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There's a crowd gathered in the office when Steve walks in, looking at the window in the wall of Coulson's office. Coulson is their boss, and usually if there's a crowd it means he's doing something weird and forgot to close his blinds again. They once all watched as he sang to his orchid for half an hour.

"What's going on?" Steve asks.

"Coulson found out about Sharon's trip to London," Bruce says in a hushed voice. Steve winces. Sharon went to London to visit Peggy. Coulson is notorious for being harsh about fraternizing with former employees. Peggy worked with them nearly two years ago, when Sharon hadn't even worked there yet, but left to take some government contract job in London. Coulson hadn't been pleased. Steve’s kept in touch with Peggy, too, but he’s never flown across the ocean to see her.

Steve peers over Bruce's head and sees Sharon gritting her teeth as Coulson gives her his patented Disappointed look. Really it's his angry look, but he passes it off as disappointed instead to make whoever he's chewing out feel bad. When Coulson gestures toward the door and Sharon starts coming out of the office, everyone gathered around scatters.

Sharon slams the door behind her and storms to her desk. She starts to gather her things. "It's been nice knowing you all," she snarls. "I'll never hear from any of you again, apparently, because I'm now a former employee and fraternizing gets you fired even when it's your own cousin."

Steve's mouth drops open in shock. "You got fired?" He asks. He glances toward Coulson's office. The man himself seems pretty serene considering he just fired someone.

"I got fired," Sharon confirms. "Effective immediately, no severance, do not pass go."

The mood is decidedly down for the rest of the day. The office is usually raucous and loud, but everyone's subdued after Sharon leaves. After lunch, Coulson comes out of his office and looks around.

"You're all very quiet," he says mildly. No one can seem to look at him straight on, instead glancing at him a little as they all type very busily. Steve's literally just got a Word document open and is typing nonsense. Coulson frowns. "I know you all think I'm being overly harsh, but there's a reason those people left."

"Cynthia's reason was to have a baby," Clint reminds him quietly. A baby none of them have even seen, despite working with Cynthia for over a year.

"Peggy moved to a whole different country," Steve adds, finally closing his useless Word document and lifting his chin. He sees Natasha smirk a little out of the corner of his eye. They're all gearing up for him to start ranting.

"She left our company. Anytime you speak with someone who left our company, it makes me wonder if you're planning to leave our company."

"It doesn't exactly encourage us fostering close team relationships," Steve says, eyes narrowing. "Isn't that what you say you want for us? To be like a family? Families don't just cut each other off."

"I think Amish families do," Tony mumbles absently. He actually is working, though it's even odds whether he's working on something that's actually for work.

"They do shun their members," Bruce says thoughtfully.

"The Amish have a very high rate of children born less than nine months after their parents were wed," Thor pipes up, completely proving that he hasn't been paying one bit of attention to this conversation. He's probably g-chatting with his girlfriend. Steve knows he does it, and technically, as the team lead, he should put a stop to it, but he never does. Thor finishes his projects, and that's all Steve cares about.

"I do want us to be a family," Coulson steers them all back on track. "And it's a betrayal when someone leaves the family."

"That sounds like the mob," Natasha points out.

"Sounds like my family," Clint mutters.

"This is the policy," Coulson says firmly. "You all know it's the policy. You all have known. So I'm not sure why you're continuously surprised when I enforce the policy."

He raises an eyebrow, daring anyone to add anything else, and Steve bites his tongue. He doesn't need to get in a fight with his boss on a Monday afternoon. And he especially doesn't need to get in a fight with his boss over this particular policy.

Because Steve himself is violating it in the biggest way.

 

"Buck?" Steve asks as he walks in the front door, loosening his tie. "You home yet?"

"In here," Bucky calls from the kitchen. "You want barbeque or teriyaki on your chicken?"

"Teriyaki, please," Steve requests, rounding the corner. He comes up behind Bucky and sort of glomps onto him, resting against his back and nuzzling his face down into the juncture of his neck and shoulder. "Thanks," he mouths against Bucky's neck. Bucky turns his head for a proper kiss and wrinkles his nose a little.

"You smell like desperation."

Steve huffs. "Sharon got fired today."

Bucky's eyebrows fly up to meet his hairline. "Whoa, what? Why?"

Steve sighs and rests his forehead back down against Bucky's shoulder. "Coulson found out about her visit to Peggy," he says, voice muffled in Bucky's shirt.

Bucky whistles, setting down the teriyaki sauce and twisting to face Steve. He snakes his arms around Steve's waist and lets Steve rest there for a minute, rubbing his back.

"Sorry Sharon got fired," he says softly. "I know she was your pal."

Steve harrumphs a little. "Mostly I'm just worried."

Bucky pulls back a little and gives him a crooked grin. "Worried that living in sin with me will get you in more trouble than just eternal damnation?"

Steve rolls his eyes. "You know I don't think I'm going to be eternally damned for this."

Bucky laughs. "Just for other things."

Steve laughs, too. "Plenty of other things, but not..." Loving you. His words stick a little. He and Bucky haven't exchanged I love yous. Yet. He's pretty sure it's a yet.

Okay, he knows it. They've been best friends since they were 9, lived down the street from each other as kids and haven't looked back since. Bucky leaving the company wasn't going to end their friendship, and Steve's pretty sure Coulson's pretending not to know that because Steve's good at corralling everyone into doing their jobs. Living together, though, dating—well, that's a little different.

And fairly new for them. They weren't a couple when Bucky worked there. Hell, it's been a year since Bucky worked there and they didn't become a couple until four months ago. Coulson had plausible deniability about Steve keeping in touch with Bucky, but there's only so long that can last now that they're living together. Four months is faster than Steve would usually move in with someone, but Bucky's lease was up at his apartment and it seemed silly to find a new place when he spent most of his time at Steve's, anyway. Besides, it's not just anyone else. It's Bucky.

Bucky swats at Steve's ass. "Go take off your tie," he says. "You're making me uncomfortable just looking at you."

"I think that's called arousal," Steve informs him, making Bucky crack up laughing. Steve can't help but smile at the sound.

"I think you're getting a little too big for your britches, little Stevie Rogers."

Steve blows a raspberry against Bucky's neck in retaliation for the old nickname and Bucky squeals like a puppy. They tussle a little, mostly just using it as an excuse to rub up against each other despite the fact that they certainly don't need an excuse anymore, and then Steve heads to the bedroom to change into sweats and a faded t-shirt of Bucky's from college. He's happy at home. His job isn't his favorite thing in the world, his boss isn't his best friend, but here, throwing grains of rice at Bucky and then making out against the kitchen counter while they try to do the dishes, Steve is happy.

 

"Everyone, I'd like you to meet Maria," Coulson says. "Our new team member."

Maria looks like exactly the kind of person Coulson would hire. Her hair is in a severe bun and she's wearing a sharp suit with heels high enough to kill a man. She looks all business.

Steve spends most of the morning getting Maria's desk and computer up and running, getting her passwords and log-ins taken care of. He can almost do this in his sleep now, with how many new employees they've had come (and go) while he's been the team leader.

"Maria, are you coming to get sushi with us for lunch?" Natasha asks.

"Oh," Maria says, sounding a little surprised. "Um. Sure, yeah."

Steve checks his phone while they're waiting for their food, and he smiles a little at the picture Bucky sent him—Bucky and his coworkers playing golf on their office floor. Dugan’s mustache is getting ridiculous. Bucky has a pen stuck through the bun his hair is pulled into. He's allowed to grow out his hair at his new job.

"What are you smiling about?" Clint asks. Steve schools his face.

"Nothing."

