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"I can't fucking believe that asshole," Bucky snapped, slamming into the room.

He flung himself down on the narrow bed, which creaked warningly under him. Elbowing it in the mattress, he dared it to break. That would be the perfect addition to an already lousy day. It might happen, too. All the dorm furniture was cheap and worn out, and the bed was probably held together with dried bodily fluids.

Steve was sitting at his desk, since he was the kind of person who made his bed in the morning and didn't touch it again until he pulled back the covers at night. As Bucky rapped out another stream of emphatic curses, he pushed his sketchbook tiredly to one side. "Bucky, he's not an asshole," he said.

"He is an asshole. The fact that you know exactly who I'm talking about proves he's an asshole."

"Come on," said Steve, "he's a good guy underneath it all."

"He has maggots underneath it all."

Steve gave a sad little sigh, a reminder that it was roughly the seven millionth time they'd had this conversation. Somehow Bucky had become best friends with a thoroughly decent human being who tried to see the good in everyone, but even Steve Rogers should have had trouble managing it with the newest addition to their group, Tony fucking Stark, who was everything Steve wasn't. Brash, smug, selfish, egotistical, and basically an epic dickwad. But not only did Steve manage it, he managed it with a quiet, hopeless longing in his eyes. It was like watching Snow White pining over the Wicked Witch of the West.

"What happened?" asked Steve. This time was unspoken but implied.

"Bruce," said Bucky. He liked Bruce, with his shy good nature and his slightly twisted sense of humour, and it had been painful to watch. "Who can be mean to Bruce? He's made out of goddamn puppies. And you know how he feels about that Betty girl. He finally got up the courage to ask her out, and then Stark comes sniffing around her like a dog in heat. 'Hey gorgeous, if brains turn you on, let's just say mine's bigger...' or whatever the fuck cheesy pick-up line. And now he'll be right there the whole fucking time, trying to make Bruce look bad. He's a dick."

"I'm sure that's not what happened."

"That's what happened, Steve. If I were Bruce I'd have punched him in the face so hard his teeth would have come out his ass."

Steve rolled his eyes. "Well it's a good thing Bruce is a better person than you, Buck," he said.

"He's not a better person. He's just physically incapable of getting angry. He bottles it all up inside. One day it'll break free and he'll turn into a giant green rage monster and tear your fucking boyfriend limb from limb."

Steve's face fell. In a second, wry amusement had become pinched misery. "He's not my boyfriend," he said tightly. "As you just pointed out, he has his eye on Betty Ross. Thank you for mentioning that, by the way."

Bucky faceplanted into the pillow, wincing at his own ineptness. "Aw, geez," he said, "I was just running my mouth, Steve. I didn't think."

In his opinion, it was a good thing that Tony didn't seem interested in making Steve into one of the innumerable notches on his bedpost. Bizarre, but good. Somehow, Steve Rogers, a guy objectively gorgeous enough that even Bucky's libido had raised a brief eyebrow before noting the sad lack of breasts, was the only person on campus exempt from Tony's constant, obnoxious flirting. And Steve was miserable. He tried not to show it, but it had to suck when the guy he had a gigantic crush on would jump into bed with anyone else but him. Tony Stark made Steve miserable, and Bucky firmly believed that making Steve miserable was the mark of a truly terrible human being.

Unfortunately, right now it seemed like he was the one making Steve miserable.

Steve shrugged and turned away. "Just stop talking."

"But I only..."

Steve had his head bent over his sketchbook. Every line of his body screamed, 'I'm ignoring you!'

Bucky knew from experience that when he was in this kind of mood the only thing to do was to let him seethe until he calmed down. Fumbling a textbook from the floor, he flipped through it, pretending to be interested in the nature of narrative structures and sneaking little glances at Steve's tense back.

About twenty minutes later, Steve gave a long sigh and rolled his shoulders. Bucky gave him another five minutes, before tossing a scrunched-up ball of paper at his head.

Steve looked round irritably. "What?"

"Whatcha drawing?"

"Nothing." He slammed his sketchbook shut.

"Steeeeeve."

"I don't want to talk to you."

"I said I was sorry, didn't I?"

"No," said Steve snippily, "actually, you didn't."

"Well, I'm sorry." Going over to the desk, Bucky dropped a hand on Steve's shoulder. He kept it there even when Steve tried to shrug it off, resting a thumb in the hollow of his collarbone and rubbing gently. "C'mon, you dumb punk. Don't be mad at me." Then he waited. He was good at waiting for Steve. A few minutes of quiet, a little push. Wherever they were going, they got there eventually.

Steve gave one last ineffectual shrug and seemed to deflate slightly. "He's not an asshole," he said. "Jerk."

Bucky diplomatically kept silent on the subject. "Whatcha drawing?" he asked again.

Steve glanced up and gave a very small smile. He finally elected to flip the sketchbook open again and turned it so Bucky could see. There on the page was a humanoid figure, looming and stocky, with bulging muscles and a threatening pose. Its eyebrows were lowered, the mouth twisted in anger. The face itself, however, had the distinctive, rugged features of their favourite mild-mannered medical student. Steve had carefully coloured the whole thing green.

Bucky gave a crack of laughter. "Awesome."

Twenty years later, when the drawing made fifteen thousand dollars at a charity auction, he would look back on this as the starting point for two careers and a global franchise. At the time, he was just happy that Steve had forgiven him.

***

"I don't see why I have to be a superhero, Bucky," Steve protested about a week later, pencil moving unwillingly over the paper under Bucky's watchful eye. "I'm not superhero material."

"Everyone's a superhero," said Bucky. "Because it's a superhero comic. Hmm... I think he needs some stripes somewhere. Red and white. Maybe in the middle, there." He rested his elbows on Steve's shoulders and peered over the top of his head at the sketches. Aside from the half-finished Captain America, they were looking good. Jan's usual tights-and-miniskirt combo made a surprisingly effective superhero outfit with a pair of sleek wasp-wings thrown into the mix, Hank's costume was just goofy enough to suit him perfectly, and Tony - because Steve had insisted on Tony being part of the team - was dressed in a sleek, streamlined exoskeleton in suitably flashy red and gold.

"You're seriously giving Stark that goatee?"

"I like the goatee."

"You like everything about him. We've already decided that you have no taste. He looks like a moth landed on his top lip and two fuzzy caterpillars are mating on his chin."

"Quit being mean about him," said Steve, reaching up over his own head to swat at Bucky. "He's a good guy underneath it all."

Bucky sighed. "Do you know how often you say that? I'm gonna make you a placard that says that."

***

The unveiling of the initial drawings caused a certain amount of friction among their little group of friends.

