Jane Foster barrels into Steve and her latex-gloved hands land on his chest. “Ahh, I’m so sorry,” she says, breathless, “I’m chasing a—ah—there it is!” She dives at some small, rapidly moving shape and her lab coat flies up behind her. “Damn it. It got into the vents.”
“Dr. Foster, what exactly are you chasing?”
She rolls over so that she’s sitting on the hallway floor. Steve offers her a hand and she accepts it and stands up, then brushes the floor grit off her legs. “It’s a—well, I think if it were an Earth species, I’d classify it as a small mammal.”
“If it were an Earth species.” Every time Steve thinks he’s become accustomed to his new life, he’s wrong.
“I’m not a biologist,” she says, apologetically, as if Steve is objecting to her classification skills and not strangeness of their everyday life. “Thor called it a ‘frithrkottr,’ I think,” she says. “He said they ‘bring peace to those who touch them.’ Apparently it’s some kind of traditional Asgardian courtship gift, so he, um, brought me one. I swear I was going to tell him to take it back to Asgard right away because this planet has enough invasive species already and we certainly don’t need an extraterrestrial one and I know that, but—first I brought it here. Sorry.” She looks very guilty. Steve has never understood why he has this effect on people, as though his mere presence makes them want to confess all their sins and promise to do better. At least Jane Foster’s particular misdemeanors this morning seem fairly solvable. “I thought Bruce might like to see it, so I was headed to his lab. It’s not really our specialty but maybe together we could isolate the molecule that’s in its skin oils or dander or whatever it is and then try to synthesize it—provided of course that it does actually bring calm or peace or whatever, I mean, I haven’t even tested that yet and the damn thing’s already escaped—,”
“Dr. Foster, this is a tower full of highly trained soldiers, spies, and geniuses. If we can’t track down and subdue a frith—um, small Asgardian mammal, then nobody can,” Steve says. He tries to look reassuring. It must not be working. She’s still looking around like it might pop out at any moment.
“Frithrkottr,” she says. She takes a deep breath and tucks some errant strands of hair behind her ear. “It’s furry. Kitten-sized.”
“A real cause for panic,” he says, trying to make her smile.
She doesn’t look calmed.
Steve assures her that he will do everything in his power to capture the hostile alive. He just needs to gather his team first. He continues down the basement hallway in the same direction he was headed before she ran into him. Bucky is in Tony’s workspace, having his arm examined. Steve had promised to drop by. It’s a huge improvement over the last year or so. At first Bucky couldn’t stand to be anywhere lab-like at all. Tony’s workspace was especially difficult for him, with all its big mysterious machinery, but hospitals and dentists’ offices were also hard. Steve half-suspected that Bucky kept his hair long because he couldn’t stand to sit in a barber’s chair, but it wasn’t worth pushing the issue. After awhile, Bucky came to accept Tony, and he would agree to let Tony do maintenance on his arm if Steve was there with him the whole time.
This morning, Bucky went to see Tony alone. Steve is proud of him.
“You sure you don’t want a laser?” Tony is saying. “Because I could totally do it. It wouldn’t even be a big deal. Hell, laser, GPS, flashlight, comms, video player, pedometer, app that checks your bank account, Inspector-Gadget-type extending robot claw-grip, built-in sword, you name the upgrade and I will do it, Barnes. It would be my honor.”
Bucky is sitting on a metal table with his shirt off. Tony is standing next to him, glancing between Bucky’s metal arm and a schematic of an arm projected in the air in front of both of them. Tony, as he usually does when he’s tinkering with things, looks excited. Bucky does not. Steve worries for a moment that he’s upset, but then Bucky says: “Is there an app that would make you stop offering to do weird shit to my arm?”
“‘Weird shit’,” Tony repeats, clearly offended. “I could give you a state-of-the-art—better than state-of-the-art, state-of-the-art-fifty-years-in-the-future—prosthetic, and instead all you’ll let me do is to keep oiling the joints on the one you’ve got. And you complain about ‘weird shit’. I’m serious, Barnes. I could make you a better one. Lighter, faster. It could even look like your other arm, if you want.”
Steve hovers in the doorway. Bucky has probably noticed him already, but he still feels like he’s intruding. Steve wants to go in there and stand between the two of them, like it will help somehow. It’s foolish. Tony’s not threatening Bucky; they’re just talking. But Steve can’t help it. Ever since he got Bucky back, he wants to be right there, between Bucky and everything else—SHIELD, HYDRA, doctors, psychiatrists, strangers, friends, the teenage kid behind the grocery store cash register. He wants to be there, standing up to his full height, wearing his uniform, holding up the shield. Bucky hates it. Natasha and Sam think it’s hilarious.
Bucky makes a noncommittal grunt. “Not today, Stark.”
“Alright,” Tony says, much more gently than usual. And just like that, the two of them have come to their own agreement. Steve feels bad for even thinking about stepping in. Tony knows exactly when to back off. Bucky doesn’t need Steve.
A little part of him thinks maybe that’s the problem.
He clears his throat. “Tony, Bucky,” he says, nodding at both of them. “We have a little situation.”
“Like ‘hive-mind robot soldiers attacking the tower’ kind of little, or ‘we’re out of cereal’ little?”
Steve pauses. “The second one, I guess? Dr. Foster lost some kind of Asgardian animal in the tower. She thinks it’s in the vents.”
“There is indeed an unidentified small animal in the building. It is no longer in the ductwork. I last recorded its infrared signature on the 40th floor in Ms. Potts’ office. It is likely that the animal is still there.”
“Is this thing dangerous?” Tony demands.
Steve shrugs. “Dr. Foster didn’t mention it, but she didn’t know much for sure. Let’s go get it before it gets any farther.”
“And how the hell did this thing make it from the sub-basement to the 40th floor in a matter of minutes? Just how fast is it?”
Steve shrugs again. Tony shakes his head, mutters to himself about tiny alien critters in his ductwork, and walks out the door. Bucky grabs his t-shirt from the table he’s sitting on and jumps down while pulling it over his head in one fluid motion. He follows Tony out of the room.
Steve can admit to himself that he’s a little disappointed about the t-shirt.
