“I’m going to kill Tony,” Steve muttered, trying hard not to slouch in his seat. Bucky’s right hand drummed a tattoo on the dark wood table in between them; with his gloved left, he was examining the menu.
“‘Please speak easy’,” he read. “‘No cell phone use. Don’t even think of asking for a Cosmo.’ What the fuck is a Cosmo?”
“A drink?” Steve guessed. Up above the bar there was a warmly lit display of fancy green bottles, and every patron Steve could see was drinking something with a twist of fruit or some kind of green leaf in it. They all looked pretty outer-space, as far as he was concerned. “You know it said ‘Speakeasy’ right over the door?”
“Yeah, not to mention one of these things costs more than the rent on Joe’s,” Bucky said, with the short exhalation he gave when something wasn’t worth a laugh. Joe’s was the unlicensed place they’d always gone to together, literally a converted broom closet in the back of their local grocer.
“People don’t drink moonshine anymore, do they?” Steve asked, eyeing the green bottles with some concern. “They know it kills people, right?”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I’m sure in the last seventy years somebody has figured that out, Steve.”
Steve shrugged. “Every time I think the future’s got it all together, I find out something that makes me wonder.” Like the thing about people refusing vaccines for their kids. Or everything about the current Congress.
Bucky cocked his head suddenly, listening, and then screwed up his face in an expression of distaste. “My mother loved this song.”
Steve closed his eyes to better pick out the tune and grinned when he recognized “Let’s Fall in Love”. “Well, you have to give them points for that, at least,” he said, opening his eyes. “I think one of the first things I learned in your house is what a ‘handsome gentleman’ Eddy Duchin is. Was,” Steve corrected. He’d gotten pretty good about using the right tense, but with Bucky around it was sometimes hard to remember which was which.
“What does it matter how handsome you are if you make people fall asleep every time you play piano?” Bucky groused, and Steve had to smile because he’d heard the same argument many times - always out of earshot of Mrs. Barnes, of course. “So this is Stark’s idea of a joke?” Bucky asked, circling his finger to take in the whole establishment.
“Yeah, unfortunately, I think it is,” Steve said. When Tony had told him he needed him and Bucky for a special mission that involved picking up intel at a third-party location, Steve had been expecting some sort of punchline, but not a full-blown imitation speakeasy. “Should we just get it over with?”
It wasn’t just over and done with now that they’d arrived and seen the gag; they still had to pick up the “intel”, whatever it was.
They went up to the bar and Steve took a look at one of the menus Bucky had been reading. He knew immediately when he got to the drink Tony had intended for him to order.
“An old-fashioned, please,” he asked the bartender in resignation.
The bartender tapped the lacquered surface of the bar. Steve looked down and saw a piece of paper under the laminate that repeated the exhortation to “PLEASE SPEAK EASY”. Underneath it was a list of slang, correlated to more formal words. Behind him, Bucky guffawed.
Steve sighed, fighting down sincere irritation. “Bum me a… an old-fashioned, ace,” he said, deliberately not listening to how ridiculous he sounded. He scanned through the list for the word ‘please’. “Natch,” he said, even though that didn’t mean please and nothing on this list seemed to have anything to do with anything.
“Sure thing, guy,” the bartender said, and went to the back of the bar.
Bucky was losing it. He put a hand on Steve’s shoulder to support himself as he wheezed. “Whassamatta, guy?” Bucky managed to ask him. “Don’t you go in for kicks like this?”
“Don’t make a scene,” Steve told him, aware of how much like a grandmother he sounded.
“Aw, come on, baby, I’m just ragging ya. Don’t be a f…” Bucky couldn’t take it. He tried again, voice trembling with laughter. “Fuddy-duddy!” He collapsed against Steve’s back, stifling his laughter in Steve’s jacket.
The bartender returned. Steve looked at him with dead eyes.
“One old-fashioned for the gent,” the bartender said, to his credit only glancing briefly at the meltdown happening behind Steve. He slid the drink over, and with it a small USB drive.