Natasha's smirk is a little too knowing for Steve to feel completely comfortable. Sam knows about Steve and Bucky, but no one else at work does.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" Maria asks. That makes Natasha snort indelicately.

"Uh-oh," Clint mutters. "Prepare for the heteronormativity lecture."

"Not on her first day," Steve says.

"Sorry, did I say something wrong?" Maria asks, looking a little apprehensive. But not, Steve notices with admiration, backing down.

"I'm bisexual," Steve tells her. "And I'm a bit—"

"Defensive," Sam supplies.

"Scary," Clint corrects.

"An asshole," Natasha adds.

"Tired of assumptions," Steve fills in, glaring at all of them. Why is he friends with them?

"Ah," Maria says. "The aggressive type."

Sam immediately starts laughing. Steve just rolls his eyes. "I'm not as bad as I used to be," he defends himself.

"Sure, now that you've got the body to actually back up your words," Natasha says. "You should see pictures of him before college. He was so tiny and adorable and mean."

Steve can feel himself blushing. "I was a little, uh...angry."

"I see," Maria says. Then, after a second, she raises an eyebrow. "So do you have a significant other?"

"No," Steve says quickly. "No, I—he's not—I..."

Clint gasps dramatically. "Who is he?" He cries. "Steve!"

Sam widens his eyes at Steve while Natasha narrows hers.

"So you're seeing someone," Natasha says flatly. "You could have just told me that so I stopped trying to set you up."

"I'm—well, it's not—I—"

"I can see why you're an editor," Maria says dryly. "You have a real way with words."

Sam hoots with laughter and Steve can practically see the heart-eyes. It's not too hard to know Sam's type.

"What's his name?" Clint asks.

"I didn't say I was dating anyone."

Natasha levels him with a look. "Steve, please. You're the worst liar ever."

He bites his tongue before he can mention the fact that he's been lying for four months. Longer, technically, since he’s kept in touch with Bucky since he left the company a year ago. "I don't want to, uh, jinx anything," he says, hoping he can pass his blush off as shyness over some new relationship. Natasha's eyes soften, and Steve feels guilt slide all the way down his stomach and settle into his toes. He likes Natasha. She obviously cares that he's happy. And he is happy. But he's lying to all of them.

"Fine," Natasha says. "We'll leave it alone. For now."

Steve sort of forgets about it for a while; Maria proves to be a dry wit who, contrary to what Steve thought, doesn't just fall in line and do what Coulson says without question. Sam's crush can be seen from outer space.

He does walk in on Tony, Bruce, Thor, and Clint with their heads close together, whispering, and they all look up guiltily when Steve comes in, so he's pretty sure Clint's spilling the beans. He sighs a little, but it's not a big deal. They get drinks on Fridays after work sometimes, but on the whole they hang out at work and let that be enough. There's not much worry that they'll run into him and Bucky out and about.

That night, Steve gets home first, and he's shredding cheese for burritos when Bucky walks in. He doesn't have to wear a tie anymore. Not that Steve's jealous.

Okay, Steve's totally jealous.

"Guess what?" Bucky yells, even though he doesn't need to yell because they're less than five feet apart.

"What?" Steve humors him. He narrows his eyes at his cheese pile. Probably some more.

"Becca's got a boyfriend!"

Steve puts down the cheese grater. "What?"

"I know," Bucky says, coming closer and snitching a few cheese shreds. "Wants me to meet him."

"Are they coming to visit?" Steve asks, swatting at Bucky's hand. It's partially because he shredded the cheese for burritos and partially because Bucky's going to eat cheese now and eat cheese on his burrito and Steve is going to be the one paying the price for that.

"Nah, I'm going there next weekend," Bucky says, bumping Steve with his hip and stealing more cheese.

"Stop!" Steve whines. "Or you're shredding more. And sleeping on the couch."

Bucky pouts a little but relents. He hops up to sit on the counter and dangle his legs. "You gonna come with me?" He asks.

"To Indiana? To see Becca?" Steve asks.

"Yeah, she got a new place you haven't seen yet."

"You want me to go on a trip with you," Steve says slowly. "And stay with your family."

Bucky gives him a weird look. "You've come with me and stayed with my family a million times." Bucky's parents had moved with the girls back to Indiana, where they were from and Bucky was born, after Bucky graduated from high school. Steve went to visit the summer before college, since Bucky was there with them, and then, each year in college, he and Bucky spent spring break with Bucky's family since they spent so much with Steve's mom the rest of the year.

"Never as a couple," Steve says.

Bucky stops swinging his legs. "Oh," he says. "Do you...not want to?"

"I..." Steve doesn't know why he's being weird. Bucky's right, he has been to Indiana to see the Barnes family a million times. He loves them. He misses them. But for some reason he can't stop thinking about the fact that they've only been together for four months and Bucky already just assumed Steve would come with him. That seems like it...means something.

But that's probably more because they've been best friends so long. Not necessarily because it means anything about the depth of their relationship. Steve would like for it to be more than that—his feelings for Bucky are definitely more romantic than platonic, and maybe always have been—but he doesn't want to get his hopes up about it.

"I do want to come," Steve says, firm. "I miss your family."

Bucky's still got a weird look on his face. "You don't have to."

"I know I don't have to," Steve assures him. "I really do want to." Bucky's still frowning a little, so Steve steps forward and crowds up into his space, between his legs. He pops up on the balls of his feet and kisses Bucky. "Is your mom still going to let us sleep in the same room?"

That gets a smile out of Bucky. He huffs a little laugh. "She can go ahead and try to keep me outta your bed," he says, all bravado like he doesn't do what his mom tells him from hundreds of miles away. "Anyway, they already know we're living together."

"Yeah, but they still have the rules at their house." Bucky's parents never let anyone dating share a room at their house, not even when Bucky was talking about getting engaged to Connie in college. And then again a few years later. Bucky and Connie had a very on-again off-again relationship that perpetually left Steve in fits of anxiety.

"Oh my god, what if she really does make us sleep in different rooms?" Bucky groans. "I don't know if I can still sneak out the window and climb on the roof to the guest bedroom. Too old for that shit."

Steve wrinkles his nose. "I don't wanna sleep in the cat room." He's never slept in the guest bedroom. Bucky's youngest sister, Eliza, was in charge of decorating it when they moved. She was eight at the time, so everything—from the wallpaper to the bedspread to the pictures on the wall—is cats. Winifred's never redecorated. Maybe she's waiting for Eliza to move out. She's graduating from high school this year.

"You can sleep in my room and I'll take the cat room." Bucky pretends he's being gracious, but he actually loves cats. Eliza knew that and had been hoping the decorations would lure Bucky into staying at home with them instead of going back to New York for college.

"My hero," Steve deadpans. Bucky eats more cheese.

 

"Hey, Steve, karaoke or mini-golf?" Tony asks randomly one day.

"Um, for what?" Steve asks. "A high-school double-date?"

Tony looks highly offended. "For us to go out this weekend!"

"Us who?" Steve isn't 100% paying attention to Tony. The formatting is so weird on Thor's last piece and Steve can't figure out what's going on.

"Us us," Tony says unhelpfully. "Office us."

"Huh?" Steve finally looks up. "Since when do we do activities?"

"Since your bird boy wanted to hook up with the new girl."

"Sam doesn't need your help," Steve points out. Sam's the only one in the office still single and actively dating. Tony and Bruce are both married to incredible women, Thor's beyond blissful with his girlfriend Jane, and Natasha and Clint have a weird not-relationship going on. Though everyone else thinks Steve is still single, too. Either way, Sam probably has a better grasp on the dating scene than Tony, who's been married for two years.

"Sam does need my help," Tony argues, because he's Tony. "Because he won't make a move."

