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“Rogers!” One of the guys from NBC Sports yells in his face. “Rogers, look here! Anything to say about the two power play goals on your penalties?”

Steve shoves through the press scrum in the locker room to get to the showers. He doesn’t have to say shit to the press. They just lost again, bringing them to a nine-game losing streak, and he’s leading the league in penalty minutes. They just lost by four and there’s no way they’re going to make the playoffs even if they win their last three games of the season—this brings them out of the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. The press doesn’t want to hear anything from him but apologies and self-deprecation, and he’s fresh out.

“Rogers,” his main goalie, Cameron, says warningly. “Don’t—”

Too late. Steve drives his fist into the shower wall. It’s absolutely stupid, because he probably just broke his hand and it was already sore from dropping gloves and beating the shit out of Ryan Kessler last week, and the sudden quiet from the locker room means the press just heard the whole thing. That’ll be another write-up on him and his inadequacies.

“Jesus,” Cameron hisses. “Pull yourself together.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Steve snarls. He already regrets it as it’s happening; Cameron was Steve’s rookie two years ago when he first came to the team, and he still looks up to Steve. But just now, Steve can’t help it. They’re the laughingstock of the league and Steve’s worked way too fucking hard for this.

He’ll apologize to Cameron later and Cameron will forgive him. But right now he’s going to rush through a shower and get to his car as fast as possible. And, of course, he has a call from his agent. Steve blows out a breath and rests his head against the steering wheel for a minute. Calls from Rumlow are never pleasant. Steve’s had so many plans to get a new agent…but he really needs a good season before he can leverage anything.

And that’s apparently not coming anytime soon.

Steve better not be getting sent down to Hartford for the minors. He has a no-trade clause, so they can’t send him anywhere else, but being sent down over some shitty penalties would add insult to injury. Losing season (alright, seasons) aside, Steve’s a great player and he never slacks off. Sending him down would literally just be a punishment and a message. He wouldn’t put it past his coach, Phillips. Steve listens to the voicemail. He’s already annoyed, so it’s not like it’ll get any worse.

“Rogers, tonight was a shitshow. Call me. I’ve got an idea for something that’ll make sure you’re indispensable.”

Steve rolls his eyes a little. What would make him indispensable would be magically stealing Crosby overnight so they can have more than one goal every three games. He can’t think of anything Rumlow could do. He drives home and gets himself comfortable before calling Rumlow back. He’d leave it until tomorrow, but that always makes things worse.

“Rogers, what the fuck?” Rumlow asks by way of greeting. Steve holds back a sigh. Rumlow’s such a pleasant conversationalist.

“Had a bad game,” Steve says, fully aware of how defensive he sounds.

“Had a bad last half of the season,” Rumlow corrects. Steve clenches his jaw, but he really can’t argue that point. “Listen, they’re gonna send your ass down if we don’t do something.” Maybe you should’ve helped me get a no-movement clause, Steve thinks bitterly. A no-movement clause would mean they can’t send him down, either.

“The season’s basically over,” Steve points out. “I can’t do anything now.” They’re certainly not going to bother sending him down for three games.

“No, shut up,” Rumlow demands. “I got an idea. We’re meeting with the suits tomorrow morning. 9 am. Don’t get too shitfaced that you can’t show up. Even though I’ll really be doing all the work. As usual.”

As usual. Like Steve’s not the one out there getting slammed into the boards night after night while Rumlow uses Steve’s money to buy a fucking Hummer. Whatever. Steve hangs up without a goodbye because it’s really spectacularly easy to be rude to Rumlow, and he never even has to feel guilty about it later.

He ices his hand and drops into bed. He doesn’t even eat his traditional after-game candy bar. He doesn’t deserve it tonight.

 

When Steve walks into the front office, he’s a little startled by how many people are in there. He knows Phillips, of course, and the general manager, Erskine, is a great guy Steve loves talking to. He’s met the owner, Brandt, a few times, though he wouldn’t say he knows the guy. He’s a Senate-hopeful or something, doesn’t come around too much. And then there’s a man and a woman Steve’s never seen before. The guy’s got an eye patch. He has no idea what the hell Rumlow’s got up his sleeve.

“Well, Steven, you have called this meeting,” Erskine says. “Why don’t we get started?”

“Oh. Uh, yeah, okay,” Steve says, fuming a little. Of course Rumlow would say this was Steve’s idea without giving Steve any clue what’s going on. Now Rumlow will make it seem like he’s swooping in to save the day when this whole mess is his fault anyway. And Steve looks like a buffoon in front of Brandt.

“If I may,” Rumlow cuts in. Just once, Steve would like to tell him he may not. But that would probably look even worse. “This is Nick Fury and Maria Hill, from NBC. We’ve got an idea for Rogers that’ll bring a ton of great publicity to the team.”

“NBC doesn’t seem too concerned with hockey content,” Phillips points out bluntly. “They haven’t exactly been beating down the league’s doors.”

“We do feature hockey teams,” Fury says mildly. “In the Stanley Cup playoffs.” Steve narrows his eyes. The dig at their playoff train wreck isn’t subtle.

“There’s something every hockey player is known for,” Rumlow gets them back on track. “And Rogers has been in the news for it a few times.”

“Fighting?” Phillips asks flatly. Steve flushes a little.

“His ass,” Rumlow supplies, and Steve wants to sink through the floor. He’d rather they talk about his stupid penalties.

“You want to do a show about Rogers’s ass?” Phillips asks skeptically. Steve covers his face with his hands, then hisses a little when the motion aggravates his injured hand. When he looks up again, he’s earned a grade-A stink face from Phillips.

“Women love Rogers’s ass,” Rumlow goes on blithely, ignoring the way Steve groans under his breath. “And NBC needs a new dating show.”

No,” Steve blurts out before he can stop himself. He is absolutely not doing that. Everyone stares at him. Fury’s got his eyebrow raised.

“It’ll bring in good publicity for the team and for the league,” Rumlow continues like Steve didn’t say anything. “Could lead to more people getting interested in hockey.”

“We like the idea,” Hill says. “But we can find a different player if you’re not interested.” She directs the last part to Steve. And she doesn’t even sound completely hostile about it.

“He’s interested,” Rumlow assures her.

“No,” Steve repeats. He’s starting to sweat. He can’t do this. “I’m not.”

“It would bring a lot of attention to the team,” Brandt muses. “Rogers can be charmingly earnest in interviews. Captain America and all that. He’d make a good impression.”

“He doesn’t want to,” Phillips points out. He’s been frowning since Rumlow started talking. “And he’s got training to focus on.”

“Seems we’re about to have a long summer,” Brandt says. “Again. That’ll be enough time for a reality show, won’t it?”

“It will,” Fury agrees. “But whatever player you choose has to be willing. We don’t need some passive-aggressive interviews derailing this whole thing.”

“Oh, Rogers wouldn’t do that,” Rumlow promises everyone, slimy smile in place. Steve hates him. He wants to punch him, broken hand be damned.

“I am concerned,” Erskine says. “Steven does not seem comfortable with the proposal.”

“I’m not,” Steve admits, so grateful he could hug Erskine. He frequently feels that way about Erskine, since the man first took a chance on Steve and let him finish his college degree before signing him to the team. It’s not like no one’s ever done it, but picking him up as a free agent rather than through the draft was a gamble—college hockey could’ve led to injury, or bad habits, or just plain burnout. But Erskine made him a deal and followed through.

But Brandt is looking at Steve with narrowed, calculating eyes. Steve watches his eyes flick around Steve’s shoulders and chest and then back up to his face.

“I think this would be a great help to Steve’s career and to show his dedication to the team,” he finally says. Steve swallows hard. Well, that’s it. He doesn’t really have a choice. Go on a dating show or languish in the minors until his contract runs out. Who’ll want to sign him after a bunch of losing seasons and two years playing AHL? No one.

“Okay,” Steve says. “I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure?” Erskine asks. Steve thinks Erskine would fight for him. That makes him want to do it even more. He doesn’t want Erskine to go down on his behalf.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Steve says. Brandt and Rumlow are the only two who leave the meeting looking pleased. Phillips never really looks pleased, to be honest. Erskine murmurs to Steve as they walk out,

“You do not have to.”

“It’s really okay,” Steve says, even though it isn’t. “I’ll just think of it as taking one for the team.”

Erskine frowns, but the studio people, Fury and Hill, are too close for him to say anything else. Neither of them look especially happy, either. Steve figures he didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence for them when he’s supposed to be carrying their show.

Nothing really happens for a while; Steve keeps going to practice and tries to make up for his shitty season in sweat equity. They actually pull out a win against Vancouver, but it doesn’t mean much because they’re already out of playoffs contention. And it’s the Canucks.

Steve gets another voicemail from Rumlow telling him about another ambush-meeting, and Steve actually puts a calendar reminder in his phone to ask the guys at afternoon skate tomorrow if they like their agents. He can’t take much more of this.

This time, one of the team’s PR people is there in place of any other front-office people. Fury and Hill have another woman with them, and Steve gulps a little when he sees her. She’s gorgeous and vaguely terrifying even before she’s said a word to him. There’s another no-nonsense woman sitting beside her, looking over a paper, and she gives Steve a brief nod before going back to her reading.

“Hi, Steve,” the PR woman, Kamala, greets him. They’ve worked together for a lot of team stuff over the years. She started as an intern three seasons ago and they all loved her so much they gave her a full-time job as soon as she graduated from college last year. “This is Peggy Carter, a lawyer for the studio, and that’s Carol Danvers; she’s one of the league’s lawyers.”

“We’re just firming up some contract negotiations,” Danvers says without looking up. “Your agent sent the copy for you to read?”

“Uh…” Steve bites his lip and cuts his eyes to Rumlow. Of fucking course Rumlow didn’t send him anything. Carter narrows her eyes at Rumlow, beside Steve, and then nods once.

“Well, here you are,” she says. Steve’s a bit thrown off by the British accent. “Take a quick read and we’ll go through any concerns you have.”

Steve’s pretty well-versed in skimming contracts. His league contract, endorsements, national team contracts—they’re all pretty much the same.

This is completely different.

“Whoa, what’s this? Clause, uh, four on page seven? I’m not allowed my phone or social media for the entire 8 weeks?”

“Yes,” Carter says crisply. “The studio can’t have you being influenced by anything going on or spoiling anything.”

“That’s pretty standard,” Danvers says. “The women on the show won’t have theirs either. They can’t even have books.”

“I can’t have my phone?” Steve repeats. “At all? That’s not doable.”

Everyone stops and stares at him. “Not doable,” Carter repeats.

“No, ma’am, not doable.”

“Rogers,” Rumlow mutters. “Don’t be a pussy.”

Steve grinds his teeth together. “I’ve told you not to talk like—”

“Gentlemen,” Fury breaks in. They both shut up immediately. “Mr. Rogers, could you elaborate a bit on why you need your phone?”

“He doesn’t have family, so it’s not that,” Rumlow says before Steve can speak. Steve feels like someone punched him in the stomach. Thanks for the gracious reminder, he thinks sarcastically. Kamala taps a hand on Steve’s knee under the table. Her face is tight with anger.

“Thank you, Rumlow, for that,” Hill says dryly. “I can tell you’ve got stellar people skills. Rogers, would it be acceptable if we changed it to no phone during shooting and you allow a producer to screen your calls? And, of course, we would monitor your social media use. As in, don’t have any.”

“A producer?” Steve asks. He doesn’t care about the social media thing. He has a Twitter that Kamala set up for him, but he’s used it maybe three times. He never knows what to say, and people’s responses are always so inappropriate or hostile. “I don’t know, I mean…who…?”

“We’ve got two producers lined up,” Fury says. “Sam Wilson and Alexander Pierce. Pierce has been very successful with another network’s reality shows. I think Wilson would be the better choice for this, for you. Around your same age, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who didn’t get along with him.”

“Alright, fine, Rogers’ll hand over his phone. We good?” Rumlow asks.

“Have you read the whole thing?” Danvers asks Steve, shooting Rumlow a look so quelling he actually shuts up. “Take your time. I’m reading it, too, but my goal is to find things that could hurt the league and the team. Did you talk to anyone from the players’ association? We should have them take a look at it, too.”

“No, that’s okay,” Steve says. “I’ve taken their contracts workshops. I know what to look for.” He mostly doesn’t, except to look for things he doesn’t like, but he figures that’s all he really needs to do anyway.

He’d like to ask if all the contestants have to be women, but he knows better than that by now. A major network reality show is probably not going to do that. And besides, Steve tried hinting to the front office that he wanted to come out, years ago. After some of the horrific responses he got to participating in the You Can Play program and using his Pride Tape, the PR manager—Kamala’s boss—quietly suggested he wait to come out. Steve wonders if Kamala knows he’s bisexual. Is that the kind of thing her boss would tell her, to prepare her, or is it something they’re all keeping secret?

Shame wells up in his stomach. He should’ve made a public statement as soon as he signed. He shouldn’t be hiding like this. But coming out now would get a lot of attention, and it would most certainly not all be positive, especially after the way he’s been playing. There would be a lot of people saying his losing season’s due to his sexuality, and that could cause more harm than good. It would be best to come out after a winning season. Maybe after a Stanley Cup.

He shakes his head a little. So apparently he’s never coming out.

“We have some profiles of women for you to look at,” Hill says, raising her eyebrows at him. “To get an idea of what you’re looking for.”

“I don’t…” Steve rubs at his forehead. His skin is crawling. This is all so embarrassing. And uncomfortable. And weird.

“Just pick a few, Rogers,” Danvers barks at him. Steve’s gone his whole life with coaches telling him what to do, but somehow he’s never gotten over the urge to do the opposite. But he has learned to ignore that part of him. It’s almost a relief, actually, to just shut up and do as he’s told right now.

“Uh, her, I guess?” Steve says, pointing at a pretty blonde woman. Hill flips the page and Steve shrugs. “Her too. Yeah, her. And her.”

“Are you going to approve every woman?” Carter asks. Steve thinks she might be kind of amused. He hopes.

“Um, well…they’re all pretty,” Steve says, blushing deeper. “And I, you know, I don’t want to judge them without getting to know them.”

“Good Lord,” Danvers mutters under her breath. “You’re not real.”

“Seriously,” Kamala agrees.

“Gimme a break.” Rumlow rolls his eyes. “I’ll pick for you. The first one’s too old, the second one’s got a weird mole, and that third one barely had tits at all.”

“Ah, yes,” Danvers says. “That’s what I’m used to.”

“How about this,” Hill says, eyeing Rumlow coldly. “I will send you some personality profiles. Education, work and volunteer experience, goals. Does that sound better?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, completely relieved. “Thank you.”

They wrap up the meeting with a few more signatures and minimal comments by Rumlow. Steve bumps hands with Carter while he gives back the pen, and it reduces him to an embarrassingly blushing mess.

“You’re adorable,” Kamala says after they’ve left Danvers and the studio people to hash out more details. They purposefully went a different way than Rumlow, and he hadn’t bothered arguing. “You have women literally chasing after you and you still blush about touching a pretty woman’s hand.”

“I’m much cooler on ice.”

Kamala shakes her head. “Was that a pun? Awful.”

Steve laughs. “Come on, no laugh at all?”

She elbows him and he grabs her in a headlock, making her shriek and kick at his ankles. He lets her go without doing any real damage, and she splits off with a middle finger and a grin to head back to her office. Steve thinks Kamala would be a much better choice for a dating show. She’s easy to talk to and funny. People would love to watch her week after week. She’s young, though, just now out of college. She’s talked about traveling to France or something.

Steve does have a pretty large fan base. They’ll probably watch a show for him. They’re all loyal enough to stick around through his losing seasons. He mostly doesn’t know what to do when faced with his fans. The kids are easy—toss them a puck, sign a helmet, give up a stick. But Kamala’s not exaggerating about the women chasing him. He doesn’t know how to deal with that at all.

So an entire competition of women chasing after him? A nightmare. He’s practically breaking out in hives thinking about it, so he shakes off the cobwebs, grabs his skates, and hits the ice. He doesn’t do anything terribly fancy, but he needs to calm down.

They can’t keep him from working out or skating during the show. He has to stay in shape for next season, especially if he’s not sure he’ll still have a spot. He skates harder, trying to make himself stop thinking. Skating used to be the best way to shut his mind up. Now it takes more and more effort to get quiet in his head. He doesn’t see this show helping anything.

 

Three weeks later, Steve’s in a hired car to upstate New York. One of his stipulations for the location was there had to be ice nearby for him to use. He can do his land workouts pretty much anywhere, but going two months without skating is completely out of the question.

The driver pulls up to a huge house—Steve thinks this might count as a mansion. He’s seen some pretty huge houses in his time in the NHL, but this tops them all. And the place is crawling with people. Steve takes a deep breath, peering out the window at the teeming crowd.

“You’ll be alright,” his driver, a guy whose name is actually Happy, reassures him. “All the girls are gonna love you.”

“Thanks,” Steve says. “Sorry you had to drive all the way out here.”

“Oh, no, I’m the driver for the show,” Happy tells him. “I’ll be driving you around for the next two months.”

“Oh. Well, okay.” Steve swallows. “You’re on my side, right?” He hopes he doesn’t sound as plaintive as he feels. Happy turns around and gives him a thumb’s up.

“Definitely on your side,” he promises. It might not sound like much, but it really does make Steve feel better. Ready to face his fate, anyway.

As soon as he gets out of the car, people are in his face. He’s getting more used to that, because of publicity shoots and team videographers following them around, but still. He flinches a little when a guy comes right up close to him.

“Captain Rogers, hi,” he says, like the C on Steve’s sweater is a title now. “I’m Phil Coulson. I’m the director. And I’m a big fan.”

“Oh,” Steve says awkwardly. He didn’t realize reality shows had a director. “Hi. Thanks. Uh, hi.”

“Have you met the producers yet?” Coulson asks. “The host? The crew?”

“I just got here,” Steve points out.

“Right. Come with me and we’ll get you taken care of. Hungry?”

“No thank you.” Steve feels a little faint. It’s not that he’s not used to press or long days on the move. But he usually gets to sit on a plane or a bus with his headphones in for a while before he has to deal with this kind of stuff.

“This is Sam Wilson,” Coulson tells him. Sam smiles and stretches out his hand from a respectable distance away and Steve immediately relaxes.

“Oh, you’re going to screen my calls, right?” He asks.

Wilson laughs. “Yeah, thanks for that honor,” he jokes. “I gotta deal with my mom checking up on me and yours?”

Steve’s throat sticks a little, because no, Wilson will not have to deal with Steve’s mom. Steve swallows quickly and plasters his smile back on his face. “Well, I just hope you don’t do anything evil with it. Don’t post from my twitter.”

“You have a twitter?” Wilson asks. “Thought you didn’t do the social media thing.”

“I have it,” Steve says. “Doesn’t mean I always use it.”

Wilson smirks. “I’m gonna tweet about how you wish you were Ovechkin.”

Steve groans theatrically. “A Caps fan? Never mind, I don’t trust you with my phone.”

“Too late, man, I’m the producer here. I own your ass.”

Steve is self-aware enough to admit that his stomach flutters quite a bit at those words. He would not mind that. Not at all.

“Oh, here’s our other producer,” Wilson says. His whole demeanor shifts, toning down and getting more serious. “Alexander Pierce.”

He’s a good-looking older man, a sharp tailored suit and shiny shoes immediately telling Steve a lot about him. He stretches out a hand to Steve. “Mr. Rogers, so nice to meet you.”

“You too, Mr. Pierce. And please call me Steve.”

“Now, the driver is taking your things to your hotel. The contestants will be staying here at the house. My job, and Mr. Wilson’s job, is to make sure everything runs smoothly. We’ll be your sounding boards and kind of your handlers.” Pierce launches right down to brass tacks. Steve can see the merit of that, but he more prefers the good-natured banter with Wilson.

“We’ve got some set up interviews we’d like to get started on right away,” Pierce continues. “I’m going to make sure everything’s ready. Mr. Wilson, please bring him along in ten minutes.”

“No problem,” Wilson says. They stay quiet, watching Pierce’s back, and then Sam huffs. “You can call me Sam. Please don’t call me Mr. Wilson.”

Steve laughs. “Only if you call me Steve. If I’m gonna be Mr. Rogers I’ll need a sweater with elbow patches.”

Sam laughs and claps a hand on Steve’s back, gently steering him toward the house. “I’m so glad you’re not a rich asshole.”

“Well, you don’t know me very well yet,” Steve points out. “Wait until tonight when I call you at 2 am needing 4 egg whites and three spinach leaves.”

Sam winks. “That’s why I’m keeping your phone.”

Just then, a man in black runs by. “Wilson!” He greets.

“Barnes,” Sam calls back. The guy turns his head and Steve freezes.

“Bucky?”

“Steve?”

“Whoa, uh, what?” Sam asks.

“Barnes!” Someone yells from the house.

“I…” Bucky’s staring at Steve with those wide blue eyes Steve remembers. His hair is long, tied back in a bun, completely different than Steve remembers. He also has stubble, very different than the last time Steve saw him.

“Barnes!” Someone yells again.

“I gotta go,” Bucky says. His voice sounds the same, but deeper now, since he’s through puberty. And it was good to him. Steve can feel himself blushing. “I’m sorry, I—I gotta go.” He rushes off, leaving Steve gobsmacked in his wake.

“So…” Sam says. “You know Barnes?”

“We played hockey together,” Steve says. “When we were kids. We went to development camps and then we were on the under-18 national team.”

“No shit?” Sam says. “I knew he liked hockey but I didn’t know he played for real.”

“He, um. He stopped,” Steve says. “He got hurt. At camp. And he couldn’t play anymore.”

Sam’s looking at him with eyes that are seeing a lot more than Steve’s comfortable with. He slips on his blank media face and tries to stop hearing the sick crack of Bucky’s head against the ice after he lost his helmet, the sound of his arm fracturing. “So, interviews?”

Sam watches for another second but lets Steve off the hook. “Yeah, we’ll head in there now. It’ll be a talking head kind of thing, you know, how you’re feeling before the contestants get here.”

“Nervous,” Steve admits. “I am…not great with women.”

“Yeah, I heard a bit from Peggy and Maria,” Sam teases.

“Ah, jeez,” Steve says. Sam laughs at him some more, which is okay. But then they get inside, and there’s Bucky again. He’s messing with the camera. There are a few other people in the room: a woman with red hair and a dirty-blond guy who trips the second Steve walks in. Steve can barely take in the other two people. He can’t stop looking at Bucky. He can’t believe he's real.

“Alright,” Sam says. “I’m gonna leave you here. Just remember to relax. You want to seem really natural, okay? Talk about why you wanted to do this and how excited you are for the opportunity.”

Steve’s feelings must show on his face, because he hears Bucky snort. It’s distracting. The red-haired woman comes over. “Hi,” she says. “I’m Natasha. I’m gonna clip a mic onto you, okay?”

“Oh, sure,” Steve says. He’s surprised she asked. At all the media events and interviews he’s done, he feels kind of like a prop; people clip things onto him and adjust him and put makeup on him and no one ever asks.

“I’m Clint,” the clumsy guy tells him. “I’m the camera assistant.” Steve nods at him, then looks at Bucky. He hasn’t said a thing since Steve came in.

“Hi,” Bucky finally says.

“Hi,” Steve echoes, sure he sounds as dazed as he feels.

“I’m the camera guy.”

“Yeah?” Steve checks, feeling his face split into a grin. “Just like you used to talk about.”

Bucky shrugs. “Guess so.”

“Uh, Steve, we need to get going. No Coulson for talking heads,” Sam interrupts from the doorway. He looks apologetic. “Pierce’ll come back and check on us and we don’t want to be behind his schedule.”

Bucky gives Steve a little smile. “He likes his schedule.” He turns his attention to Sam. “Get off our backs, would ya? We’re working on it.”

“Looks like you’re sitting around,” Sam says, pretending to be unimpressed. “Get to work before I fire your lazy ass.”

Bucky scoffs. “Who would fire this ass?” He shakes the ass in question. Steve coughs. It’s exactly the kind of thing Bucky would’ve done when they were kids. “Okay, Steve, sit over there. Get used to this chair, because you’ll be using it for most of your talking heads.”

“Alright,” Steve says, dread in the pit of his stomach. He does okay with locker-room interviews, when they catch him after games or practice or between periods. He can stick to hockey, crack a joke if the game’s going well, whatever. But every time he’s been asked onto a sports show—radio or TV—he’s come off stiff and awkward.

Which he isn’t. Usually. He can be pretty funny sometimes.

“First up,” Natasha says. “Just give us a general sense of why you’re here.”

Steve clears his throat. He worked out some acceptable answers to this question, because he figures, “I’m trying to get people to like me so the team can’t send me down without public outcry” isn’t a good look.

“I’m a busy guy,” Steve starts. “I spend most of my time in the rink or the gym or the training room. I don’t really go clubbing or anything, because I’m training. But I’m not getting any younger, and I want to have kids. If I can find someone who’s serious, too, and wants to get serious and not just be a fling, well, I figure, I gotta go for it.”

He looks at the camera, mostly, because eye-contact with the audience will build up trust and credibility.

He’s had some media training, even if it doesn’t always stick.

“That was great,” Natasha says encouragingly.

“Really?” Steve asks.

“No idea,” Natasha says. “I’m just here for sound. If Pierce or Sam or Coulson doesn’t like something, we’ll do it again.”

“Oh.” Steve deflates slightly, but he laughs. “Gee, thanks.”

“Natasha likes to pretend she’s in charge,” Bucky says with an eyeroll.

“Of course I’m not in charge,” Natasha says, overly-sweet. “Everyone knows the camera guy is in charge. He’s the one with all the equipment, after all. Not that that seems like an overcompensation for masculinity or anything.”

Steve darts a look at Bucky, but he can tell Bucky’s holding back laughter. “I’ll have you know I have absolutely nothing to overcompensate for,” Bucky says haughtily.

“I’ll believe it when you show me,” Natasha challenges.

“I’m sitting right here,” Clint points out. Natasha pats his cheek.

“Don’t worry, you’d be invited, too.”

“Sweet.”

Bucky gives in and laughs. Steve doesn’t know what to say or where to look. He can feel himself going red and Bucky laughs harder.

“Aw, Steve, you still blush on a dime?”

“I can’t help it,” Steve protests. “I’m very pale.”

“You are,” Clint agrees. “You’ve never heard of a tanning bed?”

Steve doesn’t even get a chance to answer before Bucky’s laughing. “Sarah Rogers is a nurse and she ain’t letting her son in a cancer bed.”

Steve can’t really help the way his whole body lights up. The fact that Bucky not only remembers Steve’s mother’s name but also her job and her passion is almost too much for Steve to handle. Especially in a room full of people he doesn’t know. Steve still has trouble talking about his mom sometimes, and knowing Bucky remembers her is making him kind of emotional.

Steve is dreading Bucky asking about Sarah. He knows Bucky will, because Bucky has always been polite and respectful and genuinely thoughtful. And Steve doesn’t think he can talk about his mother in a room full of strangers, not to mention he doesn’t want the story getting out.

“Hey, we all set in here?”

Saved by Sam. Steve pledges eternal loyalty to Sam on the spot. Hopefully that doesn’t get weird for Sam if it ever comes up.

“Steve just finished telling the audience why he’s here,” Clint says.

“How’d it go?” Sam asks.

Steve shrugs. “Okay?”

“It sounded alright,” Bucky says.

Steve makes a face. “Just alright?”

Sam laughs. “Let me take a look and we’ll see if you need to reshoot it, okay?” He watches the playback and Steve tries not to wince at the sound of his own voice. Sam tips his head to the side, considering.

“Kinda stiff,” he says apologetically. “Can you loosen up?”

“Um.” Steve licks his lips. “I’ll try.”

“Come on, Steve,” Bucky cajoles. “You’re not gonna let an interview beat you, are ya?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “You’re trying to chirp me into relaxing?”

Bucky gives Steve a winning smile that Steve remembers. “Always worked before.”

“Yeah,” Steve says softly. “Yeah, it did.”

“Uh, okay,” Sam cuts in. “Cool. Can we redo this?”

Bucky laughs. “Sorry for trying to have a moment.”

“Sorry for trying to save your ass from Pierce,” Sam shoots back.

“He seems kinda picky,” Steve says. There’s a beat of silence.

“No comment,” Sam finally says, eyebrows raised.

“Alright, let’s get to it, then,” Steve says. Everyone’s obviously uncomfortable with Pierce, but they don’t want to say anything—makes sense, if he’s their boss. He doesn’t want to get any of them in trouble or anything. He forces himself to relax his shoulders and take a deep, steadying breath. He can seem natural. He can.

He looks up at the camera and sees Bucky pulling a face at him. It makes Steve laugh, and he jumps into his speech again. Sam claps when he’s done.

“That’s it!” He crows. “Stay in that headspace. Tell us how you’re looking forward to the contestants getting here tomorrow.”

Steve tries not to make a face. He’s not really looking forward to that. He has no idea who’s showing up in the morning. He got to give input on the type of woman he likes, but he doesn’t know who the actual women are. Steve’s awkward enough meeting people for the first time, especially women, because he spent the majority of puberty on the ice—traveling teams, development camps, the junior national team. Dating wasn’t high on his to-do list. He really isn’t looking forward to his awkward meetings getting caught on camera.

Sam coaches him through a few more segments, with Bucky pulling faces or giving thumb’s ups to keep him loose, and then, thankfully, Sam says, “I think we’re good for today. We don’t want you too tired or stressed for tomorrow.”

“Yeah, that’d be awful,” Steve deadpans.

“Rest your voice,” Natasha advises. “You’ll be doing some voiceovers tomorrow.”

Clint laughs, so Steve’s displeasure must show on his face. “Hey, you got a great voice,” he soothes. “Real strong and manly.”

“Nice to know things are staying professional in here,” Pierce interrupts. Clint winces but shrugs. “How did it all go?” Pierce goes on.

“Great,” Sam says. “Got the introductory interviews out of the way. Steve’s got a real heartfelt vibe going on.”

“Good, good,” Pierce says. “Women will love that.”

Steve rubs at his forehead. This is awkward. Sam flashes him a smile. “Hey, that’s the goal, right?” Sam jokes.

