“See, now that’s cute,” a voice says, somewhere distant in the room. “That’s the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen. Can I take a picture?”
An annoyed grunt. Something shifts beneath his head. “No. And be quiet. Bad enough you woke me up.”
“Hey, man, I just want to know where the coffee is. You don’t have to come with me.”
“‘M not leaving you in my kitchen unsupervised. You drink out of the carton.”
“In my own place, yeah—”
“Shhh. Hey, Buck?” A touch, light but lingering, ghosting along the curve of his shoulder. “You wanna let go of me?”
Arms tightening, face turning to press back into warmth. Emphatically no.
“Oh, damn,” says the first voice. “I take it back. I take it all back, that, that right there was so fucking cute I need insulin.”
“C’mon,” the second says, cajoling. “I’m gonna be right downstairs—”
“Yeah, Barnes, let him go before we all drop into a diabetic coma.”
“Please? I promise I’ll be right back,” and the warmth starts to ease away again. No.
“He doesn’t believe you.”
“I can see that, thanks. You wanna give me a hand here?”
“No way. If we play tug of war with the Winter Soldier, somebody’s going to lose an arm. And it’ll probably be me.”
A sigh. “Thanks a lot. Bucky, just— please, let me—”
“Wait, wait, I’ve got my phone, stay just like that—”
“Damn it, Sam— oh, thank God. See, that wasn’t so bad, right?”
“Aw, I didn’t get my picture.”
“Oh, can it.” The warmth is gone but the touch is there, brushing hair back from his face. “Come downstairs when you get up, okay, Buck?”
“Look at that fucking murderface. We need to get him a teddy bear or something.”
“God, if he feels half as bad as I do, it’s no wonder. Those Temperance League gals had the right idea.”
“Well, let me put it this way— if I drank what you did, I’d be halfway to Arlington in a pine box by now. You’re getting off easy.”
The door closes with a soft click, and Bucky jerks awake in an empty bed, fingers clenched in the pillow under his head.
He doesn’t move for a long, confused moment, blinking groggily at the opposite wall where bars of sunlight lance across the dresser and mirror. The room is quiet, just a whisper of sound from the central air, and the still-made sheets are soft under his body.
The room seems deserted, though he could have sworn someone was there a moment ago. The tail end of a dream, maybe. He doesn’t remember words, or faces— just the rapidly-dissipating feeling he was just talking to someone, had something important to say, and they wouldn’t fucking listen to him.
“Steve?” he says out loud, because that sounds like their kind of conversation. His voice comes out on a rusty croak and he’s abruptly aware of how uncomfortable he is, his boots gone but his clothes all on, the still-buttoned waist of his jeans digging painfully into his stomach. Piled onto that is a truly vengeful headache threatening pry his skull open like a C-Ration can of beans. There’s a bottle of water going tepid on the sheets next to his face, and he grabs for it gratefully because sweet Jesus Christ his mouth is dry. “Fuck,” he rasps, once he’s downed it all. “Steve?”
There’s another bottle of water on the nightstand, upright and half-empty. Bucky’s curled on the leftmost side of the bed, but the comforter is rucked up next to him, too, and when he reaches out they’re faintly warm. He lets his hand rest for a moment in the indent where another body might have been, and looks back at the door, listening to the murmur of far-off voices and the creak of floorboards under footsteps.
Then he groans and rolls off the bed, because he’s never had to piss so badly in his goddamn life.
When he shoulders the bathroom door open, Barton is asleep and shirtless in the partially-filled bathtub, an empty bottle of whiskey bobbing around his knees. He’s still wearing his party hat from the night before and there’s wet confetti stuck to his bare torso. Bucky glares down at him for a moment, then yanks the shower curtain closed and uses the toilet anyway. He’s washing his hands when a there’s a “Hrrngh,” from behind the striped fabric, followed by, “Fuck, what?”
Bucky looks over, and the curtain lifts to reveal Barton’s pale face. He looks accusingly at the flushing toilet and then at Bucky, whiskey bottle clutched to his chest like a child’s pacifier. “You’re fucking disgusting, you know that, Barnes?”
“Who passed out in whose bathroom, here?” Bucky says, and Christ, he sounds like he’s been chewing glass. He leans over to offer Barton a hand up anyway.
The man ignores him and uses the towel bar, staggering out of the tub. “Fucking. Disgusting,” he grumbles, scratching over his stomach in two circles. When he’s tired, he signs along with what he’s saying. “Wait, why are my pants wet?”
Bucky shrugs and cups his hands under the faucet, making sure it’s lukewarm before he splashes it on his face. The water feels deadened and strange on his left hand, like cool silk. “What’s the handle for it now? T-M-fuckin’-I, pal.”
Barton flips him off and jerks the curtain back, popping a few of the rings free. “Fuck you, there’s a foot of water in there. Someone tried to drown me.”
Bucky grabs the hand towel, gives him a quick once-over. “And shampoo you, too. Red-letter night.”
Barton touches his sticky hair and says, “Goddamnit.”
Bucky leaves him to his rinsing and steps into the upstairs hallway with the intention of getting out of his beery clothes and maybe crawling back in bed. His feet take him further, though, past his door and down the hall where it opens into the foyer. There’s a quiet but persistent part of him that demands reconnaissance on the voices downstairs, has already assessed and reassessed their upstairs hallway for blind spots and points of egress and discarded the idea of the wall sconce as a defensive weapon.
He needs to know where Steve is. He can go back to bed in a second, but first, he needs to see Steve.
The cracked door to Steve’s room catches Bucky’s eye, but when he pushes at it with light fingertips it’s Thor spread lengthwise across the mattress. Fully clothed and spread-eagle, his massive arms and legs dangle off the sides to the floor. Jane, whose party hat has migrated to the side of her face, is draped over his back like a kitten on a Clydesdale. As Bucky watches, Thor starts to inhale on a thunderous snore and she smacks him without opening her eyes. He coughs himself quiet, resettling with his mouth closed.
Bucky’s lips twitch, and he pulls the door closed again. He continues down the hallway, and at the stairs he pauses with a hand on the newel post.
"— asking you, please.”
“I don’t know, man. Isn’t this kind of wasted on your super-metabolism? We should really save the caffeine for people who need it.”
“Why do you even want any if it doesn’t work?”
“Because coffee, Sam, gimme that.”
Bucky closes his eyes. It’s enough, for now. He turns and pads noiselessly back to his room.
He has a sleeveless Yankees shirt that makes Steve scowl every time, so he grabs that and peels off everything else but his knives, kicking the offending jeans in the direction of the hamper. There are angry red indentations marching across his stomach like stitches, and the visual sparks against something— a flash of pain and confusion, disassociated from any time or place. It makes him dizzy, and he drags his eyes up and grits his teeth through the vertigo as he pulls on the shirt, left shoulder resettling with a quiet whir. He finds the soft sweatpants he wants on the floor next to the hamper, under the jeans, and as an afterthought he goes to the dresser and digs around for another pair.
“Hey, do you have anything I could— asshole,” Barton says, as Bucky steps out and chucks the balled-up pants in his face. “You’re such an asshole, holy shit.”
“Change quick, ‘m not saving you any cereal,” Bucky says, and starts down the stairs. His balance is shot to shit by the headache and the dregs of last night’s drunken stupor, and when he stumbles over a plate of melted ice cream someone’s left on the steps he nearly takes out the bannister. Barton pulls some kind of highwire move and vaults past him at the landing, but Bucky hits the first floor in time to body-check him into the entryway closet. The morning is looking up.
The kitchen is blisteringly bright when he gets there, the kind of searing yellow only seen on summer mornings after a storm. Cast in sharp chiaroscuro by the sun in the windows behind him, Steve is hunched over the kitchen table, cradling a coffee mug to his face with both hands and the air of a supplicant at the feet of St. Mary. Across from him, Natasha is folded over her arms and perusing the funnies from inches away, hair falling out of a messy bun. Next to her, Sam has dark circles under his eyes and glitter in his goatee. He’s giving Bucky a dark look over the lip of his own mug.
“You guys sound like a herd of elephants,” he complains as Barton elbows Bucky out of the way and makes a beeline for the cabinets. There’s glitter there, too; the counters are crowded with half-empty bottles of alcohol and disposable cups and plates, the sink and garbage can overflowing. There’s a banner with HAPPY 100TH, GRANDPA! in loud cartoon font hanging crookedly from the ceiling above the stove. “Aren’t you supposed to be spies or something?”
“Or something,” Natasha says, flicking an amused look at Bucky. “Ne delai iz mukhi slona.”
“K’chortu. ”Eyes half-shut against the brightness, Bucky feels his way along the wall towards the fridge, finding Steve’s shoulder and and slapping it a few times as he passes the table. “Hey, birthday boy. How you feeling?”
“Fuggoff,” Steve grumbles. His eyes are squeezed down to tiny slits of pain. “You did this to me.”
“Pretty sure Thor and Stark did this to you, and you let ‘em,” Bucky says. Barton shakes a brightly-colored cereal box in his direction with a quirked brow and Bucky shrugs at him, pulling the fridge open to grab the milk. “You want some water?”
Steve nods, lip poking out in a pout he’s denied using since age eight and a half, and Bucky starts tunneling through ketchup and pickle jars in search of a bottle.
Eight and a half, he muses while he digs; pretty specific. Did he know that before? Maybe, maybe not. It still sneaks up on him, this knowing-without-knowing thing— like always hearing the echo, never the sound.
Water in hand, Bucky shuts the fridge door with his hip and tugs open an adjacent drawer for spoons. Barton is already at the far end of the table with the bowls, pouring what looks like three-quarters of the Cap’n America Crunch Berries out for himself. Steve’s expression gets even surlier when he notices the box; last Sunday, Bucky had a fifteen-minute laughing fit in the breakfast aisle then insisted they buy it over Steve’s flustered protests, if only for the extremely strategic placement of two large berries on the cartoon Cap’n.
Natasha is in Bucky’s seat, so Bucky kicks at Steve’s ankle until the man makes an angry inarticulate noise and shuffles over on the bench. Their shoulders bump as Bucky sits and sets the water bottle in front of Steve, freeing up a hand just in time to catch the bowl Barton throws and fling a spoon in response.
“It’s nonstop Barnum and Bailey around here,” Sam mutters, leaning out of the way as he tugs the sports section out from under Natasha’s comics. “Every damn day and night.”
“Posers,” Barton says, rolling his spoon from knuckle to knuckle.
“Hand over Cap’s berries,” Bucky says, and feels more than sees Steve’s full-body eyeroll.
Barton steals the milk while Bucky dumps what’s left in the box into his bowl, powder the texture of sawdust and color of an American flag put through a woodchiper raining out along with the sugary puff cereal. The very last thing to fall out is a small plastic package with something bright red inside, and it settles on top of the mound like a cherry on a patriotic sundae.
“Ha,” he says, picking it up and shaking off the powder. “I got the prize.”
“That’s not fair,” Barton whines, and Bucky preemptively tucks it close to his chest to open, tipping the object into his metal palm. It’s a habit he didn’t notice until Steve pointed it out— he tends to hold things in his left hand if they’re new or strange.
“Hey, it’s a decoder ring,” Sam says, newspaper folded down. “Cool. Didn’t know they made those anymore.”
“Decoder ring?” Bucky touches it cautiously, a lettered blue disk attached to two curved plastic tines. There’s a slip of paper in the package too, telling him he can use the ring to “Help Cap’n America™ Fight Nazis By Decoding Secret Messages!”
“Just what you always wanted, right?” Steve says dryly, back to communing with his coffee mug. The water bottle sits half-empty on the table in front of him. “Ah, let Clint have it. Look at that face.”
“Yeah, let Clint have it,” Barton says, already reaching out.
“No, wait,” Bucky says, because he’s remembering something else. Something about a ring, and— “Steve. Your last birthday. One of your last birthdays, before, you know.”
“Yeah?” Steve blinks at him, then sets down his mug. “Whaddya got?”
Bucky frowns down at the ring, exploring the thought. There’s an art to this, to concentrating enough to make the memory surface but not dissolve, finding the exact right pinch-point that will let him pull it out like a line from deep water. “You were all small and mopey. Something about a dame.”
Natasha props her chin on her hand, mouth curved mockingly. “Do tell.”
Steve gives her a look, but turns back to Bucky with an encouraging nod. “Yeah? What else?”