Steve is first through the door into Pepper’s office. He does a quick check of the room and nothing looks out of place. Pepper is sitting at her desk, but she smiles when she sees them come in. She stands up and walks over to him. “Steve,” she says, warmly. She takes his hand in greeting. She’s a catch, Pepper Potts. Steve would rib Tony about how lucky he is, but the nature of Pepper and Tony’s relationship is still unclear to him. Steve can’t tell if the complexity is due to twenty-first-century social customs or if it’s all part and parcel of caring about other people. Or maybe it’s just Tony and Pepper. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to step in it.
“Hi, Pepper,” he says. He called her Ms. Potts until after the robot crab incident. That was when she rolled her eyes and said, “You bled on my office carpet. I think that qualifies us for first-name usage, Steve.” Steve always liked to be as respectful as possible with women in positions of authority—he never forgot Peggy decking Private Hodge. Or shooting at his shield after he hurt her feelings. Pepper’s not Peggy, but they’ve got a thing or two in common. Fearlessness. Heels. Possibly the ability to throw a mean punch.
“You wouldn’t have happened to see a little furry thing, by chance?” he asks. Pepper’s hand is still on his. She traces the contours of his knuckles and wrist bones with her fingertips. Steve can’t help but stare at her hand, but she moves it idly. She’s not even looking. Tony and Bucky are standing behind him, so they probably can’t tell what’s happening. Steve wonders if Pepper would be touching him like this if they could see. It seems so unlike her.
“Yeah,” she says, still smiling. She drops his hand and suddenly steps into his personal space. “I like you, Steve. You’re so sweet and righteous and—,” she splays her hand against one side of his chest and then presses her cheek to the other. She makes a happy little hum. “You feel nice.”
“Uh,” Steve says, just as someone behind him says “Hey!” in an accusatory tone.
“If you two are gonna get it on, I expect an invitation to watch, at the very least,” Tony says, his tone dry enough to suck all the moisture out of the air.
“Tony?” Pepper says, with her face still half-pressed to Steve. She sounds dazed. She’s leaning on Steve now, not supporting her own weight. Steve takes the opportunity to pivot toward Tony and gently transfer Pepper towards him. She goes without protest. She lays her head on Tony’s shoulder and gives him a sleepy smile.
The way Tony wraps his arms around her and holds her steady answers all of Steve’s questions about their relationship. He holds her like he’s terrified he’s going to ruin her with his touch but he never wants to let go. And none of that even approaches the way he looks at her, a funny mixture of awe and worry and plain old adoration. “Pepper,” he says. “Where did the thing go? The little furry thing?”
“Mmm,” she says into Tony’s neck. “I love you, Tony.”
Steve wants to look away. Pepper is always so put together. She’d be mortified to be seen draped over Tony like a lovesick teenager. “Pepper,” Tony repeats, patient but firm. “We need you to tell us what happened. There was an animal. You touched it, right? Pepper. Please.”
She lifts a hand and runs her fingers through Tony’s hair, leaving it standing on end. Then she drags them down Tony’s neck, over his collarbone and down his chest. Tony blinks, but doesn’t react otherwise. He’s totally focused on making sure she’s okay. He hasn’t so much as glanced at Steve or Bucky.
“Soft,” she says, touching Tony’s hair again. Just as Steve doubts that they’ll get anything useful from Pepper, as addled as she is, she rallies. “It was soft,” she says, more decisively, but still nothing like her usual self.
“Okay, good, that’s good. It was soft. You touched it. Where is it? Did it run away?”
“Natasha,” Pepper murmurs. “I knew you were busy. I called Natasha.”
“And she caught it?” Tony asks, but Pepper’s eyes close and she falls slack against him. “Pepper,” he says, at the edge of panic. “Pepper, wake up.” He shakes her gently and her eyes blink open slowly. “Stay awake,” he orders.
Even as bleary as she is, there’s something so charmingly Pepper about the way she narrows her eyes at Tony. Steve finds it reassuring.
Tony, meanwhile, is maneuvering both himself and Pepper back toward her desk. “You called Natasha to catch it. Okay. We can work with that.” He tries to get Pepper to sit in her chair, but for the first time since they entered her office, she doesn’t comply. She refuses to let go of Tony. “Okay, okay,” he tells her, and instead sits down himself. She sits down immediately, curling up in his lap and wrapping both arms around his neck. “Steve,” Tony says, remarkably evenly, “I was going to do it myself but—find out what else Jane knows about this thing.” Tony swings the monitor on Pepper’s desk around so that it faces Steve and Bucky. Steve understands, after a moment, that Tony is trying to save Pepper further embarrassment. “JARVIS,” Tony says. “Put us in touch with Jane Foster.”
Jane, Thor, and Darcy appear on the screen a moment later. “Did you find it?” Jane asks.
“Unfortunately not,” Steve says. He glances behind the monitor, where Tony is stroking Pepper’s hair and trying to keep her awake. “But it found Pepper.”
“Oh! Is she okay?”
“We were hoping you would tell us. It’s not…” Steve decides not to say lethal and lands on, “dangerous?”
“I do not know how it will affect your Midgardian biology,” Thor says. “But the frithrkottr is not considered dangerous by Asgardians. Stroking its fur brings a sense of calm, and happiness, and it enhances the pleasure of touch.”
“Basically it makes cuddling a thousand times more awesome,” Darcy interrupts.
“Stroking the fur of a frithrkottr also helps those who have difficulty sleeping, or those who are especially full of sorrow or wrath, or warriors who are troubled by memories of battle,” Thor continues. Steve feels Bucky shift behind him. “Its effects are not lasting, at least not for Asgardians.”
“It might make her fall asleep,” Jane says. “If she had sustained contact with it, I suppose it could render her unconscious for enough time to be dangerous—that is, more than a few days. At some point, we all need food and fluids. As far as I can tell, the effects are from some kind of oil in the frithrkottr’s fur, so I would recommend that she wash her hands or take a shower. And that you wear gloves to catch it, unless you, uh…” Jane trails off and looks away.
“Are interested in recreational use,” Darcy finishes. “Which I am. Also, do you know how much money we could make off this frith-froth thing?”
“Catching the frithrkottr is a great sport in Asgard,” Thor says. “They are quick and quick-witted. I will help you apprehend it.”
“Natasha may already have it in hand,” Steve says, and then it occurs to him exactly what that means.
Thor laughs at his expression. “Do not worry, friend. I have no doubt she is enjoying herself.”
