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Holding On

Chapter Text

 

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.

 

He sighed.

 

“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.

 

Sitwell shrugged.

 

“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-

 

What, even?

 

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’.

 

He-

 

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.

 

Which-

 

“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?”

 

Barnes glared.

 

“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.

 

Sitwell frowned.

 

“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?”

 

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.

 

“Date you.”

 

Steve’s train of increasingly dirty thoughts was sharply derailed.

 

“What?”

 

Barnes flushed.

 

“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.”

 

Steve nodded.

 

“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.

 

 

-o-

 

Chapter Text

The last few weeks had been surprisingly slow on the ‘plans to invade Earth, take over the world, create super-smart robots, force humanity to evolve in frightening ways’ front.

 

The Avengers had only been deployed once, to Nepal, to assist with the evacuation of some climbers stuck in an avalanche.

 

And Steve had been left largely to his own devices ever since that damn meeting - he figured the rescue mission had given his poll numbers enough of a bump to calm down Sitwell, and his fake date with Bucky Barnes had shocked S.H.I.E.L.D. into letting go of the whole ‘Captain America should date’ thing.

 

So, in the intervening two weeks, Steve had stuck to his preferred routine - pre-dawn run from Avengers Tower in Midtown to Prospect Park and back, morning coffee at the seventh floor coffee shop because the baristas there were young, half-asleep kids who didn’t care who he was and were just this side of polite when handing him his order, shower and catching up on the news, then lunch and several hours at the gym before putting on his Natasha-disapproved ‘disguise’ of ballcap and fake glasses to wander Manhattan or Brooklyn until he was hungry enough to eat again, and then an evening spent watching some movie or television program deemed ‘required’ by Tony or Clint or Bruce before he went to sleep and repeated the entire process a few hours later.

 

He had managed to get down to DC once, in that time, to visit Peggy, and had told her the story of Bucky three times, and the only thing that had made the scenario a little less painful was the fact that Peggy smiled and laughed each time.

 

Of course, he hadn’t seen Bucky in those two weeks, hadn’t since Bucky had walked him back to the Tower after lunch, smiled at him and given Steve a handshake, and wished him the best. The fact that their half-hour lunch had, despite Steve feeling awkward as all hell because Bucky was gorgeous and smart and funny and Steve had been sure his immediate infatuation had to be obvious, been surprisingly good. Conversation between them had been smooth and easy, as Bucky latched onto baseball as a shared topic between them and they bemoaned the Dodgers’ season.

 

That one lunch, the handful of casual touches from Bucky, had made Steve realize just how desperately lonely he was.

 

Even living at Avengers Tower, he had his own suite, complete with a kitchen and living room, and only rarely used the common space that was attached to Clint, Natasha, Bruce, Thor and Tony’s suites as well.

 

He usually saw Clint or Natasha at least once a day - they were his preferred sparring partners in the gym - but other than that, other than the half-awake baristas who tried to avoid verbal communication, Steve barely even saw other people.

 

It was an unwelcome realization, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about changing it. He had never been extroverted, had never really had friends, had only ever felt close to his mother, to Peggy, and to the Commandos.

 

His mother was long-dead, Peggy was… not herself, and Steve hated himself for how difficult it was for him to see her like this now, and most of the Commandos were dead.

 

In a city of almost nine million people, Steve Rogers felt almost entirely alone.

 

Of course, that feeling evaporated the morning that Steve came back from a run and found Sitwell, Cortez and Thompson waiting to ambush him in the seventh floor coffee shop.

 

“Captain Rogers,” Sitwell greeted him, intercepting Steve before he could even place his order.

 

“Agent,” Steve responded, not bothering with the man’s name in a petty attempt to irritate him.

 

It worked.

 

Sitwell scowled.

 

“Agent Sitwell,” he said, as if Steve needed the reminder. As if Steve hadn’t had a good memory before the serum, and an eidetic memory since . “And these are Agents Cortez and Thompson. We had a meeting last month?”

 

Steve sighed and nodded.

 

“I was there,” he said.

 

“Yes. And during that meeting, we discussed your PR image?” Sitwell fished.

 

Steve knew it wasn’t fair to judge an entire agency on one man, but he really, really didn’t like that S.H.I.E.L.D. found a man like Sitwell to be useful, or a good fit to interact with him in any way.

 

“Yes, we did, before my boyfriend came to take me to lunch.” He said it to be an asshole, unable to avoid taunting the trio of agents.

 

Sure enough, Sitwell flushed and his lips worked as he clearly struggled to avoid grimacing. At least Thompson didn’t look like a fish out of water when confronted with Steve’s sexuality this time. Cortez actually looked a little bored, and Steve found himself hating her a little less because of that.

 

“Yes. That was the meeting,” Sitwell agreed.

 

For a moment, they all stood there in silence.

 

Steve used every ounce of his not-inconsiderable willpower to resist rolling his eyes.

 

“If that’s all, Agents,” he started to move past them.

 

Sitwell reached out, not quite touching Steve, but holding his hand close enough that it was a clear command for Steve to stop.

 

“Actually, Captain Rogers, that isn’t all.”

 

Steve looked from Sitwell’s hand to his face, but the man either had no self-preservation instincts or his ego was something to rival Tony’s on his worst days.

 

“Something you need?” Steve managed to ask.

 

“It’s something you need, Captain. Agents Cortez and Thompson are now your official PR team. Since our meeting in April, your numbers have plateaued, at least, but they haven’t improved. They will work with you to create a campaign that… suits your needs.”

 

“I don’t need an official PR team,” Steve insisted.

 

Sitwell raised both eyebrows.

 

“Did you know that the Senate Arms Committee met last week to discuss budget cuts to S.H.I.E.L.D.? Apparently, the senators are getting pressure from their constituents to move the money into other defense agencies that they understand better. But Captain, you and I both know how important S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative is to the continued safety of not only the United States but the world. We need you to step up and do your part.”

 

Steve had a nauseating sense of deja vu.

 

He rubbed at his temples.

 

They had been through this argument two weeks ago - and as much as Steve hated it, and he did , he wasn’t an idiot.

 

“Fine,” he ground out.

 

Thompson looked thrilled. Cortez merely held up a tablet.

 

“I was notified that you accepted an invitation to attend the gala opening of the One Year of Recovery showcase at the MOMA on Thursday night,” she said.

 

Steve wondered how she knew that, but had the feeling that asking would only make him more irritated - or worse.

 

“Yes, I did. The showcase features the work of young artists. Don’t tell me S.H.I.E.L.D. has an issue with me attending?”

 

“Not at all,” Cortez said with a thin smile. “We’re delighted. We simply need to vet your attire, and your date, and discuss talking points in case there are reporters at the event.”

 

“You aren’t vetting my attire,” Steve said immediately.

 

Thompson raised his eyebrows.

 

“Sir, it’s really important that you represent the values of America, and your public image isn’t just interviews, it’s photographs. It’s critical that we work to display you-”

 

“‘ Display me?’” Steve didn’t bother to keep his voice down.

 

“Captain,” Sitwell sighed, as if this whole tedious thing was beneath him, “Director Fury has asked me to relay to you the importance of working with your PR team. He said that he was confident you would understand the importance of this.”

 

Steve glared.

 

“After discussing Mr. Barnes with him, and the challenges a bisexual Captain America presents to the image of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, we’ve decided that the best way to counteract any negative publicity your preferences may generate is to perfect our approach and presentation of you to the media. Which means vetting your attire.”

 

Steve didn’t even know where to start with what Sitwell had just said to him.

 

“Sir,” Cortez spoke up, focused on Sitwell, “I think Thompson and I can handle it from here. I know you’ve got to get back to DC.”

 

Sitwell looked from her to Steve.

 

“Work with them, Captain.”

 

And then he walked away.

 

“So, about your suit for the Gala-”

 

“Shut up, Thompson,” Cortez interrupted her colleague. “Captain.”

 

She waited until Steve had stopped glaring daggers at Sitwell’s retreating back.

 

“I’m sorry. I know this isn’t what you want to focus your energy on. I know you realize how important your public image is - you’re one of the greatest tactical minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But you hate this kind of thing, don’t you?”

 

Steve arched an eyebrow at her.

 

“How’d you guess?”

 

She offered another of her thin smiles.

 

“That’s why Thompson and I are here. Let us deal with this - with Agent Sitwell and the press - so you can focus on the real job of protecting America, okay?”

 

He was being handled. And while Cortez wasn’t awful at it, she wasn’t nearly as good at it as Natasha could be when she put her mind to it.

 

Reluctantly, Steve drew in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh.

 

Cortez seemed to realize that was as close as he could bring himself to agreeing with her.

 

“So, about your attire for the Gala, we know that you aren’t going to show up in anything ridiculous, but it would be prudent to wear an American label. We’ve got a list of designers who have expressed an interest in working with you. Perhaps we could have a selection of suits sent to your suite for you to choose from?”

 

Steve really, really wanted to say no to her.

 

But he also realized that he didn’t actually have anything to wear to the Gala.

 

He didn’t own a suit. Not a civilian suit, anyway.

 

Fuck.

 

“Fine,” Steve sighed, and to her credit, Cortez didn’t look all that smug. Thompson, on the other hand, looked delighted .

 

“Do you know what Mr. Barnes will be wearing?” Cortez asked. “We can try to coordinate your looks or-”

 

“Mr. Barnes?” Steve asked. “He’s not wearing anything. I mean, he’s not attending the Gala.”

 

“Oh.” Cortez looked at her tablet screen with a frown. “Did you have another date in mind? I already informed the MOMA that you would be bringing a plus one, and we assumed it would be Mr. Barnes. It would actually be an ideal scenario to introduce you two as a couple - small, intimate gathering with very little press. We can easily control the image we want to project.”

 

Steve wondered if something was wrong with him that he found almost everything she, Sitwell and Thompson said to be offensive.

 

“I don’t have another date,” he said, because anything else would just be too exhausting.

 

“So it will be Mr. Barnes? Good,” she continued without waiting for Steve to respond. “He’s very photogenic. Thompson will get in touch with him and find out about his suit. I should have samples suits for you , Captain, in your suite by this afternoon.”

 

Steve rubbed his temples again.

 

How was this really his life?

 

And where was an alien invasion when he needed one?

 

That thought immediately made him feel guilty.

 

He sighed again.

 

“Fine. Fine. Anything else?”

 

“Nothing that can’t wait until this afternoon. We’ll let you get your coffee now, Captain.”

 

It wasn’t until after they were gone, until Steve found himself asking for an espresso of all things, that he realized what Cortez had said.

 

Thompson was going to contact Bucky and ask him what suit he planned to wear .

 

To a Gala that Steve hadn’t even invited him to.

 

Fuck.

 

-o-

 

Natasha was waiting for him in his suite when he got back from the coffee shop.

 

She was lounging on the couch in his living room, reading the copy of Catch-22 that Steve had checked out of the library two days ago, looking for all the world like she belonged there and not like she had somehow either broken into his rooms or talked Jarvis into letting her in.

 

She didn’t even look up when Steve stopped beside the couch.

 

“I think you’ll enjoy Vonnegut more,” she said after finishing the page she was on and closing the book. She finally looked at him as she set it back down on the coffee table where Steve had left it the previous night.

 

“I liked Cat’s Cradle ,” Steve confirmed. “But Slaughterhouse Five was... “

 

“Too real?” Natasha guessed with a bitter smirk.

 

Steve had to nod in agreement, glad he didn’t have to try to explain.

 

Catch-22 is real in a different way,” he shrugged.

 

“Mm. No time travel.”

 

Natasha sat up, curling her legs under her, and propped her chin on one hand. The suspiciously innocent pose immediately had Steve on his guard.

 

“So, I hear you and the good doctor are going on a date this Thursday.”

 

“How-” Steve stopped himself from asking when Natasha’s smirk only grew.

 

“Do you need me to fix this for you?” she asked.

 

“Fix what?”

 

“The fact that you A) aren’t actually dating Dr. Barnes; B) don’t even know his phone number to ask him out if you wanted to; C) don’t know how to carry on a fake relationship to save your own life.”

 

Steve glared at her.

 

She patted the couch cushion beside her, and Steve sat down with a sigh.

 

“All of the above,” he groaned.

 

Natasha made a sound of false sympathy. Steve knew it was false because the only creature Natasha felt actual sympathy for was Clint Barton.

 

Oh God.

 

Maybe Steve had become more of a car crash than Clint?

 

That was a sobering thought.

 

“First, his number…” Natasha held out her hand imperiously, and Steve just stared at her. “I need your phone.”

 

Steve handed it over, and Natasha arched an eyebrow at the S.H.I.E.L.D. registration number on the back.

 

“Remind me to get you a personal phone. And a few burner phones.”

 

“I don’t need-”

 

“Yes, you do,” Natasha said without looking up from Steve’s phone. “There. In your Contacts you now have Dr. Barnes’s work phone, cell phone and his email. Do you want his Instagram account?”

 

Steve accepted his phone back and could only stare. Had Natasha already had all of that information, just waiting for the day when she would be able to impart it on Steve, or had she found it that quickly?

 

Frighteningly, both options were equally probable.

 

“I’ll hold off on the Instagram,” Steve said. Since he had no idea what that was, really. He’d heard it mentioned, but after figuring out Twitter, he really didn’t want to devote time to more social media things.

 

“We’ll do a tutorial next week. Actually, Clint will walk you through it. He’s better at it than me.”

 

That was… interesting information to process.

 

“Now, the key to fake relationships,” Natasha flipped her hair over her shoulder and turned to fully face him on the couch, “is to give just enough details for outsiders to think they know what’s going on.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Steve had to admit.

 

She nodded and then smiled at him, her wide, fake smile that she sometimes turned on S.H.I.E.L.D. agents she didn’t like or enemy combatants who felt the need to judge her appearance out loud.

 

“Clint and I spent the weekend together. Did you know he has a scar on his right shoulder blade?”

 

Steve frowned, but then he considered her words, which, ironically, weren’t even a lie .

 

Clint and Natasha had spent the weekend in the Alps, tracking down a possible lead on an arms dealer. And Clint’s scars were hardly a secret - the man’s body was covered in them. Anyone who had ever trained with him knew where most of them were.

 

But, the way Natasha said all of that, made it sound like something else entirely.

 

“I know how to dissemble,” he told her.

 

“I know. I’ve watched you goad Tony before. Actually, that’s all you have to do - pretend the press is Tony calling you Grandpa and just… go to town.”

 

Steve snorted a laugh.

 

But, really, it wasn’t the worst plan.

 

“You two actually did okay, once you got started,” Natasha mused.