And just like that, it comes: suffocating heat and wilted collars, ruffling Steve’s sweaty hair and getting swatted for his troubles. Bathtub gin and sunburn in a red stripe over Steve’s nose. Sneaking up the stairs to the roof, wood slats over tar, lying under the stars and the entire tenement’s laundry waving on lines strung between the chimneys.
Bucky picks up the ring and holds it between them. “Steven Grant Rogers,” he says solemnly. “Will you marry me?”
Barton chokes on his cereal. Natasha blinks, hand falling from her face. Sam sets his coffee down with a sharp clack and says, “If you two have been secretly engaged since the forties, I am not going to be surprised. You hear me? Not surprised. At all.”
And Steve, after one glorious moment of slack-jawed, blue-eyed shock, smacks a hand to his face and groans. “No, we aren’t— God, of all the nights, Buck, that one?”
“Caterwauling about being a bachelor forever, all ’cause some skirt told you to pound sand on your birthday,” Bucky says, grinning at him. This new memory is a good one: Steve, moaning and mauldin and so drunk he could barely stand, hanging onto Bucky’s shirt, letting his head fall against Bucky’s chest.
At that moment, Bucky had been enjoying the warm, slight weight of him, even with the boney press of his shoulder digging into his ribs. He’d been thinking about how easy it would be to kiss him, to just lean over and plant one on his red, red mouth. He doesn’t say that part out loud.
“Well, you’re sure as hell old now, Grandpa America,” he says instead. “Officially on the spinster shelf.”
“Marry me, Steve. Where’re you going to get another offer like this, huh? Tasha was your first kiss in seventy years.”
“She was not—” Steve sputters, already mottled pink at the ears and cheek. “You were not my first kiss in seventy years, stop telling people that!”
“Pics or it didn’t happen,” Natasha says dismissively.
Barton is still coughing hard but he manages to get out, “Wait, wait, what exactly did he say?”
Bucky smiles broadly in the face of Steve’s hot glare. “He made me promise, swear up and down that if we were still single fellas at thirty, we’d get married—”
“I was drunk!” Steve protests. “Men couldn’t get married then anyhow—“
“— and said we’d set up house and be confirmed bachelors together for the rest of our lives, away from women and their cruel, mysterious ways,” Bucky continues over him, waving the ring. “And here we are. Won’t you marry me, Steve? Make me the happiest man in the world, say you’ll be mine.”
“You’re a real laugh riot, you know that?” Steve says, folding his arms across his chest.
“C’mon, Steve, you’re breaking my heart,” Bucky says, sliding off the bench so he can get on one knee. Steve’s making the most beautifully pissed-off face right now, all furrowed eyebrows and jutting jaw. Bucky wants to draw it out, make it last; maybe frame it and hang it somewhere. He presents the ring again with a flourish. “Say yes. Do me the great honor of accepting my hand in holy matrimony, and all that.”
“Stevie,” Bucky replies in the same threatening tone. “What, don’t you love me?”
Steve’s eyes narrow. Bucky waggles the ring at him, and they narrow even more.
“Well, alright,” Bucky says with a gusty sigh, dropping his hand and gazing down at the flimsy little ring. “If you really won’t have me. I’ll cry myself to sleep tonight and every night after—”
“Fine,” Steve declares.
Bucky looks up, still grinning a little. “What?”
“I said fine,” Steve repeats, planting his feet on the floor and setting his hands on his knees. “I’ll marry you, James Buchanan Barnes.”
“You... will?” Bucky says. He what?
“What, you didn’t mean it?” Steve asks, a belligerent tilt to his chin. “You don’t want to be the happiest man on earth?”
And now Bucky narrows his own eyes. Oh, yeah? Two can definitely play at that game. “Give me your hand then, punk, I’m gonna put a ring on it.”
Natasha snorts, and Steve seems to get the reference, sticking his hand out like he’d rather punch Bucky in the face with it. Bucky grabs him, fingers curling into Steve’s warm palm, and stares right into his eyes as he slides the ring on.
It barely makes it past the first joint. Steve looks distinctly unimpressed.
“Well, knuckle rings are in these days,” Sam says, peering across the table at it.
“Don’t be dumb, we’re obviously getting it resized,” Barton says. “I know a guy.” His hands follow the words, tapping above his eyebrow and pinching out from his forehead.
“I’ve got my mom’s rings upstairs right now,” Steve says, still glaring down at Bucky. “If you’re serious about this.”
“I’m serious,” Bucky promises. He’s oddly, acutely aware of Steve’s hand in his, and the eye contact is getting intense, but it doesn’t feel right to let go or look away just yet. “This is just our engagement ring.”
“Oh, will it be a long engagement?” Natasha asks, leaning back and laying an arm across Barton’s chair. “When should we start dress shopping? It takes Clint forever to find shoes.”
The man scowls at her and Sam says, “How much longer can it get? It’s been overdue since, what, 1950?”
“He’s right. Let’s get married now,” Steve says.
“Now?” Bucky says despite himself.
“Right now,” Steve says determinedly, and turns to yell into the living room. “Tony!”
Pepper is the only one immediately visible, still fast asleep on the couch with Stark’s jacket from the night before draped over her. Bucky doesn’t see the man himself until Steve bellows again. “Hey, Tony!”
“I’m awake,” Stark says, popping up from the floor between the couch and the coffee table. His hair’s a flattened mess and his goatee is worse; Bucky’s seen guys come out of wind tunnels looking better kempt. “Oh, God, why am I awake. Is there coffee.”
“Bucky and I are getting married,” Steve announces, just like that, and Stark makes some kind of windmilling of course you are gesture with his arms as he gets to his feet.
“Great,” he says loudly, hand over his face as he stumbles blindly across the room and into the kitchen. “Congrats. Nifty keen. Coffee?”
“It’s on the counter, old man,” Sam says, pointing. “Mugs are in the— or you could drink straight from the pot, that’s absolutely a thing people do.”
Stark holds up a finger and continues drinking until the pot is down two inches of liquid, then lowers it with a lip-smacking sigh. “Okay. Okay, you may continue.”
“Bucky and I are getting married—”
“That would explain why he’s kneeling with your hand in his,” Stark muses, like he’s just noticed. “Sorry. Carry on.”
Steve’s fingers twitch, and Bucky lets him go under the guise of standing and stretching. The plates in his arm flex and settle uneasily; his hand feels cold. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says. He’ll be damned if this idiot out-bluffs him. “We’re getting married today.”
“That’s right. As soon as possible,” Steve says, sticking his chin out like he expects Bucky to argue. Ha, no.
“And Natasha is my best man,” Bucky adds, before Steve can think of it. He looks over his shoulder at her, and she flutters her eyelashes at him.
“Fine, Sam is mine,” Steve says testily.
“Nice,” Sam says, and high-fives Natasha without either of them looking.
“Typical,” Barton says, “just typical. Leave the bowman out of everything, you don’t need him—”
“You’re the ringbearer, you’re doing the rings,” Bucky tells him, annoyed. “You know a guy, remember?”
Barton perks up pathetically easy. “He does rush jobs, too, or at least he will for me. When’s the ceremony? Where’s the ceremony?”
“That’s why we need you, Tony,” Steve says, turning back to him. “You got married a couple months ago and—”
“Oh, you need Pepper,” Stark says, looking immensely relieved. “Pep! Hey, Pepper-pot, rise and shine, these crazy kids need your help—”
“I am sleeping, Tony,” Pepper says primly, tugging his jacket higher.
Stark, still carrying the coffee pot, starts flipping open cabinet doors while he’s talking. “No, Pep, listen, Cap and Barnes are getting married—”
“What?” Pepper’s eyes pop open. “Married?”
“Today,” Steve interjects, in case anyone had forgotten the plan in the intervening thirty seconds.
“Today!” Stark repeats, finding the mugs and pouring coffee into one. “Which is why they need you, Pep. You’re the best, most ruthless wedding planner I’ve ever seen.” He motions demandingly at Barton and the milk, which gets passed to him over Steve’s head.
“Thank you... I think,” Pepper says, sitting up and blinking sleepily. “You’re— you’re getting married? Really?”
This might be the part where one of them admits that no, they’re just fooling around, and Bucky gives Barton the damn toy ring and they all have a good laugh and things settle back into their everyday grooves. They’re supposed to be doing interview prep for Tuesday, and running courses in night infiltration. Stark’s got a new gadget he’s been itching to test on anyone who’ll hold still long enough, and Banner had mentioned it might be nice to get out of the city for a few hours.
Bucky steals a glance at Steve, sees him staring right back with an eyebrow arched in silent challenge.
“Yeah, we are. I’m the happiest man on earth,” Bucky coos, making his voice sticky-sweet. “Gonna marry the light of my life, my moon and stars.”
Steve gives Bucky a covert one-finger salute, but Pepper somehow doesn’t seem to catch the sarcasm. “Oh, James, Steve, that’s so— just, amazing! How wonderful, I had no idea. Were you planning this?”
Steve says, “For ages,” at the same time Bucky says, “Oh, always.”
It’s a complete lie until he says it out loud. Something in his temple twinges, and Bucky stills as the familiar disorientation sweeps up and over him.
Something about it rings true, and that’s… they were? Were they planning this?
No, that’s not right. Or not quite right. He has the feeling, insubstantial and unsupported, that they’d never brought it up again after that night. Just one silly, stupid moment between them, heads close together and his stomach sore with laughter, Steve kicking at him even though he was laughing too. One moment like a thousand others, words forgotten almost as soon as they’d been uttered.
But that’s not quite right, either. And when he tries to remember why, there’s nothing there to tell him. Nothing to pull at, nothing to touch. Just that gut feeling, that hunch, that glimmer like something moving through dark water.
Steve is saying, “Thinking about it for a while, just decided today,” and Bucky suddenly has no idea if he’s lying at all.
Pepper accepts it readily enough, and seems simultaneously thrilled and worried. “Oh, I’m so happy for you! And so suddenly? It usually takes months to plan an event like this. Tony and I took years.”
“That was not my fault,” Stark says. Under Pepper’s stare, he adds, “That was a little bit my fault. But yes, I have been informed by several sources that the date is set.” He lifts the sugar bowl from the counter and carries it and the coffee into the living room. Pepper already has her hand out for the mug when he passes it to her and ducks to kiss her temple.
“Then, your marriage license?” she asks, taking a quick sip. “Mm, did you get the sugar—? Thanks. There’s a twenty-four hour waiting period, so if you haven’t—”
“That will not be a problem,” Stark informs them with a wave of his hand. “JARVIS? Oh, right, no JARVIS in your tiny Brooklyn hovel, Pep, where’s my phone—“
“Also, it’s July 5th,” she continues, pulling his phone from a pocket of the jacket still draped over her shoulders and passing it into Stark’s grabby hands. She produces a sleek little phone of her own from somewhere while Stark starts typing with one hand and spooning sugar into her mug with the other. “It will be harder to get people on the line just after a major holiday. We need… oh, a guest list, a venue, a photographer, an officiant—”
“That’s fancy future talk for whoever’s performing the ceremony,” Stark adds, stirring briskly, still typing. Sometimes Bucky wonders why he hasn’t just implanted the thing in his damn head, but he knows better than to ask Stark something like that; it might inspire him. “And in your case, will probably be a justice of the peace. Most priests still won’t do the guy-guy thing.”
“Transportation we can do from the tower’s motor pool,” Pepper continues, flipping quickly through screens. “We have several nice—”
“Limo,” Natasha says immediately. “A big white stretch limousine with leather seats and a built-in bar. It’s a classic,” she explains to Steve, who’s squinting dubiously at her.
“For a high school prom, maybe,” Stark says, looking highly offended.
“Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Limo.”
“And then, um.” Pepper bites her lip and taps something. “Flowers, rings—”
“Clint’s on rings,” Sam says, reaching past Natasha to nudge him in the shoulder. “Aren’t you.”
“Yes I am,” Barton says, using one hand and a foot on the wall to flip neatly over the table. He lands on his toes and looks expectantly at Steve, ready to bounce off. “Where are they, exactly?”
“Uh,” Steve says.
The rings, those are important to Steve. Bucky knows it abstractly, saw the way Steve had sat and stared when the New York Historical Society had surrendered them and a few other things Steve had put in storage before crossing the Atlantic. Bucky can see the start of something like uncertainty in his eyes, and he suddenly doesn’t want to give him an excuse. Not yet. Not until Bucky remembers why it’s so important.
“Leave ‘em, Barton,” he says casually, leaning his hip on the table. “Go— go and get me a big fat diamond for this loser, the biggest one you can find.”