“Huh,” Steve said. There actually had been intel for them to pick up. He paused, struggling with himself for a moment, and then he said, “Mercy buckets.” He left an obscene amount of money on the bar. Steve might have imagined it, but he thought there was a sympathetic look in the bartender’s eye.
Back at their table, Bucky regained some control over himself, but not over his terrible sense of humor, which apparently had more overlap with Tony’s than Steve would’ve guessed. “I really am sorry, dollface,” Bucky said, his eyes huge and stupid. “I’m just flapping my gums, you know what a chucklehead I am.”
Steve thought that this was probably a better payoff than even Tony could have hoped for.
“I’m so glad you’re amused,” Steve told him. “And when exactly did I turn into a girl, here?”
“Babe,” Bucky said. “Doll. Kitten. You’re not just any girl, you’re my best girl.”
“Oh, yeah, then why am I paying for my own drinks?”
Steve knew immediately that playing along was a mistake from the way Bucky’s eyes lit up.
“Now hang on a minute, peach,” Bucky said, leaning forward with a grin. He put a fingertip on Steve’s cold tumbler. “I could keep you in these all night if you want.”
“It won’t work on me,” Steve reminded him, meaning the alcohol, but as soon as he said it out loud he heard the double meaning and winced.
Bucky’s smile went big and goofy, the kind of smile Steve hadn’t seen on him in a long time. “It works on everybody,” he said, and he wasn’t wrong.
“C’mon, Buck,” Steve said. His face felt warm and he hoped to God he wasn’t visibly blushing.
“C’mon, doll,” Bucky shot back. “What’s a guy gotta do to get a little of your attention?” He bit his lip briefly, ostentatiously, and his pout had a challenge in it.
Steve looked briefly around the room at all the twenty-something kids in blue jeans and weird haircuts, none of whom were paying attention to the supersoldiers crammed into the little table against the wall. God knows Bucky had made him look a fool in worse ways than this. Coney Island came to mind.
“Maybe if you told me… a little something about yourself,” Steve said at last. His eyes flicked hesitantly to Bucky’s. “Can’t accept drinks from a stranger.”
Bucky unsuccessfully tried to bury his triumph in mock seriousness. “I can respect a girl with ground rules,” he said. “My name’s James Barnes, but everybody calls me Bucky.”
“Hi, Bucky,” Steve said, turning his tumbler around between his fingers and thumb.
“And what do they call beautiful girls in your part of the world?”
“Steve,” Steve said, raising an eyebrow.
“A lovely name for a lovely lady,” Bucky said, so dryly that Steve had to laugh. “What brings you all alone to this obviously unlicensed, underground establishment, Steve?”
“The thrill of danger, clearly,” Steve said. “And I’m not alone, now that you’re here.” It sounded like something they would say, all the girls that Bucky used to chat up in bars and at clubs, the cute kind of line that would let them lean into his solid bulk, or put a hand on his arm, or giggle and look up at him through their lashes. Steve did none of those things, but he thought about how they’d done them.
Bucky paused. “Well, I’m glad I came this way,” he said, after a moment. “Anything could have happened to a lamb like you.”
“In a place like this,” Steve agreed, pointing out the elaborate, tastefully dimmed chandelier. “So what’s your game, Bucky Barnes? Are you an enlisted man?”
“I served my country,” Bucky said easily, with no undercurrent of bitterness, and Steve was watching closely. “Now I’m a kind of... private contractor.”
“Isn’t it strange?” Steve asked, putting a hand to his chest in mock surprise. “That’s what I do.”
“What a coincidence,” Bucky said, holding up an imaginary glass. “It must be fate.”
“To coincidence,” Steve said, and he ‘clinked’ with Bucky’s empty fingers and then drained his old-fashioned in one go.
“Take it easy, sugar, I don’t wanna carry you out of here,” Bucky warned sternly.
