The thing about living in the Tower, is...well, it's nice. Classy. Really classy, even the floor Stark had had decorated specifically with Steve's 1940's sensibilities in mind. The designers had done a bang-up job...if Steve's last name had been Rockefeller. As it is the place gives Bucky this weird feeling of...dissonance is the best word he can come up with, for which he blames his shrink. His eyes see home--as a time, just not a place in it they could ever have afforded--but experience sees money on careful display and tells him to watch his mouth, keep still and ready, because orders will be coming once the bigwigs finish showing him off.
He spends most of his time in the kitchen. It's hard to make a kitchen look intimidating, though this one tries.
He's nursing a mug of black coffee, slouched in a ladder-backed chair at what he suspects is a prep table, not a kitchen table, when Tony Stark comes breezing in.
"All right, Rogers, no excuses--you, me and--huh," he says, rocking on his heels as the kitchen door swings shut at his back. "Not the supersoldier I was expecting."
"I got that," Bucky says dryly. He hasn't really interacted with Stark much beyond a couple of maintenance sessions for his arm, and Steve was present for both of those. He's wishing Steve were here now, because he can practically feel his tongue shriveling up, mortification and regret making him second-guess every word before they make it past his teeth. "Uh, Steve's not here." And now he's stating the obvious. That's safe enough, right?
He wants to ask his shrink how the hell you talk to someone whose parents you don't remember killing, but he's afraid she'll just turn it back on him in the form of a question. Some days he just genuinely wants advice, not orders, but he guesses he's not the only one not used to that idea.
Stark snorts. "Coward," he mutters, but with a little half-smirk that says he's more amused at being outmaneuvered than irritated with Steve's absence. "Did he put JARVIS up to this? JARVIS, did he put you up to this? Because when I asked where our resident dinosaur was holed up, I was expecting the star-spangled version."
"My apologies, sir," JARVIS replies, sounding not very apologetic at all, "but as Sergeant Barnes is actually the older of the two--"
"He corrupted JARVIS," Stark says like he's announcing the end of the world. "The biggest Boy Scout of them all corrupted JARVIS." He shakes his head. "I need coffee. Mind if I...?"
Bucky shrugs. He's pretty sure what he's drinking is technically Stark's coffee to begin with.
Stark opens two cabinet doors before he finds the mugs, which argues that he hasn't been a frequent visitor. He wastes no time in pouring himself a cup, turning to lean back against the counter with his mug clutched in both hands, eyes closing as he downs half his coffee in a few deep swallows. "Mm," he sighs. "Okay. Now I can deal with the heartbreak."
A quiet huff of laughter escapes before Bucky can stifle it, but Stark just smirks at him, unoffended. Bucky finds himself wanting to ask what Stark needed Steve for, maybe offer his own assistance in Steve's place, though he's pretty sure actually interacting with the guy whose parents you don't remember killing is an advanced technique best covered in a future session.
Judging from the sudden frown, Stark's maybe twigging to that notion himself, only instead of delivering a stilted goodbye and beating a quick retreat, Tony blurts, "Are those Steve's clothes?"
Bucky looks down at himself automatically, even though he already knows the answer. It's just that Stark sounds so surprised. "Yeah?" he says uncertainly. Is this some weird future thing, or...?
"Sorry," Tony says instantly, "that's none of my business, just--wow, dark horse there, uh--if...you're swapping more than clothes?" he ends on an uncertain note, face screwed up like he isn't sure whether he should backpedal some more or make a break for it.
Bucky feels like Tony just went through three separate conversations in the space of one sentence, and when he catches up, he feels the blood drain from his face. "No," he says a little too loud, the back of his neck prickling unpleasantly. "Steve's not--" He flushes, wondering where the hell his mouth filter has gone. "We don't--no."
Now Tony looks surprised. "Hey, hey--it's totally okay if you did. If you do. I mean--that's a thing now. Welcome to the future?" he tries with a helpless shrug. Bucky stares. He remembers...he thinks he remembers seeing things that would have provoked a beating back in the day, but it was always in one eye and out the other. He hadn't paid anything much attention at the time if it hadn't affected the mission. "No, it's just...you're wearing Steve's clothes," he says with a little more emphasis, grimacing like the very thought hurts his heart.
Bucky shrugs. "They fit?"
"Debatable," Stark scoffs, "and only because they don't actually fit him."
He'd be tempted to grin--he's noticed that the punk's taken to showing off what modern chemistry has done for him--but fading panic's still speeding his pulse, for all that his half-confession doesn't seem to be fazing Stark in the slightest. It's not that he's only got eyes for the fellas; he likes the dames just fine. It's just that he remembers very clearly which one he's allowed to cop to and which will get him rolled in some dark alley.
Only Stark's saying it's okay. That's...something he's going to have to look into. Later.
When he shrugs again, Stark tilts his head a fraction. "So, wait. Did Rogers--someone was supposed to go over your finances with you. Back pay? Bank account? Debit card? I mean, we can set you up with checks if that'd be more comfortable, but no one really uses those anymore."
"Yeah, Steve showed me all that," he says, dropping his eyes to watch his metal fingers turn his mug around and around on the table. He doesn't buy for a second the back pay story, not when there's that many zeroes involved, though there's supposedly royalties or something from comics and movies thrown in as well--something Howard had set up, because he'd just known Steve would be back one day. That it covered the rest of the Commandos too was just a bonus.
"You could...order things online," Stark says slowly, testing the waters. Bucky wants to laugh. Stark really is a fucking genius if he's caught on this quick. "I--JARVIS could help you get set up. If you know your measurements--"
He doesn't look up. He doesn't remember, and even if he did, he's not even built the same, not anymore.