"Ant-Man?" said Hank, looking in bafflement at the little helmeted figure with its bobbled horns. "Why am I Ant-Man? That's ridiculous."

"Because you do shit with ants," said Bucky.

"I do not 'do shit with ants'," said Hank. He rolled his eyes and slipped into the lecture voice he seemed to feel entitled to use because he was a doctoral candidate among undergraduates. "I work with Drosophila Melanogaster. Fruit flies, the most celebrated model organism in all of biology. You've known me for over a year and you think I do shit with ants?"

"Huh," said Bucky. "OK, we can change that. You wanna be Fly-Guy?"

Hank blinked. "Ant-Man is fine," he said hastily.

At his side, Jan huffed in annoyance. "And how come I'm a wasp? I can't believe I have to be a wasp just because my boyfriend's an ant. You're a bunch of chauvinist pigs."

"You're not a wasp because of him," said Bucky flatly. "You're a wasp because you're an evil insectile life form who sends stinging barbs through men's hearts."

"I am not," said Jan, sounding more flattered than offended.

"You spent three months wolf-whistling at my ass, you laughed at me whenever I asked you out, and then you ran off with Fly-Guy."

"Ant-Man," Hank corrected.

"'Whatever."

"I like to flirt," said Jan. "It's not a crime. And it is a goddamn perfect peachy ass."

"Yeah, point proven."

"So who are you, Bucky?" Bruce asked, ever the peacemaker.

Bucky grinned, Jan momentarily forgotten in his enthusiasm for his creations. "I don't need a character. I'm the puppet master. I make you all dance."

Tony laughed unkindly. "Who are you kidding? You're Steve's whiny little sidekick."

"And you're a dickwad."

"Guys..." said Steve.

"I call it like I see it," Bucky muttered. He gave himself leave to enjoy a minor bout of sadism as he made mental notes for a few Iron Man story arcs. Captured by terrorists and viciously tortured. For months. With metal shards burrowing into his heart. Attacked and half-killed repeatedly by monsters of all kinds and his own armour. And then Bucky would take away all his money and power and turn him into a helpless alcoholic, lying semi-conscious in the gutter, and have Steve abandon him there.

OK, maybe that was going a bit far.

"Friend Bucky," Don boomed, "this Thor is a mighty warrior! You are a bard worthy of the halls of the gods."

Don was a theatre major. It was a daily occurrence to walk into the showers and find him declaiming Shakespeare as he soaped himself. Apparently, Norse saga-speak was also in his repertoire.

Bucky grinned. "You think I should make him talk like that?"

"No!" chorused everyone.

"Verily," said Don.

"Cool."

***

"So you all go chasing after this sea god guy, Namor, and you find Steve frozen in the ice..."

"Let us read, Bucky," said Jan, raising her head from the completed pages and wrinkling her nose at him. "You're spoiling the story."

"Hey, I wrote the story. Without me there would be no story."

At Bucky's elbow, Steve was blushing uncomfortably. Though he was proud of their joint work, he'd blanched at the thought of showing anyone. Or, to be strictly accurate, he'd blanched at the thought of showing Tony. As he should. To Bucky's eye, the comic included a suspicious number of close-ups of Iron Man's mouth, and a couple of poses definitely designed to show off his gold-plated ass.

"Hey, Steve?" said Tony. "Some of these are amazing." He was looking appreciatively at a panel depicting a majestic Iron Man launching into the sky, with Captain America watching from the ground like the lovesick little puppy he was based on. Bucky sighed. Trust Tony to pick that one. Though at least Steve had done a decent job of his own ass too.

Steve's made a faint mumbling noise that might have had a "Thanks, Tony," buried somewhere within it.

As Jan came to the end of the pages, a frown settled between her eyebrows. She flipped back through. "It stops. Where's the rest?"

"That's as far as we got."

"But what happens next?"

Bucky stuck his tongue out at her. "Can't spoil the story, can I?"

"Careful, Barnes, your face'll stick like that," she said. She cocked her head at him, faking thoughtfulness. "Actually it'd be an improvement."

Fortunately Bruce stepped in before the childish insults could really get going. "You'll write more, though?" he said. "This is great. You should put them up online somewhere."

"What? Bucky, no!" said Steve, horrified.

Bucky grinned. "There's a scanner in the computer lab, right?"

***

Tumblr didn't go instantly nuts over the comic, but as time went on the posts accumulated likes and reblogs, and their follower numbers grew daily. Bucky slowly began to realise that a lot of their friends from the dorms, and their friends, and... well, all kinds of people around the school, including a couple of professors, also read the thing. To his mild annoyance, most of the times when people commented, or when he heard people discussing the comic around campus, they were cooing over Iron Man. Tony Stark was a near-celebrity already, with his money and his apparent super-genius intellect, and Steve had certainly highlighted his assets in the artwork, even if Bucky was trying to give an honest representation of his character and personal qualities. The maverick, care-for-nobody playboy thing was obviously more attractive than Bucky had realised, because out of all the Avengers Iron Man was the popular choice.

Tony knew it. He basked in the attention. He didn't seem to notice that Iron Man was a total asshole, even though Captain America pointed it out at least once an issue.

Actually, it was hard to mind too much. People were reading the comic. They were reading something Bucky had written. People came up to him sometimes to ask him when the next pages would be out, or where he got his ideas, or whether he'd base a character on them. Or whether they could show him how much they liked his work. In private.

It turned out that being a comic book author got a guy laid. Who knew?

***

"OK, what the hell is this?" Steve snapped, slamming a sheaf of papers down on the table in front of Bucky.

"Jesus," said Bucky under his breath. He glanced around at the dozen faces turning to stare at them, and the scowl of the librarian as she pressed a meaningful finger to her lips. "Would you keep it down?" Usually Steve was the last person who'd make noise in a library. He was all about respect for others. "What's the problem?"

"This is the problem," said Steve in a furious whisper. "Issue #6 is the problem."

"Oh." Bucky flipped through the printout, scanning his own typed paragraphs. In his opinion, the script for issue #6 was pretty good. But now that he thought about it, there might have been a couple of little points Steve could possibly take issue with. Really tiny ones. Ones that might have been put in as revenge for a certain incident involving Tony, some precisely timed and (mostly) fabricated comments about Bucky's sexual preferences, and a certain extremely beautiful girl who was never going to speak to Bucky ever again.

"You mean the flashback scene?" he asked.

"You know damn well I mean the flashback scene."

"Iron Man needs a backstory," Bucky defended himself. "He can't have a perfect childhood. Superheroes have tragic pasts, Steve, it's a thing."

"And it had to be an alcoholic father?" Steve gave him a look of livid disapproval. "I'm not drawing that."