“Oh, yeah,” Steve says. As if he’d forgotten.

“I think we’re ready to let Steve head back to the hotel and get some sleep,” Sam says. “That sound good to you?”

“Of course,” Pierce agrees. “We want our star well-rested.”

“Would I be able to meet the other staff?” Steve cuts in. He’s probably supposed to just let them do their producer thing, but he’s never been very good at decorum.

“Oh, great idea,” Sam says. “I’ll take you around.”

“You probably won’t be interacting with them much,” Pierce says. “Most of the staff is staying here at the house to accommodate the contestants.”

“Steve’ll still see them, though,” Sam says evenly. “Introductions won’t hurt.” Pierce still looks sour about it, for whatever reason. Steve can feel his eyes narrowing mostly against his will. There’s no reason he shouldn’t meet people who’ll be doing tons of work for his redemption shot.

“We could film it,” Bucky suggests. “Show that Rogers cares about people.”

“A good heart,” Sam agrees immediately.

Pierce nods. “That’s a good angle. Go ahead, then.”

“That’s not why—” Steve starts.

“I’ll get the shoulder cam,” Bucky interrupts him. Even after all these years, Steve recognizes the warning in Bucky’s tone. He shuts his mouth and lets Sam glad-hand Pierce out of the room.

“Do you want boom?” Natasha asks.

“Nah, we can just do it soundless,” Sam says. “Put it in a montage with a voiceover.”

“Good,” Natasha says. “I’m going home.”

Steve’s starting to feel overwhelmed. He’s been keeping it at bay for most of the day by focusing on the task at hand, but everything’s getting so real with interviews and talks of montages. He digs his fingernails into his palms and wills himself to stay cool. He can wait to freak out until he’s in his hotel room. He’s been through way tougher situations than this.

Still, he’s not completely focused on what Sam’s telling him about the chefs and the security as they’re walking through the house. He mentions some rich guy who owns the place, but Steve doesn’t even catch the guy’s name and he’s too embarrassed to ask again.

“And here’s the kitchen staff,” Sam says, opening a door. There are way more people than Steve expected, but then Sam huffs and says, “And pretty much everyone else, too. Hey, guys, this is Steve. I’m not gonna bother saying everyone’s names. Come up to him on your own.”

“Hey!” A big blond guy with a huge mustache calls. “You hungry?”

“Uh, sure,” Steve answers. He mostly feels nauseated, but he does need a lot of calories. Soon he’s got a plate in front of him with chicken and salad and roasted potatoes and carrots. It’s all got some kind of sauce on it he probably shouldn’t eat, based on how delicious it is. He has to hold back a moan, way too conscious of Bucky behind him with the camera. Even if they show it with no sound, he has no doubt Bucky will use it to tease him forever.

“What is this?” He asks, mouth full. His mother would swat the back of his head.

“Little special something,” the guy—Dugan—says with a wink. Another guy rolls his eyes.

My little special something,” he says with a thick accent Steve can’t place. “I am Jacques Dernier.”

“’S so good,” Steve compliments. “How bad is it for me?”

“Never fear, good captain, your nutritionist sent us very strict rules and that is on the okay list,” a third guy assures him. Steve doesn’t know what’s up with all these British accents lately. He doesn’t get a lot of Brits in hockey.

“Wow,” Steve says. “Awesome, thanks. What’s your name?”

“James Montgomery Falsworth.”

Steve blinks a little. That’s a mouthful. Dugan snorts. “Monty.”

Now that, Steve understands. Nicknames are everything in hockey. “Well, I hope you guys keep feeding me,” he jokes. “Way better than protein shakes.”

“You are supposed to keep drinking those, too,” Dernier reminds him.

“This is the security team,” Sam cuts in, nodding at two guys in the corner. One’s a huge blond guy Steve would love to get on the ice. He’d be an incredible enforcer.

“Thor Odinson,” the guy says. He’s even got sweet flow going already.

“You don’t play hockey, do you?” Steve chances. Thor laughs, a big, booming sound.

“I did play in my youth in Norway,” he admits. “But I did not have the patience for it.”

Steve shakes his head. “Too bad.”

“I’m James Rhodes,” the other guy supplies. “I’ve never played hockey and I’d rather be in the air than on slippery ice.”

Steve laughs. “Aw, come on, you get skates to help out.”

“I’m not sure you know what help out means.”

“You can hit the rink with me some time,” Steve offers. “I can teach you.”

“Mmhmm,” Rhodes says, unimpressed. “I’ll need Banner and Morita there.” Steve follows his eyeline to two guys with plates at the large table. “They’re the set medics.”

“Good to know,” Steve says, a bit concerned. “Are they expecting to need medics a lot?”

Rhodes shrugs. “Never know. They want the women drinking a lot, so all kinds of shit could go down.”

“And they may fight over you,” Thor points out, grinning. Steve grimaces.

“God, I hope not.”

“Alright, we gotta hustle Steve back to the hotel,” Sam says. “Sorry to break up the party. I don’t want Pierce to come down here and complain. Anyone seen Gabe? Steve should definitely meet him.”

“I think he and Pepper were in the office,” Rhodes says. “One of the women’s flight got canceled so they’re figuring out a new one.”

“They could just let her stay home,” Steve mutters. Sam raises his eyebrows and tugs Steve out of the full kitchen.

“Hey, man, I know this isn’t all your speed, really, but you gotta suck it up,” Sam says. “I talked a little with Peggy and your agent and I know you’re doing this for PR. I don’t think the Mr. Grumpy Face thing is going to get you the kind of press you want.”

Steve flushes. “I know,” he says apologetically. “I just…this wasn’t really my idea. But I promise I’ll do better when the women get here.”

Bucky coughs from behind them. “Uh, we done with the filming part?” He asks. Steve bites his lip. He’s not sure he wants Bucky knowing Steve’s doing this because everyone hates him. Though if Bucky still follows hockey at all, he probably already knows everyone hates Steve.

“Yeah, we’re just going to the office to meet Gabe and Pepper.”

“Alright.” Bucky hesitates for a second. “See ya tomorrow.”

“Bye,” Steve says, suddenly desperate. He doesn’t know if he can handle only seeing Bucky on set. But he also doesn’t get to ask more of Bucky, not after everything that happened. Besides, he doesn’t want to say too much in front of Sam. Steve can tell Sam’s an amazing guy, but this is where Bucky works. Steve doesn’t know how personal he gets with his coworkers.

“Alright, this is the head production office on set,” Sam says as he leads Steve down yet another massive hallway. “Pepper Potts is our production coordinator. Anything you need, you ask her. Logistics, whatever. She handles it. And Gabe Jones is our host.”

“Whoa, Gabe Jones? The singer?” Back in the 90s, Gabe Jones had been in a Jackson Five-type boy band with his two older brothers. Even as a preteen, Gabe had handled most of the songwriting, and he’d won about a million awards. But he’d disappeared from the public eye years ago, after a pretty abysmal try at acting.

“Yeah, that Gabe Jones,” Sam says, hushed. “This is his big comeback. He’s a great guy, but he’s a little stressed about it.”

“So you’re telling me we have a lot riding on this?” Steve whispers. “Not just for me, but for Gabe, too?”

“Hey, man, you don’t need to worry about that,” Sam soothes. “You’re just here to find love, remember?”

Steve doesn’t comment on that. The lawyers had assured him they can’t make him marry anyone, so he’ll worry about the whole love thing if it comes up. He’s not holding his breath.

Sam knocks on the door and doesn’t wait for an answer before opening it. “Hey, guys,” he says. “Wanted you to meet Steve.”

“Oh, wonderful!” The woman, who must be Pepper, says. She’s wearing the highest heels Steve has ever seen, and that’s saying something considering some of his teammates’ wives’ addiction to high heels. And some of his teammates, actually, as Steve discovered once when one of his d-men was very drunk. That’s not something NHL players admit sober. Gabe Jones is standing behind her with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Hi,” Steve says uncertainly, waving at the group and then wishing he hadn’t. Who waves at two people when he’s in the same room as them? Stupid. Pepper comes over and shakes his hand.

“Steve, if you need anything, just let me know,” she says. “We have a few picnics and some other dates already in mind, but if you have any ideas, we can see about making them happen, too.”

“Oh.” Steve has given exactly zero thought to potential dates. He doesn’t even know these women—how can he plan a date for a stranger? “Um, sure.”

“And here’s Gabe,” Sam says, leading Steve by the elbow closer to a guy whose poster was up on Steve’s wall beside Wayne Gretzky.

“Hi,” Steve says, feeling stupid. “I’m Steve.”

“Gabe,” he says easily. “Nice to meet you.”

They shake hands, and Steve finds himself blurting out, “I promise I’ll do everything I can to make this a success for you.”

Sam gives him a dirty look. Gabe laughs, a bit uncomfortably. “Well, thanks. I think if we all just play our parts we’ll be fine.”

“Happy’s going to take Steve back to the hotel,” Sam tells everyone. “He’s got an early day tomorrow.”

“He does?” Steve asks. He doesn’t even know his own schedule right now. He’s kind of used to just hopping on a bus and getting where he needs to go.

“He does,” Pepper confirms. “We need you back here at 6 am sharp for makeup.”

Steve doesn’t groan, because he’s been on sets before, but he wants to sigh internally. “6 am sharp,” he repeats. He adds a salute that makes Pepper and Gabe laugh. Sam snorts at him.

“Alright, Mr. Captain America, let’s go,” Sam says. He leads Steve back down the hallway and out the front door, where Steve recognizes Happy from this morning. “Happy’s going to pick you up in the morning, too,” Sam says. “And if you need anything, just give us a buzz. A few of us are staying here at the house to make sure the women are alright, and some of us are at your hotel with you. There’s a packet in your room with your schedule and our numbers and everything.”

“Thanks,” Steve says.

“Wait until your girls get here to thank me,” Sam jokes, winking. Steve plasters on a winning smile, but it just makes Sam snort again. He’s already got Steve’s number.

“How was it?” Happy asks as Steve climbs into the car. Steve pauses, trying to choose his words. “That good, huh?” Happy tacks on before Steve can say anything. Steve laughs a little.

“It was a lot to take in,” he finally says.

“Might get worse from here on out,” Happy says sympathetically. “But I’ll be the one driving you around, so I’ll jump in whenever I can.”

“Thank you,” Steve says fervently. When he gets up to his hotel room, he flops onto the bed without so much as kicking off his shoes. He’s used to hotel rooms, half living in them during the season, so he could probably navigate the room with his eyes closed. They’re all the same.

After a second, he realizes Sam never gave him his phone back. Steve groans loudly. He hates hotel alarm clocks. He guesses he could call down to the front desk and get one of those wake-up calls, but he’s not sure how well that’ll work either. Just when he’s hyping himself up to roll off the bed and find Sam’s number in the packet on the desk, someone knocks on his door. He drags himself off the bed and finds…Bucky.

“Hi,” Steve says, surprised.

“Hey.” Bucky grins and holds up Steve’s phone. “Heard you might be looking for this.”

“Oh, thanks.” Steve shrugs. “Not sure I really need it besides the alarm, since I’m not supposed to go online.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Kind of a stupid rule, if you ask me.”

“They acted like I was crazy for being mad about it,” Steve confides.

“If you didn’t answer your mom, she’d probably come down here to find you,” Bucky jokes. “She wrote you like twenty letters at camp.”

Steve’s throat sticks. “Uh…” He licks his lips. “Actually, um, my ma…she died, Bucky.”

Bucky blinks at him, and then his face screws up in distress. “What?”

“She got cancer,” Steve says softly. “She died right before I finished college. Never even got to see me play in the NHL.”

“Shit,” Bucky breathes. “Steve, I’m so sorry.”

“I thought I’d get used to it, you know?” Steve shrugs, tries to smile. “It’s been years.”

“Steve, she was your whole life,” Bucky argues. “Don’t go beating yourself up because it still hurts. I know you. You think you should be all tough and get over it.”

Steve bites his lip hard. “Yeah.”

“I’ve never heard about it in any of your bios or interviews or anything,” Bucky says. “How’d you keep that secret?”

Steve files away the fact that Bucky’s apparently kept up on his interviews to think about later. “I, uh. I don’t talk to the press much. I just keep up the whole private life thing, you know? If I was a movie star or something I’m sure someone would find out, but hockey’s not big enough in the US for interviewers to really dig.”

“What about the moms’ weekend thing your team does?”

“Said she had to work. Every year.”

“Steve, everyone probably thinks you got a mom who hates you. You think that’s better than just telling the truth?”

Steve looks away. “I can’t handle them asking.”

Bucky hums. They’re both quiet for a second. “Well…” Bucky starts awkwardly. “Now that we got all deep, uh…how’s things?”

Steve huffs. “Oh, I’m great. How’re you?” Steve steps back. “You wanna come in or you just gonna make small talk in the hallway?”

Bucky follows him in and closes the door. “You see all the injury lists coming out?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “No, because I’m not supposed to use the internet.”

Bucky gives him a look. “That just started today, Steve. And I know you’re not going to follow that rule anyway. You’re not exactly a poster boy for following rules.”

“Hey!” Steve says, wondering if he should be offended. “I’m an NHL and national team captain. I must do alright with the rules.”

Bucky shakes his head. “No, you don’t, but you make up for it on the ice and with those speeches.”

Steve snorts. “Yeah, my speeches have obviously been working so well for the last few years.”

Bucky flops down on Steve’s bed and shrugs. “Get better speeches, then.”

Steve flips him off and flops down next to him. It feels like they’re fourteen again. “So when did you get into the camera stuff?”

“College,” Bucky says. “Dad wanted me to do pre-med, Ma wanted me to do pre-law, and I didn’t want to pick one over the other so I chose film and disappointed them both.” He gives Steve a shit-eating grin that makes Steve laugh.

“Like they’d ever be disappointed in you,” he points out. Unless something major changed in the Barnes family, Steve can’t imagine George and Winifred doing anything other than completely supporting anything Bucky chose. Bucky laughs.

“Yeah. I made a film for my senior capstone project and my mom made me make her twenty-two copies to hand out to family and people in the neighborhood.”

Steve cracks up laughing. That sounds like the woman he remembers. She always cheered so loud even just at practice that everyone knew when the Barnes family was in the building. She practically got in a fight with one of the refs at the U-18 World Championships because she didn’t like a goalie interference call that didn’t go their way.

“And now I’m shooting reality shows,” Bucky says, voice going slightly bitter. “Just what my parents dreamed of for me.”

Steve turns to face him and props himself up on an elbow. “You don’t like it?”

Bucky shrugs, not meeting Steve’s eyes. “Not exactly what you dream about in school.”

Steve hums. He doesn’t really know how to respond to that. His major hadn’t mattered whatsoever—he’d finished college because he’d promised his mother he would, but he’d known all along he was going to the NHL. He majored in political science because he cared about it. He didn’t have to worry about making that marketable or taking a job he didn’t like to pay his bills.

“Well, someday when I need someone to make a documentary about my life, you’re my guy,” Steve promises. He makes his voice mocking so Bucky knows he’s kidding, but he’s not completely joking. If someone was ever going to make a movie of Steve’s life, he’d want it to be Bucky.

Bucky scoffs. “Please. I’d fall asleep while I was shooting.”

“What, international superstar isn’t interesting enough for you?”

Bucky elbows him, laughing. “International superstar. Get a load of this guy.”

“People ask me for my autograph almost every time I leave the house,” Steve points out.

“Oh, yeah, and I’m sure you love that.”

Steve makes a face. “Yeah, that’s…uncomfortable. It was kinda nice at first, you know? Getting noticed, people caring. But it gets old.”

“How sad for you,” Bucky mocks. “So, you gotta pick a girl out tomorrow and rig the whole thing or do they actually let you get to know them week to week?”

Steve blinks. “I…have no idea. They didn’t say anything to me. I don’t think it’d be fair to pick based on the first time I meet them. I mean, some people don’t make good first impressions.”

“You speak from experience,” Bucky says, raising his eyebrows. “I remember.”

“I am a little better than I was at twelve, you know.”

“But not a lot,” Bucky laughs.

“Probably not,” Steve admits sheepishly. Bucky grins at him for a second and Steve doesn’t fight the smile that he feels growing on his own face.

“Well,” Bucky says, glancing at his phone. “I better go. I have an earlier morning than you tomorrow and I do not like dealing with Pierce on no sleep. I won’t tell anyone if you want to look up stats and playoff scores.”

Steve presses a hand to his chest theatrically. “Best friend a guy could ask for.”

“Don’t you forget it,” Bucky says with a wink. “I’m across the hall if you need me. See ya tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Steve answers, fighting down the urge to beg Bucky to stay. If Bucky leaves, there’ll be no one to distract Steve from freaking out about tomorrow. “See you.”

Bucky leaves, and Steve flops back on his bed. He’s not very good at first impressions. He tends to come off awkward. Well, okay, he is awkward. Especially around women. And with cameras following him around? This is going to be a nightmare. His chest starts tightening and he pulls in a long, deep breath. He can handle this. He’s played in gold-medal Olympic games. He can handle this.

Oh, God, he can’t handle this.

His phone buzzes. The contact name is Bucky, which Steve knows he didn’t have an hour ago. Bucky must’ve put his number in Steve’s phone when he had it. Which is slightly embarrassing, because it means he guessed Steve’s passcode. Not hard to do if you also remember the date their U-18 team won World’s gold. Steve doesn’t hold back the grin that takes over his face. It’s a text. Quit freaking out about tomorrow and go to sleep. You need all the beauty rest you can get.

Steve laughs and tries to take Bucky’s advice.

 

“Ready?” Sam asks. Steve clenches his hands for a second so they’ll be steady and swallows hard. A limo just pulled up. A limo full of women Steve’s supposed to charm. Okay. Totally fine. Nothing to freak out about. Steve imagines himself taping his stick and squares his shoulders.

“Ready,” he confirms. But then he second-guesses himself. Is getting in the same headspace as game-ready really a good idea? He’s not exactly charming during hockey games. It would absolutely not be a good impression to check one of these women into the wall. He almost laughs to himself at the thought. He’s not that hopeless.

Sam claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder in solidarity. “Just take it easy,” he advises soothingly. “Barnes claims there’s a pretty great guy under all that muscle. Show them that.”

“Hey, you noticed my muscle?” Steve teases. Sam snorts and points at him.

“I am taken, thank you very much.”

“Are you?” Steve asks, genuinely asking. Not that he could’ve made a move on Sam or anything. That would probably be unethical. Right? Anyway, it’s a moot point now.

“Very happily,” Sam says, a soft smile on his face. His wiggles his left finger. “We’re getting married in four months.” His whole face is lighting up and it almost makes Steve’s stomach hurt. Sam looks so happy. Steve hardly knows the guy, but he’s already excited for him.

“Congratulations,” Steve says. “You stressed planning it or is everything in place already?”

“I will spill deets later,” Sam promises as Pierce enters the room. “But for now…get ready to meet your destiny.” He uses a cheesy game-show host voice that makes Steve laugh.

“Thank you, Mr. Wilson, but I think we should leave the announcing to Mr. Jones,” Pierce points out. Steve tells himself not to narrow his eyes. Maybe that’s Pierce’s idea of a joke.

“I would never use a line that bad,” Gabe says, coming into the room behind them. “Are you ready?” He asks Steve.

“Totally,” Steve lies.

“Pepper’s out there with the women getting them set up,” Pierce says. “You’re going to go out and wait and they’re going to pull up in the limo one-by-one for you to greet. Barnes has been doing some of the initial interviews with them already. We’re a little less traditional since you have a shortened window of shooting time, so there are only eight women and no one will go home the first week. It’ll give you a little more time to get to know them, especially whoever makes it to the live finale.”

“Okay,” Steve says, swallowing down his nausea. He’s pretty sure the finale ends in some kind of proposal. Or is supposed to. But he really, really doesn’t want to do that. He’s supposed to propose to someone after nine weeks of knowing her? And getting to know her in a group? He’s going to throw up.

“You don’t have to propose,” Sam reminds him in an undertone. Pierce looks sour.

“It does bring in more viewers,” he points out. “You can always just call off the engagement later.”

“That doesn’t seem—”

“Oh, Pepper’s ready for us,” Pierce cuts Steve off. “We’ll discuss that later. Please go out to the curb and Happy will bring your first contestant around.”

“Okay,” Steve says faintly. “Sure.”

Sam walks out with him. “It’s going to be fine,” he says. “Really. Just think of this as meeting people; don’t worry about the cameras or the show. Okay?”

“I’ll try,” Steve says. He catches sight of Bucky with his camera and Natasha with her boom, waiting to shoot Steve. Figuratively, of course, but Steve sort of feels like it’s literal right now. Why does Bucky, of all people, have to see this? It’s going to be a train wreck and Steve was sort of hoping to make a good second first impression on Bucky. That’s certainly out the window.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” Bucky calls, grinning. “I don’t get paid by the hour, you know.”

“You’re in a union, though, right?” Steve checks. Bucky laughs.

“You know this guy told me when we were fourteen he was gonna be a union organizer?” Bucky tells Sam. “At that point I only knew what a union was from watching that Disney movie about the newsboys on strike.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know the name of the movie Newsies,” Steve scolds. “You knew every word.”

“Still do,” Bucky admits.

“Is something the matter?” Pierce interjects from behind them. “We’re on a schedule and Happy’s waiting.”

“Yes, of course,” Sam says. “Barnes, is the camera ready?”

“Rolling,” Bucky says, stiff and professional.

“Natasha?”

“Sound is ready.”

Sam turns to Steve. “You ready?” He’s talking quieter, just for Steve. “Really, it’ll be fine. Even if you’re not completely smooth, I promise editing will make you look good, okay? Just relax and be yourself.”

“Okay. I’m ready.” Steve closes his eyes for a second while Sam moves away, out of the shot. Steve can do this. He can. He hears tires crunching on gravel and opens his eyes. Hopefully Bucky’s just getting his back right now. He’s not sure he wants the entire country to see him trying not to throw up. Maybe they’ll edit that part out.

The woman who steps out of the limo is tall and blonde, wearing what looks like an incredibly expensive dress. She’s got lipstick on that reminds Steve of the studio’s lawyer, Peggy Carter. She walks over and he reminds himself not to be a freak. Easier said than done. Go into PR mode, he orders himself. It makes him think of Kamala. Oh, God, she’s going to laugh herself silly during this show.

“Hi,” he makes himself say. “I’m Steve.”

“Well, look at you,” the woman says. “Gorgeous beefcake. I’m Lorraine.”

“Oh, uh, thank you,” Steve says. “So, um, please follow me.” He gives her his arm, feeling like a total idiot. It’s not that he’s never picked up a woman before. It’s just he’s never done so on camera.

“So where are you taking me?” She’s got one of those flirtatious voices that always make Steve feel like he missed something. Or maybe it’s just because of the situation they’re in.

“Into the house?” Steve says. “I mean. You’ll be staying here.”

She raises her eyebrows at him and he tries not to squirm. The angle he has to tilt his head down to look at her is uncomfortable. “So, Lorraine, what do you like to do for fun?”

“This.” She stops walking and grabs him by the front of the shirt, pulling him in for a deep kiss. Steve sputters. Not that it isn’t fun, but he’s still not comfortable with all this kind of stuff being on display for the country to see. Or however many people in the country watch this show. He pulls himself away and blinks for a second.

“That was forward.”

“Aren’t you a professional athlete?” She asks. “You must be used to women throwing themselves at you.”

“I don’t know if that’s something I can ever get used to,” Steve admits. “And I can minimize how many women throw themselves at me by going straight home after games.”

“That’s no fun at all,” she pouts. “Come on, Steve, don’t you ever let loose? Get a little wild?”

Steve can feel himself blushing. He tells himself to pretend the cameras aren’t there, but he can’t help it. It’s so awkward having this conversation on camera. Lorraine’s a beautiful woman, and he can’t pretend he wouldn’t be pretty interested in hearing a little more about this if they were, say, alone at some bar after an away game, but he’s kind of spent his entire life honing his situational awareness. It’s not easy to just throw that away.

“I don’t think I know you well enough to talk about that,” he finally says. She raises an eyebrow. It’s an attractive look. A cynical part of Steve wonders if she practiced that in the mirror. He thinks he’d have to.

“So once we get to know each other better, we can talk more?” She’s practically purring at him, pressed up against his chest, and he’s got an arm around her to keep her upright. He can’t help but glance at the camera, immediately earning himself a frantic head-shake from Bucky and a handwave from Natasha. Steve focuses back on Lorraine.

“We’ll have plenty to talk about along the way,” Steve says more confidently than he feels. He gets them walking again. “But right now I’d like you to get settled in. Did you have a long flight?”

“I came from Nebraska,” she says, voice settling into something more normal. “So not too long.”

“Oh, the Mavericks,” Steve offers. It’s the only thing he knows about Nebraska, and he only knows that from playing them in college.

“Actually, I was a Husker,” Lorraine corrects.

Steve’s saved from trying to figure out a response to that by them reaching the front door of the house. “Well, this is your stop,” he says. “I guess I’ll see you later.”

“Look forward to it,” she says. He steps back before she can think about kissing him again and lets out a breath when the door closes behind her. One down, seven to go. He can totally get through this.

“That wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Natasha assures him. Somehow her assurance makes him feel worse. Especially when Bucky cracks up laughing.

“Where’s Clint?” Steve whines. “He seemed sympathetic yesterday.”

“That’s because Clint’s an actual human disaster,” Natasha says. “And I say that from the bottom of my heart. But he’s inside so he can do some shots of the women coming in the house and settling in.”

“Reset,” Sam calls out. “Contestant number two coming in hot. Steve, maybe try not to sound like you’re on a job interview this time.”

Steve can’t actually see Sam, but he shoots a glare toward the house for good measure. He’s doing his best. And if his best is this bad…oh, God, this is going to be an endless two months.

The next girl who steps out of the limo is young. She’s so young Steve almost cringes. She barely looks out of her teens. Logically, he knows she has to be, but still. He thought he told them he didn’t want anyone under twenty-three.

“Hi, I’m Kate!” She’s a pretty girl—Steve supposes they all will be—but Steve’s not sure he’ll be able to get over how young she is.

“I’m Steve,” he says. It’s actually easier to talk to her than Lorraine, because he’s all but crossed her off his list of possibilities. “I’ll show you where you’re staying.”

“Thanks.” She takes his arm with a little laugh. “Did you know the driver’s name is Happy? That’s hilarious. I was hoping he’d be a total jerk for peak irony. He wasn’t, though.”

“Yeah, he drove me around yesterday,” Steve says. “He’s a nice guy.”

“When I was in middle school my dad’s driver used to save me from awful parties and take me through the drive-through at McDonald’s,” Kate says. “I trust drivers.”

“That’s awesome,” Steve laughs. “We got a team bus stuck in the drive-through in college once.”

“Oh my God!” Kate exclaims. “I totally took a drive-through out in college. Knocked the whole menu over. It was an accident. But my ex did work there.”

Steve blinks. Maybe Kate’s not as harmless as he thought. Not that Steve wants to ever take any advice from Rumlow, but he did warn Steve that some of the women would be “crazy bitches” who would be over-the-top to get his attention and screen time.

“You’re staying in here with the other contestants,” Steve tells her when he gets to the front door. “There’s one inside already.” Maybe he wasn’t supposed to tell her that. Maybe it’s not authentic. He doesn’t know. No one gave him a rulebook about this part.

“Cool. See you later.” She waves at him and heads inside. Young and possibly destructive or not, Steve might keep her around just because she hardly seems interested in him. That would be a huge relief.

The next contestant is named America. Steve might automatically feel a kinship to her for just that, though she can’t be much older than Kate. “I love your name,” he tells her. “Is that weird?”

“Kind of,” she agrees flippantly. “It’s cool, though. I heard your nickname is Captain America. I guess we sort of go together.”

Steve laughs. “Maybe we do.” She’s too young for him to think they’d really amount to anything, but he’s starting to think she and Kate are his safe options—women he could pick and not propose to without finding his house lit on fire. Well, he’ll have to keep an eye on Kate a little longer to determine if that’s really true.

“Do you play any sports?” Steve asks. “You could be Captain America, too.”

“I am,” she tells him proudly. “Captain of my tennis team in college. Won a few titles. I hit the ball out of this world, you know?”

“I don’t know much about tennis,” Steve admits. “Maybe you’ll have to show me.”

“I’d totally kick your ass,” she informs him, completely unrepentant. Steve laughs out loud. Okay, America is definitely number one at the moment.

The next woman is a knock-out named Angie. She sticks out her hand and gives Steve a big grin. “I’m Angie, nice to meet you. I watched you play in college one time and you broke the glass with a slapshot.”

Steve laughs out loud, delighted. He totally remembers that. “In Wisconsin!” He remembers.

“Yeah, I was sitting behind the glass.”

“You didn’t get hurt, did you?” That would be just Steve’s luck.

“No, but one of the jerks next to me got hit by the beer the guy who did get hit spilled, so thanks.”

Steve laughs and winks. “Always a pleasure.” He wishes they’d all talk about hockey. He’d be way more comfortable if they did. Angie might be overtaking America for his favorite. Then he feels guilty for thinking it. He can’t base everything on first meetings.

“Here’s the house,” he tells her, which is kind of stupid because she can obviously tell it’s a house. Though she sort of proves him wrong by whistling and saying,

“This is one house? You could fit everyone I know in this place.”

“I know,” Steve agrees. “Wait’ll you see the inside. It’s crazy.” He shakes his head. “Um, I’ll see you later. Tomorrow, I think? Or later tonight? I don’t…” He stops talking. He doesn’t know if he’s supposed to reference time, since they’re probably going to air things out of order. He shrugs and Angie smiles at him again.

“I’m sure I’ll notice when you come back,” she teases. Steve laughs a little. He likes her.

Steve’s starting to feel good. So far, he’s not sure he would want to marry any of these women. Then again, he wasn’t really expecting to. But they all seem fairly normal, with the exception of Lorraine kissing him out of nowhere and Kate’s possible destruction of property. He feels like he’s hitting his stride. He can handle meeting four more women, right?

The next woman is the tallest so far, and she’s wearing heels. It makes Steve grin. He’s heard plenty of women worry about intimidating men by being taller—it’s not something Steve’s had to worry about much, not since puberty, and most of the guys he knows from the league are in the same boat, but he can’t pretend he doesn’t have a thing for defiance.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Steve.”

