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The sky was spectacular tonight, twilight burnishing the area over the water with soft shades of purple, blue, and pink and the lights coming on, bright white sentries keeping watch over the field. You could see the Parachute Jump off to the right, the water a dark mass beyond that as the sun slowly disappeared, and there was a nice ocean breeze to keep things cool. Night games were more the rule now than the exception; Bucky could even remember the first time they’d used lights at Ebbets Field, that there was a...a no-hitter that night, he thought, and the Dodgers had lost.

He’d check the memory with Steve, but he was busily doing what he always did at a game back then: jotting down statistics, drawing little caricatures of the players or people in the seats. Bucky was kind of glad that Stark had bought them tickets for a luxury suite; Steve had balked, of course, but then he’d found out you didn’t have to sit inside a glassed-in box, that there were outside seats too. And Natasha had wisely pointed out that Bucky’s situational awareness was still on overdrive most of the time, so a controlled environment among the crowds might be easier on him. Steve would never bring up Bucky’s continued problems with hypervigilance and paranoia—Bucky was a raw nerve, an open wound, one that, even if he couldn’t talk about it, Steve was always trying to soothe or protect. Whether Bucky wanted it or not, Steve often tried to put himself in between Bucky and the potential threats Steve saw everywhere: Hydra, government agents, the remnants of SHIELD, that guy at the pet store where they bought Fred and Ginger’s food. If Bucky hadn’t also been worried about some of that, it might have been funny.

They’d braved the lines at Nathan’s for a few hot dogs and Totonno’s for a slice, walked the boardwalk a little, but they were both in that disorienting state when you were suddenly reminded that you’d been transported to the future and everything was different now, you didn’t really fit. The Cyclone was still here, sure, but not much else of the Coney Island they had once loved. At times, that sense that Bucky didn’t belong here, that this was all wrong, was so acute it doubled him over and left him gasping for breath, longing to return to the cryochamber so he could turn off his messed-up brain.

But Steve had been right, Bucky thought as he watched the Cyclones make a nice triple play: a night out like this, watching a ballgame and stuffing their faces with food and pretending they were the sort of fellas who could relax, was not a half bad ticket.

“Did you go to games when you lived in Washington?” Bucky asked as Steve scribbled on his program. “It’s not the Senators anymore, is it?”

“Yeah, I did go to Nationals games. Though I’d often drive over to Baltimore and see the Orioles, for some reason it felt more like our day, even though they were a different team then.”

Bucky nodded and turned his attention back to the game. He knew Steve longed for him to talk more, he always seemed to get a little overexcited whenever Bucky spoke to him unprompted, and Steve was gazing at him now with that sappy face. It was...tough for him to get a handle on all the things squirming in his head or the random thoughts that bounced around his skull like jumping beans, and he’d spent the past seventy years keeping his mouth shut unless he was spoken to or leading a tac team. Sam had told Bucky that Steve had his own problems with that, too, that he worried over the mess of thoughts roiling in his head. When Steve and Sam had first met, Steve had been out of the ice for over a year, yet he was running out of hope that things would get better, that he’d get past losing Bucky and Peggy and the life he’d once been promised.

There was a quiet little chuckle from Steve and then he glanced up toward left field. “They have this weird thing at Nats games around the fourth inning, called the Presidents Race, where these guys—well, I suppose some of them could be gals, too—run around dressed up in these costumes of past presidents, with giant foam heads that give me the heebie-jeebies. I never figured out what the hell it was for, but people seemed to find it amusing.”

He wanted to say something about the damn dumb things people did at events back in their day, too, but he couldn’t remember anything usefully specific, so he just smiled at Steve and drank his beer. They sat that way for some time, keeping their eyes on the field, enjoying the companionship, when one of those random memories about Steve that bedazzled him from time to time sparked inside him, warm and fond.

“We played ball during the war, didn’t we? Or we tried to and...you were too good to play. Something like that.” He blinked owlishly at Steve, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake.