Steve ends the video call and intends to put the monitor back where it was on Pepper’s desk, but when he glances up from the screen, he sees Tony and Pepper still sitting in her chair. Pepper is holding one of Tony’s hands with their fingers interlaced. Steve can’t see Tony’s other hand and doesn’t care to speculate. The two of them are nose to nose, having a soft conversation that seems to be more giggles than words.
“Tony?” Steve tries.
“Uh huh,” Tony says. He doesn’t look up. He and Pepper are so close that he can probably feel her eyelashes brush his cheek every time she blinks.
“You alright there?”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “Why wouldn’t I be? I love this woman. Pepper, did you know that? I love you. I don’t say that enough. You’re my favorite person on Earth. You’re beautiful and intelligent and you put up with all of my shit and I love you so much I’m actually a little bit—okay, a lot—terrified about it. But I do. Love you, that is. Also, every time I touch you, it feels like a Lisa Frank glittery rainbow explosion in my brain, and deep down, I know that part is because I’m high as a fucking kite off some weird alien animal that you touched, but I really, really cannot bring myself to care about that right now. I’m talking a lot, though. I’m probably saying things I’ll regret. Rogers and Barnes should leave now.”
The cadence is all Tony but the emotional openness is not. Steve finds himself taking a step backward. He feels like he’s intruding. Tony’s awareness of his own condition is reassuring, though. He’s not as intoxicated as Pepper.
Pepper laughs. “Aww,” she says. “I like them. They can stay.”
“No, no,” Tony mumbles. “They have to catch the—the thing, the frithr thing. They’re just here because they’re good guys and they’re worried about us. They shouldn’t be, though, because we are fine. Unbelievably fine. As fine as Steve’s ass in uniform.”
Tony and Pepper dissolve into giggles and Steve grimaces. He hears a soft sound behind him, almost like a laugh, but when he glances at Bucky, Bucky is just standing there stoically. He shrugs at Steve. For a split second, Steve misses the old Bucky, the one who might have cracked a joke about this ridiculous situation they’re in. Then he shakes it off. He’s happy to have Bucky with him, no matter what.
“How about you two take a shower,” Steve suggests, but by that point it’s hard to tell if Tony and Pepper are listening. “JARVIS,” Steve says. “Can you keep them from falling asleep?”
“I will do my best,” JARVIS replies, and Steve supposes that’s the best any of them can offer, AI or not.
Steve takes a huge breath as soon as they shut the doors to the office behind them.
“Well, I guess that answers the question about whether the effects can be transferred between people,” Steve says, because he has to say something. They’re both walking fast, like maybe physical distance from the room will make things less uncomfortable.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. He shakes his head. “I thought it was an aphrodisiac at first, but it doesn’t seem to be. At least not exactly.”
“Let’s be thankful for that.”
Bucky looks doubtful. “I guess,” he says. “Cuddling and sharing feelings with anyone within earshot is almost worse.”
“They did seem happy, though,” Steve allows. “They might be embarrassed tomorrow, but they’ll get over it.” In a strange way, he’s a little envious. There’s a thing or two he should have said a long time ago, and he thinks sometimes it might be a weight off his chest if he could just speak the damn words. That, and the cuddling thing didn’t seem so bad. As long as there was someone around who was willing to cuddle.
“If they’re not dead.”
“Alright, James Buchanan ‘Ray of Sunshine’ Barnes.” Steve looks over at Bucky and sees his brows are drawn together. Steve regrets the joke. “Hey,” he says. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think—I guess maybe drugs are a sensitive subject.”
Bucky shrugs his metal shoulder. It’s a sharp, dismissive movement. “They sedated me a lot. I don’t remember much about it.” They walk all the way to the end of the hallway and get in the elevator before he says anything else.
“One of the therapists tried to prescribe me something,” he says. He’s quiet. “For the panic attacks.”
Steve has been sharing an apartment with Bucky for a year now. He’s heard nightmares and panic attacks, but he’s never seen any evidence of prescription medication. He’s never even seen Bucky take over-the-counter pain medication, but he’s seen Bucky in pain plenty of times. Steve never brings it up. Bucky copes how he wants to. It’s hard to stand by and watch, but several very painful arguments have taught Steve his lesson about the fine line between supportive and smothering.
“I can’t,” Bucky says. “Sometimes I want to, but—I can’t.”
“Sometimes I would give anything not to feel the way I feel, just for an hour, a minute even,” Bucky says, looking at the ceiling. “And I know it would be different, if it was my choice to take something instead of having something forced on me. But the idea of letting go, losing even a little control—I don’t know. What if I never get it back?”
Steve nods. Bucky spent such a large part of his life with no control over any aspect of it. It has taken him so long to get to where they are now, and even now, there are still nightmares. Steve doesn’t know of any medicine that can fix those.
“Still,” Bucky says. “They seemed… happy.”
“They did,” Steve agrees. “I miss getting drunk, sometimes.” But other times he’s glad he can’t. He might never have put down the bottle he picked up after Bucky fell from that train.
“Me too,” Bucky says. “Don’t miss hangovers, though.”
“Wonder if this Asgardian wonder drug comes with after-effects,” Steve says.
Steve didn’t miss Thor saying the substance could help warriors troubled by memories of battle and Bucky can’t have missed it either. Thor brought this thing as a gift for Jane, but it could be a gift for all of them, if they’re willing to accept it. It would be nice to know for sure that it won’t do any lasting harm. And maybe Dr. Foster can… adjust the dosage, or something. They can’t have the entire team turning into giggly, affectionate wrecks all the time. “We can go down to the lab and pick up some gloves if you want.”
Bucky raises his left hand and flexes his metal fingers. “Think I’ll just catch it with this one,” he says. “But for you, sure.” He shrugs again, but it’s such a different gesture: fake generosity, guaranteed to rile Steve. Steve recognizes the change of subject and the attempt to distract him, and he takes the bait anyway.
“Nah,” Steve says. “I’ll probably metabolize it.” Bucky gives him a skeptical look, the same expression he wore for most of their childhood.
“I never brought any marijuana home,” Bucky says. “All that ‘reefer madness’ stuff had me worried for your health. I used to like it, though, sometimes.”
“You think you had to bring it home for me to find it?” Steve laughs. “Smoking made me feel like I had no air in my lungs—even more than usual—but I tried it a couple of times. Didn’t like it enough to try it more.”
“That’s ‘cause you never had a dame around when you tried it,” Bucky says, and grins with such confidence that it might as well be 1938 again. Either way, Steve can’t breathe.