“I’m Bernie,” she answers. With her heels, she’s only two or three inches shorter than he is. Her handshake is firm and confident. “What do you do, Steve?”

Steve blinks. It’s not like he’s so arrogant he thinks everyone knows him. Hockey’s really not popular enough in the US for that. But so far all the women knew he was a hockey player. Didn’t they? He just assumed the producers told the women.

“I’m a hockey player,” he says. It’s been his go-to introduction his entire life, as long as he needed one—his interesting fact on the first day of school, his about me on every teenage social media page.

Bernie tilts her head, scrutinizing him. Steve flushes. Is she one of those people who thinks professional sports is a silly profession? He doesn’t know what he’ll do. He usually leaves when someone says that to him. But he can’t do that here.

“Cool,” she responds. “I’m a lawyer.”

“Oh, wow,” Steve says. “What kind of law?”

“Criminal defense. I work as a public defender for the state.”

“That’s amazing,” Steve says. Finally, a woman in the age range he asked them to look in, and she has a career he even specifically mentioned. “I was going to do an internship with the federal public defender’s office one year in college.”

“But you didn’t?”

“Oh, no, I got selected to the national team for the World Championships, so my summer was all booked. But I sat in on court for a few days.”

“It’s tough,” Bernie admits. “Burnout’s high. But if you can handle professional sports, I think you could take the pressure of the courtroom. It’s the paperwork that’s really the worst part.”

“Isn’t there tons of paperwork?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, that’s why it’s the worst part.” She winks at him and Steve laughs. “You know, I watched a hockey game in law school once.”

Steve can’t help the surprised little snort he makes. “A game?” He can’t imagine being able to count the games he’d been to. She laughs.

“Well, I was a little busy,” she points out dryly.

“School shmool,” Steve says. Then he wants to roll his eyes at himself. What a stupid thing to say. She was in law school. Of course she wasn’t wasting her time on hockey. Especially if she went to a school whose team wasn’t even good.

She laughs, though, so Steve relaxes. “Yeah, I should’ve spent more time freezing and watching guys get in fights.”

Steve tilts his head. “It’s a sacrifice some of us are willing to make.”

They’re at the door of the house. Bernie raises her eyebrows. “My stop?”

“Yep, this is you. I’ll see you later.”

“I look forward to it,” she tells him. A smile steals over Steve’s face.

“Me too,” he says. It’s true. After the door closes behind her, Steve glances over at Bucky, who wiggles his eyebrows up and down at Steve. Good one, he mouths. Steve blushes. Is he that transparent or does Bucky really still know his type, even after all this time? He’d started to forget about the camera, but he certainly remembers it now. Or rather, the guy operating it.

Monica is up next, and Steve would like to say he’s not intimidated, but it would be a lie. She’s gorgeous, and she looks him directly in the eye first thing. She’s another one with a firm handshake—maybe Peggy Carter noticed that Steve liked hers and took notes.

“Monica Rambeau,” she says.

“Steve Rogers.” He’s so flustered, he ends up kissing her hand and then wants to brain himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with kissing her hand, but he didn’t kiss anyone else’s hand. Monica raises her eyebrows.

“Well, that was…gallant,” she tells him. She cracks a grin. “You a little nervous?”

“Oh my God, I’m dying,” he admits with a laugh. “I’ve literally never spoken to this many women in one night.”

That makes her laugh out loud. “Hockey, right? You’re more of a sweaty, fighting man kind of guy, huh?”

Steve blushes. He certainly doesn’t have a problem with sweaty, fighting men, but that’s probably not what she meant. She has a bit of a southern accent, but Steve’s not practiced enough to place exactly where.

“So, where are you from?” He asks. That’s a safe question. Even beautiful, intimidating women are from somewhere.

“New Orleans,” she tells him. “I’m in the harbor patrol there.”

“Harbor patrol?” Steve asks. “Is that like the police?”

She snorts, but she’s smiling at him. “Coast Guard, actually.”

“Wow,” Steve says, almost involuntarily. He watched a documentary about Coast Guard training that made him feel severely unfit, but he’s not sure how to say that to her. He casts around for something to say. “How long have you been doing that?”

“Almost eight years.” She says it proudly. “Paid for my college.”

“I’ve actually never been to New Orleans,” Steve tells her. He shrugs. “They don’t have an NHL team.”

Monica gives him an incredulous look. “Do you only travel places with hockey teams?”

“These days?” He shrugs again. “Kinda, yeah. I mean, we get an off-season, but I don’t like to get too far from my rink.”

“You have your own rink?”

“Oh, no,” Steve laughs. “I mean, I’d like one. But not yet. I just practice in our team rink. It’s basically my second home.”

“I’ve skated a few times,” Monica reveals. “I am not good.”

Steve grins. “You should try in hockey pads. It doesn’t even hurt to fall.” She looks skeptical, so he adds, “No, really! Unless you get slammed into the boards—that still hurts. But get some hockey pants and go to public skate. Your life will change.”

“Maybe you should take me,” she suggests, smirking a little. “Isn’t that the point?”

Steve swallows, a little tongue-tied. He can admit he’s got a bit of a thing about attractive people on the ice. “Yeah,” he finally says. “We could definitely do that.”

She winks at him when they get to the door. “See you around.”

He doesn’t know what to say. She totally stole his line. “Bye.” Was that a lame thing to say? He shakes his head at himself. How can bye be a lame thing to say?

“Two more,” Bucky murmurs as Steve walks past the camera set up. “You got this.” Steve gives him a grateful smile. Although, the long day is really just starting. After he meets the next two girls, he still has to do his interviews to talk about his first impressions. He holds in a sigh. He’s had long press days. That’s basically what this is. And after he finishes that, he gets to be done for the day. He’s got a date with the gym and then the ice rink. He can’t wait.

The woman who steps out is blonde and looks like her legs are about six feet long. Steve does his best to be respectful and not objectify women, but he can’t help but stare. He’s been around enough models—signed and aspirational—to know that there are ways to make a person’s legs look longer. He once sat beside a teammate’s model wife at a charity event and she told him all about skirt length and patterns and “knowing your angles.” She’d helped him take a selfie that was literally the best picture of himself he’d ever taken and got the most likes he’d ever gotten on an Instagram post.

So he knows this woman probably is fully aware of how long her legs look. But still. He brings his eyes back to her face, blushing slightly. He didn’t mean to be a pig.

“Hi,” he says, hoping his voice is warmer than his face. “I’m Steve.”

“Nice to meet you, Steve.” She’s smiling, so at least there’s that. “I’m Karla.”

He gives her his arm. He’s going to get some kind of repetitive motion injury before the night is over from sticking his elbow out like that. “What do you do, Karla?”

“I’m a psychologist,” she tells him. That does not put Steve at ease. He knows it’s her job and she (hopefully) doesn’t make it her whole life, but he doesn’t want her to analyze him.

He’s had enough sleepless nights to know the analysis wouldn’t be all that positive.

“Wow,” he finally says. “Do you have a specialty or are you in general psychology?” He took an intro class in college for a general education credit. He can probably keep this conversation up for about two more minutes.

“I’m a criminal psychologist, actually.” She hasn’t stopped smiling once. Steve’s forcing himself not to read into anything. She’s on camera. There’s nothing wrong with smiling. “I’m brought in to evaluate defendants.”

Steve loosens up a little in his curiosity. “I bet you have some pretty crazy stories.”

“I wouldn’t use the word crazy, since it’s pejorative toward those with mental health issues, but I’ve certainly met some interesting people.”

Steve swallows. He sees her point, and he should’ve thought of that. He’s never had to. “Sorry,” he says awkwardly. “I didn’t mean…”

“That’s alright. It’s a common part of our vernacular.”

There’s an awkward silence. Steve focuses on his feet for a second, making sure he doesn’t trip. It would be bad enough tripping the first time he met someone, and bad enough tripping on camera, but tripping on camera in front of a psychologist seems like fodder for her analysis that he’s positive now she’s doing.

“What do you like to do for fun?” He asks, desperate. Why does this driveway have to be so goddamn long?

“I do some amateur competitive weightlifting,” she reveals. Steve blinks. That is absolutely not what he was expecting her to say.

“That’s awesome,” he offers. “For fun or competitions?”

“Competitions.” She tilts her head at him. “I could probably bench-press you.”

He can’t help the bark of laughter that escapes him. “Um, I don’t think so.”

“My max right now is 212,” she says, eyebrows raised. “You can’t be much more than that. I might have to work up to you, but I’m always working on my gains anyway.”

Steve’s jaw practically hits the floor. He’s up a few pounds from his hockey-season weight and will gain a few more in the off-season, but by the end of the eight weeks, she probably could work up to benching him. There are guys on his team who can’t bench her max.

“You bench more than some NHL players,” he tells her.

“I know. But I don’t think anyone other than other weightlifters are really a good benchmark.”

“You said amateur?” Steve checks. “Couldn’t you be elite?”

“I’m at an elite level,” she says with a shrug. “But I’m a psychologist, not a professional athlete. I do it to blow off steam.”

Steve shakes his head. “Well, if you ever want to join the Olympic team, I know a few people I could get you in touch with.”

“Thank you,” she says primly. “I’ve been approached.”

He’s still reeling from her revelation when the door closes behind her. “I will pay you to let her bench you,” Natasha says. “We don’t even have to get it on camera. Just let me see.”

“She could probably beat me in arm wrestling,” Steve says.

“Aw, what’ll you do on your date if your go-to move fails?” Natasha teases.

Bucky snorts. “Steve would never arm wrestle on a date. He’d get too competitive and flip the table if he lost.”

Steve would love to argue, but he doesn’t have much room to do so. Some might say he has a bit of a temper. Some being…anyone who’s seen him play hockey.

“You should see this guy play Uno,” Bucky adds. Steve cracks up laughing.

“You were cheating!” He defends himself.

“No, Steve, using my draw four card isn’t cheating. It’s literally playing the game.”

“I swear you used that card every turn!”

“I had more than one!”

“Fellas,” Natasha cuts in. “The limo’s coming.”

Bucky points at Steve as he’s backing away. Sore loser, he mouths. Steve’s still laughing when the final contestant opens the limo door. She smiles back at him and Steve relaxes. Almost through the hard part. And besides, her smile is beautiful. He can handle looking at that.

“Hi,” she says. “I’m Cecilia Reyes.”

“Steve Rogers,” he returns. “It’s really great to see you.”

She laughs a little. “I bet you say that to all the girls.” She pauses. “Well, like really, though. Here, I’m sure you do.”

He laughs too. “Honestly? I’ve barely had time to talk to anyone. So let’s just say it’s totally genuine, alright?”

“Sure,” she acquiesces, but she makes sure to sound skeptical. Steve’s actually really happy with all the contestants. In the five minutes he’s spent with each of them, anyway. Karla made him a little uncomfortable, but he can’t be sure he’s not just feeling insecure that she’s stronger than him.

“What do you do, Cecilia?”

“I’m a trauma surgeon in the Bronx,” she says, making his eyes bug out a little.

“That’s incredible. Seriously, that’s amazing.”

She gives him a half-smile. “Should I be offended by how amazed you are?” Her voice sounds teasing, but he’s willing to bet she’s had to put up with people who were offensively amazed.

“No! Sorry,” he scrambles. “I just meant—that’s so impressive. I’m always amazed by doctors. I’ve had to use a few, so, you know.” He shrugs, feeling off-balance. “I’m really sorry if that was offensive.”

She’s still smiling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She’s a contestant on a reality show and there’s a camera ten feet away. She has to keep her cool.

“It’s okay,” she promises. “You seem sweet.”

Steve laughs. “Can I get that statement signed?”

Cecilia laughs too. “Oh, no, that can’t mean anything good.”

“Sweet is not a word that gets used to describe me very often,” Steve confesses. “I don’t know if you watch hockey, but I’m kind of a goon.”

“I’ve seen the movie, does that count?”

“Miracle?” Steve guesses.

“No, Goon.”

“You’ve seen Goon?” Steve exclaims. “Oh my God, that’s incredible! That’s one of my favorite movies.”

She shakes her head. “No issues with stereotypes, huh?”

“Well, you know, I figure I might as well embrace that one. It means I get to love a great movie.”

“So you get in fights?” Cecilia checks. “That’s the biggest thing I took from that movie.”

“Uh, yeah.” Steve rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “Sometimes I take some stupid penalties I shouldn’t take because I get p—mad.” He doesn’t know what counts as swearing, but he’s gotten pretty good at watching his language with cameras rolling.

Cecilia narrows her eyes at him. “You’re a sore loser.”

“I am an incredibly sore loser, yes.” Steve laughs. “Well, now that you know my deepest secret…”

She snorts. “That cannot be your deepest secret. You play a sport that’s built on fighting and you get paid like a gazillion dollars to do it.”

Steve blushes. He doesn’t get paid a gazillion dollars, but he does get paid an embarrassing amount of money to play hockey. He knows it highlights a serious issue with their society, especially when compared to Cecilia’s career that’s actually important and saves people’s lives. But he can’t exactly turn the money down. He keeps his contract reasonable and donates enough money to charity to keep his conscience from completely losing it.

Now he feels a little down on himself after that thought.

“I will see you later,” he says, keeping his smile firmly in place. Ten more seconds. Fewer, maybe, if she moves fast. He feels bad that he’s hoping she’ll close the door fast so he’s done, but he just can’t handle any more of these first impressions right now.

Steve lets out a long breath when Cecilia disappears behind the closed door. Done. Finally. It’s been at least two hours, which seems ridiculous with how little time he spent with each woman. He wonders if Happy was driving the women around the block a bunch of times to space them out properly. Where were the contestants waiting for their turn to be picked up?

“You did it,” Bucky congratulates him. “A few interviews, some sound blurbs, and you’re golden for the day.”

Sam comes out of the house and claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “How’d you feel?”

“I feel like I just met eight women in a row.”

Sam makes a sympathetic face. “Well, I hope you made note of the ones you liked best. You’re going to need to pick who you want to go on a date with this week.”

This is the part Steve’s been dreading. The dating part. So, basically, the whole show. He holds in a sigh. His lungs are going to be deflated by the time this is over.

“How many should I pick?” Steve asks. “I mean, shouldn’t I go on dates with all of them? I thought that was the point.”

Sam grins at him. “Aw,” he teases fondly. “No. In the first week, you will die if you go on dates with all of them. Your average date is going to last at least three hours.”

“Why?” Steve blurts.

Sam points at Bucky and Natasha. “They are going to be resetting shots, bringing in more lights, calling for your makeup to get fixed, you name it. You want a short date, slip them a five or something.”

“Excuse me,” Bucky cuts in. “I can’t be bought for anything under a twenty.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve mutters. “So…three women? Four?”

“Sure, let’s go with four,” Sam agrees.

“I can do half the first week and half the second,” Steve figures. “Then when I need to do the first elimination, I’ll have spent time with everyone.”

“In theory,” Sam says. “Keep in mind that your goal is to pick one. So if someone catches your attention, it’s okay to focus on her. You can send someone home just because you didn’t spend as much time with her as anyone else.”

Steve frowns. “That seems really unfair.”

Sam shakes his head. “Not what you’re here for, man.”

“But—”

“Steve.” Sam puts both hands on Steve’s shoulders. “Look into my eyes. Repeat after me. I will listen to Sam.

Steve scowls. He doesn’t like being told what to do. He especially doesn’t like being told what to say. Sam cracks a grin at him and Steve rolls his eyes. He doesn’t know Sam very well, but he can already tell Sam’s on his side. He’s here to help Steve. Literally—that’s his job. Steve huffs.

“I’ll listen to you,” he finally says.

“That’s not what I told you to say,” Sam points out. “You’re contrary, aren’t you?”

“It’s been said,” Steve admits.

“By everyone who’s ever met him,” Bucky adds.

“I can tell.” Sam gives Steve a little shake. “I promise I will not steer you astray. Got it?”

“Got it.” Steve nods. “And I really do appreciate you being on my side. Even if you are a Caps fan.”

“Do not push my buttons,” Sam threatens. “I will send you on a group date to a bar with free tequila shots. See if I don’t.”

“Good God, that sounds terrifying,” Steve says.

“I knew you had to be smarter than you look,” Sam praises him. If Steve knew Sam better, he might try to give him a noogie for that comment. But that’s something to do in a locker room, not at Sam’s job. Steve settles for elbowing him.

“Come on,” Sam says. “We’re going to head inside and do your talking heads.”

Steve hesitates. “Are they going to…see me?” He knows he sounds ridiculous and cowardly. But he’s tired.

“No,” Sam assures him. He’s nice about it, too, like he understands where Steve’s coming from. Steve’s so glad Sam doesn’t make fun of him. About this, anyway “They’re all in their rooms getting settled in. Eventually you’ll be at the mansion to spend time with them, but today you’re done seeing them.”

Steve doesn’t sigh in relief. He doesn’t. He certainly feels more relieved, but he won’t let it show. He’s stared down players who outweighed him by seventy pounds and hissed that they wanted to eat his entrails for breakfast and he didn’t bat an eye. He can keep a neutral face about not seeing women who were nothing but polite to him so far.

During Steve’s talking head interviews, Sam holds up notecards with names and details of the women so Steve can remember his impressions of them. Sam prompts him with questions sometimes, and Steve huffs about Lorraine’s kiss. It feels like it was forever ago.

“It was more forward than I’m used to, but I get that she’s trying to make an impression. And she definitely did.”

He mostly gives bland answers. He can’t help it—he didn’t form much of an opinion on any of the women when he only met them for such a short time. He wouldn’t really feel justified trying to go into detail when he doesn’t have details.

Finally, finally, Sam nods at him and says, “Okay, Steve. We’re good for today. Great job. You can head back to the hotel—Happy’s outside.”

Steve does sigh this time. He rolls out his neck, stiff from sitting up and looking into the camera for so long. “I didn’t realize this was going to be so draining,” he admits.

“Yeah, it’s a whole different set of skills,” Sam says. Pierce comes in then. Steve really doesn’t like the way everyone stiffens when he enters a room.

“So, Mr. Rogers, who are our front-runners so far?”

Steve hesitates, shoots a glance at Sam. Sam nods encouragingly. “Well, I don’t feel comfortable making complete judgments until I’ve gotten to spend more time with everyone,” Steve says. “I don’t know that I learned enough to make a decision.”

“Of course,” Pierce says. “But you can’t deny that first impressions can be important. What are your first impressions telling you?”

Steve licks his lips. “Well, I really enjoyed everyone. I would say if I’m least comfortable with anyone right now, it would be…” He deliberates for a second. “Karla,” he finally says. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to get to know her better.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Pierce soothes condescendingly. “We’ll mark that down. Pepper?” He glances over his shoulder.

“Of course,” Pepper says. “Steve, have you thought about who you’d like to take out this week?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “This week I’ll take out Cecilia, Monica, Bernie, and Angie. And then next week I’ll get Kate, America, Lorraine, and Karla.”

“Wow, good job on remembering everyone’s names,” Pepper compliments him. “It usually takes people weeks.”

Steve’s played tournaments where he met a whole new team the day before playing. He doesn’t think it’s asking much for him to learn the names of eight women he’s supposed to be romantically involved with. Besides, he just spent the last hour and a half talking about them all. But he doesn’t know how these things work—everyone else working on this show has done this time and again. Steve’s the outsider here. He just shrugs and smiles.

“Did you have anything in mind for any of the dates?” Pepper checks.

“Yes, actually,” Steve says. “Um, skating with Monica. Tennis with America. Maybe McDonald’s with Kate? I don’t know what else.”

Pepper looks almost pained. “We can do the skating and tennis, but Steve, I’m sorry, McDonald’s will not be happening.”

Steve laughs a little. “That’s alright. That’s just the only thing we talked about.”

“McDonald’s?” Pepper asks. She sounds like she’s trying very hard not to sound judgmental. Steve laughs again.

“No, not really.”

“It was actually pretty good,” Natasha assures her. “Promise.”

Pepper does look relieved by that. “Okay. For the first dates we’re going to have you stick to dinner, okay? It’s important that you really talk the first time. Then for further dates you can do the skating and tennis.”

“Oh. Well, okay.” He wants to leave, but he’ll stay as long as he has to. As long as he still has time to make it to the gym and the rink. He can do land workouts in the hotel gym, but he has to be at the private skating rink they’re contracting with at seven. He doesn’t want to mess up their schedule by not being on time.

Happy’s waiting for Steve outside when he finally gets to leave. Before he starts driving, he reaches back and hands Steve a chocolate bar.

“I don’t know if you like those,” Happy says. “But after that day, I’d sure need chocolate.”

“You are an angel,” Steve breathes. Normally he only eats candy bars after a game, but he thinks this qualifies as a desperate times, desperate measures kind of deal. He can’t have a candy bar every day. But this first day of filming seems appropriate.

“How was it?” Happy asks conversationally. Steve swallows the too-large bite he’d taken the second he got the wrapper off.

“It was okay,” Steve says. “Kind of a blur.” They’re both quiet for a minute. Steve watches out the window as they get on the freeway. “They keep asking me for impressions. But I don’t like judging people without really knowing them.”

“That’s nice,” Happy says. He doesn’t say anything else and Steve thinks that’s all he’s going to say. “But you know in your gut if you’re comfortable with someone. No need to make yourself miserable.”

Steve leans back and rests his head against the seat, closing his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, for lack of anything else to say. Steve can’t see himself being anything but miserable during this whole ridiculous thing.

 

Steve’s four miles into his run when Sam comes into the gym and grabs the treadmill next to him. “Hey,” Sam says.

“Hi,” Steve answers. He doesn’t know if Sam’s the type to talk while he runs. Steve doesn’t usually talk while he’s running, but that’s also because he doesn’t usually have anyone to talk to. Steve’s been part of hockey teams his entire life, but he’s always been something of a solo runner. He’s never stopped to figure out if it was by choice and he doesn’t plan to now.

Sam starts out pretty fast. Steve keeps his pace steady, but it only takes two minutes before he bumps up his speed. After another two minutes, Sam increases his speed, and Steve grins. It’s on.

Sam concedes, ten minutes and two extra miles per hour later. He decreases his treadmill back to his starting pace and gasps out, “You’re an asshole.”

Steve laughs, sprinting at full speed. “I’m a professional athlete,” he reminds Sam. “I’d be upset if I couldn’t run faster than you.” But he lowers his speed a bit. He doesn’t need to push it to show off, especially when he’s going to do speed and agility drills on the ice tonight.

“So, today wasn’t too painful, was it?” Sam asks. Steve’s tempted to increase his speed again just so he doesn’t have to talk about it. He wants to decompress and forget about it.

“It was fine,” he finally says. Sam nods and must take the hint, because he doesn’t say anything else for a while. “Hey, tell me about your wedding,” Steve remembers. He glances over in time to see the grin spread over Sam’s face. It makes Steve’s stomach hurt a little. Sam looks so happy. Steve can’t imagine feeling that way about someone. Or someone feeling that way about him.

“We met in college,” Sam says. He slows down a bit more and hands over his phone to show Steve a picture of Maria Hill, from the studio.

“Hey, I met her,” Steve says, surprised. Sam grins again.

“Yeah, I’m sleeping with a big wig,” he jokes. “We actually started at the same time. She majored in marketing and I majored in psychology, so we didn’t exactly end up in the same department.”

“Psychology to producing?” Steve asks. “Is that what you went into psychology for?”

Sam laughs out loud. “Of course not. I went into psychology because I was volunteering at the VA as a counselor after I got out of the Air Force. I was going to make it a full-time thing. But the funding kept getting cut, and there were never any openings. I started at the studio as a secretary and it was a long, weird path to get here. I still volunteer at the VA, though.”

Steve doesn’t know how to respond. He always feels uncomfortable when people talk about money struggles. He grew up without much money, and his mom made a lot of sacrifices for him to play hockey. But he’s learned that offering money to anyone with a story isn’t sustainable and isn’t even welcome, a lot of times. Still, he can’t help the anger that flares up when he thinks of the fact that veterans can’t get a solid budget.

“Support our troops, huh?” He says bitterly. Sam’s smile goes wry.

“Tell me about it. You wouldn’t believe the hassle I had trying to actually use my medical benefits when I got home.”

“Did you get hurt?” Steve asks, finally slowing down to look at Sam. He seems fine (very fine), but Steve doesn’t know how long it’s been. Sam tips his head to the side, not meeting Steve’s eyes.

“Not physically. Lost a best friend.”

“Oh, God,” Steve breathes. “I’m so sorry.”

Sam looks up at him and smiles. “I’m okay now. And I use it to help others. I’d rather have Riley, but, you know, I gotta do what I can.”

“That’s incredible, Sam.” Steve shakes his head. He feels spoiled and entitled. People call him Captain America just for leading a hockey team. Sam’s the real Captain America. “Is there anything I can do?”

Sam slows to a walk, assessing Steve. “I mean, I could think of a few things, if you’re serious.”

“I am!” Steve assures him. “I just feel like…what do I do? For the world, I mean? Nothing.”

Sam smiles a little. “You feel like you have to do something for the world?”

“They pay me all this money. I think I have a responsibility to help people.”

Sam shakes his head. “You’re something else. I’ll make a list of charities for you. Want me to send it to a PR person?”

“No, send it to me, please,” Steve requests. “And I don’t want to just give money. Can I do anything else? I have a lot of downtime in the off-season. Well, not right now, but usually. Can’t I…I don’t know, help?”

“Yeah,” Sam says. He’s serious now, not laughing anymore. “You could be a lot of help, Steve. I’ll put together some options for you. Thank you.”

Steve shrugs. “I haven’t done anything yet,” he mumbles, starting up his treadmill again. “Thank you.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Let’s not get stuck in this loop. We’re both awesome.”

Steve huffs. “Works for me.”

After Steve hits seven miles, Sam starts reaching over and poking him, so Steve gives up. He probably doesn’t need to do more than that, anyway. “You don’t have to stick around to film with the contestants?” Steve asks as they relocate to the weights. Sam waves a hand.

“I’m more on the bachelor side,” he explains. “Working with the contestants…” He shrugs and doesn’t go on.

“What?” Steve prompts.

Sam purses his lips. “It requires a bit of manipulation. Not necessarily bad manipulation, not all the time, but I’m not really comfortable with it. Pierce is better at that side.”

Steve does bicep curls slowly, weighing his words. “Pierce seems…strict.”

Sam makes a face. “Yeah. Let’s leave it at that.”

“He’s not going to do anything to hurt any of the women, is he?” Steve asks. He can find a different way to get good PR. He doesn’t even want to do this show. He’s certainly not going to put innocent people at risk because of it.

“No, no, of course not,” Sam reassures him quickly. “He just keeps pushing where I’d back off. And he gets good ratings, that’s for sure.” Sam sighs a little. “Barnes is a little tired of it. He’s the one who has to keep the cameras in the contestants’ faces when they’re breaking down. Coulson will do his best to direct Barnes away, but Pierce has seniority over everyone.”

Steve thinks about that for a second—Bucky, who took two penalties in the entire U-18 World Championship tournament and apologized to both players, having to stay in people’s faces while they’re crying or upset. Steve shakes his head.

“Buck must hate that.”

“Oh, yeah, you guys are buds. He didn’t know you were our guy until he got there because he got called in to replace someone else.”

“Is it a conflict of interest?” Steve asks. “I mean, we were friends when we were kids. I haven’t seen him in at least ten years.”

“No, it’s fine.” Sam shrugs. “Kinda seems like a good thing, so far. He’s helping you.”

“He always knew how to keep me calm when I started spiraling before games. Or during games. Or after games,” Steve admits. “He could always figure out what to do when guys needed him. He should’ve been captain, really, but I was always a flashier player and he was fine with the A.”

“He showed me one of your games last night,” Sam says, switching out his weights for a lighter pair. He flips Steve off when Steve notices and smirks at him. “I watched you fight a guy for Barnes.”

Steve blushes a little. “Um, which time?” He asks, wincing a little. Sam laughs, so Steve defends himself. “He never stood up for himself! I mean, he’d get back at guys for dirty hits by just stripping the puck and scoring so they looked bad, but he never hit back. He checked when he needed to, but he only ever got into fights if I started it and it turned into a bench-clearer.”

“So you played white knight to defend his honor?”

“I’m not going to let bullies get in his face,” Steve says. He remembers the way guys would trash talk Bucky as soon as they figured out he wasn’t going to push back. Bucky wasn’t the smallest guy on the ice, but he wasn’t the biggest, either, and some guys would take advantage of that. “And, you know, standing up for your teammates is a big part of hockey. It wasn’t just Bucky.”

Sam gives Steve a look. “Okay.”

“What?” Steve asks.

“Nothing. I’ll make sure not to get in Barnes’s face while you’re around.”

Steve snorts. “Yeah, especially since you can only curl fifty.”

“Oh, that’s how it is?” Sam asks. Steve laughs out loud.

“That’s how it is.” Then he reminds himself that Sam is engaged and Steve is on a dating show where he’s supposed to pick a wife or something.

“Wait, you were telling me about your wedding,” Steve reminds Sam. “It’s coming up pretty soon.”

Sam grins again at the mention. “Yeah. The good thing about us both being ex-military is we’ve had everything planned out for almost a year now. Maria’s a planner, man. She just…plans.”

“So if I pick one of these women and actually get married, she’ll plan a wedding for me?” Steve jokes.

“Don’t joke,” Sam warns him. “She probably already has a binder for you.”

“A binder?” Steve asks, alarmed.

“That’s how she plans. We have a whole bookshelf of plans.” Sam’s smiling softly. “It’s incredible.”

“You didn’t get to pick anything?” Steve asks. He’d always hated that part of weddings, when his friends or teammates got married. It was like they were expected to give no input and just show up the day of the wedding.

“Oh, we made every decision together,” Sam says. “We just did it very quickly in a highly efficient manner.”

Steve laughs. “Sounds nice.”

“It is. We’re not stressing, we’re not arguing, we stayed completely in our budget, and we’re happy.”

Steve smiles wistfully. “Sounds nice,” he repeats, softer this time. Sam claps him on the back.

“Well, here’s your chance to have it too, buddy!”