"Or, no. You know what? I've got a better idea. Come on, get up," Stark says, setting his own mug aside and standing away from the counter. "I was on my way to my tailor's anyway, and you're coming with me."
"Thought you were looking for Steve?" Bucky reminds him, slouching deeper into his chair.
Stark snorts. "Why do you think we were going to see my tailor? I mean, if he wants to dress like a counsellor at a summer Bible camp, that's on him, but the American public deserves to see at least one decent suit on him. I think it's in the Constitution somewhere. Bill of Rights? The one with the pursuit of happiness; help me out, here."
"I think that's the Declaration of Independence," Bucky says, mouth twitching uncertainly when Tony does a double-take.
"You mean I'm not guaranteed Captain America in a decent suit? Okay, now you're definitely picking up the slack. Come on, on your feet," he urges, clapping his hands impatiently and ignoring Bucky's startled look. "Time's wasting, and Carlo waits for no man. Well, unless that man is Tony Stark."
Bucky stands reluctantly, but Stark's got a mulish look in his eye and a current of nervous energy thrumming through him, and the two together don't bode well for a quiet morning in. He's exhausted already just thinking about going out and dealing with new people, but at least it won't be in some big store with everyone staring, maybe just curious about the arm, maybe wondering why a grown man doesn't even know what size shirt to pull off the rack.
Stark keeps up a steady stream of chatter, undeterred by Bucky's reticence as they take the elevator down to the garage. Even around Steve it seems like he doesn't have that much to say anymore. It bothers the others, though maybe for different reasons. He makes Steve sad, Widow determined, Hawkeye grim. Banner mostly avoids him, and Thor's just never around.
Stark keeps talking, the sweep of his hands growing more descriptive as he warms to his subject, whatever the hell that is. He lost Bucky somewhere between the elevator and the car.
The drive's not particularly long, though partially that's because traffic laws apparently happen to other people. Stark's a frighteningly good driver, to the point Bucky's tempted to ask if they had the same instructors. With what he now knows about SHIELD, it's a distinct possibility.
"You know, most people hate driving with me," Stark mentions casually as he's showing off the tight, tight corners his machine is capable of. "Well, not Barton--I keep thinking he's going to stick his head out the window--and Romanov just sits back and does her nails, which is a frightening experience, let me tell you. One pothole, and I'm pretty sure my life is over."
Bucky tries not to smile, because he can easily picture Widow killing a man with a nail file, and that's not the sort of thing normal people are supposed to smile at. "I'm used to it," he says. He's spent most of his time in cars driving as if someone's trying to catch him.
Stark glances over fast and grins. "You're totally picturing Romanov stabbing me through the heart with a nail file, aren't you?" He doesn't sound upset.
Bucky shrugs. "Maybe a little."
He's expecting Stark's tailor to be young, stylish and superior, but Carlo is a steel-haired giant with a booming laugh and a bristling handlebar moustache that reminds Bucky of Dum Dum. Carlo may have started the morning in a suit, but by the time Tony breezes through the door of the boutique, Bucky trailing uncertainly after him, Carlo is down to his suspenders, shirt sleeves rolled up over the forearms of a stevedore.
"Tony!" he calls with a face-splitting grin. "Good to see you, kid! Your robot said you were bringing a friend today."
"No no no, Carlo, please--JARVIS is an AI," Tony protests while accepting a back-slapping hug, "not a robot. You'll hurt his feelings!"
"Sure, sure," Carlo says, tipping Bucky a conspiratorial grin over Tony's ire as he sticks out his hand. "And you must be the friend."
"Uh...I'm James," Bucky hedges, gingerly shaking the hand he's offered. If Carlo's disappointed at not meeting Captain America today--and he must be--he's too professional to show it. "Sorry for the last minute--"
"Hey, no. For Tony? Anything," Carlo promises with a grin. "So what are we looking for today?"
Carlo's looking to him for a response, but it just leaves Bucky feeling tongue-tied and self-conscious. He dimly recalls being a snappy dresser back in the day, but the closest he's ever come to real tailoring is probably his uniforms: the gear Hydra put on him and the coat Howard did.
"Let's start with a suit," Tony jumps in before Bucky can mumble something that will make him sound like a total rube. "Sharp but not too modern--definitely more of the classic touch. Something fit for dancing," he adds with a grin. "What d'you say, Sarge? Basic black, or are you ready to join the world of the polychromatic?"
He'd shoot Stark a look for that--he wears other colors, damn it--except that he's in a pair of black jeans and a comfortably baggy sweater, also black, whose cuffs fall low enough to hide all but his fingers. Even his boots are black, though to be fair, he's not sure they make combat boots in any other color. Christ, he's not dressed for this place.
"Nothing wrong with black, kid," Carlo says, the friendly glint in his eye softening further. While the guy's certainly big enough to be ex-military, Bucky can tell by the way Carlo carries himself that he isn't. Maybe it's a family member that's got him looking at Bucky like a kindly uncle. Whatever it is, Bucky's not going to argue.
"Black's fine," he says, deciding his inexplicable craving for rich, dark browns and deep blues can't be trusted. Black blends in better, in so many ways. Black's a good choice.
"Great!" Carlo says, throwing out an arm to invite them deeper into the shop. "Let's go back and get your measurements, shall we?" So maybe that invitation had only been for him. Bucky's pretty sure Carlo notices the look of panicked demand he shoots Stark, but Carlo takes it in stride, asking, "Tony? You supervising?"
"Oh, absolutely," Tony says with such blatant, joking appreciation it doesn't even startle Bucky this time.
Carlo snorts. "Just remember he's undressing for me, not you. Now, behave!"
