We Can Be Heroes
This wasn't the plan for tonight.
Part of the plan, maybe. The part where he goes to a club, anonymous and dark; that's been part of the plan from the start. The part where he finds some... company; also part of the plan. He's self-aware enough to know how pathetically lonely he's feeling right now. The rest of the plan had been...less detailed, more just a collection abstract ideas. None of which he'd imagined would lead him here, his palms sweaty as they fish handfuls of cash out of his pockets, one arm anchored around the waist of a man who is very enthusiastically nibbling on his earlobe.
The motel clerk isn't paying them any attention. There's a wrestling match on the TV behind the desk and that's far more interesting than the two guys who aren't even trying to pretend they aren't buying a room to fuck in.
They've already fucked in the bathroom of the club. Twice, technically, if you count the string of expletives whispered in awe before the man – James, no, Bucky, he'd said to call him Bucky – had folded wobbling legs in on themselves, dropped to the floor and sucked Steve off, messy and enthusiastic and perfect.
And now, instead of going back to Manhattan, back to the tower and an empty apartment in a building full people who are still more allies than friends, Steve is here. Handing over cash. Desperate to get out of his clothes. Wanting to know just how many times he can come – how many times he can make Bucky come – before the night is over.
"The key, Grant." Bucky stops biting his ear long enough to nudge Steve in the ribs. The motel owner has already taken the cash and slapped a key on the desk.
Tonight he's not Steve Rogers, he's not Captain America and he's not an Avenger.
He's Grant Rushman, a Risk Management Executive at some stuffily-named firm in the Financial District.
And, to borrow a phrase Clint throws around far too often, tonight he's gonna get laid .
The motel room is as unimpressive and sordid as expected. It's instinct that has Steve noting the two windows with their discolored drapes and the small bathroom to the side of the bedroom. Tactically, it's a nightmare. He shouldn't be here: one impossible to defend exit; no shelter from the exposure of the windows; the unmistakable knowledge that everything in the room is both flimsy and flammable. Within a second of cataloguing all the things that make this a terrible idea, Bucky is tugging at Steve's jeans and he's back to not caring.
They've both already come in the dimly lit bathroom, with voices on either side of them and no one caring who was getting fucked or how, too occupied with their own passions. But, despite that, Steve hasn't really flagged. He's got stamina now that once would have killed him, and he's going to put it to the test.
Bucky's eager and he's flexible and he'd moaned, responsive and pretty and filthy, when Steve had jerked him off, his dick a sweet weight in Steve's hand. Steve wants to make him moan like that again. Wants to make him come again. And again. Until he forgets his own name and doesn't care about Steve's.
And Steve... should feel worse about this than he does. About lying. Captain America doesn't pick up guys in seedy clubs and he doesn't jerk them off them against bathroom walls. He doesn't take them to by-the-hour rooms.
Hell, Steve Rogers doesn't even do things like that. He's not a virgin, but he's never set out with the sole purpose of finding someone to get his rocks off with.
He's breaking all his rules, personal and professional, and it feels more like an awakening than his rebirth from the ice ever did.
Bucky gets Steve out of his clothes first and groans when he slides his hands over the hard lines of Steve's chest. Then Bucky leans in and grazes his teeth over a nipple that is suddenly more sensitive than Steve can ever remember it being. "You're beautiful," he says, honest and admiring, hand now moving down between their bodies, fingers wrapping teasingly around Steve's hard length. "Wanna suck your dick again."
Bucky had been perfect on his knees before, club colors painted across his face as he'd stretched his lips around every inch Steve had given him. That's definitely something he wants to see again. Slower this time, so he can savor it, so he can memorize the wet gleam of Bucky's eyes and the soft, wanton pleas for more as Steve fills him. Against the bed, maybe, his hands in Bucky's dark hair. He'll let Bucky set the pace, and then he'll tighten his fingers like he did the last time, just enough to get Bucky's attention, just enough to warn him of the change in pace, and then Steve will take control. He'll take Bucky's willing, warm mouth, and then –
"Later," he growls, shaking away the fantasies as Bucky finishes kicking off his pants. He's hard again. Steve reaches out, wraps firm fingers around him, swallows his low moan with a kiss. He holds Bucky in place with a hand on his dick and a hand on his throat and claims his mouth the way he's wanted to all night.
Bucky is still shaking, rattling down the last shudders of his climax, boneless and senseless and beautiful as Steve sets him back down on the bed, careful as he withdraws but still coaxing a groan from between slack, swollen lips as he does. He's right on the edge of oblivion: Steve could tuck him under the thin motel blankets now and call it a night.
That's the kind thing to do. The gentlemanly thing. That's the Cap thing to do.
Steve crawls up the bed, straddles Bucky's hips and slips two fingers into his mouth. Bucky sucks on them without further encouragement, his tongue slipping between them, teasing, tempting, even as he looks so exhausted he can hardly move. "You still want to suck my dick again?"
Bucky whimpers, "Oh my god," and clutches weakly at Steve's thigh. "You're gonna kill me." HIs voice is hoarse and edged with desperation. "Don't fucking stop."
"You wanna come again? Can you?"
Bucky's laugh is caught on the edge of a hysterical sob. "I don't know!"
Kissing the tip of his ear, Steve floats on a wave of satisfaction. "Wanna find out?" Bucky swears and digs his fingers into Steve's shoulders with enough force to leave bruises on any other man. "Guess that's a yes," Steve chuckles, and leans back down for another kiss.
This Land is Your Land
Waking up in a shitty hotel room to the distant scream of sirens is nothing like the peaceful, civilized dawning of his AI controlled apartment in Avengers Tower. There is no respectful greeting from Jarvis, who has pre-selected news and weather articles he thinks will be of interest to Steve. The windows are not undimmed automatically to let the early morning light shine into his bedroom and there is no tempting waft of freshly brewed coffee from the kitchen.
Instead, there's an argument happening two rooms down, and the nicotine-stained curtains do nothing to block out the offensively bright morning light. The sheets are synthetic and rough, not fine-spun Egyptian cotton. There's an arm draped over his hip and a warm body pressed up snugly behind him.
Steve doesn't usually smile when he wakes up; today, he is grinning.
"Pancakes," the body next to him mumbles, stirring in response to the shift of Steve's body.
"'M'hungry," Bucky grumbles. "Pancakes."
"I could go get us something?" Steve offers. He gives in to the urge to stroke his fingers across the soft skin of Bucky's elbow and marvels.
For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, he's totally relaxed. The worries he usually carries under his skin have gone quiet at Bucky's touch. He's not a lazy man, not prone to lounging around when he could be doing something productive, but he'd stay here all day if Bucky lets him.
The promise of food rouses Bucky from his semi-wakeful state and he yawns, stretching his arms and showing off the miles of smooth skin and lean muscle Steve wants to worship all over again.
Bucky catches Steve looking and grins playfully. "I'm not sure if I owe you breakfast, or if you owe me."
Steve's pretty sure he owes Bucky more than breakfast, but it's easier to say, "I'm sure we can come to some arrangement," and pretend he's got the confidence and experience to play the game through to the end.
Bucky laughs. "I'm sure we can.You want the first shower? I need to figure out where we threw my pants..."
The bathroom is as grimy as the rest of the room, and the water is faintly yellow, but Steve smiles as he dries himself with a sandpaper-rough towel, and continues to do so as Bucky swears his way through his own shower.
He's no more awake and no less bad-tempered as they stumble out into the street, Steve's ballcap pulled low over his face. Bucky's wearing sunglasses though, so it doesn't stand out as unusual.
They cross the threshold of the first place they see open and Bucky downs two cups of coffee before Steve's finished arranging himself in the booth.
The brew works like magic and by the time they've ordered their pancakes and Bucky has switched from coffee to OJ, he's removed the shades and is studying Steve with unconcealed interest.
"So," he says, biting at the straw sticking out of his juice, "has anyone ever told you that you look like one of the Avengers?"
Steve lets out a long breath and tries to force away the tension that suddenly sets into his shoulders. He opens his mouth to confess to his deception, hoping only that Bucky doesn't make too much of a scene and that Steve will be able to properly apologize before he storms out.
"But I'm curious." Bucky grins around his straw. "How does a guy who spends his day behind a desk end up with abs like yours?" They didn't just fall into the sex last night, but the conversation they'd shared before stumbling hand-in-hand to the bathroom only covered the bare minimum. Steve's name, Bucky's name, Steve's job, and then... the music had been overwhelmingly loud. Too loud for much in the way of small talk. There'd also been the not-so-small matter of Bucky's hand on Steve's crotch, unsubtle and inviting.
It's impossible to stop the blush that rushes to Steve's cheeks, red and burning. Bucky's smile reminds him of Peggy's in a lot of ways. He shoves down on the voice in his head that tells him Bucky's interest would be non-existent if he looked the way he had when he first met Peggy, and flashes a grin of his own.
"Secret lab experiment," Steve says, unable to resist the joke.
Bucky snorts and rolls his eyes. "Yeah okay, I deserve that. Is this the part where I bat my eyelashes and say, 'golly gosh, you look just like Captain America!'"
"Pretty sure no one actually said 'golly gosh' in the 40s," Steve points out.
"How would you know that if you weren't a genetically enhanced super soldier from the Good Old Days?" Bucky is teasing, entirely, and Steve needs to tell him. There's kindness in the depths of Bucky's eyes, and compassion. Maybe he wouldn't judge Steve too harshly.
"Would it be so bad if I was?" Steve asks, forcing himself to keep his expression and the tone of his voice neutral.
Bucky tilts his head to one side and frowns. "For me? Not so much. Think of the stories I could abbreviate to my future grandkids. It would suck for you, though."
There's a lump in Steve's throat that makes it hard to speak. "Yeah?"
Their waitress delivers another round of coffee. They both thank her and Bucky drinks half of his cup before swallowing and shuddering at the rush of caffeine and returning to his juice. "Fuck yeah. Imagine how shitty that'd be. The guy's lost everything and he's stuck in a world that probably looks nothing like the one he remembers and it's not even a Back to the Future kinda deal, is it? There's no self-tying shoelaces or flying cars or any of the exciting shit people thought we'd have by now. We don't have colonies on the moon or underwater cities. Just a country that's fucked itself up the ass with no lube and a condom that went out of date in the 60s. Oh, and Nazis are a thing again. It's gotta be a fucking disappointment."
The matter of fact harshness to Bucky's words hit their unintended target with brutal accuracy and, for a second, Steve can't breathe. He's gone out of his way not to think too much about all the things he's lost in this future he's in, but to hear Bucky put everything into words is overwhelming. It both is and isn't exactly how he feels sometimes, minus the bone weary exhaustion that comes with the complete and utter isolation of being stuck so firmly out of time.
Then Bucky's face twists unhappily and Steve has to hide his expression behind his coffee mug. "Poor bastard's gotta be so lonely," he says, sad for a man he doesn't even know. Sad for Steve, who simultaneously hates the idea of anyone pitying him the way Bucky so clearly does and desperately wanting to take Bucky's hand and cling to the first person who has expressed any kind of understanding of what he's been through. He's saved from the crippling indecision when Bucky shakes off the sadness like an unwanted coat and smiles again, beautiful and carefree. "Better just to look like the guy than walk in his shoes, right?"
