Clint was the first victim.
It had been a day of very wearing meetings about what SHIELD intended to do with Bucky, and Steve just wanted to get some peace and quiet with Bucky. They’d found an empty meeting room, but somehow “some peace and quiet” had turned into “enthusiastically making out with each other” within about two minutes. (Steve would swear blind this had absolutely not been his intention in the first place.)
Clint opened the door and stopped dead in his tracks. They stopped kissing but didn’t break their embrace, just looked expectantly at him.
“You two are a thing? How did I not- I mean- how long has this been going on?”
Bucky looked at his watch, “Two hours, ten minutes if you’re counting from the kissing, two hours if you’re counting from the screwing.”
Clint’s jaw dropped.
Steve burst out laughing, genuine joy under the amusement. That was the Bucky he knew, a man who considered it a calling to mess with people's heads.
Bucky gave Steve a stern look. “Steve, work with me, we coulda had him believing I deflowered you on a SHIELD lunch break.”
“So you weren’t fucking over lunch?”
“I just said that it wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time over Director Fury’s desk.”
Steve was laughing again, and wasn’t sure if he was ever going to stop.
Clint gave them a disbelieving look. “...’kay, I’m going to go away now and try and remember what the hell it was I was supposed to tell you.”
It was just the first time that Steve had lost it and burst out laughing. After that he was back to his old role, of soberly agreeing with whatever line Bucky was spinning, and keeping his amusement for later. At least most of the time.
It wasn’t just for fun either, it never had been. It was a way of deflecting attention, of avoiding difficult subjects, sometimes of hiding in plain sight. Perhaps they didn’t need to hide any more (or at least as much), but there were still plenty of things that neither of them really wanted to talk about.
“So, Capsicle, we’re all happy you got your boyfriend back, but I want to know - you and Peggy Carter?” Tony was sprawled on one end of the couch, the other Avengers scattered around the rest of the room. “She just a beard? Or did you play it both ways?”
Steve did not want to talk about Peggy to Tony, and was saved from having to do so by Bucky. “See, the thing you gotta remember about Peggy Carter was that there wasn’t just one. I mean, there was the original, but then she got so useful it ended up as a code name. All real similar looking, enough so they could pass as each other. Idea was to confuse the enemy. There were what, four of them?”
Bucky turned to Steve with that question, who said, “Five.” He had no idea where Bucky was going with this, but as always, was more than happy to run with it.
“So the first one that Steve met was actually Peggy Three, I think? Yeah, three. Then in Italy it was Peggy Two, I think the one in London was the original. You gotta know, they were real good. Kept each other up on intel, so could keep on like they were one person. And that meant no romancing, ‘cause either they broke the illusion or they all have to date the same guy, and that ain’t right. But when they create Captain America someone says Captain America oughta have a steady girl, go with the image. And someone in the SSR thinks that’s a great idea to make sure people think Peggy Carter’s one person, if she’s dating, and it ain’t really dating, ‘cause she’s dating Captain America, she ain’t dating Steve Rogers.”
It was genius. Enough based in the truth to be initially believable (there were doubles of people used in intelligence work in the war, Captain America’s image had been carefully managed), but in reality absolutely insane. The logistics of running five doubles with 1940s communications were just completely impossible.
Tony was looking a little incredulous, not surprising, he was a bright guy. “Five identical agents-”
“I said similar enough, not identical. Peggy Two was definitely the cutest-”
“You’re just saying that because you convinced yourself she had a crush on you.”
Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve, “I wasn’t totally invisible next to you, y’know. And, whatever, she had a nicer smile. And a nicer ass. But,” Bucky turned back to Tony, “this is important, all of them were professionals. Weren’t gonna let themselves be distracted from the job by anyone. Smile in public to be Captain America’s girl and that’s it. The four code names got demobbed after the war, went back to being just the one-”
Steve added in, “Kept one of them on the reserve list though, just in case.”
Bucky nodded, “Yeah, I read that too. Think they kept Peggy Five because she looked the most like the original.”
He could tell that they’d done it and Tony was entirely sold on the story (or rather, Bucky had sold it and Steve had helped out). Enough of the personal touches, the details, a bit of disagreement and it was convincing.
