Of all the things in his recovery that Bucky has embraced about modern life--the food, the cars, the gadgets, the conveniences, the fashions--it's the way he'd rebelled against gender expectations that Steve found the most charming. He'd slipped into this time with an ease and grace Steve could never imagine for himself. It was impossible to deny that modern life could be weird for both of them ("Is it wrong to say I miss hats?" he'd asked once, wistful, and Steve had responded with, "If I wore suspenders now I'd look like a hipster douche"), but overall, now that Bucky was here, Steve liked living in the 21st century, and he especially liked watching Bucky living in the 21st century, messing with everyone's expectations on his journey to find out who he was here and now.
The first time Steve noticed it, Bucky had been wearing a pair of Captain America underpants that were incredibly snug. Not that Steve minded, because holy crap did they hug his perfect little ass, but he'd asked, after he'd stopped laughing, why they were so tight and Bucky'd shrugged, plopping down on the couch and biting into an apple. "They don't make 'em in men's sizes," he said around a mouthful of fruit.
"Okay," Steve had said, confused. "Of course." They did look different from the kinds of boxer briefs they both usually wore, and Steve had just assumed Bucky bought them to fuck with him. Steve had heard Bucky complaining to Natasha that the company Ms. Potts had licensed to make Avengers merchandise made both men's and women's (and boys' and girls') sizes for all the clothing of the boys on the team, but they made only women's sizes for her stuff, and he really wanted a Black Widow jacket that he'd seen online. But Steve hadn't really thought about it at the time; as soon as Bucky said that about the briefs, he drew the connection.
"They call them boyshorts," Bucky said as if that answered Steve's unspoken question. "Wanna come here and take 'em off me?"
"Tempting. But we gotta be at that, uh, briefing soon. So maybe later."
Bucky laughed at his confused face. "I found them online, and thought you might get a kick out of them. This pattern doesn't come in men's. But I bought some guys' stuff too--stars and stripes, one where your shield is basically right on top of my dick," he said, winking. "I don't know why it always has to be only-in-men's this or only-for-women's that. Why can't they make everything for both shapes?" Steve didn't have a good answer for that; he'd never really figured out why, after a couple decades where so many people had rejected the traditional conformist models, Americans had gone back to following those hard lines. "Plus they make the ladies' versions cost more," he said, brows drawing down in a scowl at the injustice.
Bucky'd been rejecting everyone's expectations about him since he'd come back to Steve, anyway, so it didn't seem that much more of a stretch for him to say fuck your gendered marketing with his choices. There wasn't much he liked more than to pad around the apartment in his fuzzy Bucky Bear slippers (bought for him as a joke, which he'd completely ignored), pajama pants (he favored the pink and grey plaid), and a soft, drapey hoodie that looked like Elsa's gown in Frozen, curled into a sunbeam and reading, cup of tea by his side. The first time Steve had told the team that, they'd scoffed, because he was the former Winter Soldier, after all.
But they'd learned over time, with each new fashion experiment or social situation. When some guy with a satellite-sized freeze ray had iced over most of Bed-Stuy, Bucky had shown up for duty with Steve, tying his hair back, which he'd let grow long again, with a hot-pink elastic Nat had given him. Clint had peered at him out of one eye and said, "You know pink's a girl's color."
"Not in my day, bub," Bucky said, sliding the tube of the grenade launcher up, chambering the shell, and racking it back down as he stared coolly at Clint. "You know who started that pink is feminine shit? Hitler."
The itch to laugh finally won and Steve busted out in a guffaw. Clint backed away from Bucky very slowly.
Once, when they were getting coffee, Bucky'd noticed a male barista's hands and asked, "What's that?" The guy had given him a weary look, beginning the windup for what had to be a pitch he'd thrown dozens of times, explaining that men could wear nail polish too, but Bucky had just interrupted him quietly and said, "No, I mean, what polish is it?" The two of them had spent the next few minutes talking about nail colors, and Bucky made Steve stop at the Duane Reade near their place on the way home so he could buy some. It wasn't long before at least twenty different bottles cluttered up one of the bathroom shelves.
