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Scents and Sensibility: The Working Assassin's Guide to Supersoldier Seduction

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“…in times of war there are recorded cases of individuals already in established pods recreating that experience with their regiment and fellow soldiers [39], reporting a distinct preference for the As they have served with, and perhaps bonded with, during times of extreme crisis. Separation from these “stress-linked” pods, even into the arms of their home pods, has been connected to higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and poor reintegration to society.

...however, the same behaviors [50] that best served these stress-linked pods in time of war have proven maladaptive in civilian life [51]. In order to best help these regiments adjust to post-war society Dr. Marvin Howell [52] first suggested what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Gender Therapy [43] but was popularly termed "Clownfish Syndrome" [44]. In this therapy, Howell encouraged to adoption of a group-wide O's designation to calm nerves [53] and provided faster civilian integration[54] Diaries and letters from the period mockingly pointed to PTSGT as "Foxhole Itch" when it was first recorded in subjects switching sexes on an involuntary, or rather situationally coercive basis, to reduce stress. It is from this involuntary switching wherein Howell first concieved his theory [55]...”

- Societal Implications of "Clownfish Syndrome": The Discovery of Post Traumatic Stress Gender Therapy by Helen Pultz

 

When Steve woke up in what he now knows was a SHIELD facility, he smelled the industrial strength soap of a hospital, heard the creak and grumble of a city at work, and figured Peggy would be in shortly to yell at him. But it didn’t smell like London smelled - hell, it didn’t even smell right for a hospital - and he half frowned at the sound of a baseball game rolling in over the crackle of what had to be a pretty old radio, with that kind of undernote.

And then the nurse walked in, and Steve thought: oh, this is a HYDRA trap.

At the time, it was the only explanation he could think of. It made more sense than somehow getting rescued out of the clear cold ocean by anyone else. Maybe the cabin of the plane had secretly been some sort of high tech submarine again. HYDRA liked those.

The baseball game was at least somebody trying. They could’ve only had one recording on file that just so happened to be one Steve knew. Would’ve made more sense to play music then some old baseball game, but Steve’d never pinned HYDRA as being all that bright. Stubborn? Sure. Really good at building weapons factories all over Europe? Absolutely. But they sent in an English speaking nurse with her hair down like they’d never seen a living human being in their lives and expected Steve to just bite the hook like the dumbest fish in the tank. Her make-up was too powdered, her lipstick was wrong, her hair was down, she must have found that tie in the costume department, and… well, either she’d had half a coathanger stuffed down her shirt or something had really gone off in the brassiere department.

She smelled pretty damn wrong, too, without the natural sweat scent that even clean clothes and skin carried, so Steve had been leaning towards robot. HYDRA would probably have robots. Their troops were already as close to robots as HYDRA could manage, and how in Hell they kept getting actual people to put on those helmets and blinders, Steve had no idea.

So, of course, he’d figured it for enemy capture, took off at a run, and smacked straight into a whole goddamn universe of wrong. The pavement somehow felt too spongy under his feet and the smells snapped at him like dog teeth and then he hit Times Square and looked up at all the flashing colors and huge billboards of dames with their hair down and stood there struck dumb in the middle of the seizing fit of motion and noise and lights because the alternative was to curl up in a ball and ask all his senses to please stop working for a minute please.

It was sort of funny to him, later, how he’d listened to the cars roll up behind him and let all the agents in their dark uniforms cautiously sidle in to surround him while he looked up and around at the brightly colored signs, and all the while the clearest thought in his head had been if that’s an ad then I don’t know who got hired as the art director, because they could’ve pulled that from any blue comic and called it a day. What a hack.

And then it turned out, from the paper file they gave him, that if he’d woken up about five years earlier, then he wouldn’t have been too far off about the HYDRA thing.

“In 2009 a HYDRA asset went… rogue,” says the very nice O they have minding him. Steve wishes he could remember her name; it seems too late to ask now. Her job title was something to do with HR. Human Resources. He supposes he qualifies as both. She’s dressed top to bottom in simple, professional navy, with her hair in a bun and stud earrings shaped like little flowers. He wonders if they gave her the outfit straight out of the dry-clean bag before he came in. Sure smells like it. She’d poured him coffee. It hadn’t tasted right, but he’d sipped it since it was the polite thing to do.

“It turns out our organization, and other organizations like it, as well as the governments of every major world power, had been secretly infiltrated by HYDRA. Uncovering this fact caused a great deal of shock and confusion,” she says, every word measured. She’s got a good voice, a nice switchboard voice that glides you right into the call without a hitch. “SHIELD, assisted by the former HYDRA asset, cleared the agency of moles and participated in the exposure and elimination of HYDRA from the United States government and affiliated world intelligence agencies. We’re still working to rebuild trust, internally and externally, and there were those within our organization who are still very suspicious of unknown agents. It was felt that your exposure to SHIELD should be limited until you were thoroughly vetted. In your case, excess suspicion proved to be just as harmful as undue caution, to the agency’s regret.”

Steve realizes this is an apology. A political apology, no less. He doesn’t know why she’s talking to him like he’s a pissed-off Senator, but he recognizes the phrasing. “I thought if anyone found me, it would be the Army,” he says, not quite a question.

“SHIELD has always taken a special interest in you, Captain Rogers. Recovering the Valkyrie,” which is a nice way, Steve thinks, to say recovering your corpse, “was the first SHIELD mission, in a sense, spearheaded by Howard Stark himself. Director Carter authorized the use of every resource at SHIELD’s disposal. We regret deeply that it took us this long to find you.” She puts her hand over Steve’s, and given how sad she smells for a moment before she gets control of herself it’s not just a diplomatic maneuver.

Steve stares at the thick binder in front of him, just… pages of faces and details. They’d left him in the meeting room with the binder for a while before sending in the nice lady. His eyes keep blurring over the words and catching on the pictures. The last time he’d had this much trouble reading, he’d been near delirious from a high fever. “Peggy started SHIELD?”

“She found the SSR to be… constraining. Starting fresh gave her more control. There’s an early history of the agency in Appendix C.”

Steve’s attention sharpens at the idea of HYDRA inside Peggy’s agency, something she built from the ground up with her own two hands. She must have been furious when it all came out. “When did HYDRA get inside?”

“Even now, it’s difficult to know. HYDRA was playing a very long game, and some of their agents have only been uncovered posthumously. We do know their influence extends back decades. HYDRA wormed its way inside, bided its time, and then…” She gestures to the binder. The section after the tab marked HYDRA Exposed is nearly an inch thick.

“A lot of damage from one defected asset,” Steve says, because he’d flipped through that first.

The O gives him a weak smile and sips her coffee. “He was, shall we say, motivated. It was an intense news cycle. I made - DVDs,” she says, her voice rising just slightly at the end.

“Great,” Steve says, looking at the round silver discs she gestures at and deciding not to ask what they’re for.

The rest of the meeting is occupied with a current events rundown that in Steve’s personal opinion makes about as much sense as trying to teach him calculus in Swahili. Names sleet past him, places, people, and the O shows him maps and photographs on smooth white paper. He doesn’t know why they told him it was a meeting, he thinks vaguely, when it’s clearly just another session. Session with the doctors, session with the Human Resources. Okay, switch.

He can’t shake the feeling that they think his lack of knowledge is a kind of unfortunate symptom of being frozen for seventy years - which, he thinks, suppressing a hysterical noise, it definitely is - but everyone he meets seems to act like if only they dump enough information on him it’ll be like he was from here all along.

They’re trying to be helpful. He can smell it. And who knows, maybe they’re right. Maybe if they give him enough facts and faces and figures his memory will finally get fed up and purge the first twenty-eight years of his life to make room for this new stuff, and then it really will be nothing more than a blip, an unfortunate accident, seventy years of temporal dislocation no more significant than missing a step going down the stairs.

“How are you adjusting?” the nice O asks, at the end.

He gives her a USO smile and the answer that made the last three doctors he talked to look the least concerned. “I’m just glad to be keeping busy.”

She nods and smiles back, her posture relaxing. Steve wonders what she’ll write in his file after she leaves. Rogers adjusting well. Probably won’t crash through any more walls. Definitely not HYDRA. Guess we can keep him around.

“How are you adjusting” comes up even more often now that he’s in a new century than it did when he was in a new body, and he can only say he’s keeping busy for so long without actually finding things to keep him busy, so Steve goes looking for ways to show he’s diving in. Whatever the lifestyle version is of chasing a murderer through the streets barefoot. SHIELD isn’t giving him much to work off of, just a lot of paper files about how the war ended and a room full of books about every war that followed it. He figures out how the credit card they gave him works just fine and there’s a diner near HQ that serves unlimited coffee refills for a dollar and seventy five cents, which isn’t so bad if you just pretend numbers aren’t real and lie to yourself about it.

The best thing about the diner is the corkboard by the door with flyers and posters on it. SHIELD is briefing him on history, but they don’t think to tell him about the free classical concerts in the park on Thursdays, or the hourly rate of modern dogwalkers, or which public gardens are leasing vegetable plots for the summer. He finds a pamphlet listing all the classes he could take down at the community center: CPR, Adult Ballroom Level 2, Intro to Carpentry, Intermediate Yoga. So he figures: well. Peggy was always after him about not calling himself a meatball. Might as well learn a thing or two in the information age.

One of the Center’s classes is for Intermediate Cooking. The description mentions “learning new dishes to surprise and delight your pod,” so Steve figures he won’t be the only one there without podmates present. Cooking is a good skill, a useful skill, and something he hasn’t gotten a chance to practice much lately. His mother taught him all the family recipes, but well-stocked kitchens were thin on the ground in occupied Europe, and now that Steve lives in SHIELD housing he hasn’t had a kitchen to mess around in. The supermarkets Steve has seen these days are intimidating enough that Steve’s been glad he mostly eats in diners or the SHIELD mess, but he has to learn what the Hell kohlrabi is sometime, and at least in a class there will be someone there getting paid to answer his dumb questions.

Steve might know all the family recipes, but the family recipes are mainly roast beef sandwiches, nine ways to make colcannon and twelve ways to make a loaf of bread last until next payday. It’d be nice to expand his repertoire a little.

It turns out he’s not wrong, mostly. Everyone there shows up sans podmates and, by at least one interpretation of age, they’re his peers. Maybe a touch younger, really, given that it’s a flock of empty nesters and folks who also probably found out about the class while drinking endless refills of coffee for a dollar and seventy five cents. He lingers on the threshold and thinks about leaving.

The class is being held in a nice little community center nestled in-between two larger buildings, with a playground out back layered with wood chips. The place probably needs more funding, but they painted it a cheerful sage green with some nice wood trim, and there are carrots and climbing peas growing in the beds by the sidewalk. The air inside smells like crackers and floor wax and kids, a combination that means peacetime right down to his hindbrain and made his shoulders relax as soon as he stepped inside. He’d been feeling pretty good about actually having something to say to people when they asked him the next morning if he’d done anything fun that weekend, until he’d followed the cooking smells and realized how unnervingly well his chronological age matched the demographics of the room.

Steve could probably leave. Pretend he was looking for another room. But… he came all the way here. And he’s hungry.

And it’s too late, now, because one of them has spotted him and is advancing on his position, clipboard in hand.

“You here for Expanding Your Menu?” the youngest person in the room asks, giving him a jaunty smile. She's wearing an apron that says KISS THE COOK and has thick-lensed glasses dangling from a string around her neck. Steve panic smiles back.

"Er, yes," he says. "But I may have misread the listing?"

"Not at all, dear," a nearby O says firmly. There's a cane tucked over their chair, but somehow the O's got him by the elbow before he can do more than blink. "There's no age requirement, it's just us old farts are the only ones who bother with proper cooking these days. I'm Shara, that's Mabel, and that lump over there is Josef."

"Nice to meet you." Steve follows the tug on his elbow as Shara pulls him over to their table like a fisherman reeling in the line. "I'm Steve."

It’s all over for him after that. Shara announces they’re making lasagna, and suddenly Steve’s in an apron printed with ducklings, standing in front of a cutting board, sauce pot, and baking pan. Josef rolls an onion at him across the table. The rest of the evening is a blur of getting gently directed by the person teaching the class, then mercilessly bossed around by Shara and guarding his pile of shredded cheese from Josef, who keeps pinching bits of mozzarella every time Steve’s back is turned.

Steve being Captain America has only come up once, in relation to one of Mabel's grandkids. "She works as a firefighter," Mabel says, grating cheese into a bowl as far away from Josef as she can get. "The other A in her pod is a preschool teacher, which is perfect for him, you know how it is, they like to keep busy. Like you, dear. How much garlic goes into the red sauce?"

So it’s not - bad. Not bad at all, really, which lasts right up until he removes his lasagna in the oven and, in the moment of truth, sees that what he’s made looks worse than the frozen and reheated pasta bakes SHIELD mess serves at three in the morning. Maybe it was the oven temperature? Steve’s old Brooklyn apartment had a gas oven a quarter of the size of the electric ones they have in the community center kitchen, and he’d had trouble lighting it more often than not. The oven here lulled him into a false sense of security with its bold digital readout of the supposed temperature, so he hadn’t opened the door to check while it was baking. Rookie mistake.

“Well, let’s see it,” Mabel says, so Steve shows her his pan. The edges are the kind of charred his mother would have diplomatically called “well browned.”

“Wow, kid,” Josef says. “That looks terrible.”

“Yeah.” Steve pokes the middle tentatively. The cheese there hasn’t melted for some reason and sticks unpleasantly to his finger.

“You can’t bring that home to your Os,” Shara says.

Steve almost says I can bring it back to the mess, the As will eat anything, then remembers rationing isn’t a thing anymore, and the newly-transitioned As at SHIELD have better ways to meet their higher caloric requirements than resorting to Steve’s experimental lasagna. “I don’t have any Os,” he says instead, before all three of them give him an evaluating look and he realizes he’s made a Tactical Error.

“I have this niece,” Mabel says, before Shara elbows her out of the way.

“Look, busy man like you, you’re looking for a group that’s already settled, right?” Shara nudges his side with a wink. “My grandson, he’s got a real good pod together, four Os, one of them goes A sometimes but it’s not really for her, they have the two cutest toddlers you’ve ever seen--”

“Leave the poor man alone,” Josef says. “Look at his lasagna, he’s having a bad enough evening.”

Steve thinks of his barracks room at Shield, his spartan single bed with its plain white cotton sheets, nothing softer than flannel shirts in his dresser drawers. “I don’t think I’m in a position to commit to anything right now.”