"Because Sam is a professional," Steve says. "He doesn't date coworkers." He raises his eyebrows at Tony. Tony's wife, Pepper, works in the operations branch of the company.

"That is rude," Tony says. "And pointless. Why deny yourself things you want just because people have rules about it?"

Steve rolls his eyes. "Well, sorry, Tony, but I'm going out of town this weekend."

"Where are you going?" Natasha asks, coming up out of nowhere and making Tony squeak.

"I'm going to—" Steve clamps his mouth shut before he can spill the beans. Technically, none of these people know Bucky. Bucky left before any of them started. Tony might know Bucky's name, since he was in Pepper's department, and Sam obviously knows, but really the likelihood of anyone knowing that "Indiana" means Bucky will be low. But still. Everyone here loves to gossip, and Steve is positive someone—probably Natasha—will unearth something.

"Are you going on a trip with your boyfriend?" Thor asks, latching onto Steve's blush.

"Um. Yeah," Steve admits reluctantly.

"Where are you going?" Natasha repeats.

"We're going to...we're going to Indianapolis," Steve says, going for some truth. They're going to Shelbyville, but Indianapolis is the nearest airport. Besides, Indianapolis is a big enough city that it seems kind of normal. "For his work."

"What does he do?" Thor asks curiously.

A little sweat pops up on Steve's upper lip. God, he's such a bad liar when he hasn't had time to prep. "He's in insurance sales," he blurts out. Why did he say that? He doesn't even know what insurance sales entails. It does the trick though; everyone looks bored already and he hasn't even said anything about it.

"What's his name?" Clint asks. Where did everyone come from? Why isn't anyone working?

"Adam," Steve picks literally the first male name ever in the world.

"Show us a picture," Tony says. "Show me show me show me show me."

"I don't have one." Half Steve's camera roll is Bucky.

Now everyone's staring at him. "You don't have a picture...of your boyfriend?"

Steve swallows hard. "He's camera shy." Bucky takes at least 14 selfies per day. Usually on Steve's phone. This has been happening since before they were dating.

"You don't have any pictures of the two of you together?" Natasha's eyes are narrowed in suspicion now and Maria has her head tilted to one side. Steve licks his lips, actively working not to look at Sam for help but mentally screaming for it anyway.

"It's a new relationship."

"Well, what does he look like?" Thor asks.

"He's...tall...er than me. He has red hair. He's very quiet." All he's doing is thinking of attributes that don't describe Bucky.

"Leave Steve alone," Sam finally says. Thank God. People usually listen to Sam. Well, about 70% of the time. Maybe 50%.

"But Steve has a boyfriend," Tony says, all hyperactive puppy mode in a way that makes Steve want to pinch the bridge of his nose.

"Tony," Bruce says patiently. "You don't have a right to other people's personal lives."

Tony pouts a bit, but it's mostly because he's bored. Despite how irritating Tony can be, he's very good at his job, and he finishes his work faster than he can get new assignments.

When Steve leaves, two hours early as approved by Coulson (he'd tried to take a half day and Coulson had been all apologetic while still not apologizing and completely shut him down; even taking two hours had gotten him an attendance warning even though he's only taken three vacation days in the past two years), Natasha requests,

"Take a picture of Adam!"

"Naked!" Tony adds. Steve ignores them both.

Bucky roars with laughter as Steve recounts the entire story to him on the way to the airport. "Insurance sales?" He asks. "What even is that?"

"I don't know!" Steve says, laughing now too as he tells the story. "You know I get flustered when I have to lie on the spot."

Bucky's still chortling while they're standing in line for security. "Adam," he says, shaking his head. "You're such a little altar boy."

"They were all standing there looking at me!" Steve insists. "I didn't know what to do."

Bucky shoots him a grin that makes his whole body feel light and warm and says, "You are so cute when you're fucking up."

Steve snorts and hip checks him, successfully knocking over their suitcase ("If we share a suitcase, Ma can't make us sleep in different rooms," Bucky had said logically) and causing a huge ruckus. He scrambles to get it upright and apologize to the people around them, and Bucky just keeps laughing.

 

"Steve!" Winifred cries, holding out her arms for him. "We haven't seen you in so long!"

"I know, Winifred, I'm sorry I haven't come visit more," Steve apologizes. It's been a year, which doesn't seem too long considering they live all the way in Indiana, but it's weird when he spent his whole childhood dividing his time between their house and his own.

Winifred squeezes him tightly. She barely comes up to his shoulder these days. It's strange when he spent his whole childhood with her taller than him, even when they got to high school and Bucky shot up seven inches and left Steve in the dust.

"Oh, don't apologize," she says. "You're a big-shot now."

Bucky snorts a little, because he knows how much Steve hates his job, and Steve rolls his eyes at him. He hugs Eliza and swings her around a little, making her kick her legs and yell,

"Steve, put me down!" She puts her hands on her hips. "I'm not nine anymore," she scolds.

Steve presses a hand to his heart. "Since when?"

She rolls her eyes, but she's grinning, the same little smile Bucky gets on his face when he's pretending to be put out by something. So Steve scoops her up and twirls her around again, and she laughs this time. The ruckus brings Ruth out of her hiding place in the kitchen, and she's all too happy to let Steve twirl her around. Ruth is only a year older than Eliza, but her developmental delays make her seem younger. She’s still in high school for another year or two, but she’s also taking a class at the community college at the same time, and everyone is fiercely proud of her. Steve wouldn’t miss her high school graduation, when it comes, for the world.

"Alright, take your stuff up to your room and wash up for dinner," Winifred instructs. "Becca and John will be here soon and your dad should be home any minute."

"John, is that his name?" Bucky asks, like Becca didn't already tell him and he didn't Facebook stalk the poor guy. Winifred gives him a look like she knows he did exactly that. She doesn't say anything about either of them sleeping in the guest bedroom, and Steve and Bucky are eyeing each other discreetly. They're going to just walk to Bucky's room and see if she says anything. Ruth, however, notices, and snitches in the way of little sisters everywhere.

"Ma!" She cries. "They're both going to Bucky's room!"

"That's where they're sleeping, honey, where did you think they were going to go?"

Eliza's mouth drops open. "You're letting them sleep in the same room?"

"They always sleep in the same room," Winifred says. Bucky's shooting both his sisters shut up or die looks he perfected two decades ago.

"But—" Ruth starts.

"Oh, hush," Winifred scolds. "It's not just anyone. It's Steve."

Steve's cheeks heat up and he ducks his head a little, trying not to show how affected he is by that. Bucky bumps their shoulders together. "Told ya," he says, like he wasn't scheming up how to sneak into the same room.

Bucky closes the door behind them on Ruth and Eliza's disbelieving cries. "So when I bring a boy home—" Eliza's starting, and normally Bucky would tease her about that ever happening, but she just got dumped so he's being nice.

Steve flops down onto Bucky's bed, the same bedspread Bucky had in high school and hasn't bothered to change. It's navy blue with white stars on it, stars that match the glow-in-the-dark sticky stars that used to be up on Bucky's ceiling in astronomically correct constellations because Bucky is a huge nerd.

Bucky drops down beside him and rests his head on Steve's stomach, rubbing his head around like a cat until Steve obligingly starts running his fingers through Bucky's hair. Considering how familiar this is, it probably shouldn't have taken them so long to get together.

They were here when Bucky told Steve he was looking for other jobs. He had tried to hide his job search for about two hours before he broke.

"Steve," he'd said, so seriously, "I have to tell you something," and Steve's stomach had dropped and he'd thought he's marrying Connie, he's really doing it this time, it's too late and I lost my chance. And then he hadn't lost his chance and had squandered it a bit longer before he lost all patience and had just grabbed Bucky one Saturday morning when they came in from a run and kissed him. Bucky had laughed and laughed and said it was a perfectly Steve way to do it.

