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Bait and Switch

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Sam did one more circuit in the air just to confirm that everything was under control. The wannabe-despot of the week was being loaded into the back of a SHIELD van in handcuffs, and the three bioengineered chimeras she’d released in Central Park were all safely contained. They were part hyena, part cat, and part...actually, Sam had no idea what the hell was making them glow faintly purple, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t normal cat or hyena behavior.

Fortunately, the chimeras weren’t nearly as aggressive as their creator had hoped. Once the Avengers had herded them into a sunny area by a fountain, the chimeras had settled down to bask on the warm stone, ignoring their creator’s increasingly frustrated commands to make with the rampaging already.

“Can we keep them?” Clint shot another boomerang arrow from the top of the fountain. One of the chimeras was lying on its back, batting lazily at the arrows passing overhead. “I’ll feed them and walk them and not let them maul any civilians, can we keep them, sir, pretty please with a cherry on top?”

“No,” Coulson said. Sam could see him standing by the SHIELD van, arms folded as he watched Clint.

“I want this one.” Natasha sat on the ground by the fountain, posture relaxed, apparently ignoring the chimera five feet to her left. The chimera ignored her back, except to twitch an ear in her direction.

“No,” Coulson repeated, but only after a pause long enough signal defeat.

Natasha rolled slowly onto her side. The chimera tracked the movement, then put its head down on its paws and half-closed its eyes. “I’m naming her Boadicea.”

“So we’re done here? We’re done here,” Sam said, and turned his comm off before he could get sucked into the argument.

He touched down outside the SHIELD perimeter, where Tony was shedding his suit like a lobster shucking off its shell one segment at a time. Each piece folded up neatly into the briefcase at his feet. The Winter Soldier was standing next to him, his face blank but calm.

The Soldier had been an official part of the team for a few months now. Sam still didn’t have much of a read on him. The Soldier had been invaluable during the whole Hydra/SHIELD clusterfuck, and that was enough to earn him a lot of goodwill, but Sam wished he knew more about the Soldier than his fighting style and his call sign.

“Hey, Cap,” Tony greeted him. “Where are the spy kids? Let’s do post-battle brunch, I’m starving.”

“They’re trying to convince Coulson to let the mad science experiments follow them home.”

“Good luck to them, but God help them if they try to keep them in the Tower, Pepper put her foot down about pets. You buy out one animal shelter because the cages are too small and all the animals look sad and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a hoarder. I don’t get what the big deal was, we weren’t using that floor of the Tower for anything important anyway. Tacos?” Tony suggested. “I’m thinking that place by Fordham. BattleBot, you in?”

“Can’t,” the Soldier said, typing something into his phone. “I have a date.”

Tony stopped talking for an entire three seconds. “You. Have a date.”

The Soldier looked up and blinked, clearly nonplussed to find Sam and Tony both staring at him. “Yes.”

“With who?”

“My boyfriend.”

“You have a boyfriend. You have a boyfriend?” Tony looked like he’d just walked into a lamppost, and then the lamppost had handed him a birthday present.

The Soldier’s brow furrowed. “Is that a problem?”

“Hey, this isn’t disapproval on my face, this is flabbergast. Flabbergastness? Flabbergosity?” Tony waved a dismissive hand. “I’m just a teeny bit surprised, no need to do that thing with your face where your eyebrows try to merge with your nose. Details! I need details!”

“Tony,” Sam tried.

Tony ignored him. “Is your boyfriend also a former brainwashed Soviet assassin?”

“No.” The Soldier’s stance eased. His phone chirped and he went back to typing.

“I guess that was a longshot. Is he a Marine?”

“No.”

“A fireman?”

“No.”

“Mixed martial-arts instructor?”

“He’s a painter.”

“Pics or it didn’t happen,” Tony demanded.

“Tony,” Sam sighed, but the Soldier was already holding out his phone. Tony barely resisted grabbing it. (People who grabbed things from the Soldier had a tendency to break fingers; granted, they were usually bad guys going for the Soldier’s weapons, but there was no telling exactly how the Soldier would react to a grab in a non-combat situation, and Sam for one would not want to be the first person to test it).

“That’s your boyfriend?” Tony said incredulously. “Him? No way.”

The Soldier’s eyebrows were advancing south again. “Why not?”

“Why not? Look at him, he’s adorable.”

“Yes,” the Soldier agreed, mollified.

Sam gave up on resisting his own curiosity and leaned over Tony’s shoulder. The Soldier obligingly held out his phone, which displayed a picture of a short, skinny guy with a neat blond crew cut. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and giving the camera a grin and a dorky peace sign.

“When are we meeting him?” Tony said. “Is it now? Can we meet him now? Does he like tacos?”