Romanov would be proud of the way he manages to return Bucky's smile and say, "Can't argue with that." It solves the problem, though. Bucky's a kind man, but he's also a one-night stand. Steve isn't going to see him again after this morning. Telling him the truth won't negate the past or affect the future.
Desperate to change the subject, he asks, "So what do you do when you're not...?" He realizes quickly that there is no way to finish that sentence in a way that won't be offensive, but Bucky just laughs.
"Not picking up hot Captain America lookalikes in clubs?"
"That," Steve agrees, his face red again.
"I'm studying engineering at Columbia."
"That's a good school," Steve says, then trips over his brain in panic, because -- "Wait, studying? How old are you?"
"Probably the same age you are." Bucky looks mournfully at his coffee cup before taking another sip of juice. Apparently he doesn't care that he's mixing two of the worst possible flavor combinations. "I'm in the graduate program." Steve deflates a little and nods for Bucky to continue. "I'm graduating next fall."
"Any idea what you want to do after?" It's so much easier talking about Bucky than it is about himself, and Steve finds he is genuinely interested. It's not a surprise as such: he likes people and he likes getting to know them, at least in a one-on-one kind of environment. Still, this probably isn't how most one-night stands are supposed to end up. Trust him to fuck up something most of the world finds simple.
"Hammer's offered me an intern position on their R&D team." Bucky doesn't look all that happy about something Steve guesses a lot of people in his position would be jumping up and down about.
"You don't want to take it?"
"I want to work at Stark Industries," Bucky says, proving that the universe is perpetually laughing it's ass off at Steve's luck. "Everyone knows Tony Stark hates Justin Hammer. I don't want to go there and kill any chance I have of working for him."
Steve thinks carefully about his next words. "I'm sure Stark is..." he's about to say mature, but can't bring himself to, "smart enough to know talent when he sees it. If you're good, you're good. Who cares where you've worked before?"
"You're sweet," Bucky replies, his expression softening.
"Have you applied?"
"I've put in for their post-graduate program, but the selection process is insane. I don't even know if I've made it past the first round."
Steve makes a mental note to find out for himself when he heads back home.
"I've got faith in you. You'll be fine."
Bucky shakes his head, his expression close to wondrous. "You don't even know me. I could be a total fucking moron."
"You were smart enough to pick me," Steve says, glowing with a confidence he's only ever felt when under the weight of Bucky's gaze. He's rewarded when Bucky laughs again; he wants to hear that sound every day.
"Yeah, that's true." He looks up at Steve through the darkness of his lashes. "Must be a fucking genius."
The atmosphere shifts around them. It's not longer teasing – heavy but not uncomfortable. Charged. Bucky's eyes aren't quite blue and they aren't quite gray and the longer Steve looks into them, the harder it becomes for him to stop.
After a moment, Bucky clears his throat. "Look, I don't usually... I mean... would you want to. Maybe. Do this again? Breakfast stuff. Or... before breakfast stuff." He's blushing as hard as Steve was a moment ago.
"I shouldn't," Steve says regretfully. There are so many reasons why, and the lies he's already told Bucky are the least of them.
Disappointment settles onto Bucky's shoulders and he casts his gaze down to the table. "Oh sure, I mean. Of course." He sounds unsure of himself in a way that Steve knows only too well. He starts to stand, breakfast forgotten, and startles when Steve's hand shoots out to capture his wrist.
"I'm," Steve repeats, "I want to, but..."
The smile Bucky gives him is sweet, the disappointment settling into understanding. "I get it," he says, leaning across the table to leave Steve with the gentlest of kisses. "You'll always be my favorite Captain America."
Steve expects to feel relief at the easy acceptance, but the parting feels bittersweet. Still, he manages a smile and pushes back against the wave of loneliness that's already creeping up on him. "Having seen the other guy? Not sure that's a compliment."
Bucky slides fully out of the booth and throws down enough cash to cover both their orders. "Have a good life, Grant," he says. "You know how to find me if you change your mind."
It's true. Even without Avengers resources, Steve knows enough about him to track him down. The soldier in him bristles at the carelessness, but Bucky is gone before he has the chance to say anything.
As Time Goes By
Jarvis is the only one to notice Steve's absence, and it passes with only brief 'welcome home, Captain'. As usual, Steve spends so long weighing the rudeness of ignoring Jarvis with the strangeness of talking to a machine and the loneliness of wanting to, that the time where a response would be welcome stretches into awkwardness. Not for Jarvis, but for Steve. He's a man who has read a decent amount of sci-fi in his time, especially as a kid, and who is sure that none of the writers dreaming up futures of wondrous technology ever managed to accurately portray how entirely weird living with Artificial Intelligence actually is .
He showers again, indulging in the expensive plumbing and exquisite pressure of the water pounding against his skin. It's an indulgence, but one he can't bring himself to feel guilt over.
Drying himself off with a plush fluffy towel, he stands in front of the mirror long enough for the steam to dissipate and his reflection to slowly appear on the glass. He doesn't look any different, does he? His hair, maybe? It's shorter than it's ever been in the past. That's all there really is. Everything else is beneath the surface.
He's not sure if that makes it more or less superficial that he then spends another five minutes picking out his clothes. They're mostly SHIELD issue, either for training and combat, or fashioned in a style he remembers from back then. Tony likes to tell him that he dresses like an old man and, in some ways, he's not wrong: the familiar is always comforting. Last night had been a step outside of the box. Observation goes hand in hand with tactical planning and Steve isn't blind to the way people look and dress and style themselves now. The shirt had been left in the closet in favor of one of his black t-shirts. A concession to modern fashion that has clearly paid off.
He thinks about Bucky sliding his hands beneath the hem of the t-shirt and pushing the fabric up in his explorations. He thinks about Peggy's manicured nails tugging at the buttons of his dress uniform...
Combat pants and a grey t-shirt win. A middle ground between 'old man hipster' and whatever the hell it is Tony does with his clothes.
When someone asks about his night, Steve plans on saying nothing about Bucky. Romanov might suspect something, but... but Captain America has to uphold standards. He has to be above reproach. Picking up a stranger in a club... taking another man to a hotel room.... Not the behavior of a leader.
He enters the communal kitchen and ducks just in time to miss a barrage of projectile fruit. For once, it's not Stark causing mayhem. He's not even in the kitchen at all. There's a muttered, distracted apology from Dr. Banner, who's shoulder to shoulder with Thor and in the middle of constructing what looks to be a miniature trebuchet out of kitchen utensils.
"Where is everyone?" Steve asks, not even touching on the subject of weaponized pineapples.
"Natasha and Clint were called into see Director Fury," Thor says, not looking up from his work. "I believe Stark said something about a hammer kissing his arse...." It's probably safer for everyone that Tony isn't involved in the miniature siege warfare unfolding in the kitchen.
“Right,” Steve backs away slowly. “I’m just gonna--” he makes a run for it and calls it a tactical retreat.
Despite being a team, the Avengers don't spend a huge amount of time together. On paper, there's plenty of time scheduled to train together and bond, but it's a reality that only manages to manifest itself once or twice a month. Strike Team Delta are in high demand across the board, so neither Barton or Romanov are in the tower with any frequency. Thor has many and varied duties in Asgard, as well as a budding relationship with Dr. Foster to juggle, and Tony is... well, Tony is Tony and spends more time in LA than he does in New York. For all that he makes a song and a dance of teamwork and team building... for all that he's built and remodeled the tower and continues to finance every single thing they might possibly need, when it comes to committing to the team, there's something nervous and skittish about him that can't be completely masked by all his bravado.
Bruce is the one who is around the most, usually in the labs three floors down, and usually deep in concentration. Steve avoids him whenever possible, not because he doesn't like the doctor and certainly not because he's afraid of the man. Unlike Stark, Bruce uses his intelligence as armor, not a weapon. Instead of feeling attacked and needing to react, Steve's just...locked out. He can't help Bruce with his work in any meaningful way and to take up his time is just... a disservice.
It leaves Steve alone more often than not, and between days of melancholy, he tries to entertain himself in ways that are useful. The first few attempts are with the encouragement of SHIELD. There's now a whole catalogue of schoolroom specials recorded of him encouraging to work hard and play fair and a hundred other things that look as hypocritical on paper as they do coming from Steve's mouth. ' Don't do drugs, kids, at least not unless they are part of top-secret untested government experiments' .
He talks to Fury about it.
"Take it up with HR," Fury says. "I've got enough shit to deal with without trying to find you a hobby on top of it." It's nothing Steve doesn't expect, but it doesn't help.
He goes to the gym he remembers as a kid, and checks in under the same name he used at the club. It's not original, but unlike Romanov, he doesn't have a list of aliases as long as his arm.
The burly guy at the desk gives him a once over, but doesn't say anything. He's starting to find that, with the exception of kids – who look for the special in everything – very few people look at him and see Cap. Sometimes they might stare, curious and thoughtful, but no one imagines Captain America buying milk at the grocery store.
The anonymity feels like a relief and false hope, all rolled into one.
For every day he passes unrecognized as Steve Rogers, there are a hundred hours of TV debates picking apart his every move as Captain America. It's as tiresome now as it's always been, just a lot harder to avoid.
There's a class in the main part of the gym – all small children proudly and enthusiastically lined in a row as they run through katas. Even from a distance, Steve recognizes the martial art as Ju-Jitsu and finds himself searching out their instructor, wondering if they might be someone he can spar with.
His gaze lands on Bucky and the gym bag slips through his fingers.
The enthusiastic cry of his name comes accompanied by the insightful stare of a dozen kids and Steve freezes, pinned in place by the attention. It’s not fair. New York is a big city. How does his luck even run this way…?
He expects it to be awkward, seeing Bucky again, but in the bright light of day, there aren't even the shadows of expectation to contend with. Bucky's expression is warm and open as he beckons Steve over and introduces him to the gathered class.
"Are you Captain America?" One little boy asks, the moment Bucky is done announcing him.
Steve opens his mouth, then one girl with red ringlets loudly says, "Duh, Captain America is taller. And he's called Steve. And he's more handsomer."
The look Bucky shoots him is bright and amused. A moment shared, if not a secret.
"I'm sorry," Bucky says as the kids bicker between themselves. "That was mean."
"I was gonna ask their instructor to spar with me," Steve says, the smile he always seems to wear in Bucky's presence growing in strength. "Not sure that's such a good idea, now."
"Why? Afraid I'll kick your ass?" Bucky looks even more excited at the prospect of a friendly match than Steve.
"You could try," Steve amends.
There's a circle of children around them both now. They are all dressed in the same white gi Bucky is, though the belt around his waist is black and all of theirs are white.
"You do know how to breakfall, right?" Bucky whispers as they take their spots on the mat. "I'm not gonna be doing myself out of round two by putting your ass in a hospital?"
