Steve Rogers had survived more than he cared to remember.
Polio. Scarlet Fever. Pneumonia. A bum heart.
Basic training. Hydra. Nazis. Chorus Girls. World War II.
A plane crash. Kind of.
An alien invasion.
It seemed, however, that the thing that would finally kill Steve Rogers would be as mundane as it was ridiculous.
“Your poll numbers are way down, and we need to get them back up.”
Poll numbers .
Because, apparently in 2013, public opinion about Steve Rogers and his performance as Captain America mattered more than his actual performance as Captain America .
Last week, Steve and Natasha had taken out a terrorist cell with plans to blow up the Eiffel Tower, and the only casualty had been the broken arm of one bad guy because he tried to cop a feel and Natasha hadn’t been in the mood to watch Steve get his pec squeezed.
But this week?
This week, his poll numbers were way down .
Steve had thought it was a joke, when he had been summoned to the lower floors of Stark - Avengers - Tower and ushered into a conference room to meet with Tony, Natasha, Pepper and a handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that included Jasper Sitwell, whom he hadn’t met before today. The other two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had identified themselves as Agents Thompson and Cortez, both in the PR department at the agency that Steve had thought was concerned with saving the world.
Foolish of him.
“Look, we understand it’s difficult,” Sitwell said in a voice that did nothing to endear him to Steve, talking at him like Steve was suffering from dementia, or perhaps acting like a recalcitrant toddler. “This is a whole new world for you, but it’s okay, because we’re here to help you.”
“I’ve been living in this whole new world for a year now,” Steve had to point out. “Long enough to get a cable subscription and then cancel it after I watched a Youtube video that taught me how to splice into my neighbor’s.”
Sitwell stared at Steve in disbelief. Nat pursed her lips.
“What do you mean, your neighbor?” Tony asked. “You live here . I’m your neighbor.”
Steve nodded amicably.
“And I appreciate that you sprung for the extra sports channels. Seeing the Dodgers play in HD is almost as good as seeing them back at Ebbets Field.” Which was a lie, but Steve didn’t think anyone here knew him well enough to call him on it. Except for Natasha, who just rolled her eyes and seemed content to let Steve keep acting like an asshole.
Tony held up a finger, mouth already open to offer a retort, but Pepper put a hand on his arm and, miraculously, he shut up.
“The point we’re trying to make,” Sitwell jumped back in, “is that we have to manage your image better. We have an angle for the other Avengers. Look at Stark. He’s at the helm of one of the most profitable tech companies in the world, the public knows he likes to have a good time, and they like that about him.”
Steve was confident he had seen footage of Tony telling Congress to go fuck themselves, and he had a hard time thinking that S.H.I.E.L.D. really wanted him to emulate Tony Stark, of all people. Still…
“Or,” Sitwell rushed on, seeing something in Steve’s expression that clearly unsettled him. Maybe he was smarter than Steve had initially given him credit. “Or Thor, alien god with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist girlfriend. Very marketable. Very media-friendly.”
“What about me?” Natasha offered up, a smirk on her face that Steve had seen directed at men right before she shot out their kneecaps.
“Obviously, you and Agent Barton are kept out of the media attention for reasons we don’t need to go into,” Sitwell said. “Which is why we need Captain Rogers to step up and do his duty and-”
“My duty?” Steve echoed. “I thought saving people was my duty.”
“And it is,” Sitwell said in a voice so patronizing even Tony sneered. “ But , the best way to make sure that you have the backup to do that job - to make sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. has funding, and that Congress doesn’t decide to open an investigation into the Avengers’ activities or create an oversight committee, is by keeping the poll numbers up. If the public loves you, then everything is good. If they don’t, then we’re looking at a lot of problems for you , the Avengers, and S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Steve could, to an extent, understand all of that. He didn’t like it, but he understood how important public opinion could be.
Still, he thought he was done with propaganda. Thought he had sold his last war bond seventy years ago.
“What do you want me to do?”
Cortez and Thompson looked like it was Christmas morning.
