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Through a mix of whining, peer pressure, threats and sad sackery, they end up in Stark Tower for Christmas Eve. The only saving grace is that Sam and Natasha got included in the invitation. Steve can only assume Sam thought it’d be fun and Natasha thought it’d be hysterical.

The party is actually a fundraising dinner, which is a fraction of a point in its favor given the implication that there will be not only an endless incursion of champagne glasses but actual fucking food. An entire floor of Stark Tower has been fitted out with long banquet tables draped in golden tablecloths and populated with sparkling crystalware and blazingly red poinsettias. There was assigned seating, but Steve managed to hustle all of them into this corner end and nobody so far has succeeded in moving them. They’re collecting stares, but less of the “oh my God, it’s Captain America” variety and more of the “who is this strange Russian gate-crasher and why does she have three bodyguards” variety. The beard is working.

Surrounded by Buck and Nat and Sam, this sitdown situation isn’t so bad. This way Steve’s not at all obligated to say or do anything besides sit here and eat whatever the fuck gets put in front of him. No schmoozing. Ms. Potts is nice as hosts go but she’s a landlord’s landlord’s landlord’s landlord and Tony is just fucking incomprehensible. Talking to him is like being waterboarded by the future.

Natasha and Sam don’t look like they’d appreciate having anyone schmooze at them tonight either. Bucky is staring very hard at the plates they’ve been given, which are less plates and actually just black stone slabs with scoops taken out of them. The scoops are filled with what seems, to Steve’s nose, to be every single part of a fish that the fish definitely wasn’t done with yet. Steve has yet to identify a utensil appropriate to do absolutely anything to… that. Not for the first time he feels like he must be still seventeen and fever dreaming he fell into an alternate universe, a much bigger body and a matching name and claim to fame that comes straight out of a comic book.

Natasha probably goes to eight of these a week, but is in her own words “feeling provocative” and as such arrived, on her own motorcycle, in a tuxedo t-shirt, slacks, flip flops and perfect studio makeup that took Steve way too long to realize looked so unsettling because it was all just a fraction of an inch to the left: lipstick, lashes, contour, eyebrows, everything, like it was all applied in one burst via some kind of paint gun and she twitched at the last second.

Steve has no doubt it was intentional, which is more than can be said for his personal attire. Bucky looks of course very handsome, but he also looks like a three hundred pound man wearing a two hundred pound man’s suit, which he is in fact doing. Steve’s things dematerialized somewhere between Fury getting shot in his DC apartment and the subsequent transience necessitated by the hunt for HYDRA, and when he finally washed up in Brooklyn with Bucky in tow, formal dress was not high on the priority list.

As a result, the suits they are both wearing belong to Sam. Sam absolutely looks like he fits in, or at least he would if he didn’t have an enormous butterfly bandage over his nose from their last minor sortee against HYDRA. Personally Steve thinks it makes him look exciting and brave, but he’s been informed that his aesthetic tastes are unwelcome here.

“What the fuck happened to your face?” were Natasha’s first words to him upon arrival, when they were all loitering outside the building using “waiting for Natasha” as an excuse to delay going in.

“It’s his protest beard,” Bucky said.

“It’s not a protest beard,” Steve protested.

“He stopped shaving when Stark told him about the dinner ‘cause he didn’t want people to recognize him as Cap,” Sam said. “It’s a protest beard.”

“Yikes,” Natasha said, heading for the entrance. “Let’s fuck this popsicle stand.”

“Is nobody going to ask about what she’s wearing?” Steve asked feebly, trailing them inside.

“Yeah, you cold?” Bucky asks, holding the door for her.

“I’m Russian,” she says, schlap-schlapping into the lobby and throwing up a peace sign at security.

“I just don’t want to be used for my looks and reputation,” Steve muttered as they all trooped into the elevator. “Is that really so much to ask.”

“Well, the beard will help with half of that,” Natasha says. Steve tries not to take it personally.

Now, at the table, Bucky has tentatively tried one of the scoops of fish product. The face he makes is pretty eloquent.

“You have to mix it together,” Natasha tells him. “In the big hole. Use the little spoon.”

Bucky is still visibly experiencing the taste of the fish. “This dinner,” he says, “is two thousand dollars a plate. And you’re telling me I have to put it together myself?”

“You don’t have to,” Natasha says. She has no slab in front of her; she’s somehow acquired a mixing bowl that appears to be full of fruit salad. Periodically she sticks her tongue out and deposits a perfectly tied cherry stem into her empty wine glass.

Steve, disgruntled by hunger and facing no prospect of that changing, also kind of wants to be doing that. He probably still has the knack. Bucky should too, given the hour-long contests they used to have during the summer which in retrospect were probably their most respectable form of foreplay. Maybe he’d be interested in a revival.