“Well, you’d know best,” Mabel says, openly dubious. “But if you ever do want to settle down, here’s my advice. Get yourself a nice place and fix it up right. Nothing’s more attractive than an A with real estate. You ever read Pride and Prejudice?”

“Yes,” Steve says.

“So you know that Elizabeth didn’t fall in love with Darcy, she fell in love with his house. Be like Darcy, honey.”

Steve’s taken worse advice.

-o-

Steve goes apartment hunting. Natasha suggests using an agency, and Steve decides it’s the way to go after looking at a couple listings and realizing he has no idea what half the terms mean. He picks a realtor team whose website has a slideshow of cozy, intimate interiors; a checkered tablecloth over a maple kitchen table, a living room pillow pit filled with flamboyantly luxurious purple cushions, a window box with neatly-staked cherry tomatoes. He pushes down his nerves and makes an appointment. As strange as it feels to go looking for a place to live on his own, he knows Mabel is right - if he doesn’t take action, he’ll keep staying in SHIELD housing because it’s easy and familiar, the way almost nothing is now, but that’s no place for a pod. He’ll never have anyone else in his life if he doesn’t make room for them.

The realtor team smells like baking cookies and has matching hairstyles, tiny intricate braids looping in circles and gathered in a fancy knot at the crown of their heads. At first they show Steve single structures, which all have beautiful gardens and less ceiling than skylight, but Steve, for better or worse, grew up in tenement holes and can’t seem to sleep without the sound of at least five other families bedding down in the levels around him.

“How long does the rest of your pod have on deployment?” Alex asks politely. “We offer short-term subletting services, if you’re looking for roommates to fill the space before your podmates return home.”

Steve isn’t sure exactly what his face and scent do in response to that, but Amanda winces and Alex gasps a little. Most of the time he has better control of himself, but touring all these homes, seeing so many wide open spaces drenched in sunlight, has stirred up the memories of all his idle planning during the war, when he’d spend night watches thinking about how to get his unit settled in once they were finally home. Falsworth and Dernier might have elected to go back to their home countries, but he’d thought he would at least get Jones and Morita and Dugan. He’d already had it mapped out in his head. It’s like having a broken bone heal without being set straight, to be standing in this beautiful room without them and imagining how it could have been.

“I’m not currently part of a pod,” he says as calmly as he can manage, because it’s not the realtors’ fault he’s stranded in the wrong century.

“Oh,” Alex says, wrong-footed. “I’m sorry, we...”

Amanda’s eyes widen. “Oh,” she says, then, “Oh goodness,” and then, “Captain Rogers,” she hisses, while elbowing Alex.

“Oh,” Alex says, getting it, and from there on it’s - well, really it’s almost worse. But they’re trying. It’s not their fault Steve’s sour on things. He doesn’t know how to deflect their relentless implications of a pod and children on the horizon, at least not without sounding rude. He finally manages to string together something about how he’s focusing on his career just this moment and that he’s really only looking for a single occupancy place right now, please.

Alex and Amanda frown at each other. “Might be difficult to find one outside of a dorm reef,” Amanda says doubtfully. “There might be a few structures where they have a room to rent, maybe?”

“It can be a larger place,” Steve says, giving up. “I’d just really rather prefer to be in a reef, if that’s alright.”

“Of course,” Alex says, rubbing reassuringly at Steve’s shoulder. “We never would have shown you those single structures if we’d known. Of course you need a reef. There’s that nice busy one in Sunnyside, plenty of kids, half the bathrooms just got redone. Why don’t we go take a look?”

The third apartment they show him is part of a six-story collective, with a communal garden in the central courtyard and a bedroom with only one skylight in the ceiling. It’s tucked away, or at least as much as any building can be. Plenty of huge leafy trees block the view of his apartment from the sidewalk, but they’re far enough away that folks won’t be using them to jump straight in through his window.

The kitchen balcony opens onto the central garden, the plants well-established and spilling down from high archways above as well as twining up trellises from below. When Steve looks down he sees a couple of picnic tables and a sizable vegetable patch, currently occupied by three adults in sun hats and a gaggle of younger kids. Two of them are moving together in a sideways crab walk to ferry a watering can across the yard. There’s a nice playground here, too, centering on a ropes course webbed halfway up the building with canvas platforms every four feet or so, and some kind of spongy bottom layer thing in bright swirls and colors underneath it. He sees a little poof of dark hair in a mess of at least four or five pigtails, cuddled up on one of the higher platforms and working out some kind of imagination game with two dolls, and another little one frantically swinging back and forth and yelling just loud enough for Steve to hear it.

Steve takes it.

It takes about five minutes to pack up the SHIELD barracks room he’s been living in since he woke up. A few weeks after they met, Natasha dragged him on a tour of some place downtown called Brookfield, which turned out to be a warren of shops under the financial district where absolutely nothing was cheaper than five years’ rent on Steve’s tenement back home. He’d gone along, dazed and unresisting - “This is how I learned to understand modern America,” she had told him, so blandly he’d had no idea whether she was joking or not - so he does have some personal belongings, mostly because Natasha hadn’t let him leave until he’d spent a hundred dollars. He’d finally escaped with a new comb, a fancy coffee, and a pair of fuzzy pink slippers that had been just expensive enough to push him over the dollar limit. Everything fits into the canvas tote bag he’d gotten free from the slipper store, which was called Plush and sold nothing that wasn’t pastel, scented, aggressively fluffy or all three.

Right before he leaves for his new apartment, he pulls his trunk out from under the narrow barrack bed. It had belonged to his grandmother once. It was nothing special, just luggage sturdy enough for his Ma to take on the boat when she came to America. Steve had left it with the neighbors when he enlisted, and it had probably sat in someone’s attic until their grandkids found it and donated it to the Smithsonian. Everything that Steve has recovered from his old life lives there, where Steve doesn’t have to see it, but he can know that it’s safely nearby. He hoists the trunk onto one shoulder, swings the tote bag over the other, and walks to his new place.

Unpacking only takes longer than five minutes because there are so many options for where to put things away. Steve’s new bedroom has two closets. One of them is full of deep shelves, and it takes him an embarrassingly long time to realize the whole closet is just for linens. He lays his grandmother’s quilt on the top shelf and then kind of stops, just looking at the rest of the empty space.

He could buy a bed. The room has a bed pit built right into the floor, a shallow depression about ten feet in diameter, big enough for a whole pod to share. He’s a grown man with a bigger bank account than he knows what to do with, and the textiles available these days are amazing. There’s nothing stopping him from buying a dozen silk cushions and sleeping on them every night.

He imagines it, the bed pit full of layered mattresses and firm pillows in soft blues and greens, then pictures how much empty space that would leave around him. Better not to go overboard. He doesn’t need anything fancy just for himself, and he shouldn’t invest in good linens anyway until he’s sorted out his… personal problem.

He thinks back guiltily to how many times he had to go to SHIELD general services and tell them he needed another mattress because he’d torn his apart in his sleep again. It’s not nightmares - Tod, who manned the request desk, had looked so worried and upset the first time Steve had shown up that he’d had been forced to explain it was just kneading.

“It’s the serum,” he’d said, red faced, after the third not-so-subtle hint Tod made about setting up an appointment with SHIELD therapy. “When I, uh. In my sleep. When I knead things. I tend to… grip too hard.”

And then Tod had looked blank and concerned, and it turned out Tod’s been O his whole life and his whole pod is O and his father only went A for the month or so it took to make Tod and Tod’s twin brother, so Steve had to fumble through an explanation of Sometimes Alphas Get Urges. “It’s a… reflex… thing,” he’d managed. “With our hands. And the - scent. You know - stress balls?”

“Do you need stress balls?” Tod had said anxiously. His hand had hovered over a requisition form, poised to spring.

“Yes,” Steve had said, giving up. Tod, at least, had looked pleased he’d stumbled across something he could do, and Steve had left him to it.

Three boxes of stress balls - some sand-filled, some foam, some made from malleable putty - had shown up on his desk the following day, which was very kind of Tod even though Steve has a devil of a time trying to hide the carnage every time he accidentally pops one. He’s got sand in every crevice of his desk from the last casualty and a graveyard of busted shells hiding in the bottom drawer. When he’d searched on the internet for something that could maybe make him quit the reflex kneading - popping the stress balls is one thing, but crushing everything he absentmindedly squeezes is just not a way to live - it told him he had stress problems and should probably go O.

Some more disgruntled digging turned up a couple of alpha message boards that told him to try textured gloves. He went and got some from an A specialty store down in - well, what used to be the Bowery, before the el got taken down. It’s still called the Bowery, according to the map on his phone, but it didn’t feel anything like it, with its broad open streets and lack of trains rattling overhead.

The A shop was a pleasant surprise, at least. The Smitten Mitten sign had been burned wood in neat script, clearly a skilled freehand, which was repeated large across the back wall. The gal behind the counter was taller than Steve and about as broad and gave him a friendly wave when he entered. It smelled like cedar and good woodsmoke, and Steve spotted a couple candles burning at strategic points around the shop; they had deep earthy scents, just sharp enough to override any alpha scent that might otherwise end up taking over the whole room.

There was a lot of stuff, all crammed into a shop that wasn’t that large: they had exercise gear and boxing tape and a whole aisle of stress balls and squeezers in various soothing shades of brown and green. Steve contemplated one shaped like a pumpkin - it was pleasingly round and solid and had different texture patches all over for extra stimulation, according to the tag - but he couldn’t very well take it to work and it wouldn’t solve his daily problem. He set it back on the shelf regretfully and moved on, looking for something that wouldn’t clash so obviously with his uniform. All he needed was for a news camera to catch him in the Captain America outfit and neon zebra-striped gloves in the aftermath of a mission.

He got two pairs of gloves, one leather and one a stretchy kind of canvas, both lightweight and breathable and textured on the inside. They’re straightforward black, utilitarian, and they feel a lot better than the SHIELD-issued ones he got when they were first dumping clothes and cards and paperwork and equipment on him. These don’t feel like they’ll make his palms puddle with sweat and the wrist closures are mindful of where his glands extend down. They’re wider and more sensitive now than before he had the serum, like his big dumb body wants to spread his scent around everywhere he goes. It led to a lot of embarrassing accidental markings on the USO tour before he’d learned to keep his hands to himself.

The gloves are a good investment. They fit well, nobody at SHIELD gives them a second glance, and while he occasionally looks pretty stupid with his hands just kneading at empty air, they do stop him from grabbing whatever’s closest when he’s not paying attention. And the nubbly texture on the inside feels nice.

He’s not about to wear gloves at home, though, let alone in his sleep, which means his mattress problem is still… a problem.

He could get a hammock, maybe. Would a hammock be better or worse than a mat on the floor? Part of him likes the idea of being Up High, but the pad on the floor seems a little more “oh, maybe his bed hasn’t arrived yet” and the hammock would look more like a specific alternative lifestyle choice. Not that people don’t sleep in hammocks; he’d have slept in plenty of hammocks if he’d joined the Navy instead of the Army. Probably. Presumably they still have hammocks in the Navy.

He stands there staring at the ceiling, looking for load-bearing beams where he could attach anchor points, half thinking about what someone would think if they saw him, only all that gets stopped short with: well, who’s going to see his bedroom.

“You can’t think like that,” he says, because his Ma still occasionally grabs his brain from beyond the grave. More often these days, too. Especially on days like today, when he’s just moved the trunk full of everything that still smells a little like his Ma’s perfume.

If he shreds mattresses, he might shred hammocks, too, and getting dumped on his ass at 0400 sounds even less fun than waking up in a pile of foam confetti. He should go with a mat. If someone comes in and sees the mat he can aw-shucks about… breaking the bed? With his. Hands. Not normal bed breaking activities.

He could burn the entire place down and start a new life somewhere else. Grow a beard. There are no pictures of him with a beard, mostly because he’s never grown one. He could get fifteen dogs and live in a yurt, and make yogurt. Yurt yogurt. Yo-yurt.

Should he get a dog?

He travels too much for a dog.

His brain whites out for a second thinking of the loud clatter of nails on the wooden floors throughout the apartment. He could get a high-energy breed and then duck out of SHIELD for his lunch break with the excuse of “oh, I have to walk the dog” instead of eating in the mess hall and watching everyone pretend not to watch him. And then he could just. Run for awhile. Run in the morning, a nice long run at lunch, and a more leisurely run at night, and he’d have a dog by his side, so all the other dogs he passed by would stop turning their big sad eyes at him like he was responsible for - well, whatever dogs had to be sad about. The absence of bacon in the park.

He can’t get a dog.

The empty bed pit is so wide. He has to put something in it, if only to bring it down to a normal human scale. Also, if he lives here, Natasha is going to show up at some point, and her probable reaction to finding Steve sleeping on a bare floor would be a mandatory shopping trip with a price tag he doesn’t dare to estimate.

The bedroom is big enough that the idea of sleeping in all that exposed air makes him nervous. Steve checks, and sure enough there’s a hook centered in the ceiling above the bed pit, ready for a canopy or set of drapes. There had been some drapes at the alpha store, but they’d all been outdoor mosquito netting, meant for letting air and starlight through. Steve wants something to soften the light coming in through the bedroom window. Open, airy rooms are in vogue these days, but Steve still remembers the tenements he grew up on, where you were lucky if your apartment had a window at all. He’s gotten used to smaller, dimmer spaces, places where he can put his back to a wall.

He’s a grown man. He can buy bed drapes and cushions and, and, and a full set of linens if he wants to.

The thought still sends a little thrill through him. He and Ma used to play games when he was little, saying, when I grow up, I’ll have… and then spinning some fantastic tale about chocolate palaces and castles strung wall to wall with velvet. It had made Steve giggle then, to hear his Ma saying when I grow up, the two of them building an impossible future out of nothing.

Well, he’s grown up now. He heads to a nice linens shop he’s passed on his way to the park before, where he sometimes lingered by the windows to admire a length of amber wool or pale mint satin. The shop is big enough that he can duck into the back aisles and browse undisturbed, his hands knotted behind his back so he doesn’t give in to the urge to touch anything.

There’s a whole display of bed drapes in one corner by the window. The drapes are fanned out over the glass, showing how much light diffuses through the fabric, and Steve is immediately drawn to a rich emerald velvet, the highlights glowing almost gold in the sunlight. The price, as expected, is absurd. Right next to them are some nice cotton drapes in navy blue that seem - practical. Sturdy. Easy to care for, easy to repair; a nice appropriate working set. Nothing self-indulgent about them.