“Oh, are we leaving together?” Steve asked, raising an eyebrow. “It takes more than an offer to pick up a girl’s tab, you know. I’m no able Grable.”
Bucky burst out laughing, turning it into a cough when he realized how loud it had come out. They got a few glances from the bar’s young patrons.
“No, of course not,” Bucky said, recovering. “I can tell you’re a good girl. I know that. But even good girls can’t walk home alone.” He smiled at Steve, a sly, private smile, the kind he gave those girls in the clubs when they tried to tell him how late it was getting, or how they had a girlfriend waiting up for them. It had always resulted in reconsideration: the girls shifting from heel to heel, chewing their lower lips, asking to see someone’s watch so they could decide it wasn’t as late as they’d thought.
Steve couldn’t resist the impulse to swallow, though Bucky’s eyes followed the movement of his throat and Steve knew he’d seen.
Bucky put his hand on Steve’s sleeve, fingers just brushing the cuff. “Let me walk you home, doll,” he said in the same easygoing voice, but his gaze was glittering and intense.
Steve couldn’t handle it; he broke first. “You’re probably right,” he said, picking the USB and waggling it in front of Bucky so he didn’t have to look him in the eyes. “We’re supposed to get this back to Tony. And I’m sure he’ll want to know how his joke went over.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said immediately, blinking. He withdrew his hand and straightened up from where he’d been leaning practically over the whole table. “Maybe I’ll show him how hilarious my fist finds his face.” He said it without heat, and Steve thought he maybe just said it for something to say.
Outside the silly speakeasy, Steve took a small, slow breath, and said, “You know, I really don’t know what comes next after that.”
Bucky had his hands stuffed in his pockets against the autumn chill, which he felt more than Steve because of the arm. “Whaddya mean?”
“I mean, I saw you chat them up. I saw you pay their tabs. And then…”
“And then we’d get the hell out of the bar,” Bucky finished for him. “Ah, but after is the best part, Rogers.”
“That’s what I hear,” Steve said, going for funny and landing closer to bitter.
“Shut up,” Bucky said, aiming a kick at him. “Any progress I made back then was just a Band-Aid for how utterly you were gonna snake me after Dr. Erskine got ahold of you.”
“Yeah, I’m really making the most of that,” Steve said. He thought about Sharon briefly, and whether she’d even really wanted to go out for coffee that time before everything blew up.
“Alright, you sad sack,” Bucky said with roll of his eyes. “Here’s how it works.” He crowded in close on the sidewalk and slipped his right arm through Steve’s left. “I take their arm. I ask, ‘Did you have a good time?’”
When Steve didn’t pick up the cue, he kicked him again.
“Ow,” Steve said, glaring at Bucky. “I had a very good time, thank you for asking. My drink was a little expensive.”
“Was it ever,” Bucky said. “You’d think you were drinking pure gold. Anyway, then I’d say, ‘Now when was the last time you had a time as good as that was?’”
“You would use that whole sentence?” Steve said, trying in confusion to follow it.
“Or whatever,” Bucky said impatiently.
“Alright, alright,” Steve relented. “The last time I… I don’t know. A long time ago. A really long time ago,” he said, and as he spoke he realized that this evening already qualified as a better night than he’d had in months. Nobody was attacking them, or dying; nobody’d asked Steve to do anything humiliatingly future-savvy like sign up for an Instagram; Bucky was here. Bucky was happy.
“Kinda makes you wish the night didn’t have to end,” Bucky said, looking at Steve meaningfully.
Steve swiveled his head and stared at him open-mouthed for a moment, and then he said, “We’re not even halfway to her house! I mean, the Tower! What if she’d said no, then you’d have to walk six blocks in silence!”
“It’s not that big a deal if they say no,” Bucky said. Steve felt his shrug through their linked arms. “You just say, ‘Okay, doll, maybe another time,’ and then you walk her home. No hard feelings.”
Steve couldn’t imagine saying no to somebody and them not having hard feelings. But then again, he couldn’t really imagine somebody saying no to Bucky at all.