“Don’t you dare,” Steve says immediately, pointing a threatening finger at Barton even as his shoulders drop, telegraphing relief. “Get normal rings, Clint. No diamonds, I’ve read about those, it’s horrible what they do to the miners.”
“Boring,” Barton complains, but he makes for the stairs at a trot. “Give me two hours. Steve, I’m gonna need to borrow some clothes.”
“Knock yourself out,” Steve sighs.
“Use the black card!” Pepper calls after him, and when Steve starts to protest she adds, “We can always invoice it later. Rings, great, and now—”
“The party, Pep,” Stark says with big eyes. “The party’s the best part.”
“Not for everyone,” she says, giving him an amused look. “After the wedding, if we have a reception for the guests, we’ll need to hire a caterer. And depending on the size and site, we should consider entertainment. A DJ, or a band.”
“A caterer,” Bucky repeats. When did weddings get so complicated? You dressed up, you said your vows in the church, half the neighborhood brought casseroles. No catering needed. Then again, Pepper doesn’t look like the kind of woman who has time to make a casserole. Natasha he knows would laugh in his face.
“A band?” Steve asks weakly, because of course the first thing his phobic mind jumps to is dancing.
“Maybe something small,” Natasha says, looking back and forth between Bucky and Steve with badly suppressed schadenfreude. “Something here, or in the tower. It’ll be more intimate.”
“I think Bruce could help with the food, if you want it small,” Pepper says, frowning down at her list. “He’s such a good cook.”
“And a great chemist,” Stark says loyally. “He should do the cake.”
“I want something with five tiers,” Bucky says, just to make that muscle twitch in Steve’s jaw again. “Big old columns. A hundred white frosted roses and all those little pearls.”
Pepper pokes something on her screen and starts typing rapidly. “Five tiers is probably a job for a professional, and… okay, it’s a tight schedule, but Susan owes us for the blackcurrant disaster. Do you have a favorite flavor?”
“Lemon,” Bucky says, at the same time Steve says, “Blueberries.”
“Lemon and blueberries,” she says, and keeps typing while Steve and Bucky eye each other. “White roses. Wait, have you thought about what you’ll wear?”
“Their uniforms,” Sam says immediately, and Natasha bursts out laughing.
“Skintight leather and black Kevlar, that should be memorable.”
Sam waves her words away. “Hush up, I meant their dress blues. I know you’ve got a set in the closet upstairs, Steve.”
Bucky cocks his head. “I don’t.”
“I can fix that,” Stark says, setting the sugar bowl on the coffee table. “I can fix that in a millisecond. JARVIS, ping Rhodey for me.”
“We can do this,” Pepper says encouragingly. She’s looking at Steve and Bucky with an excited, luminous smile, and Bucky abruptly feels like a heel for leading her on. Not enough to back down, but they’ll have to do something nice for her after he beats the pants off Steve. “If you’re really set on today, each of us can take something. Someone will need to pick up the cake—”
“I’ll do it,” Sam says, hand shooting up like a star pupil. “And I’ll get the flowers. To quote the Amazing Hawkeye, I know a guy.”
“I’m picking the church,” Bucky tells Steve, “or whatever. You can do that entertainment thing.”
“No entertainment,” Steve declares.
“JARVIS can do the entertainment, too,” Stark corrects. “Right, dear?”
“Indubitably, sir,” comes the familiar, exasperated voice through his phone.
“I’ll get Bruce to send you a menu,” Natasha says, shark-smile of hers firmly in place. “Thor can be your party planner, how does that sound?”
“Hey, where is Bruce?” Stark says, craning his head around. “And Thor, and Dr. Foster?”
“Bruce is wishing he’d thought to grab a pillow or something,” comes a disembodied voice, “because the floor is very hard and very bad for Bruce’s back.” A hand appears on the back of the couch, the man attached to it slowly dragging the rest of his body up until his greying curls and bloodshot eyes are visible as well. “For the, ow, record, and weddings notwithstanding? You’re all completely crazy. And I charge thirty aspirin per plate, take it or leave it.”
“You gave your bed to Thor when Jane passed out in your birthday cake,” Natasha says to Steve. “Don’t you remember?”
“There was cake?” Steve says vaguely.
“This is why I don’t drink anything Thor brings, you know,” Sam says. “I need those brain cells.”
“Unlike the rest of us, I suppose,” Pepper says with a grimace, smoothing her rumpled dress. “This poor thing. I can’t remember the last time I spent the night on a couch.”
“Could be worse,” Bucky says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Barton was in the bathtub when I got up.”
“He was not,” Natasha says, sounding delighted.
“A bath sounds like, owww, a good idea,” Banner says, pulling himself very slowly and carefully upright. “Unless you’re getting married in the next thirty seconds, I’m going back to the tower now.”
“We meet at the tower,” Stark proclaims, brandishing his phone at Steve and Bucky. “I can’t plan anything out of this place, this is a museum, this is the Natural History annex with the animatronic cavemen. You have one hour. Uh, three hours. Rhodey is bringing the uniform up from DC and he’s refusing to take the suit.”
Natasha, who’s gotten to her feet and is already halfway across the room, suddenly turns and points at Bucky. “You. Don’t leave the apartment without me. Your best man has plans.”
“Great. Can’t wait,” Bucky says insincerely, and she disappears around the corner. “Shit.”
Steve is unsympathetic. “You picked her, Buck. I got the sane one.”
“Speaking of,” Sam starts, and laughs at Steve’s hunted look. “Nah, man, it’s too late to be planning wild bachelor parties or whatever. Just keep your phone on and close by. I’m going to send you pictures of what I find for the flowers, and you need to tell me what you like.”
“On the... phone,” Steve says, in a way that could be a question or statement. Sam nods anyway, because he’s kind like that. “Okay, got it.”
Stark helps Pepper up from the couch and points a finger at Bucky. “Keep us updated, kids. The old folks are going home to get a nap in.”
“Really, I’m so happy for you both,” Pepper adds as she lets herself be steered towards the foyer. Banner limps after them, scrubbing a hand through his messy hair. “Congratulations!”
“Guess that’s my cue, too,” Sam says, rising. “Steve, seriously, phone.”
And in less than a minute their kitchen is empty, just soggy bowls of cereal and the two of them staring at each other. Steve looks a little shellshocked, but mulish. Bucky’s not about to fold either.
“We’re getting married,” he says. “I’m going to go find a priest or a justice or whatever and we’re doing it.”
Steve opens his mouth. Closes it in a tight line, and something in Bucky’s chest clenches.
“You got something to say to me?” he asks, angling his body to face Steve more squarely.
Stupidly, he hopes the answer is no. He hopes it’s no, and maybe they can go on like this a little longer. At least until Bucky knows why, like a tattered letter in his pocket, these things feel so damn familiar: the war is over, a sunny room in Brooklyn, his ring on Steve’s finger.
“Yeah, I got something to say to you,” Steve says, looking up, and Bucky tenses. “I’ve got plenty, starting with you proposing to me in a goddamn Yankees shirt. The Yankees, Buck.”
“That’s it? You know what, you need to let it go,” Bucky says, and he’s relieved, why is he so relieved, by the habitual argument. “The Dodgers are gone, Steve, and the Mets are terrible. There are other, better teams to hate now.”
“Ah, shut up,” Steve says. He slides off the bench and takes his bottle of water with him, knocking Bucky’s shoulder with his as he passes. “I’ve gotta get washed up, because apparently, I’m getting married today.”
“Yeah, you are,” Bucky says to his back, and swallows against everything else that wants to spill out after it.
Memories are thorny, splintering, dangerous things.
Bucky doesn’t recall having much of an opinion on them, before. It’s not a thing people generally have to worry about, whether a color or sound or smell is going to send them tumbling into a razor-edged pit with no handholds or bottom, built entirely from their own mind. Most people are spared the kind of experiences that make memories like his. There’s shit Bucky doesn’t want to remember because it’s ugly, and there are things that will pull him under and drown him, memories he’ll surface from only hours later under the bed or behind the couch, shaking and nauseous.
This is different.
He knew. He knows, alright? He knows that he’s... that he just is, and he has been for a long time, at a distance that was never quite closed because Steve isn’t. Never was. Steve is Steve, and Bucky is not the man he remembers, and they’ve never— Steve has never said anything like he knows how Bucky feels.
And Bucky has never needed him to, has never needed all the pieces. Never needed to know the why or how. He didn’t care because he didn’t have to care, because Steve isn’t going anywhere. The sun rises in the east, the grass is green, and Steve is going to be there ’til the fucking end of the fucking line.
This is different. This is, potentially, the foundation of everything Bucky has built since the Potomac shifting, making what should be the most familiar geography of all strange and new: Bucky and Steve, Steve and Bucky. The memories he thought were the most solid of anything he has are suddenly just as suspect as the rest, and he hates it. Hates it, and at the same time…
“This is stupid,” Bucky says, opening another internet-window on Steve’s pad computer. He has twelve or thirteen open already, churches and banquet halls and gardens all around the city.
“The stupidest,” Natasha agrees from behind him, followed by another careful snip. They’re speaking Russian, because it’s easier sometimes. Bucky ignores the flat memory of rubber in his mouth and slouches in his chair, dragged into the bathroom from the bedroom. “If you leave Steve at the altar after all this work,” she continues, “I’m not the only one who’s going to want to hunt you down.”
“No, I mean, have people really gotten married in a public toilet?” Bucky says, scrolling down through the article. “That’s bizarre, right? That’s not a thing normal people do nowadays?”
“Setting in motion an entire wedding when they have no intention of getting married is also not a thing normal people do,” she says. “I know it can be confusing sometimes.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bucky mutters, clicking on another link, and Natasha tugs on the lock of hair she’s holding. “Ow!”
“What?” Bucky’s facing the mirror, so he can glower at her reflection and she can smile lazily back.
“Normally, I’d enjoy watching every second of this trainwreck,” she says. “You’re an ass and Steve’s stubborn as a Cossack, so I imagine by this time tomorrow the two of you would be legally married in the state of New York and insisting it’s exactly what you meant to do.”
“But,” she says, and drops her eyes to the scissors in her hand. Her fingers thread through his hair, gentle. “What else did you remember?”
He doesn’t ask her how she knows. “Nothing,” he says. “Not a damn thing.”
She makes a noncommittal noise in her throat, and the snipping starts again.
“I just… there’s something about this I’m not remembering.”
“Ah,” she says. “One of those.”
“Got any tips?” he asks, bitter.
Natasha’s smile is dark, and aimed inward. “None guaranteed to work. Want to talk about it?”
“No,” he says sullenly, and she pulls at his hair again. “Stop that. I don’t want to walk down the aisle with a bald spot.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Tony is probably sewing a matching veil as we… James?”
“A veil,” he mumbles, staring blindly past the sink. Mrs. Rogers’ veil was neatly folded in a hatbox under her bed, yellowed and layered with dry crumbling springs of lavender. It looked like it should be soft but the tulle was rough and caught on his callouses and why is he remembering this.
“James.” Hands on his shoulders, and when he refocuses Natasha looks worried.
“Something else happened,” he says, more to himself than her. “Can’t have been much, or Steve would have said something.”
“Unless he thought it would somehow damage your friendship or impede your recovery,” she says neutrally.
She’s right, of course. Damn it all to hell.
They’re quiet for a time, and Bucky eventually refocuses on the computer screen. One result has kept popping up, no matter what combination of wedding and venue and New York he types in. “We’ve been looking at all these fancy places, but what about City Hall? They still do the civil marriages, right?”
In the mirror, Natasha’s lips quirk. “It’ll be packed. Steve is fairly recognizable, and if you add Stark and the rest of us there’s no way you’ll be overlooked.”
“Let’s just— look, it says here they’re open until four on weekdays,” Bucky says, glancing at the time. “It’s eleven now. We can make it.”
“Assuming Stark can circumvent the paperwork, Rhodes gets the uniforms, Clint gets the rings, and you don’t get cold feet.” She says it like she’s teasing, but she’s watching him again.
“I’m not going to—” he starts, frustrated. “Look, something will happen. Someone will invade the city or steal the moon or something else completely nuts, the Avengers will assemble, and when we win we’ll eat the damn cake and laugh about it. They’ll forget about it. Steve’ll forget about it.”
“And what will you do if he doesn’t?” Natasha asks, softly.