Steve holds back from rolling his eyes, but just barely. “Hopefully,” he says noncommittally. Sam snorts, seeing right through him.

“Just focus on looking good for the cameras, then,” he amends.

Steve sets down his weight so he can flex. “Now that, I can handle.”

Sam throws a towel at him.

 

Steve’s heading into his room to grab his gear bag when Bucky gets off the elevator. Steve gives him a sympathetic look. “Long day?”

Bucky sighs. “Alexander Pierce has very specific ideas about lighting and sound that require a lot of time and reshoots.”

Steve winces. “That does not sound fun.”

Bucky shrugs. “There are worse things.” He doesn’t sound totally convinced, though. Steve hesitates. He doesn’t know if Bucky just wants to kick back on his bed and relax, but…

“I’m about to go to the rink,” he says. “You still know how to skate?”

“Is that an invitation or just chirping?” Bucky asks.

Steve laughs. “It’s an invitation, if you want it.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says, smiling. “Let me grab my skates.”

“You have your skates here?” Steve asks, surprised. Bucky turns back to look at him, eyebrows raised.

“Do you think you have the corner on skating?”

“No, I just…you don’t play anymore. I thought normal people didn’t travel with skates and sticks.”

“Well, I don’t have a stick with me,” Bucky admits. “But I still skate. Public skates. And I play, too. Beer league.”

“You play beer league?” Steve doesn’t know why he’s so surprised—or excited—by that. Just the thought that Bucky didn’t completely give up something he loved so much is making Steve happy.

Bucky laughs a little. “I actually play with some of the guys on set. Our team’s the Howling Commandos.” He slips into his room and Steve rushes into his own. Steve can do his skating workouts alone, but passing and shooting drills work better and are more fun with someone else. He’s got workouts lined up with some of the guys from the team who stuck around for the summer, but he’s excited to play with Bucky. They’ve always worked perfectly in sync on the ice. Steve can’t wait to see if it’s still the case.

It’s still the case. Steve’s extra stick is just a hair too long for Bucky, but he still makes it work. And he still has the best top-shelf sniper shots Steve’s ever seen, even if it’s not quite as impressive without a full defense trying to block him.

“I’m gonna cry,” Steve says. “You know what I’d give for a shot like that on my team?”

Bucky laughs out loud, the sound echoing across the empty ice. “You trying to recruit me?”

“Would it work?” Steve asks. It’s not like he has any power to do this, especially after the season they had. But he’d find a way. Bucky shakes his head, but he’s grinning.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m officially off the market for professional sports. Too many concussions and a bum arm I gotta ice after every game.”

Steve misses the pass Bucky just sauced over to him and has to chase it down. He doesn’t want to think about that—about Steve missing the guy heading for Bucky and pinning his arm between them and the boards, about Bucky’s helmet falling off and his head slamming down onto the ice. Steve still sees the blood in his dreams.

“Sorry,” Steve mutters, not just talking about the missed pass. Bucky skates over to him and snows Steve a little on his stop.

“That wasn’t your fault, Steve,” Bucky says. He probably said it about thirty times after it happened—after he regained consciousness, after he regained hazy memories of what happened.

“If I hadn’t gotten in another stupid fight, I would’ve seen him coming for you and I could’ve—”

“You could’ve stopped him?” Bucky cuts him off. “How many times? We both know that guy was gunning for me. You would’ve had to completely give up your position and just guard me all night. It’s hockey, Steve. Concussions happen, bad hits happen. At least I still have all my teeth, right?” He cracks a grin and Steve shakes his head. He doesn’t want jokes right now.

“It shouldn’t have happened to you,” Steve argues. “You should be playing NHL, not me.”

Bucky scoffs. “Now you think you don’t deserve to be in the NHL? Steve, come on. Maybe I would’ve ended up there, maybe not, but we both know you were always going pro. Scouts were watching you when we were fourteen. I was a kid and I had a lot of fun. I got hurt and now I still have fun playing for no stakes. There’s no reason to cry about something that had no guarantee of happening.”

“But you got hurt.” Steve looks away. “They carried you off the ice on a stretcher.”

“And here I am,” Bucky says. “I can’t play full contact, but I still play. I’m a fully-functioning member of society. Not playing pro hockey isn’t the worst thing in the world, Steve. My life wasn’t ruined. Now go get in net. I want to take shots.”

Steve obeys without further argument. There’s no point, really. Bucky won’t blame Steve—or won’t admit to it, anyway—but Steve can’t help the guilt that’s been building for almost fifteen years.

He and Bucky had spent so many nights at camp and in hotel rooms across the world at tournaments, debating playing in juniors or saving up their college eligibility. Steve thought it would be better to go to the juniors, get a head-start on playing professionally, but Bucky was staunch about college. He and Sarah, along with Bucky’s parents, loved banding together to talk to Steve about college. But either way, he and Bucky had planned to play together.

Bucky can say it wasn’t a sure thing all he wants, but Steve’s been in the NHL for a long time. He knows who makes it and who doesn’t. Bucky might’ve bounced between the NHL and the AHL, but he would’ve played. Leadership and poise like Bucky had doesn’t get ignored.

Bucky takes shots on Steve, and Steve misses over half. It’s not even inner turmoil—Steve’s no goalie, and Bucky’s shots are good. Besides, Steve doesn’t have full gear on and he can admit he’s a bit afraid of getting hit by a puck. That still hurts with pads on. He’ll block a shot in a game, but there’s no need to sacrifice his body just for drills.

“Alright, let’s trade,” Bucky pants after a few minutes. “I’m outta shape with shooting drills.”

“Oh, yeah, you look terrible,” Steve says sarcastically. “I’m glad no one’s filming this.”

Bucky laughs at him. “You are still such a sore loser.”

“I’m a professional athlete!” Steve says for the second time tonight. “It’s my job to win.”

Bucky snorts. “You’re not doing that,” he chirps.

“Jeez, don’t pull your punches,” Steve says. “Not like I need the reminder.” Steve sets up the puck and sends a shot over Bucky’s shoulder into the net. “Ha.”

“Hey, you guys won more games this season than last,” Bucky reminds him, not concerned in the least that he’s not stopping anything. He’s barely even trying. “Keep improving every season and you’ll make it to playoffs in another decade.”

“You know what?” Steve huffs. He can’t help but laugh. Bucky’s always trash-talked Steve, even if he didn’t with anyone else. “Just for that I’m shooting this directly at you.”

Bucky doesn’t look worried, and Steve doesn’t hit him, of course. Bucky wiggles his eyebrows. “Well, with aim like that…maybe two decades.”

“You’re such an ass,” Steve laughs. “Haven’t changed since you were sixteen.”

“Um, excuse me?” Bucky asks, offended. “I have lost my virginity, at least.”

“You lost it?” Steve asks. “Did you look under the bed?” Bucky picks a puck out of the goal and sends it back at Steve in retaliation. He’d once had to do a bag skate for losing a team glove, only to find it under the bed after practice.

“I’m quitting this show,” Bucky says dramatically. “The talent is unbearable. I will not put up with this sort of treatment.”

“The talent?” Steve asks. “Is that me?”

“Well, they said I couldn’t make the beefcake trend, so I guess we’ll stick with the talent.”

Steve deliberately pings a shot at the crossbar to scare Bucky. “I hate you,” he announces. They’re both grinning. They both know it’s not true.

“Right back at ya, pal,” Bucky says. For the first time, Steve’s grateful for this stupid reality show. Maybe he should send Rumlow a fruit basket.

He shakes his head a little at himself. No need to be ridiculous.

 

Steve changes his shirt again. Sam tips his head to the side and then shakes his head. “Back to blue.”

“I’ve been told I look great in red,” Steve says.

“You do,” Sam agrees. “But Wanda said you’re more recognizable in blue because of your blue home jersey, and since this will still be in an early episode, we need people to remember who you are.” Steve frowns a little, but he takes off the red shirt and puts the blue back on. Wanda’s the stylist who picked out a whole closet of clothes for him. Sam pats his shoulder. “You look really good in blue, too, Steve,” he adds condescendingly. Steve flips him off and Sam cackles.

Steve takes a deep breath and counts before Sam opens the door. It’s time for Steve’s first date of the show. He’s going out with Bernie tonight, and he’s so nervous his hands are drenched with sweat. It’s not really the date itself that’s freaking him out; it’s more the fact that this date means Steve is really, actually, doing a reality dating show.

“It’s going to be great,” Sam soothes. “You got your degree in political science, right? She’s a lawyer. There’s some common ground there.”

“She knows way more about anything in the law than I do,” Steve points out.

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Is that a bad thing?”

“No,” Steve hurries to say. “Nothing wrong with that. I just don’t think I’ll be able to keep up a conversation. And then I’m going to look like just another dumb jock. And all of America will see.”

“Steve.” Sam puts his hands on Steve’s shoulders so Steve will look him in the eye. “All of America is not going to watch this.”

Steve laughs despite himself. “Shouldn’t you be saying the opposite?”

“Hey, I know our projections. We’re not the Bachelor. But if this goes well, we could probably develop it into a new series instead of just a special.”

“This is a special?”

“The live finale will be. ABC doesn’t have that.”

Steve swallows hard. Right. Live finale. Where he’s supposed to propose to one of these women. It’s not that Steve dislikes any of them or is even opposed to getting to know them. Something about being told he has to pick one of them makes Steve’s hackles rise. Probably just because he’s so ornery.

“Hey, Wilson, we’re ready over here,” Dugan calls.

“You’re making my dinner?” Steve asks. “At least I know one thing will go right.”

Dugan grins. “Well, we’re making your dinner. But you don’t get to actually eat the fancy dinner. That’s for looks.”

Steve doesn’t get it. “What do you mean?”

“We made you dinner, right here. You eat that now. But we’ve got fancier stuff for the date tonight.”

Steve looks at Sam. “What?”

Sam shrugs. “Eating on camera is not sexy. You get to eat before the date and then you can just talk the whole time while you’re there.”

Steve absorbs that for a second. “And what do you do with the fancy food?”

“Legally, I’m required to say we throw it away.” Sam mimes zipping his lips. Steve looks to Dugan, who shrugs and winks.

“Hey, I have to taste my own food, right?”

“Does Bernie get to eat beforehand too?” Steve asks.

“Of course,” Sam assures him. “No one’s going hungry, okay? We just don’t want America to hear you chew.”

Steve’s slightly miffed by that. He wouldn’t talk with his mouth full on a date. His mother would roll over in her grave. Sam must catch what he’s thinking, because he starts laughing. “No offense, Steve, jeez. Calm down.”

“I’m a little nervous,” Steve admits.

“Yeah, I got that.”

“Don’t worry,” Dugan says breezily. “You can really drink the wine.”

“Not much,” Dernier cuts in. “I will not get another angry email from your nutritionist.”

“What angry email?” Steve asks. “I haven’t eaten anything bad yet!”

“She does not trust us.” Dernier scowls. “As if I cannot make a meal within set parameters.”

Sam steers Steve over to the table set up in the kitchen. “Let’s get you some food.”

“Do I get to see Bernie before everything or are we quarantined?”

“She’s with Barnes, doing some pre-date interviews. She already ate.”

Steve sighs. He really doesn’t like being managed. A reality show was not a great idea. Well, a reality show was not a great idea for a variety of reasons. Steve’s aversion to handlers is just one thing on the list.

Finally, things get underway. Bernie looks great, more understated than the evening dress from yesterday. Bucky had told Steve, in an undertone, that the women were required to bring ball gowns for the show. Steve didn’t have to bring anything.

“So, how was settling into the house?” Steve asks. He tries to block out the fact that Bucky’s got a camera two feet away. It’s a little distracting, to say the least.

“It was pretty good,” Bernie says. “It’s a little strange. I haven’t lived with that many other girls since college.”

“Were you in a sorority?” Steve asks. A few different fraternities had tried to get Steve to pledge, but he wasn’t into that kind of thing. He already had his teammates and a stack of articles about the hazards and homophobia of Greek life, courtesy of his mother.

“Oh, God, no,” Bernie says. “No sorority would’ve taken me. All I did was study all day long and they all wanted volunteer hours and parties. I was just poor and lived in an old sorority house with twelve other girls.”

“Twelve?” Steve echoes. “Jesus.”

“There were four of us in my room.” Bernie shakes her head. “You haven’t had a real college experience until you’ve shared a room with one girl having sex and one girl throwing up.”

“She had sex in your room while you were in it?” Steve asks incredulously. He can admit he wouldn’t be completely opposed to having more than one person involved, but he’s not getting the vibe from Bernie that it was necessarily something she was into.

Bernie shrugs. “I don’t think they were sober. And I wasn’t leaving! I had a test in the morning.”

Steve laughs. “Well, at least you had your priorities straight.”

“I had to keep my scholarship, and I was worried about getting into law school. Nothing could tear me out of the library before nine.”

“Did you always know you wanted to go to law school?” Steve doesn’t know what to do with his hands. There’s food in front of him, but he’s not supposed to eat it. It seems weird to keep his hands in his lap when there’s a plate and silverware sitting right there. Is he overthinking this? Bernie doesn’t seem bothered at all.

Maybe he’s supposed to pretend to eat so the audience doesn’t know they’re faking. Steve picks up his fork and moves the food on his plate around a little.

“Since I was in high school,” Bernie confirms, watching him move the food. “My dad wanted me to go into sports law so I could negotiate contracts for guys like you.”

Steve huffs. “Yeah, since we definitely need help getting more and more money.”

Bernie tilts her head. “Is that something your PR people would appreciate you saying?”

Steve’s blushing now. He shouldn’t have said that with a camera rolling. Especially not with an almost complete stranger present. He doesn’t know who this is going to get back to. Now his future contract offers are going to be low, because everyone wants to free up cap space.

But Steve’s never been one to back down, so he raises his chin. “It’s true, though. We’re making so much money to play hockey, but teachers and social workers and public defenders,” he gestures across the table to her, “get peanuts. All these people doing important work, and we give them nothing. Hell, our military gets no money. No funding for resources when they get home. What about all the politicians telling us to support our troops? I’d rather my tax dollars go to the defense department for mental health resources for vets than building another damn jet.”

He snaps his mouth shut. He shouldn’t be ranting on a first date. You’re supposed to hide your crazy. The voice sounds obnoxiously like Rumlow, and Steve could absolutely hear that asshole saying something like that. He remembers what Karla said about the word crazy and cringes a little. From the corner of his eye, he can see the director, Coulson, pointing at Clint and then at Bernie, so the second camera will capture her reaction to Steve’s rant.

“I agree,” Bernie says. “But that’s easy to say. You do anything about it?”

Steve’s eyes widen a bit. Most people would think it’s a little rude to ask about Steve’s charity work, if that’s what she’s implying. But Steve likes it. She’s asking him to put his money where his mouth is, kind of literally. She’s probably had to deal with plenty of rich assholes paying lip service to how important her work is without actually doing anything.

“I have a few veterans’ organizations I give to,” Steve admits. “Working on increasing my involvement. And the team partners with the children’s hospital for fundraising and morale boosting events every year.”

Bernie nods, smiling a bit. “Good,” she says simply. She takes a drink of her wine and then raises her eyebrows at Steve. “Still don’t think that’s something your PR people will appreciate.”

Steve laughs. “I’m sure they won’t. They’ve had a hell of a time keeping me out of hot water.”

“Oh, no, you’re one of those guys who can’t keep his mouth shut, huh?” She’s grinning at him, and Steve grins back.

“That has definitely never been my strong suit.”

“Hey, cut,” Coulson calls out. Steve’s jarred back to reality and the surrounding cameras. “Ms. Rosenthal, we need to fix your hair.”

“So sorry,” Wanda murmurs, dashing in to sweep a lock of hair out of Bernie’s face.

“Next time that happens, let’s have Mr. Rogers brush it away,” Pierce suggests. “It’s very intimate.”

Steve’s face is burning. Not only are they watching this date, but they’re orchestrating it. Like Steve has no moves of his own. Sure, Steve didn’t notice the hair and think to move it himself. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have eventually. Besides, what if Bernie doesn’t want him touching her? They haven’t been here long enough for him to get signals.

He meets Bernie’s eyes across the table. She smirks at him, eyes sparkling, and Steve takes that as a signal. He shrugs and smiles and she laughs a little.

“Were you still rolling?” Coulson asks. Bucky nods and Coulson looks pleased. Steve bites his lip and exhales. It’s really distracting to try to fall in love with a bunch of people huddled around making sure he looks good while doing it. He wants to shake his head at himself. Fall in love. The likelihood of that is almost zero. Steve’s never been one to fall in love in a matter of weeks.

After dinner—after Pierce and Sam agree that they’ve spent long enough pretending to eat—Steve and Bernie go for a walk. There’s a beautiful garden outside the mansion and the path around it is all lit up with tiny lanterns.

“Do you think these are always here, or are they just for us?” Bernie asks, crouching down to examine one.

“I would guess just for us,” Steve says. “Does someone actually live here?”

“How should I know? I’m not allowed on the internet,” Bernie jokes. Steve laughs. He’d look it up just then, but he thinks that would probably be frowned upon. Trying to be bold and play his part, he smirks a little.

“Guess we’ll have to come back in a few months and check, huh?”

Bernie snorts. It’s probably not very becoming. Steve loves it. “Kinda full of yourself. Who says I’ll want to hang around for a few months?”

Steve shrugs and sticks his hands in his pockets. “Some might say coming on a reality show to date me would suggest it.”

“Hey, I agreed before I knew it was you,” Bernie points out. “Maybe I think you’re awful.”

Steve’s smiling now. He’s so relieved that Bernie is easy to be around. He was terrified the entire nine weeks would be full of stomach-churning anxiety and discomfort.

“Do you?” He asks. Pierce waves his hand for Steve to move closer to Bernie. Steve keeps his frown off his face, but just barely. But Pierce isn’t wrong. If this were a totally normal date, Steve would be stepping closer. He should act like it’s normal, try to forget the cameras and the way this all came about. He likes Bernie. If they went on a date after meeting on the street, this would seem like a great time to kiss her.

Bernie shrugs. “Jury’s still out.”

Steve hesitates. He doesn’t want to act any different than he normally would. But the camera makes him so uncomfortable. He can’t help but glance at it, even though he knows he’s not supposed to. Bucky looks almost pained. Steve didn’t think the date was going that badly. Bucky catches Steve’s eye and his face changes. He wiggles his eyebrows and gives Steve a thumb’s up. Steve holds back a laugh. He’d always wished Bucky could come on dates with him.

Steve steps closer to Bernie and wraps an arm around her back. “How about now?” He asks, voice low. Bernie tips her head back to smile at him.

“They might be reaching a verdict.”

Steve smiles back and tips his head down. Bernie turns her cheek to him. Jesus Christ. It’s bad enough when he misreads signals all on his own, but having the whole thing on camera? This is a nightmare.

“Uh, sorry,” Steve says, stepping back. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

Bernie pats his chest. “You didn’t,” she promises. “I’m just really not a kiss on the first date kind of girl.”

“Oh.” Now Steve just feels stupid. He thought the point was moving fast. He thought…well, he can’t pretend Pierce didn’t sort of push him toward this. He licks his lips, totally at a loss. He glances toward the crew and Sam gives him a sympathetic cringe. Thanks a lot. Steve wonders what he should say. Bucky was always so charming with women—what would he say? “So I guess that just means we’ll have to have a second date, huh?”

Bernie laughs. “I guess it does.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.” He leads her back to the mansion and she kisses his cheek before she closes the door. Steve tips his head back and sighs as soon as he thinks he’s off the hook, then notices Clint’s still got camera two focused on him. Great.

“We done here?” Steve asks. He can’t completely hide his annoyance. He turns and walks away, quickly followed by Sam.

“Hey,” Sam says. “What’s up?”

“What’s up?” Steve asks, whirling around to face Sam. “What’s up is I’ve got a whole group of people watching and interfering in my date and pushing me to act different than I normally would, and then I look like an idiot to my date and it’s all on camera!”

Sam’s quiet for a second, which ramps up Steve’s annoyance. He wants a fight. He needs to go for a run. “So what are you mad about?” Sam asks. “Because you knew how this was going to go when you agreed.”

“When I agreed,” Steve mutters sarcastically. “Yeah.”

“Steve,” Sam says, looking at him closely. “Didn’t you agree?”

“I agreed,” Steve says. It was kind of under duress, but he’s not going to tell Sam that. It doesn’t make Steve look good. “I just.” He blows out a breath and deflates a bit. “I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.”

“We’re just trying to help,” Sam says. “If that means you need us to back off a bit, I’ll see what we can do.”

“Really?” Steve was not expecting that. Sam shrugs.

“I can’t make promises,” he says. He lowers his voice a little. “Pierce has seniority over me, you know? He’s been in this game a long time. He knows what sells and what draws in the viewers. He kind of gets final say. But I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you,” Steve says seriously. “I just…I can’t stop focusing on the camera.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” Bucky’s voice behind him makes Steve jump, and he glares when he turns around. But Bucky doesn’t have the camera with him. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to look at the camera?”

“How can he resist when he gets to see who’s behind it?” Sam teases. Bucky rolls his eyes.

“But really, Steve,” Bucky continues. “You gotta quit looking at the camera.”

“Then can you stop sticking it right under my nose?” Steve complains. “It’s a little hard not to look when you get closer and closer every time I breathe.”

“I don’t get to pick where the camera is,” Bucky reminds him. “You have to take that up with Coulson and Pierce and Wilson here.”

Sam and Bucky share a glance that Steve can’t decipher. “We’re going to talk about it,” Sam says. Bucky nods.

“I gotta get back,” he says. “Clint’s handling the debrief with Bernie and he’s probably gonna drop the camera on her on accident.”

“I’ll do the best I can,” Sam promises. “But you gotta meet me halfway here, Steve. It’s a reality show. There are always going to be cameras. That’s the point.”

“Okay, but do you guys have to interrupt us?” Steve asks. “It totally ruined the conversation.”

“That’s gonna happen sometimes,” Sam says with a shrug. “You’re going to have to learn to jump back in where you were.” He gives Steve a slap on the back. “You’re an athlete, right? Adapt.”

Steve sighs. Adapt? When that means changing defensive strategies or shooting backhand on a goalie who’s figured out his forehand, he can handle it easy. He squares his shoulders. He can do this.

 

Bucky knocks on his door later that night and wrinkles his nose when he sees all the papers spread across Steve’s bed. “Are those plays?”

“Uh, kinda.” Steve’s actually kind of embarrassed. “I just…I needed to do some strategy.”

Bucky blinks and looks closer. “Oh, my God,” he laughs. “Steve! You’re making plays for the dates?”

Steve’s blushing furiously, but he knows it’s a good idea. “This is how I think,” he points out. “This is how I know what I’m doing. It’s worked pretty well for the last twenty years, so I figured I’d give it a shot.”

“Twenty-five years,” Bucky corrects absently. “Because you’re old. Are you doing one big strategy or different ideas for each contestant?”

“We’re the same age, so you’re old too. It’s man to man,” Steve confirms, pulling over some of the papers so Bucky can see better. “Bernie’s more of a known quantity than anyone else, since I went out with her tonight. I’ll adjust the others as I learn more.”

Bucky shakes his head a little. “Without context, this kind of makes you look like a serial killer,” he points out.

“Add it to the list,” Steve says. Bucky snorts.

“Who’s tomorrow?”

“Cecilia,” Steve says, grabbing the paper with his notes about her. “The doctor.”

“Likes Goon,” Bucky reads. “Oh, yeah, I remember her.”

“The doctor part didn’t remind you, but Goon did?”

“You know I love that movie,” Bucky says. Steve’s throat sticks a little. Actually, he didn’t know that until just now. The movie came out after they lost touch. “I don’t know, guess I have a soft spot for goons with hearts of gold.” He gives Steve a look and Steve laughs.

“Don’t know who you could mean.”

“Mmhmm. Guy who goes after anyone who uses homophobic slurs on the ice? It’s like they modeled him after you.”

“It was a book,” Steve says, not sure why he’s arguing this. He feels warm at how much Bucky thinks of him. Bucky’s opinion has always mattered more to Steve than anyone else. Nice to see that didn’t change—and it doesn’t seem like Bucky’s opinion changed, either.

Bucky laughs. “Alright, whatever. Just liked the idea of a guy who’d be on my side in the beer leagues.”

Steve’s looking at his notes on Cecilia, but something in Bucky’s voice makes him look up. “Guys in your league pretty bad about that?”

Bucky shrugs. “They just get pretty personal with it sometimes.” He’s not meeting Steve’s eyes and Steve can tell he’s missing something.

“What do you mean?” He asks slowly. He puts the paper down.

Bucky licks his lips. “Remember how everyone said I liked hockey more than girls?” He cracks a little smile. “Well, they were right.”

Steve gapes. “Are you saying…are you gay?”

Bucky lifts his head and looks Steve directly in the eye. “You got a problem with that?”

“What? Bucky, no, of course not. Do I seem like a guy who’d have a problem with it?”

“I don’t know, Steve, I haven’t spent much time with you since we were sixteen and you’re a professional athlete in one of the most homophobic leagues out there.” Bucky’s nostrils are flaring. He’s ready for a fight, Steve realizes. He feels sick. Bucky thought Steve would hurt him? So Bucky’s opinion did change. Steve swallows.

“I’m bi,” he blurts out. It’s only the fourth time he’s said it out loud, and the first time was only to himself. Steve can’t believe he just told Bucky when Bucky is, essentially, a stranger. But he doesn’t feel like a stranger. Steve can’t help factoring in their childhood friendship when he thinks of how well he knows Bucky. Besides, Bucky just came out to him, too.

“Steve,” Bucky breathes. “How do you handle that?”

Steve doesn’t have to work hard to get Bucky’s meaning. The NHL is all but notorious for homophobia. Especially on the ice. Steve shrugs.

“Well, at least when guys are screaming faggot at me on the ice I can tell myself it’s because they say it to everyone, not because they know anything. I asked the front office about coming out and they basically told me no.”

“They can’t do that,” Bucky says furiously. “That’s your decision, not theirs.”

“Bucky, I don’t think it’d be a good idea right now,” Steve says. “What do you think people would say about the captain of the worst team in the league coming out?”

A muscle jumps in Bucky’s jaw. He knows exactly what Steve’s getting at. Bucky purses his lips. “Second worst team,” he says softly. “You guys beat the Avs.”

Steve can’t help it—laughter bubbles out of him, almost hysterical. He can’t believe he’s standing in a hotel room at thirty years old with Bucky Barnes after the two of them just came out to each other. If someone had told him even two of those things would happen a year ago, he’d have laughed in their face. He thought he was never going to see Bucky again, let alone be friends.

“Thanks,” Steve gasps. “For defending our honor.”

Bucky shrugs. “Someone has to.” He’s smiling, too. “So…you slept with anyone in the league?”

Steve gives him a dirty look. “I’m not outing anyone, not even to you.”

Bucky scoffs. “That’s a no.”

Steve laughs, shaking his head. “You think you can chirp me into admitting it?”

“I’m not saying give me names,” Bucky says. “But have you?”

“Not while we were both in the league,” Steve admits. “That’s…too dangerous. I want to come out on my terms, not because some tabloid catches me. But in college I was with a guy who’s in the league now. On a different team.”

“How do you find guys to date?” Bucky asks.

“I don’t,” Steve admits, blushing. “Sometimes, when we’re on the road, I hook up with people, if I can tell they don’t know who I am. But I haven’t dated a man since college, and I’ve never done it publicly.”

Bucky stares at him. “Really?”

Steve shrugs. “I don’t think it’d be fair to ask anyone to be my secret. Besides, I’ve had rookies living with me the last few years. It’s too risky.”

Bucky’s quiet for a beat. “Does it bother you that you’re not out?”

A lump rises up in Steve’s throat. How does Bucky still know him well enough to know that? Or maybe he just knows he’d feel bad. Steve nods, staring at the carpet.

“I just wish it wasn’t a big deal. You know? If I like a guy, I should be able to bring him to league events. I don’t want to hide it.”

“Yeah,” Buck says sympathetically.

“And think of all the kids out there who think they can’t go pro and be who they are because no one’s out. I should come out for them.”

Bucky’s shaking his head before Steve even finishes. “Coming out would give them hope,” he agrees. “But you can’t come out for anyone else, Steve. Don’t do that self-sacrificing thing you always do. This isn’t something anyone gets to ask of you.”

Steve scrubs his hands over his face. This has been a long, exhausting day and ending it with emotional upheaval isn’t making him feel any better. Bucky must get that, because he smiles at Steve and says, “Let’s talk about Cecilia.”

“Yeah,” Steve says gratefully. “Let’s talk about Cecilia.”

 

Steve’s date with Cecilia is only slightly better than his date with Bernie. It’s possible that’s due to the fact that he knows what to expect this time. He only looks at the camera every twenty minutes instead of every five. Maybe by the end of this thing he’ll stop looking altogether.

Bucky crosses his eyes when Steve looks his way. Okay, maybe he’ll never stop looking. Bucky’s reactions are the funniest part of this date.

Not that Cecilia isn’t great—Steve really likes her. She blatantly ignores the “no eating” rule and when Steve asks, she shrugs and says,

“I don’t really care if eating on camera isn’t sexy. This looks divine.”

Steve laughs. “Have you gotten to meet the chefs?”

“No, I think they only cook for these dates. We cook our own food.”

Steve frowns. “They cook for me,” he says. Cecilia raises her eyebrows.

“Look at you, Mr. Fancy. Mr. Big Time, professional hockey player. Gets his own team of chefs and everything.”

She’s joking, but her words leave Steve unsettled. He doesn’t want to be one of those asshole rich diva guys who scream at assistants and will only drink room temperature bottled water. So much of his life has turned into things he absolutely hates.

It’s been too long without a response. Now Cecilia looks a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she says awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to…make you feel bad.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Steve jumps in. Sam’s nodding encouragingly from the side and Steve grits his teeth. He knows he’s supposed to open up and share and all that. He doesn’t want to. He wouldn’t normally. But he signed a contract, and Sam’s giving this his all. The whole crew is. They don’t deserve a flop because Steve doesn’t want to play.

“It’s something I worry about,” Steve says. “Um, being a rich asshole.”