 

“Me and Tony?” Steve asked in confusion.

 

“No, you and Dr. Barnes. That nonsense about the food poisoning and the Starbucks nightmare - that was actually believable.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Natasha patted his knee.

 

“I think you’ll be surprised how easy it is for you to fake this.”

 

“Mhmm,” Steve made a noncommittal sound. It was, however, a little comforting to have Natasha’s support.

 

“But first, you need to actually call Dr. McDreamy and ask him out.”

 

“Dr. McDreamy?” Steve thought the moniker was actually very, very accurate. “ You watch Grey’s Anatomy?”

 

She smirked at him, but didn’t confirm or deny it.

 

Instead, she gave his phone a very pointed look.

 

“What - you want me to call him right now ?”

 

“Well, you’ve got your impromptu fashion show in a few hours. If you do it after that, you’re just going to be angry. And if you wait and do it when I leave, you’re going to start questioning yourself even more.”

 

She wasn’t wrong.

 

How she knew about the suits being delivered was, as with almost everything Natasha-related, a complete mystery.

 

With a sigh, Steve navigated to his Contacts.

 

“Personal or work phone?” he asked her.

 

“Work phone. I only gave you his personal number so that you would answer the phone when he calls you from it. Don’t use that until he calls you first - or gives it to you. Unless it’s an emergency, of course.”

 

“You know, back in my day-”

 

“Yeah, yeah, your entire apartment building shared one phone, and if you wanted to ask out a girl you had your aunt set it up with Father Michael, and you had to walk uphill both ways to the soda shop.”

 

“You think you’re cute.”

 

“I’m fucking adorable. Now stop stalling, Rogers, and call him.”

 

Steve made a big show of pressing the call button and then held the phone up to his ear.

 

Natasha settled into the couch beside him, cheek against the back cushions, looking half-supportive and half-entertained.

 

It took several rings before the phone was answered.

 

“Dr. Barnes’s phone,” a slightly breathless voice said. A slightly breathless, female voice.

 

“Uh, I was calling for Dr. Barnes?”

 

“He’s in the middle of a… situation. Can I take a message?”

 

“Sure, could you tell him that…” He shot Natasha a desperate look, and she rolled her eyes and jabbed a sharp finger into his chest. “Tell him that Steve called, and ask him to call me back at this number.” He repeated it twice, and then the woman hung up on him.

 

Steve stared at the phone, feeling both relieved and disappointed.

 

“What do I do now?” he asked Natasha.

 

“You wait for him to call you back.”

 

“But-”

 

His phone started to ring.

 

Natasha gave him a smug look when Steve tilted the screen to see that it was Bucky. Or, at least, Bucky’s work number.

 

Steve answered it.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi - hey! Steve?” It was, unmistakably, Bucky’s voice. Steve wondered where on the scale of truly pathetic he fell for being able to recognize it that easily.

 

“Yes. Hey. Hi, Bucky.”

 

“Sorry about- I just- I’m sort of dodging my mom, and Alima is screening my work calls until she gives up.”

 

“Oh. Sure.” Steve had no idea what Bucky was talking about, and wondered if he should.

 

“Alima is my intern. Alima Ibrahim. She’s brilliant, yeah, yeah, the most brilliant intern Stark Industries has ever seen, and an actual goddess .” Bucky’s voice took on an amused lilt, and Steve found his lips curving into a smile at just the sound.

 

Beside him, Natasha smirked, and Steve felt his cheeks heat.

 

“Anyway, my mom is on her annual ‘Bucky, have you tried dating so and so or so and so or so and so’, and I swear she’s tried to ambush me with three dates in the last week alone, and I can’t do it today. So, uh… wow. You didn’t need to know any of that. Sorry.”

 

“No, I- Thanks for telling me.”

 

“Sure. Happy to overshare anytime you want,” Bucky laughed at himself, and he had a really nice laugh. Steve had noticed it two weeks ago.

 

For a moment, neither of them spoke.

 

And then Natasha nudged Steve with her foot.

 

“Oh! Right. Bucky.”

 

“Yep. Still here.”

 

“Good,” Steve said, and immediately wished he had never been born. “Sorry.”

 

“Steve, it’s okay. Um… how have you been?”

 

“I’ve been good. Really good. You?”

 

“Yeah, not too bad.”

 

“Good. That’s good, Bucky.”

 

Natasha closed her eyes and looked like she was practicing deep breathing techniques.

 

“So, Bucky,” Steve tried to figure out how the hell to do this. “I…”

 

“Steve, does this have anything to do with the email I got from Agent… Thompson from S.H.I.E.L.D. half an hour ago asking me what I’m going to wear to the MOMA on Thursday?”

 

“Oh.”

 

Well.

 

Thompson was a hell of a lot more efficient than Steve had thought he would be.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Steve had to say. “I- They- It’s my fault. I wanted to go alone. It was- And they ambushed me at my favorite coffee shop and-”

 

“Steve, breathe, okay?” Far from sounding amused, Bucky actually sounded a little concerned.

 

It made Steve feel even more embarrassed.

 

When was the last time someone had been concerned about him?

 

“Sorry,” Steve said again.

 

“It’s okay, seriously. I’m guessing this is about that email, though?”

 

“Yeah, it is. I- I know you were just trying to get me out of that meeting, last time. And it was awful. The meeting. Not you. You were great. But it was-”

 

“Humiliating to have my STI tests announced to a room of strangers? Have my C.V. read off like I was auditioning for a dating show? Shitty to listen to those asshats talk to you like you were a puppet they wanted to control?” Bucky supplied.

 

“Yeah. All of that.”

 

“But the lunch wasn’t so bad? Best fake date I’ve ever been on,” Bucky said, and Steve could hear the grin in his voice.

 

“Same here,” Steve assured him.

 

“Good. I’m glad. I mean- You know, happy to do my part for Captain America.”

 

“Right. Yeah.”

 

Natasha finally opened her eyes and she glared at Steve.

 

He hadn’t really noticed it before, but when she glared like that, she was almost as scary as Peggy aiming a gun at him.

 

“So, I hate to ask, but… is there any chance you’d be up for another fake date with me?”

 

“Hmmm. Depends on what day. I’m already booked for Thursday night, unfortunately.”

 

“Oh.” Steve sighed. Of course. Why wouldn’t Bucky be busy? He was handsome and brilliant and-

 

“Yeah, going to some kind of Gala at the MOMA with this guy I know,” Bucky continued.

 

“You’re a jerk,” Steve laughed.

 

Bucky chuckled.

 

“I dunno if calling your fake boyfriend a jerk is really the best move, Steve.”

 

“Oh, really? You want me to call you sweetheart or doll instead?” Steve immediately regretted saying the words. It felt like the easiest thing in the world to think of Bucky and want to call him those things.

 

The line was silent for a few seconds, and then Bucky cleared his throat.

 

“Call me whatever you want, Steve,” Bucky assured him.

 

And that… didn’t help matters at all .

 

Steve felt himself blush, and he had to look away from Natasha’s arched eyebrow.

 

“The Gala starts at seven. It’s a showcase for young artists focusing on work inspired by the Recovery.”

 

“That sounds great, Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve really liked the way the other man said his name. “This email says it’s… semi-formal, huh?”

 

“Yeah. Do you have something to wear? If not, I could…” Steve trailed off. He had no idea what he could do. Maybe have Cortez send over suits to Bucky as well? That sounded awful.

 

“Yeah, I’ve got something I can wear. Uh, I gotta ask, though, you mind if I tell Thompson to go fuck himself instead of sending him photographs of my closet and what brand suit I plan on wearing?”

 

Steve had to laugh.

 

Please tell him to go fuck himself,” Steve said.

 

“Good. Thanks. So… I guess I’ll see you at the MOMA on Thursday? At seven?”

 

“Perfect. Thank you, Bucky. I really appreciate it.”

 

“No problem, Steve. I’m happy to help.”

 

Steve ended the call before he could say or do anything that would give Natasha even more reason to look so goddamn happy with herself.

 

He put down his phone and turned to her.

 

“Well?”

 

“Rogers, you two are made for each other.”

 

With that less-than-helpful proclamation, Natasha got up from the couch and started to walk towards the door.

 

“Oh,” she paused with one hand on the doorknob, “go with the navy suit from Brooks Brothers.”

 

And then she left.

 

-o-







Chapter Text

Steve had been to these kinds of events before, as much as Tony, Pepper and apparently S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted to pretend otherwise.

 

After Project Rebirth, Senator Brandt had paraded Steve around the country - to sell war bonds and himself as a potential Presidential candidate - and Steve had attended some kind of formal event in nearly every state during that tour in 1942.

 

Following the Invasion in 2012, Steve had been invited to several events to raise money for the Recovery, and had attended each of the very formal events wearing his Captain America uniform by request.

 

This was the first event that seemed interested in having Steve Rogers present, and Steve couldn’t deny that he felt a certain amount of bitterness that it had led to him being managed by a S.H.I.E.L.D. PR team.

 

He arrived a few minutes after seven, unintentionally late after Tony had waylayed him in the Tower common room with intel about a terrorist group that might have access to Chitauri weapons, and he almost didn’t even bother to get out of the car when it pulled up in front of the museum on 53rd.

 

The Gala was the official opening of the exhibit, and while the MOMA was one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, Steve had actually been assured by the museum director that there would only be a handful of press at the event.

 

Looking out of the car window, however, Steve couldn’t help but notice that a handful wasn’t the most accurate description of the dozens of reporters and photographers he saw lining the street and the museum entrance.

 

He was willing to bet this was the doing of his PR team.

 

“Want me to circle the block?” Jorge, Steve’s favorite driver, asked.

 

Steve sighed.

 

“Not unless you think it will make them leave.”

 

Jorge gave him a sympathetic look.

 

“You want me to call in a bomb threat to Penn Station for you to investigate?”

 

He sounded sincere, but Steve shook his head.

 

“No. I faced Nazis. I can face… this.”

 

He forced himself to get out of the car and smile as he was immediately assaulted with questions and flashes of light.

 

Steve held up a hand, partially as a half-assed wave and partially to ward off the worst of the camera flashes, and resolutely walked into the museum without addressing a single reporter.

 

Once inside, he was able to take a breath.

 

A single breath.

 

Because immediately Cortez was at his side, dressed in a simple black sheath dress, tablet in hand.

 

“Captain.”

 

“Agent.”

 

“I’ve scheduled the first half hour for you to-”

 

“No,” Steve interrupted her.

 

“No?” she repeated, as if unfamiliar with the word.

 

“You haven’t scheduled me for anything. And if you have, unschedule it. The museum director and I already planned out this evening - I’m here to admire the work of these artists, and I’ll give one speech after she introduces me, and that’s it.”

 

Cortez looked ready to argue, but Steve’s attention was drawn away by the approach of a tall man dressed in unrelieved black.

 

“Bucky.”

 

The man smiled, wide and seemingly genuine.

 

“Steve.”

 

He looked amazing, the black suit obviously tailored, his choice of black shirt and black tie accentuating just how clear and pale his eyes were. He had shaved, too, the stubble from a few weeks ago gone, and his jaw on even more obvious display. As was his hair, down again, wavy with just a bit of curl to it, including one lock that fell over his forehead as if teasing Steve to touch it.

 

Cortez looked over at Bucky.

 

“Mr. Barnes.”

 

Dr. Barnes,” Steve corrected her, and Bucky offered him a wry smile.

 

“Yes,” Cortez agreed. “We were hoping to get a few photos of you two this evening. Can-”

 

“Agent, I already told you, it’s not happening.” Steve stepped away from her and, after debating his own sanity, held out his hand towards Bucky.

 

Bucky didn’t even hesitate before taking his hand and following Steve towards the exhibit entrance.

 

“Thanks for coming,” Steve said to him.

 

Bucky squeezed his hand.

 

“Of course. Nice suit, by the way,” Bucky said with a smirk.

 

Steve had, of course, gone with the navy Brooks Brothers suit. Paired with a white shirt and a red tie, he knew it was a little - a lot patriotic - but the suit actually felt comfortable.

 

“Had to meet with PR approval,” Steve sighed.

 

“No, I was being serious,” Bucky assured him. “You look great. Really, Steve.”

 

“So you do, Bucky. You- you look really good.”

 

Bucky smirked again.

 

“Well, I couldn’t show up to some fancy event as Captain America’s date looking like a total bum.”

 

Steve was pretty sure that Bucky could have shown up looking like a bum and still been devastatingly handsome.

 

“So,” Bucky bumped his shoulder against Steve’s, their hands still linked, “tell me what all this is about. This is actually the first time I’ve been here since I was in middle school.”

 

“Really?”

 

Bucky nodded, and then shrugged. Maybe it was Steve’s imagination, but it looked like he was even blushing a little.

 

“Yeah. I was, you know, a huge science nerd, and the plan was to graduate high school early, so I kind of… got waved out of most elective classes? Like art and gym and whatever. Anyway, I got dragged here for my… world history class, I think? There was some exhibit on Impressionism. It was okay, but… I dunno. Art’s never really been my thing. So, uh, sorry about that. You know - being stuck with an uncultured heathen.”

 

Steve arched an eyebrow at him.

 

“I attended art school for two semesters. You have a college degree, two masters and a doctorate. You’re not the uncultured one here.”

 

“No - that’s bullshit. You- I’m just… You know, my sister, Becca, she always used to say that if it didn’t involve an equation, I wasn’t interested in it.”

 

Steve smirked.

 

“I’ll have to introduce you to Buckminster Fuller and Sol LeWitt,” Steve decided.

 

“Oh! I know Buckminster Fuller!” Bucky laughed. “Geodesic Domes!”

 

Steve nodded, and Bucky gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

 

“Okay. Good. We can talk baseball and polyhedrons when you get bored trying to explain what all these things on the wall mean.”

 

Steve gave him a stern look, the same one he gave Clint whenever the man started to suggest the team didn’t need him around.

 

“Bucky, it’s art. It’s modern art. The only explanation for it that matters is how it makes you feel.”

 

Bucky looked a little disbelieving, but he allowed Steve to tug him towards the stairwell to the second floor gallery space.

 

“Come on. You already know this exhibit is artists trying to put the Invasion and the Recovery into perspective. You said you were here, when it happened?”

 

Bucky nodded, and walked with Steve up the stairs.

 

“Yeah. In my lab, actually. We were still setting up after the switch to the arc reactor, you know? Anyway - worst timing ever, really, but there was a group of kids from Midtown High School touring, and suddenly the lights flickered and it felt like some kind of seismic shockwave hit the place. I guess that was the portal opening? Anyway, I got the kids set up in the empty vacuum lab and went to see what was happening and…” Bucky sighed and shook his head. “I did what I could to get people off the street.”