A soft chime saves him from having to answer, and a notification appears on the pad’s screen. Bucky prods it with a fingertip, and it’s mail from Pepper. She’s attached paperwork for them to sign. Their judicial waiver, whatever that is, will have to be obtained from City Hall. Also, have they chosen a venue yet?
Let’s just do it all at City Hall, Bucky writes back, pecking at the virtual letters. Easier that way. It closes at 4, let’s go by 3. He hits the button to reply to everyone, because he sees Sam and Steve on the addressee line.
Stark, who is not on the addressee line, replies, city hall, 3, got it. bad luck if groom sees wedding dress, come to tower 1pm for suit.
“As if Steve isn’t going to be wearing the exact same thing,” Natasha says, reading over his shoulder. “Do you want this to be a surprise too?”
She ruffles what’s left of his hair, and Bucky looks up and silently evaluates his reflection. It’s a cut he remembers seeing in so many reels from the war, but it looks strange and new on the man in the mirror. The bones of his face are suddenly more prominent, hollows of his cheeks deeper. He looks tired. He looks young. He doesn’t know if he likes it, or what Steve will think when he sees it.
“Take a shower,” Natasha advises, rising from her seat on the bathtub rim. “Shave some of that stubble, slap on some aftershave, whatever men do to feel pretty. I’ll be waiting outside.”
“Thanks, Tasha,” Bucky says quietly, and she gives him a flippant little wave before pulling the door closed behind her.
Bucky takes as long a shower as he dares with Natasha waiting, and stares at himself in the mirror afterwards for longer. This hair curls. He remembers being annoyed that it does, too late, just like he’d forgotten he hated butterscotch until he was spitting into a garbage can outside the ice cream place on Vanderbilt. Steve, that asshole, watched it all and then collapsed across a park bench in hysterical laughter. Bucky reaches for the flat comb and tin of Brylcreem that sits on the counter, and his hand closes on a rounded orange stick with gleaming slats of metal at the head instead.
He stares at it, nonplussed, and it takes an embarrassingly long time before he recognizes the safety razor, and that he has no memories of using Brylcreem after Nantes in ’43. For all he knows, they don’t even sell it anymore. Men do it differently these days, spikes instead of flat and smooth. He runs his fingers through his wet hair experimentally, and doesn’t like the spikes any more than the curl. The cut was a mistake. He already feels off-balance, doesn’t know why he keeps pushing himself—
Yes, he does.
Bucky takes one deep breath, and gets out the shaving cream. That at least hasn’t changed so much. He runs the water in the sink hot enough to scald, and guides the razor against the grain until his whole face feels unnaturally bare.
Now he looks all of fifteen. For Christ’s sake.
He splashes the last of the foam away and pats his cheeks dry. He has to look away from the mirror; this hair, this face, they don’t match the body attached to it. The body that’s broader, bulkier. Scarred. Water condenses and runs along the metal of his arm, down to his fingertips to drip on the floor, and he rubs a towel along the stylistic suggestion of a tricep while he stares at nothing.
On the counter, the pad chimes. Bucky tries to tap it with a metal finger, scowls, and switches hands.
Sam has sent a picture of himself holding a bouquet that looks like a flock of tropical birds in flight, and Steve has broken with his own stubbornly-kept texting etiquette to write without salutation, PUT THOSE AWAY IMMEDIATELY THEY ARE HIDEOUS.
He’s also written back to Bucky.
City hall? You sure know how to make a girl feel special.
A few minutes after, The water’s been running for half an hour, did you drown?
Then, twenty minutes after the other two, Having second thoughts?
It’s a private message, no other names attached. Nothing before or after it. It’s an out, if Bucky wants to take it.
Instead he painstakingly types out, Not a chance. Get your spats on, Stevie, and drops the pad on the counter with a clatter.
When he steps out of the bathroom in a towel, Natasha is stretched out on the bed with a neatly-folded pile of clothes next to her. She looks up at him and smiles, showing all her teeth. “Ready to—?”
There’s a very loud bang from outside the bedroom, followed by a series of rattling thumps and voices raised in alarm. Natasha is on the floor with her PSM aimed over the bed and Bucky has a knife in each hand when above the general clamor comes, “STEVEN! WHAT A JOYOUS DAY WE HAVE UNWITTINGLY WOKEN TO! ALLOW ME TO OFFER MY MOST SINCERE CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR IMPENDING UNION.”
There’s more, but someone persuades Thor to moderate his tone and the rest of his speech is inaudible except for “VIRILE BEAST,” “FEAST AS THEY DO IN THE GOLDEN HALLS OF VALHALLA,” and “DEPART AT ONCE.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Natasha says, straightening from her defensive crouch.
Another round of thumping and Steve yelps, “Wait a second, I don’t—”
Bucky is halfway down the stairs when Thor blasts out of their front door with a joyful, “We shall return!” to Jane, who accepts the smacking kiss he lands near her lips with a sleepy smile and steps well clear of his swinging hammer.
Steve, tucked under one bulging arm, manages to get out, “Thor, put me daaaaa—” before they’re disappearing into the cloudless sky, Thor’s red jacket flapping in the breeze.
Bucky comes to a stop in the middle of their foyer, staring out the open door. Across the street, Mrs. Bickle and her horrible excuse for a dog are staring as well. Bucky glares at them on principle.
“Before you go charging out to rescue your moon and stars,” Natasha says from behind him, dry as Mosul in July, “might I suggest some clothes? You’re scandalizing Jane. And the neighbors.”
Jane, drinking out of Pepper’s half-finished mug, flicks her eyes up and down Bucky’s body and says, “Eh.”
She wanders off towards the kitchen and Natasha slowly collapses into a ball of snorting laughter on the stairs. Bucky is left to scowl after her, then step forward and slam the door closed on Mrs. Bickles’ affronted face.
It’s not that Bucky doesn’t trust Thor, but something sharp and grinding like a stripped gear in his stomach eases when Sam texts sorry no flowers just got kidnapped by a thunder god to the group. Natasha seems to think this is all incredibly funny, if the smirk under her broad-brimmed hat is any indication.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” she says breezily, slinking down the brick steps. “What trouble could they possibly get up to?”
“You’re not helping,” Bucky grumbles, locking the door and turning to the keypad to arm the alarm, the biometric alarm, and the .22 caliber turret mounts Steve doesn’t know they have.
“I wasn’t joking about the dress shopping, you know,” she says when he joins her on the sidewalk, linking their arms. The day is hot, the sun leaching away the colors until Brooklyn looks like an overexposed photograph of itself. The heat feels good on his arm. “We have some time before we have to be downtown. Let’s have lunch, and find me something to wear.”
“I thought my best man was supposed to take me drinking,” Bucky says, wishing desperately for sunglasses. In the rush of everything, he’d almost forgotten how hungover he was. Natasha catches him squinting and pulls off hers, holding them up. Bucky sighs, but takes them; they have horned rims and tiny tasteful rhinestones all over the frame.
“We did enough drinking last night,” Natasha says, steering them towards her car. It’s red and low-slung, and looks menacing even parked. “Remind me to have more water the next time I try anything designed for gods and supersoldiers.”
While she seems to have accepted that he doesn’t want to talk, that doesn’t mean she’s nice about it. They drive in on the Williamsburg Bridge with an eighties pop station blaring and park in front of a row boutique shops with pretentious names and cramped aisles. She looks at and discards a hundred different sundresses, each with their own inevitable, unsalvageable drawbacks— too short, too long, too heavy, too light, too expensive, not nearly expensive enough. She drags him up and down several streets and they drift through Greenwich into Soho, then west towards the water. The heat downtown is a hellish brick-oven blaze, the sun reflecting back from every imaginable surface. By the fifth store and twelfth dress Bucky’s feeling every beat of his pulse like a hammer to the temple and he’s almost praying for that alien invasion, so he’d at least have an excuse to stab something.
Adding to his misery, Natasha keeps looking at her phone and laughing. He’s not about to give her the satisfaction of asking what’s going on, but his eyes slide to the phone involuntarily whenever it buzzes, and of course she notices. She notices everything.
“Oh, okay, you need to see this one,” Natasha says over lemonade and sandwiches outside some pretentious little bistro. She pushes the phone across the table at him and takes an enormous bite of turkey club. “Jus’ ‘ook at tha’.”
It’s a photo, most of the frame dominated by trees and an impressive view out over open forest. Sam is in the foreground, grinning and posed in that modern style where it’s clear he’s holding the camera himself, a little ways above his head. Behind him, Thor is striding off into the woods, arms flung wide to encompass the whole of the scene before them. Steve is trailing along behind and glaring over his shoulder at Sam and the camera. If looks could maim, they’d both be in pieces.
“What the— where the hell are they?” Bucky says, bringing it up to his face and shading his eyes. “Are those mountains?”
“Catskills, I’d guess,” Natasha says, nipping the phone neatly out of his grip. “Now, let’s try around the corner. I think I saw something adorable through that first window.”
Bucky wants to argue, wants to grab the phone back and call Steve and demand to know what the hell he’s doing, but Natasha’s watching him expectantly, eyebrows raised.
“Sam better remember the damn cake,” he says instead, and stands.
Nothing happens, and nothing continues to happen. No aliens, no more messages from Sam, nothing. Bucky doesn’t see so much as a purse-snatch, and eventually his headache dissipates, replaced by the normal pains of a New York summer: the technicolor press of humanity, the scream of traffic, the stewed-garbage stink. Even the oppressive heat becomes a background note. Natasha buys him a milkshake and fans him with a menu when he complains one too many times, and he pretends not to enjoy it as the last of his hangover seeps away.
The dress she finally settles on is a soft yellow and, thinking back over their route through the stores, was probably picked out within the first few minutes of their arrival in Soho. Natasha notices his sour expression and laughs, doing a little twirl in front of the mirrors. “What? You don’t like it?”
“It looks amazing,” Bucky says grudgingly, lifting her purse from his lap. “Can we go now? We’re gonna be late for Stark’s thing.”
“Your dress-fitting,” she says, singsong. “Can’t be late for that.”
She wears the dress outside, and dazzles a few pedestrians so thoroughly they almost walk into traffic. They drive to the tower with the windows open, and when Natasha parks the car in the underground garage her hair is a wild tangle of red. Bucky doesn’t have that problem anymore, he realizes, and rubs a self-conscious hand over the back of his neck as they walk into the elevator to the penthouse.
“You’re going to have to speak to him at some point,” Natasha says idly, somewhere between floors eighty and ninety.
“Yeah,” Bucky says.
“Ideally before the Avengers assemble to witness your nuptials.”
“Because that would be awkward, all of us watching you two play ultimate gay chicken.”
What the fuck is gay chicken.
“And, James?” she says, looking down at the hat in her hands. “Even if you don’t remember, Steve should know there’s something there. Just in case.”
She doesn’t spell it out, doesn’t have to. Bucky is well aware that certain memories have the power to shatter, that both of them have walked through that minefield with only blind faith to tell them there’s another side. “Yeah,” Bucky murmurs.
“Which means that you should tell him,” she says dryly.
“I got it, okay? Jesus,” Bucky mutters.
What can he really say to Steve, though? His head is full of shadowy maybes, pale lace and a summer night. If even he doesn’t know what’s in there, how can he expect Steve to tell him?
They’ve barely taken two steps into Stark’s enormous glass-and-steel foyer when Banner ambushes them, or comes as close as a man who moves with the mindfulness of a yogi can come to ambushing. He’s holding a handful of printed pages and has a determined gleam in his eye.
“Do you like lamb?” he demands.
“Hi, Bruce,” Natasha says. “How are you?”
Banner sighs and takes off his glasses to clean the lenses with his shirt. “Sorry. Sorry, Tony’s been driving me crazy. James, congratulations again on your— engagement and wedding, right? I think that’s what’s happening? Natasha, you look lovely.”
“Thank you,” she says, dimpling, and he smiles distractedly back at her.
“But the lamb,” he persists, pushing the glasses back up his nose with a forefinger. “If you don’t like it, we can do beef. It needs to be a red meat, though.”
“Lamb is fine,” Bucky says. He doesn’t think he’s ever had it, but they ate a lot of mutton as kids.
“And Thor wants to butcher an entire boar,” Banner says. “A boar, not a farm-raised pig. He’s out hunting for it right now, and he took Steve and Sam with him.”
Mountains explained, though the thought of Steve wrestling with a wild pig is simultaneously hilarious and extremely concerning. And who’s going to get the cake if Sam gets gored?
“Luckily you can make a curry out of pretty much anything,” Banner says, and sighs again.