"It's part of the story."

"Bucky, I am not drawing that. And if I ever find out that you showed Tony this script I will never forgive you."

"Geez,"said Bucky. "Protective, much?" He shrugged. "Fine, whatever, I'll burn it. Along with a tiny Tony effigy."

Lying in bed that night, he had to admit to himself that he was glad Steve had refused. It would have been a low blow.

***

"Executive decision: you guys are done with Tumblr," said Tony over lunch one day. "It's a shitty medium. I am officially deleting your account."

Steve raised his head from his plate of fried chicken, all attention. "Why?" he said.

"Since when do you get to make executive decisions, Stark?" said Bucky. "Our comic is none of your goddamn business."

Steve shot him a weary look. Around the table, Jan, Don, and Hank all started to inch their chairs backwards.

Tony ignored him. "It's non-linear," he said. "It's messy, it's not user-friendly, it's a pain in the ass to keep any kind of control over. As of today, you have a website of your own."

"We do?" said Steve.

"Sure you do. I made it last night. It's all up and running, clocking up the hits already."

"You put the comic on a website?" said Bucky. "Without talking to either of us about it first?"

"Yeah. I mean, no offense, Barnes, but you don't know a solid business plan from your own ass, and I'm pretty sure you couldn't code well enough to control one of those turtle robots from the eighties. Leave it to Uncle Tony. All the back issues are uploaded. I thought Steve might want to choose the colour scheme, though, so that's not finalised."

Bucky shoved himself out of his seat. "Stark--"

"That's really thoughtful," Steve interrupted, shooting to his feet as well and taking a firm hold of Bucky's shoulder. "We're just going to step outside for a minute, Tony, and then maybe I can meet you to talk about it?"

"Sure," said Tony, giving Steve a warm smile and Bucky a look of absolute sadistic smugness. "Let's talk. We'll get coffee, I can show you all the features. Barnes, princess, do you want to tag along? You can sit and look pretty while the menfolk talk business."

"Bucky," said Steve, and it was only the fact that he was over six feet tall and built like a brick wall that prevented Bucky from leaping over the table and strangling Tony in front of a hundred witnesses.

"I'm going to kill him," Bucky snarled, once they were outside on the grass, with Steve still gripping him firmly by the shoulder. "I'm going to tear his intestines out and shove them down his throat until he chokes on them. Did you hear what he said to me?"

"I heard what you said to him first," said Steve, unimpressed.

"I told him it was none of his goddamn business, and it isn't."

"Of course it's his business. He's the one who set up the Tumblr in the first place, and he's always handled the online stuff. He was trying to do something nice for us, Buck. You said yourself the other day that we needed a website. Now we've got one. How it that a bad thing?"

"He's not doing it to be nice. He's doing it to fuck with me."

Steve sighed, letting go of his shoulder with a final soothing squeeze. "Yeah, OK, partly he's messing with you," he admitted, "but partly I think he really wants to help. He can be a good friend if you let him. Just give him a chance."

When hell froze over, Bucky thought. "I can't believe you made a date with that asshole," he said. "Christ, Steve, what's wrong with you?"

Steve flushed. "It's not a date. It's coffee to discuss the new website. Don't say things like that, Buck. What if he hears you?"

"What if he hears me?"

"You know I don't want to make him uncomfortable. I'd rather get to be with him as his friend than not at all."

Bucky sighed. "He's not going to ditch you as a friend because you have a huge crush on him. He'd probably love to have another adoring fan drooling over him the whole time."

"He's not like that. He doesn't have a lot of close friends, and he wishes he did. If you talked to him like a normal person some day you might figure that out for yourself."

"You're impossible," said Bucky. He gave Steve one final glare and stomped off to relieve his feelings with a storyline about Captain America secretly being a shape-shifting alien. For a pleasant couple of minutes, he wondered if he could devise a reason for the alien to capture and torture Iron Man. Then he told himself firmly, not this time. Iron Man got captured and tortured more often than was really plausible.

***

They were in the middle of a debate over tentacles versus claws for the robot in issue seven, when Tony came in and tossed an envelope onto Bucky's bed with a flourish. "There you go, dream team," he said.

Bucky picked up the envelope and untucked the flap. "What's this supposed to be?"

"It's the details of your PayPal account. PayPal's a way to move around this stuff called 'money', Barnes. Do they have that where you come from?"

Bucky gritted his teeth.

Steve was looking puzzled, which made a change from the usual adoring eyes. "Tony, why do we have a PayPal account?" he asked.

"And why is there three hundred bucks in it?" asked Bucky, staring down at the printout.

"Because you earned it."

"Earned it how?"

"From the Donate button on your website," said Tony. He grinned at their baffled looks. "Yeah, you might not have noticed it. It's not visible from inside the university firewall."

"WHAT?" said Bucky.

"Better to ask forgiveness than permission, that sort of thing. Especially if you can back up your request with a big fat check. Bribery and corruption, Barnes, in the best traditions of our great nation. It's worked out pretty well so far."

Bucky was rendered momentarily speechless.

"OK, two things," said Steve, looking from the statement to Tony. "One, wow, people really gave us all this just because of the comic? And two..." he took a deep breath, as though bracing himself for impact, "Tony, that's going too far. You can't do that kind of thing without asking. I'm not even sure we should let people pay us. It feels wrong."

Tony shrugged, looking infuriatingly unconcerned. "You deserve to get paid when you make something really special," he said. He perched on the edge of Steve's desk, his heel banging gently and repetitively against one of the legs. It set Bucky's teeth on edge instantly. "People love it. They want to pay. Supply and demand."

Steve had gone bright pink at really special. Bucky rolled his eyes. Sickening. But, as annoyed as he was, he was beginning to feel himself edging over towards Tony's side of the argument... or at least the side that involved three hundred bucks.

"I don't know," said Steve. "If people want to donate, I think we should give the money to charity."

"No!" said Bucky, and then scowled to himself as he realised that Tony had said it at exactly the same moment.

"Those people gave their money to support you so you can keep making your comic," said Tony, smiling the smug, triumphant smile of someone who knows they're scoring the winning point in an argument. "You can't take it and use it for something else. That would be dishonest."

Steve's answering smile was warm and soft enough to make any sensible human being cringe with embarrassment. "Is there anything you can't talk your way out of?" he asked. "OK, I guess we can keep it this one time. But we're gonna have a talk about that Donate button later."

Bucky breathed a sigh of relief. He could work with this. He and Steve were also going to have a talk about that Donate button and how it pertained to the state of his bank balance. He took the statement out of Steve's hand to get another look at the amount. Part of his share, he decided, was going to buy him a gigantic rare steak before the day was over.