 

“You should have stayed inside, where it was safe,” Steve couldn’t help but admonish him.

 

Bucky smirked.

 

“Yeah, okay, guy who forged his enlistment papers how many times? Besides, there were giant space whales crashing through buildings - inside didn’t actually seem that much safer.”

 

Which… might be a fair point.

 

“But, yeah, to answer your question, I was here when it happened.”

 

Steve felt the need to apologize, and he even had his mouth open to say it, when Bucky continued.

 

“I want to thank you, actually. Never thought I’d get the chance to do it in person, and I didn’t really say it right last time. So… thank you, Steve. For everything.”

 

Steve had to look away from Bucky’s earnest expression, and he had to clear his throat to dislodge whatever was stuck in it.

 

Bucky squeezed his hand, but was mercifully silent.

 

-o-

 

The evening was actually going well, was actually enjoyable , was actually the most fun Steve had had… since 1941.

 

Bucky had opinions about the art, and after some initial hesitancy, he actually shared them with Steve. It felt good, to stand there and argue with someone, to be able to look at a canvas and see the world from a different perspective, to just be with Bucky.

 

They spent almost two hours walking through the exhibit before Steve was approached by the museum director and asked to give his prepared speech welcoming the MOMA’s most prolific donors, the press, and the other selected guests to the opening of the exhibit.

 

Afterwards, Steve let Cortez guide him around the room for twenty minutes, introducing him to whoever she wanted, before he shot Bucky a pleading glance and the man came to his rescue.

 

Bucky handed him a glass of champagne, smoothly inserting himself by Steve’s side as Steve listened to the mayor discuss re-election plans.

 

“Thanks,” Steve said, and Bucky nodded, took a sip from his own glass, and leaned into Steve’s side as if being pressed together was the most natural thing in the world.

 

The mayor looked between them, curiosity obvious.

 

“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky said, holding out his hand towards the mayor, who shook it, gaze on Steve as if he needed an explanation.

 

“My boyfriend,” Steve said, and there was a part of him, a small, awful part, that wanted to smirk at the expression on the mayor’s face.

 

It went from curiosity to confusion to shock to poorly disguised what the fuck ? in the span of a few seconds.

 

The mayor dropped Bucky’s hand as if burned.

 

Bucky’s smile turned brittle, and Steve felt the need to put his free hand on the small of Bucky’s back.

 

“He’s an engineer at Stark. He’s done great work on integrating solar energy into traditional architectural structures using ceramic superconductors.”

 

Both the mayor and Bucky stared at Steve.

 

Steve smirked.

 

He’d had some time, over the last few days, in between panicking about the fake date and idly plotting the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Jasper Sitwell’s career, and had used that time to look up Bucky’s projects at Stark and during graduate school.

 

“That’s - great. Wow,” the mayor mumbled.

 

“Seems like the sort of thing the City would be interested in working on, don’t you think?” Steve pressed, to see the mayor squirm, and also because, well, it was the sort of thing he thought should be happening.

 

“Yes, of course. We- You know, I think I’ll have my assistant try to set up a meeting, Mr. Barnes?”

 

Dr. Barnes,” Steve corrected.

 

The mayor nodded, made some kind of awkward gesture, and walked away.

 

“That could have gone better,” Cortez groaned once it was only the three of them.

 

“I agree,” Steve said with a nod. “He claimed to be interested in renewable energy, but I don’t think he’s actually going to bother with the meeting. Do you, Buck?”

 

Bucky looked over at him with wide eyes, the expression on his face very clearly silently shouting at Steve to shut up .

 

“I was referring to the fact that you basically - challenged the mayor to say something about you being gay.”

 

“Bisexual,” Bucky corrected.

 

“Whatever. I just- This was not the plan. I’m going to figure out how to fix this.”

 

She stormed away.

 

“You know, if you want help embarrassing any other public officials or pissing off spy agencies… this is kind of fun.”

 

Steve arched an eyebrow at Bucky.

 

“Really?”

 

Bucky shrugged and took another sip of his champagne.

 

“Sure. A little too easy , but still fun.”

 

Steve snorted a laugh, and Bucky grinned at him.

 

“Are you…” Steve looked around, and then pulled Bucky towards one of the permanent collection exhibits that seemed relatively empty. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

 

“With what?” Bucky asked.

 

Steve gestured between the two of them.

 

“With us? With… being my fake boyfriend.”

 

Bucky shrugged one shoulder.

 

“Sure. I mean… when you say being your fake boyfriend, what all does that entail? Because if it’s free champagne and a personal tour of the MOMA from Steve Rogers himself, I’m in.”

 

Steve liked the fact that Bucky almost never called him Captain America.

 

He liked that a lot .

 

Probably too much.

 

He sighed, thinking back to the meeting he had had with Cortez and Thompson yesterday. ‘Our Midweek Check-In’ Cortez had called it, alarmingly implying that not only had the meeting not been a one-time event, but that she planned on making it a frequent thing.

 

In the meeting, she and Thompson had presented lists of hypothetical events, and what Steve could only describe as ‘publicity stunts’ that ranged from acceptable things - throwing out the first pitch at the Nationals game - to absolute no, nevers like doing a couples interview with Bucky on one of the major television networks.

 

After an hour of negotiation, Steve had reluctantly agreed to a list of appearances that Cortez could book. For the most part, they were things he could do alone , but there were a few that, Cortez stressed, would be ideal for Steve and his boyfriend to attend together. After all, S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted to present Steve as a modern, relatable figure - photogenic boyfriend in tow would go a long way towards doing that.

 

Steve sighed.

 

“My… PR Team thinks that being seen with you - well, with someone in public and at events, would go a long way towards… I don’t know, repairing my public image.”

 

“Right. Because being a fucking hero isn’t enough,” Bucky muttered, eyes narrowed and voice rough.

 

“I’m not a hero. I’m just-”

 

“Do not stand there and tell me you’re just doing what’s right, or whatever self-deprecating garbage you were about to come up with,” Bucky warned, and Steve had to snap his mouth closed. Bucky smirked. “You’re a hero. And you put your life on the line - that should be enough.”

 

“Well, it’s not,” Steve sighed, because, really, he got it. He knew that politics and economics were larger factors in promoting peace and stability than one guy throwing around a shield. But understanding that and being ready to sacrifice himself on the altar of… public polling were two entirely separate things.

 

“So, as your fake boyfriend, I’d have to…?” Bucky prompted.

 

“Go on dates with me, and let the pap take our photos. More things like this,” Steve gestured at their surroundings. He paused and cleared his throat. “I can...pay you? If-”

 

“No. No .” Bucky held up both hands, almost splashing the both of them with his champagne. He glared at the glass in betrayal. “Sorry,” he said to Steve. “But hell no. You’re not- you’re not going to pay me to be your fake boyfriend.”

 

“Oh. No. I understand.” Steve tried his best to keep his voice neutral. He wasn’t surprised - why the hell would Bucky agree to this? But he was disappointed.

 

“Steve, I didn’t mean it like that, you punk,” Bucky sighed, and Steve looked at him again.

 

“I don’t understand, then,” Steve said.

 

“Yeah. I just- I’ll be your fake boyfriend for free, Steve. I don’t need money to… hang out with you.”

 

“But-”

 

“Seriously, Steve. If you can risk your life to save strangers from aliens, I can shave more than once a week and be seen in public with you. My form of public service,” Bucky added with a smirk.

 

“You’re sure?” Steve winced at his own voice, at how pathetically hopeful he sounded.

 

Bucky nodded.

 

“Yeah. But- I mean, within reason? I have a job, and it’s a job I love. I… Look, the last three real boyfriends I had all ended things with me because they thought I spent too much time at work and cared more about reviewing datasheets than spending time with them.”

 

“Did you?” Steve asked, and instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry. That’s-”

 

“It’s okay,” Bucky shrugged. “Sometimes? Yeah. Sometimes, it was easier to just… do my work. Equations over emotions, you know?” Bucky gave Steve a rueful grin. “I’ve never been all that good at, you know, being in relationships anyway. So… a fake one? Sounds about my speed. I just want you to know that there will probably be times when I can’t go out with you.”

 

Steve nodded.

 

“Of course. And there will probably be times when I’ll have to cancel, anyway.”

 

“Oh, yeah. Because of your job,” Bucky said, managing to sound both teasing and bitter at the same time.

 

Steve had the sudden thought that Bucky would get along very, very well with both Natasha and Clint. He wasn’t sure, though, if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

 

“Because of my job,” Steve agreed, and pushed the thought aside.

 

“So… officially fake dating?” Bucky asked, and held out his hand.

 

Steve stared at it, and then arched an eyebrow at Bucky.

 

“You want to… shake on our fake relationship?”

 

“I guess so? I don’t know. Felt like we should do something?”

 

“I know you said your exes broke up with you because of the job thing, but are you sure it’s not because you think boyfriends shake hands ?”

 

Bucky glared at him.

 

“You’re an asshole. Does anyone else realize what an asshole you are?”

 

Steve grinned.

 

“Do you see this face? This is the face of traditional American values, Buck.”

 

“Yeah, values like being an asshole,” Bucky muttered.

 

He dropped his hand back to his side, and Steve listened to him draw in a deep breath and then let it back out slowly.

 

“So… if a handshake isn’t good enough for you, Mr. Traditional American Values, how about a kiss?”

 

The suggestion drew Steve’s attention to Bucky’s mouth. Specifically, to the fact that Bucky’s tongue flicked out to lick his lower lip. Steve didn’t know if the gesture was intentional or not, but either way, Bucky now had his undivided attention.

 

“You don’t mind?” Steve asked, because it felt like something he should ask even though all he wanted to do was see if Bucky’s lips were as soft as they looked.

 

“I mean, we’re gonna have to do it eventually in public, right? Might as well get in some practice in private.”

 

It was a good idea, and Steve nodded in agreement.

 

“Yeah. Definitely.”

 

He took a step towards Bucky, and Bucky leaned towards him.

 

They were nearly the same height, Bucky just a little shorter, and Steve only had to tilt his head a little before their mouths were brushing together.

 

Bucky was warm, his lips firm and just as soft as Steve had thought they would be, a little wet, and tasted slightly tart from the champagne.

 

Steve realized that Bucky’s eyes were open, realized that Bucky was staring at him, and this close it was a little vertigo-inducing to look at him, but Steve wasn’t about to pass up the chance to examine Bucky’s eyes.

 

They really were the most unique color Steve had ever seen, and he had the sudden desire to try to mix paints to match that color.

 

And Steve - Steve hadn’t painted in a century .

 

He pulled away from Bucky, who blinked up at him.

 

“You okay?” Bucky asked.

 

Steve made himself nod.

 

It was enough that Bucky had agreed to be his fake boyfriend - enough that Bucky had kissed him, that Bucky had held his hand and defended him, and called him an asshole and smiled at him. Steve didn’t need to burden Bucky with the psychological minefield of his thoughts and feelings too.

 

“I’m good,” Steve assured him. He gestured towards the main reception area. “We should probably get back before Cortez tries to set us up with some Republicans for a doubles tennis match.”

 

Bucky’s eyes grew huge.

 

“Oh, Steve , please ask her to do that. Tennis is the one sport thing I’m good at. We would so kick their asses.”

 

Steve arched an eyebrow at him.

 

“Sport thing?”

 

Bucky glared.

 

“I graduated high school when I was fifteen,” Bucky reminded him. “And don’t act like you’re some paragon of… sport things. Tell me how many sports you played as a kid, Steve? Huh?”

 

“Hey, the neighborhood kids let me play stickball once.”

 

Bucky snorted.

 

Let you? The same way the Nazis used to let you destroy their bases?”

 

Steve grinned at him, and Bucky grinned back.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, “just like that.”

 

-o-

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning after his run, Steve ate, showered, dressed and headed to the communal living space for the lesson in Instagram that Natasha had promised Clint would provide.

 

He was feeling… optimistically good.

 

The fake date with Bucky on Thursday had ended well, and the memory of Bucky’s lips on his had carried Steve through Friday and Saturday.

 

The chance to figure out Instagram and, maybe, the interest in seeing what Bucky posted on the social media site, had Steve actually eager to venture into the joint common room.

 

His eagerness stayed with him right up to the point when Tony entered the room not three minutes into Clint’s tutorial - carrying a newspaper, of all things.

 

Steve had only ever seen Tony interact with phones, tablets, computers and digitally-projected text. He had actually started to wonder if Tony might have some kind of allergy to paper.

 

Tony dropped the newspaper on the coffee table in front of where Clint and Steve sat on the couch with all the attitude of someone who knew something and wanted to rub it in.

 

On principle, Steve didn’t even crane his head to look at the newspaper. Instead, he looked up at Tony and smirked.

 

“Morning, Tony.”

 

“Morning, Cap,” Tony replied, meeting Steve’s gaze and not budging.

 

Neither of them looked at the paper.

 

Natasha, seated in the most comfortable armchair - she and Steve had done extensive testing one night when neither of them could sleep and neither wanted to admit to it - was busily and meticulously slicing an apple into miniscule slivers and eating it. She also refused to look at the paper.

 

Clint, of course, pounced on it.

 

“Oh, what do we have here?” Clint crowed, picking it up and holding it aloft like a prize. “Cap made the front page of USA Today .”

 

“What?” Steve broke his staring contest with Tony and turned to look.

 

Sure enough, above the fold, was a huge photograph of Steve.

 

More specifically, of Steve and Bucky kissing at the MOMA on Thursday.

 

“Who’s the babe?” Clint asked. “Is this- is this the hot nerd Tasha said you were dating? I thought she was making it up!”

 

Before Steve, or anyone else, could say anything, Bruce walked into the room and headed straight for the coffee pot.

 

He looked like a mess, and it was enough to momentarily distract Tony.

 

“Rough night, Bruce? Run out of weed? Wanna join Pep and I for hot yoga later?”

 

Bruce just glared at Tony while he poured himself a cup of coffee.

 

Tony, of course, didn’t take it personally, and followed Bruce back to the seating area and hip-checked the other man onto the couch opposite Steve and Clint.

 

“This is nice,” Tony sighed, stretching his arm over the back of his couch and grinning at the assembled Avengers. “The kids all together. Speaking of, Steve, when do we get to meet this adorable boyfriend of yours, huh?”

 

“You’ve already met him, Tony,” Steve pointed out, refusing to rise to the bait.

 

“Wait - Tony’s met him?” Clint asked. “Come on, you introduced him to Tony first?”