There’s a book of swatches so customers can touch samples of the fabric. Steve picks it up, flips through. The emerald velvet is plush and soft beneath his fingertips, even through the gloves. He catches himself rubbing his hand on it more thoroughly, unconsciously trying to leave a mark, and hastily puts the book down.

His Ma would have bought the emerald velvet. That’s enough to push him over the edge. He hands over his credit card with only a slight wince, and walks more quickly on his way back, like the neatly wrapped bundle in his shopping bag is a glowing radioactive beacon of selfishness. He knows it’s not actually written on his forehead that he’s buying them just for himself, but he feels like everyone can tell anyway.  

It takes a while to get them hung properly, half because he’s never had to set up his own canopy before and half because he keeps getting distracted by the slide of the velvet between his bare palms, the weight of it a guilty little thrill, heavy and cool and abundant. When he’s finally done, the curtains fall in a tall cone from the ceiling hook.

He stops a moment, and then pulls out the small notepad he’d purchased so he could at least nod, smile and write something down when people helpfully told him about yet another thing he’d missed. He flips to a new page. His ma’s face has gone fuzzy-edged with memory a little, like she’s soft lit on a movie screen. But it still feels nice to draw her and it feels nice to rip the little page out of the notebook and tape it to the wall by the bed pit, where the sun has bleached around squares where paintings should go.

He fusses with the arrangement of the bed for a while, letting his hands linger, stroking his palm over the hemmed edges. It’s his now, after all. There’s no reason he can’t do it. When he crawls inside, the light is soft and gentle, like an early misty morning in a meadow in the spring.

When I grow up, he thinks, letting his eyes shut, the light coming through his eyelids filtered to the deepest forest green, I’ll have a big bed with velvet drapes, and a pod to share it with me.

He falls asleep right then and there and that’s the rest of his Sunday gone, and then it’s back to SHIELD on Monday, so it’s a few days before he has to figure out what to do with the interior of the bed nook proper. After some consideration, he goes to an outdoor supply store and buys some camping mats. They’re plenty soft, only an inch and a half thick, and won’t give him enough grip for his hands to start playing demolition zone in his sleep. Waterproof too, which would be handy if his apartment ever sprung a leak. And scent-resistant to help avoid attracting bears, according to the label. He would like to think that he’ll never need to test his home’s ability to ward off bears, but life with SHIELD has taught him not to take anything for granted.

He lines the bed pit with the mats, covers it all in a cotton sheet, and rolls over them experimentally. The arrangement won’t win any design awards, but it works.

The nook is still far too big for one, but he can’t figure out how to fix that and stop his hands from grabbing at stuff overnight. He half thinks of bookshelves arranged in a protective ring around the bed pit and then it would be less like a sleeping nook and more like a reading nook (in which he happens to sleep).

But people keep giving him books about Captain America. And he doesn’t know where to put them, or what to do with them, but it seems wasteful to just throw them away, and he can’t bear to give someone a book about himself. So now he has five books with his face on the jacket, and his eyes staring out from the spine like he’s disappointed in the font of the title. Which, to be fair, he has been. One of the SHIELD people on his reintegration team took him to the Guggenheim and gave him a summary of fine art since the 1940s, and Steve had nodded attentively and tried not to let his eyes glaze over. He doesn’t give a damn about Andy Warhol, but he does have a thirty-minute rant on typefaces all ready to go if anyone ever asks.

Not that anyone has; everyone seems to have forgotten that the art Steve did was advertisements and signage and the occasional blue picture (the Smithsonian hasn’t found out about those, apparently, and Steve isn’t going to be the one to tell them). The Hourglass Man: A Captain America Story kept calling him a painter, and he’d said out loud: “Where does this guy get off” and then realized he was a) not talking to anyone and b) if he had been, he was reading a book with his own face on the cover.

So now he doesn’t read them, and he’s shamefully tucked them in between all the other books SHIELD gave him during his briefing sessions, but he keeps meeting his own eyes at the worst times. He moved all the books out of his bedroom and into the living room just to reduce how often he wandered out of his bathroom brushing his teeth and saw himself staring judgmentally at his own underwear.

The living room presents its own challenges. It’s a nice big space, designed for the whole pod to come together after dinner and… well. Not listen to a radio program, not these days, but that’s what Steve had always pictured. The real estate website slideshows had mostly shown living rooms centered around a big TV, and Steve doesn’t have one of those. But he could get a couch. People have couches. If someone ever comes over he’d need somewhere for them to sit.

There’s a pillow pit in the living room, too, right below the skylight, but Steve hasn’t bought any pillows for it yet, so it’s just a big dent in the floor. He fell in once when he’d just moved in and hadn’t memorized the layout yet. He’d concealed his still-healing sprained wrist from Natasha the next day, too embarrassed to admit how he’d hurt it. If he got a couch, he could put it in front of the floor dent, so next time he’ll trip over the couch first instead of face-planting into the floor. Strategy.

So he goes out and gets a couch. There’s a nice furniture store a few blocks away, Armoire Amore. The website said it was pod-owned, with sustainably-sourced wood (which had Steve wondering if there was a tree shortage, and that was a whole evening gone) carved by hand and most of the textiles stitched together onsite (Custom order welcome, lead-time 6+ weeks). When Steve goes up to the counter to pay, the cashier looks around, obviously searching for Steve’s wayward podmates, and then asks if he’ll need any help moving it. Steve stares at the cashier. The cashier stares at him.

“I can, uh.” Steve gestures at the plush, neutral looking couch, with deep seats and matching throw pillows, which he’d just carried up to the front counter without even thinking about it. “I mean, I think I’ve got it.”

And he lifts it over his head and carries it out of the store without any trouble, although he feels sort of self-conscious when people on the sidewalk stop to stare. But he gets it upstairs, and then he has a couch. And glasses he could put water in. And if someone came to visit he could offer them a place to sit, facing a blank wall, and a glass of tap water.

“Welcome home,” Steve says, and tucks his hands into his pockets.

-o-

In the meantime, work rolls on. They let Steve take the active duty agent qualification tests after he’s been awake for three months, and he breaks a few records (and part of the obstacle course, which he apologizes for) on his way to an easy certification. The doctors sign off on his physical fitness and, with only a little more hesitation, his mental fitness. The words “meaningful work” and “stabilizing influence” and “continuing social integration” get thrown around a lot.

“Normally we’d bench someone with your level of trauma history for at least six months,” his most plain-spoken doctor tells him, “but in your case, fighting with a team is probably better for you than sitting at home.” The because you don’t have anyone at home is pretty strongly implied. Steve can’t much argue. He’d met most of his friends while actively being punched in the face.

The same doctor also tells him bluntly to lose a couple inches below the belt buckle, but Steve refuses as politely as possible. “Plenty of agents are O,” the doctor says. “Hell, most of them are. It’s not going to impede your performance any.”

“I know,” Steve says. “I’m alright as I am, thanks.”

“It’s my professional medical opinion that switching over would do you a lot of good,” she presses.

“If things get bad,” Steve says, more to get her to drop it than anything, “I’ll try it.”

She doesn’t believe him, but she nods like she’s willing to pretend she does, so that’s all right. It gets him a little bakelite badge that’s apparently an identification card, magic door key and computer activation doohickey all in one, which he dutifully clips to his new uniform. The badge has his photograph on it - he hadn’t even known they’d taken the photograph because there hadn’t been any click or flash or anything, just a cheery assistant saying “All done!” so in the picture his mouth is a little open and he looks moderately concussed - and Agent Steven Rogers printed under it.

Then Natasha introduces him to Melinda May and Maria Hill, and between the three of them the real training starts. He learns how to pilot helicopters, how to learn the mission-essential basics of a new language in seventy-two hours, which types of scentblock last the whole mission and which ones let him release shock scent if he needs to, which parts of a computer to pry out and take with him back to the analysts and which to smash. After two more months of that, they start letting him do missions.

Steve can’t really call it monotonous, because half the time it’s, well, combat, but things do get into a kind of groove. Natasha gets sent on all the ops he does - she’s his minder, Steve knows, but she’s so good at her job that he can’t even be resentful about it. May, who heads up Alpha STRIKE, is an excellent captain and Hill is the kind of commander Steve wanted to have ten of back in the war.

It’s not the same as working with the Commandos. The Commandos had been on their own so often, on long missions in between debriefs, that falling into a pod was more or less inevitable. Steve’s SHIELD coworkers are coworkers. Nice coworkers, coworkers who are good at their jobs, coworkers he comes to trust with his life, but at the end of every mission they disperse and head back home. Still, fighting with a familiar team fulfills something necessary, eases an ache he hadn’t realized was building with every day he spent flipping through binders in his empty SHIELD office.

He gets used to working with Alpha STRIKE, operating a joint command with May. He comes to think of them as his; they’re the only all-A team and they’re the ones he gets sent out with most often. Steve gets the feeling they’re all like him, too - wouldn’t switch unless they really had to. It makes them a little insular, sure, and Steve gets it - he always feels a little too big when surrounded by Os, so it makes sense that O agents wouldn’t be dying to tack onto an A group like that. (Natasha doesn’t count. Steve occasionally suspects Natasha is some kind of faerie being who’s decided to holiday in the human realm for a lark.)

And they have specialists within A-STRIKE, which means there’s not much personnel shuffling, if any, which is why it’s such a shock to walk into the briefing room and see a stranger sitting in the back row.

“This is your sniper,” Hill says in her blunt way. “Call sign Winter Soldier. He’s joining you and Widow; she’ll be his spotter if necessary. Alpha STRIKE will meet you in the hangar.”

Steve looks at Natasha, who meets his eyes and nods, so Steve keeps his opinions about last minute roster shuffles to himself. It’s necessary, anyway. Barton is a good operative, and sometimes there are missions where they need to apprehend someone smart enough to use bullet-neutralizing technology or magic who has nonetheless failed to guard against arrows shot with unerring accuracy, but he has a terrible habit of breaking more than one major bone at a time. Barton’s clearly not available right now, so someone had to be brought in to pick up the slack.

May nods at their new addition and he nods back. Steve eyes the guy. He’s kitted up even in the briefing room, in full armor and a mask that covers the entire lower half of his face down to the collarbones. For a second Steve thinks he’s wearing an A-glove, but only the one, for some reason - and then realizes it’s not a shiny silver fabric but a shiny silver metal hand. Nobody else seems to think this is worth staring at, so Steve doesn’t either. Maybe it’s some kind of armor.  

Apart from the hand, he’s the first person Steve’s seen this century that has an outfit that’s - well, utilitarian to the point of monkhood, sure, but it makes sense. It’s made of the same dark, tough material as the rest of his gear, and there’s a set of matching goggles around his neck. The only discrepancy is the long brown hair hanging in his face. Steve can only hope he ties it up somehow for actual combat.

Steve tries not to think about pre-roll messages listing the benefits of victory curls. People always want to point out all the little differences between when he was born and now, but they mostly talk about political milestones and technology upgrades and the world-changing events that made the history books. Steve knows those things are important, but walking out on the street for the first time and seeing the lack of hats and hair hanging loose everywhere was - well, it’d been a bit like the first time they’d shuttled him over to Europe and he’d stood in a field without a building in sight and thought: God, this could use some concrete.

The Soldier doesn’t return Steve’s scrutiny. He glanced at Steve and Natasha when they came into the room, but he’s just staring at the table now like it’s telling him a story. Steve can just about tell that his eyes are blue.

May nodded at him, though, which is as good as a standing ovation from anyone else. Steve could do with a sniper, from a tactical standpoint. He and Nat are good in a brawl in… two different ways, sure, but if you have Nat shooting someone from across the hall then something’s gone very wrong, and putting Steve in long range is like driving a tank to a fight and then leaving it in the parking lot. If May passes this Soldier guy then Steve isn’t going to turn down the opportunity. He just sort of wishes he’d gotten the chance to get a firm handshake and a clean read on the guy.

In any case, callsign Winter Soldier doesn’t have any questions, which is new. Steve doesn’t think he’s gotten through so much as a “I’d like to buy a coffee” without three questions and an apology from anybody. A pregnant lady had tried to give up her subway seat for him and Steve’s head had filled up with static like bad radio. He’d tried to make a joke of it, saying “I’m not actually 95” with a smile, but then she had started apologizing and he’d had to flee the subway three stops early.

So that briefing ends in a hurry. Steve falls into step with Natasha, heading down the hallway in the general direction of the armory. “Worked with this guy before?” he murmurs as they pass a gaggle of junior agents, one of whom actually swivels around and walks backwards to watch Steve until he turns the corner.

“A few times.”

“Any good?”

“The best. Shot me through the stomach once,” Natasha says neutrally. “From eight hundred yards away. Right through me and into the engineer I was escorting.”

Steve almost stops, but this is Natasha. He knows about her history with the Red Room. More importantly, he knows how it ended, and exactly how thoroughly and literally she had cut those ties. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“Hazards of the job,” Natasha shrugs. “I was a hostile to him at the time. I would have done the same.”

“How likely is he to be a liability?”

Natasha gives a little hah under her breath. “To us, not at all,” she says. “He’s a professional. The best, if we’re being objective.”

“And if we’re being honest?” Steve asks, and Natasha always has some kind of smile when Steve asks her honest opinion. Which, maybe she’s glad someone wants to know, or maybe she just thinks somebody asking her to be honest is funny.

“Rogers, if you didn’t want to be the King of the Misfit Toys, you probably should have had a selection criteria for the Howlies.”

“They were the best,” Steve says, trying not to do the thing with his jaw the tabloids keep catching snapshots of and putting on the front page, but he has a feeling he’s doing it anyways.

Natasha shrugs and bumps her shoulder into his. “There you go, Cap. So's the Soldier.”

-o-

Steve googles “Misfit Toys” and finds some sort of terrifying Christmas special he sits through, because Natasha never hands him the name of something and tells him to watch it, she just hints at what she means and it’s up to Steve to figure it out. Granted, if she is handing Steve the story of Rudolph as her honest answer, she’s not as subtle as people always make her out to be.

-o-

One hour before go time, Soldier’s in the hangar as promised, trooping into the quinjet behind STRIKE. He sits apart from them, but everybody treats that as normal, even the couple of younger agents who glance over at him in what they probably think are discreet ways. May doesn’t say anything, so neither does Steve, and as the jet takes off the two of them get everybody started on final mission prep and equipment rundown.