"What are you going to spend yours on?" he asked Steve, though he suspected that he knew. He'd seen Steve eyeing up a big set of brush pens in the art store in town the other day, and had gone over to look at it later. The price tag had been unnerving, to say the least. Art materials were expensive. Bucky was glad he could write perfectly well with a leaking ballpoint on the back of an envelope. But with this money Steve could have his pens, and he'd sure as hell earned them.

Except, of course, this was Steve they were talking about.

"It's my grandma's birthday next week," said Steve resolutely. "I told you she's been having car trouble, Buck. A tune-up would be a great present, don't you think?"

Steve had been brought up by his grandmother. She'd taken him in after his mother died, and he was devoted to her, so it was a reasonable reaction. But Bucky kind of wished Steve would get something special for himself for once.

He eyed up the statement again. His share could buy Steve the pens, but right now it was looking a lot like that steak dinner, a chunk of his ticket home, a chance to pay Jan the twenty bucks he owed her so she'd stop bitching about it, and some extra to take a girl out. He felt like a selfish jerk, but he knew he wasn't going to spend it all on Steve.

"You know, Rogers," said Tony, "you don't have to be the perfect all-American boy 24/7. There's such a thing as being too nice."

It was possibly the first time Bucky had agreed with him about anything at all.

***

At lunch the next day, he really regretted that he'd had such a charitable thought.

Tony wandered in late, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed. The wrap-around sunglasses that protected him from the dim light in the cafeteria hinted at a vast hangover, but he still had more energy and self-assurance than the rest of the student body combined. "Hey, nana's boy," he said, flicking off the sunglasses, treating them to the sight of slightly bloodshot eyes. "Santa Claus dropped this off for you."

He held out a flat package wrapped in a plastic bag. The logo on the bag, Bucky realised with a sinking heart, belonged to the art store in town. And sure enough, when Steve reached into it, there was the pen set.

Steve looked from it to Tony, utterly confused. "Is this for me?" he said.

"And the award for today's dumbest question goes to... wait for it... Steve Rogers! Look, here's your prize." Tony tapped the box meaningfully.

Steve looked like he really, really wanted to keep his mouth shut, but because he was who he was he took a determined breath and said: "Tony, I can’t accept this."

"Uh, yeah, you can. It's easy, you just gotta hold it and say, 'Thank you Tony,' and you're all done. Besides, it's the least I can do after I punched you in the face." Tony shot Bucky a dirty look. Bucky shot one right back. There was a battle for dominance happening in the ranks of the Avengers at the moment. Iron Man was getting uppity. Captain America was going to de-uppit him with prejudice in the next issue.

"Look, you get your pens, grandma gets her car fixed up, everyone's happy," Tony continued. "Let's just pretend we had this argument and I won, 'cause I basically always get what I want. So why waste the effort?" Not waiting for an answer, he flipped Steve a satisfied salute and swept out of the room.

Steve stared after him, mouth open, until Bucky thwapped him on the back of the head. "Steve. You trying to catch flies there, buddy?"

Steve flushed. "Sorry. I'm just... that was such a nice thing for him to do." He took another long look at the box of pens. "He didn't have to do that," he added, almost to himself.

"He's got more money than God," said Bucky, trying to hide his annoyance. It was dumb to resent that Steve had got something he wanted, but he hated that Tony could just swoop in and drop extravagant gifts in Steve's lap and make Steve go all hopeful and conflicted. "It's nothing to him. It's like giving you a piece of gum."

"But he didn't have to," said Steve. He hugged the box to his chest. "I should give it back. I don't need it, and I hate when he thinks he has to pay for things just because he's got the money. But... do you think maybe that would hurt his feelings?"

"He doesn't have feelings."

"He has feelings," said Steve. He stroked reverent fingers over the pen set. "It's exactly the one I wanted."

***

Steve's love life - also known as his epic and inadvisable crush - was undeniably a train wreck in the making. Bucky's, however, was looking up.

"So, how did your date go?" said Steve, as Bucky stumbled bleary-eyed into their dorm room and collapsed on the bed. "Pretty good, I guess, considering you were out all night."

Bucky grinned blissfully up at the ceiling. He was exhausted. He'd had no sleep whatsoever, and he ached gloriously in every muscle. "Steve, that girl's amazing," he said. "I swear, she's gonna kill me, and I'll die happy."

"She sounds like a keeper," said Steve, deadpan.

"It's fate. I was put on this earth to be her slave."

"What did you say her name was?"

"Natalia," Bucky murmured, rolling the name around in his mouth, savouring every syllable. "Natasha. Natashenka. From Russia. Christ, it's hot when she speaks Russian. And when she calls me 'James' with this fucking accent... It's like Pavlov's dogs, Steve, she just has to say it and I get this almost irresistible urge to drop my pants. You need to draw her for me. She's going in the comic."

"O-kay," said Steve uncertainly. "If you want. What does she look like?"

"Red hair. A body like..." he waved his hands, sketching sinuous curves in the air. "These lips, just... soft, perfect, everything about her... She's the most beautiful woman in the whole world."

"I might need a little more than that, Buck," said Steve, sounding like he was trying not to laugh. "I'll probably need to meet her if you want her to look right."

"Mmm," Bucky agreed. "Sure, buddy, you can meet her. Just don't ever be in a room alone with her. She's gonna eat you alive."

"I'll be careful," said Steve. Then he paused, long enough that Bucky rolled over on his side to look at him.

"What, Steve?"

"It's just... I know you really like her, but you're thinking about the comic too, right? Is there really space for another Avenger on the team? You've already got some... um, difficult interpersonal relationships going on."

Which was a polite way of saying that the Avengers were constantly at each other's throats, Bucky mused happily. Part of the fun of writing them was that he knew how their counterparts interacted in real life, and could play with the little ways they irritated each other and the ways their perspectives didn't quite match. None of the others had the level of animosity that Bucky had bestowed on Iron Man and Captain America, but they certainly were not the world's most cohesive superhero team.

"Who said anything about her being on the team?" he said. "She's gonna be one of the bad guys." He closed his eyes, picturing it. "I'm thinking super-spy in eveningwear. She has energy weapons and enhanced strength, but her real power is psychological manipulation. You never know if she's lying or telling the truth. Just when you think you've got her where you want her, you realise that you just walked into her trap. She can seduce any man or woman on the planet. She's most dangerous when she's naked in your bed, because that's when you let your guard down, and she's always got a weapon. I'll call her Black Widow."

"Won't she be offended if you make her out to be like that?"

"Not her," said Bucky dreamily. Yes, he'd got it bad, but god knew he had reason. "Believe me, Steve, she's gonna love it."