"I'll be fine," Steve says wryly, already relaxing his stance. He's not one to back down from a fight, not even one for the benefit of wide-eyed seven-year-olds. He'll let Bucky win. Again, for the benefit of those curious little faces and the adoration in their eyes when they look at their teacher. Steve's not about to humiliate Bucky. Not for this. Not for anything. "Are we still only at round two?"
"Multiple locations on the same night still count as the one time." Bucky nods, his eyes gleaming. He stands straight and bows, never breaking eye contact. Steve follows respectfully.
Now, how to do this without traumatizing any children?
Or scandalizing their parents.
Unlike most fighters he has faced, Bucky makes no attempt to keep him at a distance. He steps in close, his smile a gleaming white distraction. Steve can see the smoothness of his chest in the deep V of his uniform and he is distracted, admittedly so, but not enough that he can't throw up a defense when it's needed.
It does absolutely nothing to stop Bucky from ducking under Steve's arm and flipping him neatly onto his back.
Steve doesn't break his fall as he goes down, but the impact fades as quickly as the jolt of pain flares up. Bucky stands over him with a wide grin at Steve's expression and the cheers of his miniature admirers in the background.
Bucky, who doesn't have the advantages of the serum, who has never been to war and has never fought for his life. Bucky, who isn't as strong as Steve, or as fast. Who'd let Steve pin him down in a shitty motel room and screamed for him when he climaxed.
Steve stays down long enough for that brilliant grin to fade to concern, too busy trying to follow the admittedly short sequence of events that have led from an anonymous club hook up, to pancake breakfasts, to quiet regret, to this.
"Are you okay?" Bucky asks, reaching down a hand. He pulls Steve to his feet, already patting him down in search of injury. "Did I hurt you?"
The children crowd them, now equally concerned for the state of Steve's bruises. Not wanting to make them cry, and not wanting to make Bucky stop smiling, Steve starts to laugh. "That," he says, his own grin so wide that it feels unfamiliar on his face, "was incredible. You guys have the best teacher!"
There is a chorus of eager agreements as Bucky takes Steve's hand and they put a little distance between themselves and their audience. "Are you really okay? I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking, that was really inappropriate of me –"
There's an edge of self-reproach and internalized disappointment that resonates with something deep under Steve's skin. Desperate to banish it, he squeezes Bucky's hand tightly. It's the first time he can remember actually touching someone outside of a fight since their night together and his skin wants to sing in time with his heart. "Buy me a coffee and make it up to me?"
He's as surprised by himself as Bucky appears to be and the warnings that scream in Steve's head remain as ignored as they are when he throws himself into a fight to protect something worth bleeding for. He won't say that there's never been anything selfish tangled with all of his instincts to fight, but he's never wanted something like this .
Just for him.
He wants to feel the way he felt the last time he'd held Bucky in his arms.
Just once more.
One coffee. One coffee, and maybe something after. That's it.
For Bucky's sake, and for Steve's that's all it can be.
Can't Help Falling (In Love)
NINE MONTHS LATER
Hawkeye's just gone sailing over Steve's head, only to get caught around the leg by the Hulk and dumped unceremoniously on his ass. He grunts, swears, then climbs back to his feet and fires a grenade arrow into the swarm of robots attacking them.
"I thought," Steve shouts, throwing his shield into the melee and decapitating three mechanical monsters in quick succession, "that you had this covered!"
Iron Man does a sweep across the battlefield, lasers engaged and leaving a furrow of melted metal bodies left in his wake. For every one he kills, there are another ten ready to swoop in and take their place.
"So the EMP didn't work," Iron Man says, far too cheerful for a man who is kicking off the machines that keep trying to climb his leg and drag him down to the ground. "Plan B it is."
"That was Plan B," Black Widow points out, slightly breathless after tearing the gears out of the back of an oversized pile of homicidal junk.
"Plan C then," Iron Man says smoothly. "I mean, how was I supposed to know they're analog? Who even uses Analog anyway? Other than Cap, that is."
"Focus!" Steve growls, taking out one of the machines before it can target Stark with the strange, clockwork weapon it's wielding.
The swarm is something out of a Lovecraftian horror story. When they're done fighting for their lives, Steve will marvel at the vast collection of villains and monsters they have encountered over the last few months. Insane super-powered Nazi scientists are now just the tip of an iceberg that includes the current wind-up robot army, aliens, vampire clowns and a league of undead assassins.
During the Blitz, Steve remembers encountering a man selling milk in small glass bottles, carefully pulling his cart around the edge of a crater in the middle of the street. His house had been destroyed by an air raid and two of his brothers killed on the front. Yet every day, he'd take that cart up and down the street, supplying those who were unable to flee to the countryside. "Just got to crack on with it, don't you?" he'd said to Steve, entirely unimpressed with the uniform or the serum, and interested only in carrying on with his daily work.
London's like that: full of people not about to let a little something like a world war stop them from going about their lives, defiant in their continued routines.
New York is the same. As Steve takes a robot fist to the face, he goes sailing past a window that has been repaired three times in as many months. The owner of the small bakery has stopped getting the window replaced, and now just has a large wooden sheet across the frame advertising 'Chitauri Special' cakes.
Steve's been inside twice. Once headfirst through that window, and again some weeks later with Bucky. The cake is great, though the aliens crafted out of sugar are considerably less grotesque than Steve remembers them being.
It takes the better part of an hour to round up the mechanical army into one place. Job done, Steve and the others secure the perimeter as Hulk happily stomps them all into cogs and dust. SHIELD arrive just in time to deal with the brunt of the press and there's a resolute pat on the back all around as the Avengers are quickly and quietly ushered off the scene. Time to let the real heroes move in and deal with the clusterfuck they have left in their wake.
Grant’s had a key to Bucky’s apartment for nearly two months now, and Bucky has gotten used to finding some interesting items left for him on the kitchen table. More often than not, they're random things Grant has picked up here and there: a guidebook for New York that's full of places and trivia neither of them have ever heard of, or a bobble-headed Iron Man action figure. He brings Bucky flowers once a week and actually knows how to arrange them in the one vase they own, and sometimes there are entire trays of baked goods waiting for him. Those are the days that Grant has been and gone before Bucky’s managed to escape work or school. The home-baked goods and old-fashioned chivalry aren’t as good as having Grant to himself for the night, but they are the next best things.
For once, Grant answers his phone when Bucky calls. “His name is Augustus,” he says, foregoing a greeting. “And I was thinking we could put him next to the armchair in the bedroom.”
“I don’t think it –"
“ – will fit in our bedroom.”
“He will if you let me buy you a new bed,” Grant says. They've been battling back and forth over this subject for weeks.
“I’ve seen you try to assemble an IKEA bookshelf,” Bucky reminds him, “why the hell would I let you try to build us a bed?” That incident is one of the only times Bucky's ever seen Grant lose his temper. Grant is many things, but skilled at interpreting Norwegian flat-pack instructions he is not. But then, who is. It's not like Bucky has room to talk. He's in engineering, for fuck's sake, and he can't make heads or tails of IKEA directions.
“A proper bed,” Grant says, his voice pained. “From a proper store. Made by people who aren’t plotting the Fall of Mankind.
Bucky grins and shakes his head, Grant’s expression crystal clear in his mind. “If you want to buy us a bed that someone else is going to assemble, I'm not going to argue,” he says, thinking of his paltry intern paycheck. “But that still doesn’t explain the five foot rubber plant standing in my kitchen.”
“I wanted to get you a dog,” Grant says. “But that’s like adopting a kid, and I know we’re not at that point in our relationship yet. I just...” He goes quiet and Bucky feels something tighten painfully in his chest. No, they aren’t there, yet . But there is something unspoken that tells him soon . “I know I’m pretty… terrible. With work, and my phone. God, I am so bad with the phone. I just wanted to get you something that can be there for you. When I’m not.”
“So you got me a plant,” Bucky says, because anything else threatens to step across that unspoken line of feelings . “Called Augustus.”
“It’s terrible, isn’t it?” Grant sighs miserably.
“I think it might try to eat me in my sleep,” Bucky admits. “But I love it. Him.”
And I think, he wants to add, that I love you, too.
Two days after robots and as many failed attempts to get everyone together to train, they all agree to at least grab breakfast together before going their separate ways. Steve plans to remind them again that they need to put in the hours together outside of actual world-ending situations. It's not like he resents that fact that, so far, they all gel well together in the field, despite their limited operational training, but he worries about the one time in the future where they miss something important.
"Okay." Tony climbs onto the kitchen counter and puts his hands on his hips. "Who lined up thirty-nine hours of 80s horror movies to the Official Avengers Netflix queue then changed all the passwords?"
Steve, who is only half reading the newspaper spread out in front of him, has to bite the inside of his lip to stop from laughing. He doesn't look up, but he can see the kitchen well enough from his peripheral vision.
"Don't look at me," Banner says. He and Thor have a pack of cards spread out between them. Clint taught them both how to play 'his version' of poker the previous week and now owns a significant part of the Asgardian Royal Hunting Ground, as well as Banner's favorite red sweater. Steve might've offered to help if they hadn't already assumed that someone pure and honest like Cap would never, ever gamble. So he's not going to tell either of them that the reason Clint always wins is because he cheats ruthlessly.
"Someone did," Tony grumbles. "Barton, was it you?"
"Why," a voice drifts down from the ceiling, "does everyone always assume it's me?"
"It usually is you," Tony reminds him.
Steve's yet to figure out why Barton continues to take an aerial position in absolutely every room he spends time in. If there was a tactical advantage to be gained, sure, but it's not like no one knows he's there, and the conversation is proof that out of sight really doesn't mean out of mind, at least not when it comes to assigning blame for everything. "Yeah, but that's still no reason to blame me for everything. Why does no one blame Cap?"
"Because Cap thinks Netflix is something you go fishing with," Tony says in a way that lets everyone know much their mediocrity is exhausting him. "They guy can't turn his cellphone on."
Steve says nothing. He looks through the bylines of his paper and makes a mental note to fuck with the game systems in the rec room.
Clint isn't the only one who knows how to cheat.
The vibration of his phone in his pocket shifts his hidden smile from amusement to excitement. Tony starts to grumble in the face of what he sees as someone mocking him.
"Laugh it up, Capsicle," he says, stalking out of the kitchen with an air of wounded dignity, "laugh it up."
"I brought pizza," Steve announces, the weight of responsibility dropping from his shoulders as he crosses the threshold of Bucky's apartment. "Disgusting little fish things included."
Bucky's at the kitchen table, his laptop and a towering number of books in front of him. At least he's home for once, instead of stuck in a lab at Hammer Industries.
Steve drops a kiss to the side of his cheek when Bucky fails to respond to his arrival, and places the pizza boxes on the kitchen counter. "You're right," he nods to himself and imitates the low notes of Bucky's voice, "anchovies are the worst thing ever and I don't know why I've been so blind all these years...."
"You're hilarious." Bucky looks up from his work and flashes Steve a tired grin. "Really. You're wasted behind a desk."
"I am," Steve agrees, "but at least you appreciate me."