They all slather up in a final layer of scent blocker, Millegan passing out the gel and Sanchez digging out the aerosolized stuff for their gear. Steve sprays himself down, inside and out of his combat suit, and sprays the straps of the shield, too, where despite the heavy-duty A combat gloves the sweat of his hands leaks through. He sees Soldier in the corner of the cabin doing a final pass over his weapons. He’s not doing any scent blocking, and ordinarily, Steve would’ve gone over there and gotten on his case about it, only he hasn’t smelled a thing on Soldier besides plastic and leather and guns. He’s clearly got his scent lockdown handled.

Natasha did say he was the best. It’s nice to work with a professional.

Not that Alpha STRIKE isn’t, but they’re… well, Steve’s not sure it’s fair to call them rowdy, given they’re probably acting quite normally for a pack of well-fed alphas seeing relatively infrequent combat. They’re disciplined enough in the field, but on base they throw their weight around, shoving each other in the halls and laughing when the interns wince. The majority of Steve’s experience is still with underfed, overmarched infantry and the Commandos, who had gone from being underfed, overmarched infantry to very nearly adequately supplied spec ops. Alpha STRIKE may be spec ops, but they don’t live in a warzone. Steve’s found it makes for a difference in attitude.

In comparison, the Soldier is downright familiar. He has all-custom gear that he checks over quietly, moving through everything with the mechanical efficiency of someone who knows how to do it in a hurry. Steve watches for a second too long and he looks up, tracks Steve, and goes back to his preparation. Steve gets the impression that this is sort of like whatever Natasha does when she’s playing Model Agent for the rest of SHIELD. At a spitball guess, Steve’d say the Winter Soldier is only going through his checks so Steve doesn’t come up and talk to him. If he’d shoved Soldier out of the airplane fifteen minutes ago, he probably would have rolled into a tuck and come up in a firing crouch.

Which was a lot to get out of a man looking at his guns, but the 21st century has left Steve looking at lots of things while going I wonder if that’s normal now and checking the reactions of everyone else just to be sure they also all saw the giant moving ad for shampoo up in the middle of the daylit street where God and children could see it. He’s gotten pretty sure of his calls by now.

They deploy with no problems. The mission is more of a stalk to start with, just getting to grips with the terrain, so Steve sends them all out in teams, with the exception of Soldier. He was about to put him with Natasha, figuring that’s what Hill meant about her being his spotter, but Natasha had just said “We’ll split up and cover B and D quadrants,” Steve hadn’t seen reason to veto. Natasha knows what she’s doing and she seems to know which way Soldier will jump, and frankly of the whole group they’re the only two Steve would consider sending out alone.

So they move out, and things are quiet, just as they should be. It’s day four in the field when Soldier does his in-person check-in, resupplying at the quinjet and reporting his all-clear to May and Steve. He’s been quiet up to that point, which is a change. The Howlies had been called that for a reason, and everybody on STRIKE tends to at least buddy up. Even Natasha doesn’t go out of her way to do solo ops. But Soldier went four days without checking in on the radio, not even click-checks, let alone the worried mother-cat caterwauling Monty used to do every time they made him take the high ground.

At check-in Soldier lays out his collected intel in a quiet, even voice, talking about hostile numbers and sentry patterns and occasionally raising a hand to tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ear. It turns out he does tie his hair back on missions, but it’s a tight low tail that makes the rest of it strain and frizz. Stray loops poke out everywhere. They’re out in the field and it’s not like Steve is passing judgment, but he can’t help the way his palms itch.

Soldier has to have podmates, right? Natasha said he was the best, and there’s no way someone becomes the best without people around them noticing and wanting to take them home. That’s what Steve likes about SHIELD, the way everyone respects competency. If there was ever a group of people who would cheerfully scoop up someone like the Soldier based on his marksmanship and deadly grace without worrying about the frizz of his hair or the way he sidles around the edges of things and doesn’t look up when he talks, it would be people at SHIELD. If Winter Soldier is the best sniper they have, he must have a pod of people who noticed and decided to treat him right. Right? Right. Somebody’ll braid his hair once they get back.  

Steve isn’t the type to speculate publicly on people’s designations, but he’s pretty sure Soldier is O. His uniform buckles right up to his neck, and he only puts his gloves on once they’ve hopped out of the jet and headed off into the forest. He also hasn’t kneaded at anything, and he steps back and away from loud noise, head up and locating the sound instead of heading in chest first. It’s not like Steve’s an expert on body language or anything, it’s just that Peggy would flip herself back and forth like a coin depending on the situation, and while she was always Peggy - bold as brass and the sharpest tool in just about anyone’s shed - there were differences all the same. And Soldier sure acts more like the alley-cat wary Peggy over the big as Heaven and all its Holy Angels Peg.

Then again, if Soldier is O, his hair and clothes are even stranger. Absolutely nothing about the Soldier’s uniform looks comfortable, and all the Os Steve had known growing up wouldn’t have been caught dead outside without well-kempt hair after the age of fourteen or so.

But this is a military operation, so it’s not like hair care is top of anyone’s mind. Steve’s fingers keep twitching towards the plastic utility comb in his pocket, but he knows better than to offer. Maybe Soldier has a podmate who does his hair, and he just leaves their handiwork in place when he’s in the field, no matter how untidy it gets over time.

And then it’s a moot point. As Soldier walks ahead of him off the quinjet, the wind changes, and Steve catches a whiff of scent coming his way. It’s very faint, enveloped strongly in a scent blocker Steve recognizes as very heavy duty, and at first he stops, because the Soldier smells - sick. The kind of sick where Steve can’t even tell his designation over the muddle of bad sweat and confused hormones. Steve used to smell that kind of sick.

Steve eyes Soldier warily. He’s moving okay, and there’s no hint of fever in the scent, so whatever it is, it’s probably a personal problem that won’t affect the mission. He must be wearing a bucket’s worth of scentblock anyway, and Steve can only pick up his scent because of the serum senses. It might even be on purpose: the tricks he’s seen Natasha pull with her smell make him boggle, and who’s to say the sick-scent doesn’t come out of a bottle too, just another layer of mask. If the enemy smells that they definitely won’t be thinking it’s from a sniper hidden in the bushes.

Another day, though, and the scentblock erodes enough that the next time Soldier reports Steve can pretty reliably say the guy’s not an alpha.

He’s not surprised. Big as Soldier is, scouts were all O in the war, and for a sniper it’s the obvious choice. Most of the agents that do deep cover missions are O, for the same reason most STRIKE agents are A. The senses and look and not scenting everything you touch are much more useful in certain situations than others, even if there is a tradeoff in stamina and strength; if you have to hide, you want to be omega, though for more intensive missions agents sometimes do both.

That’s another thing that’s changed. It takes a whole month to transition fully, to the point where no trace of the previous designation shows up in bloodwork. Steve’s seen Natasha do it in six days. It’s not a fun six days, and she was swigging supplements and injecting herself with some kind of SHIELD cocktail every twelve hours, but by the end of day five she smelled alpha even to Steve and by day six her neck glands were gone like they’d never been there. A dye job, a wardrobe change, and she was a completely different person, ready to come before the mark in a new disguise. The first time it’d happened Steve had sort of half-believed she’d been hiding a twin.

It’s an incredible trick to have up your sleeve if no one thinks it’s possible, and plenty of people don’t - hell, plenty of people never transition at all. As far as Steve knows the majority only do it once or twice, for preference or pregnancy. Back in New York, or, well, back in his New York, no one ever really talked about it directly. You just knew that some people were more comfortable in one kind of body over the other.

Steve knows most folks prefer O just because they don’t like the aggression. He can’t blame them. He’s been A his whole life and even he had a Hell of a time controlling it after the serum. Transition’s pretty hard on the body, too, so with his constitution before the serum he hadn’t tried it. Hadn’t felt the need to, either. He didn’t figure the drive to step up and protect people would go away with switching, so might as well keep what extra muscle mass he could.

And then there had been a war on. And now he’s a comic book character, so it seems like there’d be a lot of news articles if he went changing anything. He’d had a complete stranger ask if he preferred boxers or briefs, and when he’d fallen into the door of a bookshop as politely as he’d known how to, he saw an entire case of his face glaring off at the YA section, behind the title “It’s A-OK to be A”. They’d have to print a whole new line of books if he switched now.

It took Steve two weeks to transition, when the doctors were running tests immediately after the serum and wanted to measure both his new bodies, but that had been a natural switch with no chemical quickening or inducement. Being O had been eye-opening, even for just that short while: it was amazing how much of what he’d thought of as personality was controlled by brain chemicals and hormone slurry. He’d been shocked by the pangs of loneliness and amazed at the fresh nuances of scent and new skin sensitivity. He hadn’t gotten any of the intense feelings of relaxation people talked about, but that was probably because he’d been in a military bunker with medical staff prodding him at every waking moment.

They tested everything, too. The doctors proclaimed that his womb and ovaries seemed one hundred percent functional and then wondered aloud if the serum could be passed down genetically. Steve had slapped at somebody’s hand over that, automatically getting riled on the behalf of the O in question, which happened to be him, sure, but there was no sense being fresh about it. Then he immediately went back to A and stayed there, because with a super serum and his luck he’d been liable to get pregnant if he so much as looked at a johnson wrong, and newly healthy or not, children had not been in the game plan.

Maybe he’ll switch over again, one day. It had annoyed him and Peg both that everyone just assumed she’d be the one to go omega at the end of the war, just because she already did it often enough for her spy work; Peg had always liked being A more and didn’t seem to have any problems channeling the aggression. She’d told Steve once that being omega felt a little to her like being drugged, in a way: not her senses dulled, but her self, whatever was in her that made her strive to take the next step, conquer the next challenge.

Steve understood. It’s not that he thinks omegas don’t have that, or that Peg did, it’s just that they both knew what they needed to be and omega wasn’t it.

Still isn’t, so far.

The op goes well, or as well as any combat situation can. They track the terrorist convoy across nineteen miles of mountain terrain, picking them off as they go - Steve would’ve gone for one clean ambush, but they need intel and so they bring the terrorists to Natasha one by one. If it was a simple kill-off Natasha probably would’ve been sent in with a minor support team, but as it is they need all of STRIKE to ferry the prisoners back to the jet and stop the other terrorists from spooking.

They do end it with an ambush, boxed in enough that Soldier comes in close and helps with the melee. He’s fast, so fast that Steve’s brain never flags him as a friendly who needs the shield shoved in front of him to deflect a fatal stab or bullet. They take no casualties, which is standard, but Steve doesn’t have to full body tackle anyone, which isn’t. Nothing even explodes, which sort of feels anticlimactic, but that’s probably lingering overexposure to Dernier talking.

The worst injuries are a couple of cuts and abrasions and some semi-serious bruising on May’s side. She huffs about it and takes care of it herself, and Steve thinks, not for the first time, that they should get a dedicated medic on the team. But if they had a medic on the team, Steve would be obliged to make the team listen to the medic’s professional advice, and STRIKE is composed of people who have all, at one point or another, broken a somewhat important bone and decided: this probably will heal on its own. Which was true in Steve’s case and shouldn’t count against him no matter what Hill wrote in her report.

The rest of the team settles into post-op joshing around, which Steve can’t quite get the rhythm of and Natasha never joins. Usually Natasha opens a book and Steve pretends to do paperwork while he rewinds the mission from top to bottom in his head, looking for anything important. HYDRA had a habit of just… leaving maps around. It could happen again.

And he’s drifting thinking about mud, and the slivers of info Natasha pressed out of the enemy, and in the beats between thoughts he catches an off scent. He looks at where it's coming from, and it's the Soldier, and Steve's dumb tactical brains goes: hey, that guy’s got a dislocated shoulder, you could hit him there. His actual brain takes another beat to catch up.

“Damn,” he says under his breath, and goes over to help. “Here, let’s get that sorted,” he says, crouching down and starting in on the catches on Soldier’s uniform.

Soldier’s sick-scent is that much stronger up close, now boosted by sweat and, yes, that’s some pain he’s feeling there, under all the other mess. Steve automatically starts radiating more calm, or as much as he can when his own body is still coming off the fight. Hopefully it’ll smell like team, at least. “I’ll pop it back in for you. You done this before?”

Soldier, who, Steve notices, has stopped moving and is staring at him like he’s grown another head, nods after a second. Steve pauses and waits for the I’m fine that usually precedes any kind of fussing. Peggy would let him nag after her a bit, but he always thought that was more about letting him feel useful than needing it herself.

“Good,” Steve says when he isn’t shoved away. “Good,” he repeats after a moment and goes back to working the body armor off. He feels around the joint to check if anything feels off, and right. Medic. They should get a medic. Steve keeps taking First Responder classes because it’s something to do on the weekends, but most of those don’t deal with So You Like Getting Shot At, Huh?

“So, you know how it goes,” Steve says. He whaps his own bicep. “Brace here. Alright? I’m, uh. I’m hard to move, so don’t worry about it. On three. Ready?”

Soldier, after another second of staring, braces himself, putting his hand on Steve’s bicep one finger at a time before pressing his full palm in. “One, two,” Steve says, and shoves. “Three,” he finishes, and Soldier bends forward slightly into the pain but otherwise doesn’t even make a sound.

Steve can’t see his face from this angle. He rubs Soldier’s back for a bit, not letting go; even if he’s new he’s still part of Steve’s team on this op, and Steve learned the hard way to take care of his team. It makes sense that the guy isn’t comfortable with them yet.

Steve just has to do better. He keeps trying to start up banter, but it never seems to land right with the team as a whole. Natasha gets it, but that’s her job. Natasha can get anything. Aliens could land and Natasha would be giving them culturally-appropriate compliments about their tentacled grandkids after a couple of minutes.

Steve looks up and finds her already watching them, no kind of look on her face. “Widow, do we have any ice packs?”

They do. Natasha provides one, approaching with something almost like caution, and Steve helps Soldier strap it on. Soldier’s back to giving him strange looks. He’ll look at him for half a beat, then down and away, then back again, only now it’s sidelong and Steve is close enough to see the angle of his eyelashes change every time his focus shifts.

“Something on my face?” Steve finally says. Soldier shakes his head immediately and looks away again. Maybe he’s just looking at the dumb fresco Steve gets on his face when he takes off the helmet after getting a faceful of dust or mud or soot. It’s pretty funny. He’s laughed at himself in the mirror a couple times and can’t blame Soldier for having a look.

He finishes fixing the last strap. “Too tight?”