***

The email had arrived that morning and had caused quite a stir - partly because Bucky hadn't mentioned to anyone, even Steve, that he'd been looking around for publishers, and partly because Editor Margaret Carter sounded actively enthusiastic about something that had begun as a simple in-joke. She wanted the two of them to come in to the Vita-Ray Comics Head Office for an 'informal chat'. Bucky had no clue what that meant, but it was almost enough to make him feel like a superhero, and he kept having to quietly remind himself to keep his feet on the ground.

Steve, after a couple of minutes of hurt and offended pouting about Bucky going over his head, had started grinning almost as wide. But once the first flush of excitement had worn off, his skewed sense of responsibility came back into play.

"Steve's being a moron," said Bucky glumly, dropping down onto the grass where Bruce, Hank, Don, and Jan were sprawled. "He thinks he shouldn't come with me to New York."

"What? Why?" asked Bruce.

"He doesn't want to go to the meeting." Bucky ground his knuckles into the grass in frustration. "He says he'll just get in the way and hold me back, and he doesn't want to get his hopes up about it, because he knows he'll have to have a real career in the end, drawing cereal boxes and all that shit. You know. To make a living and look after his grandmother."

Jan frowned. "Can't you make a living being a comic book artist?" she asked.

"You can if you're good," Bucky grumbled. "He's good. He just doesn't think he is. He's got this stupid inferiority complex, and he's going to waste his chance. You guys have to help me."

"You can't persuade him?"

"Believe me, I've tried. He's being noble."

"Shit," said Jan, as Don rolled his eyes and even Hank looked up from his journal article, sighing in the way that people often did when considering Steve's innate nobility. "I never met anyone as stubborn as Steve is when he thinks he's doing the right thing."

"Get him drunk," suggested Don. "You can shove him on a bus to New York and he won't be able to do anything about it."

"Yeah, but what about when they get there?" Jan pointed out. "He'll just get the next bus back. Unless we keep him drunk the whole way, and in the meeting, and no, Don, we are not doing that."

"You're all forgetting something," said Bruce calmly, twiddling his glasses in his hand.

"What?"

Bruce gave a little self-deprecating smile, tinged with smugness. "Tony must have dragged himself out of bed by now. Steve's probably telling him all about it as we speak."

"So?" Bucky asked, frowning.

"So Tony will tell him to go."

There was a long silence.

"Interesting point," said Jan eventually. "I don't think Steve's physically capable of saying no to Tony."

"Problem solved, Bucky?" Bruce asked.

"Tony fucking Stark," Bucky muttered, glaring at the grass.

"Isn't that a good thing?" Jan asked. "Look, Tony can be an asshole sometimes and he has an ego the size of Manhattan, but he'd do anything to help Steve. I don't know why you have such a problem with him. He's a--"

"If you tell me he's a good guy underneath it all," Bucky interrupted, "I'm seriously gonna punch someone."

***

When Bucky got home after a particularly demanding class on fictional motifs he once again found that his dorm room was full of Tony. Lately it seemed like Tony was everywhere.

"Stark," he said, tossing his bag onto the floor, trying to infuse his voice with as much fuck the hell off as humanly possible.

"Barnes," said Tony, in exactly the same tone, not bothering to glance in Bucky's direction. His full attention was focused on Steve. "You'll do fine," he said, continuing smoothly as though there had been no interruption. "How can you not? You've got a killer portfolio, and one of the most handsome superheroes in the world on your roster. They'll love you." He gave Steve's shoulder a friendly pat as he hopped down from his usual perch on the corner of the desk and turned to leave. "OK, gotta go, gotta wine and dine a corn-fed quarterback from Illinois."

Steve watched until the door had swung closed with a quiet click. Then he looked up at Bucky, his eyes gone Bambi-huge and tragic. "Hi, Bucky," he said, sounding as though his dog had just died.

"Hi, Charlie Brown," Bucky returned. "Wanna tell me what that was about?"

Steve shrugged helplessly. "He knew I was nervous about the meeting tomorrow, so he came over here with a box of doughnuts and said he was going to give me a pep talk. We talked for two hours, he made me laugh and he helped me think through my ideas. I don't even know what I was worried about anymore. He was... he was really great. And then... then he just runs off with some jerk who probably only wants to go out with him to get into one of those stupid clubs where rich people go. Bucky, what am I gonna do?" He put his head on the desk, hiding his face in his arms. "I'm crazy about him," he said into the desktop. "I can't help it, I think about him all the time. Sometimes I think I should just tell him how I feel. I mean, at least then he'd know there's someone in the world who loves him for himself. Sometimes I wonder if he knows that."

"Aw hell," said Bucky. He laid a comforting hand on Steve's back, trying to think of something to say that wasn't deeply insensitive. Tony was just such a terrible, terrible idea for Steve. He was super-rich, out of control, and exclusively one-night-only. Steve deserved so much better than that. He deserved someone who gave a shit about his feelings.

"I just don't know how to get over it," Steve continued mournfully. "I've tried, I swear. I've even made a list of all his bad points, but it doesn't change anything."

Bucky sighed. Being a supportive friend was hard. Tony was an asshole and Steve was deluded and what the hell was hesupposed to do about any of it?

Still, at least there was a bright side. "Hey," he said, "so you're feeling better about New York, right?"

"Yeah," said Steve, his dead dog voice ratcheting up another notch. "It'll be great."

***

The 'chat' at VR Comics didn't decide anything for sure, but it still went better than Bucky could ever have hoped.

Ms Carter turned out to be a commanding Englishwoman not much older than Bucky, the kind of person who took a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling and didn't stop skyrocketing from then on. When they were ushered into her office, she already had printouts of Steve's pages over her desk, and it was clear she'd read through the whole website, too. She made Bucky explain the character arcs he had in development, and asked Steve to explain the thought behind his layouts. She grilled them both mercilessly for half an hour apiece. When she was done with the terrifying part she complimented Steve's grasp of anatomy in a brisk, honest way that had him shifting in his seat and trying to hide how happy he was, and told Bucky to set up an appointment with her secretary for after graduation, because she might have some work for him on a couple of titles - comics that he actually read. Steve had to make an appointment too, with the woman who ran their in-house artist training program, because there was a spot open for him whenever he wanted to take it.

"Avengers has a lot of potential," Ms Carter said as the meeting was wrapping up, by which point Bucky was almost too overwhelmed to take in any more information. "If the next few issues are up to the same standard, we'll be offering you a publication deal. I'll be in touch."

She shook their hands and ushered them to the door.