Steve’s face was like a cartoon version of himself: his eyebrows drew together, moving up and down like little tawny caterpillars, his eyes so full of moony hope, his mouth a melancholy, pained smile; all he needed was for his heart to throb in and out of his chest. Jesus, he was still such a sap, and Bucky was eternally grateful for that; when Steve looked at him like that he felt as if he’d been reborn, as if a caul had been removed from his head and he could see and breathe for the first time. “You wouldn’t let me play. Said I was driving the fellas crazy because of all the superpowered things I could do, and you were right. So I only got two innings in before I nobly bowed out and cheered the rest of you on.”

“Nobly. Sure you did.”

“You promised me that you’d make” —he stopped himself and glanced away nervously— “oh, you know, you pointed out that I was their CO, so it wasn’t like I should be doing that sort of thing anyway, serum or no.”

That was sadder than he’d recollected; there was nothing Steve loved more than baseball. Guilt pulled him into that undertow swimming with dark, cold, sinister things that whispered to him in the night, reminding him he’d been a terrible friend to Steve even before the Winter Soldier had taken up residence inside him. They’d been lovers before the war and during, despite Steve’s growing relationship with Peggy, but Bucky couldn’t understand why, when he was such an unredeemed bastard. The kind who could be made to forget his best friend, the kind who could be made to kill him. “I’m sorry” was all Bucky could say.

“God, no, don’t be. I was such an ass that day. It was supposed to be for you—I’d organized the game to try to make you feel a little better, you’d been so miserable after everything that happened in that factory. And I made it all about me, just because I was so carried away by what I could do.” Steve sighed and patted Bucky’s metal arm. “It’s only because of you that I managed to maintain any respect from those guys. You saved my reputation, like always.”

What Steve said to him hardly ever squared with what Bucky remembered about himself; Steve saw him through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses and all that ever ended up doing was giving Bucky a false hope that maybe Steve could love him again, despite everything that had happened. He could almost feel sorry for Steve: the day they’d met he’d given Steve a life sentence of Bucky Barnes and there was no escape for him now.

As Steve took his hand away Bucky seized it back, closing his fingers over Steve’s knuckles, their hands resting on his left thigh. The pulse jumped in Steve’s throat, his chest moved up and down with fast, shallow breaths, and then he slowly turned his gaze back to the game; Bucky was pretty sure his eyelashes fluttered, for fuck’s sake. He couldn’t really jot down statistics anymore, but that didn’t seem to bother him.

He held fast to Steve’s hand, the steady solidness of it. At the top of the ninth inning the rest of that memory came rushing back to Bucky: he’d made a placating remark to Steve about hoping that at some point, the scientists would get a handle on that serum and make Steve a whole superpowered team he could play baseball with.

Maybe the future was frequently nothing more than a nightmarish funhouse, but here was one thing that could be fixed, here was one thing Bucky could do for Steve. Bucky smiled to himself and squeezed Steve’s hand even tighter.

 


 

If they were going to divide up teams relatively fairly, Bucky and Steve should be on opposing sides, really. But he looked at his chart of potential players and he just couldn’t envision playing without Steve being on the same side, although he could easily envision Steve’s crestfallen face if Bucky told him they should split up.

“I don’t know how agile that suit’s gonna be,” Sam said, looking at Bucky’s roster. “I assume they’re gonna fly, but everything else—who knows how well they can move.”

“How are you gonna run the bases if you get a hit?” Bucky circled a finger in the direction of Sam’s back.

“Yeah, yeah, okay. So, maybe we should look at this as put the ones who’ll run with their actual feet evenly on each side, and the ones who’ll use other means to get to base.”

“Except there’s only really three flyers, and you know Rhodes will choose Stark’s team. And that’s assuming everyone enhanced doesn’t hit a homer every at bat. Agility might be limited but the suits have a lot of power, maybe even more than me and Steve do.”

“Ugh, yeah, crap. This is harder than I thought. Well, let’s go see how it flies” —Sam scowled at Bucky’s smirk over the unintentional pun— “and who’s in before we worry about the line-up.” Sam was such a comforting presence whenever Bucky had to do something uncomfortable; as much shit as he gave Bucky about, well, nearly everything, he was so grounded, so open and honest about his own losses and hurts, that it made you just feel...safe, and Bucky could see why Steve had instantly become friends with him. Steve had never been the type to open up to anyone, but he had to Sam almost immediately, and Bucky sometimes wondered if Steve wasn’t a little bit in love with Sam, because who wouldn’t be?