"Falling asleep?" Steve asks. He can feel how boneless Bucky's gone on top of him. Bucky grunts a little and Steve laughs. "Come on, you gotta put your tough face on for Becca's boyfriend."

Bucky snorts. "Like even my nicest face won't be tougher than some college boy."

Steve tugs a little on Bucky's hair. "Do you mean because he's younger than you or do you mean something like...people who go to college aren't tough? You went to college too, Buck."

Bucky raises an arm and waves his hand around dismissively and Steve laughs because Bucky's just blowing smoke.

"Bucky, Steve!" Ruth yells up the stairs. "Dad's home!"

"Remember when your parents bought those intercom things at the old house so people would quit yelling up the stairs?" Steve asks while they rouse themselves. Bucky cracks up.

"I forgot about those, oh my God. And they didn't have the volume control right so you still had to yell into it to get anyone to hear you."

George looks up when they come down the stairs and his face splits into a smile. He looks a lot like Bucky, but sort of blurred around the edges. He's a bit softer than he used to be, especially around the middle, and Steve tries to ignore the new wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Steve remembers when his face was unlined, when his eyes crinkled up when he smiled the way Bucky's do but then the wrinkles smoothed out, like Bucky now. Steve realizes, strongly, for really the first time, that looking at George is seeing what Bucky's going to look like in the future.

"Hi, boys," George says, wrapping them each in an arm and squeezing their shoulders. "How was the flight?"

"Fine," Steve says. Bucky rolls his eyes.

"He slept the whole time."

George laughs, releasing them. "Good, that means he won't be cranky at dinner."

"Cranky!" Steve cries defensively while George and Bucky laugh at him. "I'm not a baby."

"Aw, you're my baby," Bucky teases, sliding an arm around Steve's hip and pulling him in close. Steve shoots a look at George, gauging his reaction. George shakes his head a little.

"I think I sort of thought it would be weird, but you two have always acted like that anyway," he points out. Bucky laughs and kisses the tip of Steve's nose.

"See, baby?" He croons. "We can be as lovey-dovey as we want."

"Ugh," Steve says, even as he blushes. "Get away from me."

"Boys, will you set the table?" Winifred calls. "And George, get in here and finish the garlic bread."

George salutes, even though she can't see him. "Yes ma'am." He slides a hand across Winifred's ass as he walks by and Steve, Bucky, Ruth, and Eliza exchange grossed-out looks.

"You have no idea," Eliza hisses. "They've gotten even worse."

"Super gross," Ruth agrees.

"We can hear you!" Winifred tells them, and they all jump and scramble to get back to work. Becca shows up when the table's set and all the food is done.

"Oh, sure, get here when all the work's done," Bucky teases as he hugs her, pretending he's going to give her a noogie.

She digs her elbow into his ribs. "Don't want you getting lazy," she says. "Steve, I swear you get bigger every time I see you."

"He does," Bucky says mournfully. "You wouldn't believe how heavy he is."

"Do you carry him around or something?" Ruth asks.

"No, he sleeps on top of me like an octopus."

"Bucky, don't talk about that at the dinner table," Winifred instructs.

"Mom, I meant actual sleep!" Bucky laughs. Winifred's grinning, like she knew exactly what he meant, and Steve feels a little overwhelmed for a second. He loves his mother, and he loves how well his mother and Bucky get along, but Bucky's family is loud and chaotic and so nice, too. It's been too long since he's been with them.

Bucky squeezes his hand under the table, giving him concerned eyebrows. Steve shakes his head, smiling, and Bucky searches his face for a second before his eyes smile and he presses their shoulders together.

John turns out to be a very nice guy who isn't fazed one bit by the Barnes family. "I have six sisters," he explains. Bucky winces sympathetically.

"I thought three was bad."

Becca throws a chunk of garlic bread at him. "You don't know how good you have it."

Bucky throws a green bean back at her. "Don't throw food at me!"

"Hey," Eliza bangs her spoon on the table. "You're supposed to be the grownup siblings."

"Just 'cause they're old doesn't mean they're grownup," Ruth says sagely.

"Bucky's never going to grow up," Steve agrees. Bucky gives him a dirty look.

"This from the guy who still refuses to walk past a cemetery at night."

George starts laughing but tries to cover it up with a cough. "He was very scared of ghosts as a kid," he says, a little guiltily because it's entirely his fault. He'd taken Steve and Bucky on a camping trip once when they were eleven and told them ghost stories at the campfire that had left Steve terrified out of his wits. He hadn't slept a full night for two solid weeks after that and had been plagued by nightmares for years. Sarah still brings it up when she wants to make George feel guilty.

"That's 'cause I'm Irish," Steve protests. "We respect the dead."

"We're Irish too!" Eliza reminds him. "And none of us are scared of ghosts."

"Hey, I mean, I don't like ghosts," Bucky finally remembers he's Steve's boyfriend and has to take his side. Becca makes a motion like she's cracking a whip and Steve sticks his tongue out at her.

"Becca's pretty scared of cockroaches," John says helpfully. Winifred shudders.

"Who isn't?" She asks. "They're horrible. And they're everywhere in the city."

"Yeah, out here we just have rats," George says, and Winifred shudders harder this time.

"That's why we got cats," she reminds him.

It's all a very normal and familiar scene. Steve can't even count how many nights he's spent at this table—well, a different table, in a different house, but with these people—talking about school and what fights he'd gotten in and the occasional boy or girl problem. That part wasn't as common for him as it always had been for Bucky.

After dinner, Steve and Bucky go on a walk with Becca and John. It's a little chilly, and John wraps his arm around Becca to tuck her into his side. Steve glances down at Bucky's hand. He and Bucky don't really hold hands while they walk around. They're not big into PDA. Maybe it's because they were best friends for so long; they got used to walking together without any kind of handholding or anything like that.

But they're dating now. They're on this couple walk. They're talking about date ideas and laughing about Becca and John's disastrous first meeting, when he accidentally dropped a textbook on her foot. There's no real reason Steve can't just reach out and grab Bucky's hand.

Maybe Bucky doesn't want him to. Maybe Bucky would feel weird holding his hand in front of his sister. Maybe Bucky isn't comfortable with PDA when their dynamic was platonic for so long. But they used to always walk connected—Bucky's arm around his neck, bumping shoulders together, throwing elbows at each other. It feels like they used to touch more in public before they were dating.

Steve grits his teeth. He's supposed to be the brave one. That's what Bucky says all the time. He steels himself and grabs Bucky's hand. Bucky doesn't even stop talking; he just laces his fingers through Steve's and keeps right on with his story about their dinner date last week that got disrupted by Steve overhearing a person two tables away making suggestive jokes his date wasn't into and deciding to do something about it. He says it with a fond little smile, like it doesn't bother him at all that they haven't gotten through a full dinner out practically in their whole lives without Steve interrupting it with his temper or getting sick, and Steve relaxes.

They're walking back, after looking around Becca's small apartment and oohing and ahhing appropriately and leaving her and John there, and they're still holding hands. Bucky looks over at Steve with a smile so soft Steve has to duck his head a little, a blush spreading across his face, and he smiles all night long.

 

"Did you take any pictures of Adam?" Natasha pounces the moment Steve gets back.

"No," Steve says. He and Bucky took about a million pictures, but Steve certainly didn't take any pictures with a tall redhead who doesn't talk much. Natasha narrows her eyes.

"You know, I'm starting to think you made Adam up."

"What?" Steve sputters. "No—no, I didn't!"