He doesn't think there's anything in his voice to suggest his unhappiness, but Bucky has the uncanny ability to read between the lines. He pushes his chair back from the table and walks over to wrap his arms around Steve. "Bad day at the office?"
Steve can't even say yes. It's been a boring 'day at the office'. No one has tried to kill him in nearly forty-eight hours.
He says nothing, and Bucky nods in understanding. "Your co-workers again?"
Steve feels his shoulders slump and he leans into the comforting weight of Bucky's embrace. "I used to be good with people," he sighs. He was good with the Howling Commandos. Good with his friends back before the serum. Straddling the line between friendship and leadership used to be easy, but he's universally sucking at it now.
Bucky's hands slide up to his neck and start to work their magic on the tension Steve permanently carries. "You're good with me," he says. "So what's the difference?"
"Well, I can't really have makeup sex with any of them when we disagree on things." Steve aims for lighthearted and is rewarded with a chuckle.
"Probably best not to," Bucky teases. "Wanna avoid those sexual harassment in the workplace dramas." He frowns as he digs his fingers into the knotted muscles of Steve's neck, always so concerned with the stress he thinks Steve is under. "Have you tried talking to them? Outside of work, I mean."
The problem Steve has is, if he isn't at work, he wants to be here, with Bucky. Living a life he doesn't deserve. And he's tried to find things for Avengers to bond over, as they all have. He'd die for every single one of them in a heartbeat, but if they spend too long in a room together and no one is shooting at them, bloodshed and property damage are almost a guarantee. They can't even agree on a movie to watch on the monthly night set aside just for socializing.
Bucky is the only person Steve can ever be this unsure with, and he knows it's because there are no expectations of perfection from him. Grant Rushman is a man who strives to be a good lover, a good friend, but if he fucks up every now and then, the world won't end. Steve Rogers doesn't have that luxury. "I'll try again." It's his responsibility. They're his team, and he owes them more than they're getting from him.
Bucky's hands slide from Steve's neck to gently cup his cheeks. "You're a good man, Grant," he says, warmth and love bright in his eyes before he leans in to steal a kiss. Steve isn't strong enough to deny him. Not in this, not anything except the one thing that really matters.
"I'm really not," he says instead, their foreheads touching as the kiss ends. "If you knew –"
"I know," Bucky says firmly, his fingers on Steve's lips becoming a good excuse for Steve's silence. "Even if you do have lame taste in pizza." The seriousness melts into sunshine. "And your team knows it, too. Have a little faith in yourself."
Steve knows Bucky doesn't realize that he's asking for the impossible.
In the nine months they've been dating, it's become a long-running joke among his friends that Bucky's boyfriend looks like Captain America. Bucky's not stupid, he knows the comparison makes Grant – who is incredibly modest for someone so attractive – uncomfortable. Bucky does his best to change the subject whenever someone makes a joke about Grant's physique or jawline, and tries to help him feel less self-conscious of what he perceives as his own flaws. They've been together long enough now that he's opened up a little about his childhood and, like many men who grew into their looks after adolescence, Grant doesn't know how to take a compliment without going the color of a ripe strawberry.
Bucky checks his phone and bites down his annoyance at the three unread texts. Sometimes getting Grant on the phone is like pulling teeth. It's not like he can't text, but more often than not, he forgets to even check his phone. He's left it down the side of Bucky's couch on more than one occasion, and while Bucky threatens to send him the entire text of the Bee Movie the next time Grant ignores him, it's a habit neither of them have managed to break.
So who knows if Grant is even coming to the party tonight. They've made plans to meet at the venue before heading back to the apartment Bucky is secretly starting to think of as 'theirs' instead of just his, but the last message he'd gotten from Grant only made it clear that things in the office might lead him to be late or even cancel entirely. Most of the time he's polite enough to let Bucky know, but there have been times...
He's always apologetic enough than Bucky forgives him, which goes a long way in proving just how hard Bucky's fallen for the guy. If you'd told him a year ago that he'd stick with someone who stood him up for work on a semi-regular basis, he'd have laughed until he cried.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" The tension seeps from Bucky's shoulders as Grant worms his way through the crowd, almost a whole head taller than everyone else. "Work was –"
"Crazy," Bucky says, leaning in to steal a kiss before shaking his head in mild reproach, "You didn't get caught up in that freeze ray thing, did you?" Grant's office is in the heart of the Financial District, which means pretty much a guarantee that some strange supernatural mishap will derail his day. Today's drama had come at the hands of a mad scientist and his honest-to-god actual freeze ray.
"You can skate down 5th Avenue," Grant says. His fingers curl around Bucky's and squeeze. There are stress lines around the corners of his eyes and Bucky's ire softens.
"Come on," he says, pulling Grant deeper into the party. "You need a drink and...oh my god, you need to tell me what the actual fuck you are wearing!" He's only just noticed Grant's costume and it takes almost a whole minute to sink in before Bucky is almost crying with laughter.
The party has an Avengers theme, something he told Grant not to worry about honoring. Apparently he didn't need to worry. While Bucky'd gone with a simple, downplayed 'Tony Stark' theme of a grungy band t-shirt and jeans, Grant has apparently embraced his famous doppelgänger with open arms.
The jumpsuit is about four inches too short in the legs and looks painfully tight stretched across Grant's well-muscled back, but it's unmistakably one of Target's cheap and cheerful costume knockoffs of Captain America's famous red, white and blue uniform.
Bucky brushes the tears from his eyes, equally charmed and amused. "Oh my god, you're ridiculous."
Grant holds up his arms in a gesture of helplessness, but his smile is nervous and shy. "If you can't beat 'em, right?"
Bucky's still laughing as he tugs Grant towards the bar. "Come on then, Cap, let's get you wasted."
The routine they've fallen into suits them both. Bucky's dissertation work and his placement at Hammer Industries means his hours are long and demanding. Grant's are more sporadic, leaving him with swathes of free time some days and taking him completely out of communication for others.
This week has been one of those without radio contact. Bucky is mostly too tired to do more than fire Grant the odd text that he knows will be ignored, and try not to count down the days before he can curl himself around Grant and hide under the sheets for a couple of hours.
The last few days have been long and draining. Bucky's grown used to the frustrations of being the new guy in the lab and can tune most of the gossip out. He's already decided he's going to move on as soon as his internship is done. Stark might not want him but there are more than two companies out there. There will be something.
A sliver of light falls over the foot of the bed. Bucky rolls over onto his back as the door opens and Grant's body blocks out the hallway light. Set against the shadows, Bucky can't read the expression on his face, but the slump of his shoulders is enough to drag him out of bed and sleepily stumbling across the room.
"I didn't mean to wake you up," Grant says. Immediately, alarm bells start ringing in Bucky's head. It sounds a lot like Grant has been crying: his voice is scratchy and rough.
Grabbing his hand to tether Grant to him, Bucky raises the other to Grant's cheek and tries to catch his eye. "What happened? Christ, you're shaking."
"S'fine." Grant tries to pull away. "Just a... a bad day."
Bucky doesn't believe him for a second, but he can see that pushing is going to do nothing to help until Grant has calmed down. Keeping firm hold on his hand, Bucky draws him to the bathroom. Up close, he can smell smoke and soot on Grant's skin, in his hair, and his worry threatens to tip over into full blown alarm. "Okay, come on." It's easy to undress him once they're in the bathroom and the bright lights only serve to draw out the shadows on Grant's haggard face. He looks haunted, like he's seen something no one should ever have to see, and that can't be a work thing, it can't.
He wants to ask. How can he help if he doesn't understand? But there are walls around Grant that are ringed with barbed wire and lined with snipers. Behind that thousand yard stare, there is the iron center of a man who will do anything he has to in order to keep from falling apart. Bucky isn't going to poke around until the ground beneath them is more secure.
He lets go of Grant only long enough to turn on the shower and strip himself out of his underwear. Closing the glass door around them, the steam billows up to shut out the rest of the world. In that little cocoon of safety, the tension starts to ease in Grant's posture. Between Bucky's hands and the heat of the water, he slowly starts to relax.
Bucky is worried enough to start to hum under his breath. Nothing in the world could bring him to subject Grant to the horror that is his singing, but the low rhythm is soothing for the both of them. He washes Grant carefully, lathering up suds that smell of ocean and salt, taking care to reach every part of him, innocent and without expectation. It takes less time to wash Grant's hair, but Bucky uses his fingers to press in firmly against his head and neck, trying to work out as much of the tension as he can before admitting defeat and turning off the water.
"I'm okay," Grant says, sounding more like himself as he passes them both towels.
Bucky sighs and kisses the corner of his mouth. "I know," he says, a feeling of lightheadedness that can't be blamed entirely on the heat of the shower, "but you know you don't have to be, right? You can talk to me. About anything."
That shakes the last of the ghosts from Grant's eyes and he melts, smiling in a way that makes Bucky's heart skip. He takes Bucky's hands and places a kiss on the back of each one. "I know," he says. "And I will. But not tonight."
Bucky can't do anything but nod. He can wait. For Grant, he thinks he can wait forever.
"Option one," Steve has barely stepped foot inside the kitchen before Tony extends a clipboard and peers at it with the forced concentration of a man trying very hard to make a point, "mind control."
"Excuse me?" Steve just wants to get into the kitchen long enough to grab a shake and make a quick exit from the building. He has less than zero interest in being accosted by Tony. Or anyone else, for that matter. It's only two hours before he's supposed to meet Bucky to go to the movies, and the wall of bodies suddenly standing between himself and his vanilla protein milk do not bode well for him making the date on time.
"Option two," Tony continues, ignoring Steve entirely. Clint is on his left, Thor on his right and Banner is hovering awkwardly a half step behind all three of them. Natasha has her back resting against the counter, one ankle extended just in front of the fridge. There's a coy little smile on her lips that makes it clear to Steve that, even if he does make it through the first line of offense, he's probably not going to survive an encounter with her. "Evil twin, and/or clone. Personally, this one is my favorite. Who doesn't love a good evil twin narrative?"
"You're making even less sense than normal, Tony. What's your point?"
"Someone's crabby today." Tony looks up from his chart – and there are diagrams with detailed breakdowns – to give Steve a once over. "Option three, you're living a parallel life and have a wife and kids in Jersey..."
"That one is my idea," Clint says. "Not the Jersey part." He shrugs his shoulders apologetically, then frowns at Tony. "How did we even agree on Jersey, anyway?"
"I'm not married," Steve says with careful patience, "and I don't have kids. Not in Jersey. Not anywhere. Now, will someone please tell me why I can't just have my shake in peace?"
"Because you vanish pretty much every time we aren't saving the world," Tony says. "Now, this isn't a comment on your Avenging, or your skills as our fearless leader, oh fearless leader, but –"
"Stark is worried about you," Natasha says, her voice as dry as July in the Sahara. Tony instantly starts to splutter.
"I am not and have never been worried about Capsicle," he says indignantly. "I wouldn't've even noticed him missing if Jarvis hadn't said anything."