 

Tony smirked.

 

The bait, apparently, had not been for Steve.

 

“He works for Tony,” Steve said. “Natasha met him too,” he added before Tony could.

 

“Oh...oh, yeah, that’s right here. Not the part with Tasha, obviously,” Clint said, voice muffled by the paper.

 

“What does it say?” Steve asked with supreme reluctance.

 

Clint cleared his voice and made a show of fluttering the paper.

 

“Captain America and his boyfriend, Dr. James Barnes, attended the opening gala of the Museum of Modern Art’s One Year of Recovery exhibit this past Thursday. According to Captain America’s publicist, Miranda Cortez, Barnes and the Captain have been dating for the last two months. Dr. Barnes is a lead engineer for Stark Industries Clean Energy Environmental Research and Development Group.”

 

“What’s the title of this article?” Natasha asked.

 

“‘Captain America: Do We Need A Gay National Icon?’” Clint informed them.

 

Natasha’s eyes narrowed, Bruce made an irritated sound, and Steve knew things were just getting started.

 

“Keep going,” Tony waved a hand at Clint, “the good part’s coming up soon.”

 

“Captain America, perhaps best known for his romance with Margaret Carter, the founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. - wait, wait, what the fuck did I just read?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Tony chimed in, grinning maniacally, “didn’t you know that the only worthwhile thing Cap has ever done was romance Peggy Carter?”

 

“He did crash a plane that one time,” Natasha added in a thoughtful tone before eating another slice of apple from her knife.

 

“Didn’t he… walk around in parades too?” Bruce chimed in, looking a little more settled in his skin after half a cup of coffee.

 

“Wait, wait, wasn’t he on those old war posters?” Clint snapped his fingers. “Damn, no, that was Uncle Sam. Yeah, I guess Cap is only known for Peggy Carter.”

 

“There are worse things to be remembered for than having the affection of that woman,” Steve felt the need to defend - himself? The writer of the article? Cortez, who was undeniably behind this whole thing?

 

“That’s true,” Tony agreed, and offered Steve a mock salute.

 

Clint cleared his throat and continued.

 

“Captain America, perhaps best known for his romance with Margaret Carter, the founder of S.H.I.E.L.D., has kept his personal life private ever since returning to the public eye last year. Given the upcoming slate of Supreme Court cases this summer, including United States v. Windsor , Captain America’s public gay relationship could be interpreted as him lending support towards the growing movement to legalize same sex marriage in the United States. According to his publicist, Captain America does not have a comment on same sex marriage, or the current political battles for equality that the LGBTQ community faces. It could be that actions speak louder than words, and Captain America is doing what he has always done best - showing America the stand he plans on taking. However, is America ready for our national treasure to be Out? Especially when the man himself can’t bring himself to publicly comment? The Avengers, the team of Enhanced individuals - excluding yours truly,” Clint interrupted himself, “-that claims to protect not only the United States but the world, has very serious representation issues. All team members are white, and there is only one woman on the team. Perhaps having a gay man lead this team is what America needs, even if it’s not what it really wants. Only time will tell.”

 

Clint folded the paper and tossed it back onto the coffee table.

 

“I’m bisexual,” Clint announced.

 

“Is this going to be a thing? Are we all going to come out to each other?” Tony asked. “Do I need to get cakes for everyone?”

 

“Everyone?” Steve asked.

 

Natasha shrugged.

 

“I don’t need a cake. I have sex with men for work and sex with women for pleasure. There’s not a good cake for that.”

 

Bruce looked between Natasha, Clint, and Steve, and then shrugged.

 

“I don’t have sex at all.”

 

“And I have sex with everyone I can,” Tony grinned. “Look at us, representing some of the sexual spectrum. I’m proud, really, I am.”

 

“I’m not gay,” Steve sighed.

 

“Oh, is that fake too?” Tony asked.

 

“What’s fake?” Clint frowned.

 

Steve was a horrible person, but he really needed some world-crisis level emergency to crop up immediately and take him away from this conversation.

 

“Steve’s relationship with the hot nerd,” Natasha said.

 

“Oh, so when you say you aren’t gay?”

 

“I’m bisexual. What I had with Peggy was real. I loved her. I still do. And the other girls - and men - I was with - they meant something to me too. I’m not gay .”

 

Clint nodded in apparent understanding.

 

Tony pulled out his phone.

 

“You want me to call the owner of the paper? I’ve got him on speed dial. We can sue them, or make them print a retraction or- or , you know what?” Tony grinned. “We could have you give an interview to clear all of this up.”

 

Steve hung his head.

 

“I don’t want to give an interview.”

 

Clint patted him on the back.

 

“You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, I was always obsessed with you and the Howling Commandos? I remember seeing this one photograph in some book. It was you and Falsworth, and you two were holding hands and looking at each other… not the way most guys looked at each other. Whenever I felt like shit for thinking another guy was attractive, I’d remind myself that you looked at Falsworth like that.”

 

Steve chanced a look over at Clint, fully expecting the man to be making this up. But the expression on his face was utterly sincere.

 

“Jimmy was a great guy,” Steve sighed. Had his poorly-hidden relationship with his comrade really meant that much to Clint?

 

“Might mean a lot, I think, for other kids to know you are bixsexual,” Clint shrugged. “It’s still not easy growing up, you know? Hell, even after you’re grown up. DOMA - you coming out publicly would be a huge blow against all of those bigots.”

 

And Clint wasn’t wrong .

 

Hell, whatever Steve’s current poll numbers, he was a well enough known figure that publically coming out would, at the very least, have some kind of impact.

 

“You’re right,” Steve admitted. He looked over at Tony. “ One interview.”

 

“Done! Pepper will make it happen.”

 

“Sure you don’t want your publicist to handle this, Steve?” Natasha taunted him.

 

Steve glared at her.

 

“I want S.H.I.E.L.D. to have as little to do with my private life as possible.”

 

“Even if it’s fake?” Tony asked.

 

“Why is it fake?” Clint spoke up. “Because, I mean, Cap… you’re kind of a catch. If the hot nerd isn’t into you, or you aren’t into him - we can find you a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend.”

 

Steve sighed. How to explain poll numbers to Clint?

 

“It’s like Lisbon,” Natasha said.

 

“Oh. Oh .” Clint looked from Natasha to Steve, and then nodded. “Gotcha. Ouch.”

 

Steve had no idea what that meant. He had no idea what most of Natasha and Clint’s shorthand meant. They signed to each other when they really wanted to keep things from the team, or did their disconcerting silent staring communication, but most of the time, even when they were trying to include the rest of the team in their conversations, they ended up referring to some mission in their shared past instead of actually explaining a situation.

 

“Speaking of loverboy, let’s see how he’s doing today, huh?” Tony asked and, without waiting for a response from Steve, he waved his phone at the air over the coffee table.

 

A wall of data burst to life, hundreds of small boxes, dozens of larger ones, thousands of dots.

 

“What is all of that?” Steve asked.

 

“That, is all of the internet chatter about Dr. Hot Nerd since the paper came out this morning.”

 

That was a lot for only a few hours.

 

“And this,” Tony waved his hand at a heavy clump of boxes and dots, “is the internet reacting to Dr. Hot Nerd leaving his apartment twenty minutes ago.”

 

Tony made another hand gesture, and photographs of Bucky sprung to life.

 

He was wearing jeans, a white t-shirt, a gray hoodie and a bright blue Mets hat.

 

The photos were all from different angles, and it was clear that Bucky was unaware of some, and very aware of others.

 

In one, he was glaring directly at the photographer, and the expression on his face was one that even Steve found a little intimidating.

 

“I like him,” Clint said, sounding wistful. “Look at him giving that guy the finger.”

 

Steve looked, and sure enough, Bucky was flipping off a photographer in one of the photos.

 

 

“That’s gonna make the front page of a tabloid,” Tony grinned.

 

“Your publicist is going to be thrilled,” Natasha added.

 

“He already told them to fuck themselves when they wanted to vet his suit for the Gala,” Steve proudly informed her.

 

“Oh, definitely a keeper,” Bruce said.

 

Tony snorted, and Steve found himself smirking.

 

Actually, it was kind of nice that the team seemed to like Bucky so much. Or, at least, Bucky’s photographs?

 

“Think he’s handling it okay?” Clint mused. “Must be tough to go from a hot nerd that no one really pays attention to, and then become the focus of the pap the next day?”

 

-o-

 

Steve debated calling Bucky.

 

Natasha had told him not to call Bucky on his cell phone unless Bucky gave him the number or called him from it first.

 

Considering the complete invasion of Bucky’s privacy that had happened in the last ten hours, Steve figured taking that extra step was probably worse than not actually calling Bucky to see how he was doing.

 

So, Steve waited until Monday.

 

At 9:05, he called Bucky’s office.

 

“Dr. Barnes’s phone.”

 

It was Alima again.

 

“Hi, this is Steve. Is-”

 

“Hang on,” Alima said, sounding both bored and amused.

 

There was a rustling sound, some muttered words that Steve couldn’t quite make out, and then Bucky’s voice.

 

“Steve. Hey. Hi.”

 

“Hey, Buck. How are you?”

 

“Oh, you know, same as always.”

 

“Yeah? I must have missed all those times the tabloids had photos of you flipping off the press on their covers before today.”

 

Bucky snorted a laugh.

 

“I, uh, guess I’m sorry about that? I was trying to cross the street and someone shouted my name, and I almost got hit by a car - kind of pissed me off.”

 

It kind of pissed Steve off.

 

“Did you see who it was?” Steve asked, trying to sound casual. He wondered if Tony could figure out who had taken the picture.

 

“Yeah, a guy with a camera,” Bucky sneered. “Anyway, I’m sorry if that’s causing any kind of problems for you.”

 

“I don’t care if it is. I do care about your life being in danger.”

 

“Steve, I was walking across the street. My life was in exactly as much danger as it is any day there are tourists driving in the City. I was just pissed off and reacted badly. I’m fine, really.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Yes. Absolutely. Oh - actually - I’m better than fine. Got a call from my ma last night.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, remembering Bucky’s complaints about his mother last week.

 

“Oh, no, no, no - do not apologize, Steve. She didn’t call to set me up with her best friend’s cousin - she called to berate me for dating the Captain America .

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah, oh.”

 

“She’s upset you’re dating me?”

 

“What? No! She was upset that she had to find out about it on Twitter. No, no, she’s thrilled I’m dating you. Steve - Steve, for the first time since I hit puberty, I had a conversation with my mother when she didn’t once suggest I needed to get out more. It was- We talked about my work for two hours, Steve. Two hours with no mention about my failure of a love life. Hell, she even admitted that my research was interesting. Steve, fake-dating you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Not to mention - my sisters are ready to murder me.”

 

“And that’s a good thing?”

 

“Steve, I win ,” Bucky laughed. “I mean, Becca doesn’t care, because she’s never cared about making Ma happy, but she still married that asshat from Cambridge. And Sarah thought she was Ma’s favorite after getting engaged to the guy wasting all of his time at CERN. And Rachel - hell, who knows who Rachel’s going to bring home this year at Thanksgiving - but it doesn’t matter, because I win . None of them are ever going to date someone as fucking amazing as Steve Rogers. They hate me.”

 

“I don’t understand siblings at all.”

 

Bucky laughed again, and the sound made Steve relax.

 

He didn’t really understand what Bucky was saying, but Bucky seemed okay. He seemed to be handling things.

 

“So, what’s up?” Bucky asked after he stopped laughing. “Did you call to set up another fake date?”

 

“No, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

“Really? Steve, that’s- Thanks. I am, though. Promise.”

 

“If you’re not - if you change your mind about all of this - tell me?”

 

“I will.”

 

“Okay. Thanks. I had a good time, last week.”

 

“Yeah? Me too. We should do it again sometime.”

 

Steve closed his eyes. Bucky’s tone was warm and teasing, already familiar. He wished this was real.

 

“What are you doing this weekend?” he forced himself to ask. “I’m going to attend a few screenings at the TriBeCa film festival, if you want to go with me?”

 

“Yeah. Um… I could take some time off Friday night? And probably most of Sunday?”

 

“Are you sure you don’t sleep in your lab?”

 

“Only on Tuesdays.”

 

Steve didn’t know if Bucky was joking or not.

 

“Do you want me to call you later this week with more details?” Steve asked.

 

“Oh - sure, or you could just text me? Let me give you my cell number.”

 

Bucky said the phone number that Steve already had programed into his phone.

 

“Great,” Steve said after a pause. “This is my personal phone, by the way, so… call me or text me whenever you want to?”

 

“Even at two in the morning when I’m trying to figure out the right frequency to test my superconductors at?”

 

“Especially then.”

 

Bucky laughed again, and Steve had the wild thought that he could spend the rest of his life trying to get Bucky to do that and feel satisfied.

 

“Okay. Well. I gotta get back to work - Alima’s pretending like she’s applying for an internship at H.A.M.M.E.R., which is such a joke. He never hires smart women. Or smart anyone, really.”

 

“Go woo your intern,” Steve said.

 

“Will do. See you Friday!”

 

Bucky hung up, and Steve stared at the phone in his hand.

 

He wondered if there was any possible way he could survive this fake-relationship without getting his heart completely broken.

 

-o-


Chapter Text

 

Steve had seen Bucky in a suit.

 

Steve had seen Bucky in what passed for work attire at Stark.

 

Steve had seen him in casual paparazzi-dodging jeans and a hoodie.

 

Steve was not prepared for Bucky’s attire for the film festival.

 

Natasha had, graciously and with copious eyerolls, shoved a pair of very tight gray jeans that Steve had never seen before at him, a white v-neck t-shirt and a navy cardigan into his arms that afternoon.

 

He had been hesitant about the clothes until he showed up and saw that he was similarly outfitted to everyone else there.

 

But then Bucky arrived.

 

Wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, open to reveal a floral button-up shirt, and dark jeans that were so tight they looked painted onto his thighs.

 

Steve stared. And kept staring, right up until Bucky stepped to his side, slid an arm around Steve’s waist, and tilted his head up for a kiss.

 

It was quick and soft, and somehow not enough and yet too much.

 

Steve was aware of cameras flashing all around them, of the surge in noise as questions and comments were thrown at them.

 

But he ignored it all and linked his hand with Bucky’s, smiled at him and felt his breath catch when Bucky smiled back.

 

“Lookin’ good, Mr. Rogers,” Bucky said.

 

It took Steve a moment to get it.

 

And then he got it.

 

Fucking Natasha.

 

But Bucky just smirked, ran his fingers over the edge of the cardigan, and looked genuinely delighted.