The Soldier gave them both an evaluating look. Sam tried to radiate friendly acceptance and not show that he was dying of curiosity almost as badly as Tony was.

“Yes,” the Soldier said eventually.

“Yes, he likes tacos, or yes, we can meet him now?”

“Yes.” The Soldier’s phone chirped again. He glanced at it and said, “He’s nearby. He’ll meet us there.”

The Soldier started walking. Tony and Sam fell in beside him, Tony throwing new questions at the Soldier with every step.

“Where did you meet?”

“JDate.”

“Seriously?”

“No.”

“Are you actually Jewish, though?”

The Soldier shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“Same.” Tony held out a fist. The Soldier bumped it without looking up from his phone. “How long have you been dating?”

“Five months.”

“Five months! You need to tell me these things, this is information I needed to know, I thought we were friends.”

“Why would you think that,” the Soldier said, so flatly that Sam was almost entirely sure he was joking.

“I’m hurt, Ice-T, I’m wounded and distraught. If I ask you about your sex life are you going to punch me?”

“Yes.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed in calculation. “With which arm?”

“You guys hear that?” Sam interrupted. Angry shouts were echoing down the street ahead of them. He put a hand down to the shield at his side to check its position, his wingpack a reassuring weight on his back. A particularly loud yell was followed by a loud thud and the sound of glass breaking, like a waiter dropping a tray of glasses. “What is that?”

A beatific smile spread across the Soldier’s face. “That’s Steve.”

“What?” Sam said, but the Soldier had already broken into a run.

The commotion was coming from the taco place. Sam rounded the corner at a jog just in time to see a tiny guy pick himself up from the ground and hurtle forward into a much bigger man’s kneecaps, tackling him to the sidewalk. The contents of a knocked-over recycling bin were spilling into the street, sprays of glass marking bottles that had broken on impact.

The Soldier dove swiftly into the tangle of bodies and hauled the big guy up by his collar. “What did he do?” he asked the other man.

“Got handsy with a server,” the man replied. His nose was bleeding, but he didn’t seem to notice. He grinned at the Soldier, and suddenly Sam recognized him. This was Steve? “You want to sit on him until the cops come?”

The Soldier put the man in an armlock and didn’t move an inch, no matter how much the man struggled, until the NYPD showed up. Sam adopted his most Captain America voice and reassured the bystanders that everything was under control. The crowd petered out once the fighting was over, not even the spectacle of three Avengers helping with a citizen’s arrest enough to meet New Yorkers’ jaded standards for a free show.

Once the cops had loaded the still-protesting brawler into the back of their car, the Soldier gave Steve a thorough once-over, eyes lingering on the smear of blood under his nose. He pulled Steve into a careful hug. Sam tried not to stare at the novel sight of the Soldier initiating non-violent physical contact. “Ribs?”

“Totally fine.” Steve gave the Soldier an extra squeeze before letting go. “What about you, did you get hurt at all?”

“Strained knee. Your nose is bleeding.”

“Shit.” Steve swiped at the blood under his nose, made a face at his messy hand, and gave Sam and Tony a little wave instead of trying to shake hands. The Soldier dug into one of his belt pouches and handed Steve a wet wipe. “Hey, you must be Bucky’s coworkers. Nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” Tony said. It was more of a question than a statement. “Who the hell is Bucky?”

“Me,” the Soldier said.

Tony and Sam exchanged a look. Steve just cleaned his hands and threw the wet wipe away.

“Is that something we should call you, too?” Sam asked.

The Soldier shrugged. “Sure.”

“And hey, you should’ve said your knee was hurt,” Sam told the Soldier as they filed into the taco place--told Bucky, and that was going to be a weird adjustment. “We could’ve given you a lift.”

“It’ll heal,” Bucky said, entirely unconcerned.

“You guys shouldn’t rely on air support so much,” Steve said, eyes wandering over the menu. “Your team has so many fliers that it’s weakening your ground game.”

“Excuse me?” Tony said.

“You almost lost the third chimera when it went under tree cover because Iron Man and Captain America were both in the air, and Hawkeye and the Soldier were in elevated sniper stands. If the Black Widow hadn’t been in that quadrant already, the chimera would’ve made it past the SHIELD perimeter. Hey, Bucky, have you ever had mole?”

“No,” Bucky said. He was standing sideways in line, his back to the wall--and to Steve, Sam noted, who was apparently allowed inside his blind spot. “Is it good?”

“Yeah, I think you’ll like it. Want to split mole and pulled pork?”

“Yes.” Bucky slipped out of the line and went to stake out a booth.