Soldier flexes his hand and shakes his head. He’s looking at his knees now, but Steve can tell when someone is watching him out of the corner of their eyes. “What’s your name?” Steve asks.

That startles Soldier back into looking full-on. “Bucky,” he says after a moment, then looks away quick again. Down at his knees. At the wall of the quinjet.

“Bucky,” Steve repeats. It’s a little odd, like if Steve introduced himself as Stevie or something. It must be the familiar version of - well, Steve actually can’t imagine what Bucky must be short for, other than Buckminster or God forbid Buchenwald, but parents have named their children crueler things. Maybe ‘Bucky’ is the best case scenario here. Maybe there’s a fun story involved, and Steve will get to hear it. Be on the inside of somebody’s joke.

Either way, if that’s how he wants to be called then Bucky it is. “I’m Steve,” Steve says. “Good work you did out there, not that you need me telling you.”

Bucky swallows and nods, not looking up. Maybe Bucky is some kind of… fan? That happens to people. As kids they read his comic book and saw his face staring down at them with that thing his jaw does, and now they can’t talk to him in real life. Steve’s gotten that from more than a few agents, some of them pretty senior. If that’s the case Bucky is being professional about it, and Steve figures the only way out here is through.

Bucky swallows again. Looks at his shoulder and tries to shrug the body armor back on. The sick-pain smell isn’t going away, but it’s not getting worse or stronger, even in the recirculated air of the jet. No one else is saying anything, and Natasha would speak up if there were a problem, probably. Maybe. May would. May had taken fifteen seconds to tell a nationally venerated war hero that his hand-to-hand defense was a joke. She would take someone off mission if she thought they had - the flu? Was the flu one of the ones still around? Steve had checked a while back but had gotten sidetracked by how polio was now something that only showed up in history books. And mumps! Nobody got the mumps anymore. He’d gone to work churning over how neat that was, then got there and realized nobody in the building would think anything of it, so he’d just thought about it to himself.

He hesitates a few more seconds, then pats Bucky on his good shoulder again and stands to go back to his seat. He checks again as he sits down. Bucky is sitting with his fingers curled over the icepack, staring at the quinjet wall.

-o-

They get back. They sit down and lay out the details while they’re fresh. Natasha knows the details of the infiltration, May covers the command view, and Steve only really needs to chime in when the question “so why did you hide in a cave?” gets raised. His team doesn’t ask him questions once he’s pointed them in a direction, so if he says it’s time to make camp behind a waterfall, they make camp behind a waterfall. It’s only in the post-action briefing that someone asks how he knew a cave would be behind the waterfall.

“Erosion patterns,” Bucky says quietly, because he’d been the one to spot it. And the conversation moves on and away. All of them are still covered in dirt, May has bruised ribs, Bucky’s holding his shoulder tight and stiff against his body, and Steve’s coming down off the mission in a sort of - well, he doesn’t want to navel gaze about it, but he could use something to do, and the debriefs always feel a bit too long for Steve. He used to come back from a mission and tell things to Peggy, she’d sort out what was relevant, they’d take 24 hours to rest up and report anything critical and then they’d be on to the next thing. Having everyone in the room for an hours-long discussion seems - wasteful.

But they log it, Hill turns them loose, and Steve heads straight for the locker room showers because the 21st century has more hot water than it knows what to do with. And about 500 different kinds of soap, which is enough to have a man walk into a drug store, turn around and walk right out again.

He’d eventually bought the soap that came from the corner store where he goes to restock his milk, which happens a lot, because every time he remembers nothing is rationed anymore he drinks the rest of his gallon. The corner store has three kinds of soap, none of them anything like what he’d grown up with, so he bought the one labelled Spring Fresh and hoped for the best. It’s better than what he had before, anyway. SHIELD provides body soap which smells a lot like chemicals trying very hard not to smell like anything and Steve keeps accidentally finding undercover SHIELD agents because of it. There’s a team of agents embedded in his reef that are clearly there to watch over him, and every time they pass each other in the mailroom Steve has to pretend he thinks they’re dentists. It’s a little embarrassing, but going along with it saves him from having to have a conversation about it, and he’s pretty sure only an enhanced nose would pick up the SHIELD soap signature, so it’s not a security risk to just let it lie.

He gets to the locker rooms, strips down to his underclothes, and only realizes after he’s holding his grimy uniform in his hands that he doesn’t have a towel. He’d taken his towel home to wash in the sink, because the industrial laundry soap SHIELD uses is another thing that Steve would rather smell less of. It smells how waiting room paintings look. Trying so hard to be nothing it ends up making him mad. Or that font everything is in these days. It has bad kerning between the r’s and Steve notices it everytime he picks up a newspaper. If he sees one more ad using Helvetica he’ll - write a strongly worded letter. To someone. Maybe to the editorial section of the New York Times, with the stipulation that they can only print it if they don’t use Imperial for it. Each line can be a different font and show the art directors that there’s more than one typeface in the world.

He stands in front of his locker in sodden exhaustion for longer than maybe the Greatest Tactical Mind of a generation should. He could… redress? He stares at his muddy armor and drops his hand from where it’s still reaching for the hook his towel was supposed to be on. He rests his head against the door of the locker and wishes everything still smelled mostly like boiling water and cow bones.

He has a small, private pity party about it before he notices there’s someone hovering at his periphery. Steve doesn’t look up, at first, because if he snaps to attention then that’ll spook them and he’ll be there almost in his all-together with a startled -

It’s the Soldier. Bucky. Steve turns once his nose catches up with him. He looks a little less hulking without his gear, slighter, in just tac pants and a long-sleeved undershirt. He’s still got his gloves on, boots too, but the armor and mask and all visible weapons are gone. He’s got an ice pack on, maybe the same one even though it’s got to have melted by now, making him look a little like he’s got a little bag of potatoes riding on his shoulder. Shouldn’t he have gone to get that immobilized? Steve wouldn’t, but it seemed like something somebody more attached to their shoulders would do.

He’s very pretty, under the mask. Or, with the mask off he’s pretty. Or, regardless of mask his face is… Steve’s brain chews on that for a second and then sort of presents the fact back to him like he figured something out instead of just noticing it. Bucky is pretty.

Bucky looks uncomfortable for a second, not quite looking at Steve, but not not looking at him either. Once he sees he’s got Steve’s attention he jerks his chin and heads down the row of lockers. Steve drops his uniform and follows, curious, and Bucky leads him to an alcove in the wall behind a plastic curtain, stacked with folded towels and little soap bars and even individually packaged toothbrushes. They’re a step up from the antibacterial soap and industrial shampoo in the shower dispensers.

“Oh. Wow. Thank you,” Steve says. There are even slippers, although they’re thin rubbery-looking ones, also packaged up in plastic. Steve’s toes curl against the cold ceramic tile, a reflex reaction like how his stomach grumbles every time he tries to watch one of those cooking shows people kept saying will relax him. “I never knew this was back here. Everyone just looked like they brought towels.”

Bucky nods jerkily, then stands there hesitating like he has something to say but doesn’t know how to start.

“How’s the arm?” Steve asks. Probably asking to check it over again would be going a little too far. Bucky's only been on Steve’s team for this one mission. Should Steve tell him to go to the medic? Steve would feel better if he could handle the joint for himself and see if the swelling has gone down, but now that they’re on base it’s not really Steve’s job, however much his instincts insist that ignoring a teammate smelling like pain means he’s shirking his duties.

Bucky gives him another one of those startled rabbit looks, and Steve wonders wildly if pointing out arms is in bad taste now. But then Bucky shows him the arm, flexing it back and forth. He keeps looking so shocked every time Steve says something that Steve’s starting to wonder if he’s got some kind of strange old-timey accent that he’s not noticing and everyone else so far has been too polite to react to. In the old radio programs they gave him a newscaster accent, and that’s what his USO vocal coach had always… should he go to a vocal coach? Should he record himself? He could listen to the voicemail he set up on the phone that he only uses to text. Steve opens his mouth to try and make another joke about it, maybe start a sentence with “in my day” to get it out there, but Bucky clears his throat, nods, and hurries away.

It’s the start of… something. If Steve was worried he’d somehow offended Bucky, then either he was reading the signals wrong or Bucky has a funny way of showing offense. Or maybe he figured Steve was in sore need of a tour that nobody had given him, in preference of: “This is a cell phone it is short for cellular phone it is also called a mobile phone --” before listing off the thousand and one things phones did now instead of calling people.

The day after Bucky shows Steve the shower nook, he appears just out of sight again while Steve is frowning at the paperwork they keep giving him. He’d broken one computer his first week, but that was only because he was used to his typewriter jamming on the L key and he forgot and hit the key so hard he cracked the laptop’s motherboard. So now they give him paper files to go with the goddamn fountain pen and inbox and outbox on his desk.

Steve wonders if he can just… steal a computer, maybe. They look small, he could probably manage it. If he slaps one of the Captain America shield stickers they sell in packs of twelve onto it, nobody would dare take it back. During his first week Steve had accidentally sat in someone else’s chair, and once it smelled like him nobody else would go near it, like his mark was as good as a threat.

Steve looks up from where the pen has bled a historically accurate splotch on the paper and thinks about how it’s someone’s job to type this up again and finds Bucky not-exactly hovering. Steve wonders if Bucky has that Natasha knack of knowing exactly where and how to stand to make it look like you hadn’t been sneaking up on someone. Steve stares at him. Bucky stares at the wall right back.

“Hi,” Steve says, because that’s usually. Good. It’s a good word.

Bucky clears his throat and does the head nod again before turning and walking away twice as slowly as he normally walks. Steve puts his pen away and follows him in silence until Bucky stops down some hallway. Steve vaguely thinks this is a very strange way to lure someone into a fatal ambush until he reads the sign on the wall and sees that this is where the requisitionable weapons are.

“Oh,” Steve says. “Thanks.” He’s always just taken what was given to him, since back in the day Howard had always been cooking up some new design he wanted to put in Steve’s hands. Or whenever he was drawing from the general supply, it had been “Well, these are the guns we have, Cap. Godspeed and good luck. Maybe focus on punching the Nazis to death.”

So Bucky’s showing him where the requisitionable weapons are. Steve looks up to say thank you better, maybe offer to go a few rounds at the shooting range if maybe this was somebody’s idea of needling over the whole “throws a brightly colored disc at people" schtick (which is a working schtick). But the fella’s gone up in smoke again.

So now Steve knows where towels and guns are, which is good. He’s not sure why he knows it, but it’s still good. Maybe Bucky is trying to say thanks for Steve’s help with his shoulder, but he didn’t need to thank Steve for helping out a teammate in the first place, and if he did, the towels would have covered it. Still, Steve’s not going to complain about seeing Bucky again. He’d never seen him around base before their first meeting at all; maybe Bucky had been on a long away mission, and now he’s back. Steve likes the idea of running into Bucky more often. There’s something restful about his presence.

The day after that, Bucky waylays Steve after his morning workout - which he does in the SHIELD gyms because he might as well, he gets up at 0400 anyway to drive over the bridge and through the tunnel to beat the traffic. The SHIELD base is in Jersey, which Steve understands, intellectually, is a necessity of space and resource allocation, but also, Jersey. The FBI gets to have a building in Manhattan. (Peggy can’t possibly have insisted on Jersey.)

That’s where it is today, though, so Steve trundles out every morning, showing up before the night guard shift leaves. Steve’s alone in the gym this early; he stuck around once to see when people came in, and Maria Hill was the first at 0530 and even she only came in to use the showers. She exercises outside. Maybe Steve should do that too.

But it seems Steve’s not the only one who gets here this early, because Bucky’s right outside the gym when Steve comes out, sweaty and probably with his hair looking like an electrified dandelion. “Hey,” Steve says, then, “Hi,” like some kind of dodo. Ten out of ten, Rogers. He thinks about maybe asking Bucky about his commute, maybe making a joke about Jersey - wait, is Bucky from Jersey?

Bucky mercifully dispels these blasphemous thoughts by giving an abortive little wave. Then he looks at the floor and walks away extra slow again.

This time their journey takes them to the admin floor, where Bucky draws back the leaves of a giant potted plant near the break room and shows Steve a bunch of white plastic pods, which, it turns out, is what coffee comes in. Then Bucky has to show Steve how to make the coffee.

“It’s called a keurig,” he mumbles, pressing buttons on the sleek little machine and slotting one of the rounded off-white mugs under the little nozzle. “You put it in. And. It makes coffee.”

“Thanks,” Steve says over the gurgling of the machine, trying not to sound too bewildered.  

“This is the good kind,” Bucky says to the sink. “It gets used up fast so. I hid it.”

“...In the plant?” Steve says.  

“Yes,” Bucky says. “Nobody looks.” Then he adds, “Nobody waters it,” in a much more judgmental tone.

“Oh.”

“I water it now.”

“Oh. That’s good.” They just sort of stand there. The smell of the coffee slowly suffuses the space, layering in over the faintest chemical whiff of heavy scentblock. Bucky doesn’t smell sick like this; with a fresh application, he barely smells of anything, for all Steve keeps catching himself leaning in.

“You - like coffee?” Steve tries.

Bucky looks spooked. “What?”

Maybe that’s a highly offensive personal question now. They have coffee everywhere, though. Steve passes countless coffee shops on the way in. Unless Bucky is somehow a tea guy? That seems like one of those debates the Internet keeps having, like whether Chicago style pizza is pizza or a cobbler, and whether putting fruit on stuff is a sign of the end times. Is coffee a sign of the end times? Steve backpedals furiously. “I mean, I do. Like it. Coffee. You don’t have to.”

“I haven’t tried it,” Bucky says, hunching on himself, looking between the plant and Steve like they’re going to gang up on him for some breakroom fisticuffs.

“Oh,” Steve says. It’s really hard to get a read on Bucky with how little he smells. “I - sorry. You said this was the good kind, and I…”

“All the agents fight over it,” Bucky says, looking increasingly hunted. He’s glancing now at the door, and the plant, and, worryingly, the window. “They say. Who took the last one. Why are we always out of single origin Malaysian.”

“Oh,” Steve says again, now also looking at the plant, and Bucky, and the door and, more worryingly, the window.

“It’s. Medium roast.” Bucky says, both of them now staring at the window.

“That’s good,” Steve says, not because he gives a damn or knows what that means, just in the hopes of making Bucky less nervous. They can’t both go out the window, but he doesn’t want Bucky to be the one to dive out of it and maybe cut himself with glass, so he thinks about moving to give Bucky a clean shot towards the door. But when he moves toward the plant Bucky’s shoulders go up, so he stops. Bucky looks at Steve’s left ear, fast, and back down.