 

“You look really nice,” Steve said, partly in an attempt to get past the fact that Natasha had played a joke on him that he really, really shouldn’t have fallen for. And partly because, well, it was true. Bucky looked really nice.

 

Bucky shrugged one shoulder and squeezed their joined hands.

 

“Didn’t really know what to wear. Had to Google last year’s fest just to see.”

 

Smart. Steve should have done that. Instead of trusting a notorious double agent with his wardrobe.

 

“So, shall we?” Steve gestured with their joined hands towards the movie theatre, and Bucky nodded, not pulling away.

 

 

Cortez and Thompson had given Steve a list of films to choose from - ones that they felt would be an appropriate story for Captain America to endorse.

 

Steve had deleted the email and instead sent the lineup to Bucky and asked him to pick what he wanted to see.

 

So, they ended up going to see The Rocket . It was subtitled, it was devastating, it was funny, it felt honest and pure and so desperately real for all that it was fiction.

 

It made Steve cry, and he wasn’t even a little ashamed of that. Especially not when a red-eyed Bucky passed over a spare napkin for Steve to wipe his cheeks off with.

 

And despite the constant, nerve-tingling awareness of Bucky at his side, Steve was able to really lose himself in the movie. It felt, for the first time in this century, like going to see the pictures back in his day. He felt transported to a new world, to the story and lives of people he would never know but who-

 

His phone rang.

 

His phone rang and vibrated, and actually lit up with a red light.

 

Half of the theatre turned to glare at him, but Bucky, sitting beside him, just went still and stiff and tense.

 

“Avengers,” Steve said.

 

Bucky nodded, and even in the dark, his face was pale.

 

Right. Bucky worked at Stark Tower. He knew, more than the civilians around him, what loud noises and flashing red lights meant.

 

“I have to go,” Steve said.

 

“I know. Want me to walk out with you and-”

 

“No. Stay? I want you to tell me how it ends.”

 

Bucky gave him a look, part exasperation and part fondness.

 

“Be careful,” Bucky growled.

 

Steve grinned.

 

“Always am.”

 

Bucky grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulled him in for a kiss that was arousingly rough and possessive, and then let him go.

 

“Punk. Let me know when you’re safe?”

 

“Will do.”

 

Steve made his exit as politely as possible when his phone was still acting like the DJ at the rave concert Clint had taken Steve to one night months ago.

 

Once outside, he wasn’t surprised to see Natasha waiting in a car, and he dodged the reporters to dive into the backseat.

 

“What’s up?” he asked her as she pulled away from the curb and tore through traffic like it was nothing.

 

“Hostage situation in Milan. Some ex-military Sicilian separatist group with access to nukes.” She tossed a tablet back to him, and Steve started to read. “How was the date?”

 

“Interrupted.”

 

“Too bad. We’ll have to take care of this quickly so you can get back for a nightcap.”

 

Steve snorted a laugh, but looking through the intel - both on the separatist group and the specs on the hostages and nuclear weapons - he didn’t see how that was going to be possible.

 

“Probably going to have to take a raincheck on that,” Steve muttered.

 

“So when is Dr. Tight Pants going to spend the night with you?”

 

Steve’s attention was momentarily drawn away from the tablet by her question. He scowled at her.

 

“Natasha, it’s not real. Why would-”

 

“Paparazzi are camped out around his brownstone 24/7. The same with the Tower. And yet, they see Dr. Barnes leave his apartment every morning and leave Stark Tower every night. They never see you go to his place, or him spend the night at the Tower. No walks of shame.”

 

“Walk of shame?”

 

Natasha waved a hand in a careless, impatient gesture.

 

“When you spend the night somewhere and have to wear your same clothes the next day.”

 

“Oh. Why wouldn’t he just borrow my clothes?”

 

Natasha smirked at him in the rearview mirror.

 

“The press would die if they got a photo of him wearing your clothes, Steve. Please. For me. Make it happen. Think of all of the times I’ve saved your ass. You owe me this.”

 

“Speaking of, Mr. Rogers? Really?”

 

Her lips twitched, and she offered an unrepentant shrug.

 

“I did tell you to move Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to the top of your watchlist. Press call you out?”

 

“No. Bucky.”

 

“Not a fan?”

 

Steve recalled the way Bucky had fingered the collar of the cardigan, the tilt of his lips and the tease of his fingers.

 

“No, I think he was.”

 

Or at least, he had pretended to be.

 

Bucky was, after all, just Steve’s fake boyfriend.

 

“Hm. Well. Let’s take care of this situation, and then see about getting Dr. Barnes in your bed, shall we?”

 

“We’re not actually dating,” Steve reminded her.

 

“One mission at a time, Steve.”

 

-o-

 

The thing about getting shot was that it hurt . Didn’t matter that Steve was a supersoldier and that his body would heal itself within a few days.

 

A bullet in the ribs hurt . A bullet through and through in the meat of his shoulder hurt .

 

It hurt, and it made Steve feel utterly, uselessly helpless when he collapsed onto the Quinjet and let Clint try to patch him up while Natasha flew them home.

 

“Alright, big guy,” Clint murmured as he pulled off Steve’s cowl. “Let’s see what kind of fun games you played with projectiles today.”

 

It made Steve laugh, and then cough, and then curl up from the pain - which, really, just made everything hurt more.

 

“Okay. No more of that,” Clint said, fingers steady as he started to unstrap Steve’s uniform. “Just lay back, let me get this off, and once I’ve assessed, I’m gonna give you one of those gorgeous blue pills Bruce worked up for you, huh?”

 

“Don’t need,” Steve insisted through gritted teeth.

 

Bruce’s gorgeous blue pills were a form of pain medication that took long enough for Steve’s body to metabolize that they actually worked . Frighteningly well, actually. They made Steve feel like he was floating, like his body wasn’t his own, and they left him dizzy and drowsy, and if he made the mistake of actually falling asleep while on them, gave him nightmares that left him crying and shaking and sweating.

 

“Yeah. Sure you don’t. ‘Cuz you’re Mr. Tough Guy, and back in your day, you just put a piece of leather between your teeth and sucked it up,” Clint muttered, being not at all gentle when he finally worked Steve’s uniform top open.

 

Steve glared. Clint glared back.

 

“Nothin’ wrong in admitting it hurts, Cap. You’re human. It hurts .”

 

It was a little rich, hearing those words from Clint, who had a cut across his forehead, a wrist wrapped in gauze, and definitely a bullet hole - if not still the bullet - in his lower thigh.

 

“Am I human?” Steve had to ask. Blood loss always made him feel a bit maudlin.

 

“Sure seem that way to me.” Clint was doing something that hurt a hell of a lot. But then, everything hurt a hell of a lot at this point. Steve let his head fall back and closed his eyes.

 

“Humans don’t survive being frozen for seventy years.”

 

“Hm. Maybe. What would Dr. Hot Nerd say?”

 

“Bucky?”

 

“Yeah. That one. Unless you’ve got a harem of hot nerds I don’t know about?”

 

“It’s just the one.”

 

“So, what would Dr. Bucky have to say about you being human or not?”

 

“Dunno,” Steve said, frowning as he considered it. How did Bucky think of him? “He calls me Steve. Doesn’t like to call me Captain America.”

 

“Sure. Bit intimidating to kiss Captain America.”

 

“Just fake, Clint. Just… him doing me a favor.”

 

“Kinda like that favor I did you when you came out of the ice?”

 

“I thought we agreed not to talk about that.”

 

“Nah. You said you didn’t want to talk about it. I said I’d save it for my tell-all memoirs I’m gonna publish when I’m too old for this shit anymore.”

 

“He’s… he’s a good guy. He’s just helping me out.”

 

“Kinda a big favor,” Clint said. “Pretending to be Captain America’s boyfriend. ‘Specially when he’s not getting anything out of it.”

 

“He is.”

 

“Oh?” There was something sharp in Clint’s tone, and Steve opened his eyes to see Clint practically glaring at him. “Just what is he getting out of it?”

 

“His ma is leaving him alone about dating.”

 

Clint’s expression relaxed minutely.

 

“Really? He wants his mother off his back, so his best solution was to fake date you?”

 

“It just kind of happened. I think he feels sorry for me. No. I know he does. He said he did.”

 

“Mm. Okay. Well. Bullet’s out. I’ve stabilized your ribs as much as I can. We’ll get you into medical as soon as we’re back at the Tower.”

 

“You what?” Steve blindly reached for his side. Clint intercepted his hand, led his fingers to the gauze on his side.

 

“Distracted you. Now. You gonna take a blue pill, or you gonna make Natasha force one down your throat when we land?”

 

“Give it here,” Steve muttered, and Clint, smirking, passed one over.

 

He was in and out of it after that.

 

At one point, Steve was fairly certain he woke up in the medical unit at Stark Tower. Everything felt soft and hazy, painful but in a distant, abstract way that was a little alarming.

 

The next time Steve came to, he was sure the blue pill was out of his system. For one, everything hurt like hell. For another, he definitely felt like he was in his own body, all of the aches and pains annoyingly tangible and real in a way they never were on the pills.

 

But then he realized he was in his suite, on his couch, wearing sweatpants, wrapped in a blanket and-

 

And Bucky was sitting on the other end of the couch.

 

Steve blinked.

 

Bucky was still there.

 

So maybe he hadn’t actually metabolized the blue pill. Then again, he’d never experienced hallucinations on them? And his nightmares tended to be… well, not of men with long, soft hair and hoodies and jeans holding a book and curled up under a blanket in his apartment.

 

“Buck?”

 

The man dropped his book as if burned, turning to Steve with wide eyes.

 

“Hey. Hey ,” Bucky said. Or the Bucky hallucination said.

 

“What are you-? Am I-? Did I die ?”

 

It was, really, the only thing that made sense.

 

Except, if he was dead, why the hell was he in so much pain? That seemed like an incredibly bum deal.

 

“No. No, you’re not dead, Steve.” Bucky reached out towards him, but then he faltered and his hand dropped back to his side.

 

“Why are you here? You are here, right?”

 

“Yeah. I’m here. I was downstairs working when you guys got back. Hawkeye showed up in my lab? Told me that I could go see you, if I wanted. You were still in medical at that point, and Black Widow was there. She said you’d be okay, but that you hated waking up in medical so they were going to move you back to your quarters, but that someone needed to keep an eye on you, and she and Hawkeye had to go do a mission follow-up something? So… I said I could stay. But, I can go, if you want me to?”

 

“Don’t go,” Steve groaned, and tried to roll onto his side. It was a little, but not much, better.

 

“It’s about time for you to take some more pain medication?” Bucky offered.

 

Steve glared at him.

 

“Not more blue pills.”

 

Bucky shrugged apologetically.

 

“Black Widow specifically said that I had to make you take at least two more rounds of them to make sure you actually stayed down and let your body heal.”

 

“I don’t need them,” Steve insisted.

 

“She threatened me with violence, Steve. She said she’d burn down my lab.”

 

“Tony’ll make you a new one.”

 

“I like this one. Plus, can you imagine how hard it will be for me to get interns if I have to explain that, yeah, sometimes Black Widow might burn down the lab because she has a personal vendetta against me?”

 

“I hate the blue pills,” Steve groaned.

 

“I know. She said you’d say that. How do you feel about chocolate milkshakes?”

 

Steve perked up.

 

“With chocolate ice cream?”

 

Bucky nodded, full lips curving up slightly.

 

“Yeah. How ‘bout I make you one, and you take one of the blue pills?”

 

“Half a blue pill.”

 

“Deal.”

 

The milkshake was good, actually kind of amazing. Steve didn’t know if that was because he hadn’t eaten in… he had no idea how long, or because it was Bucky who had made it, or because it was actually good. He didn’t really care.

 

Bucky handed it to him, along with half of one of the damn blue pills, waited until Steve had taken the pill and readjusted himself on the couch, and then sat down again at the opposite end.

 

“What are you reading?” Steve asked him, crushing down on the insane urge to ask Bucky to move closer to him.

 

“Oh. Uh.” Bucky flushed as he held up the book. Carter: The Woman Who Protected America .

 

Steve was familiar with the book, one of the newest biographies about Peggy. The publisher had sent him an advanced copy and asked Steve to write the book’s introduction. But since the request hadn’t come from Peggy herself, and since the book focused almost entirely on her life and work after Steve went into the ice, he had sent it back with the suggestion that Tony Stark might be a better fit.

 

“My sister sent it to me. She’s an asshole. My sister! Not Peggy Carter.”

 

Steve smiled.

 

“She could be an asshole when she wanted to be,” Steve assured him.

 

Bucky laughed, his eyes crinkling in that way that devastated Steve.

 

“Yeah. She seems like something else.”

 

“Why is your sister an asshole?”

 

“It would take a lifetime to list all the reasons,” Bucky grinned. “But,” he lifted up the book, “in regards to this, she sent it to me with the note that I should ‘study the competition’.”

 

Steve frowned as he sipped at the milkshake.

 

Competition?

 

Oh.

 

Oh .

 

“I-” Steve had no idea what to say to that.

 

Bucky grinned.

 

“It’s okay. It’s actually a really good book? I knew some of the stuff about her founding S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’m into the 60s now, and shit, but the number of times we probably would have blown ourselves up without her doing something is crazy. She’s definitely, like, a hundred times out of my league.”

 

“Mine too,” Steve agreed.

 

“Really?”

 

Steve nodded and smiled, a little rueful.

 

“I never really got what she saw in me. She- she saw me, before all of this, you know? She really looked at me, back then. And after? She looked at me the same way. She was - she is - the smartest, bravest person I’ve ever met. Someone like that… Someone like Peggy Carter only comes around once a lifetime, you know?”

 

Bucky leaned his head against the back of the couch, eyes on Steve.

 

“I’m sorry you two… I don’t know. I’m sorry you didn’t get the life you should have, Steve.”

 

The words were unexpected, and they cut deeper than Steve was prepared for.

 

He had to set down the milkshake and clear his throat.

 

“None of us get what we should, Bucky. Hell, I should have died at twenty-five from my bum heart. I shouldn’t have… all of this.”

 

Bucky looked around the dimly-lit room, at the empty walls of Steve’s living room and the sturdy, expensive furniture that Tony - or Pepper - had outfitted the suite with.

 

After a moment, Bucky met Steve’s eyes again.

 

“Steve. I- I know we don’t really know each other. And this is probably… really forward of me.” Bucky hesitated, frowning at himself, and Steve felt his own mouth go very dry.

 

“Yeah?” he prompted, pathetically desperate to hear what Bucky would say.