"You didn't what?" Sam asks as he and Maria come in. Steve raises an eyebrow. Did they come in together or just together? Sam shakes his head slightly and Steve gives him a sympathetic look, which makes Sam roll his eyes.

"I didn't make Adam up," Steve says.

"He seems made up," Maria agrees with Natasha. "You don't have any pictures of him and he has no social media accounts?"

"I don't have any social media accounts," Steve says.

"Yeah, but you're ninety," Natasha reminds him.

"Adam's real," Steve insists.

"I've met him," Sam offers. Steve thanks his lucky stars for Sam yet again. But it ends up being less than helpful; Tony and Clint were both coming in and heard Sam say it, and it sets off an explosion of indignation.

"Why has Sam met him and not me?" Tony howls.

"Because I can trust Sam not to be weird," Steve points out. Tony shrugs, conceding that point.

"You should bring Adam to the company party," Clint says.

"Company party?" Steve asks. They've never had a company party before. Last year on the Friday before Christmas they went to happy hour and got drinks, but that was the closest they’ve ever gotten.

"Yes, we're having a company-sponsored Labor Day party this year!" Clint says. "It's gonna be awesome. Free food."

"It’s August," Steve points out skeptically.

"You don't think you'll be with Adam for another month?" Maria asks, raising her eyebrows.

"I...no, not really," Steve says. Maybe they'll get off his back if he's thinking of breaking up with Adam. "It's not serious. I can't see myself staying with him long-term. He's...he's not right for me."

"Are you gonna dump him?" Tony asks, eyes big.

"Who's Steve dumping?" Thor asks, coming in a few minutes late but with coffee for everyone. Tony hugs one of Thor's giant biceps.

"Adam," Natasha fills him in. "Steve doesn't see them staying together long-term."

Thor frowns. "Then why are you with him? If you already know you don't plan to stay together, you should break up with him sooner rather than later."

"We're just having fun," Steve says. "It's not a big deal. We’re friends."

Natasha has her head cocked curiously at him, and Steve busies himself typing away. He's typing the preamble to the Constitution, but no one needs to know that. He needs to look like he's working so they'll all leave him alone.

"I have to break up with him," he informs Bucky that night. Bucky's eyebrows furrow.

"Who?" He asks. "Me?"

"No, not you!" Steve says. "Why would I say him if I were talking about you? And why would I do it in the bathtub?" They're taking advantage of Steve's luxury tub to relax in a bubble bath together. They like the scented bubbles.

"I don't know, you're a weird guy, Rogers," Bucky says, pulling Steve's wet hair up into a mohawk.

"I have to break up with Adam," Steve tells him.

Bucky cracks up laughing. "Oh, right, your other boyfriend."

"It's not funny!" Steve says. "Everyone at work thinks I made him up."

"You did make him up," Bucky reminds him, still laughing. Steve reaches back and gives Bucky a bubble-beard.

"They won't stop talking about meeting him and seeing pictures of him."

Bucky hmms. "You could Photoshop something. Maybe if you get a picture they'll leave you alone about it."

"Where am I going to find a picture of a redhead who's taller than I am?" Steve asks, making Bucky laugh again.

"I didn't know you had a thing for redheads."

"I don't! I panicked."

Bucky leans his head against the back of Steve's shoulder, straight-up giggling, and Steve can't even be annoyed about it, not when Bucky sounds so happy and silly. Steve mostly forgets about the Photoshop conversation—Bucky distracts him pretty well, once in the bathtub and then once before they go to sleep—until he wakes up and finds three pictures on his phone of the same redheaded stock photo model.

Adam, Bucky's said. Steve snorts and shakes his head. Well, fine. He glances at the clock. He probably has time to whip something together. But what picture of himself should he use?

His phone pings again, this time with a picture of himself. Use this one, Bucky instructs. Steve can't help the dopey smile on his face. It's like Bucky can read his mind.

 

He dutifully shows off the picture of Adam. "Well, he's very attractive," Maria says. "You're still going to break up with him?"

"I mean, not right now," Steve says with a shrug. "I think things will probably kind of fizzle out on their own. I think we're better as friends, you know?"

"Hmm," Tony says, somehow making just a sound judgmental.

"What?" Steve asks defensively.

"Nothing." Tony shrugs. "Just thought you were Mr. Responsible and Kind. Dragging this poor guy along seems out of character."

"It does," Natasha agrees. "You're usually really direct."

"To be fair, none of us have seen Steve in a romantic relationship," Sam points out. "Because he doesn't date."

"Thanks," Steve mutters.

"People do act differently in love than in other situations," Thor says. He, for example, is wearing a truly hideous shirt that his girlfriend's best friend bought him.

“It’s not love,” Steve says quickly. “And I’m not dragging him along. He’s not into me that much either.”

Luckily, Coulson comes in then and starts handing out new assignments, so Steve’s saved. For the time being. He really needs to dump his made-up boyfriend. But having a made-up boyfriend is good cover for the actual boyfriend he does have. Clint used to ask Steve to get drinks every Friday, but he’s backed off since he thinks Steve’s got someone waiting at home. No one tries to force Steve to work overtime now that they know he doesn’t have an empty apartment waiting for him. Natasha doesn’t try to set him up on blind dates since she doesn’t think he’s doomed to die choking on a piece of food eating dinner by himself.

He should have made up a boyfriend years ago. His friends all apparently thought his life was much sadder than he did.

“—are you listening, Steve?” Coulson’s voice breaks into his thoughts. Steve does his best not to look guilty.

“Of course, sir.”

“Can I see you in my office, please?”

Everyone practically holds their collective breath as he gets up and follows Coulson. He looks back at the last second. Sam draws a finger across his throat like he thinks Steve’s going to get beheaded, but Maria gives Steve an encouraging smile. Steve surreptitiously flips Sam off before closing the door behind him.

“You’ve been distracted lately,” Coulson says. “I’m a bit worried. You took some time off, and your work is slipping.”

Steve bristles. He took a few hours off and his work is not slipping. “I’m great,” he promises.

Coulson drums his fingers on his desk for a moment. “You know, I hear the chatter around the water cooler.”

“Uh…” Steve has no idea what he’s talking about. They don’t even have a water cooler. Or a sink anywhere in the office. They have to drink water from the bathroom.

“It sounds like you’re dating someone.”

Steve almost swallows his own tongue. One reason he’s kept his dating life a secret all this time is precisely so Coulson wouldn’t hear about it and ask questions. Steve wills himself not to look suspicious.

“I don’t think that’s pertinent, sir,” he says stiffly.

Coulson considers him. “I agree,” he says. “But if it’s affecting your work, it is pertinent.”

“It’s not,” Steve promises, eyes narrowing. He can hear the coldness in his voice and knows he should be pretending better, but this is pissing him off. It’s not like Steve’s the first person in the office to date. Actually, it seems more like Steve’s the last person in the office to date. Even Coulson apparently has some girlfriend in Portland.

“I want you to know I’m here for you if you need to talk,” Coulson says. The change in tact throws Steve for a loop.

“Well…thanks,” he replies cautiously. “I’m doing great though.”

“Good,” Coulson says. “And I look forward to meeting this boyfriend at the Labor Day party.”

Steve’s heart sinks as he leaves Coulson’s office. Right. The Labor Day party. That his boyfriend is supposed to attend. His tall, redheaded, quiet boyfriend named Adam.

The one who doesn’t exist.

 

“Steven,” Sarah says five minutes into brunch. “What’s your problem?”

Bucky starts laughing immediately, the honking kind that means he’s trying to be quiet. Steve glares at him over his menu. Some supportive boyfriend he is.