When they got home that night Bucky had noted down the important points, "'Cause I like the idea of five Peggys. How long do you think we can keep Tony going for?”
“Ten dollars says nine.”
They were both wildly pessimistic. Clint and Natasha worked it out fairly quickly, but they had more experience in that sort of operation. They happily agreed to keep the secret, as did Bruce when he worked it out at the nine month mark.
It was in fact two years and four months from that conversation to Tony being disabused of the notion of multiple Peggys. It was just a crying shame that none of the other Avengers had been there when Tony met Sharon Carter for the first time, and happened to mention in an offhand way about her aunt’s doubles.
Tony’s anger at being taken in was definitely not helped by Steve and Bucky’s mutual hysterics when they found out.
The Five Peggys was Bucky’s greatest creation while ‘trolling’, but he could come up with fantastic lines without even seeming to think about it. Especially for the intrusive questions that people seemed to think they could ask about Steve or their relationship, because Captain America was somehow everyone’s property.
Steve kept a list in his head of Bucky’s best answers for when and how they’d gotten together:
- 1936, As part of an orgy which swept through the YMCA, caused by aphrodisiac in the stew.
- 1937, In a foursome with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, the unlikely circumstances leading to which were some unholy crossbreed of the plots of ‘A Night at the Opera’ and ‘Horse Feathers’. Apparently people in the 21st century didn’t appreciate the Marx brothers, at least not enough to spot when their movies were being mined for stories. Bucky hadn't even bothered changing the name of the horse.
- 1939, After seeing the Wizard of Oz, because seeing it in the theater rather than on TV really does turn you into a Friend Of Dorothy.
- 1943, At the Stark Expo after getting locked into the House of the Future exhibit, when the helpful household robot went rogue and forced them to have sex.
- 1944, In Allied Headquarters in Paris in the room next door to General De Gaulle, because Bucky couldn’t risk Steve dying a virgin and every prostitute in the city had been infected with a Hydra-created venereal disease that neutralised the effects of the super-soldier serum.
- And of course, on Fury’s desk soon after recovering Bucky’s memories.
He knew that Bucky had really become part of the team when other Avengers started playing along with his trolling as well. It was a nice symmetry that Clint, as first victim, was also the first trolling wingman. Steve had been put on the assessment panel for the Agents that Clint and Bucky were teaching advanced sniping skills to, and was observing them via security feed. They were taking a break when one of the Agents asked, "You and Captain Rogers got any plans about coming out?"
That was the Agent whose performance Steve had already noted as being abysmal, and this just added to it. If you couldn't work out that 'openly dating Captain America' and 'covert operative' were mutually exclusive, then SHIELD might not be the best place for you. He had come to the conclusion that the Agent must either be a double agent running some complex long game, or had been employed as the result of an administrative error.
Bucky said, "We come out, and they're gonna ask us how we got together. And the press ain't ready for any story that involves Captain America and the Winter Soldier screwing on Director Fury's desk."
Bucky obviously liked that one, if he was recycling it.
The Agents had looked uncertain, not sure if they were being strung a line. But then Clint said, "No, really. I'm just glad that I didn't open the door five minutes earlier."
"You make it sound like seeing us fucking would have scarred you for life."
"Cap's team leader, I'm dating your ex-girlfriend, so, yes it would have scarred me for life. Scarred me for a few months walking in on you at the hasty cleanup and redressing stage."
"I still owe you a handkerchief, right?"
"Oh god, never remind me of that ever again."
Clint's horrified expression was wonderful, almost as good as the Agents' expressions (trying with various degrees of success to look neutral, but mainly failing).
Clint and Bucky had left the Agents to themselves for a short time, and of course the conversation was all about Steve, Bucky and Fury's desk. It was actually a very useful part of the assessment. He was marking them on their general skills and performance, not just their sniping, and their reactions to Bucky's trolling neatly fitted in with the grades he had already given them - the highest scorers were the most doubtful. And he was pleased that the Agent whom he had lined up for the commendation was the one who pointed out that there was no way that Fury's desk could take the weight of two big guys sitting on it, let alone doing anything more strenuous.