 

“I know this,” he gestured between them, “is just for show. Just to get you some breathing room. And- and seriously, tell me to fuck off, but I like you. You’re a good guy. You’re funny and- and I’d like to be your friend, if that’s okay. I just… Hell, I don’t know. You’re more than the guy who saves the world, and I like getting to know Steve Rogers.”

 

“Oh.” It felt, bizarrely, like Steve had been punched.

 

Bucky’s eyes went wide.

 

“We don’t have to! I- Fuck. I mean, you’ve already got your whole life getting invaded by people. You don’t need me shoving in and-”

 

“No,” Steve interrupted him. “No, that’s- It’s fine, Bucky.” Steve swallowed down his disappointment. Reminded himself that he had so much already. “I’d like to be friends. I like you too. It’s nice, being with you. Just being Steve.”

 

Bucky bit his lower lip, let it go slowly, and it was torture for Steve to look away from his mouth.

 

“Yeah?” Bucky asked. “You sure?”

 

Steve nodded.

 

“I’m sure.”

 

It was enough. It would have to be.

 

-o-


Chapter Text

Steve wasn’t really surprised.

 

He wasn’t even disappointed.

 

He should have known that Bucky was one of those Mets fans.

 

The fans who showed up to the game in a Mets hat, a Mets jersey - Mike Piazza, because apparently he had been involved with Bucky’s sexual awakening as a teen - a Mets jacket, and even Mets blue high-top converse with the damn team logo on them.

 

Steve took one look at Bucky, standing in the lobby of Stark Tower and waiting for him after his workday, and contemplated turning around and just going back up to his rooms.

 

Bucky laughed.

 

“You knew I was a fan,” Bucky said, pointing a finger at him.

 

Steve sighed and shook his head as he looked Bucky over again. It was… a lot of very bright blue and orange. It seemed utterly ridiculous that Bucky could wear all of that and still look so beautiful.

 

“So am I,” Steve gestured towards his Dodgers hat. Like any sensible human, he wasn’t a walking giftshop.

 

“You prance around in an American flag for your job,” Bucky pointed out. “You don’t get to judge me.”

 

“It is my job ,” Steve argued. “You’re doing this… presumably because you’re under the deluded impression that you look good?”

 

Bucky sniffed and stuck out his chin.

 

“I do look good. I’ve gotten laid three times in these jeans - and I got my first bathroom blowjob in this jersey. And this hat -”

 

“Okay,” Steve hastily interrupted him. “I get it.”

 

He really didn’t want to think about someone else peeling those jeans down Bucky’s thighs. Or someone else kneeling down in front of Bucky and taking out his dick and-

 

Steve shouldn’t be thinking about those things either.

 

“So. Baseball?” He held out his hand to Bucky, who snorted in amusement and slid his fingers between Steve’s.

 

They had decided - to Cortez’s delight - to take the subway over to City Field. In the three months since they had started officially fake-dating, this wasn’t the first time they had braved public transportation together. And, like all of the other times, the subway passengers ran the gamut of not recognizing what Tony referred to as ‘the cutest, most vomit-inducing couple in America’, ignoring them, sneering at their joined hands, or asking for an autograph or photo with them.

 

Tonight, maybe because of Bucky’s blinding enthusiasm for the Mets , they received less attention than usual. It allowed Steve to relax back in the seat, to lean into Bucky’s shoulder while Bucky tilted his head to rest against Steve’s and told him about his new intern. Alima had left for a post-doctoral fellowship in China a few weeks ago, and Bucky was still adjusting to her absence.

 

“Gwen’s great,” Bucky said, for maybe the hundredth time since the woman had started working with Bucky the previous week. “Really. She is.”

 

“But she’s not Alima,” Steve said, not for the first time.

 

Bucky sighed.

 

“No. She’s not. But - she’s brilliant. And she’s got this idea for semiconductors that might actually be really good for integrativing low voltage - sorry.” Bucky trailed off, cheeks a little red.

 

“Why?”

 

“Science crap. I know it can be boring.”

 

Steve frowned.

 

“Have I ever given you the impression that I’m bored when you talk about your work?”

 

“Well, no. But, you know. Most people are. It’s not exactly riveting.”

 

“Most people?”

 

Bucky sighed.

 

“Ex-boyfriends. So. Enough about me.” He sat up, moving away from Steve’s side and leaving him feeling cold and a little lonely. “You went down to see Peggy yesterday? How’s she doing?”

 

Steve smiled.

 

“Actually, really good. She was lucid for the entire visit.” It was rare, and Steve wished he was strong enough for it not to hurt as much as it did when Peggy wasn’t lucid.

 

“What’d you two talk about? Your terrible taste in baseball teams?” Bucky asked, flicking the brim of Steve’s hat.

 

Steve glared at him and re-settled his hat.

 

“No. Peggy loves the Dodgers .”

 

Bucky snorted.

 

“Peggy loves you . In Carter , there’s a whole sidebar about her and the Red Sox in the eighties that would make you cry.”

 

Anyway ,” Steve said, “we talked about Tony and how amazing it is that Pepper plans to keep him. And we talked a little bit about the situation in Russia.”

 

Bucky nodded, frowning slightly. He may or may not know more than what the news reports had been broadcasting, about the subtly-decaying civil rights of Russian citizens and the para-military pushes into old Soviet-held territories.

 

“And about you, of course.”

 

“Of course,” Bucky agreed with an eye roll. His levity was short-lived. “Does she… know?”

 

Steve had visited Peggy twice since starting to ‘date’ Bucky, and she had asked about ‘his young man’ both times. That first visit, Peggy had not been at her best. But yesterday, Peggy had been in top form, sharp-witted and clear-eyed and, despite the wrinkles on her face and the white cloud of her hair, had reminded him so much of Peggy in 1945 that he had had to fight back tears.

 

Yesterday, Steve had been halfway through relating the events of his date with Bucky the previous week, attending a food truck festival in Red Hook, when Peggy interrupted him.

 

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?

 

The question had stopped Steve mid-sentence, and he had floundered. He should be in love with someone he had been dating for three months, shouldn’t he?

 

But the way she said it, the way she looked at him, made it clear she knew more than he was saying. So he had spilled it, the entire thing, from Bucky walking into the meeting and bluffing his way through it to Steve falling asleep on him and drooling on his shirt last weekend, and the way he felt whenever Bucky smiled at him.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said to Bucky, “she knows.”

 

Bucky swallowed hard, nodded, and looked away from Steve.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Steve didn’t really know what Bucky was apologizing for, but that one word, spoken so softly, didn’t do much to ease the ache inside of Steve.

 

They were quiet for the rest of the ride, through their transfers, and until they were in line arguing about the merits of nachos or popcorn to accompany their hot dogs and beer.

 

Things settled as they argued and they made their way to their seats on the third base line - a concession to Steve’s love for the Dodgers and a thoughtful gesture from Bucky, who had surprised Steve with the tickets last week.

 

The game was good - shockingly close, considering how rough the Dodgers season had been - and Steve and Bucky spent most of it trading elbow jabs, snarky comments, smirks and snacks, since Bucky had gone with popcorn and Steve with nachos.

 

Only a handful of people had trooped down to their seats to ask for autographs or photographs, and then only between innings. It was, as anything with Bucky always was, a great time. Despite being surrounded by upwards of fifteen thousand people, Steve felt more relaxed, felt more in the moment, beside Bucky, trying to make him laugh, listening to Bucky heckle the Dodgers , than he had in such a crowd in a long time.

 

Until, of course, the seventh inning stretch and the damn kiss cam.

 

“Fuck, should have known this was coming,” Bucky groaned, and pointed at the jumbotron when Steve frowned at him.

 

There was real-time footage of Steve, sitting beside Bucky, their faces framed by a giant digital heart and the words Kiss Cam .

 

“Oh.”

 

“Well, ain’t nothin’ we haven’t done before,” Bucky said, and leaned in. Steve met him halfway, and Bucky was right. They had been doing this for months now.

 

Kisses for hello, for goodbye, for ‘someone just pulled out a camera’, for ‘distract me so I don’t insult that senator’. They had damn near perfected brief, affectionate little kisses.

 

So when Steve pulled away from Bucky, he was a little surprised to see the camera still focused on them.

 

And then a voice came over the stadium PA system.

 

“Come on, Cap - show the world what it means to be Captain America’s favorite Mets fan!”

 

“Sorry,” Bucky sighed. “I think they want more theatrics.”

 

“Good thing I started taking acting classes,” Steve groused, and reached for Bucky’s shoulder.

 

He pulled him close, slid his other hand along Bucky’s jaw, and kissed him again.

 

They had, without ever expressing it, made a rule to keep their kisses brief and closed-mouthed. For Steve, at least, that seemed safest.

 

But now, this time, Bucky’s lips parted and Steve let himself mirror the move, opened himself up to Bucky and tasted Bucky for the first time, felt the slide of Bucky’s tongue against his lips, the tease of it against his tongue, the slight sucking pressure of Bucky’s mouth as he slowly eased back.

 

Around them, the applause and cheering was a little deafening.

 

Steve let himself stay focused on Bucky, on the way his eyes slowly opened, the pink of his cheeks, the red, wet sheen of his mouth.

 

“Those classes are really paying off,” Bucky said, voice low and rough.

 

Steve squeezed his shoulder and let go. He chanced a look at the jumbotron and, mercifully, the camera was now focused on some other couple.

 

Everything was fine, Steve told himself as he tried to settle back into his seat.

 

This was fine.

 

-o-

 

Bucky stayed the night at the Tower.

 

It wasn’t his first ‘slumber party’, as Tony had taken to calling the security protocol he programmed into JARVIS that allowed Bucky access to Steve’s quarters and the shared Avengers common area, but no other rooms or floors in the top part of Avengers Tower.

 

Bucky had stayed over often enough, at this point, that he no longer packed a bag. He had an entire kit - toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, cologne, shampoo and conditioner, razor and clippers and mouthwash - that he kept under the sink in Steve’s bathroom. He had even brought over a few changes of clothes and shoes to leave in the guest room, after the third time photographs of him in Steve’s too-large sweaters trended on Twitter for days and Bucky’s sisters had apparently gained enough ammunition to use against him for the rest of his life.

 

Those weren’t the only new additions to Steve’s living space.

 

It had happened slowly, but after the first time Bucky and he stayed in to watch a movie together - to hang out, like friends, Bucky had assured him with a smirk - Steve had noticed that the couch needed more pillows and another throw blanket. When he had sat down to order them, it had just felt natural to want something with a bit more color, to warm up the grayscale of the suite’s current furnishings with splashes of red and blue and violet.

 

After the couch had come Steve staring at the walls. The empty walls. So he’d asked Bucky to help him navigate IKEA.

 

That had been a field trip that almost broke the internet, but apparently had given Steve such a bump in whatever polls Sitwell monitored that Cortez and Thompson got raises.

 

So now, the walls of his apartment had art on them. Cheap pop art. Things that Steve wasn’t all that attached to, except that Bucky had been with him when he picked them out, along with the new bath mat, the new rug in the kitchen, the new floor lamp in Steve’s bedroom, and the new bookcase that they had spent hours arguing about as they assembled it together.

 

By the time they got back to the Tower, it was just past midnight, and Bucky managed to stretch, wish Steve a goodnight, and then stumbled off to the guest room after pressing a brief, thoughtless kiss to Steve’s cheek.

 

It might as well have been seared into Steve’s skin, because it was all he could think about as he put himself to bed. Strange, how that one absent-minded gesture meant more even than the very intimate kiss they had shared in public.

 

Then again, that kiss had been fake. Had been for the rest of the world. For the polls.

 

Bucky’s lips against Steve’s cheek? His sleepy, half-lidded eyes blinking up at Steve and his mouth offering up a ghost of a smile?

 

That had been for Steve alone.

 

Which made him a sad, greedy asshole who desperately wanted more from Bucky than Bucky was already giving him - and Bucky was giving him a hell of a lot. Not just the fake dates, but friendship. And friendship with Bucky? That was a damn gift.

 

It meant texts at all hours of the day - not often, and not on any real schedule - but Steve could be on his morning run or handing off terrorists to the FBI and his phone would ping with a text from Bucky. It was usually art, usually Bucky finding an image of something that was purported to be famous or important and demanding that Steve explain to him why it wasn’t just a lousy waste of canvas or sculptural material. In return, Steve would text him back with the most obscure mathematical equations he could find and insist that they could all be solved for the number two.

 

It meant Steve altering his daily schedule, it meant adding in another trip to the seventh floor coffee shop mid-morning and a trip down to Bucky’s labs, where Steve would press a caffeinated beverage into Bucky’s hands and another into the hands of first Alima, and now Gwen Stacy.

 

It meant dinners out, or dinners in, trying new food and finding things he liked and things he hated.

 

It meant listening to music of all kinds, sitting on the couch and laughing his ass off while Bucky tried to teach him how to dance.

 

It meant falling asleep on the couch watching movies, at least once a week, and waking up with Bucky pressed against him and wishing that Bucky would do it while they were awake, and not just migrate against him while they slept.

 

It meant a lot .

 

And Steve knew he should be satisfied, knew he should stop looking at Bucky and wishing that Bucky could care for him as more than a friend, knew he should stop wishing Bucky’s kisses were real, knew he should stop wondering if Bucky felt the same electric flutter when they held hands that Steve did.

 

He knew all of that, but he couldn’t really bring himself to embrace it.

 

Not on good nights, and not on bad nights. Especially not on bad nights, when Steve closed his eyes and saw the faces of all of those who had left him behind, of all of those he hadn’t saved, of all-

 

“Steve. Steve. Steve .”

 

Someone was touching him. Talking to him. Warmth, there, on his shoulder, and-

 

Steve’s eyes shot open and he jerked away from the touch, rolling to the side and coming up with his back to the wall and-

 

Bucky.

 

Bucky was there, sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes wide and wary, mouth slightly open, looking shocked and sad.

 

“What- what are you doing in here?”

 

Bucky had never come into Steve’s room. Steve had never been in Bucky’s room, not since it had stopped being the guest room and become Bucky’s room.

 

“I- You- you were crying.”

 

Steve blinked at him, scowled at the words and the idea, but he reached towards his own face and felt wet, warm tracks across his cheeks.

 

“Oh.”

 

“You sounded- God, Steve. You sounded so hurt.”

 

Steve swallowed. Swallowed again. But the painful, stubborn knot that had decided to take up residence in his throat refused to move.

 

“Sorry I woke you,” Steve managed to say, to whisper really, and even that left him aching.

 

“No. Don’t do that.”

 

“Don’t do what?”

 

“Don’t apologize for- for being fucking human, Steve.” Bucky actually sounded angry.