When Bucky had first come back with Steve, he looked like he’d been on the Bowery and smelled like a garbage fire, the results of never stopping long enough to allow someone to find him, avoiding human contact, and yet somehow no one had recoiled from him. Despite the fact that he’d nearly killed Sam and Natasha a couple of times, they’d been—remarkably even-handed, even sometimes kind to him.

Stark and Dr. Banner—who was mostly unafraid of Bucky for obvious reasons, and seemed to like to talk to him a lot about PTSD—were having some kind of disagreement about something with a guy in a lab coat on a big screen that hovered in the middle of the room.

“What can we do you for?” Stark asked coolly, when they had finished, and Bruce’s eyes flicked back and forth between Bucky and Tony, cautious. He might not have been the most polite person in their group, but Tony had, over time, become less twitchy around Bucky; he’d even said once that forgiveness was the easy part, it was the forgetting that was hard, and Bucky thought that was more than he deserved.

“Steve’s birthday is next week, and I had an idea about something we could do for him.”

“Surprise party? We tried that last year. Turns out he has a terrifyingly overdeveloped startle response. Ask me how I know.” Bucky wasn’t certain if that was a brush-off or not and they should just leave, but Sam’s grin told him it was okay.

“Yeah, he always did. Get the snot beat out of you often enough you get better about not letting yourself be blindsided.” Bruce chuckled and Tony’s body language seemed to shift a little, more open, not as guarded as he usually was around Bucky. “Not a surprise party—well, not exactly. A baseball game. I owe him.”

“Oh, this is something new. Do tell.” Tony pulled out a stool behind a table littered with unidentifiable junk and gestured magnanimously; Bucky launched into the story.

“Cute. But—you do realize that I’m a—did they have the word nerd back then? Because that’s what I was, a science geek, and I did not play sportsball.”

“A geek was someone who bit the heads off chickens in circus sideshows.”

With a look of extreme distaste, Tony muttered, “God, I forget how socially advanced you people were back then. Well, I understand the basic principles of the game and may even allow as to having had a catch with Dad. Really awkward and strained and we figured out that we would never be all Field of Dreams. But with the suit...yeah, maybe.” He was drumming a pen back and forth on the table at rapid speed—Christ but that was irritating, it set Bucky on edge, reminded him of the clatter of the cryochamber back in the early days. “Dibsies on the Other Guy.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Bruce moaned. “That would not be a healthy choice, for anyone.”

“I was planning for you to just play normal size,” Bucky allowed, but Bruce kept shaking his head.

“Why are you assuming you’re captaining a team?” Sam challenged, and Tony scoffed.

“Come on, Team Cap and Team Iron Man. It’s a natural.”

“Oh, ’cause anything with this bunch of freaks is natural.” Sam grinned, though, and Bucky relaxed a bit.

Bucky got back to his point: “With Colonel Rhodes on your team and the...Other Guy, it wouldn’t really matter if anyone’s experienced. It’s more about Steve having a good time, being able to play with a few people who are up to his speed and power. Filling out the team with nonpowered people.”

“No, really,” Bruce said, holding his hands up. “I might—it would not be a good idea to have me participate in any sporting event, at any size. Although—now that I think about it, maybe I could be the umpire. Someone’s gotta do it, right? No one will take the chance of stepping to me if they think I made a bad call.” He seemed quite taken with that idea, more animated than Bucky had ever seen him, smiling like a little kid. “And I did always like baseball.”

Pointing the pen at him, Tony said, “That is a really good idea.” Why did Bucky get the impression that Tony liked it because he figured Bruce would be in his pocket as umpire?