It's Banner who covers the word 'liar' with a perfectly timed cough. Thor, who, up to that point has been silent, claps a helpful hand on his shoulder and the doctor sputters for real. "What our friend means," Thor says diplomatically, "is that your presence has been missed."
"No one makes any 'back in my day' jokes when you aren't around," Clint adds dolefully.
Natasha folds her arms over her chest and meets Steve's gaze head on. She, of all of them, might actually be close to figuring it out. "They're worried you're gonna off yourself and you're just looking for the right bridge to jump off of."
"Oh, and you're not?" Tony demands, just as Steve frowns and says: "I don't think there's a bridge high enough."
"Building, maybe?" Clint says helpfully.
"Do not," Tony snaps, "encourage the geriatric with PTSD to jump off a building. What the hell, Barton?"
Steve sighs, tired and suddenly wanting to skip the workout altogether and just go home to Bucky. "Are we done?" he asks. He'll force himself to do an hour. He needs to keep himself at the top of his game physically and the team will hopefully harass him less if they see him doing normal things.
Tony waves an absentminded hand in his direction, too busy glaring at Clint to respond to Steve.
"You're the one who thinks he wants to kill himself," Clint grumbles, prompting protests from Tony and admonishments from Bruce. Natasha is the only one who doesn't get drawn into the bickering, but Steve hopes that she'll stay and stop them setting fire to things instead of following him to the gym. His luck holds, and he makes it down to the rec room and through his usual workout without further interruption.
He should shower before heading to Bucky's, but by the time he steps away from the punching bag, he feels like there are live wires under his skin. He pulls on his jacket and climbs on to the back of his motorbike without stopping by his apartment first.
Bucky is half-working, half-baking when Steve arrives, and he only wrinkles his nose and laughs when Steve kisses him breathless against the kitchen counter, then sprints off to use his shower.
"You're welcome to join me," he calls from the bathroom doorway.
"I'm busy!" Bucky shouts back, though he's put his books and laptop away by the time Steve emerges, freshly clean and damp, grinning to himself at the comfortable domesticity of it all. His toothbrush is in the holder next to Bucky's, his razor in the mirrored cabinet.
Bucky welcomes him back into the kitchen with a cold beer." Someone's in a good mood. Good day at work?"
"Terrible day at work," Steve corrects, "but it's over now and I was wondering..." the idea just springs into his head, fresh and bright, "if you maybe wanted to get away for the weekend? Go upstate maybe? Or camping, or...." Bucky has already started to chew on his bottom lip, something Steve knows means he's struggling with something. "Or not," he amends quickly. "If you have to work, or –"
Bucky shakes his head quickly. "No, no. It's not that. I was just thinking..."
About the other night, no doubt. Steve flushes in embarrassment, ashamed at how close he came to losing control of himself.
He's seen awful things before. Nothing can compare to the nightmares he remembers of the war. A school bus full of dead children is tragic and awful, but he's seen it before. It shouldn't have triggered a meltdown.
It's rare that Bucky actually wants to talk about things that upset him, so Steve is quick to pay attention. "I'm listening," he says, sitting still and quiet while he mentally calculates all the ways he can answer Bucky's questions without revealing too much.
"We're serious, right? You and me?"
Steve blinks, caught by surprise and instantly hating himself for not seeing this coming. "We are," he says gently. "Or at least, I am."
Bucky's shoulders curl forward anxiously and he starts to fiddle with the hem of his sweater. "Then why have I never seen your apartment? Or met any of your friends? Are you ashamed of me?"
The serum powers Steve's speed as he crosses the kitchen in a second and takes Bucky firmly by the arms. "Never," he says vehemently. "God, Bucky. Please don't think that."
This, he thinks, is so much worse than demanding answers for Steve's emotional breakdown. That, he can at least deflect. Turn aside, He's done it more than once in other situations.
But maybe that's part of the problem.
"I'm sorry," Bucky says, his eyes downcast. "I'm trying not to be that guy, but..."
But Steve knows what he's trying to say. Bucky's a grad student living on a stipend, living in a tiny fourth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, still stuck in that liminal space between school and a professional life. Meanwhile, Steve's well paid for what he does and not short of money, thanks to a more than generous chunk of back pay from the Army. He enjoys being able to spend that money on Bucky, but all Bucky sees is a guy his age in a financially secure and well-respected job. That's enough disparity between them without adding the rest of the lies Steve has littered their relationship with.
Guilt gnaws at his gut even as Bucky rests his head on Steve's shoulder.
It's been easy enough to justify the lie under the pretense that it's safer for Bucky to not know who he is, but the happiness they find in each other should never be overshadowed by pain of any kind, intentional or not. It's time to come clean.
"I'm not ashamed of you," Steve says firmly, his fingers curling under Bucky's jaw so he can look him in the eye. "And I hate that I've ever given you that impression. Let me talk to the guys at work. I want you to know them. I want them to know you." He means it, too. He knows they'll love Bucky. He knows Bucky will love them.
They might all band together to kill Steve for lying to them, but maybe it will be a good bonding exercise?
"You need to talk to them first?" He can hear the confusion and mistrust lacing Bucky's voice, and wishes he had the courage to just jump in a cab with him now and march into the Tower, hand in hand.
But there are things that need to be put in place for Bucky's protection. Bucky's in no danger while dating Grant Rushman, but Steve Rogers brings a whole heap of baggage that needs to be safeguarded against. They'll haul his ass over the coals, but SHIELD can at least arrange Bucky's safety.
"I do," Steve says, as gently as he can. "You'll understand when you meet them."
Bucky's quiet long enough that Steve can tell he's arguing with himself. The trusting, open part of him, the part that Steve is so desperate to shelter, wins out. He nods and wraps his arms around Steve's waist, holding him close. "You're still coming tomorrow, right?"
Steve hears the unspoken question.
"I wouldn't miss you graduating for the world," he says honestly. The not-so-insignificant matter of meeting Bucky's mom and sister might terrify and excite him in equal parts, but he means it.
If the world wants to end, it's just going to have to wait until after the ceremony.
This time it's not giant killer rabbits or wannabe supervillains with elaborate costumes fucking with Steve's day, but a three thousand-year-old corpse who has, by fault of a local group of enthusiastically moronic grad-students, been summoned from the grave to... something something. Steve usually pays more attention in the briefings, but he has an hour to save the city, dust an animated corpse and make it uptown town in time to see his boyfriend graduate. Doable, maybe, when aided by a team of superpowered do-gooders, but hindered somewhat by the army of corpses their enemy has gleefully raised on its rampage across Lower Manhattan.
"What even are our lives?" Barton asks, using the tuxedoed body of a freshly unburied corpse to surf down the side of the construction site they are trying to wrestle from legions of the undead. "First mutant sewer gators, now zombies."
That's just this week. It's been... well, they've been busy.
The constant flood of adrenaline has been helpful in putting Steve back on more emotionally stable footing, but has left little time to really give much thought to what's happened.
Stark sends a cluster of the undead sailing over Steve's head as he flies by. "Are we really gonna class these guys as zombies?"
Steve has to duck under a severed limb being waved at him like a sword. "The dead are rising," he grunts, slamming the side of his shield into a mushy, jello-like skull and trying not to vomit at the smell, "pretty sure that's the Romero definition of a zombie."
"I knew it!" Stark shouts across the radio. "It was you! You're the one with the Netflix horror obsession: oh my god, when do you even get chance to watch TV? And why would you deprive us, your very best friends in the world, of the chance to watch you watch it?"
"Some of us have better things to do with our time than watch Cap discover torture-porn," Natasha answers from across the site. She's breathing heavily; locked in single combat with something that looks like it's crawled out of a penny dreadful.
"Torture what ?" Steve asks, genuinely at a loss.
"Yeah, you might wanna keep your star-spangled peepers away from that whole genre," Stark says. " Night of the Living Dead is a cinematic masterpiece. The Human Centipede is... well..." He pauses long enough to swoop down and catch a long-dead body from throwing itself onto Steve from above. "Please tell me you didn't start with the remake. And is it technically a zombie uprising when there are mummies involved?"
"No, no, see, I thought about this," Barton says, shooting an arrow across Natasha's shoulder and right into the eye socket of the creature she's been fighting. "It's totally an army of the undead because –"
"Can we focus?" Steve snaps, severing the head of another corpse as he fights his way out of a corner.
"You in a rush, Cap?" Romanov asks.
Stark quickly jumps in. "Pressing social engagement? Hot date?"
"Yes, actually." This isn't exactly how he'd imagined the conversation going, but at least this way there are targets other than him to focus on. "If you must know."
"I knew it!" Barton yelps, loosing an arrow into another corpse's eye.
"Oh my god, Cap, have you actually got a secret wife?" Tony's already hovering in mid-air thanks to the thrusters in his suit, but it's not a stretch to imagine that glee could be doing the job for him.
Two of the corpses try and tackle his legs out from under him, "His name is Bucky," Steve says, somersaulting over their heads. "I'm bringing him over for dinner tomorrow and I swear to god, if any of you set fire to the kitchen table like you did last month, I will get Jarvis to lock you all in your rooms." Steve growls. "And he'd do it. Jarvis likes me."
There's a minute of utter silence over the comms that can't be put down to the influx of undead, and then, like a breath of fresh air in a stale room, Barton suddenly explodes.
"I KNEW IT. I KNEW IT. I TOLD YOU SO. I. FUCKING. TOLD. YOU. SO." He sounds more upset that no one believed him than the actual reality of Steve lying to all of them for months.
Thor, who up until that point has been finding a manic kind of joy in caving in zombie heads with his hammer, stops fighting altogether to give Steve an incredibly stern look. It's a surprising reminder that Thor is eons older than the rest of them. "I can understand your reluctance to mix business and pleasure," he says, and even sounds like he means it, "but your silence on this matter could have been dangerous for everyone. Your Bucky most of all."
It's that idea, more than anything, that settles in Steve's stomach, hard and cold as led.
"So Cap's a lying liar who lies," Stark says, and for once Steve has no idea what he might be thinking. "But I think maybe that can wait until we've unraised the dead."
That's the smart thing to do. The logical thing to do.
That Tony is the one suggesting it is both gratifying and completely fucked up.
But Steve nods, rallies, and puts everything out of his mind but the fight.
"I swear to god, if you don't turn your fucking phone on..." Bucky clutches the phone in his hand and has to physically resist the urge to throw it at the wall. He's left four voicemails on Grant's phone and by this point in their relationship, he's now certain his boyfriend doesn't even know how to access them. Either that or he simply doesn't care to.
It's taken Bucky long enough to accept that fact that Grant is just kinda weird with technology and his endearingly old-school approach to punctuation in texts and his preference for calling Bucky instead of texting is usually more on the adorable side of things than the maddening one. Usually.
It's not the first time Grant has stood him up. It's not even the first he's turned his phone off. He's always apologetic enough that Bucky believes him when he says it wasn't done intentionally. Maybe Bucky's been too naive? Maybe he's just plain stupid? He's believed every time will be the last time.
He's just thought... hoped....
But no. Grant's stood him up again.
At his graduation, of all things.