Natasha pats Banner’s shoulder soothingly. “Do you need any help?”
“I have three sous-chefs— two trained at the Cordon Bleu and one as an astrophysicist— and a massive kitchen I didn’t know existed literally steps from my bedroom. JARVIS is ready to order anything we could possibly need and Thor is, apparently, bringing me a veritable cornucopia of dead animals. I’m set.”
“Whereas you,” Natasha says, giving Bucky a nudge, “have an appointment.”
“I’ll have a tasting menu ready by two,” Banner says, already looking far more stressed than is probably good for the structural integrity of the tower, and lets Natasha steer him away.
Bucky takes the stairs up to the second floor, then the third as the sound of Stark arguing with someone filters down from a room on the next level. The man is pacing around the sunken floor in concentric rings, circling a straight-backed man in uniform who watches him with the kind of fond exasperation Bucky’s only seen on Pepper.
“And if we can’t tailor the shoulders we should at least— Barnes.” He lunges for Bucky and latches onto his arm, and only untold hours of desensitization training stop him from ending up on the ground with a knife in his neck. “Finally! Rhodey got here twenty whole minutes ago, where have you— oh, nice haircut, very fifties. Forties. Whenever. The Cleavers approve. Come on, move— don’t make me get the boosters.”
Bucky allows himself to be pushed towards the center of the room, and can’t quite suppress a grimace of instinctual horror once he realizes the man waiting beside Stark’s ridiculous little couches with a garment bag is a colonel.
“Sir,” he says, coming to a stop and ignoring Stark’s attempts to pull him further. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”
“Are you kidding?” Stark demands, switching to hover around them like a particularly persistent fly. “There were manly tears, there were—”
“My sincerest congratulations to you both,” Colonel Rhodes interrupts, and offers the bag. It’s heavier than Bucky expects when he takes it. “Tony had very precise measurements, which I hope you offered willingly.”
“What are you implying? I design his uniforms!”
“You’d better try that on,” Rhodes says, ignoring him with ease. “I don’t want to make it all the way back to my plane and have this guy call me complaining about the drape of the placket or something.”
“Go change,” Stark says, flapping his hands imperiously. “And Rhodey, you can’t leave, there’s going to be a party—”
“Some of us have jobs, Tony.”
“It’s a matter of national security! Captain America is getting married—“
Bucky escapes, and ducks into the first room he finds. It happens to lead to a library with floor-to-twenty-foot-ceiling bookshelves and a ludicrous glass fireplace. The couches are fat and backless, and someone has left a half-assembled telescope propped up against the acres of window; he eyes the unobstructed glass, and goes behind a shelf to change.
The ‘dress blues’ are only partly blue, and definitely not the khaki green he didn’t realize he was expecting until he slides the zipper down. There’s a yellow stripe up the leg that looks borderline absurd, and the bag was so heavy because there’s a whole mess of ribbon, pins, and medals resting in the bottom. He doesn’t know what to do with those, so he leaves them there for the time being.
The trousers and jacket are well-tailored, the shirt new and crisp. There’s a feeling of satisfaction that bubbles up when he straightens his collar and sees the way the uniform hugs his shoulders and tapers at the waist. It hasn’t been a part of his reality for a while, but before— the Bucky from before liked clothes. Liked to dress well. It’s his satisfaction Bucky feels, and it’s as foreign as it is familiar.
“Damn, I look good,” Bucky tries. The quiet, sober delivery in an empty room lacks a little something, but it seems like the right thing to say.
Although his hands remember the recoil of every gun class on the market, they can’t seem knot a damn tie. Bucky’s gone at it for five solid minutes and about to leave it lying around his neck, but he stops and considers the mangled length.
“JARVIS,” he says to the air.
The mirror above the fireplace lights up with a looping movie of a man tying a Windsor knot. “A pleasure, Sargent Barnes,” JARVIS intones. “May I also offer my sincere congratulations on the occasion of your marriage? I wish you and Captain Rogers many happy years together.”
“Right,” Bucky says, squinting down at his fingers. “Wait, does it go—?”
“Under. Yes, just so.”
Bucky smoothes the tie down his chest and considers himself. “Anything else?”
“Sir, the medals?”
“Oh. Right.” He kind of remembers which bars go where. Maybe.
“I believe the correct configuration would be this,” JARVIS says, displaying it in bright color in the mirror, and Bucky squints at it.
“Yeah, okay. Keep that up there.”
The brass piece that holds the ribbon is finicky and hard to work with a metal hand, and Bucky is scowling down at it in frustration when JARVIS notes, “Sir, you have an incoming call.”
“Oh, thanks,” Bucky says distractedly, and jumps when Steve’s voice blares out from his pile of discarded clothes.
“Bucky? Bucky, where are you guys?”
The call has a tinny whistle in the background, like they’re up someplace high and the wind is blowing. Bucky reaches for his discarded pants, pulling his phone from the pocket. “We’re at the tower. You saw Stark’s message, right?”
“Well, stay there. Thor just got us banned from a national park, and we had to pay these fines and buy hunting permits and he’s still— I just don’t know how long it’ll be, and now Sam’s making noise like he wants to get those damn flowers after all, but I’ll come and—”
“Don’t,” Bucky says. “It’s bad luck.”
“What? What’s bad luck?”
Bucky tries to calm his breathing, hoping the sound doesn’t carry to the phone. His chest is tight and the glass-walled room is too small, and he doesn’t want Steve to know. “You seeing my wedding dress. Suit. Whatever.”
“So I’ll see you at City Hall,” Bucky gets out. “Three o’clock. Bye.”
Bucky waits, metal fingers slowly denting the phone as they tighten. He can hear the case start to groan and shift.
“You know that I,” Steve starts, “I, uh.”
“Pardon me, sir, but I don’t believe the Starkphone was built to withstand that amount of pressure,” JARVIS says.
“You know I won’t. I mean, if you want to—”
The phone makes a sad, very final fizzing noise and goes black as the glass screen fractures.
“Ah,” Bucky says. “Oops.”
“I am certain we can repair that,” JARVIS says delicately. “Would you like to receive calls through the house in the meantime, sir?”
Bucky slowly convinces his mechanical fingers to unclench, and the phone drops to the carpet in shards. “Not. Not for the next couple hours, okay?”
“Absolutely, sir,” JARVIS says, and goes quiet.
What exactly had Steve been trying to say, anyway? That he wouldn’t crow about it, if Bucky did back out? That he wouldn’t mind getting married, if Bucky wanted to?
God, he’d do it, wouldn’t he. He’d do it. He’d do any damn fool thing under the sun if he thought it was what Bucky wanted, that stupid—
Bucky focuses all his attention on the ribbon rack and doesn’t let himself think about it. He’s good, very good at compartmentalization when he needs to be, and he doesn’t think about it once as he assembles and slides all the bars in place and folds his street clothes into a neat pile to carry with him. He’s in the hallway and his hems are a very regulation half-inch from the floor and he’s not imagining Steve in this same uniform, with his cover under his arm and his shoulders set in a straight, determined line as he waits at the altar.
There’s that twinge again, that sense of right-not-right. Bucky pauses, staring sightlessly out at the New York skyline as he gropes after the thought, trying to make it fit with what he knows. What he thinks he knows.
Steve never stood at an altar for him, that he’s sure of, and he’s pretty sure he’d remember if he’d ever done the same.
If he’d ever…
There’s a picture in his mind’s eye, old Father MacNamara and his Irish-laced Latin and the dim flicker of candles in a dark church. It’s so strong he smells the myrrh and beeswax burning, feels the unforgiving solidity of the wooden kneeler and the warm press of Steve’s shoulder against his.
Esto eis, Domine, turris fortitudinis.
“A facie inimici,” Bucky whispers, “fuck, what.”
It doesn’t mean anything. They must have gone to a hundred weddings, let alone masses in that cramped little church, it doesn’t mean they’d…
They couldn’t have.
No, he thinks with a sudden viciousness, and forces himself to start moving again. No, and no again. Something like that, he’d know. He’d know and if he didn’t Steve would have told him, and he can’t start doubting Steve now. Steve is, he’s, he’s just—
Whatever he is, he’s never been Bucky’s. Not on that roof in Brooklyn, not in the cold starved forests of Europe, and not now. Not even now. Not like that.
When Bucky finds his way back to the room with the sunken couches, Stark turns to look at him and his eyes go wide.
“Well,” he says, and stops.
“What?” Bucky asks belligerently. He’s in even less of a mood to deal with Stark now.
“Oh. Nothing. Wait a second, shoes, I forgot shoes, Rhodey, the man can’t go to City Hall in combat boots. He’s a size eleven, JARVIS, do we have any—?”
“What Tony is trying to say is that you look good,” Rhodes says, with a sidelong glance at Stark.
“Don’t mention it,” the man says easily. “You get everything on okay?”
“This, ah. This is a lot more ribbon than I remember,” Bucky says, running a steel thumb over the bright brass and rows of stitching, reds and greens and blues.
“A few things were awarded, you know,” Stark says, bouncing up to tug at the shoulders and creases. “Posthumously. Hey, Rhodey, you’re the greatest, have I mentioned you’re the greatest?”
“Always nice to hear again,” Colonel Rhodes says with a smile.
“I mean, Barnes looks almost—“
“Tony,” the colonel sighs.
“What? I was just going to say he looks—“
“Tony,” Pepper says, poking her head in the room.
“Why is everyone assuming I’m going say something bad?” Tony demands. “I’m nice, I am a nice person, I was just—“
“No, Tony, right now,” Pepper says urgently, motioning him up. “Bruce ran out of roasting pans and he’s getting a little frustrated.”
“Shit,” Tony says, much less cheerfully, and jogs quickly from the room. “Rhodey, do not let Barnes wrinkle those.”
Their running footsteps fade away, and Bucky is left sharing awkward silence with a superior officer fifty years his junior.
“Know any card games?” Colonel Rhodes finally asks, nodding at a glass coffee table.
“None you do, too,” Bucky says from experience. “Teach me one? Sir?”
“That is so— wrong, so wrong,” Rhodes says with a deeply pained look. “Call me Rhodey. Please.”
Half an hour and five terrible hands later, the bakery sends a picture of the cake to Pepper, who forwards it to everyone.
“Good God,” Rhodes says, passing his cell to Bucky and leaning in to look with him. Probably sneaking a peek at Bucky’s cards, too, the cheating bastard. The Avengers are lousy with them. “Look at that monstrosity. You could eat for weeks on the first layer alone.”
“Steve’s gonna blow a gasket,” Bucky predicts.
“Hey, you do smile,” Rhodes says. “Now let’s see if you can play gin rummy any better than you can Texas hold ‘em.”
“Ah, fuck you.”
“That’s more like it.”
One in the afternoon becomes two, and at some point Natasha slips into the room to say, “Thor found a butcher in Greenpoint willing to sell him whole ostriches,” then demands to be dealt into their next round.
“Greenpoint’s close,” Bucky observes, very casually he thinks. “They’ll come here after?”
“Pepper has them running other errands,” Natasha says disinterestedly, though she pokes him pointedly in the calf with a bare foot. “They won’t be back for a while.”
She slides him a sidelong look. “Steve’s been trying to get a hold of you, you know.”
“Mm,” Bucky says noncommittally.
“Left about ten voicemails on my phone alone.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says. “He had a message for you.”
Bucky risks a glance up at her, and sees she’s smiling. Never a good sign.
“He says we’ll be eating like 1944.”
“Oh, God,” Bucky says reflexively, “the fucking cow. No cows.”
“I don’t think Thor got that memo,” Natasha says. “Oh.” She makes a moue of consideration and splays her cards across the table. “Gin, I think.”
“Oh, you did not,” Rhodes says.
“So I’m trying to get three cards in order?” Jane says, for the third or fourth time, and Bucky takes another bite of aloo gobi while Banner explains the rules again. The man’s apron is streaked with bright yellow and red-orange, and there’s a broad green smudge on his forehead that all of them have neglected to mention for reasons of self-preservation as well as comedy.
“This one is good,” Bucky decides, setting the small dish aside. They’re in the kitchen now, sitting at a big table in a corner next to the walk-in freezers. “That brown one tastes like trenchfoot, though.”
Everyone at the table subtly braces for impact, but Banner just snorts. “I guess you’d know,” he says ruefully. “All right, next!”
The Cordon Bleu sous-chefs scurry back to their bubbling pots and hissing pans, and Jane says, “But what if I have seven?”