“I made some potential rosters.” Bucky slipped the page across the table to him—Steve had warned him once that Tony didn’t like to be handed things, which made Bucky blink and ask and everyone thinks I’m the one who needs mental help? “I figured you were probably in contact with some of these folks and could call them and ask—”

“Okay, pump those brakes a little here, Bull Durham. If I don’t get a Hulk, why do you get an Asgardian prince with a hammer of the gods?”

Sam broke in. “Again, why are you assuming this is your team?”

This was decidedly not how Bucky wanted this to go. “It was just an idea. I wanted to get as many people to play as possible, even though we won’t have nine-person teams, and different abilities made sense. I just want Steve to have a nice time on his birthday and finally get a chance to do something that was denied to him for so long.” Bucky made his eyes extra wide, threw a little tremor into his voice there at the end.

“My god you’re transparent. You learned that Bambi shit from Rogers, didn’t you?” Dammit.

Stark scanned the list of Avengers and adjacent people that Sam had thought would wish to be included, shared a look with Bruce that Bucky couldn’t quite read. “I bet Hill’s a terror on the mound, so yeah, I’ll take her, and Pepper, obviously. Maybe I’ll call Jane in, too.”

“Isn’t she more of a science nerf than you?” Bucky asked. He knew girls grew up playing sports these days, but Jane hadn’t struck him as exactly outdoorsy the one time he’d met her.

“Nerd. The word is nerd, Mrs. Malaprop,” Tony said with umbrage. “If we’re gonna round out the superpowered with nonpowered, I want everyone I can get. Plus I happen to know she’s a huge baseball fan—she might not play but I guarantee you she’s all up on that statistics crap.”

Bucky wanted to have the nonpowered in the infield, especially pitching, because that way hitting would be a little more egalitarian and the flyers could chase down balls that went past the outfield. But Sam was giving him the hairy eyeball as he tapped Bucky’s ankle with his foot.

“Well, think about it and get back to me, as soon as possible? JARVIS ordered the equipment, but if you know of a place big enough that we could play in...”

“I have just the place,” Tony said, rubbing his hands together. He punched something in the air with his fingertips, moved his hands around, and a photograph displayed in front of them. “Acreage upstate Dad was going to build an East Coast R&D lab on back in the day. Only one building right now, the rest is open land.”

“It looks like a car dealership.” Sam wrinkled his nose and Tony scoffed.

“Just for that lack of appreciation for my largesse, I am absolutely bringing my A game and this is no longer a friendly competition.”

Under his breath, Bruce muttered, “You don’t even have a D game.”

Bucky groaned. This...was not turning out the way he’d hoped it would. “It’s supposed to be a fun, easy-going game for Steve’s birthday. Not a competition for who can outmaneuver who before it even begins.” There was a wild, shrill panic rising in his chest.

“Nah, JK. I promise we won’t ruin the game for him. I just want to make a good showing—if he thinks we’re giving it to him, he’ll hate that. He’d feel pandered to and isn’t that the whole point of playing with superpowered individuals?”

Couldn’t argue with that—Steve had despised people who treated him with kid gloves. “I just want him to be happy. He’s waited a long time.”

“Jeez, god, don’t look so hopeless,” Tony said. “We’ll make it work. Give him some real competition, make him work for it, but I promise the emphasis will be on friendly.”

Bruce put his head in his hands. “I just finished binge-watching Game of Thrones, I can’t handle more drama,” he muttered behind his fingers, and Bucky couldn’t help it, he surprised himself by grinning. It felt—good, surprising in a pleasant way.

Outside Tony’s office, Sam said, “You know what he’s trying to do, don’t you?”

“No?” Holy hell, this was exhausting. Why did people take up so much space, Bucky wondered, they lumbered around and made noises and flattened you with their wants and needs. He could barely understand his own needs and desires on a day-to-day basis without having to try to understand the motivations of a hypercompetitive supergenius. Maybe he should just stop while he was...ahead, or something like it.

“He wants to get Jane Foster on his team because that guarantees Thor. At least he thinks it does. Stark’s the kind of guy who can’t imagine that sweethearts might not necessarily want to play on the same side.”

An anxious thought sprang up: what if Potts wanted to play on Steve’s team? She adored Steve, but that could make Tony sore enough that he really would escalate the competition.