“Just work stuff,” he mumbles. Sarah actually stands up so she can reach across the table and push his menu to the table.

“Steven,” she repeats. Steve sighs. He doesn’t want to tell her because he knows she’s going to think it’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous.

“I made up a fake boyfriend to tell my coworkers about and now my boss basically ordered him to come to our company Labor Day party.”

Bucky’s still snorting into his water glass and Steve kicks him under the table. But gently. He’s not a monster. Sarah tilts her head to the side.

“You have a boyfriend,” she points out slowly, like maybe he forgot.

“Yes, but I can’t have this boyfriend.” Steve waves a hand toward Bucky, who narrows his eyes at him. “I mean. I’m not supposed to for work. Because Buck used to work there too and we’re not supposed to fraternize with past employees.”

“Do they know James?” Sarah asks.

“My boss does.”

“Hm,” Sarah says. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Steve answers, exasperated.

“That’s why he keeps jiggling his leg,” Bucky informs Sarah brightly.

“It’s annoying,” Sarah says.

“Tell me about it,” Bucky commiserates.

“Do either of you care to stop criticizing me and help me with this problem?” Steve asks, not actually offended. He knows bouncing his leg like that is annoying. Bucky’s been telling him that since they were twelve. And he knows how irritating it is when Bucky does it.

“I have been,” Bucky says, wounded. “I got you those pictures.”

Sarah’s eyebrows shoot for her hairline. “Is this a TMI information thing?”

Steve and Bucky can only catch the corner of each other’s eyes or they’re going to start laughing at her attempt to use slang. “No, I just helped Steve find a picture of his fake boyfriend,” Bucky explains. “Some model.”

Steve hands over his phone to show her. “I photoshopped it.”

Sarah examines the picture carefully. “He’s not as handsome as James,” she decides loyally, making Bucky beam.

“I know that,” Steve promises. “It’s kind of a high bar.”

Now Bucky’s looking like the Cheshire cat. Steve’s going to need to insult him in the next few minutes before his head gets so big it crushes them all.

“So you need to find this guy and bring him to your party,” Sarah says, tapping her lip as she thinks. “How are you going to do that?”

Steve’s saved from huffing out I don’t know yet again by Bucky. “I found the name of his agency,” he says, like it was some easy Saturday activity instead of an affair that brought up an awful lot of cursing. “I figure we shoot off an email and hope for the best.”

Sarah’s pursing her lips at both of them. “You realize there’s a much simpler answer.”

“Well, yeah, but Steve’ll get fired,” Bucky says before Steve can. “And I mean, sure, would that be so bad? Steve hates that job. But you know him. Wouldn’t want to take that mark against his good name.”

“I also have bills to pay,” Steve brings up mildly.

“We’d be fine for a few months,” Bucky says, and Steve can’t answer suddenly. We. The two of them would be fine. Bucky would cover it. For both of them.

Like real couples do, Steve’s mind whispers. He gives himself a mental shake. They are a real couple. Have been for months.

“Anyway,” Steve cuts in, hoping to change the subject. “How’s work, Ma?”

She gives him a look. “You’re uncomfortable with us talking about your fake boyfriend?”

“A little,” he admits. “Makes me feel kinda stupid.”

Sarah just keeps looking at him for a minute, and then she says, “Dr. Thompson’s appendix burst while he was performing an appendectomy on a patient.”

“Whoa!” Bucky says, immediately enthralled. “Hope he didn’t hurt the person he was operating on.” While he talks, he lets one foot brush against Steve’s leg. It helps Steve relax a little while he settles in to hear his mother’s gross ER stories.

The rest of brunch goes fine, and Bucky keeps one foot hooked around Steve’s ankle. Steve keeps stealing little glances at him from the corner of his eye, which is kind of stupid. They’re already dating. But lately it seems like Bucky is completely on the same page as Steve about how serious they are. Shouldn’t they tell each other how serious they are? Or do they not need to because they both know? But do they both know?

Steve’s starting to get a headache from his head going in circles. He loves Bucky. He always has, but now he’s in love with Bucky. He’s almost positive if he told Bucky, Bucky would say the same thing back.

But that last sliver of doubt is holding him back. Everyone—Bucky included—thinks Steve is so fearless, but he’s never been fearless when it comes to Bucky. He can’t be. Losing Bucky would be something Steve would never recover from.

“Hey,” Bucky says when they get home. “You good?”

“Huh?”

Bucky tips his head, smiling a little but eyes concerned. “You’ve been weird lately.”

“I know,” Steve sighs, tipping his head down to rest against Bucky’s neck. Bucky wraps his arm around Steve’s shoulders to hold him. This, Steve thinks, is safety and warmth. “I just don’t know what to do about this Adam thing. And I feel like…” He huffs, self-deprecating. “I don’t like talking about someone who isn’t you.”

Bucky snorts and lets his lips graze against the shell of Steve’s ear. “You feel bad for fake-cheating on me?”

Steve doesn’t laugh, though. If Bucky caught on that fast, does that mean he’s been thinking it? Steve hates lying, but most of all, he’ll hate if this hurts Bucky. Bucky jostles Steve to make him look up.

“Hey,” Bucky murmurs, bringing a hand to Steve’s cheek. “I know you would never cheat on me, Steve. You wouldn’t even take a note from Sarah Greg in the sixth grade because you were supposed to meet Libby Atherton after class. You’re not that guy. You’re just doing what you have to right now.”

“But I just want to do you,” Steve jokes, nuzzling his nose along Bucky’s jaw. Bucky laughs and brings their lips together.

“You do that really well,” he promises. “But quit beating yourself up, okay? I don’t like when people aren’t nice to my best guy.”

“You’re so cheesy,” Steve whispers, dropping his hands to Bucky’s waist to pull him closer. Now would be the perfect time to tell Bucky he loves him. They’re already kissing, standing close and pulling each other closer. But the words all dry up in Steve’s throat. It happens sometimes, but not usually with Bucky.

So instead of saying what he wants to, he takes Bucky by the hand and leads him to bed. Maybe showing it will help him say it one of these days.

 

“Alright, five-thirty,” Coulson calls out. It’s the end of the day on Friday, and Steve has only been pretending to work for the last forty-five minutes. It’s been a shitty day at the end of a shitty week and Coulson’s called him into his office twice today already. Honestly, half the reason the week’s been shitty is Bucky worked crazy hours on a deadline for two weeks and then was out of town for the last four days. Steve doesn’t do well when he goes Bucky-less for too long. Bucky’s been home at their apartment since 2:00 and Steve’s stuck here while he could be teasing Bucky and kissing Bucky and listening to Bucky try to talk in different accents.

“Have a good weekend, everyone.”

Steve’s out of his chair like a shot. He shut off his computer the second Coulson stepped out of his office. COMING, he texts Bucky.

“Wait, Steve!” Clint calls. Steve’s phone buzzes and he looks down at Bucky’s reply. Not yet but you will be. Steve snorts, but his mouth is going dry. “We want to go to happy hour!”

“I can’t,” Steve says automatically.

“You’ve ditched us the last three times we’ve gone out,” Natasha points out.

“I…well, I…” Steve doesn’t know what to say. He likes his coworkers. He’d like to hang out with them after work. But Bucky’s waiting at home. The solution that would make him happiest would be to invite Bucky so he can hang out with his coworkers and Bucky at the same time, but he’s not allowed to. This is getting too frustrating, and Steve can’t deny that this isn’t going to work long-term.

And that most certainly means a trip to HR, because the thought of Bucky being the piece that changes can’t even stay in Steve’s head.

“Steve?” Coulson suddenly butts in. “You’re not participating in team bonding?”