Cecilia shakes her head and smiles. “I think if you worry about it, you’re less likely to do it.”

“I hope so.”

“You know, I grew up pretty poor,” Cecilia offers. “And I make more than I’m comfortable with, too.”

“It’s just so weird, right?” Steve asks. “I still save plastic sandwich bags. Just in case.” He also does it to cut down on his impact on the environment, but that’s not totally pertinent here.

Cecilia laughs. “I have never bought lunch, the entire time at my hospital.”

Steve’s mouth drops open. “How is that even possible? You’ve never forgotten your lunch?”

“Oh, hell no,” she says. “I make that the night before.” She winks at him. “Until I get those chefs working for me. The worst part is my mom still won’t let me buy her everything I want to.”

Steve shifts. “Oh, yeah, I know.” He doesn’t, but he knows his mom wouldn’t let him. And he knows how it feels to not get to buy his mom everything he wants her to have.

All in all, it’s not the worst date he’s been on. Sam’s downright giddy after Steve leaves Cecilia in the mansion. “That was so great, Steve! You opened up to her and you had that in common. How do you feel?”

Steve wrinkles his brow. “Um. Tired?” Sam sags a little and Steve feels bad. But he is tired. He’s not naturally outgoing enough for this to be terribly fun for him. Still, Steve hates to see Sam look anything but happy. “She’s nice,” he offers. “I like her.”

Sam shakes his head. “I’m gonna crack you,” he vows. “I will get to gooey center.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “I think you should discuss that with your fiancée first.”

Sam snorts. “You athletes think so highly of yourselves. So tomorrow you’ve got Angie, and then Thursday you’ll go out with Monica. Friday is Lorraine, and—”

“Wait, I thought Lorraine was week two,” Steve interrupts. Sam shrugs at him.

“I mean, sorry, but you don’t get a day off just because there aren’t enough women. We’ll keep going through and we’ll space out airing the episodes appropriately.”

Steve wants to sigh, but he doesn’t. This is what he signed up for, he reminds himself. Sam doesn’t deserve Steve having a shitty attitude for the next two months.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Do we shoot on Saturday or are weekends off?”

“Saturday’s a cocktail party with all the contestants.” Sam watches Steve’s face carefully. “We’ll talk about that more as it gets closer so we can make sure you’re ready. It’ll be your first outing with the whole group together.”

Steve rubs at his forehead. “That sounds a little terrifying,” he admits. Sam laughs good-naturedly.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “It probably will be.”

It doesn’t exactly make Steve feel better.

Steve’s date with Angie goes well. She wants to be an actress and keeps him laughing by doing impressions of politicians she’s met while waitressing. She smiles a lot, but not too much to the point where she’s creepy. Steve doesn’t feel like he’s getting any kind of signals from her to get close or kiss her. He’s not sure he’d try, anyway, after getting rebuffed by Bernie.

Steve really likes Monica. She tells him stories of the weirdest things she’s seen on the job and throws her head back when she laughs.

“Are a lot of men intimidated by the Coast Guard thing?” Steve asks. They’re walking the path through the garden. He’s done it so many times by now he could do it in his sleep. Monica shrugs.

“None admit it,” she says. “I can usually tell, though.” She tilts her head and smiles. “Are you intimidated by it?’

“Oh, absolutely,” Steve tells her. It makes her laugh. “No question.”

“Come on, a big guy like you? I bet you could handle it.”

“I don’t think the military would be the place for me,” Steve says. “I don’t like being told what to do. And I don’t always listen very well.”

“You’re telling me, on a date, that you don’t listen well?” Monica shakes her head. “You ever been on a date?”

Steve huffs. “I have been on a date or two, yes, thank you. I don’t listen to orders very well.”

Monica raises one eyebrow. “Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we?”

Steve gulps a little. Yes, he’s definitely kind of intimidated by Monica. But it is not a bad thing.

Lorraine follows a similar line of thinking, but Steve’s a lot more uncomfortable about it. Mostly just because she doesn’t talk about much else and even on other topics, she finds a way to slip in innuendos. Steve has no problem with dirty jokes—he’s a hockey player; probably 70% of his conversations include some sort of dirty joke—but he doesn’t even know Lorraine. It just embarrasses him, especially since his awkwardness is going to be broadcast across the country.

The night before the cocktail party, Steve’s staring at himself in front of the mirror and trying not to grab his stuff and run. Eight women and Steve. They’re technically all competing for his attention, literally, so there’s no way he’s going to be able to slip away and avoid being the center of the party.

Bucky raps at the door. If he doesn’t have time to come do on-ice drills with Steve, he always comes over after he’s done shooting. Steve lets him in and Bucky whistles when he takes one look at Steve.

“You’re freaking out.”

“No, I’m…” Steve stops. There’s no point lying. “I’m freaking out.” He sits down at the table in his suite and Bucky follows suit.

“Still the cameras? I thought you were getting used to us.” Bucky helps himself to a piece of pineapple from Steve’s fruit basket.

“I am,” Steve assures him, wondering if it offends Bucky that Steve thinks the cameras are so weird. “I just…” He blows out a breath. “I’m going to have to be so on for this thing.”

Bucky nods, moving onto Steve’s strawberries. “You never did like parties much.”

“I just don’t like people expecting so much from me!” Steve defends himself, stealing a strawberry right out of Bucky’s hand. Bucky scowls but can’t exactly get mad. They’re Steve’s strawberries.

“Well, they’re gonna be expecting a lot from you tomorrow,” Bucky points out grimly, taking a piece of cantaloupe for himself and passing Steve a bit of apple. Steve hates cantaloupe, so he has no problem with this.

“I know.” Steve sighs and pops the apple into his mouth. “I’m trying not to be an ass about it.”

Bucky snorts. “Good luck.”

Steve kicks at him and Bucky doesn’t even both moving out of the way. He sets up a grape and Steve opens his mouth reflexively. The grape bounces off his front teeth and Bucky almost dies laughing.

“They’re just too big,” he gasps. “Braces for two years and this is what you get.” Steve throws the grape back and it hits Bucky’s nose. There’s a pause, and then Bucky says warningly, “Not a word about my nose.”

“I wouldn’t!” Steve says. “I know some things are off-limits.”

Bucky laughs again, softer this time. “God, can you believe we’re here?”

“Not at all. I was just thinking about that the other day,” Steve confesses. “I mean, when we were kids I would totally believe you’d be here with me for this. But last year? No way.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything for a second, too focused on the fruit basket to be genuine. “Why’d you quit writing me?” He finally asks quietly. “I kept trying. Letters. Emails. Fucking MySpace.”

“I know.” Steve’s voice comes out hoarse. “I’m sorry.” After a beat, he sighs. “I felt so guilty. The only thing I had to talk about was hockey, and you couldn’t play. It felt like I was rubbing it in.”

Bucky considers that for a minute. “And?”

Steve bites his lip. “And I was scared.”

“Scared of what?”

Steve sighs. “Scared you were mad at me and eventually one of those letters was going to tell me to go fuck myself.”

Bucky gives him a look. “Those letters did tell you to go fuck yourself. They all said that.”

Steve laughs a little, because that’s true. They’d been awkward teenage boys, showing their affection predominantly through insults. “You know what I mean. Tell me to fuck off for real.”

“So you ghosted me,” Bucky says.

“I didn’t think of it like that,” Steve says. “But yeah, I guess I did.”

Bucky looks away. “That was the worst year of my life,” he admits. Steve wants to cry. “Concussion, broken arm, no hockey, and no best friend.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve repeats. “Buck, if I could go back—”

“Well, whatever,” Bucky cuts in, blithe now like he didn’t make a heartfelt confession. “We can’t. We’re here now, right? That’s what matters.”

“That’s real Zen of you,” Steve says. He should probably push Bucky to talk about it. But what’s there to talk about? Bucky’s right. Talking won’t change anything. And, Steve can admit to himself, he doesn’t want to make Bucky realize that Steve doesn’t deserve his forgiveness. Steve let Bucky get hurt and then abandoned him. Maybe Bucky thinks this is a second chance to be friends instead of a chance for revenge. Steve doesn’t want to be the one to point that out to him, even if it makes him a selfish asshole.

“I did yoga in college,” Bucky reveals, flashing that smile Steve remembers. “It’s really relaxing.”

Steve makes a face and goes back to the strawberries. The thought of Bucky doing yoga is…a lot to take in. For a lot of reasons. Steve pushes past that. “My college coach made me try yoga once. Said I was wound too tight and yoga might help.”

“And?” Bucky asks, already grinning.

“I got kicked out of the class for asking if the white guy running it had any ties to India or any of the religions associated with it or if he just liked taking an important cultural practice without understanding its significance.”

Bucky cracks up. “Oh, Steve,” he says fondly. “You are the absolute worst.”

That makes Steve crack up, too. “I’ll have you know at least four people have told me I’m great.”

“Your mom doesn’t count,” Bucky says automatically. Then his winces. “Ah, shit.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “Though I’m going to say she does count, just because you absolutely cannot dispute it now.”

Bucky groans. “See? The worst.” He’s smiling, though, so it softens the blow.

“If I’m being the worst tomorrow, will you save me?” Steve asks.

“No,” Bucky says casually. “I’m going to capture every painful moment on camera for the world to see.”

Steve covers his eyes with one hand. “Yet I’m the worst?”

He can’t see the face Bucky’s making, but he can picture it in his head—small, lopsided smile on his face, rolling his eyes. “This is my job, Steve.” Steve can hear him crunching on a piece of apple. “You’re the worst for free.”

“Actually,” Steve informs him loftily, “I’m the worst for seven million dollars a year.”

Bucky chucks another grape at his face.

 

Steve reminds himself to be cool and normal at the cocktail party. He’s dealt with a lot of these kinds of social events in the league, but God, they never get any easier. He has his a 3-drink limit from his nutritionist and a 4-drink limit from his common sense, but hopefully that’ll be enough to make this slightly less painful.

“You look like you’re going to face a firing squad,” Happy tells him.

“Kinda feels like I am,” Steve admits.

“Well, try to keep it off your face,” Happy advises. “I don’t think women appreciate being thought of that way.”

Steve laughs a little. “Good point.”

He walks around to the backyard of the mansion, where all the patio furniture is set out. Patio furniture doesn’t really accurately describe it; when Steve thinks of patio furniture, his first thought is the white plastic table and chairs his mother had on their back porch when he was a kid. This stuff probably cost more than his mother made in a year.

There is a lot of alcohol. Steve frowns a little. He remembers hearing that the producers would encourage the women to drink, but he’s not sure it’s very safe. Kate and America, especially, are a lot younger than the rest of the women. He doesn’t want anything to happen to them. He glances over at the two of them, who have apparently become friends. Probably by nature of being the two youngest contestants. They’re sharing a lounge chair and passing a drink with an umbrella in it back and forth.

Kate waves at him when she sees Steve looking. He waves back and goes up to the bar. Dugan’s supplying the drinks.

“Chef and mixologist, huh?” Steve asks. Dugan snorts.

“I bartended in college for about two months so Pierce thinks that means I should do double-duty.” He rolls his eyes. “They’re too cheap to hire a real bartender.”

“Seriously?” Steve asks. “I read a bunch of stuff online about how the booze is the best part of this whole thing. I was looking forward to it.”

That makes Dugan roar with laughter. “Not finding love?”

Steve flushes a little. Oops. He shrugs. “Well, you know, I’m open to it. But I thought the booze was a sure thing.”

Dugan winks at him. “Your secret’s safe with me,” he promises. “You want a mai tai?”

“Uh, sure,” Steve says. It’s not really his drink of choice, but there seems to be a tropical theme happening, so he’ll go with it.

“It’s the only mixed drink I know,” Dugan confesses in a low voice.

Steve laughs. “Well, in that case, keep ‘em coming.”

Dugan shakes his head. “Three for you and no more.”

“Oh, come on,” Steve whines. “Misty emailed you, too?”

“Yeah, and I googled her. I’m secure enough to say she could kick my ass. Ergo, I’m staying on her good side, so three drink limit, pal.” Steve takes a drink of his mai tai and coughs a little. There’s a lot of rum in there. Dugan winks again. “Hey, three drink limit doesn’t mean I can’t still help you out a little.”

“You’re an angel,” Steve says reverently, making Dernier, who just came out of the kitchen with a plate of hors d’oeuvres, snort. “And so are you,” Steve says, swiping a bacon-wrapped shrimp off the platter. Dernier gives him a deeply disapproving frown.

“That is the only one you get,” he scolds. “You have been fed already. Misty is very strict.”

“Is there a way to say cockblock about food?” Steve mutters.

“You probably shouldn’t spend the whole party over here with me,” Dugan points out.

Steve holds back a sigh. Dugan’s right, of course. Steve needs to mingle. “Fine,” he says. “Here I go.”

He just doesn’t know where to go. All the women are sitting in clusters, talking and laughing. They look perfectly happy without him. He’d like to leave them that way and head back to the rink with Bucky, where he was before this. But he has a job to do. He and Bucky wrote up a game plan, spacing it out so Steve will talk to each woman an equal amount. A goal counts for when he feels a serious connection to whoever he’s talking to. He bragged he could get eight goals. He’s in the beginning of the first period and he needs to get to work.

Steve starts with Kate and America, because they’re the closest to where he’s standing and neither of them have cast him another glance since he walked in. Something about the hopeful looks the other women are giving him is making him sweat.

“Hi,” Steve says, feeling stupid and awkward already. “Can I sit down?”

“Are we the lucky winners?” Kate asks, sitting up and pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head. “Quality time with Mr. Hockey?”

Steve laughs a little. “Mr. Hockey is actually someone else’s nickname,” he says. “A player way better than me. Gordie Howe, one of the greatest players ever. Have you heard of him?”

“No,” Kate says.

“Hey, Steve?” America says, sitting up now too. “Can I make a suggestion?”

“Um, okay?”

“Don’t try to pick up women by talking about famous hockey players. Unless the woman tells you she’s into hockey.”

Steve flushes a little. “Sorry,” he mumbles, glancing toward Bucky almost against his will. Bucky’s laughing at him. Steve rolls his eyes. Maybe Bucky was always so charming to women because he never had any stakes in the game. Besides the whole pretending to be straight so he didn’t have to worry about anyone in the locker room fighting him.

Okay, Steve can’t think about that or he’ll get mad.

America laughs. “Don’t worry, no hard feelings here. We’re okay being your tester contestants. What are your other talking points?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly write them down,” Steve lies. He absolutely did. Kate raises her eyebrows.

“You didn’t? You seem like a guy who would write stuff down.”

Steve squints at the two of them. “You guys enjoy busting my balls?”

“Greatly,” America confirms. Steve laughs and relaxes a fraction. They don’t seem terribly interested in staying in the running, which takes a hell of a lot of pressure off Steve.

“Fine,” he says. “I watched a few episodes of Doogie Howser last night to talk to Cecilia about.”

“What’s that?” Kate asks curiously.

“It’s the one with Neil Patrick Harris,” America tells her. “You know, Barney from How I Met Your Mother?”

“Oh, my God,” Steve moans. “You’re so young.”

“Maybe you’re just old,” Kate says sagely.

Steve tips his head. “Can’t really argue with that. How’s the house so far?”

“I don’t think I’ve stopped drinking since we got here,” Kate says. “Just like being back with my parents.”

America snorts. “Just because the alcohol is there doesn’t mean you have to drink it.”

“I’m not going to let it go to waste!”

“You’re being careful, though, right?” Steve asks. “Know your limits?”

Kate and America exchange a look and both laugh at him. “Yes, Dad,” America mocks. “Now you seem really old.”

“Thank you,” Steve says sarcastically. “You’re really making me want to date you.”

“Rude,” Kate objects. She slides her sunglasses back down. “We are fabulous.”

America throws an arm around Kate’s neck. “You should be so lucky,” she agrees.

Steve huffs. “You’re contestants on my reality dating show,” he points out. “I think I am so lucky.”

Someone behind him clears their throat. Steve glances over. It’s Pierce, glancing pointedly at his watch. Apparently Steve’s spent too long with America and Kate. It makes Steve want to stay longer just to spite Pierce. He really does not like that man.

“So what made you guys sign up?” Steve asks.

Kate shrugs. “Graduated from college, didn’t get a job, wanted to get away from my parents for a while. I figured it would be fun no matter the outcome.”

“Job market’s pretty tough,” Steve says. “Well, so I hear. I’m all set.”

Kate huffs. “That doesn’t make you very relatable.”

“Hey, I’ve seen that hashtag on Instagram,” Steve reveals, making both girls laugh at him. At least it was on purpose this time.

“I didn’t sign up,” America reveals. “My mother signed me up.”

“Oh, no,” Steve groans sympathetically. “Thinks you’re moving too slow and she wants you to hurry up with the grandkids?”

“Something like that,” America agrees, smile going a little thin. Ouch. Seems like both America and Kate have some issues with their parents. Steve honestly can’t relate. His mother was incredible. But he’s not going to say that. Not only would it seem rude to rub their faces in it, but that would open him up for questions about his mom, and he’s certainly not telling anyone here about her.

“I’m gonna go make the rounds,” Steve says, standing reluctantly. It felt safe to sit here with them, even if they are mostly mocking him the whole time. “Don’t get too hammered before I get back.”

Hammered,” America echoes mockingly. “You’re such a jock.”

Steve shrugs. “Pro, remember?” He even winks, which he immediately regrets. He should check out how it looks in the mirror before he tries that again where cameras can pick it up.

He looks around, deciding where to go next. It’s just a bit intimidating when they’re all in groups like this. If Steve had a wingman, it would be better. He rolls his eyes at himself. A wingman? Who is he kidding? He’s always been helpless with women, with or without backup. Part of him had been almost relieved to realize he was also attracted to men, because he thought he’d be better at picking them up simply by virtue of how much time he spends surrounded by men. Too bad his career puts a damper on that.

He squares his shoulders and heads for the biggest group: Karla, Angie, Lorraine, and Cecilia. He’s secretly glad Karla is in a group so he doesn’t have to deal with her one-on-one. He doesn’t want to make a snap decision based on first impressions, but so far, he thinks he’ll send her home first.

“Hi,” Steve says. He doesn’t want to say the exact same thing he said to America and Kate, but he only planned out conversation topics, not greetings. “How’s it going?” That was not a good choice. He tries to tell the voice in the back of his head to shut up and let him think.

“Hang on just a second,” Coulson says. “Cecilia, we can’t pick you up in the sun. Can you move to the other side?”

She does, which means Steve is surrounded. They probably did that on purpose and used the sun as a cover. His palms are sweating. He takes a drink of his mostly-gone drink and curses the fact that he sat down. It would look weird to get up and get another drink now.

“Hey, Steve,” Angie greets him warmly. “We were just talking about hockey.”

Steve blinks. Is he dreaming? “You were?”

Angie cracks up laughing. “Well, we were talking about how none of us know much and don’t have internet to look up the rules.”

“Do you want me to teach you a little?” Steve asks cautiously. This feels like a trap. He doesn’t know how, but it does. Maybe because America just told him not to talk about hockey.

“I actually know the rules,” Cecilia assures him. “My little brother plays in college. But he’s a lot younger so I haven’t gotten to watch as much as I wish I could. I don’t know all the rules. I get a little confused with icing.”

“Icing?” Lorraine cuts in. “Is that like…spraying ice on someone?”

“No, it’s passing too long,” Cecilia says. “Right?”

“Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it,” Steve says. He’s not going to lie—there’s something about a group of attractive women sitting around discussing hockey that is really working for him. “There are lines on the ice to show different zones. Icing is when someone passes the puck across the center line and the other team’s blue line without anyone else touching it. Then we start over with a faceoff in the defensive zone of whichever team did it.”

Angie’s got her face screwed up like she’s picturing something in her head. “I’m trying to remember all the lines,” she says. “But it was a while ago and I was really only there to watch the fights.”

Steve laughs. “Well, I’m sure I made your night, then.” He hesitates. He doesn’t know how much detail anyone really wants. “I mean, I could draw a picture. If you guys really want me to.”

Lorraine looks a little bored, and Steve tells himself not to take it personally. He knows by now that not everyone cares about hockey. He doesn’t understand how, but he knows it’s the truth. But hey, part of the reason he did this was to bring exposure to the sport, right? He’s just doing his job.

“Here,” Karla says, pulling out a notebook and a pen from her bag. “You can draw on this.”

“Alright,” Steve says. “Stop me if it gets boring.” He hastily draws the ice and fills in the net and the lines. “Here’s our guy,” he says, roughly sketching out a silly hockey player. He gives him a face with no teeth. “And he’s standing right here, in the neutral zone but on his side of the red line.” He backtracks. “Okay, wait. These lines are blue, but this middle one and the two goal ones are red. This is our defensive zone, where our goalie is. This is the neutral zone, where it’s sort of a free-for-all. And this is our attack zone, where we can score.” He looks up. “Am I being boring?”

“Kind of,” Lorraine says bluntly. “But it’s okay. I can watch your hands while you draw.” She raises an eyebrow and Steve blushes. Angie coughs delicately, cheeks a little pink.

“Wow, okay,” she says.

“Keep going,” Cecilia instructs. “You haven’t gotten to why sometimes it isn’t icing.”

“Oh, yeah,” Steve says. “Sorry, I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Okay, so, icing. Our guy here in the neutral zone sees some guys from the other team coming at him and decides to dump the puck.” He fills in some opponents with scowls on their faces. “But there’s no one there, so the puck goes over the center line and down the boards to the goal line.” He draws the puck against the boards behind the goal with speed lines behind it. “But no one touched it before it crossed the goal line, so that’s icing. So now the linesman—uh, the ref—blows his whistle, and we all stop playing and head back to our guy’s defensive zone for a new faceoff.”

“So your goalie doesn’t like when you…do icing?” Angie guesses.

Steve laughs a little. “Goalies don’t like anyone near their net,” he agrees. “They’re territorial. Sometimes icing is an okay choice, though. Better an icing than a goal against, you know? And it’s a stoppage in play, so if we’re totally gassed we might ice the puck to get a few seconds to catch our breath. You can’t change lines on an icing because it was happening too often when teams were dead, but it gives you a few seconds to regroup. But, okay, what Cecilia was saying about exceptions—so, sometimes it crosses both lines but isn’t icing. Like if we’re on the penalty kill or it’s a faceoff or the other guys could’ve gotten it but didn’t move. Or if you score on it.”

“Penalty kill,” Karla says. “Meaning…”

“We’re short-handed. One of our guys got called for a penalty and goes to the box, so we’re down a man.” Then there’s a beat of silence where everyone realizes he answered Cecilia’s question and no one’s asked a new one. Steve swallows.

He tries to think of the conversation topics he came up with, but they were all one-on-one ideas. He didn’t plan on a group setting. Which was really ridiculous on his part—this is a cocktail party. What did he think was going to happen, he’d corner each woman on her own?

“Um,” Steve tries. “So. Um. How’s the house?” He cringes a little. So he’s apparently just going to ask the same questions to everyone. Awesome.

“It’s good,” Cecilia says. “All that food in the pantry is great now that I have time to actually cook for real.”

“I know,” Angie agrees. “I’m going to gain weight since there’s no gym. I tried swimming laps but I almost drowned myself.”

Lorraine laughs. “Can you not swim?”

“Not very well,” Angie admits. “I never really learned how.”

“I can teach you,” Lorraine offers. “This pool isn’t really big enough to swim laps, but that might be better while you’re learning.”

“Oooh, could you give me some pointers too?” Cecilia asks. “I literally can’t even dog paddle.”

“You can’t?” Karla asks. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you?” Her tone’s a little sharper than anyone else’s, and an awkwardness descends over everyone.

“I don’t swim very well, either,” Steve says, unsure if he’s helping or hurting. “Um, I spend more of my time on top of the water. When it’s frozen. Into ice.” God, shut up, he tells himself. “My friend tried teaching me one summer at camp and I almost killed both of us.”

The friend was Bucky, and Steve had decided he knew what he was doing enough to swim out over his head without Bucky. Then a wave came and turned him all around. Bucky had come out to save him, and Steve had clung to him so hard he’d dragged both of them under. A life guard had to jump in and grab them both.

“How old were you?” Angie asks.

Steve shrugs. “I don’t know, thirteen?” It had been their second summer, so it would’ve been weeks before his fourteenth birthday.

She laughs. “Yeah, see, I think that’s more acceptable at thirteen than at—my age.” She giggles a little. “Which I am not saying on camera.”

Lorraine laughs too. “There have been so many things I’ve stopped myself saying because of the cameras.” Steve wonders what on earth she didn’t say, considering the things she did. She turns to him. “Do you have things you don’t want on camera, Steve?’

“Well, sure,” Steve admits. “I can’t tell any of you any of my hockey plays. Wouldn’t want other teams knowing our game.”

All the women nod sagely and Steve bites his lip. That was the perfect setup for a chirp, because obviously their secret plays aren’t helping much. But he doesn’t know these women very well, so it’s not like they’re going to openly mock him the second time he’s spoken to them. And they’re obviously not close followers of hockey.

“I’m going to head over and get another drink,” Steve says. “Can I get anyone a refill?”

They all demur, to his relief, so he flees back to Dugan. Dugan sees him coming and has a drink ready when Steve gets to him. Steve takes a drink and relishes the burn of the rum. He has Monica and Bernie left. He likes them both and has had a pretty easy time talking to them. But this is the first time he’s going to see Bernie since she gave him the cheek, so that’s a little awkward. And then Steve will have tons of time left to fill without a plan of attack. He’s going to have to make the rounds a second time. He takes another gulp of his drink. Oh, God, he only gets one more after this.

“Buck up,” Dugan says. “Monty’s in the kitchen making some turkey burger sliders you’re allowed to eat.”

“That sounds pretty good,” Steve says. He sighs a little. “Okay, I’m going.”

“Back into the fire and all that,” Dugan says with a little salute. “You’ll be fine.”

Monica and Bernie look to be having a pretty intense conversation. Steve is a little worried about interrupting.

“—and with the required time commitment and everything, I just decided it wasn’t for me,” Bernie’s saying when Steve gets close enough to hear.

“It definitely isn’t for everyone,” Monica agrees. Both women turn to Steve. “Hey, Steve,” Monica says. “Pull up a fancy lounge chair.”

“Either of you want a drink before I sit down?” Steve asks.

“Does that mean I can’t ask after you sit down?” Bernie teases. Steve’s glad it’s not weird between them. He feels awkward enough. He laughs.

“Well, because I am trying really hard to be a gentleman and also because I am on camera, I will say feel free to ask me to get you a drink at any time.”

Monica and Bernie both laugh at him. “Go ahead and sit down,” Monica says. “I’ll get drinks later if we need them. Bernie brought over the last round.”

“Were you guys out here a lot longer than I was?” Steve asks.

Bernie shrugs. “They wanted us pregaming before you came so we’d be all loosened up and ready to party.”

Steve’s not sure he’s completely successful in keeping his feelings off his face. He doesn’t love how much the women are expected to drink. He’s going to have to talk to Sam about that later. It makes him a little uncomfortable, considering his three-drink limit for the whole night. He doesn’t think it’s a great idea to get the women terribly drunk while he’s still sober.

“Well, did you guys eat the hors d’oeuvres?” Steve asks. “That bacon-wrapped shrimp was great.”

The women exchange a look. It seems like all the women have already slipped into friendships without him. He’s not sure how he feels about that. On the one hand, he’s glad, because this whole situation has to be weird for them, too. On the other, he feels like that makes his job of weeding through them harder.

“Neither of us tried them,” Monica finally says.

“Do you want some?” Steve asks. “I can grab some for you.”

“Thanks, but no,” Bernie says. “Actually, neither of us eat shellfish. And I don’t eat bacon.”

“And I don’t eat bacon that’s been anywhere near shellfish.”

Steve takes a second to absorb that. “Wait. Are you allergic?”

“I am,” Monica confirms.

“And you’re Jewish?” Steve guesses. He’s praying that’s an acceptable thing to guess, but her last name is Rosenthal and now she’s telling him she doesn’t eat bacon or shellfish.

“Got it in one,” Bernie says.

“Did you tell anyone?” Steve asks. “The producers, I mean? They really shouldn’t be serving shellfish if you’re allergic. How allergic are you? And I haven’t seen any other options for you, Bernie. Wasn’t there a form to fill out or something?” Steve looks over at where Pierce is sitting. This seems like it’s probably his fault. Sam’s looking at Pierce, too, which definitely solidifies Steve’s theory.

“Yeah,” Bernie says with a frown, also glancing over toward Pierce. “We did.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Steve asks Monica, a little freaked out now. “I haven’t washed my hands since I touched it. I’ll go wash my hands right now. And we can talk to the chefs about kosher meals. Do you have any other allergies, Monica?” Both Monica and Bernie have their eyebrows raised when Steve realizes he’s dangerously close to ranting and looks at them. “What?” He asks defensively.

“You’re just…ready to spring into action right away,” Monica says, shaking her head a little. “Maybe it’s an athlete thing.”

Steve shrugs. “Well, this could kill you, couldn’t it? And I want to make sure you have kosher food. You shouldn’t be worried about going hungry.”

“I’m only allergic to shellfish and penicillin,” Monica says. “So as long as no one’s keeping that in the fridge, I’ll probably be okay.”

“This is still really dangerous,” Steve argues. “And really disrespectful for both of you. I don’t think the chefs knew. I’ve met them and they’re all great guys. We can go talk to them if you want.”

“Why don’t we leave that for later, okay?” Bernie suggests.

“I know they’re about to bring out some turkey burger sliders,” Steve offers. He’d like to push the issue and get this cleared up now, but he’s getting the sense Monica and Bernie feel a little awkward about it all. They shouldn’t, but he can understand not wanting to draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself. “Oh, no,” he realizes, turning to Bernie. “I don’t know if the meat’s kosher.”

“It’s alright,” Bernie assures him. “I ate before this, so I’m okay. Thank you, though. I appreciate that you care.”

“My friend had a hard time finding anything to eat when we were kids at camp,” Steve reveals. He remembers Bucky’s mom sending him so many care packages full of food that Bucky started selling some on a sort of camp black market. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to not take care of that. Especially when they even asked about dietary restrictions.”

“We’ll clear it up,” Monica says. “This is the first time it’s come up.”