Being part of the team didn't just mean them playing along with Bucky, but Bucky trolling on their behalf as well. Bucky was most protective of Natasha, which was natural given their history, but she was also the other Avenger who got asked the most inappropriate questions.
For example, a very, very senior CIA official at a joint briefing asked, "Agent Romanov, we're trying to get a handle on the organisational ethos of Department X. We have some details from defectors in the 1970s about Department X using agents between missions for sex work, either commercially or for Party members-"
"Nah, ok, listen. You know Soviet bureaucracy? Well, Department X was actually part of the agricultural commissariat. And ‘cause we had to be all good little Stakhanovites, we had to overfill our agricultural quotas too. So every mission you came back, and it was a month on the communal farm. It wasn't sex, it was manure and threshing and milking. That was what was important to them. Why would they use operatives for sex when that energy could be moving the Five Year Plan forwards?"
And it was only because Steve knew Bucky so well that he could read just how angry he was, underneath the lightness of his speech. Steve couldn't read Natasha at all, but would guess that Bucky's protectiveness meant that she was pretty upset as well. The question had been sheer prurient curiosity, dressed up as a serious intelligence question. It was probably only Fury's glare across the meeting table which meant that the guy wasn't currently on the receiving end of some justified violence. And Steve had a feeling that the guy was more than likely to suffer a (non-fatal) nasty accident before leaving the building.
Steve had no intention of attempting to prevent this. He didn't like bullies.
The CIA man said, "This isn't mentioned in the briefing-"
"Because the agricultural quota was phased out from 1991. Were you keeping up with that fall of the Soviet Union thing? The bit where there ain't an agricultural commissariat any more?" Bucky sighed. "Y'know, I almost liked it. Kept you grounded. But Department X's newer guys, they wouldn't even know which end of a cow to milk." He turned to Natasha with a look of misty-eyed nostalgia. "You should see her change a tractor tyre. Only person in the world who could make that seem graceful."
Natasha made a disparaging noise, "Says the guy who could have changed it in half the time but decided to watch instead."
"Comrade Romanov, I was assigned to the dairy. It would have been wrong to question our superiors' assignment choices by changing the tyre for you."
After the briefing ended, when they were alone in the elevator, Steve said to Bucky, "So, no longer convinced that milk is made in a factory?"
"I was ten, I'd never left the city, it made total sense." Bucky grinned. "Still no idea which part of the cow milk does come from. Please don't tell me, I wanna be able to keep drinking the stuff."
Out of the Avengers, it was Natasha who played along best, completely deadpan and with just enough supporting information to make it convincing. Clint was almost as good. Tony usually added too many details, which made things seem too much like a worked-out scheme than an imperfect recollection. Bruce was never quite as convincing as the others in his delivery. And Thor, well, Thor usually just expressed confusion at the whole concept. Bruce and Tony improved as time went on though, and perhaps one day they'd get Thor on board too.
But Steve felt that Bucky saved his best work for things that concerned the two of them. Probably because he got more inquisitive questions than the rest of the Avengers put together, and Bucky had been trolling people about Steve virtually since they’d met.
The questions were worse when people were drunk. It lowered their inhibitions so they blurted out all the questions that they'd ever thought of. Quite often they were horrendously embarrassed about it once they sobered up, such as the sole time Steve had ever seen Agent Hill drunk. In retrospect letting Thor near the punch, even at a SHIELD-only party, had been a mistake.
She had weaved her way over to them and said, "Cap'n Rogers, I have to know. Why didn’t the serum give you chest hair? Why? Why?”
This was honestly something that Steve had thought about. When he was smaller he'd naturally assumed that if he ever did have his longed-for proper growth spurt he'd end up with more hair too. But the serum hadn't changed that at all. He thought that perhaps things that weren't important to his physical performance (like hair colour or voice) remained as they were, which included chest hair.
Bucky, who had also drunk quite a lot of the punch and was upright mainly because of Steve's arm around his waist, slurred. "He does. Chest hair. But, not all the time. Only once every four weeks. Like, like were-hair. But not with the moon. Lots of hair for two days, then it falls off. Like living with a dog. Think he's on a cycle. Like a woman. Refreshes everything. Hair's a, a symptom."