Steve suddenly from the clear blue nothing wishes the serum didn’t make piercings close up. He used to wear earrings, just the one pair - Grandma Shannon’s silver-plated studs for Sunday mass - but he’d always thought when he was older he’d have more, maybe. Maybe if his ears had something in them Bucky would look longer. They make real wild earrings these days. He saw someone on the street with a whole hedgehog’s worth of piercings in their ear, and one of them had been a snake curled up along the shell and Steve had wanted to touch the small fangs. Instead he’d looked too long and then almost walked into someone, apologized, saw it was just a traffic light pole, and then put his head down and walked home faster.

Bucky is now looking at the coffee machine. As they watch, the… keurig… gives one final splutter and horks the last of the coffee into the cup. Steve looks down at it, then picks it up and offers it to Bucky.

Bucky stares at it like it’s a candy bar covered in spiders, then about-faces and walks smartly out of the break room.  

Steve looks down at his outstretched hand. He’s seen a lot of mugs about coffee that have gotten downright rude. They’re a little funny, sure, but walking into a storefront where fifteen inanimate objects yell at you about what level of caffeinated they need to be before you can talk is sort of imposing. He’d just wanted a nice kettle. Something that whistled when it was done, so he could put it on the stove and then it’d whistle and he’d remember the hot water was ready and stop having to go, heat the water, forget about it, come back, heat the water, forget about it -

Anyways. This mug doesn’t have any rude sayings on it, so it must have been Steve.

Once again he’s left feeling like he accidentally insulted someone’s mother, and once again Bucky acts like he forgot all about it by next morning. Steve’s honestly at a loss. A lot of people have started just giving him things now that he lives in his reef, but that’s more a rotating cast of neighbors showing up with their kids to hand over banana bread and make what they probably think are subtle inquiries as to the status of his pod. This… isn’t really like that.

Bucky starts falling into step with him sometimes while he walks through the halls, and at first Steve thinks he’s just headed to the same destination until Bucky starts saying “Camera,” under his breath every so often. Steve nods after he spots the cameras, all of them carefully hidden in the seams of walls or disguised in the molding, and after he nods Bucky always turns and walks away. Steve plays at not noticing one of them until Bucky actually stops in the middle of the hallway and stands rigidly directly underneath the camera, staring at Steve’s kneecaps until Steve acknowledges it. Steve feels kind of bad about that, after. He’s not trying to tease Bucky, he’s just trying to understand.

Even after Steve can point out every camera in the SHIELD complex, Bucky still shows up at unpredictable intervals. Once he makes glancing eye contact and taps his own cheek; Steve heads to the nearest bathroom and sees there's a streak of dried shaving cream on his cheekbone. Someone leaves a single, perfect acorn in Steve's tray in the mailroom. Steve brings it to his nose and catches a whiff of heavy-duty scent block.

After a couple weeks, Bucky gets more direct. Steve comes out of a training session with the SHIELD As where they'd done a lot of endurance work and finds Bucky lurking beside the vending machines outside the locker room. Bucky looks both ways down the hall, a quick back and forth glance, then hits the closest machine with his hand. A packet of what looks like nuts falls out of its wire grip thing and drops into the release tray. Bucky fishes it out, tucks it into Steve’s pocket and disappears through the nearest door, which Steve is pretty sure just leads to a janitor’s closet.

Steve stares after him for a good two minutes, then realizes if Bucky comes out and sees Steve still standing there watching the door it’s gonna be pretty embarrassing for them both, so he beats it out of there and goes to do some actual work.

He eats the nuts. It would be rude not to, surely.

So far nobody’s really noticed that Bucky’s been doing these little things for him, or if they have, they haven’t mentioned it. Come to think of it, Bucky tends to approach only when nobody else is around, which, well, the guy seems shy enough already, what with his scentblock on all the time, so it’s not shocking he wouldn’t want an audience for his social interactions. Steve hasn’t mentioned it to anyone either, because it sounds silly even in his own head. Winter Soldier given you any acorns lately? Say, me too! Any chance you could tell me what that means?

So it stays a mystery.

He keeps getting these little visits. He’s cleaning his gear in the locker room with Natasha when he accidentally snaps one of the straps of his sidearm holster. “Damn,” he says under his breath. It seems like every other week he accidentally busts a seam or pops a button or crushes a doorknob. He’s starting to think he’s never going to be over it, not even if he goes O, because it’s a serum problem and has more to do with Steve getting startled than any aggression issue. It’s not like he was mad at the holster, for heaven’s sake. He was just sitting here thinking about how that wall in front of him really needs regrouting, and how he should probably know how to regrout a wall. Has the future figured out how to avoid grouting bathrooms yet? The future has solved problems Steve’s never even heard of, but he still has to get on his knees and scrub out his shower.

Natasha, who minder or not seems like the only restful person in the world sometimes, what with how she can just sit next to him and do her own work and not want any talking, snickers.

“Do you know if there’s a way to requisition permanent gear?” Steve asks her, holding up his busted holster. “Not just for use per mission. Should I just buy my own, do you think?”

Natasha looks like she’s about to answer, only Bucky suddenly materializes on the other end of the locker row. He’s holding something, and as he comes closer, Steve realizes it’s his own holster: Steve has the standard issue SHIELD one but Bucky’s is custom, with a knife sheath on the outside and a fourth adjustable strap.

“Here,” he says, and gives it to Steve.

“Thanks!” Steve says, as open and friendly as he can, but Bucky is already retreating. Is there such a thing as guerrilla peace-fare? Steve’s heard about random acts of kindness, but this feels less like buying the next person in line’s groceries for them, and more like someone keeps jumping out of the woods to fix some small snag in his life. Tactical acts of kindness? Steve rubs the strap of Bucky’s holster, staring into the depths of the locker room like the chipped ceramic tile might impart some sort of deep mosaic secret to him.

He buckles the new holster on and gets the rest of his gear in place before he clocks the fact that Natasha is openly staring at him like he is the sole successful result of a secret government program who fought against a massive world power until it didn’t feel like getting up again, got frozen, and now was staring at bathroom tile like it was the top of his list of concerns. And then he clocks that it looks very much like Natasha does not know Bucky has been quietly ambushing Steve with helpful tips, so it probably just seems like maybe Steve had somehow summoned a holster, since, judging by Natasha’s expression, Bucky does not just go around distributing gear like the Tactical Magic Wish Fairy every time anyone pops a strap.

“Um,” Steve says in response to that, because he’s the Greatest Strategic Mind of a generation according to far too many plaques and carved stone edifices. Steve wonders what generation he is in now, technically. Do you stick with where you're born, or your current age group? If they ever unthaw anyone else he’ll ask them what they think. Natasha likes pointing out the plaques, especially if they have bird poop on them, so she’s no help.

Now she keeps looking back and forth between Steve and the new holster with something like alarm in her face. “Steve,” she says carefully, “have you had contact with the Soldier outside of missions?”

“Not really?” he says, because they’ve only passed each other in the halls, and that’s not worth mentioning, despite how long he’s spent analyzing each encounter after it happens. If Steve has spent more than one boring mission briefing trying to guess at how long it’s been since Bucky combed his hair and whether or not he did it himself or went to his podmates for it, that’s Steve’s business, and absolutely not the kind of intel he wants to hand to Natasha.

“Not really,” Natasha repeats.

“I’ve just run into him in the breakroom, that sort of thing. He doesn’t like coffee.”

“He doesn’t like coffee. He told you that he doesn’t like coffee?”

“Well, no. He just didn’t have any.” Steve shrugs, a little helplessly. “I offered him some but he just walked away.”

Natasha relaxes slightly. She drops the interrogation, but Steve sees her eyeing his new holster while they finish suiting up.

-o-

Bucky is dealing with an ongoing situation.

It is an extremely difficult situation. It appears to be originating from the body. It isn’t exactly pain. It isn’t exactly pleasure. It mostly seems to be a big hot ball in his stomach that has a direct radio line to his brain.

He hasn’t had this much trouble since he was detoxing off the HYDRA drug regimen. All the books say going O is the first step to recovering from trauma, and he did, and it helped - it helped a lot, and he hasn’t had much in the way of transition shock. He was glad to be rid of the high-pitched hypervigilance that kept him wandering the halls of his own head and snarling at everyone from the mailroom intern to Fury himself. He did feel slower, and… softer, but it’s - nice. Like he took his head and threw it in with some laundry and now it’s fresh out of the dryer and all warm and a little staticy.

The extra scent sensitivity took some getting used to, but his nose was sensitive enough even before that and by now it’s just something he deals with sometimes. It’s been five years since he got out and four since he went O and the worst he’s had is the scent headaches, which are normal and happen to other people. He didn’t get anything else. His diet certainly changed, but he doesn’t think the books were talking about transitioning from nutrient slurry to people food, and he got on cycle suppressants immediately so menstruation was never a problem, and all the other little things must have been minor enough that he didn’t notice, if they even cropped up at all. The books said he might be more cuddly and he has not wanted anyone to touch him. The books said he might want to exercise less and feel more sociable and he still takes gym time in the middle of the night and runs early enough that he doesn’t have to see even the track diehards led by Maria Hill.

Only - the effects must have been delayed, because now it feels like his whole body is bubbling with the need to - to - to do something with Captain Rogers. It’s not the first time he’s looked at something and felt like six traffic lights just all turned different colors in his brain, but usually that has something to do with some old HYDRA thing, or some old Before thing and this...doesn’t really have that same kind of metal-tongued smell to it. With Rogers, he just - he has - he just has so much skin, and, and, teeth, and, there are hands, and he has eyes, and there’s a fucking cowlick. How. How can he go out in public with the cowlick. How has nobody flattened it down yet. Bucky watched it drying into place once when Captain Rogers had come out of the showers, a rebel lock of hair arching up like one of those curly dog tails, and had to lock his hands in place for dear life behind his back to avoid touching it. How does no one else try to touch it.

The Widow touches Captain Rogers sometimes, but she doesn’t touch the cowlick. May doesn’t even look at the cowlick. How does no one touch the cowlick? How is there not a line of people who wait their turn to all fix the cowlick. Bucky wakes up from half a daydream sometimes and he’s reaching out toward a nice cloud of nothing and his fingers are whatever the stomach feels when presented with The Garlic Potatoes. The cowlick is what really gets Bucky’s goat if he’s going with how folks on first floor talk. The people on first floor talk to the most outside people, so they seem like they’re probably the closest to… how people are.

He doesn’t know if this is how other people are about Captain Rogers. Many, many bits of Bucky’s body are saying that they better not be but also how. How can they not. Captain Rogers call me Steve has a very deep voice and very short hair and - shoulders. Lots of shoulders. He may be more shoulders than he is anything else except for voice, probably. Maybe he keeps his extra voice in his shoulders. He smells like good sweat. He smells like a safehouse where no one can find you. He smells like someone you need in a crisis, which is pretty good considering Bucky usually feels like a crisis even on his best days.

Captain Rogers just came right up to him on the quinjet and set his shoulder and smelled so - so -

The first time Bucky got hurt on a SHIELD mission all the other agents had smelled scared, a harsh fight-or-flight response that stank up the quinjet all the way back to base. May was the only one who didn’t smell like she was trying to climb out her own ears but she only glanced him over and said, in a suggesting voice, that Medical could help him out. Not that Bucky had gone to Medical - he doesn’t even go to that floor if he can help it - but Captain Rogers saw Bucky’s shoulder and came over and his scent went rich and gentle like - like - chocolate pudding. A whole vat of chocolate pudding. Bucky has not previously had very strong thoughts about chocolate pudding but now he knows he wants to drown in it.

Captain Rogers isn’t scared of him. Captain Rogers is quiet when he talks and his voice is soft like a buffing cloth, something that smoothes and soothes. When Bucky talks, he listens. He found the cameras. He ate the peanuts. His arms look extremely biteable. He has a cowlick.

Bucky doesn’t know what to do.

In absence of actionable options in an unsustainable position the thing to do is retreat, so Bucky lurks heavily in Location Redacted. Location Redacted is just the forgotten bathroom in the SHIELD industrial basement, but calling it that makes him feel better about part time living in a bathroom (and part time living...outside) and also it was the first thing that popped into his head when Widow asked him where he was staying and he panicked. It’s ideal because it’s near the waste incinerator rooms, which smell bad enough to cover any trail Bucky might leave, and up in the corner it has a two by one foot sliding window with a steel grille over it. That means he can burn things in the sink and have the smoke come out safely, which means he doesn’t feel bad about what he did to the bathroom smoke detector.

He doesn’t usually burn things, but sometimes shredding is not enough.

He’s not alone in here. He has six paper shredders and one printer, rescued from untenable circumstances in the SHIELD offices. The printer used to belong to Agent Hoffmeyer at home only Agent Hoffmeyer was mean to his dog and now his dog lives with a nice pod two counties over and his printer lives with Bucky.

He likes to think they have a good life down here. He read all their manuals from cover to cover and he keeps them well supplied with electricity and purpose. And they help him right back. They are an excellent support team. The books said he’d pod bond faster as an O and he has not bonded with any SHIELD agents, but he feels - good. Printing things out and then giving them to the shredders. Therapy is talking about things out loud so they can’t chase you around your head anymore, but he figures seeing all those thoughts in black and white and then in shreds might be even better.

He has the shredders and the printer. They pin secrets down and then eat them. And when the shredding isn’t enough, Bucky has the bathroom sink, a window for adequate ventilation and his lighter.

He prints out another copy of the Winter Soldier file and feeds it page by page into his shredders. They whirr happily as they munch it down. A glimpse of Barnes, James Buchanan goes past, visible for a moment before it’s eaten forever by Shredder Five (HR, copy room).

He’d chosen Bucky out of his available options because it sounded - nice. Calm. Like a person who knows what calm is. He goes to counter places that take your name with your order and call it back just to hear it said out loud sometimes, to remind him. He must’ve been O, before he got drafted, with a nice name like Bucky. He must have had plenty of friends. He would have known what to do with all of this, once upon a time, before Nazis gave him brain damage.

Now he has six shredders and a copy of Cosmopolitan. The Cosmopolitan was in the recycling bin before Bucky rescued it and took it to Location Redacted. The cover is a daring bubblegum pink and has the headline A FOR ATTRACTION - make yourself irresistible! above an A-looking guy pushing his lips out at the viewer. He looks very comfortable and happy in his big sweater. It is, Bucky decides, an aspirational image.