He'd realized on the ride over that he's really not dressed for a trip to the tailors, and it doesn't surprise him that Stark's isn't going to want to measure him through layers of bulky clothing. It doesn't make it any easier to pull his sweater off and bare his scars and his arm to someone new. Having Tony there is an unexpected relief; Tony's already seen it all, and it's easier to meet and hold his eyes than to watch shock and horror spread across some stranger's face.
"I see," Carlo says in a low, portentous voice. "You've brought me a challenge." His expression is utterly grave when Bucky darts a glance at him, but it breaks a moment later into a face-splitting grin. "I accept."
"Attaboy," Tony cheers from the sidelines, sitting back in an overstuffed chair that flanks the door to the back room. Though it's more symbolic than anything, having someone standing guard between him and the rest of the world makes Bucky feel a bit better about stripping away his defenses.
It's a mark of how weird his life has become that he's literally stripping, right down to his boxers, which just happen to also be black.
"Shut it, Stark," he growls, ignoring the rush of heat that prickles in his cheeks.
Tony makes a show of rolling in his lips, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. He lasts maybe thirty seconds before he cracks. "It's just--I'm picturing you in ruby red, because the moment you burst into color, Dorothy--that's going to be well worth filming."
"I get that reference, you know," Bucky grumbles, which only sends Tony into hysterics. He has to wonder if Tony even knows what he's come close to implying with that offhand comment, but he's pretty sure Carlo's not going to be bent out of shape about it either way. Tony's been laying it on thick and fast, like he's determined to prove by example just how different the future is, and Carlo's still wearing the benevolent smile of someone dealing with an idiot too precious to strangle.
Bucky's trading eye rolls with Carlo in the same instant he notices the light fingers pressed against his left elbow, holding his arm out from his body as Carlo flicks a measuring tape around the widest part of his bicep. He tenses, but the worst is already over: Carlo's already touching him, isn't hurting him or flinching away, and his broken brain just can't work up the panic it's usually convinced is the appropriate response.
When he glances back at Tony, Bucky finds him hunched over his phone, grinning as his thumbs fly across the screen. "You better not be taking pictures," Bucky warns half-heartedly, surprised to find he doesn't think Tony would.
It earns him a wicked glance, but Tony only chuckles, shaking his head. "Just setting up an appointment," he says, slipping his phone back into his pocket. "And speaking of great movies, where are you on your list? You have started a list, right?"
He must look a little too perplexed, because while Tony doesn't lose his smile, he goes very still around it. "I guess Steve's got one," Bucky offers, nearly shrugging until he catches himself. "And I'm usually around, so...."
"Nope," Tony says firmly, shaking his head. "I know you guys were separated at birth and all, but no. I've seen the pictures, and it's clear you got all the taste, so you get your own list.
"Carlo? Help us out here: Hollywood's greatest hits," he prompts, already going for his phone again.
"Uh...Casablanca?" He huffs at them, unoffended, when his suggestion is met with laughter, Bucky's quieter and more restrained. "What? You ask for the greatest movies of all time, that's what you're going to get."
They debate films for a while, and if Tony lets the topic drift more toward the classics so Bucky feels included, Bucky doesn't mention it. He's honestly not sure how secret his secret identity is supposed to be, but he tries not to make it too obvious that he saw most of those so-called classics when they opened.
At first he's grateful for the distraction, but soon enough he realizes he doesn't need it. He's had handlers who preferred that he stay still as they kitted him out, strapped holsters and belts and bandoliers to him like a particularly murderous doll. Watching Carlo piece together the bare bones of a suit around him is the opposite of that sneaking test of discipline. Bucky's stillness is cooperative, not coerced, and he's not just allowed to look and ask questions: he's encouraged.
And if he does start to slip, if having someone looming at his back starts to make his skin feel a size too small, he can fix his eyes on Tony and know that everything has changed. Tony can stop the session in a word, will know if his tailor starts behaving strangely or making moves that don't fit his job. He has no idea how well Tony fights outside his suits, but that doesn't matter. Bucky can fight, is never disarmed. All he has to do is keep his eyes on Tony and watch for his cues.
It's nearly noon by the time Carlo peels him out of a delicate sculpture of pins and marked-up fabric. "Give me a day to get this put together, and then we can do a second fitting," he says, pretending not to notice Bucky's surprise. They've already spent hours on him, and now Carlo wants to do it again? His stomach clenches as he realizes he'll be coming to the next appointment alone, if he comes. Stark's a busy man, and Bucky's taken up more than enough of his--
"We'll be here," Tony promises, reaching out to shake Carlo's hand and getting tugged into a gruff hug again.
Bucky escapes that treatment at least, but he's given an enormous grin as he offers his thanks. "It's my pleasure," Carlo assures him, waving him off. "I can make a beautiful suit in my sleep," he explains without boasting, "but for you--you need a balanced suit, a useful suit. If I can make that and also make it beautiful, that'll be worth seeing."
"Looking forward to it," Bucky says with a tentative smile. People who do things right just because they're worth doing well: he's known a few of those.
"So," Tony says on the way back to the car, "lunch? Want to stop somewhere before we hit the next place? Or we could do drive-through; it's your call."
"The next place?" Bucky echoes, the relaxation welling up warm inside him wearing a little thin at the edges.
"Well, yeah. We're getting you a suit, but you still don't have anything to wear," Tony points out. "I already sent my personal shopper your sizes--"
"Your what? Wait--how did--?"
"Remember that guy back there with the measuring tape?"
It's not like Carlo was calling the numbers off, but Tony's observant. Bucky nods.
"Well, there you go. Terry'll already have stuff picked out; all you have to do is say yes or no. Or we could have her pack it all up and send it off to the Tower; whatever works."