The elevator ride down to street level was taken in complete silence. Out on the street they stood and stared at each other for a long moment, before Bucky gave a whoop and Steve started laughing. The two of them high-fived and fist-bumped their way through the subway ride, and fell into an exhausted sleep on the bus home, slumped against each other, still smiling.

***

"Bucky, could you come home, please?" Steve asked, his voice distant and determined down the phone line. "I need your help with something."

Bucky hadn't managed to open his eyes while he scrabbled on Natasha's nightstand for his phone. Now he pried them open with some difficulty and tried to pretend he was awake. "What sorta something?" he asked. His throat sounded rough with sleep - and with moaning probably, and maybe even screaming. He couldn't remember the details of the night, just a blur of Oh god, yes. Natasha had that effect on him. "I really hope it can be a tomorrow something, Steve, because I'm pretty sure I can't move right now." Not because she'd handcuffed him to the bed, this time. She'd just sucked him dry and left him an extremely satisfied empty husk of humanity.

The woman in question rolled over, trapping him neatly under her naked body, and took the phone out of his hand. "Steve?" she said. "I'm sending him over to you now. I'm all done with him. Just promise you'll feed him something nutritious and send him back tomorrow."

"You can't just kick me out to do the walk of shame, Nat," Bucky complained.

"Oh, I'm sorry, James, are you ashamed?" Natasha said, smirking. "Well don't worry, I promise I'll never do that thing with my tongue again if it upset you so much. I guess it was the bad kind of screaming after all."

"Natasha," said Bucky, as a strangled noise emerged from the phone.

"Out. Go help your friend, asshole."

She kicked him out of bed and stretched out on top of the sheets, watching appreciatively as he dressed and found his shoes, then beckoned him over for one last violent kiss, before jerking her head to order him out of the door.

He staggered back across campus like a zombie, legs shaking under him. God, he really loved that girl.

Halfway up the steps to their dorm he heard Steve's voice saying, "Bucky? Down here."

In the dim light from the bulb over the door, Bucky saw Steve kneeling in the flowerbed with a bedraggled-looking Tony Stark. Tony turned his head, peering disapprovingly at Bucky. "It's the whiny sidekick," he said, with a pronounced slur to his words. "Go, away. We're having a moment." Then he turned back to the flowerbed and threw up, for what was obviously not the first time. Steve rubbed his back and made sympathetic noises.

"What happened to him?" Bucky asked wearily.

"I don't know," said Steve. "He was throwing stones at our window. When I looked out he said he had something really important to tell me and I had to come down. He was pretty confused, Buck. I think he thought I was some girl named Juliet. And I came down and he was puking in the bushes and saying he was going to turn into his father. Which you're not," he informed Tony, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. "Don't worry, Tony. You're a really great guy. We all like you."

"I fucking don't," said Bucky under his breath. He groaned. "Christ, I can't believe we have to deal with his bullshit. You know you dragged me out of Natasha Romanoff's bed for this?"

"Now's not the time, Buck. Would you please be helpful?"

"I can get a sharpie and draw a dick on his face if you want."

"You can get him some water and help me take him inside."

"You wanna take him up to our room?"

"Bucky!" Steve snapped, honest-to-god annoyed. "Water. Now."

Bucky sighed and did as he was told.

***

Steve had to go to class before Tony woke up, so Bucky had the dubious honour of giving him pain pills and yet more water, and the rather more enjoyable task of informing him that he'd spent half an hour crying on Steve's shoulder and telling him that he was his only friend in the world, and also that his hair smelled really nice. Tony's face when he heard that almost made the whole thing worthwhile.

"You owe Steve big time," said Bucky as he shoved Tony out of the door. "He saved you from choking on your own vomit last night. Also, he stopped me from drawing dicks all over you."

Tony glared at him, wrapped his jacket around himself in a failed attempt at dignity, and stumbled away.

The bouquet arrived that afternoon. Bucky walked into the room to find Steve carefully arranging two dozen yellow roses in a water jug stolen from the dining hall.

"He sent you flowers," said Bucky flatly.

Steve gave a brave little smile and held out the card.

Steve,

Sorry. Thank you. You're a good friend.

Tony

"Don't look at me like that, Buck," said Steve. "He didn't mean to upset me; he wouldn't have done it if he'd known how it would make me feel. It means a lot that we're friends, anyway. I'm really glad I could be there for him." He grabbed his bag and headed for the door. "I'm going to class. See you later."

For a brief second, Bucky considered throwing the flowers out of the window. Then he decided that he really didn't want to see that look on Steve's face.

***

"No, Steve," Bucky wailed, two afternoons later. "No, no, no."

"What?"

"Why would you put that in my comic?"

"It's my comic as much as yours. And I don't know what your problem is. I just want to show him how much I appreciated them," said Steve. He stuck out his jaw stubbornly. "I'm not redoing the pages. If you don't like it you can draw them yourself."

Bucky closed his eyes to blot out the sight, but it was still burned into his mind's eye. In the middle of the coffee table in the Avengers' hangout room, Steve had drawn and coloured a lavish bouquet of yellow roses, carefully arranged in what appeared to be a water jug.

"I hate you," he muttered, not sure if he meant Steve, or Tony, or both. Probably both.

***

Steve was, undeniably, a better person than Bucky in many ways. Bucky sincerely hoped that this included his reaction to being woken up in the middle of the night with an unexpected plea for help.

"Steve?" he said, poking at the quietly snoring lump of blankets. "Steve? Steve?"

"Mmfrgl?" Steve mumbled, extending a hand from somewhere within the lump and swatting at him.

"Steve. Wake up. Steeeeve." He poked a couple more times and waited expectantly.

Sure enough, after a few more seconds Steve gave a deep sigh and sat up. "What is it?" he said, rubbing at his eyes and blinking at the light from Bucky's desk lamp.

"I fucked up," said Bucky, shoving him sideways and crawling onto the bed in a crinkling of papers. "Look." He shoved the four taped-together pages under Steve's nose.

Steve stared down at the tangle of lines and circles. "Um," he said, "Buck, I honestly have no idea what I'm looking at."

"Plot diagram," said Bucky. He stabbed a finger at a point where the lines coalesced. "I made the bad guys too badass, and now I have to find a way to fix things or the world's going to end in issue #13."

After New York, he had flung himself back into the comic with renewed determination, and he felt like he was getting a little worn around the edges because of it. Writing Avengers was fun. It was also astonishingly hard work.

"Is this about that doomsday robot?" Steve asked, stifling a yawn. "Who were the villains behind that, anyway?"

"They're called The Masters of Evil."

"The Masters of Evil?" Steve repeated.

"It's supposed to be ironic," said Bucky. Now that he looked at it again, it was just plain stupid. Maybe Steve's inferiority complex was catching, because he'd never felt like a worse writer than he did at that moment. "There's no way to make it work. I suck at this. What the fuck am I gonna do if they give me a real title to work on? I'll ruin it."