“Well, we’ve got a multi-stage plan laid out.” Cortez slid a piece of paper across the conference table towards Steve.
Gingerly, Steve picked it up.
And glared at it.
“Absolutely not,” he said after three lines of ‘scheduled appearances’, two of which included going on talk shows, and another a game show or a reality dating show .
“We can make adjustments,” Thompson assured Steve. “This is just… broad strokes.”
“I’m not doing talk shows. I’m not doing game shows. I’m not doing dating shows .”
Tony spluttered a laugh, and grabbed the page out of Steve’s hands.
“Dating- Oh my god . A season of the Bachelor with Captain America. That’s- It’s disgusting, but I’d watch the hell out of that.”
“Me too,” Natasha said, an edge in her voice. “I’d love to see how they edit out all of the parts where Captain America has to go and do his actual job.”
Steve gave her a grateful look, but she was too busy glaring at Sitwell to notice.
“We’ve been in contact with the network. They understand the limitations.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, here’s one you’d like.” Tony held the page out for Steve and pointed to a line halfway down. “Throw out the first pitch for a Nationals game.”
That one… wasn’t so horrible, Steve could admit.
“Fine,” he shrugged. “I’ll do that one. Nothing else.”
Sitwell looked like he had just drank curdled milk.
“Look, Captain Rogers, can I be frank with you?”
Steve had about five comebacks lined up for that question, but he was momentarily distracted by the sight of a man walking down the hall towards the glass-enclosed conference room.
He was tall, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, with stubble on his chin and cheeks, and dark, wavy hair long enough to brush the collar of his shirt. He was dressed like most of the people working in Stark - Avengers - Tower that Steve had seen over the last year, business casual, but on the very casual side of casual. Tight, dark jeans and a black button-up shirt, sleeves cuffed and rolled up to show off his forearms.
It wasn’t just that he was attractive that caught Steve’s eye. It was also that the man was staring down at a phone in his own hand and frowning, not really looking where he was going, and was heading straight towards the open door of the conference room.
Where no one but Steve saw him coming.
“The thing is,” Sitwell said, apparently deciding to forge on without Steve’s permission, his voice loud enough that the man approaching looked up from his phone and at the gathered crowd in the conference room. “The thing is, Captain, that the public doesn’t see you as a real person. They see you as… a relic. They see you as someone leftover from a generation that’s been all but forgotten, and they can’t identify with you. They can’t like you, because you don’t act like them. Stark? He acts like them. Thor too. Even… even the Hulk is more popular than you because everyone thinks they have anger issues at one point or another. But you? You act like you’re still half-frozen, Captain, and the public doesn’t like it.”
Steve clenched his jaw.
It was one thing to have Sitwell talk to him about all of this, as if he was somehow in a position to be - what? Dictating Steve’s behavior? But it was entirely another to have a complete stranger listening in on the other side of the glass.
Even a stranger who was gaping and staring with wide blue eyes into the room. Maybe especially that kind of stranger.
“Just- do a few television appearances. We need to see you interacting - we need to see you being a human . Go on dates! Please, find a girlfriend. Hell, we can even vet some celebrities and have you meeting up with them, and set the paparazzi up to take photos. You just need to play ball with us, Captain.”
Steve had heard that before.
And back then, he’d been forced to listen.
Now, though? Now-
He looked around the room, the unknown voyeur momentarily forgotten.
Tony looked like he was in complete agreement with Sitwell. Pepper looked… sympathetic, and clearly also in agreement. Cortez and Thompson were staring at him with a mixture of awe and irritation that was a little uncanny. Only Natasha seemed to be taking all of this for the utter waste of time it was.
Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she was glaring at Sitwell as if her eyes could burn holes into his head.
But then she met his eyes, and Steve felt his stomach drop.
“We all play roles, Steve,” she said in a low voice that did nothing to cut the sting of betrayal. “And Sitwell is right. If the public stops trusting the Avengers, the government will step in. I don’t think any of us has any illusions about how horribly that would go.”
She was right, damn her. But still .
Steve had had enough of dressing up and playing a role .