Bucky had been clingy last night. Maybe that's it? Maybe he's pushed too hard. Grant's skittish sometimes, and Bucky's too needy, and… and maybe there’s someone else. Maybe he’s not so special to Grant after all. Maybe...
"Gotta say, Bucky, your boyfriend is super cute," Becca teases, bouncing up to him and throwing an arm around his neck. His sister has never been very good at reading body language, and never cared much for her own safety if there's a chance to poke fun at her older brother. "And he's so talented! So humble. I mean, if I could turn invisible, I'd do so much more than crash my boyfriend's grad party."
"Becca..." Bucky growls. He's not in the mood for her teasing and he's not in the mood to pretend he's not really, really hurt right now. "Knock it off."
"Oh," she says, her eyes widening in slow realization. 'Oh' just about covers it. "Bucky, I'm sorry..."
"Me too," Bucky says, his jaw clenched against the tears that are burning in his eyes. "Excuse me, I need to –"
He pushes past Becca and through the crowd of gathered students. They're all so happy, so proud. Bucky can't stand the sight of them.
He wants to think Grant is going to show up any minute now, full of apologies and that sweet, puppy dog charm that will sway Bucky's mom from skinning him alive.
He wants to think he hasn't been an idiot.
He's pretty sure both are a crock of shit.
"Excuse me," a voice says behind him. "Are you James Barnes?"
Humiliated at the idea of being caught on the verge of tears, Bucky scrubs a hand over his face, and turns to tell the intruder to politely leave him the fuck alone.
The scales covering the man's face aren't even the first thing he notices. It's the webbed fingers. Closely followed by the small metal canister they're wrapped around.
The air around him turns heavy and wet, like the sky before a storm. Bucky tries to suck in a breath, but inhales only cotton wool, and falls back into a hollow, echoing darkness.
The joke has officially gone far enough. It's one thing for people to poke fun at Grant's resemblance to Captain America, but it's entirely something else to kidnap Bucky in the hope of using him as leverage against the Avengers.
Bucky's been teaching self-defense classes for years: he knows he can get himself out of this admittedly weird situation as long as he keeps his cool and choses the right moment to make his move. Granted, spit-glue that solidifies into iron-like chains is a little out of his area of expertise, but he'll think of something.
And then he'll spend the rest of the day trying to find the least terrible way to tell this story to Grant. Who will feel extra guilty for skipping out on both Bucky's graduation and his kidnapping and will have to buy him an actual greenhouse for all the plants he'll buy Bucky by way of apology and... and they'll laugh about it. Later.
Leap Frog – and that is the worst super villain name Bucky has ever heard – clips his radio back onto his belt and starts to gather his kidnapping goodiebag. "It is decided then? I will head to the bank as planned, and you will tie this one" – he waves a hand in Bucky's direction – "to the subway tracks and call for the Avengers."
Desperate to both buy himself more time and to not die the second the two most incompetent bank robbers in the world try to drag him onto live tracks, Bucky quickly says, "That's a terrible idea. The worst. Really." He braces himself in expectation of a blow, but if anything, Leap Frog just looks a little crestfallen.
"Sure!" Bucky nods. "I mean, even if you do manage to get me down onto the tracks, it's what, mid-afternoon? You seriously want to deal with a bunch of pissed off New Yorkers by taking out a subway station just before rush hour? Forget the Avengers. You won't make it back onto the platform in one piece."
"The boy is right," Chemistro sighs. "If we'd have done this in the lab, we could have suspended him over a vat of acid."
"And explained it to Mildred how?" Leap Frog asks.
Trying to keep them talking, Bucky asks, "Mildred?"
"She is our PhD Supervisor," Leap Frog explains. "She is..." Both men shudder, and Bucky marvels at how they think they can take on the Avengers when they're both so scared of one woman. "We should kill her after we've killed Captain America!"
Chemistro nods. "Agreed, but that doesn't help us with killing the boy now."
"We could borrow the laser from –"
Chemistro cuts him Leap Frog off. "It's on loan, I already asked."
"We could just blow him up?"
"Our insurance doesn't cover property damage," Chemistro says mournfully.
Leap Frog's hideous face twists into something almost resembling a pout. "You know you could offer up some ideas of your own."
They glare at each other in silence, oblivious to Bucky, who is shaking his head in abject disgust at himself. How the hell did these two morons actually manage to kidnap him? Christ, it's embarrassing.
"We could feed him to the sharks in the Aquarium!" Chemistro suddenly announces.
It's Bucky's turn to squash an idea. "Rush hour traffic again," he says, awkwardly trying to shrug with his arms still so tightly restrained. "Damnit, you're just gonna have to let me go, I guess."
They both turn on him, that crazed incompetence suddenly a whole lot more frightening. "Nice try. But we are going to kill you slowly, and you will scream for your precious Captain to come and rescue you. Then, we shall kill him . If you're lucky, you will be dead by this point already."
Bucky's grasp on his patience and his temper finally snap. "For the last fucking time: my boyfriend is not Captain America! He's a Risk Assessment Officer!"
"You lie," Chemistro says, "you lie pretty, but you still lie. And you will die."
"Probably of old age while you assholes pull your shit together."
"No," Leap Frog says, pulling out the canister that started all this and aiming it at Bucky's face, "I have a better idea."
We'll Meet Again
By the time the fight is done, Steve has more than missed Bucky's graduation. The day is over, night has come and gone, and the sun is dawning on chaotic, half-destroyed streets. There are bodies everywhere. Enough to give even SHIELD a headache.
There are no injuries on the team though, and once they have Hulk quiet and slowly shrinking his way back into Banner's trembling form, they fly the three minutes back to the tower.
Steve makes it all the way back to the elevator before Natasha catches up with him.
"You'll need to tell SHIELD about Bucky," she says, matter-of-fact. "Talk to Coulson. He's less likely to shoot you than Fury or Hill."
"And bring your boy in. Clint and I can run through some stuff with him. Make sure he's not completely helpless."
There's no visible indication that she's angry or upset with him, but he knows her well enough by now to know that she's both. "He's a second dan Ju-Jitsu instructor, if that helps?"
She looks unimpressed. "It's a place to start," she concedes. "You could have told us."
"You should have."
A stiff smile breaks the impassive blankness of her expression. "You're apparently a better liar than I've given you credit for."
There's nothing Steve can say other than, "I'm sorry."
She gives out a small laugh. "There'll be no living with Barton after this, you realize?"
"Ask him about the farm," she says, nudging him with her elbow as she steps aside to let him inside his apartment. "And Stark won't stay mad at you for long."
Now that is a lie. Tony can cling on to things like no one Steve has ever met. "I should let him kick my ass a coupla times though, right?"
"You owe all of us a punch or two," she agrees. "I'll see you in a few hours."
His apartment door slides open, but she stays in the elevator. "Nat?" Steve calls, just as the doors are sliding shut, "thank you."
Safely inside the privacy of his apartment, Steve grabs his cellphone and turns it on in trepidation. He knows Bucky is going to be upset, angry even. Nothing will change that, or elevate Steve's guilt, but the number of missed calls he finds will at least give him a starting point for judging how hard he is going to have to grovel.
What kind of a shithead misses his boyfriend's graduation?
What kind of a shithead builds a whole relationship on a lie in the first place?
A special kind of shithead called Steve Rogers, apparently.
Before he can even press the button for voicemail, Bucky's name flashes up on screen.
Steve accept the call. "I'm so, so sorry, Bucky, I'm –"
"Holy shit, finally!"
That's not Bucky's voice. Steve's grip tightens on the phone. "Who is this? Where's Bucky?"
"Bucky's wondering why his boyfriend isn't here to save him from the big bad monsters," the voice on the other end says. "He's quite adamant that your name is Grant, but we both know that's not true, don't we, Captain Rogers?"
"If you've hurt him –" Steve will...
He doesn't know. There's nothing but coldness and fear in his bones, no room for anything else. He can't breathe for it.
"I haven't hurt him. Not yet. Come to the roof of 423 Park Avenue if you want to keep it that way. Alone."
The call goes dead and every atom of Steve's being goes quiet with it.
He doesn't stop and he doesn't think, not to plan, not to strategize.
He grabs his shield and runs for the elevator.
The man waiting for Steve on the roof is completely unrecognizable. Steve's never met him. He's never even seen him before, and yet he stands there, brazen and angry and between Steve and the one person he loves more than anyone else still alive.
"What have you done with him?"
"Hi, I'm Leap Frog, nice to meet you," the man says, his mouth stretched into a grotesque, inhumanly wide smile.
Steve grips the shield with enough force for it to ache. "I. Don't. Care. Where is he?"
Tilting his head to one side, Leap Frog gestures up towards the platforms that make up the second highest building in the city.
Tied there, unconscious and looking like he's fallen right out of a bad 40s comic book, Bucky is slumped against the highest point.
"I suppose you're wondering why I –"
The shield flies true. It hits Leap Frog hard in the chest and rebounds back to Steve's arm.
Leap Frog falls, and Steve runs. There's a ladder that leads up to the very top of the roof. Then he has to climb. "Bucky! Bucky, hold on!"
It's a stupid thing to say: Bucky's not only unconscious, he's tied to the metal pole. Even if he weren't, he's terrified of heights. He'd be holding on for dear life.
"I'm coming!" Steve shouts, grabbing hold of the rung above his head and flipping himself up onto the narrow ledge. "I'm nearly there!"
He doesn't know if the pole will hold both their weights. When Steve pulls himself up, it trembles violently, swaying in the strong wind. Thunder rumbles above them.
Steve climbs, hand over hand, until he reaches the cross that Bucky is tied to. He wraps both his arms around him, protecting him from the storm and holding him safe as he fumbles with the chains binding him. "I'm here," Steve says, his cheek to Bucky's, "I've got you. You're safe." And because his heart is breaking under the horror of his own failure, his own lies, he whispers, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
The bonds snap free and Steve carefully lowers him down into the metal platform several feet below. From there it's easy enough for Steve to vault down onto the roof and carefully ease Bucky down. "Bucky?" He knows he needs to bring Bucky inside. He knows this won't help. "Open your eyes, please."
But Bucky is pale and so cold, and he's not opening his eyes. Steve tears off his gloves and presses his palms to Bucky's cheeks, thumbs gently tracing over wet skin. He looks unhurt. No vivid bruises that he can see, no wounds or broken bones. Steve's heart stutters painfully when it thinks of all the ways he might have lost him.
It stutters again when it remembers that he's about to lose him now, anyway.
The warmth of Steve's hands brings a sudden flush of color to Bucky's cheeks. He groans, his expression twisting into something pained and afraid, and then he looks up at Steve.
"Oh fuck no," he groans.
"I can explain," Steve says hastily, "but I need to get you someplace safe. Did he say anything? Did he tell you why he took you?"
Bucky's hands reach for him frantically, urgency springing to his eyes. "He's not –" he starts to say.
The sudden smack of something wet, but quickly solidifying, knocks Steve several feet to the side. The thick, viscous liquid starts to compact before he even skids to a stop, pressing in on his chest and making it harder to breathe with each second.