“Thor’s the prize here,” Sam said. “He’d be the power hitter and fielder, if Banner’s not playing. Even that arm of yours probably can’t hit as hard.” Bucky briefly entertained a hilarious image of Thor hitting a baseball with Mjolnir—it would disintegrate.

“This assumes that Thor can even play ball. Maybe he’d be a disaster.” Bucky sighed. “But is it wrong if I say I just want him on our team because it would annoy Stark?”

Sam’s grin was enormous. “Now you’re talking.”

He looked at his watch—Steve was due home soon. “I have talk to Thor and Barton and Romanov before Steve gets home.” There was an elaborate system for getting through to Thor when he wasn’t around that involved contacting him through someone in Asgard, sort of like a switchboard operator. Bucky felt apprehensive and awkward about it, but it had to be done.

Once he’d sent the message, he went in search of Barton and Natasha. Before Bucky’d even finished outlining his plan, Barton said, “I’m in. Especially if there’s a way to annoy Stark.”

“I thought with your marksmanship skills, you’d be the natural choice for pitcher.” Barton would probably never throw outside someone’s strike zone.

Clint nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, but I gotta tell you—I’m good, and Thor’s got the power, but she’s the one you want on the team.” He jerked a thumb in Natasha’s direction.

She was making tea over in the common area kitchen. He leaned forward and asked Clint, low, “But she was raised in Russia, and they didn’t play baseball, right?” He was pretty sure they didn’t, but it wasn’t exactly like he paid attention to popular cultural pursuits and his memories of anything outside of where he was kept had been muddied by time.

Natasha shrugged and Clint sat back, studied Bucky’s face. “Is this because she’s a woman or because she’s Russian?” he asked. “Trust me. If you’re looking for the ringer, she’s the one you want. They won’t see her coming.”

She set a glass of dark, smoky tea in front of Bucky and sat, gave him a sharky smile, and cracked her knuckles. “Let’s play ball.”

 


 

“Something strange is going on around here,” Steve said, and Bucky turned his attention from the game on the screen to Steve. They’d been working through the old Dodgers games that Sam and JARVIS had put together, and they were now past radio archives to blurry film.

The way Steve cut his eyes over to Bucky, those caterpillar brows inching up and the parentheses on his forehead, trapped Bucky’s breath inside his lungs: that sweet, perplexed face, the one that Bucky had fallen in love with all those years ago. His little guy from Brooklyn. He wanted so badly to lean over and kiss that puzzled look right off, but he just didn’t know how: still dodging the clouds and shadows that hung over him, threatening to obscure Steve’s light.

“I went out for a while and came back and...everyone’s acting peculiar all of a sudden. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it feels like it’s directed at me.” Steve tucked his feet under Bucky’s left thigh and he may have made a little noise. Ever since the Cyclones game, when Bucky’d held Steve’s hand, he’d seemed emboldened to touch Bucky more often, handsy in an adorably tentative way: a quick brush of his hand up and down Bucky’s arm, a squeeze of the shoulders, bumping his leg against Bucky’s under the table. And it made Bucky’s heart hurt, knowing he was holding back because Bucky was still such a basketful of tics and twitches. While all the time Steve wore his own hurts the way other people might wear their scars, camouflaged, secret.

Bucky twisted his mouth and bit the inside of his cheek. “Um.”

“Also, Thor’s here, completely unannounced.” The corner of his mouth tugged down. “Something’s definitely going on.”

Though he’d really had enough of talking today, Bucky didn’t want to leave Steve in the dark. After Sam left him, Bucky’d gone to see Ms. Potts, who’d immediately—just as he’d worried—said she would love to play but that she wanted to be on Steve’s team. He’d explained that Tony had definite ideas about Pepper’s allegiances. “Oh, Tony has an exhausting number of opinions,” she’d said.

“He does,” Bucky’d said, shoulders collapsing with relief.

“I wouldn’t take it too seriously.” She’d smiled at him and he’d fallen completely under her spell.

He wondered what she’d say to him now—probably encourage him to tell Steve the truth. With a sigh, Bucky said, “It’s your birthday in a couple days.”