Now Clint looks sheepish and Natasha frowns. They all know Coulson wants them to be friends—though not good enough friends to stay in touch after someone leaves, of course—and neither of them meant for Steve to get into hot water.

“He’s dating someone,” Clint says quickly. Steve fights off a wince. Clint meant that to be helpful, but Coulson already thinks Steve’s mystery man is interfering with his work. Coulson raises his eyebrows at Steve.

“Your partner doesn’t want you to spend time with your coworkers after work?” The reproachful tone that serves as a two-minute warning for a lecture is firmly in place in Coulson’s voice. Clint shoots Steve a desperate look. Steve shakes his head.

“It’s fine,” he says, hoping he sounds appropriately chipper and not like he wants to shove Coulson into the trash can in the corner. “I can come out for a few drinks.”

“Wonderful,” Coulson says. “I think I’ll join you all as well.” He disappears into his office to grab his stuff, and there’s a stunned and slightly horrified silence in his wake.

“Sorry,” Clint mumbles.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve says.

“Why is he coming?” Sam mutters. He’s not a big fan of Coulson’s.

“This is going to be so awkward,” Tony says. He probably thinks he’s whispering, but Tony isn’t actually great at whispering. “I’m calling Pepper. They get along. She can distract him while we have fun.”

“Um, where are we going?” Steve asks. “I’ll meet you guys there. I gotta call—uh, Adam. And let him know I’ll be late.”

“Sorry,” Clint repeats miserably.

“It’s not your fault, man, really,” Steve promises. And he isn’t mad at Clint—it’s Coulson’s fault, honestly. He waits until he’s in his car to call Bucky, even though Bucky always scolds him for talking while driving, even when he goes hands-free.

“Are you on your way home?” Bucky asks without preamble. “I’m gonna order pizza but I’m eating it the second it gets here so the only self-control I have is waiting until you’re on your way to order.”

“I’m gonna be late,” Steve says, letting all his annoyance and dejection bleed through.

“What?” Bucky groans. “Why?”

“We’re having team bonding happy hour,” Steve tells him. “And Coulson’s coming.”

“Ew, why?”

“Probably because I said I wasn’t going and he wanted to guilt-trip me all night instead of just in the office, because he hasn’t yelled at me enough today.” He sighs. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Bucky says, sighing too. “Alright, well, I’m still ordering pizza. Guess I’ll have pizza and beer and Netflix alone.”

“I wanna be there,” Steve whines. “I don’t want to hang out with other people without you.” He wants to lie on the couch with his head in Bucky’s lap and Bucky’s fingers in his hair.

He gets a laugh out of Bucky. “Aw, come on, you’re a big boy. You can play with your other friends.”

“Shut up,” Steve huffs, pulling into a parking space. “Everything’s lamer without you.”

He can hear Bucky smiling now. “You sound like you’re trying to get lucky later.”

“Yeah, well, my other boyfriend doesn’t put out, so you’re my only hope.”

Bucky cracks up. “He better not put out. No one gets that dick but me. Not that I’ve been getting it a lot lately.”

Steve leans his forehead against the steering wheel. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Quit apologizing,” Bucky says. “I’m the one who’s been working crazy hours.”

“Bringing home the big bucks.”

“Saving up my cash to play sugar daddy for you once I convince you to quit,” Bucky jokes. Steve doesn’t say anything for a second. “Hey, I’m kidding,” Bucky says gently. “I know you don’t want to quit.”

“I do want to,” Steve admits, voice cracking a little.

“Steve?” Bucky asks. “Are you being serious or are you just frustrated right now?”

Steve blows out a breath. “I don’t know.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything for a minute. “Well, the offer stands, pal. In a no-pressure kinda way.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve whispers, throat getting tight. “I’m just tired of lying.” I love you. He wants to say it. But he feels like the phone isn’t the best medium for his declaration.

“I know you are,” Bucky soothes. “You weren’t made for it.”

“I hate Adam.”

Bucky laughs. “Me too, kinda. I know he’s fake but I’m a little jealous that he gets invited to company parties.”

Steve sees Coulson pull into the parking lot and closes his eyes. “I have to go.”

“Alright,” Bucky says. He sounds like he’s trying to hide his disappointment, and it makes Steve’s free hand clench into a fist. He never wants to be the reason Bucky’s disappointed. “Try not to mope the whole time. Have fun. Sam’ll be there, won’t he?”

“Yeah,” Steve admits. “And I like the team.”

“It’ll be fine,” Bucky says brightly. “You’ll have fun, have some drinks, and then come home and we’ll fuck all night long.”

Steve laughs but he groans at the end. “That doesn’t make it easier to stay here.”

“Oh, is it hard?” Bucky asks, voice all husky. Steve whines.

“Buck, don’t.”

“Alright, alright,” Bucky relents, returning his voice to its usual timbre. Not that it’s any less sexy. “Have fun.”

“I’ll try,” Steve promises. “See you soon.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Bucky taunts, voice husky again. He hangs up before Steve can complain. Steve shakes his head, taking a second to compose himself before he gets out of the car. Fucking Coulson and his fucking rules.

Steve keeps his jaw clenched for the first ten minutes as they’re all getting situated in the booth. Sam shoots him a warning look and makes sure Steve’s as far from Coulson as possible.

“Relax,” Sam hisses at him. “You’re going to have a stroke.”

“I was supposed to be stroking right now,” Steve mutters back, earning himself one of the most horrified looks Sam has ever given him.

“That was unnecessarily nasty,” Sam scolds. “That’s just gross. Now I have that mental image. You think I ever want to picture that?” He shudders. “You’re a bad friend.”

Steve laughs. He starts to relax little by little—helped, obviously, by the pitchers of beer. He hasn’t actually had very much, since Thor is there and drinks more than anyone else put together without actually getting drunk, but he has enough to loosen up.

There’s a dicey moment when Tony’s friend Rhodey shows up—he’s a non-work friend who can be invited to meet the team, unlike Steve’s non-work love of his life who can’t be invited. Sam has to step on Steve’s foot to keep him from saying anything. Steve likes Rhodey, at least, so that makes it more tolerable.

Even Coulson isn’t so bad out of the office; he tells them his girlfriend plays the cello and Tony makes a joke about fingers and plucking that makes Coulson flush scarlet and everyone else screech. There’s a thump that probably means Pepper kicked Tony under the table.

And then Steve hears Bucky. He knows it’s Bucky, because Steve knows Bucky’s voice better than his own, probably. His head turns reflexively, because when he hears Bucky talking he looks. And there’s Bucky, leaning against the bar with his friends from work. Steve spends a second admiring the view—Bucky’s not wearing his fuck-me jeans, but there’s not really ever a sight of Bucky Steve wouldn’t admire—before his brain catches up.

Bucky and Steve’s coworkers. All in the same place. Shit.

Bucky glances over just then. At first, he lights up when he sees Steve, and it makes Steve’s chest feel all light that that’s Bucky’s natural reaction at the sight of him. But then Bucky realizes the same thing Steve did. His eyes go wide and he mouths shit. Steve makes a helpless little gesture.

Steve turns to ask Sam what to do, but at some point in the last two minutes Sam disappeared. Steve almost panics. How’s he supposed to know what to do without Sam? He looks around wildly, ready to call Sam back, and sees Sam and Maria on the dance floor. Steve bites his lip. Sam really likes Maria. Steve can’t interrupt that. Sam would forgive him (though he’d definitely bring it up to make Steve feel guilty sometimes, especially in times of decision-making or paying for drinks), but Steve can’t do that to him.

He looks at Bucky again. Bucky gestures toward the door, eyebrows raised questioningly. He’s asking Steve if he should leave. His shoulders are already slumped a little, his night in ruined by Steve’s job and now his night out, too. Steve’s blood starts to simmer.

