Peggy ambushes him at lunch the next day. She slips into the empty chair at the table as he blearily stares into his cup of coffee.
"You look tired," she says and offers him a piece of toast.
He grunts softly and shakes his head. He and Steve had done a lot of talking about what went wrong, what they should have done, what they'll do better next time.
"Are you all right?" Peggy reaches over and touches his wrist.
He sighs and sips his coffee. "I’m fine, Peggy. So is Steve."
"Let it go!" Howard sets his mug on the table and glares at her. "And leave Steve alone. He feels bad enough as it is."
"He should feel bad. Howard what he did was… unacceptable."
"What he did was a mistake. He apologized and we talked about it." He lets out a huff. "You don't get it, do you? He's not like you or Lord Falsworth or me. He's been thrown into this new situation and he's doing the best he can."
"Steve could have hurt you." She grips his fingers.
"No, no, he couldn't have." Howard pulls his hand away. "Trust me, Peggy. I've had people hurting me my whole life. I know the sort of personality it takes, the cruelty. He doesn’t have it. Leave him alone, both of you, or I'll make you sorry." He drains his cup of coffee, then gets up. "If you'll excuse me, I have to deal with a few things in my lab."
Howard lets out a growl of frustration and pulls out a new sheet of paper; these equations just aren't giving him the answer he needs. Maybe… No, but if he…
"Why does Dum Dum call you 'Buttercup'?"
"Jesus Christ!" Howard jumps slightly and stares at Barnes who somehow appeared at his side. "Make a little noise, will you?"
"Sorry." Barnes rolls his eyes. "So why does Dum Dum call you 'Buttercup'?"
Howard glares, though he's not really angry. "Because he wants the next weapon I build for him to have a bull's-eye on it. "
"Is that why Steve's shield looks like that?"
"No." They'd argued about it, but Steve had been adamant about the design. "No, that was sir—Steve's idea."
"Figures." Bucky shares an exasperated grin with Howard.
"What can I do for you, Barnes?" He reminds himself to be nice; Barnes is Steve's best friend.
"Dum Dum asked me to remind you that tonight's poker night. He wants you to bring some whiskey."
"Of course he does. Jeez, the guy has a hollow leg." Howard shakes his head. "Why didn't he come tell me himself?"
"I offered." Bucky leans against the table, arms crossed over his chest; Howard tenses. "Steve's upset and he won't tell me why."
"Oh." It probably shouldn't surprise Howard, but it does.
"He doesn't tell me much about what you two do. And, honestly, I don't wanna know." Bucky looks unsure. "But I wanna make sure he's okay."
Howard bites his bottom lip and thinks about how much he wants to tell Barnes. "We were… He…" He takes a deep breath. "We had drinks with Peggy and Falsworth and Steve made a mistake. It wasn't a big deal but you know Steve."
"Yeah, he's a worrier." Barnes narrows his eyes. "He didn't accidently hurt you, did he?"
"No." Just accidentally humiliated him. "I'm fine."
Barnes nods thoughtfully. "So what you're saying is that he needs to get over himself?"
Howard laughs softly. "Probably. It might help if you kept Peggy and Falsworth away from him, too."
Barnes grins. "I can do that."
"Alright. Tell Dugan and the rest of the guys that I'll see them tonight." He smiles hesitantly.
Barnes grins back at him and pats him on the shoulder. "Bring lots of money."
"You don't have to come to poker night," Steve says as Howard checks himself in the mirror one last time.
"I want to come. Dugan says it's fun. And I should get to know your men better." He hesitates. "Unless you don't want me there, sir."
"What? No, no, of course, I do." Steve comes up behind Howard and kisses his neck. "But it won't just be the Commandos."
"I know." Howard shivers and leans back against Steve. "Are you afraid I'm going to clean everyone out?"
Steve chuckles softly and nuzzles his ear. "Yeah, Howard, that's it."