He doesn't really want to go anywhere else, but he also doesn't want to waste anyone's efforts or find himself responsible for a lot of clothes he's never going to wear. To buy himself time, he says, "Lunch? Uh...I don't care where, as long as I'm dressed for it."
Tony grins. "I know just the place."
"In here," Bucky says, pulling an empty hanger from Steve's closet. "Returning your coat," he adds as an afterthought, because while they've never had much use for personal space between them, lacking it entirely has taught Bucky the value of it.
Never mind that he's been awake off and on for bits and pieces of the last seventy years. It's still a little bit shocking to know that Steve doesn't just have a good coat to spare: he's frankly spoiled for options. And sure, maybe Steve's a little conservative in his tastes, but it's not like he looks bad in any of it. Okay, so maybe he hopes that some of the T-shirts he never sees Steve wear were gifts, but other than that....
He's grinning to himself as he puts away the leather jacket he no longer needs and spies a few fancy garment bags in the back of the walk-in closet. Behind those are the dress shirts, pressed slacks neatly hung, suit jackets in a half-dozen colors and styles that definitely don't look like they came off the rack, but that doesn't make any sense. Or else it makes too much sense.
"You don't have to," Steve says as he comes down the hall. "You know I don't--wow," he says, distracting Bucky from his examination of Steve's wardrobe. "Looking good, Buck."
Bucky turns, frown smoothing away at Steve's genuine grin. "Thanks," he says, a little bashful at the compliment, because Steve at least wouldn't bullshit him. Tony had talked him into changing right there at the store, and while it's nothing earth-shattering--just a different pair of jeans and a nice shirt--they fit him so much better, he'd had to stifle the crawling sensation of having broken cover when he couldn't immediately dive back into the softening camouflage of Steve's slightly too-big clothes. Tony's vocal appreciation hadn't exactly helped, but he's man enough to admit it hadn't exactly hurt. He knows he's not the looker he used to be, but it's nice to pretend.
And speaking of pretending-- "When did you get all the suits?" he asks, tipping his head at the back of the closet and smirking like he plans to tease Steve for his newfound sartorial depth. Bucky distinctly remembers being the clotheshorse in this friendship, though to be fair, it'd been hard to find things in Steve's size before.
Steve snorts, shaking his head. "SHIELD had me in a suit the first week. They brought in a makeup artist, Buck. It was horrible," he insists, poking his lower lip out as Bucky bursts out laughing. "And then people were asking me to do charity events, and then Tony came along...." Steve shrugs, not really put out, not that the possibility of being teased has ever deterred him from anything.
"He was looking for you earlier," Bucky mentions casually, arching a brow as Steve's face screws up in an odd mixture of guilt, resignation and faint irritation.
"Yeah, I'm not surprised. He's been hounding me to let him add more bells and whistles to the shield, but honestly I like the way it handles now," Steve explains.
Bucky frowns. "So you just skipped out on him?" The trip to the tailor's may have been a complete fabrication--and now that he thinks about it, Carlo did say it was JARVIS who called--but that's still what it sounds like to him.
Steve stops in mid-breath, eyes going wide as realization muscles defensiveness out. "Damn," he mutters, mouth pulling tight in disappointment at himself. "You're right. I'm an ass."
"Nah," Bucky says, reassured by Steve's intrinsic Steveness. "You just have trouble saying no to your friends."
"More like I have no idea how to tell him I like it the way it is without him hearing 'Howard did it better'," Steve admits with a grimace.
Bucky winces. He doesn't know how it happened or even many of the details, but he knows Tony and Howard's relationship had been rocky on the good days. "Okay, you've got an out for that one. Just, uh...maybe distract him with uniform upgrades?" Bucky suggests, waving at Steve's big frame. "There's a lot more of you than there is of the shield, after all." He knows that from bitter experience, and it's no comfort at all to know that Howard hadn't done it better the one time Bucky had really needed him to. If he ever gets the chance, he's going to burn that old uniform, and the historians of the world can bite him.
Steve lights up like Bucky's the first guy to suggest rubbing two sticks together to see what happens, but that's Steve all over. Give him a battlefield full of moving targets and shifting points of vulnerability, and he navigates it like a pro. Give him people who need wrangling beyond handing out encouragement or orders, and he tends to fumble and flail until pure stubbornness and innate decency see him through.
"I'll have to try that--thanks, Buck."
"Yeah, sure," Bucky mutters, hunching a shoulder. It bothers him when Steve gives him that look, like Bucky's still his hero, but Steve hadn't reacted well when Bucky tried to get him to stop.
Steve's smile is a shade too gentle, like he knows exactly what Bucky's thinking, but he only asks, "Hey, have you had lunch?"
"Oh--yeah. Sorry," he adds, hoping Steve hasn't been waiting on him for that. "We, uh...Tony took me to this little hole in the wall place with the best damn burgers in New York. We'll have to go sometime," slips out before he realizes, startling himself as much as Steve. Steve's invited him plenty of places, but he almost never says yes. Actively suggesting they go out is a first, but maybe...maybe he's ready to make a change.
They'd been met with stares as they walked into the restaurant, but Tony had breezed past with his chin up, disregarding the eyes that followed him and carrying Bucky along in his wake. He'd steered Bucky to a high-backed booth in the far corner, took a seat that let Bucky keep watch on the door while getting Tony's own too-recognizable mug out of sight. New Yorkers being New Yorkers, they soon found themselves ignored by everyone but their waitress, and for a little while, it was like they were just two regular guys taking a break. Bucky hadn't realized how much he'd missed that, just being around people who wanted nothing from him, who had no expectations of any kind, until Tony gave him the chance to rediscover that.
