Bucky pulled on his tie some more. He hated these things, why was it important to wear a choking hazard at uppity gatherings? Why? Why did he even have to attend an uppity gathering? Don't get him wrong, he's incredibly proud of Stevie. Of course, Bucky always knew the punk had talent, and he's over the moon he finally got the chance to show this to a larger public. But ever since Steve met this Potts woman Bucky had been forced to go to six gallery openings and now apparently to a charity gala.
It was a very big deal, because Steve's art had been picked to line the walls of the venue, and Steve had been a nervous wreck for the last two and half weeks. Steve wouldn't be able to go without Bucky, he’d probably puke his dinner out in nerves before ever arriving at the gala. So Bucky knew why he was going, but that didn't mean he liked it one bit.
He gave up on the tie and proceeded to brush his hair. Long hair was a pain to handle with one arm down, but Bucky liked it as it was. It made it clear he wasn't the same as before he was deployed. Long hair was great to hide behind as well. And he liked it when sometimes Tasha couldn't handle the ‘mop of straw on his head’ and would brush it for him, maybe put it in a bun as well.
“Buck, are you nearly done?” Came Steve's voice through the bathroom door.
“Yeah,” he cleared his throat, he didn't speak all that much anymore. “Coming.”
The ride to the venue was filled with Steve's chatter. Funnily enough, the closer they got, the more Steve's nerves turned into excitement. Bucky however, had a thick knot of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't stand crowds since coming home. Hell, it had taken him years to be able to go for groceries at their local corner store without looking over his shoulder every other step. The gallery openings usually were small affairs, this gala though, was going to be crowded.
They made it in time and found an underground parking space to boot. It helped a little to assuage Bucky's jitters, but he remained on edge. He was relieved Steve knew how to get in through the personnel entrance so they didn't have to do the red carpet out front, but far too quickly was Steve pushing open the double doors to the ballroom where the main event was staged.
The ballroom was enormous. Other people were probably noticing the lush but tasteful decorations, the catering or the few celebrities. Bucky only saw a defensive nightmare. A crowded space without clear sightlines, ample opportunity to sneak in and hide a bomb, just two ways to leave the space. If a shooter made his way onto the balcony these people we're sitting ducks.
Steve took Bucky to the side and pulled his head down to touch their foreheads together, counting their breaths. The familiar feel and smell of Steve, coupled with the repetitiveness of the counting helped him to prevent further spiralling into a panic attack.
Bucky straightened when the worst had past and gave Steve a small smile.
“Do you need to go home? I'm sorry, I never realised… You were doing so good the last year so I figured…” Steve looked sad as he babbled. For him Bucky could do anything, so he smiled a little brighter and hugged Steve sideways.
“Wouldn't miss this for the world, punk.”
Steve didn't seem convinced, but he didn't fight Bucky over it, which was a relief.
Bucky stayed on edge as they made their way across the room towards Steve's favourite piece, a dark blue and purple abstract painting, with a hint of gold. Steve had painted this about a year after Bucky's return, when they had their first burgers in a diner together, without Bucky freaking out.
Steve was soon recognised as the artist and was asked about the colours and technique and so on. Bucky was content to listen, but stayed close to Steve just in case. Suddenly there was man on Steve's other side who clapped him on the shoulder and declared in a loud voice:
“Rogers! You call this art? I would only hang this in my wardrobe.”
Bucky saw red. After all the night's stress this was the straw that broke the camel. He pulled back his fist and swung, only coming to his senses by the loud crack of the man's nose breaking, followed by a muffled “What the fuck?” and various gasps.
Oh no, oh no, what had he done? He felt faint, a loud ringing noise drowned out all other sounds and he felt warm and short of breath. He tried to get away, but stumbled and someone caught him and pushed him into a chair. A glass of water was put into his hand and he took a grateful sip. His body gradually felt more like his own, and he gratefully accepted Steve's outstretched hand to stand up.
“Let's get you home, Buck.” Steve began to steer him to the exit.
“What about that man I punched? I'm so sorry Steve, I've ruined your big night.” He felt like an asshole. For the first time in years, the thought that Steve would've been better off if Bucky had died in that pow camp resurfaced.
“I know what you're thinking, and just no, stop it, you're not allowed to think that, okay? We've been over that.” Steve kept up a good pace as he scolded Bucky, opening the door to the stairwell for him. “And you don't have to worry about Tony, I'll call him as soon as we're home.”
“That was Tony?” He groaned, now he felt even worse for punching Steve's friend. “But why the hell was he heckling you?”
Steve grinned. “I would be honoured if Tony put one of my pieces in his wardrobe, that's where his Chagall is.”
That's where his Cha-- Bucky's knees went out from under him and he sat on the stairs.
“Stevie, who exactly is this Tony?” He had only heard some vague stories about Tony showing up to meetings between Steve and miss Potts, but Steve always made him sound like a sort of disheveled mechanic, not like someone who had paintings the worth of a small village in their closet.
“Hmm, didn't I mention that? It's Stark of course,” Steve said casually as he rubbed comforting circles on Bucky's back.
Bucky let his head fall forward on his knees, “you got to be kidding me,” he mumbled against the fabric. He hadn't punched just any rich guy, he had punched the richest guy on the planet. “I'm so screwed.” Stark's lawyers were going to make mincemeat out of him without batting a lash. He sighed. “Let's just go home, you drive.”
The following week was agony. Every time the phone rang Bucky was sure it would be Stark's lawyers, he didn't dare open the mailbox because it might contain Stark's hospital bill, and on the streets he eyed everyone with suspicion, waiting for a subpoena to be slapped in his face, but nothing happened.