"No!" Bucky's cry snaps him out of the shock and he grits his teeth against the pain. Every muscle in his chest and arm bunches, and the liquid bonds shatter like glass.
"Stay down!" Steve barks, hurling himself past Bucky and into Leap Frog, who clutches the ground, bloody and wheezing. Steve hauls him up by the neck and hits him hard on the jaw. Once. Twice. Again. He needs to stop, but Bucky is hurt. He's scared, and Steve nearly lost him and –
He hits him again.
"Captain!" The shout strikes Steve in the chest and he does what he would never forgive any soldier serving under him for doing: he turns his back on his opponent. Leap Frog hits the concrete in a crumpled heap and doesn't stir.
Looking across the rooftop, a second man has a hand around Bucky's neck and is holding him clear over the edge of the building.
It's not just his flank he leaves open.
Steve can't move.
He's never once frozen in battle. He's never hesitated to do what needs to be done.
But Bucky is looking at him with panicked, frightened eyes, and Steve can't remember how to breathe, let alone break eye contact.
Seconds hang in the air like hours, and the the man loosens his grip.
"Catch," he says, knowing Steve has no chance, knowing Steve can do nothing.
He drops Bucky off a building that's a quarter-mile high, and then stands back to watch as Steve's heart plummets down with him.
His body unfreezes the second he sees Bucky fall, but there is no chance of him making the side of the building in time to catch him. There's only a split second before Bucky vanishes from sight and a half second beyond that before Steve has his shield in hand. He throws it clean and it sends Leap Frog's partner plummeting to the same death he condemned Bucky to.
Racing to the edge of the building, fearing – knowing – exactly what he will see when he looks over the side, Steve's knocked off his feet by a blur of red and gold.
Iron Man lands without any of his usual flourish, and he sets Bucky down on his feet with a carefulness that only those closest to Tony know he's capable of.
Bucky scrambles back from the edge, but no closer to Steve.
There's a whoosh as Stark lifts his helmet. "Next time someone kidnaps your nearest and dearest," he says to Steve, "you should maybe call for backup."
Steve ignores him. He's too focused on Bucky.
"Oh my god," Bucky chokes. "Oh my god."
"Take it easy, kid," Stark tries to calm him, which is a little like pissing on a bush fire, "no harm, no foul. You're all good. Team Avengers to the rescue."
That manages to bring Bucky up short. He stops what was quickly in danger of becoming a panic attack and straightens before storming over to Steve.
"Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Captain America?" he snarls, spitting with rage.
Steve holds his hands up. "I can explain, Bucky, I'm so sorry –"
The punch doesn't even make him stumble, but it hurts all the way down to Steve's heart. "You're a lying piece of shit, Grant."
"Oh," Stark says loudly, as Bucky continues to tell Steve exactly how much of an asshole he really is. "Oh. Oooh."
Bucky's shaking out the ache in his hand between curses, hurt and betrayal battling with the anger in his eyes. He gives Steve a final, disgusted look, then marches over to Stark. "You're taking me home."
"Not an Uber." But Bucky only needs to look at him once before he's being taken in Stark's arms and the two of them are in the air.
"I'll see him back safe," Tony says.
Bucky doesn't even look at him.
"I'm sorry," Steve says again.
Iron Man's mask slides shut with a snap that sounds like the shattering of an entire life, and Steve can only watch as Bucky fades into the distance.
Star Spangled Man
Tony Stark is standing on Bucky's doorstep.
In another life, Bucky's entire existence would be made. His hero, live and in the flesh. On his doorstep. Here to see Bucky.
But Stark looks nothing like the larger than life man on the TV and, without the protection of either his armor or his blazing personality, he seems very small. Very human.
Unlike Captain America – a fucking asshole Bucky hates – who seems somehow more than just a shield when the sum of his parts combine into a much more human whole, Stark's quiet sombreness is somewhere between disappointing and unnerving.
"Before you slam the door in my face," Stark says, at least sounding like the man Bucky has heard so many times, "consider the lack of splat you made on the sidewalk and how it's only polite to repay it with, like, a minute of your time. Maybe two."
Bucky's eyes are tired and gritty. He's sore, and not just from his morning wallowing in misery. "One minute," he says, still unable to bring himself to invite Stark inside.
"Probably closer to five," Stark amends. "I'll be quick but, you know, questions and answers can be tricky and time consuming and –"
"I don't have any questions for you." Bucky feels as flat as his voice sounds. It's true. He has no questions. At least not ones he's ready to hear answers to.
Something that could almost be nervousness drops from Stark's posture and he straightens, utterly serious. "No, but I have them for you ," he says. Bucky raises a curious eyebrow, unable to even start guessing what he can possibly tell Stark that he doesn't already know. "I want to know about Steve."
"What the hell can I tell you?" Bucky snaps. "I didn't even know his real name."
"He lied to you." Stark nods. "About who he is. What he does. But I'm thinking he's lied to us about everything else. I've lived and worked and argued with the guy every single day for nearly two years and I don't know a damn thing about him. So – and I'm gonna do something I never do and actually say please here and hell is probably about to freeze over and if you ever tell anyone I will deny it until I'm blue in the face but," – he pauses, finally, and Bucky's head starts spinning – " please, help me get to know my friend."
Bucky makes Stark a cup of coffee – instant and with three sugars because he's feeling spiteful – and shows him into the living room. Stark's gaze immediately go to the photos on the refrigerator, to the crumpled sweater thrown over the back of the couch, to the spare motorcycle helmet on the table. All signs of Steve that Bucky has yet to clear out of his life.
He takes a gulp of the coffee. Tries and fails to hide his expression. Then dumps the cup into the pot of Bucky's plastic azalea when he thinks he's not being watched.
"So," Stark says, bouncing on the balls of his feet in a clear display of anxiety. Stark strikes Bucky as a man who doesn't know how to handle stillness. "Capsicle."
Bucky feels his eyebrows rise incredulously. "That's what you call him?"
Stark looks surprised by the question, but he quickly recovers. "S'what he is," he says, and Bucky feels a wave of hurt wash over him in the blunt reminder of what Steve has suffered. "He calls me Tin Man?" Stark offers up hopefully. Bucky can see that. The Wizard of Oz is Steve's favorite movie. Of course, he probably saw it when it came out.... Christ.
"So what do you want to know?"
Stark starts to pace. "I don't know! Anything? Everything? He's got this whole 'must not bleed on people' shit up in his head and he never talks about anything unless we're arguing or he's pulling one of his Old Man Rogers routine, and –"
Bucky cuts him off. "You remember that he's actually only twenty-six, right? That's younger than me and it's sure as fuck younger than you. Maybe, if you stop thinking about him like he's ninety and treating him like someone who isn't even thirty yet..." It makes Bucky think about how young Steve was when he went to war. How young he was when he took the serum and led special forces missions deep into Allied territory. It reminds him how young Steve was when he sacrificed his life to save the world.
Mostly Bucky's been wanting to strangle Steve these last few days. Now a part of him just wants to hold him close.
The urge to strangle is still there. Probably will be for a long time. But it's no longer alone alongside Bucky's humiliation.
It is, apparently, possible to feel even worse than he did before.
"He likes blueberry pancakes," Bucky says, his eyes burning. "And he likes to cook. He's good at it, too. Better than me. He likes Disney. He wanted to be an animator when he was a kid. He kicks the sheets off the bed every single night and he swears like... well, I guess he swears like a guy who lived through World War Two. He spends most of the time he's not working worrying about the people he works with." Bucky knows what that means now and he can fit the pieces of the puzzle together well enough to guess who Steve might have been talking about and when. "Your team," he says, "The Avengers. He'd do anything for you."
He loves you, is what Bucky doesn't say. It's not his place, and Stark looks winded enough. It's true, though. Bucky has heard the affection in Steve's voice. He's seen it in the fondness of his expression. He loves his team. And he loves Bucky.
It's the same look. Different shades, but rooted in the same bottomless well of love in Steve's heart.
That much has never been a lie.
Not for Bucky.
Maybe not for Steve either.
"In the interest of full disclosure here," Stark says, his shoulders pushing back in determination, "and one hundred million percent off the record, but... I'm not" – he pauses and makes an awkward grabbing gesture with his hand – "great with people." Bucky cocks his head in what he hopes is a 'no shit?' kind of way, but he doesn't interrupt. "But we've had a couple of beers together and only tried to kill each other under massively extenuating circumstances, so I consider the guy a friend, right? Is that weird? It's weird–"
"I think most people know when they are friends with someone?" Bucky says, then frowning, "but I don't know, you guys have some... extenuating circumstances," he echoes Stark's statement, wincing internally, "I mean... you're under some pretty unique pressures."
Stark laughs humorlessly. "Unique pressures. That's one way to put it." There's a story there that Bucky isn't privy to, a set of experiences that few can possibly understand, but one that Steve shares. "He was happier, after he'd been with you," Stark says, his abrupt seriousness a punch to Bucky's gut. "We never knew what he was doing. Seemed kinda shitty to spy on the guy, or so I was told by actual spies, but" – he sighs and his shoulders slump in defeat – "he was happier."
"That's not fair," Bucky whispers.
Stark shrugs. "Probably not. True, though."
"So what? I'm supposed to brush everything under the rug because being with me makes him happy?"
Stark looks startlingly panicked. "No! God no. That's a terrible idea, don't do that."
"Kid, if I knew I would be the first person to shout it from the rooftops. Take it from someone who has royally fucked over the people I care about most because I don't have the answers, it's shit. Rogers should never've brought you into this, but he did, so you're clearly worth the risk to him. You just gotta decide if you wanna take it."
"And what? Date a superhero?"
Stark nods. "And all the bells and whistles that come with it. Because, if that's what you want to do, there's nothing the Avengers won't do to keep you safe. But I can guarantee, one hundred percent, there will be some nut job who tries to kill you. Probably more than one. The press will love you. Or hate you. Both, really, depending on the network and the day and what clothes you're wearing at the time. You'll spend half your time worrying about whether or not Rogers is gonna die battling zombies or aliens or terrorists or terrorist zombies, and the other half of the time wondering why you put yourself through so much shit, and –"
"Is this a sales pitch?" Bucky cuts in. "Because it sucks."
"You wanna remind me that Rogers is still in his twenties and I should stop treating him like a backflipping geriatric? Fine. Fair. But, as someone older and absolutely not wiser, but entirely more experienced in" – he waves his hand in the air in a wild gesticulation – "everything that doesn't involve cryogenic hibernation, I don't want to see him make the same fuck ups I have."
It's sweet in an annoyingly endearing kind of way, and Bucky thinks back to all the times Steve has talked about struggling to find a bond with his team. If he could see this, see the way Stark so clearly cares in his own bumbling, rambling, awkward way, Bucky knows that doubt would be lessened.
"Have you talked to him about it?" Bucky asks, trying to imagine how the conversation might go and cringing. Stark is clearly terrible at expressing himself and Steve, well, he would rather chew off his own arm than admit to a perceived weakness.