"Sure, Buck," Steve says warmly. "Anytime. Uh...does that have anything to do with the new look?"
Bucky shrugs, words drying up in a rush of self-consciousness. Dressed the way he is, he can almost pass for normal, and while he's been trained to do that, it shouldn't be this easy. But he doesn't want Steve to tell him he is normal, so instead he looks his friend dead in the eye and says, "Steve. Personal shoppers. What the hell?"
Steve's helpless smile is one of pure understanding and commiseration. "Welcome to the future?"
"That's what he said," Bucky drawls. That's not an answer, he means to tell Steve, only Steve bursts into sputtering laughter, one hand clapped over his mouth as his eyes crinkle nearly shut. "What? What'd I say?" Bucky demands, the back of his neck prickling until Steve's unrestrained hilarity drags a reluctant smile out of him. Even if Steve turns out to be laughing at him, it's good to see him let loose for once.
Listening patiently to Steve's gasped explanation of the 'what she said' gag, Bucky's brows climb steadily upward. If Steve can assume he'd meant that in relation to Tony and still laugh about it, maybe there's something to what Tony's been trying to prove. "Huh," Bucky says, shaking his head at Steve's unrepentant grin. "So what's this I hear about the friends of Dorothy staging a revolution?"
Steve just blinks at him, surprised. "I didn't tell you about that?" he asks, as easy with the notion as if he'd only forgotten to mention that it looked like rain.
Bucky shrugs. "If you did, it didn't stick," he admits. Lots of things hadn't, those first few weeks. Steve's been a goddamn champ about repeating himself until Bucky can burn the facts into his tired brain himself, word by word. Bucky's not going to get all worked up about this one thing falling through the cracks.
"Sorry," Steve says a little too earnestly, tacit acknowledgement of the thing they'd never talked about back in the day. Bucky's as sure of this as he is of anything, and he's just as certain that he's never once worried what Steve would think of him. It'd been dangerous to admit back then, but worse than that, it'd felt greedy, or selfish, or like he was showing off, knowing he could find company on either side of the fence when Steve had a hard enough time finding a dance partner, let alone the right one. "But yeah. Being queer, or liking both, or neither--it's fine now. I mean, there are still bigots, but we're always going to have those. The difference these days is that if you punch some guy in the face for giving you crap over it, there's a good chance half the bar will be on your side when the chairs start flying."
Bucky huffs a laugh, which he's sure was Steve's goal all along, but he takes it to heart. Not that he hadn't trusted Stark, exactly, but nobody can blame him for wanting confirmation when the change is something this big.
Only now Steve's frowning, eyeing him with a speculative look he's not sure he likes at all. "So, wait. You're just hearing about this today. While you were out. With Tony Stark."
Bucky rolls his eyes. He has no idea what goes on in Steve's head half the time, but the view from in there must be pretty rosy.
"Gala?" Bucky asks, having learned already to cut right to the point with Tony before the point can be buried under metric tons of bullshit.
"Yeah," Tony says with a shrug, signing the credit card receipt with a flourish and tucking away his copy before Bucky can see the price tag. "The Sorry We Blew Up Queens gala. Pepper's got another name for it, probably, but mine's easier to remember. It basically means we stand around and look pretty while a bunch of people with money, influence or both stand around and look at us looking pretty, and then we all go rebuild Queens. There's going to be a lot of rich assholes there, but this particular rich asshole will take all the backup he can get. Also all the eye candy," he adds with a sidelong grin, deliberately distracting, "and you in that suit definitely count."
Bucky snorts, putting aside his uneasiness at the idea of crowds to hear what Stark's really saying. "Backup, huh?" He owes Tony that much at least.
Tony's slick grin twists, softening as a wry half-smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. "If you're up for it."
He can deal with a crowd of rich assholes, he's pretty sure. It won't be any different from posing for Hydra, and at least no one's going to ask him to kill anybody at the end of it.
It feels like he's running an op, pretending to be someone he's not, but he'll keep telling himself it's because Widow took one look at him and latched onto him as her cover while she works the perimeter. She's a good dancer; some part of him is deeply unsurprised.
"Nice threads, by the way," she mentions as she pretends to sip the champagne he brought her. "Did you go see Carlo?"
"Predictable?" Bucky asks. That could be a problem if it gives an enemy time to set up an ambush should they learn Tony's schedule.
"Not at all," Widow says with a tiny smile. "In a certain level of society, tailors are guarded more closely than missile launch codes."
He's pretty sure she's joking, but he smiles either way because it's funny. When Widow's face relaxes, he realizes it's probably the first time he's smiled all night.
"Anyway, I'm sure you made his day," she says with a tiny, private smile of her own.
Widow smirks. "His too." She tilts her head, eying him thoughtfully as he looks away. "You know--"
She falls silent the instant he freezes, her sharp eyes fixed on him instead of turning to track what he's staring at. "Trouble?"
"The woman standing with Stark," he says in a flat, distant tone, forcing his eyes to slide naturally away. "I know her." Unlike with Steve, that only ever means one thing.
"Dance with me," Widow orders, setting her drink aside and settling a small, strong hand on Bucky's right arm, the other folding trustingly into the loose grip of his metal fingers.
They waltz across the room, Widow throwing her head back a little as she laughs, like they're hamming things up for the crowd. Bucky plays along, flashing a grin with plenty of teeth and putting a little more swagger in his steps. Catching Steve's eye, he shoots him a wolfish smile and tries not to melt with relief when Steve gets it, seeing him as he is and not the shadow of the man he was. When Steve's hand goes to his pocket to send out a silent alert, Bucky nods minutely to Widow: team alerted.