 

“I-” Steve stopped himself before he could apologize again. “I’m not used to people being around me.”

 

Somehow, that wasn’t the right thing to say either.

 

Bucky sighed, closed his eyes and hung his head.

 

“Steve.”

 

“I’m fine. You should go back to sleep.”

 

“I was already up.” Bucky hooked a finger towards the kitchen. “I’ve been working on the new specs for the Amsterdam project for the last hour.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah. I don’t sleep much. Never really have.”

 

Which, now that Steve thought about it, made sense. Bucky was usually up when Steve left for his morning runs, if Bucky stayed the night. In fact, Bucky was always up before Steve, unless they fell asleep on the couch together. That was the only time Steve woke up before Bucky.

 

“All of those equations,” Steve said, feeling stupid.

 

Bucky offered him a weak smile.

 

“Yeah. Those. So. You wanna talk about it?”

 

“About what?” Steve was starting to feel ridiculous, with his back against the wall and the bed between him and Bucky. He forced himself to breathe and sat back down on his bed. He couldn’t lay back down though, not with Bucky just sitting there wearing a t-shirt and soft, cotton shorts that made him look very warm and very human in a way that Steve ached for.

 

“About what upset you.”

 

Steve swallowed hard. He didn’t, actually. He didn’t even want to think about it.

 

He shook his head in the negative, and Bucky just nodded.

 

“You want me to go? Or do you want me to stay with you for a while?”

 

Steve looked at him, not even able to disguise the need in his eyes at the thought of that second option.

 

Bucky offered him a soft smile, and pulled back the sheets and blanket on Steve’s side.

 

“C’mon. Lay back down.”

 

Steve did it, for once not fighting an order.

 

Bucky tucked him in and then, to Steve’s shock and undying gratitude, stretched out beside him, on top of the blanket, one of Steve’s pillows tucked under his head.

 

“Did I ever tell you about my interview here? When I was in the running for the post-doc fellowship?” Bucky shifted closer, draped one leg over Steve’s, and even through the blanket and the sheets, Steve could feel how warm he was.

 

“No,” Steve managed to say.

 

Bucky smirked.

 

“Oh, Steve, have I got a story for you, then. I swear. One of the best days of my life .”

 

“Because you got to meet Tony Stark.”

 

No . Because I got into a fight with Tony Stark! I called him an antiquated xenophobe who had the ability to change the world and didn’t have the balls to do it.”

 

Steve tried to picture it.

 

That had been years ago - 2008. The same year Tony was held hostage in Afghanistan - the same year he became Iron Man. The same year he got Stark Industries out of gun manufacturing.

 

“Was this before or-”

 

“After. It was about a week after the press conference when he said he was Iron Man. Pepper was in the room - hell, Pepper was the one who set up the whole interview? Stane used to run the post-doc and internship programs. But… anyway. I thought she was going to throw me out of a window or something. She looked so furious . And I thought, for sure, this is it. This is my career down the drain.”

 

“So, what happened?”

 

“Pepper turned to Tony, raised her eyebrows, and said ‘See? Even your techie fanboys think being Iron Man isn’t cool enough. Get off your ass, Tony.’” Bucky grinned and shook his head. “God, Steve, you should have seen his face . I dunno. It was probably a lot for the guy, considering everything he had just been through, but he sat there and took it and told me the fellowship was mine.”

 

“That sounds like Tony.”

 

“Yeah. He’s a good guy. It’s not fair, you know, the way people like to pretend he isn’t, or try to say he only thinks about himself or about numbers. You and him are probably the most generous, selfless people I’ve ever met.”

 

Steve shook his head.

 

“Tony’s the one who flew a nuclear missile into a wormhole to save New York. He’s the selfless one.”

 

Bucky reached out with his right hand and ran it over Steve’s jaw.

 

“Yeah. And you’ve never once done something like that yourself.”

 

Steve swallowed hard, and fought against the instinct to look away from Bucky’s sharp gaze.

 

Bucky let his hand fall and it landed on Steve’s shoulder. He gave it a gentle squeeze, but didn’t move.

 

“Try to sleep, Steve. You deserve it after having to watch the Dodgers lose so horribly tonight.”

 

“You’re such a jerk,” Steve muttered, even as he dutifully closed his eyes.

 

He could feel the puff of air from Bucky’s chuckle, warm against his cheek. He could feel the warmth and strength of him, along his hand, his leg, his lean body pressed against Steve’s side.

 

Bucky was a steady, comforting presence, and Steve told himself it was okay to try to sleep, just a little bit. Just long enough for Bucky to stop feeling guilty and go back to working on things that were more important than Steve.

 

Which is why, when he woke up five hours later, with hair in his mouth and a dead weight against his shoulder, he froze in place.

 

He knew that hair, knew the scent of the shampoo and conditioner that Bucky used, that Steve himself sometimes used when Bucky wasn’t there.

 

Steve opened his eyes to bright light streaming through the blinds. Gently, he shoved Bucky’s hair away from his mouth.

 

Bucky had stayed.

 

Bucky had stayed, and he had curled around Steve, arm flung across Steve’s chest and leg hitched around his thighs, as if he belonged there.

 

And Steve-

 

Steve hadn’t woken up with someone in his arms since Peggy, a lifetime ago.

 

He was simultaneously struck with nostalgia - for Peggy, for the life they had dreamed of together, the world they had fought to build - and such a deep satisfaction that Bucky was with him that both feelings were immediately overridden by guilt.

 

Steve tightened his arm around Bucky and tried to tell himself to stop wishing for things he couldn’t have.

 

Still asleep, Bucky nuzzled against Steve’s neck, warm and impossible.

 

-o-

 

Chapter Text

Steve was just rounding Prospect Park and turning back towards Manhattan on his morning jog when he got the call.

 

Flashing red lights, annoying and impossible to ignore call tone.

 

He almost tripped as he came to a stop and pulled it out of the pocket of his running shorts.

 

Bombing at Penn Station .

 

Four words that filled him with anger and dread and a wild, inappropriate sense of possessiveness, because this was his city.

 

But then Steve realized what time it was.

 

7:35 A.M.

 

On a Tuesday morning, that was prime commuting time. It was, if you wanted to maximize casualties, a perfect time to bomb the train station. It was-

 

It was where Bucky transferred from the 2 line to the 1 and-

 

Steve started to run, fumbling with his phone as he picked up his pace.

 

He found Bucky’s number, unsurprisingly at the top of his most recent calls, and dialed. It rang.

 

And rang.

 

And rang.

 

Steve didn’t think he had ever run so fast.

 

By the time he arrived at Penn Station, he was out of breath, chest heaving, his body feeling more like the one he had been born in than it had in too long.

 

And Bucky still hadn’t answered his phone.

 

From the outside, on street level, Penn Station and Madison Square Garden above it looked intact, the streets around looked flat and - empty.

 

Police had already set up a barricade, and Steve had to jump over the more-or-less parked cars that were unable to turn around.

 

The scene was swarmed with men and women in black and navy - police officers, firefighters, FBI agents and-

 

A flash of bright red hair being shoved under an FBI cap.

 

“Natasha!”

 

She looked around, green eyes narrowed, and caught sight of him immediately. She broke away from the small group of agents she had attached herself to and walked over to him.

 

She lifted the yellow tape line to help him cross over, and then gave him a once-over.

 

“You could have gone back to the Tower and changed first,” she said.

 

Steve shook his head.

 

“No. Bucky’s not answering his phone.”

 

Natasha’s face closed down immediately, and she nodded.

 

Steve started walking, ignoring everyone who even tried to stop him, and Natasha followed in his wake.

 

“Multiple explosions,” she said, having to raise her voice a little to be heard over the cacophony of first responders around them as they descended into the station. “The Northeast corridor AmTrak lines look like they were the focus.”

 

“What about the local trains?” Steve asked, and he hated himself for asking but he needed to know. He needed-

 

“Looks like the 2 and 3 lines were damaged. There were trains in the station at the time - it’s a bit of a mess down here. Aside from the damaged trains and the platforms, there doesn’t appear to be too much structural damage to the station itself.”

 

“That’s good.” Steve came to a stop in the lower concourse and had to re-orient himself for a moment.

 

“Steve.”

 

He looked down at Natasha only when she put a hand on his arm.

 

“Steve, I’ll look for him up here. You head down to the platforms. Keep your phone on you.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She nodded and let him go, adopting a stalk as she made her way towards the triage area.

 

Fortunately, Steve was recognized despite his lack of uniform. He wouldn’t have been, six months ago. But after spending so much time with Bucky, in the public eye, he was as easy to recognize in uniform as out of it.

 

A firefighter caught sight of him and actually sighed in relief.

 

“Sir,” the man waved. “Sir, we could use a hand over here!”

 

Steve fought with himself. He wanted, more than anything, to just find Bucky. To look through the twisted, charred carnage of the train cars until he found him or-

 

But Steve wasn’t Steve. He was Captain America.

 

He didn’t get to put Bucky ahead of everyone else. That wasn’t his job.

 

So he joined the firefighter and did what he could to help.

 

Time seemed to both simultaneously slow down and rush along at light-speed.

 

Everyone they found who wasn’t Bucky - it was both a relief and a crushing blow.

 

Hours might have passed, or maybe only seconds, when Natasha called him.

 

“Rogers,” he answered the phone, brusque and desperate.

 

“Dr. Barnes hasn’t arrived at Stark Tower yet. Which doesn’t mean anything ,” Natasha hastened to add.

 

“He’s still not answering his phone.”

 

“He could be stuck on a train underground. There’s no service in the tunnels. Not for civilians. It doesn’t mean anything, Steve.”

 

“Keep me updated.”

 

She hung up, and Steve went back to lifting twisted metal so that firefighters could sift through the wreckage.

 

With every passing moment, every train car that was cleared, Steve felt more and more detached from himself. Everything felt cold and distant and-

 

“Hey! Hey! A little help!”

 

The tunnel echoed with cries for help, sobbing victims, orders from the first responders.

 

But that voice.

 

“Hey!”

 

Steve knew that voice.

 

“This way,” Steve grabbed the shoulder of the nearest firefighter and dragged him towards the voice.

 

“We’re back here!”

 

There was a flash of light, dim and blue in the dusty haze of the tunnel, and Steve stumbled towards it.

 

And there he was.

 

It was Bucky.

 

There was blood in his hair, across his jaw and on his shirt - his Captain America shirt. The one Steve had given him weeks ago, as a joke. And-

 

“Are you okay? What hurts? Can you move?” Steve had to curl his hands into fists at his sides to keep from reaching for Bucky.

 

Bucky offered him a lopsided grin, and even with his face covered in blood and blackened from soot, he was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen.

 

“‘M fine,” Bucky insisted, waving his right hand.

 

And, now that Steve looked at him, there was nothing pinning Bucky in place. He was just sitting there, knees drawn to his chest, right hand holding his phone, left arm reaching down, behind a seat and out of sight.

 

“Your hand?” Steve asked, brain already supplying all of the terrible things that could have happened to it. To Bucky. A man who used his hands to make things. To build things and-

 

“Oh. It’s fine. Steve. Steve, look at me.”

 

He did, jerking his eyes away from Bucky’s left arm and meeting his steady, gray gaze.

 

“Steve, I’m fine. But there’s a kid back there, Mark. He’s holding my hand. And he’s stuck.”

 

And Steve, damn him to hell, felt a rush of relief so strong he momentarily forgot how to breathe.

 

The firefighter at Steve’s back nudged him to the side.

 

“You said his name was Mark?” the firefighter prompted.

 

Bucky nodded, and then turned his head, addressing the kid.

 

“Hey, Mark? Buddy? Help’s here. Told you they’d come for you. Guess who it is? Mark?”

 

There was a low, weak moan in response to Bucky’s questions.

 

“Mark,” Bucky repeated, voice sharper. “C’mon, man. Talk to me.”

 

“Fuck off,” came the response, and it made Bucky grin.

 

“Here,” the firefighter passed over his flashlight to Bucky, who dropped his phone and took it immediately. “Shine it on him, and let’s see what we’ve got.”

 

What they had was a small kid - maybe ten - dark-skinned, but pale and gray, with eyes bright and too large. He was wearing a school uniform, and his legs - his right leg was bent at a horrible angle, and his left thigh was dark and wet with blood, his thigh almost bisected with a twisted hunk of steel.

 

“Okay.” The firefighter turned to the side and spoke into his comm unit. “I need EMT at my location. Me and the Captain are in the last train car, and we have an immobilized victim with likely internal bleeding and an injury to his femoral vein. We need assistance before we can get him free.”

 

“Mark,” Bucky shook the kid’s hand, and he turned glassy eyes towards Bucky, “you’re almost out of here.”

 

“Nhm,” was Mark’s almost unintelligible reply.

 

“Dude. C’mon. You’ve got Captain America here, you’re not even gonna ask for an autograph?”

 

“Captain America sucks,” Mark slurred. “Iron Man - he’s the good one. He’s the cool Avenger.”

 

“Ouch. That’s harsh, kid. You really gonna say that to Captain America’s face?”

 

Steve looked from Bucky to the kid, and he knew he should do something - knew he should say something. He was Captain America. He was-

 

He was frozen, just standing there looking at Bucky, overwhelmed with gratitude, feeling sick with adrenaline and fear and-

 

The EMTs arrived.

 

They made Bucky move, even though both he and Mark protested, and Bucky was shuffled off to the side while the EMTs tried to stabilize the kid. And then Steve was told to lift and pull, and he did, his brain and body numb, and then Mark was free and-

 

And Bucky was moving, away from Steve, following the EMTs and Mark, once again taking hold of the kid’s hand, leaving Steve behind.

 

“Cap?”

 

He shook himself and looked down at the firefighter.

 

“This tunnel is clear, sir. I’m moving on to the AmTrack lines. We could really use your help over there.”

 

Steve turned away from Bucky’s back.

 

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

 

-o-

 

It took three days for a terrorist group to come forward and claim responsibility for the Penn Station bombings.

 

It took Clint and Tony sixteen hours to deliver the supposed mastermind of the terrorist group to FBI custody.

 

It took Mark four surgeries and five weeks in the hospital before he was released, and even then, he had months if not years of intense physical therapy ahead of him.

 

It took Natasha six weeks to finally corner Steve after a mission briefing.

 

They were in an elevator, and she casually hit the emergency stop button, crossed her arms over her chest, and glared up at him.

 

“Natasha.”

 

“Steve.”