"It's the Fabulous Soldier!" Tony said the first time he saw Bucky with painted nails, and Bucky gave him one of his ball-shriveling smiles. But when Tony developed a flesh-colored sleeve for Bucky to use when he needed to hide his metal arm, he'd made the shape of nail beds so it would be easier for Bucky to apply polish. Steve had gotten used to creating the shape of nails for him on his left hand, he loved cuddling on the couch with Bucky and doing them for him, necking while the polish dried. And Steve adored the evenings after a rough day where they'd lie in bed as Steve rubbed Bucky's feet, painted his toes, and then they fucked each other senseless. Sometimes Steve even let Bucky put polish on his nails or take him for mani-pedis at the place Ms. Potts had introduced them to. Spa days were Bucky's favorite days, and they quickly became Steve's.
Bucky liked things to be soft and comfortable and plush and easy when he wasn't in tac gear, and Steve liked what Bucky liked. If that meant sitting in a fragrant bubble bath at the end of a long day, that was just fine by Steve.
Of all the team, it was Tony who seemed to have the most challenging time coming to terms with Bucky's disinterest in playing into stereotypes. At team movie night, Bucky wore a pair of leggings with a shield print on them and an oversized purple Hawkeye t-shirt, and Tony'd asked, as dry as the Sahara, "Are we rebelling against gender norms or just regular pants in general?" Bucky shrugged, the way he always did when someone questioned his choices.
"They were a present from me," Steve said proudly.
"None of this stuff makes you wonder about him?" Tony had asked, more with a kind of awe than maliciousness, because Bucky's lack of fucks given was rather breathtaking, even to Tony. Steve was absolutely living for the day when some stranger made a crack to Bucky about his appearance, just the same way Bucky's eyes had lit up at the prospect of Steve going off on any fella who did something socially unacceptable back in the day.
Steve held his hands up. "Hitler," he just said, and Tony laughed. "Seriously," he continued, watching Bucky with the rest of the team, thrilled at his happiness, his comfort, "I like it. He gets to make his own choices now. No one is ever gonna tell him what he can or cannot do again, and who's gonna be stupid enough to mess with him about not conforming?" If someone's definitions of masculinity excluded wearing skinny jeans or women's panties or nail polish or eyeliner, they could blow it out their ass.
"Point taken," Tony said. "Right in the eye. What are you gonna do when he shows up in a skirt, though?"
"Rejoice? I mean, have you seen his legs? They're so long and lean and gorgeous." His fingers curled and he breathed in sharply. Steve had no doubt that Tony would stop worrying about it eventually. Everyone else had, especially Thor, who had lots of great tales of gender- and body-swapping hijinks on Asgard that he told in brotherly support.
And sometimes, Bucky'd ask Steve to pretty up the red star on his arm, changing it into something else that made Bucky forget where he got it and how it used to make him feel. Back when the Howling Commandos had all gone to get matching tattoos, Bucky had lurched out of the chair at the first touch of the needle on his still-fragile skin, sweating, the terror of Zola's table written in his eyes. Now he had seventy years of that torture, and worse, piled on top. So Steve drew colored-pen tattoos of his own, cartoons or elaborate Far and Middle Eastern-inspired designs or sometimes just sparkly hearts or flowers. He was drawing on Bucky's arm that night as they lay in bed, a galaxy with planets and comets and lots of stars, none of them red.
"Brought you a present," Steve said, putting down the pens. He handed Bucky a pair of pale pink socks with a cute print on them--a slice of peanut-butter toast and a slice of jelly toast holding hands. "I'm assured they will fit a guy of your size." He grinned.
"Thank you," Bucky said and kissed him, long and lingering. "They're swell."
Steve still couldn't believe that he was here with Bucky in the modern age, with this soft, gentle warrior who'd survived a living hell and yet somehow found things in this world worth living for.
"You know what else I miss?" Bucky asked.
"You mean besides hats?" Steve said, and Bucky snorted.
"Dancing. I don't get why guys act as if liking to dance means you're gay."
"Let's go dancing, then," Steve said, and flipped Bucky onto his back, kissing down his chest, pushing his legs apart. "I know there are tons of places where we could dance our style. We'll be hipsters."
"Hey, careful, my polish isn't dry yet," Bucky said sharply, laughing.
So this was life in the modern age, Steve thought, and kissed Bucky with everything he had. There were some trade-offs, sure, and things they both missed. But they were together, openly a couple, in a bed covered in silky sheets high above the New York skyline, and Bucky Barnes was worried about his nail polish. Steve liked it here after all.