“They’ve kept kosher-certified food in the kitchen,” Bernie confirms.

“It was probably just a miscommunication,” Monica says. She doesn’t sound entirely convinced. Steve sure as hell isn’t. He wouldn’t be surprised if they manufactured all this, hoping for some drama. What would they have done if Monica went into anaphylactic shock? Well, good thing Cecilia’s a doctor. Steve has no idea if a trauma surgeon would even treat an allergic reaction, but she’s got to be better than nothing. And sure, Bernie won’t die, but how often has she had to deal with this kind of thing? It’s disrespectful, to say the least.

Almost as if on cue—and maybe it is, Steve realizes angrily—Banner and Morita come over to Monica.

“So, shellfish allergy?” Morita asks. He keeps his face casual and voice low, at least. Steve looks over at Bucky, glaring a little. Monica probably doesn’t want this on camera. Bucky makes a gesture with his hand Steve interprets as I got this. Steve has no idea what Bucky’s going to do about it, but he turns back to the conversation. Bucky will take care of it.

“I’m sorry,” Banner’s saying. “We were told ahead of time about your allergy but not about the menu for tonight. We’ve got epi pens on hand just in case, and we’ll be at the mansion all night tonight if anything happens.”

“Thank you,” Monica says. She looks uncomfortable but resigned. She’s probably been dealing with it her whole life. “I’ve got my epi pen, too, so we should be covered.”

“Wilson also knows emergency medicine,” Morita adds. “So even if we’re not around at some point, he always will be.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Monica says.

Steve casts another dirty look over to Pierce. He doesn’t care if they have to cut most of this out in editing because it makes them look bad—he’s livid. Monty comes out just then, carrying a platter of the promised sliders. When he gets to them, Steve’s about to launch into a speech, but Bernie gives him a look and stops him in his tracks.

“Hi,” she says to Monty, smiling. “Do you know if this meat is kosher?”

Monty blinks. “You know, I’ve no idea. I’m so sorry; I didn’t know we needed to be looking out for that.” He bites his lip. “I’ll go check for you. And if not, I’ll bring out the fruit plates early. That’ll be fine, right?”

“That’d be great,” Bernie assures him. “Thank you so much.” Monty leaves right away, and Bernie shakes her head. “Well, at least they know now.”

The rest of the night is actually less painful than Steve was anticipating, partially because he’s so mad about Pierce he forgets all his other worries. He’s relaxing around everyone a little more, which is a relief. He was constantly exhausted from being so tightly wound. By the end of the night, he gives himself four goals—one each with Monica, Bernie, America, and Angie. He gives himself a point for hockey talk with Cecilia, but it’s not a full goal.

As soon as Coulson calls cut, Steve is heading for Pierce. Sam intercepts him and holds both his hands up.

“I am handling it,” he promises before Steve can even say anything. “But you should not go into a tirade about respect and food safety right now. Let me deal with it.”

“Did you know?” Steve demands. He likes Sam, and he doubts Sam would do that, but he has to know.

“Of course not,” Sam shoots back, mad now. “I would never put anyone in danger. My job is to make sure we make good TV, but my main job is to facilitate everything. That means I make sure everything goes smoothly, and that does not include allergic reactions that could potentially kill someone or anti-Semitic disregard for religious adherence. Got it?”

“Sorry,” Steve says after a pause. “I shouldn’t have accused you. I’m just mad.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Sam retorts. “But don’t go swinging that thing all willy-nilly and hitting people who don’t deserve it.”

Steve blinks. “Was that some kind of euphuism?”

“Wow, an athlete who knows what a euphuism is?” Sam exaggerates shock. “Look at you! Must’ve been that college degree.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but he has to admit Sam’s calmed him down. He’s good. “Yeah, yeah.”

“I will handle Pierce,” Sam promises again. “It won’t happen again.”

Steve nods. “I trust you,” he says. And it’s true. Steve’s warmed to Sam a lot faster than he normally does to new people. He doesn’t care to fully examine the reasons when Sam is engaged to someone else.

Back at the hotel, Steve has to wait a few hours before Bucky comes knocking on his door. But when he does, he comes bearing leftover food and cookie dough.

“I know you’re not supposed to eat much of this because of your scary nutritionist and your diet plan,” Bucky starts. “But hear me out…fuck that.”

Steve laughs. “A compelling argument.”

“Thanks, I thought so.” Bucky forgoes the table and drops onto Steve’s bed instead. There’s a couch in the corner, but Steve’s gear is laid out on it, drying, so it’s out of commission. “So how many goals?” Bucky asks through a mouthful of turkey burger. Monty had determined that the turkey was, in fact, kosher certified, luckily.

“You didn’t have to bring this back for me,” Steve says, taking a bacon-wrapped shrimp out of the tinfoil wrapping.

Bucky shrugs. “You liked it. And it was grossing me out to watch Thor eat them all.”

“Thanks,” Steve says. “And I say four goals, plus an assist.”

Bucky cracks up. “An assist? How do you get an assist in something like this? Are you helping someone else score?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “It’s not a perfect analogy. But Cecilia asked about hockey and that’s a pretty good connection, but we didn’t really get to talk about it. So it’s a point, but not really a goal.”

“Alright,” Bucky concedes. “I’ll accept that.”

“Wow, thanks,” Steve says sarcastically. “You bring any of Dugan’s drinks?”

“Nope,” Bucky says. “A. The food at least has protein in it, so it’s not so bad for your diet. And B. The crew’s drinking it all.”

“I wasn’t invited to hang out with the crew?” Steve pouts.

Bucky gestures at himself. “What am I, chopped liver?” He pops another slider into his mouth. “God, I’m so hungry.”

“Did you not eat before you went to set?” Steve scolds. Bucky only brought him two bacon-wrapped shrimp, so he’s already done.

“I didn’t have time,” Bucky says. “Some asshole pro hockey player kept making me show him my center-line wrister because he thinks if he works hard enough he can figure it out.” Bucky leans closer. “Spoiler alert, he cannot.”

Steve shoves him. “You know, a real friend would teach me how to do it instead of mocking me for not getting it.”

“Yeah? Then find a real friend to teach you. This fake friend will stop bringing you food.”

“Do you have tomorrow off?” Steve asks. He doesn’t have to film at all.

“Yeah, me ‘n Clint switch off Sundays. We only film for an hour or two, just shots of the contestants hanging out and talking and shit. Show how they’re getting along without you around.”

“They seem like they’re all friends,” Steve says. “I felt like I was intruding tonight.”

“Yeah, Pierce is kinda stumped on that one,” Bucky admits. “This is my first dating show so I don’t know how it usually goes, but sounds like the girls aren’t usually so chummy.”

“Well, I have good taste in women,” Steve says smugly.

“Or they’re all united in thinking you’re awful,” Bucky points out, now eating raw cookie dough. That’s a habit that’s carried over—Winifred always let him get a spoonful and lick the beaters when she was done.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Steve mutters. Not that he actually thought he was going to fall in love on this show, but he’d be lying if he said a little part of him wasn’t kind of hoping for it. And every encounter he has with these women just makes him think he’s being ridiculous. Sure, he gets along with them, and he’s even felt a bit of a spark with a few of them. But nothing seems to be happening, even here on a show where the entire thing is centered around making something happen. Steve’s getting frustrated.

“Hey,” Bucky says, putting down the cookie dough. “Steve, it’s only the end of the first week. I know you have no patience—which, by the way, is why you can’t figure out my shot—but take it easy.”

“I know,” Steve says. “I just…I feel like an idiot for being here at all. And then what if I’m the idiot who went on this show and the contestants don’t even like me? They’re here specifically to date me and I can’t even get them interested.”

Bucky snorts. “Oh, yeah, those women hate you. None of them want anything to do with you.” He shakes his head and goes back to his cookie dough. “I barely know women and I know they would all happily eat you alive.”

Steve waits for a second, but Bucky doesn’t elaborate. “Is that a good thing?” Steve checks.

Bucky laughs. “I think so. That’s what Pepper said about you. That the women want to eat you alive. With a spoon.”

“That sounds creepy,” Steve complains. Bucky throws up his hands, exasperated.

“Make up your mind, Steve! You want them to want you or not?”

“I’d like to not become a victim of a cannibal.”

“Well, beggars can’t be choosers, you know?” Bucky raises his eyebrows. “Deal with it.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Glad I’ve got you on my side. With friends like these…”

“You think I’m jumping in to stop a cannibal?” Bucky asks incredulously. “Maybe for my mom, but only maybe. Steve, do you think you’re more important than my mother?”

“Oh, no, I know what a mama’s boy you are.”

“Wow,” Bucky says. “I mean, pot and kettle, first off, and also, not like I’m embarrassed about it.”

“Well, me neither!” Steve says. He’d always liked that Bucky was as much a mama’s boy as Steve. It meant Bucky never made fun of him for it. Or he did, but he was always making fun of himself, too.

“Okay,” Bucky says. “Not sure why we’re arguing about it, then. I guess you just gotta get your mean out somewhere since you’re bottling it up and hiding it from the cameras.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Steve agrees dryly. “Like I ever learned to hide anything.”

That makes Bucky crack up laughing. “True,” he says. “You are pretty easy to read.”

Steve thinks about every relationship that’s blown up in his face because he just wasn’t communicating enough. He shrugs noncommittally. Maybe he’s only easy to read to some people.

 

Steve’s day off is the best day he’s had since the show started. He and Bucky hang out for the whole day—they go for a run together, outside instead of the hotel gym. Sam even joins them, and Steve has a great time leaving both of them in his dust. The three of them eat breakfast together in the hotel dining room, which has a special menu just for Steve that makes him feel horribly awkward. Sam begs off to spend time with Maria, and Steve and Bucky hit the ice.

This is Steve’s favorite thing, being out on a freshly-zambonied sheet of ice with someone he doesn’t have to watch himself around. Steve can swear when he misses a shot and not worry that he’s going to end up on YouTube as a bad role model to children. He can fall on his ass and brace himself for good-natured chirps about his ass dragging him down. He can push himself and not feel weird about someone ogling him.

Steve understands why practice is open to the public, and when little kids are there watching, Steve appreciates it. But a lot of times, people watching make him uncomfortable. There just seem to be eyes everywhere these days, and Steve has to be careful about what he’s doing and what he’s saying and how he’s acting. It’s exhausting.

“You got real workouts lined up?” Bucky asks, trying to deke around Steve. Unfortunately for Bucky, it’s the same move he perfected at hockey camp against Steve at age fourteen, and Steve spent his entire college career working on defending against it. He strips the puck from Bucky and grins triumphantly, stopping to reset the drill.

“I got some guys on the team who’re gonna come out in a few weeks,” Steve says. “Want to meet them?”

“Nah, I’ll let you get some real hockey in.”

Steve frowns and stops. “Buck, this is real hockey.”

Bucky gives him a look. “You know what I mean. You need to practice with actual hockey players. I’m not doing you any good.”

“Yes, you are,” Steve argues. He can’t believe Bucky would think that. Sure, his deke didn’t work, but he’s scored on Steve more than once. Steve’s team may not be winning, but Steve himself is pretty widely regarded as one of the best centers out there—when he’s not sitting in the box for his dumb penalties. Bucky’s not in the NHL, but he’s no slouch, either.

“Steve, come on,” Bucky huffs. “You need to play against guys at your level.”

“Bucky, I’m telling you, you are,” Steve protests. “I mean, sure, we’re not playing a game. We’re shooting around and doing drills. But you get around me. And you stop me. Maybe not every time, but I’d be pretty embarrassed if you could. This is my job, Bucky. I do this every day. So the fact that you can pretty much hold your own with me when you’re just playing beer leagues?” Steve shakes his head.

Bucky shakes his right back. “Still think you need time with your team.”

Steve doesn’t get why Bucky’s being weird about this. “I get time with my team all season,” he points out. “Half my team doesn’t even like me.”

“Oh, stop it,” Bucky says. “They love you.”

“No,” Steve says quietly. “They really don’t.”

Bucky looks at him for a minute. “Why not? Everyone liked you when we played together.”

Steve scuffs his skates around on the ice. He shouldn’t purposefully mark up the ice like that. The family that owns this rink is being beyond generous by letting him use it. Though he is, at least, paying them pretty generously, too. And he takes the Zamboni out when he’s done to help them out. And because he loves the Zamboni.

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “I’m just not sixteen anymore.” He heads to the center line. “Want to take some face offs?”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, and Steve thinks he’s going to push the issue. Finally, Bucky skates over to face him. “No,” he says, but he sets up. “This is going to be awful. You’re just getting back at me for scoring on you.”

Steve grins darkly. Well, Bucky does know him pretty well. Steve wipes the floor with him.

 

A day off did wonders for Steve. The downside is, of course, that now he’s just looking forward to his next day off. He has to wait another week. And Saturday will be his first pinning ceremony. It’s not the Bachelor, so they can’t do the rose thing. Steve didn’t even know the rose thing existed until Sam told him about it.

Today he’s got a date with America. He feels totally fine about it—not necessarily excited, but definitely not nervous. He’s sure he’ll have fun with America. When Steve gets to the mansion for his pre-date dinner, all three chefs are huddled around something in the sink.

“Hey,” he says, making Monty jump. “What’s going on?”

“We’re trying to figure out if this meat’s kosher,” Dugan says.

Steve blinks. “Are you…how are you trying to do that? Don’t you have the package?”

“It just came in butcher paper.”

Steve shrugs. “I only ever knew something was kosher because of the green K or if someone told me it was,” he says. “Sorry. Maybe ask whoever buys the food where they got it.” Steve stops. “Who does buy the food?”

“Pierce,” Monty says.

“Ah,” Steve says. He’s starting to get a pretty clear picture of how things are shaking out, and he does not like what he sees.

“I’ll make our own order,” Dugan says. “Run it through Wilson and Potts.”

“Good idea,” Monty agrees. Dernier has his lips pursed.

“I do not like this.”

“I don’t either,” Steve says. “I didn’t sign up for him to mistreat people.”

“Maybe it was an accident,” Monty suggests. He doesn’t sound convinced.

“Maybe,” Steve says. He’s torn between shaking this off so he’s not rude to America and pushing through because Pierce is an asshole at best. But there’s not much Steve can do about it in the next two hours, really, so he tries to focus on America. Sam promised to handle it. And Steve can’t imagine Bucky’s going to just let this go, either.

When they meet in the dining room for the date, she looks nervous. That seems strange. She was never nervous before. She certainly wasn’t nervous with him at the cocktail party. Maybe she had some liquid courage going on. Right on cue, she takes a big gulp of her wine.

“So, there’s not a gym here?” Steve asks. “Is that a weird change, since you’re an athlete?”

“I’m a lesbian,” America blurts out. Steve actually hears someone in the crew gasp. He flounders for a second, in all honesty. He glances over toward Sam for some help. Sam just shrugs at him helplessly.

“Oh,” Steve says. Off to a great start. “Um. I’m a man.” He winces a little after he says it. Wow.

America nods. “That is the key problem I’m coming up against.”

Steve remembers America’s cryptic words about her mom and a few things slot into place. “Your mom signed you up hoping you’d fall in love with me.”

America nods, looking chagrined. “I sort of half came out to my parents during my senior year of college. I said I thought I was a lesbian, and she thought she could convince me otherwise. But…” She shrugs and sighs. “It’s not happening. You’re a great guy, though. I figure if you couldn’t make me go straight, no one could.”

Steve huffs. “I can’t believe I’m getting dumped on my own dating show.”

America laughs out loud. “Well, someone’s gotta keep you humble.” She shifts uncomfortably. “I really didn’t plan to say it like that. Just…blurt it out.”

“Some things you just can’t keep inside,” Steve murmurs. Not that he’d know, since he’s got his big secrets under firm lock and key. He’s almost jealous of her. He wishes he were that brave.

“Do you have someone?” Steve asks. “Someone special, I mean?”

America blushes. “Maybe,” she admits. “I don’t know yet. I’m not sure how all this is going to affect it, you know?”

“You’re amazing,” Steve tells her honestly. “Whoever she is, I hope she knows how lucky she is.” He glances over to the cameras. “Should we cut all this?”

“No,” Pierce speaks up. “We will not.”

Steve glares. “If she doesn’t want to be out to the entire country, you don’t get to—”

“Actually, per the conditions of her contract I can—”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about a contract when it—”

“Hey!” America breaks in. “I’m actually totally fine with it. I already told my parents, and I’ll have time to warn them before it airs, right?” She shrugs. “Kind of a relief.”

“Well, we’re certainly not telling the other contestants right now,” Pierce says. “We don’t want to set a precedent of them deciding to leave.”

“If they don’t want to be here, I’m not going to force them,” Steve protests.

“They’ll find a way to get sent home if they want to,” Pierce tells him. “But for now, you will eliminate America at the first pinning ceremony and we will proceed with the schedule already in place.” He gestures to Bucky and Coulson. “Do some kind of wrap up on this date.”

Sam comes over to talk to Steve and America. “Hey, thanks for trusting us with this,” he tells America right away. “Don’t worry about the contract. You’re fine.” He turns to Steve. “You need to chill. That fire up your ass is going to get some of us in trouble. Mostly me, probably.”

“Sorry,” Steve mutters. “I just really don’t like bullies and I can tell he’s one.”

“We’ll handle it,” Sam promises. “I need you to do some kind of goodbye. Doesn’t have to be a big production.” He snorts. “I’d kinda prefer it to be a big production, because that’s sort of our whole game here. But do whatever feels natural.”

Steve looks over at America. “A hug?”

“Sure,” she says. “You look like you give good hugs.” But after the hug, her verdict is: “A little too hard. Uh, your muscles. I like chests a bit squishier. Oh, God, can you cut that part out?”

Steve is roaring with laughter. It’s so nice to not be the most awkward one in the room for a change. He’ll miss America, he realizes. She’s blunt and funny. But he can’t deny he never felt completely romantically toward her. She’s just too young—she’s only twenty-two. Steve would like to stay friends with her, though.

“Would it be cheesy for me to ask if we could stay friends?” He asks.

America snorts. “Yes,” she tells him. “But that’s okay. I kinda like it.”

He gives her another hug and makes sure to squish her face against his solid chest.

 

Steve’s date with Kate is fun, because she has a lot of hilarious stories about ridiculous things that happened at her rich all-girls high school, but he feels similarly to Kate as he does America—she’s too young. She’s the same age as America. Steve feels like a creep even being on a date with her. He doesn’t mention it to her, obviously, but he doesn’t pick up any vibes from her that she’s into him, either.

His date with Karla is a disaster.

Most of it is Steve’s own fault. He knows that, and he tries not to hold that against Karla. But the whole thing is awful, from start to finish. The problem is, Steve is very conscious of the fact that Karla is a psychologist. Steve is…not a fan of psychologists, in general.

Well, not that he knows many. He’s not a fan of therapists or the idea of anyone trying to read into him without actually knowing him. Or wanting him to open up after knowing him for ten minutes. So he’s weird with Karla.

“Do your parents approve of you playing hockey?” Karla asks. It puts Steve on edge. Is she trying to pry into his childhood to use that as a measuring stick against him? He’s definitely not telling her—and the camera—that both his parents are dead. But he doesn’t really want to lie. Luckily, he perfected the half-truth a long time ago.

“My mother never missed a game until I got to college and had to travel far all the time instead of just for set summer tournaments.” He went all over the state and to Canada a few times besides the Worlds tournament, but it wasn’t every other week like it was in college. That seems to answer Karla’s question enough that she’ll drop it. “She even took two weeks off work to come to Russia for the Under-18 World Championships when I was sixteen.”

“Wow,” Karla says. “Not your father?”

Steve wants to glare at her, but he resists. “My father died when I was seven,” Steve says evenly. “But he’s the one who signed me up for peewees, so I think he’d be proud.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Karla says. “I didn’t mean to drudge up bad memories.”

Steve clenches his teeth. Did he say she drudged up bad memories? Did something in his voice imply it? “It’s fine.”

They sit in silence for a moment. “Was growing up with a single mother tough?”

“You know, I missed my father, but my mother did an incredible job. She did everything for me.”

“It must be nice to be able to give back to her,” Karla comments, reaching for her wine glass. Steve swallows hard. It would’ve been. He’d wanted to buy her a house upstate with a yard so she could adopt a million dogs. He’d wanted her to retire early, though she probably wouldn’t have, not all the way. He’d wanted to do a lot for her. But he didn’t get the chance.

“Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “Nice.”

There’s another silence. Steve closes his eyes for a second. He wants to end this date right now, but it’s only been about ten minutes. That would just be rude. He glances over at Bucky, who shakes his head sympathetically. He taps his wrist and then holds up five fingers. Steve frowns. Is Bucky saying it’s only been five minutes? Steve will die.

Bucky rolls his eyes. Five more minutes, he mouths. Steve nods. It’ll still be short, but oh, well. They’re not even eating anyway.

He makes awkward small talk for another five minutes, looking over to Bucky every so often for a time-check. When Bucky finally gives him a thumb’s up, Steve smiles his first genuine smile in fifteen minutes.

“I’ve got an early morning,” he says, injecting some apology into his voice. “A workout and drills and some interviews. Thanks a lot for tonight.”

“Oh,” Karla says, brow furrowed. “Alright.”

Steve gives her a hug goodnight and leaves her. He slumps against a wall just outside the dining room and turns when he hears footsteps. It’s Sam.

“You alright?” He asks. “I know those questions weren’t easy.”

“Yeah,” Steve sighs. “I’m used to it. Sort of.”

Sam looks at him for a second. “Would it be such a bad thing to tell people?”

Steve covers his eyes with one hand. Sam knows about Steve’s mom because Steve knew he could trust Sam, and because Steve was pretty sure that’s the kind of thing Sam should know. “There are a lot of things I don’t tell people,” he mutters. Then he feels kind of bad. None of this is Sam’s fault. “I just have a hard time talking about her,” he adds, looking at the ground. “It was just me and Ma for so long.”

“I get that,” Sam says quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Steve shrugs. “My choice. Thanks, though. I’m going to head over to the office for my debrief.”

Clint’s handling debriefs, which means it’s going to take three times as long because Steve doesn’t relax with him the way he does Bucky. Steve likes Clint, but he’s still not used to the cameras, especially when he has to look right at it and talk. He feels stupid, like he’s just talking to no one. It’s easier with Bucky behind the camera rolling his eyes at whatever Steve’s saying. Natasha’s there, at least, and Steve’s not completely comfortable with her but she does help, a bit.

Steve’s not going to fess up to his lie to Karla, so he just talks about how he wishes he’d had more time to spend with her and that he’ll make it up to her later. It’s another lie. Steve doesn’t like lying, but he doesn’t mind the little ones that spare someone’s feelings.

When he finally gets to leave, Bucky’s heading out, too, and they get to ride back to the hotel together with Happy.

“Early workout in the morning?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah, seven am,” Steve says. “You coming?”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “I don’t have to be to set until noon and you want me to get up before seven?”

Steve shrugs. “Fine, don’t, but I only have the ice reserved for the morning.”

Bucky sighs loudly. “You know how I feel about sleeping in.”

Steve laughs. “Still?”

“I took one eight am class in college and then vowed never again.”

“You get to set pretty early sometimes,” Steve points out.

“And I make up for it by leaving early and sleeping. Sleep, Steve. Sleep. It’s beautiful.”

Steve elbows him. “Quit being such a baby.”

“You’re a baby,” Bucky mutters, sticking his tongue out for full effect. Steve considers grabbing it just to be a dick, but he doesn’t want Happy to see that he’s that immature. He stares at Bucky’s tongue for another second before looking out the window.

“Yes or no on the morning, Barnes?” Steve asks as they get out of the elevator. Bucky groans, loud and long, but nods. Steve knew he would. Bucky would sleep until the latest possible moment every morning at development camp, but nothing would stop him from hitting the ice. Until that last concussion and horribly broken arm. Steve shakes the thought away. Bucky forgave him. Steve’s trying not to remind them both of it all the time.

“I’m going to bed now,” Bucky warns. “Need my beauty rest.”

“I’ll say,” Steve shoots back. Bucky flips him off and heads to his room. Steve’s grinning as he goes into his own. At least the whole night wasn’t bad.

 

Steve has to get through two more group “dates” before the pinning ceremony. One is another cocktail party, which isn’t so bad now that he knows what to expect, and the other is a campfire in the backyard of the mansion. The campfire is actually extremely fun, and he sits wedged between Monica and Bernie without feeling too uncomfortable about it.

Steve’s biggest problem is he doesn’t really know how to date multiple people at once. He’s always been an all-in kind of guy, so having to divide his attention between eight women—well, seven, since America’s already put herself out of the running—is weird for him. He would put his arm around Bernie, but Monica’s right there on his other side and he doesn’t know if it would be weird for him to put an arm around both of them. When he’s roasting a marshmallow for Cecilia, he’d put it directly into her mouth, but Angie’s winking at him across the fire.

Steve’s never been terribly successful at dating one person, let alone seven.

But it’s finally time for the pinning ceremony, which Sam warned would probably run long. Steve doesn’t have to be to the mansion until after dinner, so he’s planning for a long ice time with Bucky.

“Nope,” Bucky says, chagrined. “We gotta do interviews with every single contestant before the ceremony. See how they’re feeling.”

“But we already know America’s going home,” Steve says.

“They don’t,” Bucky reminds him. “We have to check in with their emotional state.”

Steve sighs. “So I gotta go shoot alone?”

Bucky laughs at him. “You’re like a bazillionaire, aren’t you? You could pay someone to come play with you.” Then he smirks. “Since you can’t make any friends on your own.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “And you are…?”

“Obligated because we played together as kids.”

“Ha, ha,” Steve says sarcastically. He’d be more worried that was true if Bucky didn’t seem genuinely disappointed about not hanging out with him.

“Don’t worry, Stevie,” Bucky says mockingly. “I’ll come play with you after I get some work done.”

“What are you, my absentee father?”

“Are you calling me daddy?” Bucky asks with a raised eyebrow. Steve sputters so hard he almost sprains something, and Bucky can’t stop laughing. Steve flips him off and goes into his room. He can still hear Bucky laughing down the hall. Jerk.

It’s almost weird being on the ice alone after almost two weeks of skating with Bucky. Which is ridiculous, because Steve has been skating without Bucky for nearly fifteen years. It’s not necessarily bad, being alone in the rink. Steve loves the sound of his skates on the ice and the thwak of his stick on the puck.

He does more sprints that he normally does with Bucky there. He probably shouldn’t put them off just to skate around in circles playing keep-away with Bucky. He needs to be in top shape for training camp so they don’t demote him and take away his C. He skates harder at that thought. How did he not even think of that before? It happened to Joe Thornton.

Steve finally makes himself stop, because he’s going to be up late and doesn’t want to look tired on camera. His chest is heaving and he’s dripping with sweat. People always ask if it’s cold in the rink. Maybe watching a game is cold, but Steve never feels it while he’s playing. With all his gear on, he’s warm even before he starts skating.

After he showers, he’s a bit at loose ends. He has time to kill. When Bucky’s around, free time is a luxury. But Steve’s alone now and he’s bored. He drums his fingers on the bed for a second before he gives in and opens the internet on his phone. He won’t look up any of the contestants. He just needs to check in on the trade news.

Normally, Steve would know what’s going on with his team, since he’s the captain. Or he’d at least know what was planned to go on. But this off-season, Phillips, Erskine, and Brandt agreed not to tell him and to instead run everything by his alternate captains, both of whom are locked in on contracts with no-trade clauses.

Upon reflection, that seems to strengthen Steve’s fear that he’s going to lose the captaincy.

He swallows hard and puts that thought out of his mind. Phillips doesn’t like him, necessarily, but he always admits Steve is a good player who knows how to get what he needs out of his team. Hopefully that’s enough.

Steve sucks in a breath when he sees the news. Cameron got picked up by the new team in Vegas, all the way over in the Western Conference. His rookie. Even though Cameron just finished his third season and isn’t a rookie anymore, Steve feels responsible for him. Cameron’s one of the last guys on the team who likes Steve instead of just tolerating him because of his hockey and the C on his sweater.

Steve rests his head in his hands. He’s used to friends being traded, retiring, going to the AHL. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, especially since he spent so much time with Cameron. Cameron lived in his guest bedroom his rookie season. As a captain, Steve’s been notorious for not letting anyone buy the rookies hard liquor—he’d concede beer, but nothing stronger—before they turned twenty-one, and Cameron was one of the only guys who didn’t complain about it. Steve took him out for his twenty-first birthday and got him completely bombed, and then he took him home and made sure he was okay. He’s almost like a little brother to Steve. Not that Steve really knows what having a little brother feels like.

Steve pulls up his contacts and calls Cameron.

“Hey,” Cameron says, sounding down. “I guess you heard?”

“I’m sorry, rook,” Steve says. “They should’ve protected you. Lawson’s a shit backup.”

“They’re probably going to get that Russian kid who’s supposed to be a brick wall since they traded me for the first draft pick,” Cameron says bitterly.

“I’ll hardly see you over there in the West,” Steve points out.

“Maybe that’s better,” Cameron says. “Won’t have to play against you guys.”

Steve huffs. “You gotta get used to it, kid. Teammates are going to come and go, okay? Don’t get soft and let playing against a friend rattle you.”

“Alright,” Cameron agrees. “Not like I’ll be playing anyway, since they picked up Flower, too.” He sighs. “I don’t want to move to Vegas.”

Steve laughs. “Hey, think of all the entertainment. And you’re twenty-one now. You can do anything Vegas has to offer.”

“It’s a desert,” Cameron groans. “I bet the ice won’t even stay hard.”

“Bet you will,” Steve shoots back unconsciously. He and Bucky have made that joke at least four times already while they’ve been here.

Cameron snorts. “Did you just make a sex joke?” He asks incredulously. “I thought you didn’t even know what those were.”

“Hey, respect your elders,” Steve says, mostly nonsensically. He doesn’t really get into the dirty jokes the way everyone else does, but he’s fallen back into his teenage-self with Bucky around.

Cameron sighs again. “I’m not leaving for Vegas until I absolutely have to.”

“Yeah? Well, you should come out here sometime and we’ll play around.”