Sometimes he feels like Bucky is putting on a show, wearing his old self like a costume to please Steve. It’s painful to watch, but Steve never says so. Other times it seems like Bucky is exactly who he’s always been. Those times aren’t so painful, but they still hurt in their own way. Steve always wants to lean forward and kiss the grin off Bucky’s lips. He never has.
For the past year or so, Steve would have felt selfish interrupting Bucky’s recovery—I know you’re barely holding onto your own fragile sense of self, Buck, but could we stop and think about me for a second, and how often I accidentally imagine you naked when I jerk off? Pathetic, selfish, and maybe even harmful to Bucky’s healing process somehow. Not to mention Steve could end up with a broken heart and a hole in his life where Bucky used to be. So Steve’s been keeping a lid on it, trying to figure out if there will ever be a right moment. But why he never said anything before—before the war, before the train, before everything, back when they were just two kids in Brooklyn, God, there must have been a right moment, there must have been a hundred right moments, and he missed every last goddamn one—well, Steve’s got no explanation for that.
So much for Captain America’s legendary courage.
“Didn’t Thor say he was going to apprehend it?” Bucky asks. They’re at Natasha’s apartment door. Thor’s nowhere in sight.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Maybe he got held up?”
“Jane wasn’t affected, though,” Bucky points out.
“I heard a wild rumor that people can get up to things without the help of weird alien secretions,” Steve says. He’s rewarded when Bucky huffs with laughter. “Besides, there’s more than one way to get held up.”
Steve knocks on the door.
“Weird alien secretions,” Bucky mutters. “Thanks for putting it in the most disgusting way possible.”
Steve knocks again, and again, there’s no answer. He puts his ear to the door and hears giggling. “Natasha,” he calls. “I don’t want to interrupt anything, but if you have an animal in there, we’re supposed to catch it and bring it back to Dr. Foster’s lab.”
Through the door, there is the faint sound of laughter. It doesn’t sound like Natasha laughing. It sounds like a man.
“Stop giggling,” Natasha whispers. “They’ll hear. You’re a terrible spy.”
“Well, I tried to teach you sign language, which they wouldn’t hear, if we were using it, because of how it doesn’t make any sounds,” says the man.
Steve and Bucky stare at each other. Steve mouths Clint? At the same moment, Bucky hisses “I knew it!”
“You call that teaching? You—,” Natasha stops talking abruptly. There are gales of laughter inside the bedroom, as well as some dull thuds like soft, heavy things dropping to the floor.
“Stop tickling me, you asshole!” Natasha says. She’s not addressing them but it’s easy enough to hear her. “You’re awful. I love you. I don’t even care that you’re awful. I love you. Have I ever said that out loud? I love you. You’re terrible. We should get married.”
Clint cracks up. “We are married.”
Steve blinks and looks at Bucky to see if he knew that, too. Judging from his face, he didn’t.
“And you said it that one time when we were about to die,” Clint says.
“Oh yeah,” Natasha says, as if ‘that one time when we were about to die’ doesn’t describe at least ten minutes out of every day of her life. “I did, didn’t I? Mmm. Let’s get married again. Let’s assume different identities and… ahh.”
There’s a long stretch of quiet. Steve hears a few faint sounds that could be kissing. He prefers not to speculate. “Natasha,” he says, loudly. “Still out here. Still need to know if there’s an Asgardian animal in there with you.” He pauses and looks at the ceiling and then adds: “Please say no.”
“It’s all good, Steve. I let it go in the hallway somewhere.”
“You wha—,” Bucky starts, but Steve shakes his head. They move away from her door until they can’t hear anything that’s happening inside any more. “What the hell is in that thing’s fur?” Bucky says. “Natasha doesn’t just let things go.”
“She had probably been holding it in her bare hands for a long time,” Steve says. “She relaxed her grip and then… relaxed.”
“She didn’t even say which hallway and we’re in a goddamn skyscraper,” Bucky grumbles. “JARVIS, where’s the alien rat now?”
“Also, JARVIS, please keep Clint and Natasha awake,” Steve adds. “Loud music, blinking lights, sudden temperature changes, fire alarm, whatever it takes.”
“And where the hell is Thor?” Bucky says.
“Thor was capturing a frithrkottr in the west stairwell, 23rd floor, until recently,” JARVIS replies. “He is now in the lab with Dr. Foster.”
“Good,” Bucky says.
At the same time, Steve says, “Wait, a frithrkottr? Not the frithrkottr?”
“Infrared heat signatures indicate there are at least five, sir,” JARVIS says.
“Five,” Bucky repeats. “What the fuck.”
“Is it… multiplying?” Steve and Bucky share a look at each other, and then upward, as if JARVIS is above them. Steve knows that’s not really the case but the habit has stuck. “Can you put us through to Dr. Foster?”
Her voice is suddenly in the hallway with them. “Please call me Jane, Steve,” she says. “And I don’t think it’s multiplying. I think it—she—was pregnant.”
“I have already caught one of her kits,” Thor booms. “Are you both empty-handed?”
“There’s four left and the mom,” Steve shoots back. Bucky rolls his eyes. He never did have much patience for Steve’s need to prove himself.
“A pregnancy might explain the unusual potency of the substance,” Jane says. “Thor tells me it’s not usually so powerful. The frithrkottr’s calming effect is most likely a defense mechanism, meant to sedate any predator that touches it, so it makes sense that females might produce more of it, or a more powerful version of it, while pregnant.”
“And the babies are already up and running around the tower?” Bucky says.
“Yes,” Jane says. “I can contain them in the lab temporarily if you can get them down here. I found a box.”
“A box,” Bucky says.
“I’m a physicist,” she says dryly.
Steve grins at Bucky and then puts on his best expression of wide-eyed innocence. Jane can’t see his face, but she’ll hear it well enough in his voice. “You sound stressed, Dr. Foster. I heard there’s a miracle cure for that.”
She laughs softly. “Do your job, Rogers.” A pause. “Thor’s gonna kick your ass.”
“Give you a boost?” Steve offers, glancing at Bucky and then at the high ceiling. JARVIS has informed them that one of the animals is a duct above this floor, so they’re standing in the hallway underneath a vent.
“Why do you assume I’m the one who’s gonna go in the vent?”
“I don’t know, you’re… stealthy,” Steve says.