He just- he just wanted to-
Ever since he had woken up in a room that was a poor facsimile of the life that had left him behind, Steve had struggled to find a place, a purpose in this brave new world. Fighting the bad guys - hell, Steve had done that for as long as he’d been able to curl his tiny fingers into a fist. That came natural.
But all the rest - Steve had no ‘all the rest’.
The stranger rapped his knuckles against the open glass door.
Everyone, except for Steve, turned to stare at him.
“Who are you?” Tony asked. “Do you work for me?”
The man rolled his eyes, and Steve hated that he could sympathize with the gesture. He hoped the man worked for Tony - why else would he be walking around on a floor that definitely required a security clearance to access?
“I’m James Barnes? I’m team lead for-”
“Oh, right, right. The ceramic superconductors thing. What are you doing here?”
Barnes raised his eyebrows, which made Pepper sigh and type something into her phone.
“You were scheduled to meet with Dr. Barnes five minutes ago.”
Doctor ? The man looked like he was in his mid-twenties at most.
Tony waved a negligent hand.
“Yeah. Okay, we’re gonna have to push that to another time when I’m not busy. Just email Marcia, and she’ll set something else up.”
A muscle in Barnes’s jaw jumped at the dismissal, and his eyes tracked back to meet Steve’s.
Steve raised his eyebrows, silently asking the man what he was staring at. Barnes arched one eyebrow in return, and shot a meaningful look at Sitwell.
Steve frowned. He had no idea what kind of silent communication the man was attempting.
“You still here?” Tony asked with an impatient huff.
“Well,” Barnes drawled, and Steve could hear so much Brooklyn in that one word that his heart gave a homesick pang. “Since I don’t have a lunch meeting with you, I’m wondering if… Steve… wanted to grab lunch. A lunch date. Since he’s… my boyfriend. Steve. Steve Rogers. Who also goes by Captain America.”
The speech had been painful to listen to, and Barnes’s cheeks were flushed over the stubble on his very sharp jawline.
It took Steve a moment to process the words, too distracted by that jawline and Barnes’s lips, which were actually very plump. But then he realized.
Barnes was saving him. Or, at least, he was trying to.
“Right,” Steve said.
“You two know each other?” Sitwell asked, incredulous tone making it clear he thought another alien invasion was more likely.
“You’re gay ?” Thompson blurted at the same moment, earning himself a smack from Cortez and a glare from Pepper.
“You’re dating one of my super nerds?” Tony just had to jump in.
Steve felt like slamming his head against the desk.
“I’m bisexual,” Steve forced himself to sound as calm as possible. “And yes, we know each other. He’s… my boyfriend. Bar-”
“ Bucky ,” Barnes coughed into his hand.
Natasha’s lips twitched, but she remained mercifully silent.
“Bucky Barnes,” Steve finished as smoothly as possible.
Tony looked between them, stroking his chin thoughtfully and walking towards Barnes.
“How’d you two meet?” Tony asked, gesturing at the both of them in turn. “Gramps come down and visit you in the lab or something?”
“Coffee shop. Like normal people. I don’t live in my lab.”
Tony smirked at him.
“Right. Sure. That’s why Jarvis tells me you logged… thirty-eight hours in there over the last two days?”
“Exactly. Thirty-eight. Not forty-eight.”
“Which coffee shop?” Sitwell asked. “How long has this been going on?”
Steve tried to think of an answer, but Barnes jumped in before he could.
“Not the one in the lobby. Or the one on the seventh floor. We actually met away from the Tower. You need a sitrep of our relationship, or something? We’ve been dating for thirty-seven days and-”
“Thirty-nine,” Steve interrupted him, because thirty-seven days ago, he had been on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., and if anyone bothered to double-check, it would sink this burgeoning… fake relationship?
“Right. Sorry, babe.” Barnes offered him a smile that was somewhere between fond and sharp, and Steve found that he liked that expression a lot .