Steve wondered if this was one Bucky had been working on previously, as it was ridiculously detailed. But then again, Bucky's brain and mouth were the last things to stop working when he got completely drunk, and it was definitely possible he'd made it up on the spot.
Hill was nodding like Bucky had told her some profound truth. "Were-hair. Yes." She staggered off.
The email he got from her the next afternoon was a polite formal apology which also made it very clear that while sober she, on point of principle, never believed anything Bucky said unless verified by four independent (non-Avenger) authorities, and preferably backed up documentary and video evidence.
Eventually, Bucky's former employers, having failed repeatedly to either kill him or recapture him, gave up and went for splashing across the media the fact that a Howling Commando was still alive. Getting his face all over the papers across the world was a good way of reducing his effectiveness as assassin. It took about thirty seconds for the two of them to decide that this meant they were going to come out.
Of course, their coming out gave Bucky a much wider public forum for trolling. It started even while they were working out the best wording for their statement to the press. Bucky's contributions were to insert insinuations that there were Avenger-wide orgies, a sentence that definitely could be read as suggesting that he was a hermaphrodite, and a bald assertion that Eisenhower had personally approved of their relationship (“he might have done, you don’t know”). Steve had vetoed all of them, and had a proper talk to Bucky about public relations and being someone children could look up to.
After an intense debate, Steve managed to wrangle the concession from Bucky that he would not troll the President, the First Lady or Director Fury. Everyone else, apparently, was fair game.
Perhaps the message about being someone that children could look up to had sunk in, but in a very Bucky-universe way. Because the next time they met a group of children (ten of them, winners of some competition had been invited to a government awards ceremony), and one of them asked what the most 'awesome' thing Captain America had ever done was, Bucky had said very seriously, "He once punched out a dinosaur."
Now, when Steve had been that age, he would have at least pretended to believe the adult talking to him. But children were brought up differently these days and one of them piped up with, "But dinosaurs are extinct."
"Yeah, we thought that too. Turned out some Nazis thought that velociraptors could be their next best weapon-"
"Dad says that velociraptors aren't as scary as utahraptors-"
"You remember the Nazis lost, right?. But Ste- Captain America punched out a Nazi velociraptor."
Steve was caught between two perfectly balanced instincts. The first was never to lie to eight year olds without good reason; the other was to play along with Bucky when he was in full flow. So he ended up just standing there, watching.
"Where did they get the velociraptor from?"
"Genes from some blood in a fly in amber, then used that with frog-"
"That's from a movie." Steve was fairly sure that a child that age should not have been allowed to watch Jurassic Park, but modern childrearing didn't seem to agree with him about a lot of things.
"Well, yeah, but only because that movie was based on these Nazi dinosaurs. ‘Cept the Nazis didn't make a theme park, they used 'em as guard dogs. So I'm trying to shoot these velociraptors so we can get into the base, and I think I'm following them down, when one of them comes up in my blind-side. Thought I was a goner. That's when St- Captain America pops up, punches it. Dropped like a stone. Bam." Bucky mimed the punch for extra veracity.
The children looked deeply impressed.
As the children were shooed away, Steve turned to Bucky and said, "Should I be worried that you just cast yourself as one of the guys who gets eaten?"
"Nope, ‘cause I didn't get eaten because you punched the first raptor and me and the Commandos shot the rest, see?"
"What did we do about the T Rex?"
"You threw a huge bunch of explosives into its mouth, and I shot them to set them off."
"You switched movies."
"Just wait till I get to the part where we freed the little alien from the Nazi base and helped him phone home."
"I hope you feel bad about them getting told off by their teachers for making things up about Captain America."
"Finding out that adults are untrustworthy, lying bastards is a valuable life lesson. You should be proud of me. And this is boring. Dinosaurs make things less boring."
Steve gave a half-smile. "If we never came out, you wouldn't have to be here. Could be in front of the TV."
Bucky went from having a hand on Steve's elbow to a possessive arm around his waist. "Hey, people went to jail for the right of Captain America's boyfriend to be bored out of his mind at public events." Bucky leaned in a little further and lowered his voice. "That Senator who wanted you stripped of your rank is about four feet away, so I’ve got this sudden urge to make out with you, 'kay?"