“Anyway,” Bucky prompted. “Kinda makes you wish the night didn’t have to end, ya know?”
“Uh,” Steve said. “Yeah. I mean, no! I told you already, I’m a good girl.” He was mostly joking, but also a little defensive on behalf of his imaginary girl-self. Hadn’t Bucky paid attention back at the bar?
“You’re not doing it right,” Bucky said, yanking on Steve a little. “You’re supposed to say yes.”
“And let you besmirch my honor? I don’t know,” Steve said.
“Nothing wrong with a little besmirching,” Bucky said, and it wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it, all low and warm and suggestive, that made Steve shiver. Bucky laughed. “See? You talk a good game about not knowing any of that stuff, but you know.”
“Buck,” Steve said, and he wasn’t sure what he would have followed it up with, but Bucky started whistling loudly and saved him the trouble.
They walked in relative quiet until Steve recognized the song. “It got stuck in your head, didn’t it,” he said with some sympathy.
“I know the whole damn thing,” Bucky said. “Ma made sure of that.”
“Come to think of it, I probably do, too,” Steve said, and he hummed a few bars. Bucky joined him at the part where Lew Sherwood came in. They walked.
Steve thought he’d forgotten about the whole thing until the Tower elevator doors closed on them. Bucky turned and put his hands on either wall, effectively blocking Steve into the corner.
“So how about it, baby?” he asked in the same low purr from before. “You got any coffee in that swanky apartment of yours?”
“I -” In pure self-defense, Steve went back into character. “I don’t serve coffee to strange men in the middle of the night.”
“Strange - aw, c’mon, Steve, we know each other now. I’m Bucky Barnes, remember? I’m a respectable private contractor.” Bucky lifted one finger to the collar of Steve’s shirt and ran it down the front, past every single button.
“Prove it,” Steve said in a voice that wasn’t quite as steady as he’d wanted it to be. “Walk me to my door like a gentleman.”
Bucky leaned in close, heartstoppingly close, like he wasn’t going to do it. Steve held his breath. But then Bucky pulled away with a soft laugh. “Killer diller,” he said, and he offered Steve his arm again as the elevator dinged.
Steve held his arm like a dame would this time, fingers resting on the inside of Bucky’s elbow, and wondered what the hell he was doing. What the hell they were doing. His heart was beating fast inside his chest.
“You still with me in there?” Bucky asked. He didn’t kick Steve again, but Steve could feel him shifting his weight in case he had to.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I’m here. We’re here, actually,” even though Bucky knew as well as he did where they were.
He fumbled with his keys until Bucky took them from him, fingers closing gently over his. Bucky found the right key and unlocked Steve’s door, pushing it open a little. “Just like I promised,” he said with a little gesture. “Delivered right to your doorstep. No worse for wear.”
“Thanks,” Steve said, not moving from where he stood. “You’re a real stand-up guy, Bucky.”
“I try,” Bucky said, and the look he gave Steve was simmering with heat. “No chance of that coffee, huh?”
Steve’s mouth felt dry. “You said there’d be no hard feelings,” he said, even though he wasn’t - he didn’t want to say no, exactly - he really wasn’t sure what he would be saying no to, it was just that - what were they doing?
“No, no hard feelings,” Bucky said, and then he took a step right into Steve’s personal space. Steve could feel the heat of his body, and he could smell his leather-soap-warm-skin smell. Bucky murmured, “I got something else that’s hard for you, though.” He dropped Steve’s keys back into his nerveless fingers.
“Bucky,” Steve said, shocked into a deep blush. He could feel the keys biting into his hand. “You didn’t - you didn’t really talk to dames like that, did you?”
“Only the ones I really wanted,” Bucky said into his ear, and then he took Steve’s earlobe between his teeth, so lightly and quickly that Steve could have almost believed it didn’t happen. “Whaddya say, doll?”