"Are you nuts?" said Steve, tapping his knuckles fondly against the side of Bucky's head. He really was the world's sweetest human being, because he sounded way too warm and supportive for such an ungodly hour of the morning. "You're great at this. C'mon, tell me the story; we can fix it together."

Fix it together turned out to be a pretty apt description, really, which certainly made a change from the usual storylines. As a rule, when the Avengers were dropped into a stressful situation hackles rose in an instant. They squabbled their way through most of their adventures, often storming off in a huff at critical points. Steve's solution, not surprisingly, was to have everybody working together in peace and harmony. With logic and a little comic book science, the team could believably defeat the Masters of Evil if they pooled their strength and talents.

Bucky argued that it was wildly out of character. They wouldn't do it. They'd quarrel too much.

Steve said he was damn well going to make them.

So, at four in the morning, crammed into a twin bed with a battered notepad and one of Steve's drawing pencils, they created what would one day be known simply as 'The Speech' among Avengers fans. Captain America, desperate and at the end of his rope, managed to find the words to pull the team together at the crucial moment, so that Iron Man (Bucky reluctantly agreed it had to be him) could come up with the requisite genius idea to save the day. Bucky wasn't sure how the speech managed not to be the cheesiest thing ever written, but Steve believed in all that shit, and somehow that belief wriggled its way into Bucky's words.

"I think it's really good," said Steve, once they were done and Bucky was reading it over for the hundredth time as the first of the dawn light began to creep through the curtains. "Buck, can I go to sleep now?"

"Mmm," said Bucky, in vague assent. He sighed as Steve snuggled down beside him. The newly reworked script did look OK, even to his jaded eye, but it was taking the story in a direction he'd been subconsciously trying to steer away from.

Captain America had a few chips on his shoulder, but deep down, underneath the military attitude and the battle-damage, Bucky had always written him as Steve. He was a decent guy, decisive and humorous and generous, the type who would do his utmost to make the team work. Which meant that realistically, under his leadership, the Avengers were going to mesh. Captain America and Iron Man would have to become friends eventually, unless Bucky sacrificed all his principles of character-driven writing just to satisfy his own resentment. Still, he was going to put it off as long as humanly possible.

"Steve?" he said. This time he didn't get even a mumble in response. Steve was fast asleep already, looking blissfully comfortable. Bucky's own bed was all the way across the room, and moving seemed like far too much effort. He scooched down until he could pull the corner of Steve's blanket over his head, and was asleep almost as soon as he closed his eyes.

***

"They should just fuck already," said Natasha, halfway through one of Bucky's typical Stark-related rants. She was watching Steve and Tony lounging in the sunshine with Bruce and his now-girlfriend Betty. "They'd look really good together. I like the size difference thing, it's hot."

Bucky made a horrified face. "Christ, Nat, can you not put images like that in my mind? That's disgusting."

"This from a guy who has three separate folders of kinky lesbian porn on his computer."

"None of those lesbians are Tony Stark," said Bucky. "Anyway, they're never going to fuck. Unreciprocated is a good thing. It means Steve's safe from that nightmare."

"Hmm," Natasha said thoughtfully. Then she shrugged. "Well, you could at least make Captain America and Iron Man do it. The whole will-they-won't-they thing is getting old."

"What?"

Natasha looked at him, one eyebrow slowly rising in amusement. "Seriously, James? You weren't aware that the sexual tension in those comics is so close to breaking point that there's practically pre-come oozing out of the computer screen?"

"Eugh! Stop with the images, Nat, for the love of god. And there is no sexual tension between Iron Man and Cap. They barely even like each other."

"Half your readers think they're banging already. Have you even looked at the fanfic?"

"What's fanfic?"

Natasha laughed. "OK, we're going inside to find your laptop. It's going to be a fun afternoon."

***

That evening, after what had emphatically not been a fun afternoon of looking at the fanworks of the billion or so people who thought Iron Man and Captain America should be getting it on, Bucky curled up on his bed with his laptop and clicked on his bookmark for the Avengers website. He navigated to the first comic and started to read. Issue #1. The team got assembled. Iron Man and Cap met for the first time, and hated each other on sight. There were insults. There was general bristling. There was Steve's jaw doing that thing it did.

Natasha had explained to Bucky what a ship name was. The one for Iron man and Cap was, apparently, Lovers quarrel.

And OK, maybe. Maybe that very first fight could have been seen as having some kind of chemistry, if you tilted your head and squinted. Barely. Only at a stretch.

Bucky groaned gently to himself and moved onto issue #2, which was, if he was perfectly honest, more of the same.

When he reached issue #6, in which Iron Man's tragic (non-alcoholic) backstory was revealed, he had to suppress a wince. It was touching how gentle Cap was with Iron Man in that issue, considering how much they still disliked each other. But Cap was a character based onSteve Rogers, for Christ's sake. Of course he was going to be gentle, if one of his teammates was really messed up.

Bucky kept reading. And reading. And swearing quietly under his breath.

And then he got to the latest issue. Issue #13.

"We did not do that," he said, burying his face in his hands. "Fuck. This is really, really bad."

Issue #13 was the one with The Speech. The one where Iron Man and Cap set aside their differences for a little while, and Cap inspired the Avengers to be all they could be, and Iron Man did something really big and brash and stupid and nearly killed himself saving the world. Because that really was Tony's style.

The real problem, though, was that Bucky had wanted to wrap the story up neatly with a moment of peace after all the guns-blazing action. The last page, when everything was over and the world was saved, showed Iron Man and Cap together in the hangout room, just talking about the mission and the team. The art was more delicate, more loose and flowing than usual, a contrast, to give a sense that this was the aftermath. Steve had drawn the two of them sitting practically knee to knee, and in every single panel Iron Man was wearing the same soft, warm smile.

How the hell had he not noticed before?

The door opened, and Steve came in, toeing off his shoes and nudging them neatly into position with one foot. "Hey," he said. "Whatcha doing, Buck?" He crossed the room to peer over Bucky's shoulder. "Oh, I like that page," he said. He gave Bucky's hair a ruffle. "It's one of the five minutes you don't have me yelling at poor Tony."

Bucky elbowed him in the side in return. "Why did you have to make him smile like that?" he asked.

"Like what?" Steve asked. "That's how he always smiles."

***

"Why is Iron Man fighting with Captain America again?" said Tony, interrupting Bucky's sandwich-and-studying session without ceremony. He was holding his tablet in one hand, far away from his face, as though it smelled bad. On the screen, Iron Man and Captain America were frozen in the midst of their latest epic screaming match.