Steve groaned. “Not another surprise party full of people I don’t know.” He gazed at Bucky expectantly and Bucky recalled that look from when they were young, before the war had turned them both into different people: how each new day had been like an oyster, ready to be pried open for the pearl that might be hidden inside. That every day he was alive was a gift, especially when he was with Bucky.

It wasn’t simply that it was hard to talk to Steve—he loved him still, always—but...Bucky never knew if the things in his head translated when they finally came out of his mouth, if they would scare Steve away; he couldn’t tell his own thoughts apart from the ghost’s anymore.

“Not a surprise party. But it is a surprise. I just...wanted to do something nice for you.”

Steve untucked his feet and knelt on the sofa, leaning forward to hug Bucky, shy and hesitant. He patted Steve’s arm as it slid around him, the sound of Steve’s heavy-beating heart thumping in his ears. He didn’t know what else to do but return the hug. When you start from the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up: Steve was here, Steve was holding him, and he didn’t deserve Steve at all but he had him anyway.

His breath tickled across Bucky’s neck. “Then I can’t wait till my birthday. Can’t wait to see what you did. Whatever it is, I know it’ll be fantastic.” After a bit he broke the embrace and settled down beside him, but Bucky didn’t want Steve to see his face anymore, to watch the shake and slide and stumble that came every time Bucky spoke, to catch a glimpse of the bald desire that Bucky was certain was written on his face, so he lay down on his side and put his head in Steve’s lap.

With an almost inaudible, sharply drawn breath, Steve put his hand to Bucky’s hair and stroked it gingerly. “I don’t want to give it away, but it’s not a party, not really. You’ll like it, I think. But that’s why everyone’s acting strange. This is a strange bunch of people.”

They were quiet for a while—they’d missed a couple innings on the game so they rewound it—and Bucky found himself edging into drowsiness, relaxed by the hypnotic brush of Steve’s fingers against his scalp, the soft breaths that pushed Steve’s stomach against his neck. Bucky couldn’t even recall a time when sleep had come without a struggle, and he waited for Steve to say something for as long as he could, but the light grew dim and soon sleep covered him like a blanket.

 


 

“...and so we could beat his ass,” Tony was saying as Bucky came around the corner of the common floor’s main seating area. He flattened against the wall, listening.

“Why should I wish to beat Steven’s ass? He is my friend, and James is our shieldbrother.” Thor sounded genuinely distressed.

“No, we’d—it’s a bro thing.” Tony huffed. “We’d just make it look like we were gonna win. Make it more exciting for him. Guy hasn’t played ball in, like, ever—he used to be too tiny. Plus there’s a time-honored tradition in sports of teams vying for the top players. In this case, that’s you, big fella.”

“Ah, I see! Hijinks and shenanigans.”

“Whatever it takes, I’ll do it, come on, be on my team. I’ll give you a banquet hall and stock it with all the delicacies you can eat, build Jane her own research facility and arrange an endowment—”

“We have no need of bribes,” Thor intoned, and Bucky decided to step around the corner so he could gloat at Stark. “Jane is rather, I believe her word was psyched, to play. She quite enjoys the mathematical aspects of the sport, and she is fond of the captain.” He spied Bucky and his face lit up. “My friend!” Thor put his coffee down and held his arms wide; he was careful about making physical contact with humans unless he knew for certain it was welcome, so Bucky nodded and let him throw his arms around him and pat his back. “I received your message. I should very much like to participate in the festivities for Steven’s birthday.”

Bucky side-eyed Tony, who was side-eying him right back. “I was just filling him in on the plan,” Tony said.

“Uh huh.” Bucky folded his arms across his chest. Maybe he should be the bigger man here and let Stark have Thor on his team. He liked the balance of Steve’s team being almost all the core Avengers, but if Thor was okay with it, who was he to argue. “Have you ever played a game like this in your world?” Bucky asked him.

“We do enjoy sport on Asgard that involves throwing and hitting, but it is not exactly similar. Although I attended a game with the captain once. It was quite interesting.”