Stark's waiting for them when they dance their way to his side, looking up with a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. The woman he's standing with is young and beautiful, her shining blond hair falling loose in artful curls that spill over the scooped neckline of her short blue dress. Bucky remembers her with her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her gown traded for scrubs, hands busy with tools and meters and not a champagne flute.
"Biomechanics," Bucky murmurs under the guise of whispering some flirtation into Widow's hair as they break apart and turn. "Watch it if she goes for her purse."
"Don't teach your daughter to suck eggs," Widow chides him with a pleasant smile, mangling a saying that had been old when Bucky was a kid.
"Romanov, Barnes," Tony greets them, reaching out to clap Bucky on the arm with a quick, reassuring squeeze. "I'd like you to meet Erin Tarrant. Seems she's an expert in neuromechanical adaptation."
"Sounds fascinating," Widows purrs. "Mind if we cut in?"
Bucky's ready to slide into place, just waiting for the order, but Tony's hand tightens on his arm in the same instant Widow steps forward to link elbows with the scientist. Blue eyes bore into Bucky's, promising retribution, but the woman's face is perfectly composed as Widow leads her away.
"So who was that, anyway?" Tony asks, finally dropping his hand. Bucky's used to the slight drag of his left arm, but his right feels curiously light once Tony lets him go.
"Dr. Irina Taranova. She worked on me a few times, trying to figure out how the nerve splicing went. She probably wanted you for your implants," Bucky says, memory settling rustily into place and with it a possible motive.
"That's a new one," Tony mutters behind his glass, his mouth a bitter twist. When he notices Bucky's frown, he powers up a brilliant smile. "But hey, look at you! Charming Natasha, burning up the dance floor--just like old times, am I right?"
"Maybe not the old times you're thinking of," Bucky says slowly, eyes fixed on nothing as he casts his mind back. He still doesn't remember much of his time with the Red Room, but something about Widow's lean and deadly presence at his side had been familiar.
"Maybe not," Tony says, "but there's no reason we can't change that. Care to dance?"
Bucky blinks back to himself to stare at Tony in surprise. "Won't that look weird?"
"Probably," Tony admits, eyes lit with mischief, "but it sure will make a hell of a distraction."
Bucky rolls his eyes, sitting up on the edge of the bed as he finishes pulling off his shoes. "Act your age, Stevie. He just wanted to give folks something to stare at besides Widow strong-arming the guests."
"Sure, Buck," Steve says with a snort. "I guess that's why he let you lead?"
"Uh-huh. And that thing where he fixed your tie...?"
"I've got a weird metal hand," Bucky grumbles. "It was probably crooked."
"You've got an amazing metal hand," Steve corrects him, arch look softening, "and believe me, your tie was just fine. So?" he asks, unfolding his arms and sticking his hands into his pockets, tilting his head with a smile. "He is your type, after all."
"Not sure I remember what that is," Bucky says, hoping Steve will just drop it.
"Dark, full of sass, smart as a whip," Steve lists off instantly, smile quirking as he adds, "shorter than you. Someone who'll turn your mother hen routine right back on you. You're going to be one of those little old couples who still do disgustingly nice things for each other fifty years after the honeymoon."
"And what's wrong with that?" Bucky demands, perplexed.
Steve laughs. "Nothing! It'd be cute. You and Tony."
"There is no me and Tony," Bucky points out flatly. Christ, has Steve forgotten what he's done?
Steve hunches a shoulder. "Would you like there to be?"
Bucky's mouth purses as his eyes slide away. There's plenty of things he'd like that he has no business getting. If he did want Tony, that'd probably make the top of the list.
Steve sighs. "Just think about it, all right?"
For such a smart guy, Steve sometimes comes up with the shittiest plans.
"Steve's not here," Bucky cuts him off with a frown. Hadn't they got past this already?
"Yeah, I know," Tony says with a shrug. "Like I was saying: you, me, that arm, workshop. Don't think I didn't notice the elbow joint playing up on you this morning, because hello, genius--unlike you, who apparently thinks sparring with another supersoldier with a bum arm is a good idea. And why do I keep finding you in the kitchen?"
Bucky shrugs. It's not like he's going to criticize the home Tony's offered them right to his face.
Tony frowns at him for a moment but lets it go with a swift headshake. "Anyway, come on. It's science time!"
The first time Bucky walked into Tony's workshop, he'd nearly bolted, but that was before Tony popped up and started talking. To him, at him, around him, to Steve and the bots and JARVIS and himself. It's hard to imagine anything less like Hydra's generally humorless and businesslike technicians than Tony on a rant, and Bucky relaxes more quickly every time he comes down.
He's calm by the time Tony actually starts working on him, the two of them sitting on a comfortable pair of wheeled stools with Bucky's arm propped on a small, narrow table between them. He's allowed to watch as Tony pokes around in the guts of his machinery, but he finds he'd rather watch Tony.
Even at his most focused, Tony's face is never still. He frowns, sometimes scowls, only to light up in vindicated satisfaction, like he and technology had a bet on, and now technology owes him dinner. When he isn't talking, he's muttering under his breath, and when he isn't muttering under his breath, he's muttering around whatever he just stuck in his mouth, frustrated with his shortage of hands.
Which is how Bucky comes to be intercepting a grease-grimed cable--part of his own arm, no less--before it can get tucked between Tony's rolled-in lips for safekeeping.
"You don't know where that's been," he scolds, which isn't overstating things. Point of fact, he doesn't know where it's been, but the Potomac River isn't the best start to that list.
"Sure I do," Tony says absently, leaning closer to the elbow joint with the laser-focused stare that means he's only hearing half of what Bucky says. "It's from right here," he says, spanning two connections with forefinger and thumb, demonstrating where the cable used to lie. "Did they used to label things? Because I'm not labeling things. Anything I put back different's going to work better anyway."