The primary reason Bucky took this Cosmo, however, is that one of the smaller headlines, right next to the guy’s hip, says, TINGLY FEELINGS? HOT AND BOTHERED? Five Non-Scary Steps To Securing Your Crush!

That seems very promising. Hot, bothersome tinglings are the primary symptoms of Bucky’s recent affliction. This is the best lead he’s gotten so far, so he settles in and turns to the appropriate page.

The five non-scary steps appear to begin with a pleasingly periwinkle flow chart. All of the boxes are labeled and have very clear arrows. There’s even a number system for points. Bucky dutifully produces a pencil to tally with and reads on.

So you guys are thinking, okay, we’ve got a good thing going, but it’s time to invite that special someone in on our fun. Take this quiz together to find out who’s who and get started on your plan to snag your perfect A!

Bucky looks around. His shredders are all there and accounted for. Should he read aloud to them? They don’t have ears or any other audio pickup (Bucky checked very thoroughly for that). Maybe he’ll just feed them the quiz when he’s done.

He moves to the first question.

Your pod just moved to a new reef, and you’ve been invited to a neighborhood party! When you get there, do you:

A)  Go around and start introducing yourself

B)  Link arms with a podmate and read the room

C)  Go straight to the food table and set up the super delish dish you brought for everybody

D)  Start organizing a game of tag

Bucky stares at the quiz for long minutes, stuck on the very first sentence. He doesn’t have a pod, he doesn’t have a neighborhood, and he’s never been invited to a party, unless sneaking into the breakroom to eat the leftover cake after someone has a birthday counts. Cautiously, he circles D. Sometimes people run away from him and he catches them. That’s almost like tag.

Two of your podmates are having a big fight! Once the screaming starts, do you:

A)  Remind them both to keep it down, the neighbors are listening

B)  Step in between them and work a solution they can both be happy with

C)  Take the rest of the pod out for ice-cream while those two work out their issues

D)  Join in on the yelling and back up whoever you think is right

Bucky winces. Yelling is… not good. Even before he’d gone O and gotten a boost to his hearing, he’d had sensitive ears. He can tune out the discomfort if it’s a mission requirement, but he carries earplugs with him on base. Angry yelling is even worse. He has no idea how people can stand to have yelling fights in the first place. Nothing bad has happened to him anytime he’s smelled someone at SHIELD angry, but his body feels hard-wired to pay attention to danger scents and the only way he reacts to anger is by going on red alert. It’s even worse now that he’s O, because instead of the teetering pre-fight feeling his whole body just wants to fit itself into a shoebox instead.

The idea of standing in between two people having a screaming fight makes him want to crawl out a window. He circles C.

The rest of the quiz is just more of the same. Bucky struggles through as best he can, and where he can’t he gives up and guesses at random.

Results:

The DIPLOMAT

The ADVENTURER

The PEACEKEEPER

The DEN MOTHER

The WILD CHILD

If Bucky tallies up his points, he gets WILD CHILD. Bucky does not feel like a WILD CHILD. Neither does he feel diplomatic, adventurous, peacekeeping or motherlike. He mostly feels like it’s a miracle he gets his boots on the correct feet every morning.

He pages further into the magazine. The five steps to securing a crush appear to be taking the quiz with your pod, defining which role everyone fulfills, and then sending the ADVENTURER and DIPLOMAT out to make an overture while the DEN MOTHER and PEACEKEEPER prepare a welcoming environment for the A. The WILD CHILD is advised to meet the A in the later stages of courting and to “test out the A’s gardening skills.” That piece of advice is followed by a winking smiley face.

Bucky is very good at cyphers. He carefully picks the magazine binding apart until the pages are loose, then locates every article with a winking smiley face. The mirrored wall above the sink is an excellent surface for intelligence analysis; tape adheres very well to the glass, and obstructing his view of himself lowers the rate of tension headaches he experiences. He tapes the magazine pages into logical clusters and begins to flag relevant articles with color-coded tabs. The pattern they make is unclear, but that’s to be expected. This is an ongoing situation, with many unknown data points. He will continue to make contact with Captain Rogers until the intelligence gaps are filled, and Bucky understands the chocolate pudding thoughts and the cowlick and the liquid knee feeling that results from Captain Rogers smiling in his near vicinity. And then he’ll know what to do about them.

In the meantime, he needs more intel. He glances at the clock: 0317. Captain Rogers will arrive on base within the hour. That leaves him plenty of time to raid the paper recycling bin for more magazines. He equips himself with a SHIELD base-appropriate number of weapons and slithers into an air vent.

-o-

Most of Steve’s time is spent training, because the consequence of having a bunch of As around is that they need to be occupied or they’ll start having dominance scuffles in the mess over who gets the last slice of cherry rhubarb. Steve participates in all of the terrain exercises and leads a lot of the forest ones, what with his experience traipsing through the Reich-infested European countryside and not dying. There’s a lot of combat training, which he appreciates, and weapons certifications and refreshers, which are interesting, and of course conditioning, which is just gym time but with former drill sergeants making you max out muscles you didn’t even know you had.

Then there’s O week, where every month active duty alpha agents have to practice combat against all the active duty omega agents with their scent block off. The exercise is open to non-combat staff, too, and doubles as a self-defense training course. Natasha leads this one. All the active duty Os on base take the weekend to do a deep cleanse of all their scent block and come in, as Dernier used to say, au naturale, and then they all take the morning to gear up and do their workouts in the big main gym. Now it’s afternoon and Steve can see the incoming As blink hard as they step into the wall of natural scent in here.

He and May are leading the alpha contingent. STRIKE is trained enough that they don’t automatically balk when an O comes at them with anything more vicious than a cutting look, but the reason they don’t balk is that they get these training sessions on the regular. Scent goes straight to instinct and it’s a Hell of a thing to override unless you’ve got the way of it banged into you over and over again. It can be as little a flinch as a half second of hesitation, but for agents like Natasha and Peggy a half second is all they need.

Around half the O agents are what Natasha calls frequent flyers, switching over regularly enough that they spend every other month on the other side of the fence, so to speak, but for the ones who don’t switch it’s practice too. An alpha coming at you swinging has your instincts saying play dead and show your throat, which is equally unhelpful. The As don’t have to do a deep scrub - alpha scent is more pungent and As sweat more, so all Steve and STRIKE had to do was not put on any scentblock or deodorant that morning. The As go first, anyway.

Steve’s been doing these trainings for a while, and by now there’s a formula. They start with warmups; Natasha and May both pick a form to train and proceed to use Steve as a practice dummy. Natasha demonstrates where to hit for a gaggle of junior agents, and has more senior ones practice their holds on Steve so she can correct their technique. It’s a good warmup for the next part, which is where the scent-scrubbing comes in.

Steve occasionally feels a little guilty about this part. It feels like flexing a muscle that needs the stretch, going right into the core of the alpha feeling and revving it as hard as he can, maxing out his scent. At the same time it’s - not his favorite thing, to see agents around him falter slightly or twitch, everybody turning to him with eyes wide and nostrils flaring, even when they know it’s on its way. But his alpha scent is so much stronger than even the next smelliest A that training with it will give the agents an advantage in combat with regular As, and everyone agrees they’re lucky to have him for that alone. It was at least half the reason all the HYDRA goons had worn masks in battle after the first few times they all stumbled over each other when Steve was upwind.

They’d used it as a battering ram in the war, when they knew it’d come down to open combat: Steve would scrub as best he could in the nearest well or pond or river if he still had any scentblock left on him, but half the time it wouldn’t matter because the watery stuff they’d been issued didn’t last long and Steve tended to burn it off in combat besides. Peg liked to induce it - her trick was to pick a fight, or near enough that their instincts couldn’t tell the difference: she’d shove Steve’s chest, snarl in his face until he was snarling back, until the stink of them rose up like steam. She didn’t just use it for combat, either - one time she dragged Steve through HQ, riled him up, brought him into a cell where they were keeping a captured HYDRA grunt and made Steve stand behind the prisoner while Peg asked very calm and civil and polite questions. The guy’s knees were knocking five minutes in.

It was primitive, and more than a little brutal, but Steve can’t deny Peggy got results. And when it comes to training, it’s what works.

This isn’t quite like that. For the SHIELD exercise, the real goal for junior O agents isn’t even to disarm him, it’s just to get within touching distance and land any kind of hit. A slap on the chest counts. For civilians, Steve thinks, the goal would probably be just to stand their ground when he advanced on them. More senior agents have to try and get the baton out of his hand, and for a few people like Natasha and May it’s an actual fight - though for these kinds of group trainings they use it more as a demo than a real spar.

He used to do this sort of thing with the Howlies, though nowhere near as official. With them being all-A it was only a few degrees more serious than a dominance tussle, but sometimes Peg would bring him a couple of O agents when they were in camp and yell things like show a little spine, you bloody pansies! and encourage them to dogpile him.

The Howlies would often come up against highly trained operatives who’d sneer at the shield like it was all pomp and circumstance until it beaned them right in the noggin. Peggy used to hit a fella with anything in reach, push her hair out of her face and sigh, looking at the bent poker or smashed lamp or broken jar of preserves: well, needs must. She tried to pass it along to everyone she trained, seeing as it was highly effective, but not everybody had the knack.

Everybody would cluster close around a mess table or campfire afterwards, reassuring themselves and Steve that it had all been practice, with no real aggression behind it. That part, Steve had liked; wrapping his arms around the same agents who’d tried to drown him in a mud puddle a few hours before, everyone companionably snuggled up. The twitchy energy that usually made him pace around camp for an hour or two before he could sleep would be drained from the fight and the satisfaction of having everyone held safe and close.

Steve wonders briefly why Bucky isn’t participating - even Lillian from Accounting is here, padded gear and all - because he’s not away on a mission: Steve saw him this morning. Then again, if Bucky’s smell is off enough that even Steve barely identified him as O, it’s probably not suitable for this kind of exercise.

Then May claps her hands to start. Natasha charges at Steve, smacks a numbing kick to the inside of his forearm, and they’re off. Everybody’s run starts with Steve, and then after they give it a go they line up in front of one of the other four alphas who have the next strongest scent. After Steve, going at Rodriguez or Baker or May feels entirely feasible.

Steve’s rank by the end of the session, dripping sweat and stinking. It’s not aggressive anymore: he can’t keep that up outside of combat anyway, not when his whole body knows it’s just a play fight. Now he just smells like himself, which is - well, it’s safe to say nobody leaves the room to get away from him anymore.

Everyone’s more or less adjusted by now, at least, so no one starts drifting in too close. The Howlies used to do that, for all they’d been As down to the bone of them. The younger GIs in camp would trail after him sometimes, not even knowing what they were doing. It was strange as Hell for Steve at first, because before the serum people sometimes crossed the street to avoid him, no matter how rude it was, and now it’s - this. He gets it, though. Sometimes when folks got tired and your scentblock was wearing off they’d get at you, like they were moths and you were the best sweater in the whole closet.

But if people can get used to him at his ripest, they can get used to anything. Everyone’s sniffing more than normal, sure, and Steve feels sort of helplessly like that bakery on 5th he used to linger outside of without really meaning to. Smells are free, right? He’s just not quite sure what to do with the fact that there are a couple of people looking at him the way he looks at a good old fashioned sticky roll.

“We should call it,” Steve says, pushing his sweaty hair from his forehead. Natasha nods, working a knot out of her neck with her free hand. All the other agents are doing stretches or gulping water, grouped over by the wall fountains. Steve could keep going but he knows nobody else could, not in any good way, even if they wanted to.

They’re just wrapping up when Bucky comes skidding in.

Steve has his back to the door but notices at the same time as the rest of them, because that faint sickly scent he caught in the quinjet is now a full-on avalanche. It spreads like wildfire in the sudden influx of air from the open doors, blowing through the fug of the gym. Bucky’s scrubbed off his scent block like the other agents, and when Steve turns around he sees he’s in training gear too. There’s a hectic kind of flush at the tops of his cheeks.

Very, very distantly, it occurs to Steve that he is staring. Bucky looks like Steve’s a fire alarm beeping a low battery at two in the morning. He looks like a fountaining fire hydrant on a bakingly hot day. Bucky smells like something has gone wrong and it is specifically Steve’s job to help fix it. He has no God damn clue why it’s translating so hard or to which instincts, but by God, it is happening.

“Soldier,” May greets cordially and not at all like she has swallowed any part of her tongue. Which is the sign of a true leader, Steve figures. He couldn’t have done that right now, his hands itching and whatever need he normally has to touch Bucky’s head revving up full gear. Behind May half of STRIKE is throwing panicked looks at each other. “We’re just finishing up. Do you need a partner?”

Bucky’s eyes dart around, from May’s professional acceptance to all the other As trying to hide behind each other. Bucky swallows. Steve sympathy swallows because if he were anyone else, he thinks, the urge to tuck Bucky up next to a fireplace with a nice book and something chipper on the radio would be overwhelming, and as it is -

“Me,” Steve offers, stepping up, then, to sound a little less like a grunting Neanderthal, adds, “I can spar. It’ll have to be one on one, though. Everybody else is, uh. Probably. Done. For the day.”

Bucky’s gaze zeroes in on Steve. He nods like he’s hypnotized. The entire room billows with relief. “Alright, dismissed,” Natasha says, exchanging a speaking glance with May, and there’s an immediate stampede for the showers. That’s good. Bucky doesn’t like an audience, that’s - good.

But now it’s Bucky staring at Steve and Steve staring at Bucky, and Steve stares hard and thinks colleague. Comrade in arms. Co-worker and doesn’t think anything involving blankets. He really wants to think about blankets. And how Bucky should probably be wrapped in at least eight of them. This is why the training is good and helpful, so you don’t go swinging at the enemy, then ditch out on the follow through and end up making hot chocolate. A war founded on marshmallows is a sinking kingdom, is probably how at least one parable goes. Steve tucks his lips over his teeth and pointedly takes a few deep breaths through his mouth because he has to acclimate and not think about. Blankets.

May steps to the side, her gaze neutral, clearly taking up the role of spotter, and that breaks the spell. Steve’s glad; Bucky seems less uneasy around May than most of the other agents, and it’s not like Bucky needs a chaperone, but it feels better to have someone there anyway. More professional. Less like the kind of sparring an A and O might do for fun, and Steve buries that thought as soon as it pops up. He’s not the kind of asshole who gets those wires crossed. He is a professional who is going to spar with a coworker. A nice coworker even, who showed him where towels and coffee are, and oh this wasn’t a helpful line of thought because now he can’t stop thinking about how he really should try and repay Bucky. Provide something.