Steve’s chances of acquiring a fruit bowl of his own seem to be pretty close to null, however. Besides, Natasha would find a way to win and then make them do something really creative in forfeit. And Bucky might not even remember how.

On the other hand, Sam probably knows. He’s a paratrooper. He’s first into the fray as always, mixing his tiny scoops of stuff with grim determination. Steve, inspired, follows suit. If this is all they’re getting then he’s got to get it while the getting is good.

“You put in too much wasabi,” Bucky says.

Steve looks down at his slab. The green stuff has almost disappeared into the pinkish mass of everything else he’s already mixed. “There’s not that much. It’s fine.”

Bucky’s eyebrows do a full undulation, but it’s too late to back out now. Steve scoops up a cracker’s worth and eats it in one bite.

“Hey Steve,” Sam says. “How’s the fish.”

“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky says. “How is it.”

“Fine,” Steve manages. He takes another cracker with even more fish on it, on the grounds that the more he eats per bite the fewer bites he’ll have to get through. Bucky’s having the opposite problem; his little tray is clear of all recognizable fish matter and he’s looking around the trays on nearby tables like he’s scoping out targets.

“This should be served in a bucket,” Bucky says.

“This should be served to cats,” Sam says.

“You want some of mine?” Steve asks. Bucky gives him a faintly pitying look. He clears his slab glumly.

The servers take away the sushi plates and put down something that involves blowing a vial of smoke over a single strip of unidentifiable meat. Natasha steals everyone’s vials and uses them to make it look like smoke is blowing out of Steve’s ears while Sam documents the whole thing “for Snapchat”. He turns his phone to show Steve when he’s done. “The food is simply terrible,” says the caption below a loop of Steve frowning down at his plate with smoke billowing up his neck, “and such golly small portions!!”

Bucky eats everyone’s meat while they’re distracted. The next course is six droplets of sauce sprinkled with what looks like the end result of a ham being fed through a woodchipper. They’re given palette knives to scoop it up. Steve eyes his suspiciously for oil paint residue, but they’re clean, probably bought specifically so rich people could use them to scrape sauce off plates, and then they’ll go through a giant industrial dishwasher and immediately be thrown away. He licks his clean and puts it in his pocket, by way of a rescue mission.

The course after that is just cups of pink foam. Steve wonders whether he could order pizza to be delivered to the bathroom.

It all just keeps happening. Somebody goes up to the front of the room during the course change and starts making a speech. Then another person gets up and makes a speech. There’s clapping and cheering, all very polite.

By the fourth person Steve starts looking for exits. “Is this it? Do we just sit here?”

“They haven’t brought dessert yet.” Bucky stands up, ignoring the glances he gets, and squints at the swinging doors the servers keep blowing in and out of like they’re a magical portal to the Land of Actual Food. “They can’t charge two thousand fucking dollars a plate and not serve dessert.”

“Maybe that’s how they get you to stay to the end,” Sam says.

Steve swells with indignation. “So we’re just supposed to sit here while they hold dessert hostage?”

“Mmm, yeah, that doesn’t work for me,” Natasha says, and disappears under the table. Steve jumps a little when she elbows his shin as she crawls past.

“Is she doing a commando raid on dessert?” Sam asks, perking up. “Is that a thing we’re doing now?”

Steve leans back in his chair and watches the reflection of Natasha’s outline advancing on the kitchen doors. “She’ll need a diversion in twenty seconds.”

“On it.” Bucky gets up and starts making his way to the bathroom with as many loud “excuse me”s and chair shoves as he can manage. Nineteen seconds from his start time, he wipes out magnificently by tripping over a genuine fur stole draped over the back of a chair, and manages to tip over the whole table on his way down.

Steve can’t let his best guy wade into the fray alone, so he does his part by rushing forward to scoop Bucky up off the floor, tenderly picking shreds of pickled purple cabbage out of his hair. Sam follows swiftly with a hand pressed to his ear like he’s talking into an earpiece. They’re attracting slightly more attention than Steve had planned on, but he still hasn’t heard any shouts of Captain America. The beard is still working. He’s a genius.

“Uncle Jim?” Bucky asks dazedly. “Is that you?”

“Let’s get you home,” Steve says. Scooping him into his arms without falling over would pretty much out him, so he just gets Bucky’s arm over his shoulders and makes for the exits, Sam trailing behind them and muttering “watermelon watermelon watermelon” into his imaginary earpiece.

By the time they make it to the back doors, Natasha is waiting by the elevators with a dessert cart. There are suspicious chocolatey smears around her mouth. “What took you so long?” she says, only slightly garbled by two thousand dollar tiramisu.



Christmas Day, 2018



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