“Let me get this straight - or not-straight.” Tony threw his arm around Barnes’s shoulders and looked back at Steve. “You two have been dating for more than a month, but you’ve never had a sleepover at the Tower? I know you’re old-fashioned - and according to Jasper here, still half-frozen - but isn’t that pace a little glacial? You really expect me to believe that you haven’t tapped this yet?”
Barnes looked like he wanted to throw Tony at the nearest sharp object.
“Our first date was thirty-nine days ago, but we’ve only been on six dates,” Steve bit out.
“Seven, if you count lunch at that corner falafel place,” Bucky said as he shrugged off Tony’s arm.
“You really want to count the time you got food poisoning as a date?” Steve asked him.
Barnes raised an eyebrow, and that sharp smile was back on his full lips.
“If you’re going to count the time you made me watch you drink a strawberry caramel orange mocha frappuccino, then yeah, I’m gonna count the falafel place.”
Steve had been in too many Starbucks in the last year, and while he had never heard of that particular flavor combination, he doesn’t doubt something that vile could exist.
“Seven,” he concluded, and Barnes looked triumphant.
“Not everyone has sex halfway through the first date,” Natasha practically purred.
Steve looked up, expecting her to be looking at Tony, but instead, her eyes were on Pepper.
Pepper, who was… blushing?
“We don’t have anything on you in our files,” Sitwell snapped. “No background check, no security detail. This is a huge problem, Rogers.”
So he was back to Rogers instead of Captain? It was a fairly obvious tell, as was Sitwell’s flushed face. He didn’t do too well when he wasn’t getting his way, apparently.
“He had a background check done when he came to work for me,” Tony waved away the complaint. “In fact, Jarvis, pull up Dr. Barnes’s file, will you?”
“Kind of a breach of privacy, isn’t that?” Steve argued.
Tony arched an eyebrow at him.
“If you and the kid are dating, he’s going to have a hell of a lot more than his privacy breached.” Tony smirked in the face of a room full of glares. “What? I’m just saying, being Captain America’s boyfriend - by the way, you’re gonna have to come out at some point, and probably not when you’re throwing out that first pitch at the Nationals game - is gonna land the good doctor here in all kinds of publicity. He won’t just be one of my super awesome super nerds anymore. He’s going to be a trophy nerd.”
“Just- get on with it,” Barnes sighed, cheeks once again red.
“Very well,” Jarvis intoned. “Dr. James Buchanan Barnes was born at the New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital on March 10th, 1985, to Dr. George Alistair Barnes and Dr. Winnifred Horowitz Barnes. He attended Stuyvesant High School in Brooklyn, graduating summa cum laude at the age of fifteen. He then attended MIT, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in three years, and then earned two master’s degrees, one in mechanical engineering and another in Materials Science and Engineering. He then completed his doctoral work at Stanford, and his dissertation on the use of nano-carbon-threaded ceramics to increase the efficiency of arc reactors brought him to Mr. Stark’s attention.”
It sounded impressive as hell to Steve. It also sounded a bit like Tony himself.
“Dr. Barnes won the Stark Tech post-doctoral fellowship in 2008, and has since worked at Stark Industries in the Clean Energy Environmental Research and Development Group. Dr. Barnes has spoken at three international conferences on the use of clean energy and the inherent funding complications since joining Stark Industries. He has also had seven articles published in peer reviewed journals, and has been the recipient of four NSF grants.”
Steve thought that Jarvis had finished telling them about Barnes, and he opened his mouth to say something cutting to Sitwell, but then Jarvis continued.
“Dr. Barnes has tested clean on all of his bi-annual STI check-ups, and, since testing positive for genetic markers that put him at risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s, has consistently utilized the Stark Memory-Training activities. Dr. Barnes has had seven sexually-intimate partners in the last two years, none of whom raised more than three flags within the automated background check system, and were therefore not more thoroughly investigated. As an undergraduate at MIT, Dr. Barnes was involved in several protest movements with student organizations, and was twice arrested for public indecency, but was released on bail and without charges being pressed.”
Steve realized, as Jarvis finally stopped, that he now knew more about Barnes than he knew about any of the people he actually did know.
“Satisfied?” Barnes practically growled.