“What are you doing upstate, anyway?” Cameron asks curiously. Steve hadn’t been allowed to tell any of him teammates. Not that any of them had even asked.

“Just, you know, relaxing,” Steve lies. “Taking it easy.”

Cameron hums. “Well, text me when you want me to come. I’m helping at a few camps for my old junior team, but that’s about it.”

They agree to talk about it later and hang up. Steve wants to wallow for a bit, but it’s now time to get dressed. He’s in a funk the whole ride to the mansion. If Happy notices, he doesn’t mention it. Gabe’s in the mansion, for once. Steve doesn’t know where he’s staying, but he hasn’t been around the whole two weeks Steve’s been here.

“Hey, Steve,” Gabe says amiably. “Ready for tonight?”

“Hi,” Steve says, hoping he sounds cool and not like a star-struck teenager. “Yeah, I’m ready. Do they tell you who’s going home?”

Gabe winks at him. “Yeah, I know the whole thing with America. Makes it easy on you, huh? You don’t have to make a decision.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. “I really don’t like hurting people’s feelings.”

Gabe raises his eyebrows. “I’ll admit I’m not much for hockey, but I’ve watched a few games. You don’t seem to mind.”

Steve laughs. “That’s a little different.”

“Are you telling me those guys don’t take it personally when you punch them in the face?” Gabe asks.

“Hey, I only punch guys in the face if they’ve pushed me past caring about their feelings,” Steve defends himself. “But the other little fights? Usually we actually don’t take those personally. Not past a game or two, anyway.”

“Ah, Mr. Rogers, you’re here,” Pierce says, somehow making Steve feel like he’s late even though he’s twenty minutes early. “We’d like to get your thoughts and feelings before the ceremony.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Um, am I allowed to talk about why America’s leaving?”

“Yes,” Pierce tells him. “But remember you’re appealing to all of our viewers. Try to stay neutral.”

Steve narrows his eyes. “I’m happy for America.”

“That’s great,” Pierce says. “But neutrality is best in this situation.”

Steve nods, despite the fact that that’s complete bullshit.

“I’m really happy for America,” he says right off the bat, resisting the urge to smile smugly at Pierce. “I’m happy she feels safe and comfortable enough to come out, and I hope things work out with the woman she’s pursuing. I really just want her to be happy.”

“Good,” Coulson says.

“We can edit what we need to,” Pierce says.

“I thought that sounded great,” Sam answers evenly. “He’s gracious.”

“Neutrality—”

“Neutrality won’t work,” Steve interrupts. “I’m really involved with You Can Play and Pride Tape. One of my main charities is the True Colors Fund. If I stay neutral, it’ll make me look like a hypocrite. Or are you only worried about your own image?”

Pierce doesn’t answer. Sam grins at Steve, but schools his face when Pierce looks his way. “He has a great point,” Sam says.

“Fine,” Pierce says. “Let’s get this farce over with.”

“Gladly,” Steve mutters.

He doesn’t really know what he expected out of the ceremony. Gabe has to make three different monologues that all sound exactly the same to Steve. They make the contestants walk down the stairs about fifty different times, in different orders, and he has to stand at the bottom and smile every time. He has to escort every contestant over to her designated mark. And they have to stand on their marks in their heels for hours.

“Can’t they take their shoes off?” Steve asks at one point. Kate nods at him gratefully.

“That would mess with the continuity,” Coulson says.

“Well, can’t get they get a break? Isn’t that bad for their knees?” Now Cecilia nods.

“We’re almost done,” Coulson says soothingly. It’s a lie.

Steve has to say something he likes about every woman he gives a pin to. It’s ridiculous. He barely knows them. Luckily, they told him ahead of time about this, so he could prepare. It takes forever, because for each contestant they shuffle the women around and change the lighting and move him to different spots.

Finally, he gets to the last pin. America and Kate are standing in front of him. The whole thing seems unnecessarily dramatic.

“America, we had a lot of fun together,” Steve says. “You make me laugh and I like that you’re an athlete.”

He shifts his body and waits for Bucky to move the camera. “Kate, we’ve also had a lot of laughs together. I like that you don’t take yourself too seriously. So for my last pin, I have to give it to…” He pauses dramatically, as he’d been instructed, even though they’re just going to make the pause longer in editing. “Kate.”

She doesn’t look surprised. Steve wonders if America told her. She wasn’t supposed to, but he doesn’t see America really caring about that.

“Wow, thank you.” Kate sounds about as enthusiastic as Steve. He has a moment of sympathy for the editors who are going to have to make a show out of all this.

America comes forward and gives him a hug. “I’m glad I got to meet you,” she says, and she actually sounds like she means it. Steve smiles.

“Me too. Captain America.” He salutes her. She laughs and salutes back.

“Captain America,” she responds. Gabe gives her his arm and escorts her out.

“Cut,” Coulson says. “That was a really nice touch with the salute.”

Steve shrugs. It’s a silly thing he does with his teammates sometimes, when he’s feeling playful. It’s almost three in the morning. His legs are feeling those sprints on the ice earlier.

“Happy’s on his way,” Pepper tells him. Clint heads out the door with his camera.

“I get to do the debrief,” he says. “At least she won’t be crying.”

Steve turns around to where Bucky’s packing up his gear. “That mean you’re coming with me?”

Bucky shrugs. “Unless Happy gets here too fast.”

“I can wait,” Steve offers. Bucky flashes him a grin.

“Thanks, pal.”

Steve sighs and slumps against the seat when they get in the car. He closes his eyes. It’s been a long night.

“Maybe I’ll go for a run right now,” he murmurs. “Since I’m already up.” He opens his eyes so he can see Bucky make a horrified face.

Bucky groans. “What is wrong with you?”

Steve huffs. “I need to clear my head.”

Bucky leans closer. “Hey. Really, what’s wrong? You’re off.”

“I’m off?”

“You snapped at Pierce way faster than usual. You seem down. What’s up?”

Steve sighs. “I looked at the expansion draft.”

“Ohhh,” Bucky says. “I saw. You lost your goalie.”

“My rookie,” Steve confirms. “Well, he was my last rookie. They don’t give me rookies anymore because I scare them or something.”

“That’s a tough one,” Bucky commiserates. “I’m sorry.”

“I should be used to it,” Steve says. “I’ve had plenty of friends traded away.”

“Well, he was your rookie,” Bucky says. His voice is weird suddenly. “That makes it harder.”

“I guess.” Steve tries to look closer at Bucky, but Bucky’s dodging his eyes. It’s weird. Maybe he’s just tired from the long night of shooting. “I’m guessing if I ran right now you would not come with?”

“You’re not running right now,” Bucky says. “I won’t allow it.”

“You won’t allow it?” Steve smirks. “And how do you think you’re going to stop me?”

“I’ll jump on your back,” Bucky threatens. “You can’t run with me on your back.”

“I bet I could,” Steve shoots back. “You don’t remember those partner stair drills at development camp?”

Bucky snorts. “I weigh a hell of a lot more than I did at sixteen.”

“And I’m stronger than I was, too. I could absolutely still run stairs with you on my back.”

“Fine,” Bucky says. “We’re doing it. But not until the morning. After I have slept for at least eight hours.”

Steve scoffs. “Fine. You’re just resting because you know it’s going to be hard enough.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Taunts don’t work on me, Steven. I’m not you.”

“You wish you were me,” Steve says.

“Nope.”

For some reason, the way he easily denies wanting to be Steve sticks under Steve’s skin. It’s stupid, and Steve knows it’s stupid, but it does. He doesn’t say anything. They pull up to the hotel and Steve elbows Bucky.

“I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Eight,” Bucky corrects. “Not a few!”

Steve just waves and goes into his room. After staring at the ceiling for almost an hour, stewing on losing Cameron and possibly losing his captaincy, he finally drops into an uneasy sleep. It feels like he’s barely dozing. He wakes up to his phone blaring at him and jumps about a foot off the bed.

“’lo?” He mumbles blearily.

“I thought you’d be awake before me,” Bucky laughs. “Unless you’re chickening out on our dare?”

“Uh…” Steve has to think for a second to remember what Bucky’s talking about. “Oh. Stairs. Yeah. Um, gimme…gimme ten?”

“You okay?” Bucky asks.

“I’m fine,” Steve says. “I’ll meet you at the elevator in ten minutes.”

Steve feels like hell. “You look like hell,” Bucky greets him, confirming his thoughts. Steve just grunts at him. “Hey,” Bucky says, bumping his shoulder into Steve’s. “Come on, what’s going on? Is this about your rookie?”

Steve presses the call button on the elevator and weighs his options. If he doesn’t talk, Bucky’s going to keep pushing. Or maybe he won’t—maybe he’ll just give up on Steve. He used to push, back when they were best friends. Who knows about now. Steve wants Bucky to push, but he wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t.

“I think they’re going to take my C,” he finally says.

Bucky absorbs that for a second. “On the team? No way.”

Steve sighs. “Buck, I haven’t…honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised. And I would understand. I haven’t been much of a captain for a few years now.”

“Steve, you’re a natural leader,” Bucky starts.

“No, Bucky, really.” Steve runs a hand through his hair. “I just feel like everything’s been catching up to me. I’ve always taken bad penalties because of my temper, but the last two years or so…I don’t know. It’s been bad. I get so mad during games. And I get mad after games, at pressers. I don’t want to talk to reporters. They get up in my face and I just want…” He takes a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

“You talked to anyone about it?”

“I’m talking to you,” Steve points out.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Doesn’t the team have a sports psychologist on staff?”

“No,” Steve says. “I don’t think so? I’ve never heard of anyone.”

“Well, maybe you should get one. You know Simone Biles had one. The gymnast? It obviously worked for her.”

Steve laughs a little. “Is Betty still into gymnastics?” Bucky’s youngest sister, who was 6 when Steve met Bucky, was obsessed with gymnastics for as long as Steve knew her.

“You seriously remember that?” Bucky asks.

“Of course I do,” Steve says, almost insulted. “That was all she talked about. Remember that time I called you and she answered and talked my ear off for twenty minutes before you realized it was me? She was telling me all about her class.”

Bucky’s grinning so hard it almost takes Steve’s breath away. He looks so much like the twelve-year-old Steve met at hockey camp he can’t believe it.

“She was on her college team,” Bucky reveals. “She’s a coach now.”

“That’s awesome,” Steve says.

“Don’t change the subject,” Bucky scolds. “Go to therapy.”

Steve laughs. He feels a little better already. He’s still pretty sure they’re going to take the captaincy away from him and he’ll be an even bigger laughingstock than he already is and Bucky will have even more reason to deny wanting to be Steve, but at least Bucky’s here taking shots at him right now.

Steve can, it turns out, still run stairs with Bucky on his back. And vice versa. It’s not easy for either of them, though, and Bucky graciously admits to a draw on his challenge. Steve would prefer Bucky admits he was wrong and Steve was right, but he doesn’t think Bucky’s changed that much.

“Take a nap,” Bucky advises as they head back to their rooms. “I gotta call my family anyway.”

“They all still in Indiana?” Steve asks.

“Nah, Beck’s in New York. When she’s not on roadies. She’s on the Women’s National Team and playing in the NWHL! Did I tell you that already?”

Bucky’s mentioned it at least four times, but Steve’s not going to hold it against him. And Steve, of course, already knew Becca was on the Women’s National Team, because he’s on the Men’s National Team. He’s watched her play in the Olympics. He’d known, without a doubt, Bucky had to be there watching, but he’d never gone up to Becca and talked to her or asked about Bucky. He was always too afraid.

Bucky may not hate Steve for what happened, but he thinks Becca might. Bucky’s three sisters—Becca, two years younger than Bucky, Billie, four years younger than Bucky, and Betty, six years younger than Bucky—all adored Bucky when they were all kids. Steve highly doubts that’s changed.

“Aren’t they playing an exhibition game around here soon?” Steve asks. He does his best to support the women’s teams whenever he can, especially the National Team.

“Yeah, next Friday night,” Bucky says. “I’m gonna make sure I can go watch. Clint’ll have to be on your date with you that night.”

Steve makes a face. “You’re abandoning me?”

Bucky snorts. “Hey, you want to fight Becca over it?”

“No,” Steve laughs. “I’ve seen her play. She could take my head off with that slapshot.”

Bucky grins. “Yeah, she could,” he says proudly. “Hey, I gotta hurry so I can shower before my mom sees me and makes fun of my hair. See you later?”

“Yeah, bye.” Steve should not be feeling so forlorn. Bucky has a life. They’ve both had lives for all this time before they found their way back to each other. “Tell ‘em hi for me.”

Bucky’s face gets weird for a second. “Yeah, sure.” He’s using his lying voice. Well, that answers Steve’s question about whether Bucky’s family hates him.

He spends the rest of the day alone. He wonders what Sam’s doing, but he doesn’t text him. Sam has a fiancée. He should get to enjoy his day off relaxing with the woman he’s in love with instead of babysitting Steve because he doesn’t want to be alone with his thoughts.

He does take a nap, eventually, but it’s too long and leaves him groggy and disoriented and feeling worse than before. He wallows in self-pity for a while and orders room service so he doesn’t have to go out and see anyone.

He’s almost relieved to get back to the mansion. He and Bernie are going to an art gallery for their second date, and he’s excited. He and Bernie get along really well, and he’s always excited about art.

“You kids ready?” Happy asks.

“We’re totally ready,” Bernie answers, winking at Steve. Steve smiles back, reminding himself not to look at the camera Bucky’s got in the front seat, pointing back at them. It’s a limo, so there’s plenty of room, but still. It feels weird to have four people in the car and completely ignore one. It could be, he admits to himself, because it’s Bucky. Steve’s never been good at ignoring Bucky, not even the third summer at camp when they got in a huge fight and Bucky didn’t talk to him for an entire day.

The art gallery is empty. Apparently they’re not allowed to be around other people on their date. Steve’s a little annoyed by that. One of the best parts of a gallery is seeing other people’s reactions to the art. Steve loves seeing the look of wonder people get in front of a gorgeous painting.

This gallery hasn’t opened for the public yet. Steve doesn’t even know who the artist is until they get there and see the sign—it’s Wanda Maximoff.

“Isn’t she the set stylist?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, she helped us all pick color schemes that worked with our skin,” Bernie says. “I didn’t realize she was a painter, too.”

“I didn’t either,” Steve says. “That’s incredible.”

He’s immediately drawn to an oil painting on the far wall. It’s purposefully situated to catch the falling light coming in the window, and it’s incredible.

“That’s a lot of swirls,” Bernie comments. Steve glances at her.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You can see every brush stroke. Look how hard she must’ve been pressing on these crosshatches in this section. And that’s the only spot with any green, even though every other color repeats in different sections.”

“I didn’t know you were into art,” Bernie says.

“Oh,” Steve says, realizing he’d been babbling a little. “I actually minored in art in college.”

“You did?” Bernie asks. She sounds almost insultingly surprised. Steve hunches his shoulders a little. He knows people think he’s just some meathead and his image doesn’t line up with what they think an artist should be.

“I kind of always wanted to be a political cartoonist,” Steve reveals, laughing a little at himself. He’d gotten his start during the Bush administration, mostly parroting what he’d overheard his mother say, at first, and turning it into comics. She’d loved them all, but she’d made sure he knew he was allowed to have his own opinions about the president and the government. Once he was old enough to know it was (mostly) a joke, she’d told him he could have his opinions as long as he wasn’t a Republican.

“Maybe after you retire from hockey,” Bernie offers.

Steve stares at the thick swatches of green paint, the raw emotion in the piece, and swallows. “Yeah, maybe,” he says. “Do you see the curator anywhere?”

Bernie glances around. “I don’t know.”

“I want to buy this one.”

“Do you have a lot of art?” Bernie asks.

Steve shrugs. “Some. I don’t really like to buy too much. I’m not a collector or anything. I think art should be open to everyone. But artists still need to eat, so I do what I can.”

Bernie’s smiling at him a little. “Do you have any of your own stuff up in your house?”

Steve thinks of his blank walls and the canvases covered with portraits of his mother, stuffed in a closet where he won’t see them.

“Oh, no,” he says, forcing a laugh. “It was just my minor. I wasn’t very good.” He glances over his shoulder and sees the curator. Sam must’ve gotten her or something. “Can you excuse me? I’m going to talk to her.”

He pays for the painting right then, though it’ll hang in the gallery for about a week until Wanda’s show is over. From the look on the curator’s face, he’s offering to pay a lot more than she was expecting. He also gets a kiss from Bernie at the end of the date. It’s a good kiss, a simple kiss, the way he thinks first kisses should be. He smiles when she pulls back and she smiles back at him. She really is a beautiful woman.

“Thanks for coming with me,” Steve says. “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Steve,” Bernie answers. He can’t read the look she’s giving him. But he figures that’s okay. It’s only about the third time he’s seen her. He likes her, and she’s definitely one of his favorites here. He thinks she’ll be around for a while. They can get to know each other.

He’s a little unsettled that night as he’s lying in his bed in the hotel room. He can’t stop thinking about what Bernie said—when he retires from hockey. Steve, quite honestly, has never given it much thought. For a long time, his only focus was getting to the NHL and the Olympics. He’s done both those things, though he still doesn’t have an Olympic gold medal. He’d like one. He’d also like a Stanley Cup, but that feels a lot more elusive, especially lately.

Steve’s been all about hockey for basically his entire life. He’s thirty years old, and barring any injuries, he’ll be playing another five years at the very least. Hell, he could make it ten if he ups his game. He’s just not so sure he wants it.

Steve bolts upright. He’s never admitted that, not even to himself. Why wouldn’t he want to keep playing? He loves hockey. He loves stripping the puck off an opposing player and flying down the ice with it. He loves the smell of the rink and the sound the puck makes against the glass. He loves the adrenaline rush he gets on a breakaway and he loves the exhaustion he feels after a good game.

But he doesn’t love the politics. He doesn’t love the greed and the homophobia and the racism. He doesn’t love the people who wait for him outside the arena to yell at him for how he played or what he didn’t do or even to tell him they love him, hungry eyes sucking the energy out of him and grasping hands reaching for him, always reaching. He doesn’t love reporters sneering at him and the owner of the team playing God.

He’s just so goddamn tired. If playing hockey was actually only about playing hockey, Steve would play forever. But it hasn’t felt like it’s been about hockey for years now. Playing for the national team is a little better; less greed, definitely. But politics still play a big factor, and Steve’s never been good at kissing ass to get ahead.

He flops back down and presses his face into the pillow. Does he really need to have an existential crisis right now? It’s two am. He’s going hiking with Cecilia tomorrow afternoon. Wanda’s commented on the bags under his eyes more than once while she puts makeup on him and he would really like to avoid that happening again.

He closes his eyes and counts hockey pucks. But he doesn’t want to think about hockey right now, so he switches over to sheep. He barely knows what real sheep look like, though. He switches to dogs. He likes dogs. He finally falls asleep between a border collie and a German shepherd, and he manages to stay asleep for the rest of the night.

 

“No, no, no, don’t touch that!” Cecilia scolds him for what feels like the fourth time. “That’s poison oak.”

“How do you know that?” Steve asks.

“Leaves of three, let them be,” Cecilia says, also for the fourth time. “You don’t hike much, huh?”

Steve laughs. “Never. I run outside sometimes. Doesn’t that count?”

Cecilia tuts at him. “You look like a lumberjack,” she says. They hadn’t made playoffs, but Steve always grows a beard in the off-season. He just doesn’t care about shaving. He’s kept it trimmer than usual thanks to the show, but he’s still not clean-shaven. “I thought you knew about the woods.”

“I know nothing about the woods,” Steve confirms. “I know…negative about the woods.”

Cecilia laughs. “At least you’re secure about it. A lot of guys think they have to know about the woods to be manly.”

“I grew up in Brooklyn,” Steve reminds her. “The woods are low on my overcompensation list.”

She laughs again. She has a nice laugh. “What’s high on your overcompensation list?”

“Um, this beard. Playing a professional sport that features violence heavily. Eating red meat every weekend.” Steve ticks them off on his fingers, pretending to think hard between each one. Cecilia keeps laughing at him.

“Okay, but what are you overcompensating for?” She asks, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Being short as a teenager,” Steve answers without hesitation, making her cackle.

“You know that’s not what I was asking.”

“Hey, you asked what I’m overcompensating for. I told you.” He pauses. “Growing up without a father, too, probably.”

He and Sam had had a long sit-down talk about how Steve needed to get more serious with the contestants.

“Open up,” Sam had said. “You have to remember that your entire dating timeline is condensed. You need to get close to these women.”

“Okay,” Steve had agreed, hoping he was hiding his frustration. He just doesn’t operate like that. But this is Sam’s job, and Steve doesn’t want him to get in trouble because Steve doesn’t like being told what to do. He’s okay talking about his dead father. He’s had his entire life to get used to that, and he already mentioned it to Karla.

“Your dad take off?” Cecilia asks.

“Uh, he died,” Steve says. “When I was seven.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she murmurs.

“It’s okay,” Steve says with a shrug. “I don’t remember him much. And my mom was incredible, so I never felt like I was missing out.”

“Was?” Cecilia asks carefully. Steve swallows hard. Sam would probably love for Steve to tell Cecilia right now about Sarah. He can’t do it. The thought of saying those words—my mother died, too—to someone he only casually knows makes bile rise up in his throat.

“While I was growing up,” he clarifies easily. Cecilia’s face clears.

“Oh, gotcha. Well, I’m glad you had her.”

“Me too,” Steve says, smiling.

“My dad died when I was six,” Cecilia reveals. Her half-smile is sad. “Drive-by shooting.”

“Oh, God,” Steve breathes. This is a heavier response than he was prepared for.

“I was there. That’s why I decided to become a doctor.”

“Were you hurt?” Steve asks. A six-year-old seeing her father gunned down…Jesus.

“No, I was fine. We were just walking down the street.” She shakes her head. “Anyway. Sorry, that got deep.”

“No, don’t apologize,” Steve hurries to say. “Thanks for…telling me.” Now he just feels lame. But Cecilia smiles at him, softly, and he feels like he didn’t screw up too badly on that. Maybe he’s not the worst reality-show bachelor in the history of reality TV.

 

Bucky’s mad as hell on Wednesday night. Steve can tell from the end of the hallway. He’s livid.

“Buck?” Steve calls. “You alright?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m great,” Bucky says, dripping with sarcasm. “Working for an absolute dickwad, but sure. Totally awesome.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Pierce?”

“Fucking Pierce,” Bucky says with disgust. “I fucking hate him.”

“Whoa, what happened?” Steve asks, concerned now. Bucky never hates anyone. He’s always been an easy-going guy who got along with everyone.

“I can’t go watch Becca’s game. Pierce says we’ll need both cameras for your date with Monica.”

“What?” Steve asks. “Why? We’re skating in the rink. You could get it all with one camera and a Go-Pro.”

“Because Pierce hates me,” Bucky says tersely. “He always has.”

“Have you worked with him before?”

“Yeah.” Bucky growls a little and gives his whole body a shake. “I’ve worked with him a bunch of times before and I hate him. The feeling’s obviously mutual. This is the only goddamn day I wanted off for the whole shoot! I have never asked for anything the whole time I’ve worked with him. And now I gotta call my little sister and tell her I can’t come see her even though I’m an hour and a half away.”

“Sorry,” Steve says, feeling awful. In a way, he feels like it’s his fault. But also, it totally isn’t. Echoing his thoughts, Bucky says,

“Nah, Steve, this isn’t your fault. Don’t go blaming yourself like you do everything else.”

Steve blinks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Nothing. I’m sorry, I’m just mad.” He forces a smile. “But hey, I’ll get to see you show off in front of a beautiful woman, huh? At least on the ice you won’t be so awkward.”

Steve frowns. “I’m not that awkward,” he says distractedly. “Isn’t there anyone you can appeal to?”

“Nope. Pierce has seniority and a lot of clout because of his other reality show stuff.”

“That isn’t fair,” Steve says. “You deserve time off.”

Bucky shrugs. “Nothing I can do about it.”

It rankles at Steve. And then he realizes there’s something he can do about it. He calls Pepper right away, feeling a little bad since it’s after-hours. She picks up right away, though.

“Pepper Potts.”

“Hi, uh, Ms. Potts—Pepper. It’s Steve. Rogers?”

“Hi, Steve, how are you?” Pepper asks warmly, like they’re old friends.

“I’m good, and yourself?” Steve hates adult small-talk. It’s always asking questions you don’t actually care about the answer to.

“Doing well. Is there something I can help you with?” He appreciates that she’s getting right down to business.

“I was wondering if I could make a little change for my date with Monica on Friday. I know we’re set to go skating, but the US Women’s National Team has an exhibition game against Colgate, in Hamilton. Do you think we could go to that instead?”

Pepper hesitates and Steve cringes. He really doesn’t want her to say no. “I don’t know…” She says slowly. “It would be a little tough to get our cameras there. And it’s hockey, so you’d probably get recognized, wouldn’t you?”

“Probably,” he admits. There’s no point lying. “But the thing is…they’re just right there. And I’m the captain of the men’s team. I should be supporting them. I’ve made a pretty big deal about supporting women’s sports, especially hockey. I’d really like to put my money where my mouth is.”

“Our money, you mean,” Pepper points out dryly. “But I see what you’re saying.”

“Besides, I really can’t know if I’m falling in love with someone until I see them watch hockey.” That’s a calculated blow, but he hopes it lands well. It’s a dating show, after all. “It’s my entire life, and anyone who’s with me will have to watch a lot of hockey.”

Pepper’s quiet for a minute. “Well, that’s true,” she says. “It’s short notice…you don’t think the game will be sold out?”

Steve snorts. “Um, no, I’m sure it won’t be. People really don’t support women’s hockey as much as they should.”

Steve can hear Pepper smiling when she speaks. “I’ll see what I can do.” He doesn’t really know Pepper, but he’s pretty sure that’s basically a done deal.

“Thank you,” he says.

He can’t wait for Bucky to hear the good news.

 

“What did you do?” Bucky asks incredulously the next morning. “I just got a schedule change for Friday night. We’re going to the game?”

Steve shrugs, trying to keep cool and not grin. “Well, you know, I do need to support the women of team USA.”

Bucky shoves at Steve in excitement, then grabs him and hugs him. “I can’t believe you,” he says, laughing. “Steve! Thank you.” He pushes Steve again when he breaks the hug.

“Who says I did it for you?” Steve asks, feigning offense. “So arrogant. I’m trying to fall in love and I can’t do that without hockey.”

Bucky laughs at him. “Okay,” he says. “But thank you. Really.”

“You’re welcome, Buck,” Steve says. He shrugs. “It’s shitty that they’re making you work instead of seeing your sister. I just wanted to help.”

Bucky grabs Steve in another quick hug. “You’re the best,” he murmurs right in Steve’s ear. Goosebumps break out along Steve’s skin. Bucky releases him. “Okay, go have fun with Lorraine.”

Steve sighs. “I feel like she’s just waiting to pounce on me.”

Bucky cracks up laughing at him. “You’re a guy who’s into girls, and she’s gorgeous,” he points out. “I’ve heard things around the reality-show circuit, you know. You’re way behind on sleeping with these women.”

Steve sputters. “I can’t—that wouldn’t—no way!”

Bucky laughs again, happy peals that make Steve grin. “I’m just saying.”

“I’ll keep it under consideration,” Steve promises sarcastically.

Maybe Lorraine’s heard something, too, because she is dropping hints at Steve all night. They’re just having dinner again, because after three meetings, Steve still knows nothing about what Lorraine likes to do. He feels bad that he’s not putting as much effort into getting to know her as he did the other women, but he doesn’t feel that bad. There are seven of them left. He’s only one man. She’s not making it very easy on him.

“How’s your pasta?” Steve asks jokingly.

“I love it,” Lorraine answers. “Pretend-carbs are my favorite carbs.”

Steve laughs. “Have you tried those low-carb diets? I can’t really go too low-carb, because I need the energy, but I’m glad I have that excuse. I couldn’t do it.”

“I haven’t had bread since I was seventeen,” Lorraine tells him mournfully.

Steve nearly falls out of his chair. “But…what do you eat your sandwiches on?”

Lorraine snorts. “I don’t eat sandwiches. I’m a model.”

“Isn’t that hard?” Steve asks. “I’ve done photo shoots for promos and sponsors and I always feel so stiff and awkward.”

“Well, you’ve got to find your zone and relax. I’m sure you’re comfortable on the hockey…field?”

“Rink,” Steve corrects. Lorraine flaps a hand.

“Yeah, that. You’ve done it a lot and practiced. That’s what it takes.”

Secretly, Steve doesn’t think he wants to be comfortable as a model, because he definitely doesn’t want to have his picture taken all day. He hates photo shoots. But he gets what she’s saying. And it’s nice to see a deeper layer to her. Maybe she’s just got walls up, too. Steve can respect that.

The ride to Hamilton isn’t long, and it feels especially fast in a limo. Steve’s been in limos before, of course, but never for an actual drive longer than a few blocks. It’s very comfortable, even with the camera. Steve keeps looking at Bucky, even though he’s not supposed to, because he’s so glad he could make this happen for him.

“Are people going to ask for your autograph?” Monica asks.

“They might,” Steve says. It’s almost certain to happen. He makes a face. “Sorry. That makes me seem kind of like a douche, like I wanted to take you here to show off.”

Monica laughs at him. “Hey, I get it. Who doesn’t like a little validation?”

“I really didn’t—”

“Relax, Steve,” she says. “I know.”

Steve huffs. “I always feel weird when people ask for my autograph,” he admits. “I wish I could play hockey without anyone knowing who I am.”

“Can’t you get a helmet with a mask over it?” Monica suggests. “Take your name off your jersey?”

Steve laughs. “I’ll talk to the league right away.”

“As long as I get full credit,” Monica says. “I want royalties.”

“Deal,” Steve promises. They’re pretty early to the game so Bucky and Clint can get the cameras set up and Natasha can figure out how to do the sound to catch their conversation. Steve wouldn’t be surprised if Bucky’s camera is aimed more toward the ice than toward him. He hopes it is.

“Do you want anything from the snack bar?” Steve asks. “Beer? Pretzel? Hot dog? I promise there’s no shellfish here.”

Monica laughs. “I would love a beer. And…maybe a pretzel.” She looks sheepish. “I just can’t resist!”