“Because this mission that is essentially playing alien dog-catcher really requires high-level espionage.”
“And you’re smaller than me.”
“I am one inch shorter than you.”
Steve smirks. He also gallantly resists a very obvious joke, but Bucky seems to hear it anyway.
“Shut up,” Bucky says. “Fine. I’ll save you from getting your big dumb shoulders stuck in the vent.”
Steve puts his hands in front of himself and laces his fingers together, making a step for Bucky. Bucky steps into his hands and then swings one leg over Steve’s shoulder. He settles so that he’s sitting on Steve’s shoulders, and then he pulls the grating off of the vent and lets it drop to the floor. Steve cranes his head upward to watch Bucky work and immediately becomes uncomfortably aware that Bucky’s thighs are on either side of his face. He stops looking up after that.
“’S fuckin’ dark up here,” Bucky says, peering into the duct. “Can’t see shi—wait, there it is, the little fucker.” Bucky sticks his metal arm into the vent. Steve feels Bucky’s torso lean, following the pull of his arm. “Kinda wishing I’d said yes to Stark’s robot-claw arm-extension thing,” Bucky grumbles. “Or the flashlight. Fuckin’ thing’s just out of reach. Push me farther.”
Steve grabs Bucky’s thighs and lifts Bucky off his shoulders. He tries very hard to think pure thoughts that are not about the curvature of Bucky’s ass or how firm Bucky’s thighs are.
Steve swears he hears Bucky say “need more.” That can’t be right. Steve’s no good at thinking pure thoughts. Absolutely terrible.
“Steve!” Bucky says. He grunts. “Never mind.”
Before Steve fully comprehends what’s happening, Bucky’s feet are on his shoulders and the upper half of his body is disappearing through the hole in the ceiling. Steve hears cursing echoing in the ventilation. The animal is apparently moving around, because Bucky twists back and forth a few times, shifting his weight from one of Steve’s shoulders to the other.
Steve finds himself looking up again. He tells himself he’s watching for Bucky’s eventual exit from the vent. It’s just an accident that he has an unfettered view of Bucky’s ass.
A happy accident, but still.
“Gotcha, you squirmy little fuck!”
Bucky backs out of the vent so fast that he startles Steve, who moves, which causes Bucky to lose his balance. Steve manages to catch him before he hits the floor, which is how he ends up holding Bucky bridal-style while Bucky triumphantly raises his metal fist and grins.
The thing in Bucky’s hand is a tawny ball of fluff. Steve squints at it. At one point, he thinks he sees something that might be a head, but then the thing squirms again and he loses sight of it. “That’s what’s causing us all this trouble?”
“Don’t be fooled. This little bastard’s fast.”
“Are you… hurting it?”
“Nah,” Bucky says. He lowers his arm and releases his grip slightly, but not enough to let the frithrkottr escape. The fluffball remains in his hand. Steve would describe it as curled up, but since it’s basically a sphere of fluff, it’s hard to say if it’s curled up or not. It does seem calm, though. “I think it… likes me. It’s not trying to escape, anyway.” Bucky clears his throat. “You could put me down.”
To his credit, Steve doesn’t drop Bucky on the spot. “Oh. Right.”
Bucky hangs onto the critter while they take the elevator down twenty-eight floors to meet Jane. Bucky gently puts it down in the box with its siblings. Steve notes that there are now two frithrkottr in the box, including the one they just caught. That means three kits left, in addition to their elusive mother. Steve also notes that Bucky lingers for an extra moment, keeping his metal arm in the box longer than he needs to. The one they just caught is affectionately snuffling one of his fingers. Steve smiles and looks away.
“Steve,” Jane says. “Are you not wearing gloves? Bucky should really be wearing them, too. Honestly I would recommend an even higher level of protection, but—,”
“We’ll wear gloves,” Steve promises her. He doesn’t need any more distractions. “JARVIS? Tell us where the last few are?”
According to JARVIS, there are three kits and the mother left. Steve and Bucky go after one of the young that’s close by, only on the sixth floor. They find it asleep in a potted plant in someone’s cubicle. Luckily, the floor is empty of Stark Industries office workers because it’s Saturday, so no damage is done.
Steve spots it first. Unlike its two tawny siblings, this one’s long fur is dark brown. Bucky reaches into the potted plant and gently prods it. It crawls into his palm willingly.
“Think it’s too much to hope for that the others will be this easy?”
Bucky gives him a look. Then he glances back down at the frithrkottr and smiles. “I like them,” he says. “You want to hold it?” Before Steve can answer, Bucky is putting the animal into his hands. The slight, warm weight of it against his gloved palm is surprising.
“I don’t know if I thought it would be heavier or lighter,” Steve says.
“All that fluff makes it hard to tell.”
There’s a soft humming sound. Steve has to raise his hand next to his ear to confirm that the animal is making it. “What do you think that means?”
“What am I, a magic alien fur-ball whisperer? How should I know?”
Steve shrugs. He looks down at the animal in his hands one last time. The urge to touch it is strong. It looks so soft. Gloves were a good idea after all. “Let’s get a move on.”
The fourth kit is orange like a tom cat and lightning-fast. Steve actually finds himself panting in the stairwell landing of floor forty-two. Only for an instant, though. The frithrkottr is on its way up and he is not going to let it get away, thirty-six flights of stairs in ninety seconds be damned.
Two floors later, he slams into Thor.
Thor takes it better than him, and offers a hand to help Steve up from where he’s sprawled on the stairs. “Are you hurt, friend?”
“Just my pride,” Steve says, rubbing the back of his head. He was lucky enough to fall on his ass. “Where’d it go?”
“Down, I think,” Thor says. “This one is clever.” He sounds so pleased about it.
“It’s not even aerodynamic,” Steve complains, but Thor has already raced down the stairs. Steve follows, and ten or twelve flights later they both catch sight of it, huddled in the corner of the landing. Unfortunately they end up in a pile on the floor after crashing into each other. The frithrkottr is nowhere in sight.
Steve rolls off of Thor and stares up at the ceiling for a moment, then pulls himself upright and leans against the wall. “I think we just got outsmarted by a ball of fluff.”
Thor lies on his back and laughs.
“We should probably work together, make some kind of plan.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Maybe one of us could stay put and the other could chase the thing back up here.”
“A trap,” Thor says. He sits up and claps Steve on the shoulder. “I accept your plan. I shall force it into your hands.”