Steve took a gasping breath, like he’d just surfaced from underwater, and then he pulled his head back so that he could find Bucky’s mouth. Bucky might still be pretending, even now; all Steve knew is that he wasn’t.
The way Bucky kissed him back mostly convinced him that it was real. He put his left arm around Steve’s back and with his other hand tried to untuck Steve’s shirt, all the while kissing him hungrily. Steve made a helpless sound when Bucky’s fingers found skin, and Bucky squeezed him hard and opened his mouth under Steve’s. There was a messy clunk that Steve identified as his keys dropping to the floor. He buried his hands in Bucky’s hair and poured everything he had into kissing that mouth.
He was so heated up he barely noticed that Bucky had walked them backwards until his shoulder hit the doorframe.
“So can I come in?” Bucky asked, breathless, when he managed to break free of Steve. His eyes were dark and his mouth was pink and swollen and shining. Steve felt his stomach flip, just like that sweet moment of weightlessness on a rollercoaster before the downhill part. “Steve,” Bucky said softly, and then Steve knew for sure. “Let me in.”
Bucky hummed in his ear while Steve tried to figure out how to undo Bucky’s belt in the dark. “Weeeee,” he sang under his breath. “Might have been meant for each otherrrrr… to beeee…. or not to be… let our hearts… discooooverrr!”
“Lay off,” Steve murmured, kissing his soft neck, right above his collarbone. “Or it’ll be stuck in my head, too.”
“I’m trying to bring you down with me,” Bucky said, a suppressed laugh vibrating in his chest, and then Steve figured out the belt buckle and that was the last thing either of them said for a long time.
Tony looked down at the USB Steve tossed onto his desk. “I was wondering when I’d get that,” he said, looking archly at Steve. “When you didn’t check in last night, I thought maybe you’d skipped the rendezvous out of, I don’t know, abject embarrassment.”
“I’m sorry I’m a little late,” Steve said. “I just wanted to thank you for a lovely evening.”
“You - what?” Tony said.
“Thank you for being so thoughtful,” Steve repeated. “It’s nice to see you using your powers for good once in a while. If you know what I mean.”
“I really don’t,” Tony said. “You were supposed to come back here annoyed, or maybe even mad at me. Worst case we would have had a yelling match, I would have leaked most of it on YouTube, half a million hits, easy. Instead you look like you took a hundred Xanax.”
Steve felt perfectly comfortable with the fact that he didn’t know what a Xanax was. “Can’t help you, Tony. I guess you’ll just have to leak on YouTube what a good friend you are, instead.”
“You’re fucking with me,” Tony said. “You’re fucking with me right now, aren’t you?”
“I’m not fucking with you,” Steve promised. “Just wanted to let you know I appreciated the gesture. I don’t care what anybody says - you’re a good guy, Tony Stark.”
“You’re gonna murder me,” Tony said. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“I mean it, Tony,” Steve said. “Bucky and I don’t go out much, so, really - thank you.”
He waited out Tony’s suspicious glare.
“You’re… welcome,” Tony said, sounding like he’d never spoken the words aloud before in his life.
Steve nodded at the USB. “Let me know what you find,” he said, and then he left before he could crack up and ruin the whole thing.
“God, you’re a terrible spy,” Bucky said when he was back at HQ, a.k.a. Steve’s bed. “I should’ve gone.”
“He thought I was going to murder him, and you pretty much always look like that,” Steve pointed out, and ducked the pillow Bucky threw at him.
“Alright, Captain Jerk, what’s our plan?”
“No, it’s your turn to come up with the plan,” Steve said into his shirt, halfway through taking it off. He pulled it off his head and said, “Mine involved getting dressed again, so I think we need new leadership.”
“Amen to that,” Bucky said, watching appreciatively as Steve stripped. “Operation Take Stark Down is Priority B. I’ve got a plan that involves no clothes whatsoever and it starts right now.”
“Okay,” Steve said agreeably, too happy to give Bucky flak for being a ridiculous person, even though he was, just like Steve was for being in love with him - and Steve was. He really, really was.