Steve winks at her. He might’ve practiced in the mirror. No one needs to know that. “Beer and pretzel.”

Bucky follows him to the concessions with the shoulder cam. “Really?” Steve asks. “You have to film me buying beer?”

“Hey, I’m getting crowd shots,” Bucky defends himself. “Besides, I want to see if you get carded.”

“Bucky, I’m thirty!” Steve laughs. “I don’t get carded anymore.”

“Mmhmm,” Bucky says unimpressed. “You still have a baby face.”

“I do not. I have a beard right now.”

Bucky looks skeptical. “If you call that a beard. Brent Burns you’re not.”

“That’s unfair,” Steve complains. “No one has a beard like him.”

“Do you grab it during games?”

Steve cracks up laughing. “Maybe one time I did. It was mostly an accident. It’s just right there in the way!”

“That’s like taking a ‘nad shot during a fight,” Bucky says, shaking his head.

“I seem to remember someone doing that when we were thirteen…who could that have been?”

“Oh, well, excuse me for finishing a fight you started,” Bucky huffs. “Which I seem to remember happened a time or two.”

Steve just shrugs blithely, because it’s definitely true. Sometimes Bucky could talk them out of scraps Steve got them into, but most of the time they had to punch their way out. He’s lucky Bucky stayed his friend at all. The thought makes him warm. He looks over at Bucky and grins.

“My hero,” he says, fluttering his eyelashes. Bucky’s trying to look annoyed, but he’s losing. “I would have died in my teen years without you. Killed behind the rink by an angry mob.”

“Smothered in your sleep by a camp roommate who couldn’t take it anymore, more like,” Bucky corrects, giving up and just laughing. “You’re so ridiculous.”

“You love me,” Steve tosses out over his shoulder as he gets up to the counter. He orders drinks and two pretzels and then turns to Bucky. “You want anything? Will anyone else want anything? I should’ve asked everyone before I came up here.”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to drink while we’re working,” Bucky points out. Steve shrugs and orders five more beers and a drink carrier.

“One beer won’t make a difference,” he says. Bucky rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling.

“Good thing I’m rolling so I could catch what a good guy you are on tape.”

Steve stops. “You’re filming all this?”

Bucky gives him a look like he’s being weird. “Yeah?” He points to the camera. “That’s what this is for.”

“Right, I know, I just didn’t…realize.” Steve shakes his head a little. Of course Bucky’s filming. That’s Bucky’s job. He’s a cameraman. He already said he was taking crowd shots.

Bucky watches him for a second, then reaches up and presses something on the camera. “It’s off right now, okay? I’ll tell you when I turn it back on.”

“No, Buck, it’s fine. That’s…I signed up for this.”

Bucky shakes his head. “You signed up for your dates and interviews to be filmed. Right now we’re getting snacks at a hockey game.”

“Hey, speaking of,” Steve remembers something. “Are you going to have to stay quiet during the game while you’re filming? Because…” He makes a face. If Bucky’s able to stay quiet during a hockey game—any hockey game, but especially his sister’s—Steve will be blown away. Bucky laughs.

“Absolutely not. Luckily there’ll be a crowd, so hopefully I’m not too noticeable.”

Will there be a crowd?” Steve mutters.

“I know.” Bucky makes a face. “But, uh, there might’ve been some social media movement about a certain someone showing up to the game…”

Steve’s eyes bug out. “You told people?”

“Of course not,” Bucky says defensively. “You think I want to get fired? Wilson and Pierce decided it would be best. And I don’t mind if it means more people show up to see the game.”

Steve blows out a breath. Bucky’s right. Steve just wishes support for the women’s team didn’t have to come at the price of his anonymity. The stands are filling up when they get back, and Steve sees more than one person point his way. He tries not to look too disappointed.

“Okay,” Steve says, injecting some happiness into his tone. “I got two pretzels. And don’t worry, whatever you don’t finish I can definitely eat. I have been called a human garbage disposal on more than one occasion.’

He hears Bucky snort. Bucky’s mom was the one who called him that, and Steve’s mom had absolutely run with it.

Monica laughs. “I can eat a pretzel, don’t you worry.” She turns to face Steve. “Okay, so you know these women playing, don’t you?”

“I know most of them by sight and name, and I actually know a few of them enough to say hi to them.” He motions with his head toward Bucky. “Actually, our lead camera guy’s sister is on the team.”

“No way?” Monica asks, craning her neck over to look at Bucky. “That’s awesome. Which one is she?”

“Number ten,” Steve says. “She plays forward, so she’ll hopefully score some goals.”

“She will score some goals,” Bucky pipes up from behind them.

And he’s right. Becca scores off the first faceoff. Steve cringes away from Bucky yelling, “BARNES TAKES CARE OF THE HORSES!” directly into his ear.

“What the hell does that even mean?” Monica asks. “Is that a hockey thing?”

“Not that I know of,” Steve says. “Their last name is Barnes so I’m guessing he’s trying to be funny.”

Colgate’s defense gets their act together and shuts Becca down for the rest of the period. But they don’t shut down the other forward, so Team USA heads into intermission up 2-0.

“Is this halftime?” Monica asks.

“Intermission,” Steve says. “Each game has three periods.”

“What…is that?” Monica points to the ice and Steve almost loses it laughing. The Raider mascot just charged out to the ice and is sort of slip-sliding around.

“I guess they don’t give their mascot skates.” He laughs some more. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a college game. Their intermissions are a little different than ours.”

“Why, what happens at your games?”

“Uh, T-shirt cannons, ice dancers, 50/50 raffle, sometimes a car giveaway.”

Monica looks at where the Raider is doing the YMCA. “Just a little different.”

“I’m sure they’ll do a shoot-out of some kind during the second intermission,” Steve says. “That’s usually a crowd pleaser.”

Period two gets underway and Steve has a hard time keeping conversation with Monica. It’s not that he’s incapable of talking through a game. It’s just that this is shaping up to be a really good game and he doesn’t want to miss anything.

“Jesus Christ, did you see that dangle?” Steve yells almost against his will. “I need the women’s team to come teach stickhandling to my guys.”

Becca’s moving the puck into neutral ice when she gets hooked by a Colgate defender and goes down. “Hooking!” Steve and Bucky scream at the same time. The linesman doesn’t blow the whistle.

“Oh, come on, are you kidding me?” Bucky bellows. “That was blatant! What is this home-ice bullshit?”

“No penalty? Really?” Steve cups his hands around his mouth. “Hooking!” He yells. “Put her in the box!”

They don’t get the call and both of them scoff disgustedly. “Who are these linesmen?”

“Volunteers,” Sam says from beside Bucky. He looks bored. “How long is this game?”

“They’re not volunteers. Are they?” Steve asks. “No way. This is a division one college team and the national team.”

“It’s a women’s exhibition game in June,” Bucky points out. “Maybe they are.”

“Now I feel bad,” Steve says.

“I don’t,” Bucky counters. “How do you miss that?”

“Okay, so…that should’ve been a foul,” Monica pipes in. Steve almost forgot she was there, which makes him feel like a total jackass. She already told him she doesn’t know hockey—he should be making sure she knows what’s going on. If she doesn’t, she’ll never understand why it’s the best sport in the world.

“Yeah, it should’ve been. Two minutes in the penalty box would’ve put us on the power play and I’m sure Becca or Knight would’ve scored.”

“It’s okay, we’re up 2-0 and the period’s almost over,” Bucky points out. “The D’s been strong all game.”

“Yeah, but how much time did they get on-ice together before this game?” Steve asks. “It’s not an Olympic year and Worlds is over. Did they even practice before warmups?”

“They just finished camp,” Bucky argues. “They’re in sync.”

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “The third line’s not impressing me.”

“Okay, you both left me in the dust,” Monica says. She shakes her head. “Do you think they really got refs who are only volunteers? For the national team? Aren’t these the women who go to the Olympics?”

“Yeah, but they’re women,” Steve says bitterly. “They get nothing.”

“Wow,” Monica says. “That makes me want to punch someone.”

Steve laughs. “I know just what you mean.”

“Steve,” Sam cuts in. “They want you to go on the ice for the intermission.”

“For what?” Steve asks.

“A shootout,” Sam says. He’s tapping at his phone. “You down?”

Steve would love to say no. He’s here to watch. And he doesn’t want to draw attention away from the women who are playing a hot game out there. But on the other hand, it’ll bring exposure to the team. Someone will put the shootout on YouTube, and a few people might actually take the time to look up the women’s teams.

“Okay,” Steve says. “I better go down now and check out the stick situation and if they want me on skates or not.”

“Barton, you got the shoulder cam?” Coulson asks.

“On the ice?” Clint clarifies. “Me, with an expensive piece of equipment on a very slippery surface?”

“Good point,” Coulson says.

“Barnes?” Sam checks. “You gonna be able to control yourself with the shoulder cam?”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Funny. It’s just intermission.”

Except of course it’s Becca who comes out for the shootout. She’s the leading scorer on the Women’s National Team. They should’ve seen this coming. She took off her helmet and her hair’s plastered to her head. Steve remembers her complaining, as a young teenager, that all her extra hair made her head extra sweaty during games.

She grins. “Well, if it ain’t Stevie Rogers.”

“That’s Captain America, to you. Ready to lose a shootout?”

She laughs. “Never.”

They wait while the crew sets up the board goal blocker in the goal. The board covers the goal, leaving a few small holes so they have to make more impressive shots than just a slow roll over the goal line. It’s a training aid Steve’s used since he was a kid—everyone does. Steve’s already thinking through what he’s going to do. His stick’s a bit short, but nothing he can’t overcome.

“Ladies first,” he says, bowing theatrically. The crowd laughs. Becca taps her stick on the ice.

“Top shelf, glove side,” she says into the mic, then hands it off to the person in charge.

“Oh, are we calling our shots?”

She smirks at him. “Sure, if you have the shot to back it up.”

And she does. The crowd goes wild. Steve nods at her in respect. “Alright,” he says. “Five-hole,” he tells the crowd.

“Really?” Becca asks. “NHL and Team USA captain and you’re going five-hole on a net dummy?”

“From center ice,” Steve finishes. Becca raises her eyebrows. Steve’s actually a little nervous about this. He makes a lot of what people call greasy goals, goals that aren’t especially pretty or graceful. He mostly plows through defenseman and uses brute strength to score. He doesn’t get fancy very often. Not that this is fancy, necessarily. It’s just a bit more precise than he’s been doing lately.

But his pride’s on the line here—not only is Becca taunting him, but Bucky’s right behind him watching and filming the entire thing. Monica and Sam are up in the stands. This is definitely going to end up on YouTube, not to mention the show when it airs. Steve has to make this shot. He’s going to have to go with a snapshot—the accuracy of a wrister with the speed and strength of a slapshot. In college, he was actually pretty renowned for his snapshot. He’s not sure when he stopped using it.

He sets up and takes a deep breath. Someone painted a face on the goalie dummy. It’s missing teeth. It’s hilarious. Steve’s grinning as he takes his shot. Thankfully, it slides into the five-hole. Steve raises his arms triumphantly.

Becca’s laughing at him. “Finally, a celly!” Steve flushes a little, glad he can pass it off as the cold rink air. He doesn’t really celebrate his goals. He gets them done and goes back to the bench. Since they don’t score often, he doesn’t feel justified gloating.

“You’re up,” he says. “Best two out of three.”

“Okay. I’m going backhand, stick side, high. Two touches.” The crowd murmurs. Limiting herself to two touches is pretty ballsy.

Steve shakes his head. “Getting a little fancy for me.”

“Oh, come on,” Becca protests. “You’re no grinder. You forget I saw you in the early days. All that raw talent.” She rolls her eyes at him and he laughs. She takes her two touches and sends the puck into the net. She raises her stick in the air and pumps her free hand as the crowd screams for her. She skates back to Steve grinning.

“Alright, Cap,” she says. “Last shot for you.”

“You wish,” Steve shoots back, considering his shot. “Okay. Three touches. Backhand.” He hesitates for a second. “Off the crossbar and then stick side low.”

“Oh, come on!” Becca says. “There’s no way you can coordinate all that.” The audience must agree with her, because Steve can hear titters.

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” Steve makes a face over her shoulder at Bucky, because they will see. These are the kinds of shots he takes for fun when he’s messing around, alone in the rink. He doesn’t do this stuff in an arena full of people with their phones.

Steve focuses on the sound of his rental skates cutting through the ice. He doesn’t even have to think about timing his strides to his stickhandling, not anymore. It’s more natural to him than walking. The trouble is hitting the crossbar with his backhand and getting the puck to come back to him so he can put it in. He’s made this shot before, but he didn’t have a dummy blocking the net with only a specific puck-sized hole to put it through, and he definitely didn’t have a crowd watching him. He’s pretty sure the last time he did something silly like this was with Bucky, back when they were kids messing around on the ice after practice.

He hears the ping of the crossbar and the crowd’s collective inhale. The puck’s coming back. He gets his stick on it and one-times it into the hole. The crowd goes nuts. Steve skates back to center ice and Becca’s cheering for him.

“Steve!” She yells. “That was incredible.”

He’s laughing, giddy with the roar of the crowd and his trick shot. “Guess I got some skills after all.”

“Alright, last shots,” the coordinator says. Steve looks at Becca.

“Thinking this might be a tie.”

“Maybe,” she agrees. “How about we do a little give and go for the last one?”

“Sounds good,” Steve says. “You take the shot. It’s your game.”

“Alright. Let’s go.” Becca carries the puck down the ice and Steve chases her. She does a drop pass that takes him by surprise, but it’s perfectly placed for him to grab it. She heads to the net to set up and Steve decides to be silly. They’re here for fun, right? He sends her a pass through his legs that makes the crowd laugh. Becca easily puts it through the low hole on the stick side and the crowd cheers exuberantly. She comes over to him for a hug and they skate off together, laughing.

“That through the legs pass was so stupid,” Becca says.

“I wanted to be fun!”

“I gotta get back to the locker room. I’ve got a few more minutes to rest. See ya. Bye, Bucks.”

“Have a good third period,” Steve calls.

“Where was that drop pass in the game?” Bucky adds. “I didn’t spend three weeks working with you on it for you to only bring it out for tricks!”

Becca ignores him and goes back to her team. Steve signs a few sticks for people close to the locker room while he and Bucky make their way back up the stands.

“That was awesome!” Monica says when Steve gets back to her. “You got really precise.”

Steve laughs a little. “Well, you know, I spent a lot of time as a kid shooting rubber balls at a tin can. About time it paid off.”

“I think it might’ve paid off when you made it to the pros,” Monica points out dryly. “But sure, this college game is the highlight of your life.”

But the thing is—it kind of is, lately. Steve’s having an amazing time. Team USA gives up a goal in the third but gets two back, so they win 4-1. The handshake line is full of hugs and smiles. Some of the Colgate women are alternates for the national team, or they’ve gone to development camps and are waiting their turn.

“You want to go say hi to Becca?” Steve asks Bucky lowly. “I can stall for a bit.”

Bucky claps him on the shoulder. “Thanks, but we’re good. She’s gotta call Ma right away anyway. We got a picture during intermission while you were meeting your adoring fans.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but nods. The Barnes family is close, and sometimes that means they don’t have to hang around each other all the time. Steve doesn’t really get it, but he’s never had siblings.

“How was the game?” Happy asks when they get in the limo.

“Great,” Steve tells him. “We won. It wasn’t the full team from Worlds and we don’t have much coming up, but they looked good. It’s always good for the National Team to have a chance to play together, even in exhibition games, so when they come back together before international play they already know who gels together on ice.”

Happy looks at Steve in the rearview mirror, eyebrows raised. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Oh.” Steve shrugs. “Well, it’s hockey. I have a lot to talk about.”

“Tell me about it,” Monica jokes. Steve doesn’t bother getting embarrassed. He gets that not everyone likes hockey, but he gave up trying to cater to them a long time ago. He’s a professional hockey player. He’s not going to be cowed into not talking about hockey when the time’s appropriate. And right after a game is definitely appropriate. Anyway, Happy asked, and Steve can tell Monica’s not annoyed about it or anything like that.

“Seemed like you were getting the rules pretty well by the end,” Steve says. Monica had gotten into the game by the third period.

“Yeah, looks a lot like basketball. But, you know, on ice. And with a goalie.”

“You ever watched lacrosse?” Steve asks. “That’s really similar.”

They don’t get back to the mansion until after midnight. Clint immediately follows Monica up the stairs for her debrief, and Bucky gives Steve an apologetic look.

“No rest for the wicked,” he says.

“Are you calling me wicked?” Steve protests.

“I definitely am,” Sam says. “Let’s go, hockey man. This was a good date and I want your debrief to show that.”

“It was a good date,” Steve agrees. “See? Hockey makes everything better.”

“Hm.” Sam sounds unconvinced, but Bucky grins at Steve. Steve ends up having to redo his debrief twice because he focuses too much on the game and not on his feelings about Monica, but again, he feels justified. He’s a hockey player. What did they expect? He’s getting a little annoyed when Sam finally calls it and lets him leave.

“Hey, Steve,” Sam stops him as Steve’s heading out the door. When Steve turns around, Sam’s grinning at him. “It’s nice to see you have some fun.”

“Thanks,” Steve says. “It’s nice to have some fun.” And it really is.

 

Steve’s in trouble. He has to eliminate someone tonight, and he hasn’t decided who. Karla, probably, but Steve feels a tiny bit bad because he mostly wrote her off immediately just because she didn’t instantly catch his attention. But how is that her fault? She probably feels as awkward as he does.

He’s battling with himself over sending Karla home—or rather, back to the undisclosed location they hold eliminated contestants in like some kind of sad free kittens box outside of a grocery store—when Sam calls.

“We got a situation,” he says.

“Uh, okay? What?”

“The good news you don’t have to decide who to send home,” Sam says brightly. “It’s just, uh, Pierce is not happy.”

“Why?” Steve all but growls.

“It’s Kate. She wants to leave because…she and America were dating. Or hooking up? I don’t know, I didn’t ask for details.”

“Why is Pierce mad? Why does he care?”

“Well, it is sort of undermining the whole format of the show.”

“How?” Steve demands. “Contestants are still going home.”

Sam sighs. “You don’t have to convince me, Steve. We’re going to show you and Kate having a talk about her leaving. Pierce is just really pushing for us not to include anything about two contestants getting together behind the scenes.”

“Wouldn’t that create publicity for the show?”

“That’s what I said,” Sam agrees. “He’s worried it’ll push away the conservative housewives.”

“Are they a key demographic?”

“A good chunk of viewers,” Sam confirms. “The first episode’s set to air in three weeks and he’s still butting heads with the marketing and editing departments.”

“So he’s in a power struggle with the studio and he’s going to take it out on a twenty-two-year-old kid who just realized she isn’t straight?” Steve asks disgustedly. “He’s a real piece of shit.”

“I know,” Sam says. “Trust me, you don’t even know all of it. But he’s the main producer here. I’m smoothing things over as best I can. I’m just warning you that he’s going to be even more pissy than usual tonight.”

Steve huffs. “Didn’t realize that was possible.”

“I’d find that stick up his ass and pull it out for him if it wouldn’t scar me for life,” Sam mutters. Steve can’t help but laugh at that. “By the way, you know who else I hate? Your agent. Sorry, but I do.”

“So do I,” Steve says mournfully. “I’ve been looking for a new one but I’m kind of a shitshow right now and no one wants to take me on.”

“Yeah, I sensed some bad blood there. You don’t have friends in the league who could talk to their agents?”

Steve looks up at the ceiling. “Uh, not really.” He really doesn’t want to admit to Sam that he doesn’t have many friends in the league. He likes Sam, and Sam doesn’t seem the type who ever had trouble making friends. Besides, he seems like he actually likes Steve, and Steve doesn’t want him to know what a loser Steve is.

“Hm. Well, I’ll ask Maria to ask around. She knows people, you know?”

“Thank you,” Steve says, surprised. “You’re really the best.”

“I know,” Sam says smugly. “Don’t forget it.”

“Like you’d let me,” Steve says.

Sam laughs and hangs up on him. Nice. Steve puts on his suit and heads over to the mansion. Before he can say hi to Gabe, someone practically tackles him in a hug. Steve’s ready to fight before he realizes it’s Wanda.

“Steve, you bought my painting!” She cries. “Thank you!”

“Oh, you’re welcome,” Steve says, patting her back awkwardly. “It’s an amazing piece.”

“And the curator told me you know your art.”

Steve blushes a little. “Kind of, I guess,” he says.

“He’s an artist.” Bucky’s just come up behind them. “Don’t let him get away with being modest. He’s great.”

“Come on,” Steve mutters. “I’m okay.”

“When we were fourteen he did caricatures of our camp counselors and almost got sent home because kids were passing them around like dirty magazines,” Bucky tells Wanda and Gabe, laughing. “They thought he was running a porn ring.”

Steve can tell his face is bright red. He kind of forgot about that. “Caricatures aren’t really art,” he protests.

“Yes, they are,” Wanda argues. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Well, anyway, I love your work,” Steve tells her. “I really like the patch of green.”

Wanda’s smile goes sad and she looks down. “Thank you,” she says quietly. “Green was my brother’s favorite color.”

The past tense isn’t lost on Steve, and now he gets the emotion behind the brush strokes he’d noticed. He touches Wanda’s shoulder. “It really spoke to me.”

“It must’ve, for how much you paid,” she says, smiling again. “Really, Steve, it’s not worth that much.”

“Worth is in the eye of the beholder,” he reminds her. “And I behold a lot of worth in it.”

She laughs, her turn to blush now. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Steve corrects.

“I’ve got some last-minute touches on the contestants’ hair,” Wanda says. “But the gallery should be calling soon to get the details of where to send it. My show’s closing in three days.”

“I didn’t know she did their hair,” Steve comments as Wanda heads up the stairs.

“She’s not supposed to,” Gabe tells him conspiratorially. “She has to make sure Pierce doesn’t catch her. She’s just doing it for the pinning ceremonies.”

Steve’s torn between affection for Wanda’s kindness and annoyance at Pierce’s…everything. Annoyance wins out, because he’s always ready to be annoyed.

“Why is Pierce so…?” He trails off. Gabe huffs.

“Dickish?” He fills in.

“That’s a good word.”

“I don’t really know,” Gabe says. “Luckily I don’t have to deal with him too much.”

“He’s an asshole,” Bucky mutters. “I don’t think there’s an explanation for it.”

“Yo, Rogers,” Sam calls out from the top of the stairs. “Dining room in five, okay? We’re going to send Kate in for a little one-on-one talk.”

“Okay,” Steve says. In an undertone, he says, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and every week someone will choose to leave so I never have to make a decision.”

Bucky snorts and Gabe laughs. “What a rough life,” Gabe says sarcastically. “Having to decide between all these beautiful women.”

“Ah, Steve doesn’t like disappointing anyone,” Bucky says. “Never has.”

“Wait, so you guys like actually know each other?”

“Best friends,” Steve says. “Roomies at camp and on the road in the world championships.”

Gabe whistles. “No shit? Barnes, I heard you play a little with Dugan and Morita and those guys but I didn’t know you actually played.”

“Not really anymore,” Bucky says easily. “Just for fun now.”

“He should’ve gone pro,” Steve says. Something flashes over Bucky’s face but it’s gone too quick for Steve to read. Oh, God, did he overstep? Or is Bucky just thinking about why he couldn’t go pro and Steve’s role in that? Steve swallows hard. Bucky said he doesn’t blame Steve. Steve needs to respect that.

“Let’s go up,” Bucky says. “Wilson said five minutes but he’s probably ready now.”

“Alright.” Steve doesn’t want to stare and he really doesn’t want to push Bucky, especially not here, but he feels like things just got weird for a second. Maybe he’s imagining it because he feels weird. Maybe Bucky feels totally fine.

Steve really wishes he could make his brain shut up sometimes.

“Hi,” Kate says when Steve walks in. She makes a face. “Is this weird? Sorry.”

Maybe Kate’s in the same boat as Steve.

“Hey, you don’t have to say sorry to me,” Steve says. “If you want to be with America, you should go be with America. I think you’re both great and you’re probably extra great together.”

Kate laughs a little. “Wow. I can see why they make the old guys take new guys. That was a real fortune-cookie kind of thing.”

Steve makes a face. “Why do you always have to call me old?”

“Because you do things to seem old.”

“Well, I gotta say, when they told me I was doing a dating show I didn’t expect them to pick so many lesbians,” Steve jokes. “I’m very much not your type.”

“I don’t…think I’m a lesbian,” Kate says slowly. “I’m probably…I’m maybe bisexual? Because, um…yeah, I like guys. But I don’t know. Maybe I don’t?” She shakes her head. “No offense, but either way, you’re not my type.”

Steve laughs out loud. “You know, it’s a good thing my ego isn’t easily bruised.”

Kate smiles sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Steve can’t help it—she looks so young and so worried. He gives her a hug. “I’m serious, you don’t need to be sorry,” he murmurs. “I get how you feel.” He bites his lip and whispers in her ear, “I really get how you feel.”

She pulls back, eyes wide. “Whoa.”

Steve smiles, tight-lipped. “Keep that under your hat, would you?”

Kate mimes tipping a hat. “You got it.”

The pinning ceremony goes pretty much the same as the first one, only very slightly shorter. Steve’s still absolutely terrible at coming up with things he likes about each contestant. It’s not that he doesn’t like things about them. He just doesn’t want to seem shallow by saying superficial things. But he doesn’t really get enough time with any of them to get deeper. He really only feels like he even kind of knows Monica and Bernie, with Cecilia coming in close behind.

“Monica,” he says, grinning. “Thanks for not hating me after seeing me at a hockey game. I know I can get kind of intense.”

“Who says I don’t?” Monica jokes as she takes the pin he hands her.

“Touché,” he laughs.

This time, they finish filming at one am. Steve gives Kate another hug before she leaves and Bucky heads off to do her debrief, leaving Steve alone in the ride back to the hotel. Steve tells himself not to read into it. This is Bucky’s job. He can’t just leave everything for Clint because Steve wants to hang out with him.

Or, a voice in Steve’s head whispers, he was mad that you’re going around spilling his life history to his coworkers.

Steve makes a face at himself. Bucky can’t be mad about that. Right? Anyone who googles his name would find out. And besides, his hockey team has to know. There’s no way people don’t realize he’s better than everyone else and ask where he learned to play.

Steve sighs deeply. He’s making everything worse by freaking out.

“Everything alright?” Happy asks.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Steve says. “Just a long night.” He scrubs his hands over his face. “Think I might’ve overstepped some boundaries and made a friend mad.”

Happy hmms, considering. “That friend say anything?”

“No,” Steve admits. “He just seemed like he was freaking out. I know him pretty well. I think. I used to, anyway.”

Happy raises his eyebrows in the rearview mirror at Steve. “Sure you’re not the one freaking out?”

Steve tips his head back against the seat and closes his eyes. “I’m sure I am.”

Happy laughs a little. “Well, try not to stress so much. If he’s a good friend, he’ll talk to you and you guys can get over it, or he’ll just get over it on his own.”

“Yeah,” Steve say uneasily. Bucky probably thought Steve was a good friend when they were kids, and look how that turned out.

 

They have a ton of group dates over the next week, sprinkled in with dates that Pepper planned. Steve goes on three different picnics. Angie and Lorraine are fine; they’re not even allowed to eat on a picnic, and Angie cracks Steve up by over-exaggerating her fake-eating and scolding when he laughs at her “acting.” Lorraine’s toned down the innuendos, which makes Steve relax so much.

Karla is a disaster.

“Do you see your mom much?” She asks. She’s staring at him. This is what Steve was afraid of from the get-go, since she’s a psychologist. Steve has never trusted therapists.

Sam is technically a therapist, he thinks. But Sam is different. Steve can’t really elaborate on how, but he just is.

“Not as often as I’d like,” Steve says. It’s not a lie. “If I had my way I’d see her every day.”

Karla’s examining him. Steve takes an apple from the picnic basket and bites into it, rules be damned. He really doesn’t care if anyone finds him sexy on this date. The back of his neck’s starting to sweat.

“Are you close with your mother?”

“Very,” Steve answers icily. “What about you?”

“Not really,” Karla says. “One of my advisors thought I went into criminal psychology to compensate for my neutral relationship with my mother.”

The only thing Steve can coherently think is yikes. He’s not the type of person to just throw something out there like that, and he does not understand anyone who is. “Sorry to hear that,” he finally says, because the silence stretching between them is getting horrendously uncomfortable.

Karla shrugs. “I’m not close with my father, either, so at least I don’t have to worry about anyone getting too Freudian on me.”

“He’s the one who thought girls were in love with their dads, right?”

“He’s been largely discredited,” Karla says. “His earlier work was better.”

Steve shifts uncomfortably. “Oh.”

“I think maybe you don’t want to talk about your mother because you’re afraid I’ll find something out about it.” Karla’s got her head tipped to the side and Steve is done.

“If you think that’s the case, why are you pushing it? Why would you purposefully make me uncomfortable?”

Her eyebrows rise. “At least you’re not afraid to stand up for yourself.”

“You’re right, I’m not,” Steve says. “And I’m going to stand up for myself by leaving now.”

He moves past Bucky and hears Sam immediately follow him. Steve doesn’t care if Sam yells at him. He wasn’t going to sit there for another second.

“You okay?” Sam asks. He seems genuinely concerned. Steve feels bad for doubting him. He blows out a breath.

“I’m sending her home tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I figured. I’m guessing the only reasons she’s still here now is because America and Kate chose to leave.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. He kicks at a rock by his foot. “I made myself look like an asshole, didn’t I?”

Sam shrugs. “Nah. She was pushing you when you didn’t want to be pushed.” He leans closer. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but none of the other contestants really like her, either.”

Steve huffs. “Good, I won’t be splitting up any friendships.”

“You definitely will not.”

Steve sighs. “I’m gonna have to come clean about my mom eventually.”

“I honestly can’t believe it’s stayed quiet this long,” Sam admits. “I’m sorry you’re not someone who can just hide it forever.”

Steve manages a small smile. “Yeah.” He shakes his head. “Thanks anyway.”

He walks off to find Happy. At least he doesn’t have to agonize about who to send home tomorrow.