Thor runs down the stairs again. He’s gone for long enough that his steps stop echoing. Then Steve hears his steps get louder again, each one pounding against another flight of stairs. Steve crouches at the edge of the landing above the stairs like a catcher. He waits.
Before he sees Thor, an orange ball of fur comes hurtling through the air. It zips toward him so fast he can barely see it. It hits him in the chest and them plops to the floor. Steve picks it up gingerly. Did they hurt it? Is it dead?
Thor bounds up the stairs a second later, beaming. “One of the fastest I have ever encountered, and it is only a kit,” he says. He stops when he notices Steve’s expression.
Steve holds out his hand. The creature is lying still. Thor picks it up—his hands are bare—and examines it. “Do not worry,” Thor says. He strokes the animal. It looks especially tiny in his hands. “It is only sleeping.”
“How can you tell?”
“Do Midgardian children not also experience this? A burst of energy, followed by immediate slumber?”
“I guess they do,” Steve says. Most of his experience with kids comes from being one. Even though he’s technically only twenty-seven, childhood feels like a long time ago. “Hey, these things, when they make a little,” Steve pauses to make a high-pitched humming sound, “what does that mean?”
“Frithrkottr can be stubborn, and difficult to catch, but they are playful, peaceful creatures at heart. They like to be touched. They make that sound when they are happy,” Thor says. “Where is your partner, friend Rogers?”
“He went after the one that was somewhere on the thirtieth floor. I think JARVIS said it was in a storage room of some kind?”
“We are near there,” Thor says. “Perhaps you should join him while I take this one to Jane.”
Steve expects the storage room to be vast and dark, full of cluttered shelves with lots of places for a little animal to hide. It might be the most challenging catch yet. On his walk there, he imagines a little movie in his head of Bucky sneaking around silently, pressing his back against the wall and sliding from one hiding place to another. Even though they are hunting a mostly harmless ball of fluff, in this imaginary movie, Bucky has his gun up like a secret agent expecting someone to shoot at him any minute now. Tony made Steve watch an absurd number of James Bond films, so this is probably somehow his fault.
Steve feels vaguely embarrassed by his own imagination by the time he gets to the real storage room. It is large and dark and cluttered with shelves, but there is no James Bond theme music playing because of course there isn’t.
The only sound he can hear is a high-pitched hum.
Steve peeks around a shelf and sees Bucky sitting cross-legged on the floor. He’s holding a golden-brown frithrkottr in his metal hand and petting it with his right hand, which is still gloved. It’s a sweet little scene. Something in Steve’s chest squeezes at the rare sight of Bucky looking peaceful and happy.
Steve slips out of the room as quietly as possible.
JARVIS tells him, in a tone of restrained alarm, that the final remaining free animal—the mother—has made her way down to the main lobby. The “and might soon be roaming the streets of New York, if you don’t get your shit together,” is unspoken but heavily implied.
Steve jogs down the stairs until he gets to the first floor and then pushes open the doors to the lobby. “How are Pepper, Tony, Natasha, and Clint doing?”
“All conscious, Captain Rogers.”
“‘Conscious’?” The lack of detail is cause for concern.
“Agent Romanoff requested that I not relay any other information,” JARVIS says, and Steve can’t help smiling. Of course she did. “Mr. Stark informs me that you are to ‘butt out.’”
“That’s good, I guess. Thanks.” The lobby of the tower is a huge open space with walls of glass and steel. It’s most impressive on sunny days, but even in today’s cloudy light it feels massive and soaring. There are fountains and artfully arranged pieces of modern furniture and various holographic displays of Stark Industries’ latest discoveries. There’s a central circular concierge desk. Only one young woman is working there this afternoon. Steve studies her for a moment, but she seems alert and sober.
“Hello, Ms. Tomlinson,” he says, and she smiles up at him.
“How can I help you, Captain Rogers?”
“Have you seen a sort of light-brown fluffy animal? It’s small, maybe five pounds.”
Just as she starts to speak, Steve sees something flit across the room. He dashes after it. It’s rude, but necessary. The animal ran under a long black leather couch at the far side of the room, so Steve leaps over the sofa and then drops into crouch. The animal is huddled against one of the legs of the couch. Steve judges it to be within arm’s reach. He reaches for it slowly, trying not to startle it.
He feels a brush of fur and then the thing is gone. He can’t see where it goes, but then he feels something brush against his ankle. In his haste to draw his arm back from under the couch, he knocks the couch over onto its back. By the time he looks around again, the frithrkottr is nowhere in sight.
He led the Avengers in battle against a race of deadly alien warriors and he can’t catch this damn furball. He’s so glad this situation is happening in the lobby. He loves looking incompetent in public.
Steve waves sheepishly at the concierge, rights the knocked-over sofa, and starts looking around the room again.
He sighs when he sees it—her, he supposes, since she’s the mother—sitting on top of the low wall around the fountain in the middle of the room. The way this day is going so far, his odds of staying dry look bad.
Dashing after it didn’t work last time, so he changes tactics.
Steve creeps behind her. Or in front of her. She’s remarkably spherical and uniformly fluffy, so it’s hard to tell which way she’s facing. She leaps to the other side of the fountain—a good six feet—before he gets there. It’s amazing to watch her hurl herself through the air like that. How does that even work? Steve puts it down to alien biology and focuses on catching her. He walks so, so slowly around the edge of the fountain, only to watch the frithrkottr leap back to her original spot as soon as he gets close.
Steve stops for a moment. He could almost just reach across the fountain and get to her, if he could just get a little bit closer. Or maybe—Steve removes his shoes and steps into the fountain. Leaning forward and stretching his arms to their full length, his fingers brush her fur.
She jumps up one of his arms. He grabs for her, but she’s on his shoulder and then gone. He spins around in time to catch a glance of her jumping down from the low wall on the opposite side of the fountain.
He leaps after her, sloshing water everywhere. His wet feet slap against the slippery marble floor. She’s already in a distant corner of the room, hiding under some black leather furniture that’s gathered around a holographic display of a blueprint for some kind of high-efficiency generator.
Steve takes a deep breath. He practically saunters across the room, affecting as much goddamn nonchalance as he’s capable of at this point. He sits down in one of the armchairs and pretends to be captivated by the display. She’s underneath the armchair opposite his. There’s a glass panel in the floor between them, covering the mechanics of the holographic display, but no other obstacles. Steve stands up from his chair and makes a show of yawning and stretching.