“Steve, are you alright?” Pepper asks. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Everyone follows Steve’s line of sight. And they all see Bucky. Now Bucky looks caught. “Oh, James,” Pepper says, sounding delighted. Of course she remembers Bucky, and of course she loves him. Who couldn’t? She waves him over. Coulson’s giving Steve a calculating look.

“Hi, Ms. Potts,” Bucky says, studiously avoiding Steve’s eyes. “How are you?”

“I’m fantastic, James, how are you? How’s your new job?”

“It’s really great,” Bucky says. He gestures behind him. “I’m here with some of my coworkers.” Steve didn’t even notice the rest of the boys, which is nearly impossible. He can hear Monty and Dernier arguing over something, probably soccer, and he’s not sure how he missed that.

“Oh, I’m so glad,” Pepper says.

“James used to work in Pepper’s department,” Coulson says. “And Steve, weren’t the two of you friends back when James used to work with us?”

Steve swallows. He can’t talk about his friendship with Bucky in the past tense. He can’t do it. “Um, yeah,” he manages to say. His face is starting to heat up with anger and shame. His mother would be so angry at him right now. She thought the fake-boyfriend story was stupid anyway, but to see him sitting here pretending like Bucky isn’t his whole world? She’d be livid.

He looks up and sees Natasha staring him down. She can tell something’s wrong. She raises an eyebrow slightly and then tips her head at Bucky. Steve nods. How she managed to figure them out just by looking at them he’ll never know, but she bites her lip and he knows she’s got it.

“Well, I’ll get back—” Bucky starts to say.

“Who’s this guy?” Maria asks, coming up to the table. Behind her, Sam gives Steve a panicked look. Steve’s just sitting there, blank-faced, slack-jawed, burning with anger and frustration.

“He used to work with Pepper,” Tony says, looking at Steve with narrowed eyes. Everyone can tell something’s going on. Rhodey is looking between Steve and Bucky with wide eyes, but he’s not saying a word.

“Have you met Steve’s boyfriend?” Thor suddenly asks, looking up from his phone for the first time. Oh, God. Steve’s boyfriend.

Bucky coughs. “Uh, yeah, I have, actually.”

“And when was that?” Coulson asks suspiciously.

“They all went to high school together,” Sam cuts in. “Bucky already knew him.”

“Bucky?” Clint asks. Sam winces. He’s a little tipsy, otherwise Steve knows he wouldn’t have slipped up and used Bucky’s nickname. Steve wants to give him a sign that it’s okay, but he can’t seem to move.

“That’s my nickname,” Bucky says quietly. He’s staring at the ground and Steve’s simmering blood rises to a boil.

“Oh, is that why Steve said he and Adam are better as friends?” Thor asks, looking at Steve now. “Because you were friends first?” He does a double-take at the look on Steve’s face. Natasha’s eyes are boring into the side of Steve’s face and Bucky’s head is down and Steve hasn’t seen him in four days and suddenly he’s done.

“Adam’s not my boyfriend,” Steve snaps.

No one says anything for a second. “Did you break up?” Bruce asks cautiously. There’s a thick cloud of tension and awkwardness hanging in the air now and it’s choking Steve almost as much as his fury. He should’ve never had to hide Bucky. There’s no reason for it.

“Adam never was my boyfriend.”

“Steve,” Bucky says warningly.

“Bucky’s my boyfriend,” Steve says. Bucky snaps his mouth closed. “I’ve known him since we were kids and I’m not gonna let some stupid fucking rule come between us. He’s my best friend. He always has been and I don’t fucking care what job he has. I love him.”

The table goes silent, but Bucky squeaks a little. Steve meets his eyes. “Yeah?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah, Buck, shit, of course.” Steve feels giddy. A bit hysterical, actually. He sort of just lost himself his job, and he doesn’t even care. The two big weights on his shoulders—telling Bucky he loves him and keeping Bucky a secret—are finally gone. He can breathe again.

“You know the rules, Steve,” Coulson says quietly.

“That rule is pointless,” Sam bursts out.

“It’s okay, Sam,” Steve says. “I quit.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath that could’ve come from anyone. Coulson gapes at him. “You quit?”

“Yeah, I quit,” Steve says, grinning hard. He laughs a little, adrenaline making him sound a little unhinged.

“And don’t expect me to obey that anti-fraternization rule,” Sam says. “’Cause I’m telling you right now I’m staying friends with Steve.”

“Me too,” Natasha says.

“And me,” Clint adds.

Steve’s chest starts to hurt. He spent so long lying to these people he didn’t realize they actually liked him. Well, except Sam, but hearing Sam ready to jump into the fire for their friendship makes Steve grin hard.

“So you’re all quitting?” Coulson asks. The happiness rising in Steve’s body slams back down. Coulson can’t fire them. Steve can’t let them lose their jobs over him.

“I think a change in policy would be more logical,” Pepper suddenly speaks up.

“The policy—”

“I believe the policy was never formally approved by Nick.”

“Nick…Fury?” Steve asks. Fury owns the magazine and about fourteen others, but Steve sort of thought he was a myth. Just a conglomerate, not a real person.

“Yes,” Pepper says serenely. “Maybe we should run it by him first.”

Silence falls again. Coulson’s jaw is clenched. Steve slides out of the booth and grabs Bucky’s hand.

“I still quit,” he says. “And I’m not giving notice.”

“That’s very unprofessional,” Coulson says. Tony makes a farting sound.

“Making up fake rules like a dictator isn’t very professional either.”

“Well, uh,” Steve says, awkwardness choking him a bit but happiness overwhelming him. “Gotta go.”

Sam snorts, making a face. “I know why.”

“I’ll be calling you to set up a time to formally meet Bucky,” Natasha says. She’s somehow able to make what should be a nice sentence sound sinister.

“I want to meet him!” Tony immediately pipes up.

“Yeah, I want to meet the love of Steve’s life!” Clint adds.

Steve shakes his head. “Yeah, okay,” he says.

“See, that is how I expected you to be in a relationship,” Thor says, beaming. “You’re in love with him.”

“He already said that,” Bruce points out, rubbing at his temple.

“We’re leaving now,” Bucky says, tugging at Steve’s hand. He pauses for a second to say goodbye to his friends—Steve’s met them all, which makes him feel guilty again because Bucky’s only met Sam and no one else—and they pause for a second outside the bar.

“Did you drive?” Steve asks.

“Nah, Gabe picked me up.”

“Good,” Steve says. Then they just look at each other.

“I love you too, you know,” Bucky says. “I didn’t say it in there.”

“Oh, yeah,” Steve realizes. “I kinda thought so.”

“I would hope you had some idea by now, but it is you.” Bucky’s face is at total opposites with his words. He’s smiling wider than Steve’s ever seen, and Steve doesn’t resist the urge to lean in and kiss that grin.

“I love you,” he murmurs.

“I love you,” Bucky answers, laughing. “But can we go home now? I don’t want to get arrested for public indecency.”

“We’re not indecent,” Steve says, wounded.

“No, but I plan to be very soon.”

Steve laughs and kisses him again. He has no problem with that. They race to the car, kicking at each other and pretending to wrestle. Steve hands over the keys, since Bucky didn’t get to drink anything, and Bucky keeps his hand on Steve’s leg the whole ride home.

Steve should be freaking out. His future’s suddenly completely up in the air. He has no job and hasn’t even been seriously looking. He’s going to be relying on Bucky until he figures something out.

But the thing is…Steve feels completely at ease. Because his future isn’t up in the air. Steve’s future is right here beside him, smiling, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.