When Steve had first seen the script, he'd asked the exact same question. To him, Bucky had said that it was a key narrative conflict. To Tony, he was more inclined to tell the truth. "Because Iron Man's a dick," he said, not looking up. It sure as hell wasn't because Iron Man and Captain America had a love-hate relationship, emphasis on the love. And even if the characters did have something going on, which, Bucky had to admit, there was a minute possibility that they might, it had nothing to do with Steve and Tony. He didn't care what Natasha had to say on the matter. Captain America was not Steve, Iron Man was not Tony, and the whole soulmates thing was ridiculous anyway.

Sadly, his studied air of unconcern was ruined when the book was slapped out of his hands to slide away across the table and onto the floor.

"Hey! Motherfucker." He leapt to retrieve it before it could acquire too much of the general grime of the dorm kitchen.

"What the fuck is your problem, Barnes?" said Tony. "You're the dick, making Steve act like he's got a gigantic stick up his butt."

"Captain America is not Steve," Bucky snarled, brushing at the cover of the book and clamping it protectively to his chest. "Captain America is a rational human being, not a smitten moron who can't see past his own gigantic crush."

Then he heard what had just come out of his mouth, and winced. Possibly he shouldn't have said that. No, he definitely shouldn't have said that, because Steve was actually going to kill him.

There was a pause, before Tony tilted his head sideways in confusion. "What the hell are you talking about?" he said. "What gigantic crush?"

"Uh...?" said Bucky, hoping like hell that if he played dumb he could just pretend it never happened.

"If you're saying Steve's into me, you can stop fucking around; he's not that dumb."

"Yeah. No. Of course he's not. Fucking around."

Tony paused, frowned, paused a little longer, and finally gave him a deeply suspicious look. "You're blushing," he said.

"It's hot in here."

"Bullshit," said Tony. "You don't get out of this that easy. Start talking, Barnes, otherwise I'm gonna go find Steve right now and tell him what you said. And then I'm going to ask him myself."

One of the many things that made Tony incredibly irritating was the fact that he was actually quite intelligent.

"Fine!" Bucky snarled. "He's nuts about you. Everyone knows he's nuts about you. Apparently the whole internet knows, and draws explicit fanart to prove it. He wants to have your horrible little Stark babies and cuddle up on the couch with you and tell you what a special snowflake you are, because you need to believe in yourself and know you're loved. It makes me wanna hurl. "

Sometime during this speech, Tony's mouth had dropped open. He closed it, and swallowed hard. "You're not kidding," he said.

"No, I'm not fucking kidding."

"Then why the hell didn't he say something?" Tony yelled.

"Why the hell would he?" Bucky retorted. "You made it clear he's not your type, what with the way you've been hitting on half of campus right in front of him while he trails around after you like a lovesick puppy and breaks his goddamn heart over you."

"What?" said Tony, looking completely baffled. "Of course he's my type, he's everyone's type. Christ, I should be so lucky."

Bucky found himself as confused as Tony seemed to be. "Then why's he the one person you never hit on?" he asked.

"Because he's my friend, you moron!" said Tony. "He actually gives a shit. You know how often that happens? He was nice to me from the very first day I got here. I'm not gonna scare him off by hitting on him the whole fucking time."

Bucky cast around for something to say, and came up empty. He could only manage a glare. It was a fairly incredulous, bewildered glare, but it was the best he could do.

Tony raked his hand through his hair. "Fuck. Steve Rogers is into me. This whole time I've been killing myself trying not to stare at his ass, when I could have been nailing him up against a wall."

Bucky felt his eyes widen in horror as he suddenly realised where the situation was headed. He jumped urgently to his feet and took a menacing step forwards. "Don't even think about it, Stark. You don't get to nail him anywhere. He's not one of your one-night-stands."

"You don't think that I might actually want to date him for real? Is that so hard to believe?"

"Yes," Bucky snarled, "it is. I don't believe it for a single fucking second."

Tony cocked his head, regarding Bucky in silence for a moment, and then his mouth twitched into his most insufferable smirk. "You're a sad little man, Barnes," he said. "Now excuse me while I go bone your best friend."

"Shit," said Bucky, and reached out a hand to stop him, which Tony evaded with a neat sidestep. "Stay the hell away from him or I'll slice your ears off, grill them, and feed them to you in a bun."

"Yeah?" said Tony over his shoulder, as he made for the door. "Try it. My new boyfriend can totally kick your ass."

***

"I really don't think you had to do this to poor Iron Man," said Steve in a tone of mild reproof, his pencil scritching as he roughed out a shape. "This vendetta the Masters of Evil have against him seems a little extreme. And I'm toning down some of the blood in this scene. Children might read it."

"It's not like he dies, or anything," said Bucky moodily from his sprawled position on his bed. He wasn't going to kill off the most popular character in his series, however much he might want to. Maybe he'd come up with a plotline that pitted Iron Man against the Black Widow. That would be fun.

Steve tilted his head, regarding his sheet of paper thoughtfully before passing it over to Bucky for inspection. "Does Captain America save him in the next issue?"

"The Wasp saves him. Captain America's got better things to do."

Bucky looked down at the paper. The pencilled page was good, the imagery not overly graphic, but not rose-tinted either. Iron Man's face was contorted in pain, and a scatter of smaller panels showed clenched hands, twisting muscles, machines burrowing into skin. He didn't look idealised. He looked real.

Yeah, Steve had a great deal more artistic integrity than Bucky did.

"Oh, that's OK then." Steve didn't sound in the least bit upset about not being the hero this time. He was probably just unselfishly happy that Jan got her turn in the spotlight. "Can Captain America visit him in the hospital afterwards?"

"Steve, you're so fucking weird," Bucky grumbled. "Yes, fine, it's in character. Captain America can bring him a big shiny balloon."

"He'd like that," said Steve.

Bucky wondered if one of them was losing their grip on reality. He felt like it was probably him. "So how's the rest of it coming?" he asked. "When do you think you'll have those pages done?"

Steve glanced down at his sketchbook, flicking back through his roughed-out ideas. "Probably tomorrow," he said, after a pause for consideration. "There's not enough time today. I asked Jan to come over in a minute to help me pick out something to wear. Tony's taking me to dinner again tonight."

On date nights Tony always made sure to pick Steve up from the dorm room, just so he could smirk infuriatingly at Bucky on the way out. The guy was an asshole.

Bucky dropped his head onto the covers with a groan, and pulled his pillow over the top of it. "You know," he muttered, "I actually preferred it when you were miserable."

"Jerk," Steve said fondly. His pencil started scritching again as he got back to work, humming happily as he drew.