He can provide being professional.

And that’s not going to happen while they’re still staring and scenting each other down and not even circling. With what feels like a historic amount of will, Steve breaks the staring contest and steps into one of the big taped-off squares doing duty as sparring rings.

Bucky follows him, and now they’re a yard apart. Up close his scent is nearly overpowering. Steve doesn’t flinch. He used to smell sick too. It’s - a lot, though, pumping out more than is normal, Steve is pretty sure, but once again Bucky’s moving fine and breathing fine and Steve’s not about to bring up somebody’s personal problems when they can’t help it. The guy already wears scentblock off missions. Steve carefully doesn’t think about any of his Ma’s home remedies.

Somehow, possibly through divine intervention, they more or less simultaneously realize they should probably get going. They tap gloves. May claps her hands to start the fight, and Steve shouldn’t have worried too much about being professional because Bucky comes at him like an avalanche with the intent of at least one (1) broken bone. There’s no hesitation whatsoever. He’s telegraphing a little, but Steve figures that the guy with the metal arm asked to tussle with coworkers telegraphs out of basic human politeness and also from someone putting the fear of God into him via HR.

Steve catches Bucky’s fist and does the tried and true Peggy move of letting someone’s force carry them right into a wall. There’s no wall on option, though, just the mats, and Bucky straightens easily. They feint at each other for a second. Southpaw, right hook, jabbing and dancing away and then Bucky gets a glint to him that has nothing to do with how much metal is involved and probably a lot to do with the fact that Steve might be the only person on base who could take Bucky’s fist to the jaw without needing an ambulance. Steve gets a glint right back. Fighting with Natasha is productive and all, but sort of the way playing chess against a computer is: you aren’t gonna beat it, but gosh it’s informative to try.

Bucky is different. He goes at Steve again, faster this time, and Steve doesn’t know how well May is tracking them but for all he was sweating before, that was marathon sweat from just doing something over and over and over. This is a sprint. This is lungs pumping and heart picking up and the desperate race to a finish line that your body wants to smash through.

It feels so Goddamn good to just let loose. When Steve speeds up, Bucky matches it. It’s clear he’s learned more from the Natasha school of flip kicks and less from the Peggy school of hit them until they stop moving, but that’s not bad. Steve’s style of fighting, Natasha says, has all the grace of construction equipment but makes up for it by having the same kind of force - and Bucky can take it: Steve lands a hit and Bucky just rolls with it and moves in with the next strike. Steve bares his teeth and Bucky bares his back.

And Bucky’s fast, very fast, but Steve’s fast too. He finally gets Bucky pinned to the mat by using both hands to immobilize Bucky's left arm and trapping Bucky's legs in the vice grip of his thighs. He might be smiling at little. His muscles feel sore. They hurt. And he shouldn’t miss the pain of overexertion, but here he is, breathing down at the first thing that’s woken his body up that didn’t involve the miserable marathon of punching at an endless stream of aliens or running himself sick lapping Central Park.

And Bucky’s right beneath him, skin hot and scent rising. This close Steve can smell the last traces of scentblock mixed with that scouring antibacterial hand soap dispensed in all the SHIELD bathrooms, wafting from behind Bucky’s ears. His hair is damper than just sweat. Had he been late because he’d been scrubbing scentblock off in a bathroom sink? Bucky is sort of half smiling back up at him, some of the sick-scent burned off a little, replaced by the smell of true effort, both their bodies revved up more than SHIELD’s training equipment could ever induce.

Bucky rears up and flips him and it’s on again. Fighting Bucky is like trying to catch a greased wildcat in the bath, but Steve’s no slacker in the buttered feline department. Steve stays with him, closing every time Bucky tries to dart around, matching him strike for strike. Bucky’s hair isn’t even pulled back this time and so it whips around wildly, flicking against Steve’s skin, and it doesn’t mean anything but Steve can’t help but run hotter each time.

And Bucky’s scent starts changing. It’s more than the fresh sweat of new exertion, although there’s plenty of that, which is actually flattering given how effortlessly Bucky seems to be slipping out of his holds. But the gratingly bitter smell of a body at war with itself is tapering off. There's a thick, brassy note of challenge to Bucky's scent now, and it's been so long since Steve had an opponent who was physically excited to fight him that he starts grinning like a dope when Bucky charges him again.

They go at each other with renewed vigor. Steve feels electrified, turned up, like riding one of the Coney Island coasters times a hundred. Bucky is relentless and Steve’s awake. He wants to live in this feeling, in the bright flashing thing between them. It’s like a dance. Bucky pins him. Steve flips them, their legs tangling together as they both fight for leverage, and then Bucky's smell slides to hungry so fast that Steve freezes in place.

Bucky seizes the advantage immediately, rolling Steve onto his back with his metal arm across Steve's throat. His moves are still flawlessly executed, but his eyes are wide and his cheeks are blotched with red. The panting breaths that seemed like a normal part of sparring a moment ago are registering very differently now, and Steve is about to embarrass himself in front of the best operative he's met in the future and, oh God, Melinda May, who's still watching from the sidelines, her face utterly unreadable.

"Good - good tactic," Steve manages. Maybe if he doesn't move, or breathe, ever again, his body will stop reacting to the apparently extremely interested O who's on top of him and he won't wind up pressing a hard-on into Bucky's ass. Maybe his dick will decide to fall off, suddenly, for no reason. That would be - great. "Good distraction. Very - Yes."

“What?” Bucky breathes, staring down at him with pupils the size of nickels. He’s less pinning now and more sort of - draping himself, on Steve’s - on his everything, and Steve already wants to shrivel up dick-first and this is not helping.

“The scent,” he tries desperately. “It’s very. Distracting.”

Bucky gives him a bewildered look. His nostrils flare as he draws in a deep breath, but that must just give him a big whiff of Steve, because his eyes go glassy right before he faceplants in the crook of Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s whole body jerks convulsively as Bucky’s mouth mashes right into his neck.

“Okay! Training exercise over,” May says, clapping her hands sharply.

The noise is loud enough that Bucky levitates and Steve flinches, jerking again when Bucky lands on him with all four hands and knees. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever heard May use that tone before, and he’d probably be concerned if all of his concern wasn’t currently concentrated in about five square inches between his legs.

Bucky hasn’t either, clearly, because his head whips around, and then he looks down, and then he gives Steve, May and his own sweat-soaked front an almost comically spooked look. Steve finds himself reaching out, his fingers brushing Bucky’s loose hair on their way to his cheek, but before he makes skin contact Bucky rears up off of him with huge eyes and practically teleports out of the ring.

Steve sits up on his elbows, dizzy as he’s ever been outside an actual concussion, just in time to watch Bucky disappear through the gym doors.

“I, uh.” Steve looks at May helplessly. “Was that - did I - “

May has her entire lower face cupped in the palm of her hand, like whatever it was Steve and Bucky were doing is something she needs physical support to withstand. Steve gets up, body still leaning in towards the lingering scent. Is Bucky okay? Did Steve scare him? Should they train more so this doesn’t happen again? Should they have a chaperone? Will Bucky’s… pod... be upset? About it?

“That was... unideal,” May finally settles on, and it rushes over Steve like a planeful of cold water, or, well, wow. That was dramatic, Rogers. It was fine. He’s fine. They hadn’t done anything… well maybe it was a little untoward, but that was the point of these things. It had never bothered Steve before, but maybe it was the combination of being thrown around a little and O that got him. Peggy used to -

It doesn’t matter what Peggy used to, because Bucky just ran off. Steve clears his throat. “Should I - do something? Is there a form or um. Do we need to practice… more?”

May gives him an extremely unimpressed look, which softens slightly as he stares back at her, wholly at a loss. “I’ll… talk to him,” she says, and looks him over. “Hit the showers for the upper level gyms and cool off, alright?”

Steve nods. Cooling down, yeah, that’s the smart thing. Then he hesitates, puffing up a little. “He’s not in trouble, right?”

May shakes her head, now looking more resigned than anything. “No trouble. Just want to see what page he’s on.”

Steve nods and feels the back of his neck go warm for no particular reason that he could explain.

Cooling off. Right. He goes.

-o-

Bucky hides in the showers, his panting hidden by the sound of water. Putting water on the face is supposed to simulate the Diving Response, which slows the heart and calms the nerves. He pushes his face more into the spray, but his nerves remain severely uncalmed. His brain feels like a beehive that’s been punted down the stairs. He feels too hot. He feels like the water coming down on him should be steaming. He can smell himself, even in the shower, the way his body is just - gushing. It doesn’t smell like it used to. He doesn’t smell like he did three hours before. What is going on. 

When he was A he hadn’t smelled right either, but that was probably because of all the drugs, and under that he knew he’d smelled - scary. It was done on purpose. Sometimes the handlers would have all the scentblock scrubbed off him, inject something that made his skin feel like it was trying to melt off and send him out that way. People scattered like gnats when he got sent out like that. Sometimes it made hostiles freeze like mice in front of him, when it didn’t make them drop their weapons and run, if they didn’t have enough of the right kind of training.

The training they did just now. Steve doesn’t - he didn’t - even the shock scent rolling off him somehow smelled good, though that’d all but disappeared by the time Bucky had run in, so late. Maybe it’s because his own shock scent was just as bad, when he was A. Maybe it’s because Captain Rogers smells good all the time.

Bucky doesn’t smell good all the time. He doesn’t smell good ever. He can’t make shock scent anymore but at least that was natural. He knows he doesn’t smell right, hasn’t since he detoxed, but he got used to the metallic scent of himself, a cross between thin bile and a wet tin can in a thunderstorm.

This is - this isn’t - it’s not anything like that. He doesn’t know what this is. He’s read his own manual (and shredded it) and the SHIELD manual plenty of times, and this isn’t covered. Is there another manual? Is there a normal person manual he should look for. All the magazines act like they are people manuals, but if they are, they’re written in a language Bucky doesn’t quite speak, and they need more appendices. Maybe a glossary. He needs a glossary right now. He needs a name for the way he’s reacting to having rolled around on the gym mats with Captain Rogers call me Steve.

He's fought a lot of people, but this was the first time he'd sparred with someone who had been… having... fun. Yes, Bucky decides, dizzily reviewing exhibits A through C: Steve's unhesitating willingness to grapple with him, Steve's puppy-wagging-its-tail body language in between holds, Steve grinning like a madman while Bucky tried to pull his head off with his knees. Steve had been having fun.

Bucky had been having fun too, until his body decided to ramp up to Mach 7 and cartwheel off the rails without even consulting him. In retrospect he’d probably lost control of himself when he overhead an agent say, “Captain Rogers? He’s doing O week training in the third floor gym,” and next thing he knew he was tossing the locker room for practice gear, soap still foaming behind his ears. And then they got in the ring, and all the instincts that tell him how to take down his opponent kept getting overridden by the parts of him shrieking LICK HIM LICK HIM BITE HIM ON THE FACE.

He’d kept himself under control, until they had been rolling on the mat and something in him went haywire and suddenly his body was doing… whatever the hell it’s doing now. He doesn’t smell like himself. It’s like passing a reflective surface and seeing someone else’s face.

He gulps more water from the shower spray, pressing his hot face to the cool tiles. He needs to figure out what to do. The ongoing Steve Rogers situation has escalated and Bucky’s body now feels like a tuning fork smacked against a piano. All week he’s been fighting off thoughts like what if you broke into his locker and stole all his deodorant, and he’s been trying very hard not to obey what feels like a rabid chimpanzee mashing buttons in his brain, because all its great ideas contradict the rules on Acceptable Workplace Behavior that SHIELD HR spent a few weeks explaining to him once he'd started going on missions. There had been PowerPoint presentations. Bucky really doesn't want to have to repeat the PowerPoint presentations.

And - beyond that, he doesn’t want Steve to start looking at him like the other agents do when they think he can’t see them. Steve talks to him like he’s a person, and not like he’s one wicker handle short of a basket case. That’s valuable enough to let him resist the urge to steal Steve’s socks while he’s still wearing them, despite how much the rabid chimpanzee wants to bring everything that smells like Steve back to his nest and roll around in it.

His good intentions are derailed briefly by thoughts of Steve himself showing up in his nest and rolling around in it. Of Bucky rolling on top of him, of - of rubbing his whole face against Steve’s face and pressing his thumb into the divot of Steve’s elbow. Bucky thinks about all the overhearing he does, all the conversations full of eyebrows and euphemisms because nobody has the decency to say a thing straight out for any potential listeners that might be lurking nearby, just trying to Get It. He thinks of the simple pleasure of having Steve’s skin against his tongue.

Everyone speaks around the details and Bucky’s not sure how or who or what to ask but he knows he wants Steve. He wants Steve the way he once saw a video online of a puppy climb into its own food bowl while eating and then fall asleep in it. He wants Steve like he wants to reach into make-up tutorial videos and touch all the brushes. He wants Steve to do a make-up tutorial, to soak up Steve’s smell that's so much like his voice, all deep and low and good while he talks about nice things like how matte is obviously superior when doing cut creases, but mostly Steve should just have the brushes and use them to gently trace over Bucky’s cheekbones and forehead and -

HR would probably have a lot to say about these thoughts.

But thinking is allowed. He can just - think about it. Thinking is harmless. He’ll be a good normal person to Steve and inside his head he can think thoughts that will never ever come out. So far, he’s been doing a good job converting the thoughts to actions that are helpful instead of creepy. When he thought about breaking into the SHIELD surveillance center so he could see where Steve was all the time, he showed Steve where all the cameras are instead. When he thought about stealing Steve’s clothes while Steve was in the shower, he helped Steve find the good towels. Whatever his terrible lizard brain tells him to do, he’ll do the opposite, and then everything will be okay.

And if not, he’ll make it okay. This isn’t the first time the body has done something new and appalling and mystifying. This time, he has mission assists. The shredders and printer are still in his nest. He has more magazines to review. He’s almost out of color-coded tabs but he knows where Sheryll in Admin hides the extra office supplies.

It’s his body and he may not be able to control it but he can try to understand, and no matter what, he makes the choices about what to do with it. He’s not sure what it is he wants to do, exactly, but - he has a lot of thoughts, and thinking is good. Thinking is harmless. Here in the privacy of the shower, with endless warm water surrounding him, he can rest his forehead on the wall and think as many chocolate pudding thoughts as he wants. Thinking is his again.