From his vantage point on the rooftop, Bucky saw it happen—and felt it too, of course.
He’d found the place on the roof where he could see everything at the open-air gala: the elegant white tents, the long tables of hors d’oeuvres, the semicircles of chairs around the little stage with the mic and the string quartet. Classy stuff, not his thing, so he was glad he was up high with his rifle as insurance, watching the sunset blush over the garden as Steve and the others stealthily tracked down the escaped convict who apparently had some kind of nefarious machine hidden on the property.
The little strings of lights all around the garden paths were just starting to light up when Steve said breathlessly in his ear, “It’s in the catering truck—I think they’re gonna set it off soon, anyone who can”—it sounded like Steve was fighting someone as he spoke—“anyone who can get to it, turn it off somehow—“
“On my way,” Natasha said, at the same time that Tony said, “On it,” and Sam said, “It’s too late, get them back, get them—“
And then something bloomed, not an explosion but a soft flow of color, bloomed from a spot in the garden and grew, and grew, until Bucky saw it heading toward him and flattened himself on the roof, eyes closed. But all the same he felt it, felt something that was almost pain deep in his bones or his brain, and as his eyes closed he thought of what he’d seen down on the ground when the not-explosion passed through crowds of running people.
He thought he’d seen someone with wings.
A moment later, when Bucky opened his eyes, the first thing he felt was an unbearable swell of anxiety and fear, so great that he pressed himself to the rooftop again, trying to ground himself in the feeling of cold sheeting below his cheek.
It had to be at least a few minutes after that when he sat up again, re-awakened to the world by the sound of Steve’s voice in his ear saying, “Bucky, come in! If you can hear me, say something, Bucky.”
“I’m fine,” Bucky croaked automatically, noting that his hands were still trembling hard. “You okay?”
There was a soft laugh from Steve. “Okay, well . . . yeah. I guess I’m okay.”
“What does that mean? What was that thing?” Was this some kind of PTSD thing he hasn’t experienced before, Bucky wondered, because he’d seen stuff much worse than that but he still couldn’t swallow because of the fear and anxiety in his throat—even though, in a way, he really didn’t feel that frightened or anxious at all.
“Well,” Steve said again. “I guess we were lucky. He didn’t want to kill all the attendees. He wanted to make us all mutants. Far as Tony can figure, that device just triggered the X-gene in every human being within its radius.”
“What,” said Bucky, pulling himself up to look out at the gala again. Was that a person on fire? Except—they didn’t look on fire in a, you know, the usual bad way, just a person walking around covered in flames and trying not to touch anything. And yes, butterfly wings on that old guy. “We’re all mutants?”
“We aren’t sure how long the effect will last, or if it has any harmful side-effects,” Natasha cut in over the comms, sounding put-upon.
“Can you come down?” Steve said. “We apprehended Lensherr but we lost whoever who was helping him. Also it’s a little chaotic down here.”
Bucky looked at his hands. Metal arm, as usual, but no noticeable physical mutations. Oh, he was lying to himself, he knew exactly what mutation he’d gotten. It was obvious. He was feeling the fear and worry of every person in the building under him. “Fuck,” he said to himself. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
Bucky made his way down through the building’s stairwell, noticing the bubbles of joy or excitement behind certain doors, intertwining with the overall clusterfuck of stress, shock, confusion, and so on all around him. Great, he thought. So relaxing. Such a nice introduction to being an empath, could there possibly be a worse mutation to get. Well, admittedly, it was not the worst at all, but he was the Winter Soldier. Empathy? Not really his skill set. If anyone ought to have gotten empathy, it was Sam, right?
Just as he exited the building into the warm summer night, the realization almost made him stop and turn back: Steve. He would have to feel what Steve really felt about him. Steve was nice and good-hearted enough to help Bucky out, to act like things were how they used to be, like Bucky was still his dear friend and totally welcome all the time, but Bucky really wasn’t prepared to know how much of that was just Steve's loyalty or kindness. If it turned out that Steve really was creeped out by him, or even worse irritated by him, he—he just couldn't handle it. He couldn't.
But there were Avengers duties he was needed for, so instead of stopping Bucky kept on; he'd just have to maybe try not to see Steve until the empathy could be reversed. It wasn't great, but it was the best idea he had.
He crossed the street into the garden, and was distracted by the sight of the Hulk sitting, confused, in the middle of a deflated tent. And sporting big, green angel wings. And emitting—Bucky felt sorry for him—big, Hulk-sized waves of childlike confusion, as well as slowly ebbing anger. Seemed like a safe bet he’d be turned Bruce-shaped again soonish. “Hey, big guy,” Bucky said.
Then there was a, an oddly localized breeze around him that then resolved into the shape of Natasha blinking and touching her knuckles to her eyes.
“Super-speed,” Bucky said, assessing. “Not bad.”