"If you say so," Bucky says, amused. He claims Tony's screwdriver next, and when Tony takes back the cable, Bucky finds himself juggling clamps, Tony handing them off without being prompted. Even distracted, Tony's a quick learner.
"All right," Tony says, closing up Bucky's arm without tightening down the plates. "Flex for me." He watches closely as Bucky makes a fist and curls it up to his shoulder, bringing his arm out straight again in a frictionless glide of well-tuned gears. Tony cups his fingers around Bucky's elbow, thumb resting just above the bend, and nods. "Again. How's that feel?"
"Smooth," Bucky says as Tony lets him go.
"Great," Tony says seriously. "Now the other arm."
It takes half a beat for Bucky to get it, and he snorts, hiding a smile of his own as Tony breaks into a grin. "You're something else," he mock-grumbles, giving back the screwdriver as Tony makes a few minor adjustments before closing him up properly.
"Hm. While technically accurate, I was hoping for something a bit more descriptive," Tony jokes, flicking his eyes up to Bucky's and down again, mouth wry. "I'm...something unbelievably charming? Devastatingly attractive? Unfairly brilliant? Don't feel like you have to pick just one," he adds solicitously, looking up again to fix Bucky with a suspiciously earnest look. "I'm only pointing out options, here."
Bucky chuckles helplessly, but while he may be in denial, he's not crazy. It really does sound like Tony's flirting with him, but that's...not right. He can barely wrap his head around just how not-right that is.
"Guess I'll go with 'brilliant', then," he says, because it's the truth, and it's more than deserved, and it's...safe. He's not proud of himself for that, but it's what he's got.
Tony nods like he understands, mouth twitching like wants to say something until he thinks better of it, but then he gives Bucky a thorough once-over that isn't flirtatious at all. "You know," he says with a thoughtful frown, "you can come down here whenever you like. It doesn't have to be for the arm. I mean, it may not be a kitchen, but we do have coffee," he adds, nodding off to the left.
Bucky starts, but only because he's just now noticing it himself. As nervous as he'd been the first time he walked in, that's how relaxed he is now. Tony's workshop is nothing like the sterile, cramped labs he'd been kept in with Hydra, is the polar opposite of the carefully-curated rooms above. It's loud and messy and chaotic, smells of ozone and engine grease, is full of half-finished projects and crazy bots and Tony Stark. It's one of the few places in the Tower where Bucky feels like he can really breathe.
"Thanks," he says, embarrassed that he keeps leaning on Tony for so many things. "I may just take you up on it."
"Eh, don't mention it. Although," Tony says slowly, sitting up straighter as he's struck by a thought. "There is something you could do for me, if you're up for it, that is."
Tony grimaces a little, holding up his hands. "Now, just wait until you hear it. There's an awards ceremony coming up--clean energy--and my usual plus-one has thoughtlessly scheduled her honeymoon for the same week but still expects me to go. Rude, right?"
Bucky blinks. Had Tony recently broken up with his girl? He knows Widow sure as hell isn't getting married, and he doesn't remember hearing about any other woman being close to Tony but Miss Potts, soon to be Miz--Hogan. Oh.
Suddenly the flirting makes a lot more sense.
"So, what do you say? Think you can stand another evening of rich assholes, now with bonus engineers?"
"Sure," Bucky says, hunching a shoulder as Tony sits back with a grin. "Which camp are you including yourself in this time?"
"Why choose?" Tony asks a shade too casually. "I've always been a big fan of 'both'. It's just that the one always gets the most publicity."
Bucky shakes his head with a snort. Really, he doesn't get this century sometimes. It's not like they didn't have rebounds in the 40s, whatever they're calling it today. They just didn't usually involve so drastic a change.
"Does this mean you're going to help me figure out what to wear again?" he asks, avoiding the subject of Tony's usual dating material entirely.
"Yes," Tony agrees in a heartbeat, "absolutely. I'll let Carlo know."
"Carlo?" From what Widow implied, he'd got the feeling Tony's invite had been something special. He certainly hadn't expected it to be repeated.
"Sure, why not? He's already got your measurements, and you've seen the kind of work he does. You did like the suit, right? Because I have to say, it looked damn good on you."
"The suit was great," Bucky says with absolute sincerity, biting back the verbal thanks he knows will only be brushed off.
"Well, there you go. I'll make us an appointment for--are you free the day after tomorrow? Let's make it the day after tomorrow. And when we're done, there's this Italian place you've got to try, absolutely amazing."
"All right," he says, going along, even though it's starting to sound like a date. He's not going to let Tony do anything stupid, after all, which is the real point of agreeing.
Someone's got to look out for the guy, and Bucky guesses he'll do, at least until something better comes along.
There's another round of screaming as one of the black-hooded gunmen barks a question, pacing amongst the terrified guests as his crew stand guard along the walls. They've all got their rifles pointed up, held across their chests, clearly expecting no trouble from the think tanks and money men sitting like children on the floor. They're small time, or else they're new; definitely not the heavy hitters the Avengers are used to tangling with.
"You mean this isn't your idea of second date material?" Bucky drawls to set Tony at ease. It's not like he actually minds; at least now he feels useful.
"Second?" Tony protests, all wide-eyed outrage in a cautious undertone, too quiet to be overheard. "This is our sixth!"
Bucky actually thinks about it, and all joking aside--four lunches after meeting with Tony's tailor, one Sorry We Blew Up Queens gala, and the No, No Babe, Don't Light That Fire ceremony does indeed make six. "Huh," he says. "I'm pretty sure I used to be better at remembering anniversaries."