Pepper sighs and drops her hand on the table. “Then you’ve won, dear.”
“Well done Jane,” Natasha says approvingly. The only things she has in the pot are boot knives, so she can afford to be magnanimous, but that’s Bucky’s favorite karambit getting swept up with Rhodey’s pen, Bruce’s glasses and Pepper’s diamond earrings.
“Incoming from the field team,” Stark says, spinning his pad computer on one beveled corner to face them. “I’m surprised we don’t have a nickname for this pose yet. Righteous Thunder? Man with A Plan? Anyone?”
Bucky knows the one he’s talking about, and Steve is displaying a particularly stiff-backed version in the photograph on Stark’s machine. He and Thor and Sam must be back at the house, because he’s shined up to the nines in his own dress uniform, brocade and medals and his own stupid yellow stripes. He’s standing at almost rigid attention, squared shoulders and raised chin, and he looks—
God, he looks good.
“He kind of looks like a fancy Ken doll,” Jane says. “Um. Sorry, did I say that out loud? He looks very nice.”
“He says to tell you he has his spats on,” Stark says to Bucky. “I’m going to be very generous and assume that’s military jargon and not some kind of grandfatherly support garment.”
“It’s a shoe thing,” Bucky mutters, still staring at Steve’s face. He’s got his hair combed back and his gonna-do-it mug on, the kind of look that got them into trouble everywhere they went. It’s terrible. It’s making his breath stop up in his throat and his hands clench into fists under the table.
He might have gone on staring forever, but Stark spins the computer back around and starts typing again. “All in favor of Righteous Thunder, raise your hands. No? What about Studly Do-Right? Oh, wait, he was Canadian—”
Jane tells Rhodes to deal again already and the room settles back into comfortable cacophony. A plate of fried pea things appears and disappears with equal rapidity, and two hands later a narrow victory nets Bucky all the military-grade steel on the table. As they argue over what he thinks is inspired use of the joker, JARVIS pitches his broadcast to be heard above the squabbling.
“Excuses me, ladies and gentlemen. Agent Barton is on his way to the penthouse.”
“Oh, finally,” Natasha says into her knees, sitting with her legs drawn up and her cards inches from her nose. “I want to see the rings.”
“I want to see the stones,” Pepper says with an arch look.
“And if they’re red, white and blue,” Jane adds, to general affirmation from the group. Bucky’s kind of disappointed in himself for not thinking of that earlier.
“Huh,” Stark says.
He’s been hunched over the computer flipping through screens too quickly to actually be reading them. Now he’s paused on one, and his eyebrows are slowly rising towards his hairline.
“We may have a problem,” he says, pursing his lips. “A small problem.”
“What,” Bucky says, instantly on alert.
“Oh,” Natasha says, who now has her own phone at eye level. “Problem. I see.”
“What,” Bucky says flatly, starting to stand.
Barton chooses that moment to slam into the room at a dead run, and he pitches a small velvet box at Bucky as he skids to a stop and pants, “Uh, guys? Are we—?”
Stark drops off his stool. “Bruce?”
“Coming,” Banner sighs, pulling his apron over his head.
Natasha jerks away the dish cloth she’d tucked into Bucky’s collar as a makeshift bib and unfurls from her chair in a single fluid motion. “Operation Bride-to-Be just got jumpstarted. Let’s move.”
“What in the hell,” Bucky says as he’s unceremoniously hustled out of the room by three determined-looking women. Banner and Rhodes blink after them, looks of identical bemusement on their faces. Barton waves. Stark cups his hand to his mouth and yells, “Meet you on the helipad!” as the door closes behind them.
“Where are we going?” Bucky demands. “Is Steve—?“
“Don’t worry about Steve,” Natasha says on his left. “Sam and Thor won’t let anything spoil his big day.”
“Here’s the plan,” Jane says on his right. “Put your army hat on, you have to look dashing.”
“Dashing?” Bucky says incredulously, but puts the damn hat on when she tries to wrestle it out of his grasp.
“We’re putting you in the limo,” Natasha says. “Tony got the limo, right?”
“I got the limo,” Pepper says, striding ahead of them in stiletto heels longer than the stilettos Bucky actually owns. “Tony spent the entire morning writing JARVIS a new DJ program and buying hundreds of disco balls for same-day delivery. The limo is—“ Impatient tapping on her phone. “Ready and waiting in the garage, good.”
“Why,” Bucky says, trying for menace and mostly hitting petulance. “What’s happening?”
“Operation Bride-to-be,” Jane says, slowly and carefully.
“I got that, thanks, and— hey, who are you calling a bride-to-be?”
“You, obviously,” Natasha says, “and we’re not going to let anything spoil your big day either.”
They’re in the hallway and there aren’t many exit routes, but there are enough; Bucky could probably escape, assuming he could incapacitate Natasha quickly enough. She catches his eye like she knows he’s considering it, and arches a single brow.
Bucky lets them crowd him into the freight elevator at the end of the hall instead, and they fall down dizzying numbers of flights to emerge in Stark’s garage, warmth clinging to the concrete walls in soft echo of the heat outside. Bucky is lead to what can only be the promised limousine.
“I guess Tony did get to it after all,” Pepper says faintly.
There is crepe. There are flowers. There are cans, fucking tin cans and old shoes tied to the bumper and a sign in the back window that announces to every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street they’re JUST MARRIED! If there's a driver, Bucky can't see him for the frothing mess of white ribbon trailing down from the roof and fountaining from the center of the hood.
Natasha is predictably in ecstasies. “I take back every bad thing I’ve said about that man.”
Bucky feels fucking ridiculous just looking at it. “I’m not getting in that thing, are you kidding me?”
“White stretch limo,” Natasha says, practically purring in satisfaction as she runs a hand along the gleaming roof. She pulls the passenger door open to peer inside. “Black leather seats, champagne on ice. Perfect.”
“We’ll take the cans off,” Pepper says, rallying. “I don’t know if we have the time for everything else, really. Happy, can you—? Thank you,” she says as a broad man ducks out of the driver’s seat to start sawing at the strings. She turns back to Bucky to press a densely-printed sheet into his hands. “This is your waiver. You’ll submit it along with the rest of your paperwork, so don’t lose it or you won’t get your license.”
“Now get in,” Jane insists, trying to shove Bucky forward.
“City Hall is about twenty minutes downtown from here,” Pepper continues. “Sam says Steve will meet you there, and he and Natasha will join as witnesses.”
“After we resolve this small situation,” Natasha says. “Bye.”
“How small,” Bucky says suspiciously, as she turns to walk away. “Natasha, how small?”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Pepper says, not at all like she believes herself, and settles a hand on Bucky’s arm. “The rest of us are going wait at the tower, to make it easier for you to get in and out of the building. Congratulations again, James. We’ll see you soon.”
“Time to go now,” Jane says, and knocks a very sharp elbow into his kidney. He folds into the car with a pained grunt, hat knocked off his head and falling inside with him. “See you at the party!”
She almost closes the door on his legs, too, but he manages to pull them inside before it bangs shut. The limousine’s engine turns over bare seconds later, and Bucky is suddenly on the way to his own wedding.
The thought locks up his body, sudden as a punch, and there’s a moment where he can’t breathe around the weight of it.
It’s his wedding day. He’s not getting married, but it’s his wedding day. There’s a sign in the window to prove it, and a piece of paper in his hand that says he has no reservations about making Steven Grant Rogers his lawfully-wedded husband. Steve is going to meet him at City Hall. They’re not getting married, but they’ve got their best drapes on and they’re bringing witnesses.
What in the name of God are they doing, if they’re not getting married?
The sudden intrusion of the driver’s voice makes Bucky twitch, dropping instinctively lower into the footwell. “Hi there!” the man shouts, wide smile and cheery wave visible through a small window at the front of the cabin. “I understand congratulations are in order, Mr. Barnes! I’ll try to make the trip as quick as possible. If you’d like a drink, the bar is fully stocked, and if you’d like your privacy this panel closes—“
Bucky bares his teeth and immediately launches himself across the car to close it. There’s a brief second of silence, and then from somewhere an intercom pings.
“Alrighty then!” the driver says. “The bulletproofing makes it pretty hard to hear you otherwise, so please hit the red button below when you’d like to speak with me!”
Bucky glares at the closed window, but that seems to be the end of the speech. The intercom pings again, there’s a thunk beneath him as the driver shifts gears, and the car starts to move. Bucky settles onto the floor of the car in a heavy slump, back against the rear-facing seats and his hands gripping the hilts under his arms. Just in case.
Two turns, and the car is rolling up the ramp to the street. A brief pause for the garage door, and the midday sun strikes shines in the heavily tinted windows. There’s a pair of shiny size eleven wingtips sitting on the bench seat that runs along the side of the limousine, eye-level with Bucky’s position. Tucked into the left one is a piece of paper, and after a moment, he lets go of one knife to reach over and pull it out.
These are Bruce’s, return on pain of Hulk, reads Stark’s slashing script. Bucky gives the shoes a black look on principle, but after the car pulls onto the street he pulls a knee to his chest and begins unlacing his boot.
Midtown traffic is the usual afternoon crush and the limo moves slowly, creeping down Park Avenue with its boulevard trees and endless construction zones. Bucky gets the shoes on, and they’re roomier than expected. The leather seats smell new and look clean, and after a few more streets of nothing happening, he reluctantly uncoils from the floor.
More sluggish intersections, and there’s a parade of squad cars and firetrucks with their lights and sirens blazing that comes screaming up the northbound lane. Bucky, now slouched across the long bench seat with one foot up, turns in place to track their progress. With Manhattan’s solid skyline dominating the view, there’s no telltale plume of smoke or other sign to tell him where they’re heading, and they’re soon lost to sight as traffic moves on. For the first time he can remember, Bucky misses having his stupid little Starkphone.
Of course, thinking that makes him remember why he doesn’t, which in turn reminds him that at the end of this ride is New York City Hall and Steve Rogers and all his terrifying determination.
There’s a creak from inside his metal hand, and it’s only then Bucky remembers the box Barton had thrown at him, the box he’d caught reflexively and carried with him to the garage. He’s crushed the velvet case from square to oblong and the hinges are completely done for, but he manages to coax it open.
He’s halfway expecting that red, white and blue. He wouldn’t put it past Barton to get something gaudy beyond belief, something so huge it’d take an eye out if you weren’t careful. Something like their five-tier lemon-blueberry cake, or Thor’s boar, or the splash of medals across Bucky’s chest.
It’s so much worse than that. Bucky stares down at Sarah Rogers’ wedding bands, gold gleam subtly lighter where they’ve been widened, and knows with sudden cold clarity that he needs to get the hell out of this car. Possibly the city. Possibly the continent.
As if in response, there’s a knock on the car window. Bucky slowly drags his eyes up from the rings, and there, face pressed to the glass like a kid at the zoo, is Steve.
They’re stopped at a light on Union Square, just before Park turn onto Broadway, and the man is standing in the middle of traffic with a hopeful smile on his face, rapping his knuckles on the glass again when he sees Bucky’s look like it’s his front door and Steve’s taking him dancing at a clip joint.
“Found you,” he yells, almost completely muffled. “Let me in?”
Bucky’s first thought is to go through the windows on the opposite side of the limo. With surprise on his side, he might be able to make it to the taxi at the median, pull out the driver, and be headed east before Steve caught up with him. Bucky’s second thought is to hide the goddamn rings, because just looking at them feels incriminating.
He doesn’t have time for third thoughts, because the driver has caught on and popped the lock and Steve is suddenly swinging the whole of his big body into the car with gust of oppressive July air and a relieved sigh, shutting it with a snap just in time for the light to change and the limousine to start moving again.
“Jesus Christ, it’s hot out there,” he says, wiping at his face and patting around on the leather. “Trust Tony to kit out the car like this, I could see you coming up the street from blocks away. Is there a seatbelt in here or—“
He turns to look at Bucky and whatever else he was about to say seems to stall out in his mouth. He stares. He keeps staring, even when Bucky shifts away from him, even when Bucky starts to glower and crosses his arms across his chest defensively.
“What?” Bucky is eventually unnerved enough to demand. “What are you looking at?” Maybe the medals are wrong. Maybe he got that aloo gobi stuff on his face.
“You said you’d never cut your hair,” Steve says in a rush, and then looks slightly ashamed of himself. “I mean. I thought you liked it better long.”