“I need eye protection,” Natasha said, frowning at him and scanning him over in turn. “You look like you have a headache. Don’t tell me you got telepathy.” All the emotion he was getting from her was vague annoyance combined with a sort of intent concentration. It was kind of a relief.
Bucky sighed. “No, not telepathy,” he said. “Where’s Steve?”
“Talking down a few of the ones who are freaking out,” she said. “Tony’s looking at the device, Rhodes is talking to the police and fire department, Clint and Thor are trying to get answers out of Lensherr—unsuccessfully—I’m looking for Lensherr’s accomplices, and Sam’s mainly trying to not be on fire.”
“Oh, Sam got fire,” Bucky said, with a sense of vague detachment. Maybe he’d used up his capacity to be shocked. “That’s good.” Sam was eminently responsible. Bucky could only imagine what would happen to Manhattan if Tony or Clint had gotten fire abilities.
“M-hm,” said Natasha. “What did you get?”
“I’ll go help Rhodey,” Bucky said.
Off to their side, the Hulk suddenly shrank into Bruce, now with large tan-colored wings that looked like they belonged to a monstrous-sized sparrow. At least he was wearing the pants Tony made.
Rhodey didn’t really need Bucky’s help, but given that Bucky would be of no help to Tony (and didn’t really desire to be), was avoiding Steve, and would have been an idiot to get any closer to the metallokinetic Lensherr than necessary, this was the best option. As it turned out, though, the police department needed assistance re-capturing all of the prisoners who’d been able to bust out of jail with their newly-acquired powers, and this was something that Bucky was definitely able to help with. In a way, it was even kind of fun, running down darkened streets after newly mutated teleporters or ice-breathing criminals. It wasn't until the morning that the Army honcho who’d been flown in in the night to relieve Rhodey saw Bucky staggering on his feet and told him to go home.
Bucky had been texting with Steve all night as Steve and Natasha chased down the mutants who’d been working with Lensherr, mostly just confirming that both Steve and Natasha were still fine. Bucky had been hoping that Steve would be asleep when he got home, but since Steve had said he was back home only half an hour before Bucky left, Bucky thought it was unlikely.
Bucky got out of the cop car that had given him a ride, stumbled toward the Tower entrance, slid his ID card, and got into the elevator wondering if he could just get off at Natasha or Clint’s floor by pretend accident and sleep there. He slumped against the wall of the elevator car; no, he wanted to make sure Steve really was all right. Truth be told, he wanted to see Steve despite himself. Now that he thought about it, nobody had even told him what Steve’s mutation was, other than saying Steve wasn’t having a problem with it.
The elevator doors opened on Steve and Bucky’s own floor to reveal several things: a TV, showing coverage of the night. The scent of Steve’s post-mission cooking, which was always necessary for Steve’s super-metabolism. And Steve himself, in a t-shirt and sweatpants, turning around with a slightly worried expression to see Bucky.
Also, Steve was purple. His hair was still blond, eyes still blue, but his skin was a soft shade of violet. No scales or fur or anything, on a closer examination, and in fact still freckled in . . . darker purple. But still, purple.
“Any kind of joke about red, white, and blue, I’ve heard it all,” Steve said with a wry smile. “You okay?”
And then the emotions hit Bucky: some worry, as expected, but mostly a sudden burst of . . . happiness. Why was Steve so happy? That was confusing.
Bucky left the elevator and came over to flop on the couch by Steve’s side. Despite the stresses of the new empathy thing, it helped just to sit and take comfort in being home, safe, and next to Steve. “No jokes tonight, I’m too tired,” he said. “I reserve the right to make any and all jokes tomorrow morning. You leave any o’ that for me?” The happiness intensified, which was perplexing, as Steve mostly still just looked worried. Maybe the empathy was broken?
Steve, a true angel, got up and delivered the pot containing the remaining pasta, together with a fork. “Thanks,” Bucky said, sincerely, and dug in; he didn’t have the superhero metabolism as bad as Steve, but he definitely still had it, plus it was probably time for breakfast anyway.
“So what’d you get?” Steve said.
“I’m waiting to see who figures it out,” Bucky said, closing his eyes and leaning back to enjoy the feelings of contentment coming from Steve. Sure, there was still worry underneath—the mutation effect still hadn’t been reversed, and there had been a lot of damage due to it in the city—but he was still so damn happy. Was this what it was like to be Steve? Happy all the time?
“Oh, really,” said Steve, clearly not buying it.
Bucky went back to the pasta. “What’d Stark and Barton get?”
“For Stark, healing. He’s still mad about it but he’s gonna go to the hospital tomorrow anyway. Barton, invisibility. He’s fine as long as he focuses, but as soon as he forgets he goes invisible again. I guess I was kind of lucky, really. Pretty sure purple was all I got. Bruce can’t even wear a shirt.”