“Tell the truth,” Tony scoffed. “You were bored out of your skull.”

“It was horrible,” Thor said with a pained look on his face and Tony crowed with laughter. He grimaced and added, “But a friend does not express such things aloud.”

“You don’t have to play, it’s okay,” Bucky assured him, which earned a heated glare from Tony.

“No, I truly wish to! Jane assures me that playing is more enjoyable than watching, and I have usually found such things to be true.”

“You’re good people,” Tony said. “Seriously, be on my team. They’ve got two supersoldiers, two assassins, and one flyer, they’re set. Also, apparently, my girlfriend has betrayed me and wants to play with Team Cap, not that that’s destroyed my fragile and sensitive ego, not a bit. Pretty pleeeeaaase.”

Thor glanced at Bucky, raising his eyebrows. It was almost impossible not to like the guy, once you got used to him. Thor had told Bucky a while back that he’d found a kindred spirit in Steve, that they were warriors who had both lost their brothers in one fashion or another, navigating their way through this strange land. If Thor was envious that Steve’s friend had returned to him, but his brother remained lost to him, he’d never let it show, only been genuinely happy for Steve.

“Do the rules forbid me playing on both teams?” Thor asked. “Perhaps then I could be the...power hitter...for each of you.”

“Nah, that’d be way too complicated. The point is to have fun, and make sure Steve’s having fun. Go ahead and play on Jane’s team.” At Thor’s ridiculous grin, Bucky felt...almost young again, for the first time since the helicarrier. Looking forward to something instead of hanging in limbo or mired in his past.

Bucky waved a hand at Tony. “We’ve got one day to get everyone who doesn’t know how to play up to speed and figure out how this is gonna work with all the different...talents, I guess, so meet up in the gym tomorrow morning?”

“Yay, awesome, go team!” Tony said and clapped his hands. “I’m gonna go make shirts.”

 


 

They’d headed upstate to Stark’s property in the morning with a convoy of the rest of the group, a perfect July day that wasn’t too sweltering, Steve practically vibrating with anticipation the whole way. Someone had carved an actual diamond into the field a ways behind the lone building—“It looks like a car dealership,” Steve had said, and Tony had given him a withering stare—and there was a huge canopy with tables and chairs and what looked like enough food to have fed the entire 107th when they were coming off the line.

“Buck,” Steve had whispered when he got off the bike and saw the diamond and all the gear. “Buck. I can’t believe you did this.”

“I remembered, the other night at the game. What you did for me when I was low, and I wanted you to finally be able to play, the way you were meant to.” He didn’t care anymore about who was playing on which team or how uneven the odds might be, because he had made Steve happy, he’d brought that dazzling smile to his face after all these months of sadness and anxiety.

They were staring at each other like morons when Tony’d sidled up and said, “I had the groundskeepers set it up. The teams might be a joke, but I take my job as host very seriously.”

“This is the best present ever,” Steve announced, and everyone had swarmed around him, wishing him happy birthday and hugging him, and Bucky was pretty certain a few people were copping a feel in there, too.

After all was said and done, the game itself was almost anticlimactic, Bucky thought, long about the sixth inning. Thor had turned out to be merely an okay player, once he got the hang of things, and Jane might have been a fan but she was not much better than her boyfriend—though what they lacked in skill they more than made up for in enthusiasm. Maria Hill really was a demon on the mound; it turned out she’d played all her life and pitched in a softball league when she was in the lower ranks at SHIELD, and she was good enough to actually strike out Bucky once. Stark’s and Rhodey’s suits were great in the air, but as clumsy as Sam had predicted on the ground, and at one point Rhodey’d thrown the bat away and said he was just going to hit the ball with his gauntleted hand. And Natasha—she was every bit the ringer Clint had said she’d be, an excellent catcher and strategist who’d put even the best coaches Bucky had seen to shame, and it was her more than Bucky or Steve who turned out to be their power player. Jane had brought her assistant, Darcy, to round out Steve’s team; mostly she seemed to really like punching her mitt and shouting at the other players.