“I know we make it look easy,” Tony said, “but saving the world on a weekly basis is actually kind of difficult, and we’re pretty good at it by now.”

“Oh, sure. All of you are brilliantly effective at what you do, but that means you’re not working as a group as well as you could. You’re all playing to your individual strengths instead of cohering as a unit. Hi, could I get one order of mole tacos and one of pulled pork?” Steve asked the cashier, his voice abruptly polite.

Sam distracted Tony with questions about Pepper’s latest gallery opening until they got their food and sat down. Bucky had managed to claim a corner booth by the kitchen and was sitting on the bench that faced the front doors. Steve climbed over his lap to get into the corner seat. Bucky slid a little further in after Steve sat down, in a move that Sam interpreted as 30% doting boyfriend seeking closeness, 70% bodyguard blocking potential lines of fire.

“Okay, so you think our ground game is weak.” Tony steepled his fingers over his plate and narrowly avoided putting an elbow in the guacamole cup. “Elaborate.”

“You don’t need two fliers and two snipers on a five-person team. The Iron Man suit is a walking tank, Captain America’s shield is a perfect melee weapon, and Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier are both hand-to-hand combat experts. There’s no reason any one of you couldn’t fight in close quarters. You need to vary your approach before the people you’re fighting catch on and start staging battles in places where long-distance engagement is impossible.” Steve dragged the wadded-up tortilla end of his taco through a smear of sour cream on his plate and passed it to Bucky, who stuffed it into his mouth without comment. “Any time you can’t fight from the air, you’re at a real disadvantage. Bucky told me about what happened in the sewers last August.”

Sam’s face wrinkled at the memory. Clint had almost gotten eaten by an alligator-dinosaur-thing, and the smell had clung to Sam’s costume for weeks.

“Oh, you heard all about it?” Tony said. “Fine, bantamweight, lay it on me. What would you have done instead?”

Steve’s smile went sharp. “Well,” he said, and shoved everything out of the middle of the table. “For starters--”

Sam pulled his taco plate into his lap to keep it out of the way of the rapidly unfolding model of the sewers that Steve assembled out of straws and sugar packets. Steve moved the salt and pepper shakers (Iron Man and the Winter Soldier) through the grid, while the straw wrapper (Black Widow) slipped ahead to provide recon and a plastic knife and spoon (Hawkeye and Captain America) guarded the exits. Tony challenged every call he made, and Steve pushed right back, questioning Tony’s assumptions and demonstrating his own reasoning. Sam ate his tacos and put in his own two cents whenever he could get a word in edgewise.

Sam’s attention was split between the conversation and surreptitiously watching Bucky. Bucky didn’t react to anything that was said, although Sam was sure he heard every word. He looked more relaxed than Sam had ever seen him, like the sound of Steve and Tony bickering was a zen meditation podcast.

“Huh,” Tony said, halfway through their fifth iteration. “You have a point.”

“Yep.” Steve sat back in his seat and stretched out his back, all that startlingly intense focus draining from his posture. It was amazing how quickly he went back to looking like a nerdy grad student. Sam might have been fooled, if he hadn’t just heard Steve argue Tony Stark to a standstill, and if Steve didn’t have dried blood ringing his nostrils.

“You said he was a painter,” Tony told Bucky accusingly.

“He is,” Bucky said. “He also has a PhD in history with a specialty in wartime tactics and strategy.”

“Seriously, how did you two meet?” Tony asked.

“I saved him from a mugger,” Steve said.

Tony stared at them. “I honestly can’t tell whether you guys are fucking with me right now.”

“I know,” Bucky said serenely.

“Hey, Steve, you want a job?” Sam asked, because unlike some people, he had his priorities straight.

“I already have a job.”

“Come on, don’t tell me you just pulled that analysis out of your ass, you’ve been thinking about this,” Tony said.

“How would you feel about working freelance?” Sam asked. “You could do strategy consulting, be our eye in the sky on missions--”

“Help keep your Bucky-boo-boo safe,” Tony interrupted.

Steve gave him a level look, then turned to Bucky. “I see what you mean.”

“I’m choosing to interpret that as a compliment,” Tony said.

“Yeah, okay, let’s talk terms. Churros first, though. You want churros?” Steve asked Bucky, who nodded.

"I could--" Bucky started, but Steve was already climbing over his legs to get out of the booth.

"I got it." Steve leaned over the back of the booth and kissed the top of Bucky’s head. He didn't have to lean down very far. "You take a load off, rest that knee."

Tony watched Steve go up to the counter, then turned to Bucky. “Okay, nevermind,” he said. “I get it. He’s scrappy, huh?”

“Buddy, you got no idea,” Bucky said, and stole the half-eaten taco right off of Tony’s plate.