“What protest movements and what student organizations?” he asked.
Barnes opened his mouth, but Steve raised his hand. Barnes raised his eyebrows but closed his mouth.
“That’s frankly no one’s business,” Steve said. “Being my boyfriend doesn’t mean that Ba- Bucky has to have every detail of his life aired out. Not to you, not to anyone.”
“That’s not really how this works,” Tony said, and for the first time since the meeting had started, he looked rueful. “Trust me. I’ve been there. As soon as someone snags a photo of you and my super science nerd, everyone is going to be looking into him. Actually, it’s kind of shocking no one’s managed to do that yet. Seven dates? And no media coverage? I’m actually impressed. Maybe you’ve got hidden talents after all, Rogers.”
Steve glared at Tony, who just grinned back unrepentantly.
“We still have a lot of questions,” Sitwell spoke up again. “We need to-”
“Actually,” Barnes interrupted him, “the only thing Steve and I need to do is grab lunch. If you’re hungry, babe?”
For some reason, Steve didn’t hate being called that. Especially not by Barnes.
“Lunch sounds great,” Steve announced as he stood up. He nodded at everyone in the room, who just looked back at him with blank stares, except for Pepper, who smiled slightly, and Natasha, who smirked openly.
Steve walked around the table, ignoring everyone, and after a moment of hesitation, held out his hand towards Barnes.
Barnes smirked, slipped his hand into Steve’s, and tugged him away from the conference room and towards the elevators.
They held hands the entire way, and Steve-
Steve had the very sudden, and very unwelcome realization that this was the most physical contact he had had with anyone in the last year that wasn’t fighting or sparring or an examination.
That was a monumentally depressing thought.
They got onto an elevator, Barnes pushing the button for the lobby, and as soon as the doors closed, Barnes let go of him.
“Sorry,” Barnes said, and he sounded truly apologetic.
Steve arched an eyebrow at him.
“Sorry for what? Saving me from that nightmare?”
Barnes offered him a grin.
“No, I mean- definitely not apologizing for that. But, I guess, apologizing for outing you? And for, you know, holding your hand like a lovesick teenager.”
“Oh. Don’t worry about it. Either thing. I haven’t come out, publicly, because I didn’t think it mattered. Before today, I didn’t realize a lot of things mattered.” Steve sighed.
Poll numbers .
“Yeah. Yeah. Still, it was… I could have tried to think of something else. You just looked so miserable when I saw you, and-” Barnes trailed off with a shrug. “Anyway, lunch?”
“Our lunch date, you mean?” Steve asked with a smirk. Spending half an hour with the handsome super nerd who had just rescued him seemed like the best thing that had happened to Steve in a while.
“Don’t worry,” Barnes said. “I’d never do that to you.”
“Do what to me?” Steve asked, and he was kind of wondering what he could do to Barnes. This close, he realized that the other man’s eyes weren’t blue. They were actually some color between blue and silver that reminded Steve of the Alps.
Steve’s train of increasingly dirty thoughts was sharply derailed.
“I mean, I’m not a Captain America groupie or anything. I’m not- You know, not one of those people just drooling at the chance to touch you or something. I just- you looked like you needed the save, is all. And you’ve saved me before. I mean, not me directly - but indirectly, during the Invasion. And, well, you probably saved someone related to me back in World War Two, or something? So. Just… returning the favor. Don’t worry. I’m not going to try to make out with you or touch you or anything.”
“Right.” Steve forced himself to nod. Forced himself to look relieved. “Good.”
The smile he managed felt brittle, but Barnes returned it.
“So, uh, lunch? There’s a deli a few blocks away that I usually go to. Quiet place, nobody will bother you. Probably.”
“Right. Our lunch date.”
“Fake lunch date. Real lunch, fake date.”
“Yeah. Sounds good.”
As he followed Barnes through the Tower lobby, Steve couldn’t help but give his ass an appreciative, wistful glance.
He sighed and tried to reign in his disappointment.
A fake date was better than no date, right?
Plus, it still got him out of the rest of that hellish meeting.