"It's about time you got here, Cap," Jones says from his seat at the poker table. "You're always so polite when I take all your money. Not like these losers." Jones nudges Dernier who nudges him back and calls him an idiot in French.
Howard hangs back a little, clutching the bottle of whiskey close, eyeing the crowd in the room. All the Howling Commandos are here, as are a few men he's seen around base.
"Hey, Stark!" Dugan has a cigar clenched in his teeth; he gestures Howard over. "You bring me my booze?"
Howard rolls his eyes and walks over to Dugan. "I brought *my* booze to share."
"Crack it open. Someone brought beer, but it tastes like watered down piss."
"Open it yourself." He hands the bottle to Dugan and pulls up a chair. "Someone deal me in. I have money to win."
He's having a great time: drinking, laughing, and gambling. Every once in awhile Steve stands behind him, hands on his shoulders or running through the back of his hair, sending a thrill through him. No one looks at them funny, except for the few soldiers who aren't Commandos—and Howard doesn't give a damn what they think. At least he can pretend he doesn't.
He concentrates on the cards in his hand, but he's always aware of Steve. Can't help it. So when Steve leaves the room, he tenses a little, thinks about leaving to follow him.
That's when Barnes leans in and whispers in his ear. "Phillips called him away. He says stay, have fun. He'll be back in two shakes."
Howard murmurs a thanks and turns his attention back to his cards. When they reveal their cards, Howard grins and sets his on the table. "Full house, gentlemen." A few of the guys curse and look disgusted. Howard picks up the money, chuckling gleefully.
"You're cheating," says one of the men around the table. What is his name? Rice? Reese?
"No one likes a sore loser." Howard smirks.
"And no one likes a pansy Elite." Reese, it's definitely Reese, grabs Howard by the wrist, fingers digging into the tendons of his wrist, making him cry out. Of course, Reese doesn't hold Howard for long. Jones and Morita grab Reese by the arms while Dugan throws an empty beer bottle at his face. Reese lets go of Howard when it connects.
"Are you all right, Howard?" Dernier asks softly in French as Reese is dragged out of room.
Howard cradles his arm against his chest and nods. "Fine. I'm fine."
"Are you sure, Howard?" This from Falsworth—doesn't that just top it all.
"Yes, I'm sure!" He makes an irritated sound in the back of his throat. "Give me some goddamn breathing room!"
They back off, looking at Howard warily, and that's just when Steve reenters the room. Steve looks around, blinking. "What happened?" Steve sees him cradling his arm, and rushes to his side. "Howard?"
He shakes his head. "Someone thought I was cheating. Your boys took care of it."
Steve gently checks his wrist. "Nothing's broken."
"Good. I've got a lot of work this week." He's tired and upset and he wants to curl up against Steve's chest, but there's some part of him, a tiny part, that just won't let him.
Steve wraps an arm around his shoulders and pulls him close, strokes his hair, and kisses his forehead.
Howard tenses slightly, then gives in to the temptation, burying his face against Steve's chest. "It's not my fault I kept winning. Your men are horrible at poker."
"I'm worse." Steve laughs softly. "Thanks guys. We should probably break it up anyway. Phillips says we got a new assignment. We're leaving bright and early tomorrow."
Dugan and a few of the other guys groan and start cleaning up. Barnes hands Howard a stack of bills and slaps Steve on the shoulder. "Take him to bed, Steve."
"Bucky!" Steve sounds scandalized
Barnes laughs, low and throaty. "To sleep. You did say bright and early."
Steve grumbles and helps Howard to his feet. "Come on." When Steve gets them back to the room, he inspects Howard's wrist again and wraps it. Then he helps Howard get changed into his pajamas and they curl up in bed.
Howard sighs against Steve's shoulder and closes his eyes. "Your mission must be important."
"It is," Steve says. "We got intel that Zola's on the move. He'll be vulnerable then, easy to capture."
"Be careful, sir," he whispers.
Steve strokes his hair. "I always am."