Stark pulls a face, which is an answer in itself. "You've met him, right? It would be less agonizing to pull my teeth out. With a hammer. He's a monumental pain in the ass."
Steve manages to prove that his sense of timing has increased with the reveal of his secret – or not secret – identity. He comes crashing through the door, the paleness of his complexion rapidly shifting to pink as he takes in Bucky and Tony.
"I thought, I mean..." His eyes couldn't get any wider and if Bucky could push aside the urge to punch him again, he might be able to laugh. "Tony, what are you-?"
"Going!" Stark is already halfway out the door, "I'm going, going, go–"
There's a bang as the door slams behind him, a sudden snap like gunfire followed by an uneasy, painful silence.
Bucky doesn't know if he has it in him to break it. Not without breaking himself. Grant – Steve – is close enough to touch and, despite the pain ricocheting around Bucky's heart, none of the happier memories are in any way dimmed. Bucky can still remember the feel of Steve in his arms, the rightness of him, strong and sturdy.
There's agony on Steve's face and, when Bucky stops to think about it, there have always been in moments like this. Steve's incredibly good at telling lies of omission, yes, but other than that fateful first one when he'd told Bucky his name, Bucky can't actually think of a time Steve has told him an outright untruth. ' I got held up at work, my co-workers are testing my patience; my parents are dead, long time now.' Bucky stops, angry with himself. Steve doesn't deserve him making excuses. He doesn't.
But Bucky wants to make them, all the same.
"Well?" he demands, hurt sharpening his words to obsidian points. "Stark's gone now. You don't have to worry about him spilling any of your secrets."
Steve flushes in shame. He's visibly struggling to meet Bucky's gaze, but he does so regardless. He's brave, Bucky'll give him that much. Brave and probably a bit stupid, because he might as well have given Bucky a gun and stood there with his arms widespread, just waiting for the shot. "That wasn't what I was worried about."
"No? Not afraid he'll spill the top secret world saving plans you had when you fucking lied to me?" The bitterness is sharp and sickly, sweetly acidic in his mouth.
Steve doesn't look away. "I was afraid he'd try and convince you to take me back."
The ridiculousness of the statement startles a bark of laughter from Bucky's chest. "You're joking."
Steve's shoulders lift and fall helplessly. "Tony, he's... his heart is in the right place most of the time."
"And the right place is pushing us back together after everything you've done?" All of the cancelled plans and missed dates and unanswered calls and texts. Making Bucky think he was ashamed to introduce him to his friends, see his apartment, be a full part of his life. Making Bucky think he was cheating on him.
"I," Steve starts, then pauses, sighing. "No. That's not what I mean."
"What do you mean?" Bucky demands. "Is it less fun now the secret's out? You've had your time playing Joe Normal and it's back to saving the world?"
Steve's hands are clenched into fists at his sides. A part of Bucky should be questioning that, questioning Steve's temper. A bigger part of him knows he doesn't have to.
"Yes!" Steve shouts. "I mean no. I mean... I don't want us to get back together."
He's not lying. They say that the truth hurts, but it's an agony so sharp it leaves Bucky breathless, and he doesn't know why. It's not what he wants either, is it?
If Stark is bad at dealing with this kind of thing, then Steve is an utter disaster. The red tinge his cheeks explodes into luminous mortification. "I don't mean it like that!"
It takes Bucky a moment before he can speak without wanting to cry. "Then, what do you mean?"
"I..." – he looks around, lost – "can I sit?" Bucky nods, short and sharp. Steve sinks into his usual spot on the couch, oblivious to the twist of the knife in Bucky's heart. Settled in where he's visibly more secure, Steve looks up at Bucky again. "I never set out to lie to you. No matter what else I did, it was never about that."
It occurs to Bucky that Captain America is the only reason Steve is still in the room with him. If he'd been any other man doing what Steve has done, there wouldn't be a bone in Bucky's body not violently opposed to his presence. It's those extenuating circumstances again, the standard rulebook useless to them both.
"Go on." Bucky doesn't so much encourage as order.
"That night we... met ...it was just..." He pauses, at war with something unspoken inside. "I was lonely. And I wanted to not be me just for one night." He does a good job at sounding level and calm, but there is something fractured in his eyes when he says the word lonely, and the part of Bucky that still loves him aches. "I didn't know if I could trust you – I'm not, this isn't me blaming you, not at all, it's just. Captain America can't have a one-night stand."
Bucky snorts, just thinking about the utter shitshow Fox News would make of it, then freezes, horrified. Christ, they really would. They hold Steve up as this paragon of heroism and patriotism, unparalleled and perfect. And the Steve he knows is many things, but perfect is certainly not one of them.
"That's why you didn't want to see me again, after?" Bucky asks, and Steve nods, miserably.
"I really didn't know you were going to be at the gym that day," he says. "Seeing you there, I remembered how I felt while I was with you."
It's sad, when Bucky stops to think about it. Steve is surrounded by some of the greatest people in the world and could drown himself in the adoration of the masses with just a word or two of encouragement. But one night of sex with a stranger had been what'd brought him actual happiness.
"But that's still no excuse. None. I betrayed your trust. I abused it, abused you, and –"
"You know it's a miracle the bad guys haven't done you in for good yet, the way you beat yourself up for them." Steve stops his self-recrimination, his mouth open and slack. "Don't think I'm not fucking furious with you because I fucking am," Bucky quickly adds. "And I'm not forgiving you. Even if you couldn't trust me that first night, it's been nearly a year since then."
He wonders if this is what it's like to get married to someone, only to find out they're a spy. Or Superman.
Yes, probably. That's pretty much what he is, isn't he? He's Lois Fucking Lane.
Understanding Steve's predicament doesn't lessen the pain, it only adds to it. Steve could have died and Bucky, knowing only Grant, would have had no idea what had happened to him.
Steve could still die. How many times over the past year has he come back to Bucky after fighting some monster or other? How many times in the future is he going to do the same thing, but with no one there to help him shoulder that weight?
"I'm sorry," Steve says, and sounds it. "I'm sorry I lied to you. I'm sorry I put you in danger. God, when I found out you'd been taken..." There's something ashen and grief-stricken in his expression. And beneath the hysterical stab of fear that comes with the reminder of how close Bucky had been to dying , he wonders morbidly what would've happened if he had.
It would have killed Steve, he realizes. Bucky doesn't need to know anything else about him to know that much.
So, on top of everything else, BUcky now has the knowledge that the world, so dependent on their savior, is somehow dependent on him still breathing .
"You need to leave," Bucky whispers, his knees weak. "I can't think when you're here."
Steve is already standing before Bucky has finished speaking. "Of course. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..." He shakes his head again, "I'm sorry."
"I need time." The knife in his heart seems to be calcifying into something heavy and hard.
"Take as long as you need," Steve says, his voice just as soft as Bucky's.
"At least I'll know where to find you." Bucky can't believe he can still make a joke when the world feels like it's ending, but it's worth it for the shadow of a smile that touches Steve's eyes. He reaches out and pulls Steve to him.
He doesn't know if this is the end. He doesn't know if he'll ever get past this.
But just in case.
He can manage this much.
Steve is still, somehow fragile, beneath Bucky's hands as he leans in and presses the lightest of kisses to Steve's mouth. "Goodbye, Steve Rogers," he says.
Steve loses the fight with his tears before Bucky does. They overflow and spill down his cheeks. He doesn't speak, only nods, his fingers lingering over Bucky's for what seems like eternity before he wrenches himself away and leaves the apartment without a word.
Bucky says he needs time, and Steve wants to give it to him.
After two months, he starts to wonder if 'time' is just a kind way of saying 'never'.
True to Natasha's prediction, Tony doesn't stay mad at him. None of the team do, not even Fury. They take it as some kind of screwed up way of proving that he is, in fact, human and fallible and can fuck up the same as anyone, and it helps them as a team somehow. They get along better with a leader they can see themselves in than they ever did with the ideal of perfection the modern world seem to associate with Captain America.
It still sucks for Steve on a personal level, but at least he has one less thing to worry about.
The world continues to spin, the city continues to battle the weirdest of the weird, and somewhere along the line, life settles into a routine that is almost comfortable. Steve still thinks about Bucky all the time, but it's once an hour, not once a minute, and then a whole day goes by where he only wonders once how Bucky might be doing.
He's just about learned to live without him in his life, and then one day, Bucky is there. Standing in the lobby of Stark Industries.
"Bucky." Steve can't quite believe he's real. He looks... he looks good. And he's smiling. Not big and beaming like he's capable of, but small. Hopeful.
“Hi,” Bucky says.
“You’re, I… I didn’t expect to see you.” Again. Ever .
“I didn’t plan on it,” Bucky admits. That sounds final, and Steve wonders if this is it. Bucky’s closure and the end of it all.
“But you’re here,” Steve says, hating himself for trying to hasten the inevitable.
“You were a shitty boyfriend,” Bucky blurts out. “Even without the whole Avengers thing. I thought you were cheating on me...or...you were ashamed of me for some reason. And the whole ‘super soldier from another century' only excuses like, five percent of your inability to communicate like a fucking adult.”
Steve nods. Takes it. He owes Bucky nothing less. And it’s not like he’s wrong.
“But Augustus misses you,” Bucky says, deflating. “And I miss you. I miss you geeking out over baking shows and taking over my kitchen. I miss holding you at night and talking to you about my day and my dreams and I even miss your stupid protien shakes. And I just… reached the point where I miss you more than I’m mad at you. Which is a terrible place to both start or end a relationship.”
The reality of how much he pain Steve has inflicted with his selfishness has lost none of its sting. He’s shamed, again. And humbled by the Bucky's honesty. He wants to respond in kind, to tell Bucky how much he's missed Bucky's towers of books everywhere and his terrible taste in pizza and the way he snuggles with Steve on the sofa like there's nowhere he'd rather be, but he can think only of apologizing for the hundredth time. By this point, it’s meaningless.
"Are you getting ready to say that you're sorry again?" Bucky asks, seeming to read his mind.
Every day for the rest of his life, if he has to. "I am," Steve says. "More than I can ever say."
Bucky takes a slow, controlled breath, then reaches out and takes Steve's hand. "Buy me a coffee and let's talk about how you can make it up to me?"
The world isn't ready to see Captain America cry in the lobby of Stark Industries, but it's about to happen. Bucky just makes a soft, pained noise, and opens his arms for Steve to bury himself into.
"You're a fucking idiot," Bucky says, warm and affectionate. “You know, I loved Grant Rushman. And..I think I wanna find out if I can say the same about Steve Rogers.”
Steve can't stop the sound that escapes him. "Say it again?"
"That you're an idiot? Just try and stop me."
Steve presses his face into the curve of Bucky's shoulder and ignores the rest of the world around them. "No," he says. "My name."
For a moment Bucky freezes, and Steve fears he's said the wrong thing.
"You're an idiot, Steve Rogers," he says, one hand coming up to curl around the back of Steve's neck. "And we still need to talk. A lot. But you're my idiot. My Steve."
It's not a promise of everything they once had, but it's enough.
It's more than enough.