Tony's shoulders shake with silent laughter as he bangs his forehead on Bucky's left shoulder a few times, quietly moaning, "Ow."
Bucky glances over at him with a tiny smile and spots the trophy still clutched in Tony's fist. He figures they've got about ninety seconds before Tony's latest armor comes crashing through the nearest wall, but ninety seconds is all he needs. "You mind if I borrow that?" he asks, nodding at the trophy. He really doesn't want to pull a gun; going in empty-handed will make the idiots out there more overconfident than they already are, will keep the focus on him and not the hostages.
Tony hands over the heavy globe without a flicker of hesitation. "Knock yourself out."
Bucky huffs a laugh. "Unlike some geniuses I could mention, I'm smarter than that," he says, tapping at his left shoulder then gently flicking Tony's chin when he looks. "Hang tight," he adds, gathering himself and spinning away from the wall, lobbing the trophy at the gunmen's leader the instant he breaks cover.
It hits the moron in the back of the head, toppling him to the floor in an unconscious heap while his goons are left staring.
Things only get better from there.
"Steve, come on," Bucky groans, busying himself with hanging up the suit he just got back from the dry cleaner's. He knows Tony told Carlo that first time to put together something fit for dancing, but he swears Carlo is designing his suits to be fought in. Considering he's Tony Stark's tailor, he probably is.
"Seriously, Buck." He certainly sounds serious, enough that Bucky casts a surprised look over his shoulder. Steve's got his earnest face on, but there's a pinch of worry around his eyes that has Bucky turning the rest of the way around, willing to listen. "Look, if you guys are dating--"
"We're not," Bucky insists tightly.
"Does Tony know that?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure he does. Look," he says patiently, "I get that he's going through a rough patch, what with Miz Potts--uh, Hogan and all--"
"He was," Steve agrees in that way he has, where he actually means you couldn't be more wrong. "He's been doing a lot better, though, since you came along."
"Steve, I swear to God," Bucky mutters, dragging a hand through his hair and tugging hard at the long tail he bunches in his fist. "Who in his right mind would want to date the guy who killed his parents?"
"Okay," Steve says soberly, "I'll grant you that. And if Tony were dating Obadiah Stane, I'd be questioning his sanity too," he adds while Bucky's heart is still lurching painfully in his chest. "But I'm pretty sure the person he wants to date is you. Not the guy who bought the hit; not the guy who ordered it. You."
"So, just the gun that carried it out, then," Bucky says with a shaky, humorless laugh.
Steve shakes his head. "You're not just a gun, Buck. Not anymore. And you can't help what happened when you were. Listen," he says, coming away from the door to cross the room, laying a comforting hand on Bucky's right arm. "I know you've gotta do this in your own time, but...don't worry about anyone else, all right? Just focus on forgiving yourself. The rest of us already have."
"Christ," Bucky huffs, ducking his head and letting his hair go to curtain his face. "You and your pep talks." Orders and motivational speaking: Steve's two interpersonal skills, and fuck, is he aces at them.
Steve grins, hearing his bitching for what it is, and slides his hand up to the back of Bucky's neck, briefly pulling Bucky's head down to rest on his shoulder. "You love 'em. You wanna collect 'em in a little book."
"A great big book, 'cause they're mostly full of hot air."
"Thoughtful and insightful hot air," Steve insists, chin jutting righteously.
Bucky snorts, the twist of his mouth fond. "Granted."
"Always," Tony replies instantly, focusing next on Bucky's tie. "It's the suit that has to measure up."
Bucky allows Tony his fussing, knowing from Tony's pleased smile that both the suit and Bucky himself have the Stark stamp of approval. "So, how many dates is this now?" he asks, the joke familiar and comfortable after the last few months.
Tony pretends to think, eventually offering, "Forty-seven?"
Bucky frowns. "Wait. You're not counting the Chinese mafia?"
Tony stares. "Wait, you are?"
There's no way he doesn't know who Bucky is or what he's done, but there he is, cackling under his breath like a madman as his thumbs drum rapidly over his screen. Tony wants to be here, and for all the time Bucky's spent feeling guilty, and unworthy, and ashamed, he's never once said no.
He's dating Tony Stark. Or he will be, if Stark's still on board with the idea.
"Hey, Tony," he says, a slow smile gathering at the corners of his mouth when Tony's brows arch attentively though his eyes remain fixed on his screen. "You know that burger place we went to the first time?"
"Yeah, sure. You want to go there instead when we're done?" Tony asks, including himself the way he always seems to even though today's appointment is all Bucky's. That'd meant a lot the first few months, when Bucky could pretend Tony was tagging along as much for himself as for him.
"Nah," he says. "Never had Ethiopian before. Sounds interesting. I thought we might go tomorrow, though," he says as casually as he knows how. "If you're free, that is."
Tony's head jerks up, thumbs stilling on his phone, and Bucky doesn't have to wonder whether Tony gets it. It's the first time Bucky's ever turned the tables, asked Tony someplace for a change, and he's remembering anew how nerve-wracking it is as he watches Tony swallow.
"Sure," Tony says, "absolutely. Hell, I'll clear my calendar for the day. With our luck, aliens will invade."
"That'd be one hell of a date," Bucky agrees with a laugh.
Tony waits until they settle into the car, Tony behind the wheel, before looking over with his lower lip trapped between his teeth. "So," Tony says slowly, "counting tomorrow, how many dates will that be?"
It's tempting to say 'one hundred and twelve', but it doesn't feel that way. Not that he isn't grateful for every moment, but he's finally ready to make another change, and he wants this one to count.
"Just one," he says apologetically, bracing himself for damage control if Tony's disappointed.
To his everlasting relief, Tony lights up like that's exactly the answer he wants to hear.