Bucky felt himself smile for the first time since the night before. “Well, I think it looks good on you,” he said, appraising violet-colored Steve. Big, small, peach-colored, violet-colored. Steve was still Steve, always a sight for sore eyes. “Ol’ baseball cap and glasses routine isn’t gonna work for you any more, though.”
“Guess not,” Steve said, with a sort of exasperation mixed with amusement. “Come on, we need to get to bed before you fall asleep on the couch.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, standing up and making the executive decision to leave the dishes for morning, or for Steve. He turned to head down the corridor to his room. “Night.”
“Night,” Steve said, but as Bucky went to go into his room, he felt a distant pang of almost-sadness from Steve.
“Hey, you really okay?” Bucky said. Steve had turned off the TV and was looking at the kitchen.
“Yeah, fine,” Steve said.
“You’re not upset about this purple thing, are you?”
“Not really,” said Steve, wrinkling his brow, and there was no pang associated with the words, so Bucky guessed he was being honest.
“Okay,” Bucky said, and he went into his room again, even though there was another little pang of—maybe loneliness, rather than sadness?—as he went.
Bucky was awoken relatively early the next morning by the awareness of Steve’s emotions soon after Steve awoke. Mostly, Steve was still worrying about the current situation.
JARVIS told him that Tony and Bruce were still working on the device, and other than this there was no more superhero assistance needed that he could provide, so he showered and got dressed before getting breakfast. Most likely, Steve would want to be out in the streets anyway, helping people or making sure no banks got robbed by robbers with newly awakened powers.
True to Bucky’s prediction, when he emerged from his room Steve was looking over some type of mapped data (crime patterns?) projected by JARVIS in front of the couch. He had that intent look of single-minded focus that Bucky privately always found so sweet.
“Oh, hi. You’re up early,” Steve said, and then it happened again: the sudden swell of happiness, out of nowhere.
“You’re cheerful this morning,” Bucky said, making a beeline for the coffee maker. “Did the scientists figure something out?”
“Am I?” Steve said, tilting his head a little. “Tony and Bruce said they think the effect isn’t harmful, but maybe they’ll have to produce an injection to counter the effects of the ray, but we haven’t made any real breakthroughs. I think the crime patterns are showing that some of the escaped prisoners associated with the mob are going back to their friends, which isn’t a good thing. But if they’ve gone to ground, not sure how much we can do.”
Steve went back to scrutinizing the crime patterns, and Bucky got a cup of coffee and then turned to lean back against the counter while looking at Steve, and then Steve glanced up at him to smile and—oh. Oh. There was a zing of—just as Steve looked at him, it was—
Bucky almost dropped his mug. That wasn't quite just happiness. And it had happened when Steve looked at him. Every time, the happiness was—it was when Steve looked at him. And Bucky was new to this empathy thing, but he knew what he was feeling; it just seemed—he would have thought he was fooling himself, but—
Dazed, Bucky drank his coffee and watched Steve. He'd never get tired of looking at him. Steve was still wearing that very serious, intent expression, as though nothing in the world was on his mind but the data JARVIS was projecting. His eyelashes were very long, as always, and his hands were very big, although they hadn't always been, and he had that determined set in his shoulders that said today was going to be a very long day. That was very familiar. Bucky couldn't say if all these things were so dear because they were so Steve, or if it was the reverse, but he knew each little bit of Steve by heart. Or so he'd thought.
“Hey, Steve,” Bucky said, mouth dry, and Steve looked up at him again, and it happened again.
“Yeah?” Steve said. None of it showed on his face, and that was the part that killed Bucky, because how long had this been going on? Years, while Bucky himself had accepted that—
“I got news for you, we’re both idiots,” Bucky said. His heart was pounding. “Come here.”
Steve looked nonplussed, but came, and when he was facing him Bucky reached out and touched his shoulder, just the fabric of the t-shirt warm on his shoulder, and felt Steve’s heart zing. No doubt, he was right, and Steve was looking at him with wide eyes.
“Last person you kissed was Natasha, right?” Bucky said.
“Yeah,” Steve said.
“This is gonna be better. Less intimidating,” Bucky said, and Steve went from shock to delight and then leaned forward, and Bucky pulled him closer and then. He'd always thought Steve's kiss would be very, very gentle, and it was. It was also wonderful, because Bucky could feel everything that Steve was feeling, and it was better than anything else in the world, not least because Steve was feeling it for him.
Finally, Steve pulled back and rested his forehead against Bucky’s. “Was it telepathy?” he said, holding on to the back of Bucky’s shirt as though he'd never let go.
“Oh my god,” Steve said breathlessly.
Bucky kissed Steve’s still-violet cheek and enjoyed the ensuing thrill of giddiness. “It’s okay. I feel the same. Promise.”
"You do?" Steve said.
"I know for sure," Bucky said, which was true. Steve kissed him again spontaneously, and Bucky decided he just might keep the empathy after all.