“I do, I just—” Bucky can’t even explain it in his own head in a way that sounds anything more than stupid. “I thought, if I’m getting married, I should— you know. Clean up.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, still looking softly stunned. “You look really…”
Another long pause, and Bucky wants to reach over and shake the words out of him. The last thing they need is more unsaid words; the air between them is too full already. “Just say what you fucking mean,” he snaps.
Steve blinks, mouth snapping closed. And then, unbelievably, he starts laughing.
“I’m trying to compliment you, Jesus, Buck,” he says. “You look nice. You got a haircut, you shaved, you have a uniform on. You look good. You look just like I’d— I mean, when I thought about it I—“
“You thought about it,” Bucky says warily.
“I… I thought about it, yeah,” Steve says, quieter. He looks oddly anxious. “What? You didn’t think about me?”
Fuck, there it is again, so strong he can almost hear it like high-pitched white noise in his ears. What is he missing? What is he not remembering?
“I don’t know,” Bucky says.
“I said I don’t—” Bucky makes a rough sound of frustration and drops his hands, holding Steve’s confused gaze. “There’s something I can’t remember and it’s driving me crazy, Steve, there’s something about this that’s so— have we done this before?” he says, demanding except that it sounds like begging in his ears. “We couldn’t, I know we couldn’t really, but did we talk about it? Did we try?”
He hadn’t ever intended to ask any of it out loud, but there it is, raw and naked in the air and for one wild moment, Bucky stares at Steve’s blank face and wonders if maybe, maybe Steve is going to tell him, Yes, we did. I’ve always felt the same, you know there’s never really been anybody else for me but you. Nobody but you.
He hadn’t known he wanted Steve to say exactly that until this moment. It’s so selfish, fuck, is it selfish and greedy, after everything Steve’s already given him. Given up.
But he wants it. He wants it and more.
Steve is silent, hat in his hands now. It’ll be mangled beyond fixing if he keeps twisting it like that. “No,” he says finally, eyes dropping to the hat. “No, nothing like that.”
Well, Bucky thinks distantly. His weight settles back in his seat and he stares at Steve, stunned silent. Well. Don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Don’t have to worry about much of anything anymore, because as soon as this car stops he’s getting out and walking down a few more blocks and throwing himself in the fucking harbor—
“I thought about it,” Steve repeats, quiet, so quiet Bucky can barely hear him. “In Brooklyn, just before the World’s Fair. When you came in that uniform, I thought about the gals I’d seen with their soldiers, lining up in front of City Hall before the next ship out. War brides. Wasn’t an option for us, but I thought about it. I thought about you.”
“Me,” Bucky says. Swallows.
Steve’s eyes dart up to his face and back down, fingers going white-knuckled around the brim. “I don’t know if you remember,” he says. “But…”
If there are more dangerous words in the entire English language, let alone their private lexicon, Bucky doesn’t know them.
“It’s fine, if you don’t,” Steve says, voice wavering slightly before he brings it back under control. “When I got to Europe, to France, those first few months— everyone, every single guy in the 107 thought you had a sweetheart you were engaged to back home. I couldn’t figure it out, because I never saw or heard about a girl like that. I wondered for a while if you’d been hiding her from me. The guys, they said— they said, when things got bad you wouldn’t shut up about her.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything, and Steve takes a deep breath.
“Gabe said— he said you told them she was thin and fair-haired, just a slip of a thing. Jacques claimed she had eyes bluer than the skies over Normandy. Dum-Dum would swear it was Dover, and that she had this temper that got you both in trouble everywhere you went. They said you were madly in love, and that you said she was beautiful, especially when she was mad enough to spit nails. You were going to marry her in St. Patrick’s in front of the whole damn world.”
Bucky still doesn’t speak. He doesn’t know if he can.
“I thought— I was mad at first you hadn’t told me about her,” Steve says. “This amazing girl you were so in love with. I thought you might have been ashamed of me. God knows I wasn’t anyone’s idea of good society back then.”
Bucky wants to tell him that good or bad, he’s always been the only society that mattered, but Steve’s plowing on.
“Yeah, I was mad. Here was a girl I knew absolutely nothing about, and you were going to marry her? I couldn’t believe it. Some pretty little dame you hadn’t even wanted to introduce me to.”
The limo slows to a stop at another intersection. Bucky stares at the toes of Banner’s dress shoes and tries desperately to understand what he’s feeling.
“You got so uncomfortable when the Howlies talked about her, though, and you looked downright terrified when I asked about her. After a while they all decided you’d made her up, and you said you had, and they teased you for weeks and weeks. They forgot about it, eventually.”
Steve laughs a little, and sounds more hurt than happy.
“I couldn’t, for some reason. I just— why lie? It wasn’t like you. You could get any girl you liked, why lie about something like that? Someone so specific, she must have been around, even if I never saw her.”
The limo starts moving again, and Steve swallows audibly.
“It didn’t occur to me until after... after the train. After almost everything. There was only one blue-eyed blond I knew you’d promised to marry.”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Steve says softly.
“You’re not that dumb, Steve,” Bucky mumbles to the floor. “Just a little slow.”
There it is, the bloom of memory like blood in water. He feels strangely bruised, the insides of his ribs sore and tender, but he remembers. He remembers.
Pepper had asked if they’d planned this, and Christ, he’d plans— stupid, silly plans, plans he kept tucked in the back of his mind like some of the guys kept photos and letters from their sweethearts in their shirts. He’d made his promise to Steve that night and he’d never brought it up again, but he’d thought about it.
He’d thought about it.
Frozen in a foxhole with the thought of Steve in lace the only warm thing for miles, the veil Mrs. Rogers kept carefully packed away with lavender, how it would feel under his hands as he lifted it over Steve’s upturned face. Up in a sniper’s nest overnight, knowing the second he fell asleep he was dead, imagining how the church would smell, the candles and the droning voice of Father MacNamara as they made their promises. Sitting in that dank pit, closing his eyes and thinking how easy it would be to sweep Steve into his arms after, how Steve would probably hit him and call him a jerk but he’d be laughing too. Steve was always laughing in his imagination, always so happy. He’d wanted it with a fierceness that ached.
But it was one thing to fantasize when Steve was small and sick and safe in New York, and another to have him there, huge, larger than life, leading every charge the Howlies made and grinning at Bucky across campfires and trenches and firefights. It was better. It was so much worse.
And then there was Peggy Carter. And then, there was the train.
“Bucky?” Steve says tentatively.
He’s leaning forward and Bucky is still frozen in place, watching him come closer and closer. Steve’s not looking at his face, though, and he reaches down on the seat next to Bucky. It’s a shock when their fingers touch, hot and electric, and Bucky’s fingers spasm around the crushed ring case before he lets Steve pry it gently from his grip.
“You really did a number on this thing,” Steve muses. It falls into two pieces in his hand, revealing the rings.
“I didn’t… I told Barton not to take them,” Bucky says.
“I know,” Steve says. “I did.”
He tips them out in his hand, one plain, one with a tiny stone imbedded in the band. There’s a worn pattern on them, leaves or vines, and Steve traces their smoothed edges.
“The thing is, Buck,” he says, looking down at them. “I meant it. On the roof, when I said I wanted to marry you. When I said yes this morning. I meant it. So.”
“Alright.” His tongue feels thick and leaden. His hands are unsteady, but he manages to reach out. He picks up the ring with the stone in it.
Steve’s hand lifts when Bucky takes it, and his pulse is pounding. Bucky slides the ring past his knuckle to settle firmly at the base of his finger, flush with his palm.
Steve is staring down at it when Bucky looks up, lips slightly parted.
“You’re going to have to put the other one on my right hand,” Bucky says. “At least for now. I don’t think it’ll stay on, otherwise.”
“That’s fine,” Steve breathes, and when his eyes lift to meet Bucky’s they’re almost awed. “That’s perfect.”
“Yeah?” Bucky’s mouth is bone dry from nerves. He licks his lips and Steve watches the small movement, unconsciously mimics it.
“Perfect,” he says emphatically. “Can I…?
“Can you…?” Bucky echoes, but it’s pretty obvious what Steve means when he’s easing forward again and looking at Bucky like that. At Bucky’s mouth like that. “Uh.”
Steve stops, one hand on the seat beside Bucky’s thigh. “No?”
“Yeah. Yes, I mean—” Bucky says, and it shades out high and hoarse. He sways towards him a little and stops, his hand drifting close but not touching Steve’s where it’s pressed into the leather. “If you want.”
Steve gives him a smile, then, the one that says Bucky’s not fooling anyone in this car, and kisses him.
The car pulls up to City Hall at precisely three thirty. They get out and watch the limo drive away, and then they flag a cab. They go back to Brooklyn.
They don’t talk. Steve makes one call that involves a lot of embarrassed mumbling while Bucky lays out his uniform on Steve’s rumpled bedsheet, and then turns his phone off. They grab some clothes, get on Steve’s motorcycle and take I-90 out of town.
“I thought we’d head up to Niagara Falls,” Steve says when they stop to get gas, voice all nonchalance when his ears haven’t stopped burning since Bucky slid on behind him and settled flush against his back. His hands might have ended up under Steve’s shirt once or twice. For balance. Steve did like to ride fast. “Seems like everyone and their sister went up to Niagara after they, uh.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, leaning on the pump as Steve fills the tank. “Sounds good.”
There’s a small town two or three hours out, the main square opening up onto breathtaking views of New York’s northern gorges, nothing but forest and sheer drops for miles in all directions. There’s one car in the otherwise deserted town hall parking lot, a single clerk visible through a window facing the street.
“We don’t have to,” Steve says as Bucky clambers off the bike, suddenly a stammering mess. “I mean we only just— we could date some, we could—”
Bucky nudges Steve’s chin up so he can press a quick biting kiss to his bottom lip. That shuts him up. “If you don’t marry me right now, I’m pushing you off one of these gorges. See if I don’t.”
“Not funny,” Steve mutters, but he grabs his helmet and flips down the kickstand.
The clerk is an older woman by the name of Pearl, who shakes their hands with a bony, no-nonsense grip and leads them back to a room all done up in yellow oak, the smell of stale cigarette smoke and old books strong in the air. She sits them down and makes them fill out another set of forms, and Bucky does a lot straining to remember what’s on his fake ID and lying about what he can’t.
“This says you’re about to start a tour of duty in Iraq,” she says to Steve while they write. She has the waiver in front of her and she squints at them over the rim of her tortoiseshell reading glasses.
“Yes, ma’am,” Steve says with an admirably straight face.
“Hmph. Normally I don’t approve of rushing these things, but I suppose we can make an exception for you and your young man.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Their witnesses are two janitors that get pulled from vacuuming the rec center attached to the building. Pearl directs them to stand behind Steve and Bucky, who are told to arrange themselves shoulder to shoulder in front of her podium.
“First time?” she asks dryly as they shuffle awkwardly into place.
“Uh,” Steve says, and Christ, Bucky can see the whites all around his eyes. Pearl looks at him, then at Bucky. Bucky tries to look more sure of himself, but whatever she sees seems to exasperate rather than reassure.
“Gentlemen,” she says, perching her glasses very precisely on the bridge of her nose. “Two things need to happen here. I officiate your vows, and you sign this license with witnesses. Most couples have their own vows prepared…” she glances between them pointedly, and Bucky drops sheepish eyes to the floor. “… but I can see you two need a little help. Any particular religious affiliations?”
“Catholic, ma’am,” Bucky mumbles. “The both of us.”
The words she asks them to repeat are simple, in plain English rather than Latin. Steve, always stupidly, pig-headedly brave where it matters, takes Bucky’s hand and looks straight into his eyes as he promises to love, honor, cherish and protect. Bucky, voice rough and palm sweaty, promises the same. There’s a brief fumbling with the rings, already on their fingers, that makes Bucky laugh under his breath and Steve stutter badly.
“In so much as the two of you have agreed to live together in matrimony,” Pearl says, her own lips pursed in silent amusement, “have promised your love for each other by these vows, I now declare you to be husbands. You may kiss your groom.”
Steve slowly turns to face him, and he’s holding on so tightly even Bucky’s metal hand feels pinched. He seems momentarily frozen in place, staring wide-eyed at Bucky’ face.
“Steve?” Bucky says, trying for light and falling facedown in honest appeal.
Steve lets go of his hand and brings up both of his to cup Bucky’s face, thumb stroking the corner of his mouth like he’s mesmerized. Steve leans in and Bucky closes his eyes and breathes out shakily before their lips meet, dry and warm. Oh, God.
Oh, God, finally.