Steve didn't know if that could be counted as trolling, but when they were in public Bucky could identify with pinpoint accuracy the people in the room who were most uncomfortable with Captain America being gay (or anyone being gay), and somehow arrange it so they would find him and Bucky kissing. Nothing too untoward. Nothing that would be worthy of comment if Bucky was female. He knew that there had been a very serious conversation between Bucky and Natasha about whether "giving a bigot a heart attack" could be added to your kill count. Steve didn't want to hurt anyone (and he didn't think that heart attacks worked like that anyway), but he was completely fine with annoying people who deserved to be annoyed.
Steve got the feeling that Bucky was actually disappointed when people were accepting of their relationship. Bucky was pretty angry with the world about a lot of things (most of them justifiable), and Steve knew that being able to fight back, whether verbally or physically, made him feel better. So every homophobic asshole Bucky could annoy in the present was a stand in for every homophobic asshole who'd made his life difficult in his teens and twenties, assholes that he'd had no recourse against at the time. Except for the ones who'd actually got into fights with him. But you couldn't punch every sneer or snide comment or veiled threat.
He thought that Bucky had even been disappointed at SHIELD's reaction to their relationship, which had been merely to tell them that if they both filled in form PN846 they could be beneficiaries of each other's pensions and health insurance, and it was form PN364 if they wanted to be granted leave together. Though form PN846 had been pretty irritating to fill in. Especially when Bucky had written on Steve's form, under "partner's pre-existing conditions" (ignoring the box Steve had ticked saying his partner was also a SHIELD employee), "sexual exhaustion" and "nymphomania".
"You're a nymphomaniac and you're sexually exhausted?"
"It's both the blessing and the curse of dating a super-soldier."
It was five years after Steve had woken up in the future that SHIELD caved in to repeated demands, and agreed to commissioning an official biography of Captain America. Still heavily censored, of course, and only up to 1945.
Bucky got the email first, and was caught up in such paroxysms of hysteria that Steve was a little worried that he might be having a seizure. As Steve leaned over him in concern, Bucky was able to point to the screen. Steve read and was torn between similar hysteria, and a dragging sense of duty. It was one thing to troll people in person, it was quite another thing to get things like that into an official book.
When Bucky finally recovered, about twenty minutes later, his reaction to Steve's concerns was to say loftily, "History is written by the victors. And we damn well won. So we can get what we like written."
"Don't we have a responsibility to future generations-"
"I'm thinking of the kids like me who were bored out of their minds in history classes. They're gonna pay much more attention to all the stuff about patriotism and loyalty if there are dinosaurs, dragons, nudity-"
"Oh, dragons are ok but naked people aren't?" Bucky grinned. "You've always been much better at having sex than talking about it, so maybe we should have illustrations-"
"Don't even think about it."
"Don't worry, the nudity wasn't going to be you anyway. Well, a little. But mainly nude chorus girls. And some really hot nude male dancers too."
"Do I want to know?"
"Not yet 'cause I haven't worked out all the details. I was thinking that there should be tigers in other parts. Tigers aren't as good as dinosaurs, but too many dinosaurs are unrealistic. And I still need to check up some things to make the bits where we hang out with Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and Judy Garland plausible."
"I still think we should tell the truth."
"I ain't telling you what to do. I'm telling you what I'm gonna say."
"Steve, most of what we actually did during the war is either boring or too damn violent for what people want to think about Captain America. People would prefer you killing dinosaurs to you killing people. Why not have fun with it?"
Unfortunately, Bucky seemed to be right. The biographer taken on by SHIELD was a professional, thorough in her interviewing and consistently neutral in her verbal responses. But Steve could see her reactions when he matter-of-factly talked about the brutality of a particular battle, or the numbing boredom or a week-long muddy trek to a particular base. The Captain America she was getting was not the one she wanted.
At the end of their final interview she said, "Thank you, Captain Rogers. I'm sure that Agent Barnes will have told you that I'll be having my first interview with him on Tuesday."
And Steve smiled his most genuine smile and said, "Yes, he mentioned it. I'm sure you'll find talking to him very helpful. I think he remembers most of this much better than I do."