Steve swore Tony wasn't mad at all, but Bucky didn't buy it. Steve always held a more positive opinion of human nature than was deserved. How could you not be mad at the stranger who broke your nose without provocation? He should probably go over and apologise. But how did you apologise for something like this? “I punched you because I thought you were insulting my friend, but it turns out you know each other and it was an inside joke. I'm really sorry, please don't sue me?” he scoffed.
Bucky was lying in bed with his sweats on, listening to gloomy music on his headphones. He was supposed to go out and meet Steve for lunch but dreaded the notion. He was just so tired because of his increased vigilance and he didn't know if he could sit through a whole meal without panicking today. He couldn't cancel on Steve of course, he had already ruined his big night. The paintings had been a roaring success and because it was for charity the bigwigs had pulled out their wallets and payed ridiculous amounts of money for them. This meant that Steve went from not quite poor to very comfortable in one night (Bucky loved miss Potts for insisting on giving Steve a bigger cut of the proceeds than he had asked for). Steve wanted to celebrate over lunch, so Bucky had to go.
He dragged himself off his bed and put on a Henley, pinning the useless sleeve up. He didn't bother changing into fancier trousers, Steve had seen him dressed in worse. Velcro sneakers followed (thank God for hipsters), and he was ready to go.
It was crowded in the diner, Bucky had to shoulder his way through a bunch of high schoolers who were debating if the menu was worth the wait for enough seats to clear. He already was at the table where Steve was seated when Bucky saw Steve wasn't alone. Sitting across from him was Tony, sporting black wire framed glasses on top of a his bandaged nose. Both men looked up at him and smiled.
Cursing Steve under his breath Bucky sat down next to him, elbowing him in the side in the process.
“This is a surprise, Steve,” he said through gritted teeth, faking a smile at Stark who did a jaunty little wave at him.
Steve smiled brightly, pretending he didn't notice Bucky's discomfort. “Yeah, when I mentioned this lunch Tony decided to tag along.”
“Did he now, how nice.” Bucky forced his face into the semblance of a smile again. Tony had yet to speak, leaning back relaxed in his seat with an arm slung over the back, not at all bothered by their exchange.
Bucky picked up the menu and hid his face behind it, his thoughts milling frantically. Beside him Steve and Tony were keeping up an easy banter. It sounded like they knew each other quite well, and when the hell had that happened? He felt like he was about to burst out of his skin, his already frayed nerves had not appreciated this surprise.
“WHEN ARE YOU GONNA SUE ME?!” He burst out, throwing the menu on the table. Several of the other patrons stopped their conversation and looked around, the waitress who was on her way to them backpedalled. Bucky slid a little down on his seat, trying to hide and hating himself for his outburst.
Tony just looked puzzled before he narrowed his eyes. “Why would I do that?”
Bucky was taken aback. “Why? Why not?”
Tony leaned forward on his arms, pinning Bucky in place with his gaze. “One, I already have more money than I can shake a stick at, believe me, my Platypus and I have tried at a memorable vacation in Cancun, didn't work. Two, this,” he waved at his face, “helped me seal a business deal that had been in the works for months, Pepper actually wanted to send you a thank you gift. Don't know if it was out of sympathy or if I looked menacing, either way, it worked. And three, I know a little something about being held against your will. How you think it's over when you're back but it really isn't. Your skin feels too tight, your head is too small to contain your thoughts, every sound is too loud but also not loud enough. Everything is danger.” Tony leaned back in his seat again, hands folded over his stomach. “I have scolded Steve for bringing you to the gala, but I'm not mad at you.”
“What?” Bucky rasped, his throat felt too dry as he shot an accusing glance at Steve.
“Spring 2009 I spent three months in a cave in Afghanistan. Believe me, I don't blame you. I actually hope the nose turns out a bit crooked, that would add to my roguish charm,” he ended with an impish grin.
Bucky couldn't help but snort at that. This man was something else.
“I eh, I didn't know that.”
Tony shrugged. “Not many do, we tried to keep it as low key as possible. Pepper spun it into a yoga retreat on Bali, though the media speculated I was in rehab. The soldiers involved in the search had to fill out NDAs.” At Bucky's questioning glance he continued. “It wouldn’t matter much to me if the stocks took a huge dive, as they surely would’ve if news came out that I was kidnapped. But SI employs tens of thousands of people, not to mention all the companies that we trade with, or buy our materials from.”
“Why tell me then?”
“Because you’re a friend.”
The smile Tony send him loosened something in Bucky. The jittery, nervous feeling wasn’t gone entirely, but it was less urgent now, and Bucky actually enjoyed the rest of the meal. He couldn’t do anything but like Tony. The man was utterly shameless, with a wicked sense of humour. He could see why Steve and him had hit if off so well. It didn’t help that Tony flirted like he breathed, which should have been obnoxious, but only helped Bucky relax furter. By the end of the meal he was having genuine fun, trying to outdo Tony in over the top compliments.
Bucky hadn’t even noticed that Steve was lost in a sketch, until Tony pointed it out.
“They look like they're having fun.” There was something in his tone of voice which made Bucky pay extra attention. Steve had caught a moment where Tony was looking pleased and Bucky was grinning back at him, their eyes shining in mirth and something more, something intimate.
Tony observed him closely, the question clear on his face.
“They sure do,” Bucky replied and winked for the first time since he had been deployed.
“Well then.” Tony appeared a bit flustered, which he hid by searching his pockets. He came up with a pen and took Bucky's hand to scribble his phone number on the back of it. “There.”
Tony stood up to leave. “Unfortunately I have to go, SI stuff, you know how it is.”
Steve only muttered a “bye Tony,” too intent on his work to look up.
Bucky stood up to-- He didn't exactly know what was appropriate, but Tony gave him a quick hug and whispered, “I’ll see you around,” in his ear.
It sounded like a promise.