve pulled back to see Agent Hill standing in the doorway. Natasha was on one side, May on the other. “Boss…”

Hill’s eyebrow rose. “So, how long has this been going on, Rogers?”

Barnes met her eyes defiantly. “None of your damned business,” he said.

“What he said,” Steve agreed.

To his surprise Hill didn’t look angry or even upset. She just held out her left hand and May - grudgingly - slammed a twenty down in it. “Thank you, Barnes,” she said. “Romanoff, you remember we discussed you keeping me up to date?”

Natasha’s lips twitched. “Yeah.”

“Do you remember what we also discussed about you withholding information which results in you winning bets on account of having insider knowledge?”

Romanoff glanced at her. “This is where you say all bets are off, right?”

“Exactly,” Hill said, then stepped aside to let Sam join them at the table. “Wilson.”

He held out his bowl of fruit. “Grape, Agent Hill?”

Hill smiled, taking one. “Ladies, here we have an actual gentlemen,” she said. She motioned to the women on either side of her. “You’ve met Agent May, I believe, and this is Agent Romanoff.”

Sam smiled charmingly at each of them. “Nice to officially meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“That so?” Romanoff said, looking down at Steve, who ducked over his pancakes.

“All complimentary,” Sam said smoothly. “You ladies want to join us for breakfast?”

Hill and Romanoff exchanged looks.

“I think,” May was the one to speak, “we’ll leave the lovebirds alone for now. Mr Wilson, if you’d prefer to join us? Agent Hill was just telling me how much she appreciated your talent.”

Hill shot a mortified look at May, who smiled serenely. “May, we have important things to do. Important paper-work-related things.”

May met her look, then turned to Sam. “Wilson, Hill has a tendency for avoiding breakfast,” she said. “She’s been working herself to exhaustion throughout this whole event. Maybe you could persuade her. Romanoff, if you could help?”

Sam was looking between them with bemusement.

Steve could see the cat-like grin on Romanoff’s face. “Yeah, Maria,” she said. “We have time for paperwork later. How about we have breakfast with Wilson?”

“Do I get a say in this?” Sam inquired.

Bucky snorted over his breakfast. “Sam, you have three gorgeous, terrifying women who want your company? You’re going to turn them down to hang out with us?”

Sam grinned. “I didn’t say that,” he said, “I was just making sure.” He flashed his brilliant smile. “Ladies, I’d be honoured to join you. Anything that means I don’t have to watch these suckers making out like school kids.”

“Screw you, Wilson,” Steve said, chuckling.

“You wish, Jersey,” Sam retorted, grinning. He offered his arms to Natasha and Hill, both of whom exchanged looks, shrugged and took them.

May lingered at the table. “You boys doing okay?”

“Getting there,” Steve said. He looked over in the direction of Sam, Natasha and Hill. “How long have you been planning on throwing him at them?”

May’s smile was so small and quiet it could have gone unnoticed. “At Hill? Since day one,” she said. “He’s a nice guy. She needs a distraction who isn’t in the bureau.”

“And Romanoff?”

“Same applies,” May said with a mild smile. “Doesn’t have to go anywhere, but he’ll be respectful and treat either of them nicely. They both deserve that and he deserves a lot more attention than he got here.”

Bucky nodded. “He should have won,” he said. “He’s a fucking good guy.”

“He’s not the only one,” Steve said with a smile.

To his amusement - and May’s - Bucky blushed.

“Shut up, Rogers.”

“Make me,” Steve retorted.

By the time they came up for air, May was gone.

“Jerk,” Bucky snorted, his metal fingertips pressing to Steve’s chin.

Steve smiled. “Punk.”

The End