The janitors start clapping. Steve draws back, but not very far, and though his face is the color of a barn door he’s giving Bucky this dazed little grin, eyes hooded and his hands lingering on Bucky’s face.
“Congratulations,” Pearl says. “You still need to sign.”
They sign the license, but not before Steve sneaks in another kiss to the corner of Bucky’s mouth. He steals another while Pearl is making photocopies for state records, and gets in a couple more on Bucky’s cheek, his throat, his ear before she shoos them out of the building with an admonishment to save it for the honeymoon.
“Niagara?” Steve sighs. They’re sitting astride the bike and his head is turned to the side as Bucky noses into his shirt collar and the hot skin beneath, arms tight around his waist, knees snug up behind his thighs. He’s allowed to do that now. He can put his hands all over Steve if he wants, and oh, does he ever. He can open his mouth and bite, taste him and hear him gasp.
“Bucky, we’re in public,” Steve says, but not like he minds.
“Mmmm. Better get us somewhere private, Mr. Barnes,” Bucky says into the nape of his neck.
“Better hang on then, Mr. Rogers,” Steve says archly, and away they go.
They might make it to Niagara. Bucky’s got no earthly idea. After sundown the roads all blend together in a rush of orange and velvety black, and Bucky’s hands wander and cling. He can’t help it. He’s a newlywed.
When they do stop hours later, pulling into a random drugstore parking lot, Steve is breathing hard and flushed from cheek to chest, and he seems torn between arousal and exasperation and something that tugs his mouth into a smile, even when he’s trying to scowl threateningly at Bucky.
“You little—” he starts, and then Bucky gets pulled into a kiss that has him curling his hands into Steve’s leather jacket and laughing breathlessly into his mouth. It’s open and lush and a little mean, and so, so good. Bucky doesn’t have to wonder anymore; he knows, he knows he’s wanted this forever, and Steve has too.
“So, you wanna grab dinner?” Steve has the nerve to ask when they separate. He’s back to a wide, ready grin, mouth red and eyes unfocused; Bucky’s obviously kissed him stupid.
“How about a room,” Bucky suggests, and Steve makes a noise low in his throat that might be a laugh but mostly sounds like greed.
“Yeah, but— uh, wait here, okay?” he says, and leaves Bucky sitting alone on the bike for fifteen increasingly confused minutes before coming back out of the store with a bulging plastic bag and a face that’s absolutely crimson in the wan light from the window display.
“What’s all that?” Bucky asks, craning to see as Steve tries to stuff it hurriedly out of sight in their satchels.
“Just a couple snacks and things?” Steve tries, yanking at the zipper, but Bucky’s already leaning in to pull the plastic open with a finger and peer inside. He gets as far as the five bottles labeled PERSONAL LUBRICANT and jerks back so fast he almost falls off the bike.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Steve!” he yelps, and Steve’s face shifts from embarrassment to sheer, abject panic.
“I just, I thought— I’m sorry!” he almost yells.
“No, it’s— I didn’t mean—”
“Of course we don’t have to— it’s fine, I wasn’t going to—“
“No, I’m just—”
“I can return everything! I have the receipt!” Steve says, brandishing it like Perseus with Medusa’s head, and Bucky starts laughing. He starts and he can’t stop, folded over the handlebars of the bike with his husband of a few hours sputtering wordlessly beside him and enough skins and lube for twenty people riding in the saddlebags.
“You’re such a jerk, you know that?” Steve says when Bucky’s quieted down to the occasional wheeze. “I just wanted to be prepared.”
That sets Bucky off again, stomach cramping from how hard he’s laughing. “Oh, you’re prepared all right. Where’s the orgy? Why didn’t you invite me, huh?”
“I was trying to,” Steve complains, and the blush that had been fading from his face comes back in an awful, boiled-lobster red. “I mean.”
Bucky married this moron. “For Christ’s sake, Steve, come here.”
Steve is glaring, but he shuffles closer and Bucky wraps his arms around his neck and pulls him down to kiss his eight and a half year old’s pout.
“So, d’you wanna?” Steve mumbles against his mouth, always such a persistent bastard.
“You’re lucky you’re so pretty,” Bucky says, and when Steve starts to frown he adds, “Yes, Steve. I want to. I’ve wanted to for a really long time. Since your twentieth birthday. Since we were kids.”
“Oh,” Steve says quietly, “oh,” and it’s not Bucky’s fault they get wolf-whistled by another drugstore shopper a few minutes later.
It’s a real challenge to keeps his hands to himself when they finally get back on the bike, but sliding fingers down Steve’s thighs on a straightaway nearly sends them careening over the edge of a cliff, so Bucky settles for clinging as tight as he can for the rest of the mercifully short ride.
The hotel Steve picks is surrounded by trees and nicer than Bucky was expecting, green and white marble and a massive staircase dominating the foyer. They visibly scandalize the front desk workers and then it’s up to the second floor with a card that’s supposed to be their key and the smug knowledge that Steve is probably staring at his ass as they climb the stairs.
Definitely staring, Bucky thinks, as he slips the card in the door and Steve’s big hands settle on his hips and dig in. Bucky opens the door and pulls him inside, crowding him up against the wall instead of turning on the lights.
“I don’t know, Buck, I’m kinda hungry,” Steve slurs into his mouth. Punk.
Bucky is forbidden from removing any clothing after that, and happy to be shoved backwards towards the bed. He sits and settles back on his hands and watches Steve drop his leather jacket to the floor with the pieces of his shirt, already starting on his pants before he seems to notice Bucky’s not moving.
“You can take off your own clothes, you know. Just not mine,” Steve says as he pops the top button.
“Nah,” Bucky drawls, smirking up at him. “Think I’ll just enjoy the view, thanks.”
That gets him Steve kneeling on the bed between his spread legs with his pants half-undone, pressing Bucky flat to the plush coverlet with his mouth hot and wet against Bucky’s throat. Bucky’s laugh edges into a moan that sounds embarrassingly needy to his own ears, but it makes Steve shiver and bite at his pulse.
Bucky starts losing clothes and doesn’t even notice, too caught up in Steve’s hands and Steve’s mouth and the low tug of heat in his belly when he feels the still-new tightness of the ring on his right hand. He’s down to a shirt, then pants, and there’s a moment where Steve stops what he’s doing and says, “Bucky, what the hell’s with all these knives?”
“I won two off Natasha today,” Bucky says, grinning up at him. “Nice, right?”
Steve makes a face. “Nice is not the word I was thinking of,” he says, and the sheathes disappear to the same parts unknown as the rest of his clothing. Then Steve’s pulling back to wiggle gracelessly out of his pants and Bucky’s laying back on the bed laughing at him because he looks fucking ridiculous, all the muscle of a big cat and none of the grace. He never did have any poise to speak of.
Steve, the sneaky bastard, uses Bucky’s distraction to wrestle the covers down and get them both close to naked. Then he’s settling between Bucky’s legs with his hand gripping Bucky’s dick, and Bucky chokes on his name.
Bucky hasn’t asked if Steve’s done this before, with a man, with anyone. He was afraid of the answer, jealous of anyone who might have had what he wanted and aching for Steve at the same time. The way Steve touches him now makes him wonder, his hand moving too slow and too dry to be anything other than torture. He’s close, staring at Bucky with an intensity bordering on manic, and Bucky flushes, face heating and body moving into Steve’s hand without conscious thought.
“You gonna paint a fucking picture later?” he pants. He drops his hands to twist in the sheets because he can’t trust them on Steve now, might hurt him, his heart pounding and skin sparking from the gritty contact. He tries to arch and gets nowhere because Steve, fuck, Steve can pin him with one arm across his hips and then nothing’s touching his dick. “Come on!”
“I’m gonna get the lube, I just,” Steve says, and then ducks his head to lick a fat stripe up Bucky’s cock with the flat of his tongue.
“Fuck! Fuck, Steve, don’t just—” Steve’s lips catch around the head and Bucky’s knees pull in hard against his sides. “Shit!”
Steve makes an indecent noise and tries to fit as much of Bucky in his mouth as he can, hands coming up to pin Bucky in place, the soft insides of his cheek and tongue hot enough to burn. “You shithead,” Bucky whines, bucking against the bed and Steve’s grip. He gets himself nothing but finger-shaped bruises and mindless little sounds as Steve thoroughly enjoys himself. It’s messy and uncoordinated, shallow until Steve figures out how to swallow around him and then almost too tight, too wet. “Fuck, slow down!”
Though it’s mortifyingly short, it’s probably the best blowjob of his life. Adding insult to injury, once Bucky is done fighting and shoving and eventually coming his goddamn brains out, Steve slowly pulls off of his softening cock with a last luxurious suck and rasps, “Always wanted to try that. Was it good?”
Bucky opens his eyes to glare blearily down at him and sees his mouth is fucking covered with come, lips streaked, chin dripping. “Holy fucking shit, Steve,” he says on a weak groan, head dropping back.
Steve licks his lips, which Bucky can feel because they’re still pressed low on his stomach. “Hey, you can go again, right?”
“Wha—?” But Steve is already manhandling Bucky’s body further up the bed, getting his legs over his shoulders and his hands on his ass.
“Like me? You can go again right after?” he says into the crook of Bucky’s thigh, teeth grazing the sensitive skin there.
Bucky has no time to try and figure out what he means, too busy yelling himself hoarse as Steve pulls his hips up to his face and sucks him in again, takes him right through “Too much, damn it, too much,” into agonizing, razor-wire “Fuck, yes, please.”
Bucky gets his revenge later, somewhere in the hazy, blissful time between rounds four and five, when they discover just how smooth lube makes metal joints and he discovers he can make Steve fucking fall apart with three fingers. He can afford to be slow and patient while Steve curses him and thrashes because he’s come three times on the bed and once on the floor next to it, he’s done. He can coax Steve to the blind and trembling edge where he can’t seem to do anything but mouth Bucky’s name, no noise, just his lips moving and his body straining up against the slick movement of Bucky’s fingers in him, shallow and then deep, a twisting, grinding motion Bucky could keep up for hours. He tells Steve that. He curls up to Steve’s heaving side and whispers it in his ear, tells him he’s so fucking beautiful he could make angels cry. He tells him about how he’d imagined Steve was his, how he’d imagined the church, the veil, the wedding night. When Steve gasps out, “Please, Bucky please,” Bucky threads their fingers together and watches Steve arch and come for him, open-mouthed and shaking.
In the morning— later in the morning, because they fucked each other practically blind, got room service around three and then did it all over again— Bucky wakes up to find Steve running light and lazy fingers along his back. He’s pinned under Bucky’s weight, metal arm slung across his hips, and listening to someone rant at him on phone. Bucky pretty quickly figures out it’s Stark.
“—you’re doing! This is Nora Roberts, this is Nicholas Sparks, one of you probably has stage five inoperable brain cancer. I’m ashamed to know you.”
“Yep, you said that,” Steve says, turning his head to brush a kiss over Bucky’s hairline. “Anything else before I hang up? Bucky’s awake.”
“Only about five million things, you disgustingly smug cancer patient. We had a great time at your party, by the way. There are still news crews circling the tower."
“Bye, Tony,” Steve says.
"I still haven’t heard a thank you for dealing with all those giant—"
Steve firmly thumbs the end call button and tosses the phone off the bed. Bucky shifts more of his weight onto him. He kisses his collarbone, already liberally decorated with bites and bruises, and works his way up to his adam’s apple, the point of his chin. Then his mouth, which curves under Bucky’s lips.
“The bathroom has a tub big enough for four,” Steve says, and Bucky leans back a little to give him a narrow stare.
“Are you saying I stink, Mr. Barnes?” he says archly.
Steve just smiles. “You could brush your teeth while we’re at it, Mr. Rogers.”
“Fuck you,” Bucky says, sitting up on top of him. “You’re none too clean yourself, you know.”
Steve winces. “Oh, I know. Wanted to let you sleep. I know you don’t, always.”
And there it is: Steve Rogers, everyone. Steve Rogers, who can’t seem to stop saving him.
“Hey,” Steve says softly. “What’s that face? Everything okay?”
Looking down at Steve, at the flash of gold on his hand as he settles it on Bucky’s thigh, Bucky realizes that it is okay. It’s fine if he doesn’t remember, if he gets confused, if he doesn’t have all the pieces all the time. It’s fine because Steve has most of them, and the ones he doesn’t they’ll make new. They’ll make them together.
“Yeah,” Bucky says, and leans down to kiss him again. “Yeah, Steve. It’s perfect.”