It was crazy, no-holds barred, rules-breaking, often hilariously inept—and almost exactly what you could have expected and hoped for from such a strange collection of people. But most important, Steve simply could not stop smiling; Bucky couldn’t even remember the last time there’d been such happiness in his life, it was so long ago. He could hit and throw as hard as he wanted, knocked out one homer, and even stole home.

By the bottom of the sixth inning, Bucky could tell that the nonpowered people were getting fatigued trying to keep up with the powered ones; he considered proposing a break for food when he caught Thor watching him, as if he knew what Bucky was thinking. Thor winked at him—he was certain he wasn’t imagining that—and then suddenly the heavens opened up and rain poured down as everyone ran to the canopy for shelter.

They spent the rest of the afternoon and evening eating and drinking, enjoying each other’s company. Pepper announced that they’d set up an impromptu fireworks show so they wouldn’t have to drive back to the city; it wouldn’t have been Steve’s birthday without fireworks and he got a little misty-eyed with gratitude. She’d let her gaze linger on Thor when she said it, even though he’d pretended to have nothing to do with it, but the rain eventually stopped in time for things to dry out and so they could watch a lovely orange-sky sunset.

When no one was looking at them, Steve caught Bucky’s hand and hauled him out around to the back of the canopy, where they were hidden by the draping. He pulled Bucky against him and kissed him fiercely, for once not a trace of hesitation or worry. God, how could he have forgotten how much he loved kissing Steve? The sunny-warm scent of him, his big hands moving across Bucky’s skin, the desperate little noises that came from his throat.

“This is the best, most thoughtful birthday present ever. Including that year you took me up on the roof and gave me a blowjob.”

“Well, I made you a promise in the war, didn’t I?” Bucky said, kissing him back and slipping his hand up underneath Steve’s shirt, lit up with the joy of rediscovery. He should never have waited so long.

“That wasn’t what you promised me.” Steve batted his eyelashes, all coyness and charm, and he was so terrible at this still, so terrible.

“Oh? Refresh my memory.”

Steve wound his fingers through Bucky’s hair, kissed down along the curve of his jaw to the hollow of his throat. “You wanted to make it up to me in our quarters. You made lewd gestures with the baseball gear.”

“Oh, right. Sort of like this?” he asked, snaking his hand inside Steve’s jeans and palming his dick, rubbing up and down; Steve jerked and—giggled, was really all you could call it. Bucky ran his tongue along the curve of those gorgeous, bee-stung lips, and added, “But I do remember what else I said—that I hoped someday they’d fix that serum so you could play with a whole army of fellas just like you. That’s what I wanted to give to you. You were so kind to me then, and I loved you so much for it.”

“You did, and then some. It’s been the best day. Even with a rain-out.” He put his hand to Bucky’s cheek. “You went through so much back then, and you deserved, even for a little while, to be loved and happy.”

“I’m not so sure about this guy, though.”

“Not one bit less. Not one.” Steve was vehement, drawing Bucky tighter against him. His hands roamed over the small of Bucky’s back as he kissed him, tongue teasing Bucky’s, and then abruptly he stopped. Bucky pulled away and shook the lust fog out of his head: Steve was staring, red-faced, past him.

“They’re behind us, aren’t they?” He turned to find the entire damn group standing there staring at him and Steve with the dopiest smiles on their ridiculous faces.

Sam cleared his throat. “The real fireworks are starting soon.”

“Give us a minute,” and Bucky didn’t know about Steve, but it would take a little more than a minute to tamp down the raging hard-on he had right now.

Steve smoothed his hair and straightened his shirt; Bucky did the same. Before they slipped around front, Bucky pressed Steve’s palm to his mouth. “I do love you, you know. You wonder sometimes if I still could, I can tell. Maybe I can’t always trust what’s in my head, that I always know what’s real and what’s not, but that—that’s something that I do know.”

They joined the others and presently the fireworks began. Bucky looked at all of it, breathing in the summer-scented darkness, still not quite able to believe that all of this was real: he was surrounded by friends, Steve pressed tight against his side and dropping little kisses on his cheek from time to time, while above them colors lit the night sky, brightly bursting, bursting.