Eyes on the display, he walks around closer to the other chair.
He sees a blonde flash in the corner of his eye and—godfuckingdammit, she’s getting away again. He dives after her and manages to catch her around the middle with both hands as he falls to the floor. She squeaks in protest as he drags her closer.
“Gotcha,” he tells her.
Then she releases a sweet-smelling cloud of spray into his face.
Steve blinks. It’s hard to focus on anything. Everything is so bright.
“Steve?” Thor is hovering over him, blonde hair hanging down around his face. Why is Thor above him? How come he can only see Thor and then cloudy sky? Oh. He’s on his back. On the lobby floor. He smiles. “You caught the mother. Excellent work.”
Thor thinks he does excellent work. Thor likes him. That makes him feel good. He likes Thor. Now Thor is extending a hand down toward him, because Thor is a genuinely good and caring person who wants to help Steve get up off the floor, even though Steve is very comfortable here and feels no need to move. But Steve likes Thor, so he takes his hand anyway.
Touching Thor’s big, warm hand makes the inside of his brain turn colors. Like slow, quiet fireworks. Like watercolors all running together. It feels good. Really good. As good as ice cream tastes in July. As good as crawling into your own bed after days of no sleep. As good as the first moment of peace after bombardment.
Thor is looking at him. Steve is sitting halfway up, with both of his hands around Thor’s hand.
“You have been affected,” Thor says. “Do not worry. It is temporary. I am told Ms. Potts has mostly recovered.”
“I like you,” Steve tells him, because it’s true and it’s important for Thor to know that. “You care about us even though you’re not from here. You always try to do the right thing. And you’re good at punching stuff. And you have really nice arms.”
Steve is touching Thor’s arm now. It feels even better than he thought it would. Thor’s arms are so thick and firm and… muscle-y.
Thor gently removes Steve’s hands from his arm, placing Steve’s hands back in his lap, but Thor keeps his hand over Steve’s hand. That feels pretty good, too. Steve notices that Thor has his other hand on top of the animal. The frith kith thing. “Barnes will arrive soon,” Thor says.
“Bucky?” Steve lights up. “I love him.”
“I know, my friend.”
“You do?” Something nags at Steve’s memory. He loves Bucky but he’s not supposed to talk about it. “Did you tell him?”
“No,” Thor says, and Steve wonders why he sounds sad. “That is for you to do.”
“Okay,” Steve says, gravely. He feels like he’s accepting a mission.
“You are perhaps too intoxicated to comprehend,” Thor says. “But what you have with Barnes… that is a rare and precious thing. I hope it brings you joy.”
“Uh huh,” Steve says, but he’s not really listening. Bucky has appeared behind Thor.
“I got this,” Bucky says to Thor. He glances at Steve. It’s hard to tell how Bucky is feeling sometimes, because he doesn’t smile or laugh much, but Steve thinks he looks worried. Steve doesn’t want him to worry.
Thor nods. He moves away from Steve, which makes Steve sad, but then Bucky moves closer and Steve forgets everything else.
“Last time I saw you looking that drunk, I had to hold you by the shoulders while you threw up in an alleyway,” Bucky says. His arms are crossed. His words are flat but he’s smiling kind of a funny smile. “You were facing away from me and you still somehow ruined my best pair of shoes.”
Steve has known Bucky such a long time. That’s important. Bucky remembering things is important, too. That makes Steve so happy he doesn’t know what to say.
“Well, you look like you’re enjoying it, at least,” Bucky tells him. “Come on, let’s go. Thor’s taking Mama Furball down to the lab, and I’m gonna drag your fuzz-brained ass back upstairs. Business as usual.”
Bucky is pulling him up until he’s standing and then grabbing his shoulders and steering him toward the elevator. Steve goes along with it. He’ll go anywhere Bucky is going.
Bucky lets go of him once they’re in the elevator.
Steve wants to touch Bucky so much it’s a physical ache. He’s trembling with the effort of not touching Bucky, of not doing or saying any of the things he wants to do and say. It’s not right to touch people without their permission. It’s especially not right to touch Bucky, who didn’t get to make that choice for himself for such a long time. Steve knows that. He knows it when he’s sober and he knows it when he’s intoxicated with some alien drug and just because he wants something doesn’t mean he has to act on his desires.
Besides, the most important thing is for Bucky to be happy. Steve can stay still, over here on his side of the elevator, if it makes Bucky happy.
“Jesus, Steve, turn off the puppy eyes. I can’t take it. I’ll… hug you, or whatever it is you want. Just stop looking at me like that.”
Steve has never moved so fast. He wraps both arms around Bucky and pushes him against the wall so that their whole bodies can be in contact, from their chests to their hips and all the way down to their feet. Then he leans down to press his face against Bucky’s neck. Oh God. It feels so good. So good. So, so, so good. Nothing has ever felt this good. This is better than heat when you’re freezing to death or food when you’re starving. It’s relief and comfort and satisfaction and happiness all at once. Steve is never moving again. He’s just gonna stay here, touching Bucky and enjoying the glorious symphony of feelings in his brain, forever.
“I get the point, Steve,” Bucky says, trapped between Steve’s body and the elevator wall. Steve didn’t realize he was saying anything. Oh well. “I’m happy for you. Can we talk about why you’re barefoot and your jeans are soaked? And freezing, by the way.”
“Went in the fountain to catch it,” Steve says against Bucky’s neck. Bucky smells really good. His whole body is the perfect mix of soft and firm. Steve wants to hug him for the rest of both of their lives.
“Of course you did.” The elevator dings. “Let’s go, Stevie. If you let go of me enough so that both of us can walk to the apartment door, I promise I will cuddle your scrambled brains out until this wears off and you get all weird and embarrassed about it. But you have to put on dry clothes first. Deal?”
It takes Steve a second to sort through all those words, because Bucky called him Stevie and that hasn’t happened in a long time. When Steve finally gets around to the rest of what Bucky said, he’s so delighted that he lifts his head to look Bucky in the eyes. “Really?”
Now that there’s a little space between them, Bucky takes the opportunity to reach up and cuff Steve on the head. “Don’t act so surprised, fluff-for-brains. I’m not that much of an asshole.”
Bucky’s not an asshole at all. Well, okay, he is. But Steve loves him for it, and besides, mostly he’s sweet and fierce and loyal and funny and smart and beautiful and smells good or at least he does when he’s not stinking up their apartment with his damn lethal farts—
“We both know those are your fault, Rogers,” Bucky says. Oh. Steve was talking again. “You eat twice as much as me anyway.”
Steve laughs and buries his face in Bucky’s hair He’s standing behind Bucky while Bucky unlocks their door. Steve wraps his arms around Bucky’s waist right then, because he can’t wait any longer, and they walk through the door like that. They have to shuffle around awkwardly for a moment while Bucky turns around to shut the door behind them.
“Can you be trusted to change your own clothes, or do you need me to come with you?”
“Yes,” Steve says. He doesn’t move until Bucky nudges him in the direction of his bedroom. Then he drags Bucky with him. Steve reluctantly lets go of Bucky in order to change into sweatpants and a new t-shirt, but it’s worth it because Bucky sits down on his bed. He even takes his shoes off and curls up on Steve’s pillow. Steve could faint from happiness. Instead he crawls onto the bed and curls tightly around Bucky, fitting his knees into the bend of Bucky’s knees, and wrapping an arm around Bucky’s waist. He interlaces their fingers, for good measure.
Everything is so good. Steve doesn’t know how much time passes like that and he doesn’t care. He could do this for a million years. He’s never felt this warm, this safe, this happy. It’s so nice of Bucky to do this for him, to let Steve touch him even though—even though—
“Mm?” It almost sounds like Bucky was asleep.
It’s hard, but Steve forces himself to pull away. He removes his hand from Bucky’s, backs away from his body, and sits up. He looks down at Bucky, still lying on his side. His hair’s all fanned out against the pillow. Bucky’s so handsome—no, Steve can’t think about that. He has an important question. “You’re still… still you.”
“That’s up for debate most days, but I guess today I’m doing better on that count than you are.” Bucky sits up and turns toward Steve. “Something wrong?”
“You’re still you and—you want this? This is okay?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “This is okay.” He smiles at Steve, just a little. “I promised, right? I’m with you till the end of the strange, affectionate, way-too-talkative line.”
“But I don’t want you to do it for me,” Steve says, which is a little bit of a lie because Steve wants nothing more than to lie right back down again and cuddle up to Bucky like nothing is wrong. But more than that, he wants to do things right. “I want you to do it for you.”
“Hey,” Bucky says, “come here.” He rearranges them both so that Bucky is sitting against the headboard with his legs in front of him, and Steve’s head is in his lap. Bucky runs his fingers through Steve’s hair. Oh God. It feels so good, better than anything, it’s gonna blot out everything else in Steve’s brain… “Steve,” Bucky says, gently interrupting. “Sorry, I just can’t have this conversation while you look at me with your goddamn Bambi eyes. Your pupils are all huge and your hair’s a mess and you look like you’re about ready to float off into space.” Bucky clears his throat. “Sorry. Point is, who says I’m not doing this for me?”
“Sober, drunk, high—hell, even brainwashed, they couldn’t entirely get rid of it—I always want you, Stevie.”
That feels like the sun coming up, like everything is bright and warm and alive. “Oh.”
Bucky ruffles Steve’s hair. “I’m wondering about you, though.”
“I don’t need to be high to enjoy this. What about you? Only want me when you’re out of your mind? Gonna wake up ashamed?” Bucky is still touching Steve, stroking his hair with one hand and rubbing the other hand over Steve’s back. But he sounds sad. Steve doesn’t want him to be sad.
“No,” Steve says. “No, don’t, you can’t—I love you, I love you so much I don’t know what to do with myself, I was gonna tell you, but I just—I wanted you to be happy, even if it didn’t include me. I didn’t want to put my feelings on you and make you deal with that on top of everything else. And I wanted to do it right. I don’t think I’m doing it right, Buck.”
“I think you’re assuming there’s a wrong way.” Bucky leans down and kisses the top of Steve’s head. “Right or wrong, I’m glad to hear it.”
Steve smiles. Bucky pulls him upright and then draws Steve into the vee of his legs and wraps his arms around Steve’s waist. He hooks his chin over Steve’s shoulder and then leans in and kisses the side of Steve’s neck. Every kiss, every touch, every point of contact, it all makes Steve feel like he’s seeing a dizzying circle of cartoon stars.
“Maybe I’m not even high. Maybe it just feels this good to be in love with you.”
Bucky huffs with laughter. “It’s a nice idea, Steve, but trust me, you are definitely still high.”
“I don’t know, Buck, I stared at your ass while you were in the vent earlier and I wasn’t high then, but it was a pretty religious experience.”
“I knew it,” Bucky says. “I can’t believe this took us so long. You’re the least subtle person on Earth.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Steve says, and Bucky pulls up his t-shirt and pokes him in the side with a cold metal finger. “Hey!”
“Don’t be sorry. Go back to being all ga-ga and gushing about how wonderful I am.”
“Not in the mood any more,” Steve lies. He could say a whole library worth of words about Bucky and still not be done. Hell, he’s already filled several sketchbooks with portraits, so that’s got to count for a hundred thousand words at least. Steve settles back against Bucky and revels in the feel of Bucky’s arms around him. “I wish you could feel what I’m feeling.”
“You’ve been doing a pretty good job narrating the entire thing to me,” Bucky says. Steve has a feeling that he’s being made fun of, but it doesn’t bother him.
“I wanna make you feel this good,” Steve says.
Bucky presses his face against Steve and Steve feels him smiling. Bucky pulls down the collar of Steve’s t-shirt and drops a short trail of kisses down the top of his spine. “It’s a date,” Bucky says. “But you have to sober up first, Rogers. I didn’t wait eighty years for this to have you not be fully, perfectly aware of my finely honed skills.”
Steve smiles. And, for the first time ever, he twists around and kisses Bucky.
The fireworks in his brain are a distraction. How can he care about that when Bucky’s mouth is on his? Steve has been wondering what it would be like to kiss Bucky since he was a teenage boy. The real deal lives up to his expectations: Bucky’s lips are sweet and firm, and his face is pleasantly rough from stubble. And then Bucky slides his tongue into Steve’s mouth, and all of Steve’s expectations are surpassed. Natasha only kissed him for show. Peggy kissed him like they might never see each other again. Bucky kisses him like there’s a lot more to come.
Steve is really looking forward to it.