 

She didn’t budge, and Steve sighed. He could just stand there and glare back at her. He didn’t mind a few minutes of a silent staring match. Hadn’t he just complained to Bruce that Tony talked too much, that it would be nice if, for once, the Avengers could spend time together just existing in peaceful silence? He could-

 

“What is it?” he asked after all of ninety seconds had passed.

 

“You can’t keep doing this, Steve.”

 

“Doing what?” He thought back over the briefing. He had, for once, been receptive to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tactics. He hadn’t even argued with the agent in charge of the briefing, some asshole named Rumlow who would lead the STRIKE team, and who would, nominally, be in charge of the mission.

 

“Whatever it is you think you’re doing with Bucky Barnes.”

 

And that- that really said it all, didn’t it?

 

She knew, or she wouldn’t have phrased it that way. She knew that Steve was so far past faking anything about their relationship.

 

Steve contemplated denying it - but he owed Natasha more than that.

 

Even so, he didn’t really know how to respond.

 

“Your poll numbers are fine, Steve,” Natasha said in a voice that was probably supposed to be soothing. “You’ve been trending as the most popular Avenger for months - ever since that baseball game when you two made out on national television. Congress passed a new S.H.I.E.L.D. budget resolution two weeks ago, and funding is up. Stark Tech has more global partners now than it’s ever had before. Everything you were supposed to do - you did. You don’t have to play this game anymore.”

 

“Natasha.”

 

“Steve.”

 

“It’s not a game. I- It’s not a game.”

 

“Then what is it, Steve? Is it real, what you two have?”

 

Steve swallowed hard and glared at her.

 

“He’s my friend.”

 

“You want him to be your lover, Steve. And a friend is a long way from that.”

 

Steve wanted to argue. He needed to argue.

 

But he couldn’t.

 

Because, at the end of the day, Natasha was right.

 

At the end of the day, Bucky went home. Or he went to his room. And some nights, if he was really tired, he kissed Steve goodnight. And some nights, if Steve’s bad dreams coincided with Bucky’s insomnia, he woke him up and held him.

 

Natasha was right. Bucky was his friend.

 

“Steve, you need to end it. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. I see the way you look at him, Steve. And you- you need more than this. You deserve more than this.”

 

Steve didn’t know how to put it into words, didn’t know how to say that even having Bucky in his life as his friend, as his fake boyfriend, was more than Steve had ever had before, and he couldn’t imagine his life without Bucky in it.

 

“Natasha.”

 

She stepped close to him and reached up to frame his face in her small, delicate hands.

 

“Have you tried talking to him?”

 

“About this?”

 

“Yes, about this.”

 

“No.”

 

Her fingers curled into his skin, not quite painful, but definitely reminding Steve that she could do serious injury with her slim fingers.

 

“End it, Steve. Or begin it. But this has to stop. You’re breaking your own heart, and I can’t stand by and watch it happen any longer.”

 

Steve drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes. He lifted his hands to tangle with hers.

 

“I love him, Natasha.”

 

“So tell him that. See what happens.”

 

“What if he ends it?” Steve opened his eyes in time to see the pity in her expression before she smoothed it out.

 

“Then it’s over, and you have the chance to find someone who loves you.”

 

She drew his head down and pressed a kiss to his mouth, hard and fierce and weirdly threatening, and then released him.

 

She re-engaged the elevator and stood beside him, arms once again crossed over her chest.

 

“Call him,” she said as the elevator doors opened and she got out. “Talk to him.”

 

Steve made it four hours before he called.

 

Bucky was working late, because it was a Tuesday, and Steve had realized months ago that Bucky really hadn’t been joking about sleeping in his lab on Tuesdays - something about running tests - and it was late enough that Bucky would have sent home Gwen and whatever interns he had for the day.

 

Steve could just go down to the lab. He should .

 

But he didn’t think he could stand to see Bucky’s face when Steve confessed that he was in love with him.

 

Bucky answered on the third ring.

 

“Steve! Oh, fuck. I’m so glad you called.” Bucky sounded like he usually did on Tuesday nights - a little manic, not altogether focused on Steve’s voice or the phone call, and, as ever, Steve found it as adorable as he found it exasperating.

 

“You are? Did you forget to eat again? Do you want Chinese or Mexican?”

 

“Oh. Oh, I did forget to eat. Shit. Uh - no. I mean, that’s not why I’m glad you called. Do you have any Thanksgiving plans?”

 

“No?” Steve wondered what Bucky could possibly think he would do for Thanksgiving.

 

“Um. Is there any chance you want to… come to Indiana? With me? For Thanksgiving?”

 

“What?”

 

“Yeah. It’s crazy. I know. It’s- it’s just my ma, you know, and this whole - us thing. Well, the fake us thing, and she- Forget it. Fuck, you don’t need to deal with it.”

 

“No, Bucky. You want me to go home with you for Thanksgiving?”

 

Over the phone, Bucky sighed.

 

“It’s just… you know. Every year, my sisters always have someone - I mean, even Rachel usually has a girlfriend over for something, and she’s a baby . My Ma called this morning and asked if, you know, you’d be coming home with me, and I didn’t know what to say, and it’s stupid , Steve. It’s stupid, and it’s me being dumb.”

 

“It’s not stupid, and you aren’t dumb. Do you want me to go with you?”

 

“Steve, this is four days in Indiana . Four days with my family. In Indiana.”

 

“I did fight in a war, Buck. I’ve been in places that aren’t as civilized as the City before, and survived. For longer than five days, even.”

 

“I can’t ask you to do this, Steve. It’s dumb. It’s-”

 

“Do you want me to go with you?” Steve asked him again.

 

Bucky was quiet for a long moment.

 

“Yeah? I mean, I could use the backup and moral support, frankly. Fake boyfriend aside, it’d be nice to have a friend there.”

 

Natasha was right. She was always right.

 

Steve couldn’t go on like this.

 

But after everything Bucky had done for him , Steve could do this - he could go to Indiana with Bucky and be his backup and moral support.

 

And then, when they got back, Steve would talk to him.

 

“Then I’ll go,” Steve said.

 

“Are you sure? Steve-”

 

“I’m sure, Bucky. I want to.”

 

Afterall, five more days of faking it, or, for Steve, not faking it, wasn’t going to make anything that much worse than it already was.

 

-o-




Chapter Text

 

Steve had never actually seen Bucky nervous before.

 

Bucky had interrupted a meeting with three Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and his boss with no visible hesitation.

 

Bucky had faced down the press and paparazzi for months .

 

Bucky had responded to slurs and accusations and personal attacks online and in person with snark and tact, and had never once backed down.

 

Bucky had sat with a kid for hours and held his hand while waiting for the kid to be rescued.

 

Bucky had sat through pizza with Clint, Bruce, Tony, Natasha and Steve on more than one occasion, and hadn’t acted at all intimidated.

 

But today, driving their rental car from the airport in Indianapolis to his family’s home in Lebanon, Indiana, Bucky was anxious.

 

He alterated between gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white, or drumming his fingers on it in a pattern Steve couldn’t recognize.

 

The plane ride had been much the same, Bucky’s legs jittering, his focus anywhere but on Steve, his face pale and lips pressed tightly together.

 

“Buck.” Steve had to fight the urge to reach over and touch him. He had attempted that, on the plane, and Bucky had stared at him with wide eyes and stumbled over an assurance that he was fine.

 

“Hm?” Bucky didn’t look away from the non-existent traffic.

 

“It’s going to be okay.”

 

Bucky spared him a look, making a choking sound that might have been a laugh.

 

“Steve, no, it’s not . This is the- this is the worst idea I’ve ever had!”

 

That was surprisingly hurtful. Steve made himself push aside his reaction to those words.

 

“Why?”

 

“Why? Because- because my family is crazy , Steve. My family is literally the worst, and I’m just… dragging you into their fucking lair like some sacrificial lamb, and they’re going to slaughter you.”

 

Steve felt the hurt recede some, and he arched an eyebrow at Bucky.

 

“Really? I’m that helpless?”

 

“Unless you plan on beating them into submission, yeah. Yeah, you are.”

 

“You’ve survived team dinners with the Avengers, Bucky. You really think this is going to be worse than that?”

 

“Of course it is!”

 

“The Hulk, Bucky. Iron Man. Black Widow. Hawkeye. Thor .”

 

“Steve, none of your friends would ever hurt me unless I hurt you first. My family? My family are assholes . My mother is a fucking behavioral psychologist. She gets paid to be an asshole. My sisters have actually weaponized sarcasm. And my dad? Jesus, my dad is…” Bucky trailed off and shook his head.

 

But Steve knew about Bucky’s father. Steve knew about his entire family. Not just from the times Bucky had mentioned them, but from the incredibly thorough briefing that Natasha and Clint had given Steve last week after Steve had promised Natasha he would talk to Bucky as soon as they were back in New York after Thanksgiving.

 

Steve knew that Bucky’s father was brilliant - all of the Barnes were brilliant - but George Barnes had, unlike his wife and their children, dedicated much of his time and energy to drinking. He was a botanist, and had, in Bucky’s youth, been at the top of his field when he was hired to teach at Purdue University. In the intervening years, however, as his wife’s career and then his children’s took off, George Barnes had retreated from academe and found comfort in a bottle.

 

Bucky didn’t talk about his father much. Usually, he started to tell a story and then stopped himself, smile slipping from his face, and Steve always let him change the subject.

 

“I was in the Army,” Steve reminded Bucky. “I went through Basic. I know what it’s like to be surrounded by assholes.”

 

“These are assholes you can’t punch , Steve,” Bucky sighed.

 

“I couldn’t punch my COs either. Bucky, it’s going to be fine.”

 

Bucky gave him a look.

 

“It’s not going to be the worst thing ever,” Steve amended.

 

Bucky huffed a laugh.

 

“You say that now …” he muttered, but his grip on the steering wheel relaxed a bit, and he settled his back against the driver’s seat. “You know you can leave me, right? If it gets too bad - if it’s too much. Just leave me, okay?”

 

“Bucky, I’m not going to leave you. I’d never abandon you to be… alone with your family.”

 

It took a moment, but then Bucky laughed, genuine and deep, his eyes crinkling and his mouth curving into a grin that Steve was helpless against, responding with a grin of his own.

 

“That’s, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever promised me, Steve,” Bucky said after he calmed down.

 

“I mean it,” Steve said. “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line, pal.”

 

Bucky snorted and shook his head, but he was definitely less tense now, and Steve was grateful for that.

 

It was nearly one in the morning when Bucky turned off the highway and onto a long, winding road that felt like it was more dirt than pavement. After another ten minutes of driving, Bucky pulled to a stop in front of a white, two-story farmhouse.

 

Despite the late hour, lights were on in several of the windows.

 

Bucky sighed, despondent, and Steve guessed that he had hoped the late hour would mean they could slip in without having to greet Bucky’s family.

 

“Anything I can do to help?” Steve asked him.

 

“Just keep reminding me that it’s illegal to commit murder. And that it would suck if you had to arrest me.”

 

“You know, I don’t actually have the authority to arrest anyone.”

 

Bucky waved a hand.

 

“Citizen’s arrest. Those are real, right?”

 

Steve shrugged. He had no idea.

 

Bucky sighed, then growled, and finally turned off the car.

 

“It’s fine,” Bucky muttered to himself. “We leave Friday afternoon. This is fine. It’s going to be fine. Three days is fine.”

 

Steve let him have his pep talk, getting out of the car and going to the trunk to unload their bags.

 

Bucky took his own bags from Steve’s hands, rolling his eyes when Steve tried to retain his grip on at least the duffel bag while Bucky shouldered his own backpack.

 

“Steve, if I walk in there with you carrying my bags, my sisters will never let me forget it.”

 

Steve relinquished the bag. He was aware, from Bucky himself, that his sisters already had more than enough to make fun of him about in regards to Steve.

 

They walked up to the front porch of the house, taking the steps slowly, and even in the dark, it was clear to Steve that the house was old but had recently been renovated, and was in excellent condition.

 

Despite the house being almost entirely white, the front door was black. It was a surprising detail, and Steve wondered who had made that choice, and why.

 

Bucky raised his hand and knocked, leaving Steve to wonder if he didn’t have a key, or just didn’t want to use it?

 

A moment later, the door was opened by a woman who appeared to be in her fifties or sixties, slim but with a roundness to her belly and chin. Her hair was dark brown, streaked with silver, and loose around her shoulders in waves that were too similar to Bucky’s for Steve not to make the connection.

 

“Ma,” Bucky said.

 

“James, come in, come in. It’s freezing outside.” She gestured Bucky past her with one hand, and Steve followed him in.

 

Winnifred Barnes closed the door behind them, and then turned her full attention on them, her blue eyes very sharp and extremely critical as they raked over first Bucky, and then Steve.

 

“James, give me a hug before Mr. Rogers thinks we’re cold and unloving.”

 

Bucky snorted a laugh, but walked into his mother’s arms and held her tightly for several seconds, nose buried in her hair and eyes closed. Steve couldn’t quite make out the expression on either of their faces, but when Winnifred let Bucky go, both had slight smiles on their faces.

 

“Mr. Rogers. I’m Dr. Barnes. Of course, call me Winnifred. We’re all Dr. Barnes in this house, except for Rachel.” She held out her hand, and Steve shook it.

 

“Please, call me Steve. And thank you for having me in your home.”

 

“Well, of course. Any friend of James is welcome in our home. Why don’t you two get settled in, and I’ll put on some tea?”

 

Steve watched Bucky’s face, and he caught the looks of disappointment and then resolve that flashed across it.

 

“Actually,” Steve said, and offered his best War Bonds smile, “I think we’re both pretty beat. We might just turn in.”

 

Winnifred arched one eyebrow at Steve, and then turned to Bucky.

 

“Well, darling?” There was something incredibly judgemental in her voice and gaze, and Steve realized that he had, somehow, fucked up.

 

“Yeah, Ma. Steve’s right. I think we’ll call it a night so that we can get up at a decent hour.”

 

Winnifred made a sound of… disbelief, maybe? But she pressed a kiss to Bucky’s cheek and waved them towards a staircase.

 

“Very well. Sleep. I’ll see you both in the morning.”

 

They trooped up the stairs, Steve following Bucky’s example and treading lightly, and once on the second floor, they made their way to the end of the long hall, took a turn, and ended up in a bedroom that looked as gray and lacking in personality as Steve’s rooms had before Bucky.

 

Steve followed Bucky into the room, and once they were inside, Bucky closed the door and leaned back against it and closed his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve said immediately. “You just seemed like you didn’t want to-”

 

“I didn’t want to,” Bucky agreed. “And you don’t need to apologize for anything.”

 

“But she was-”

 

“Yeah, she’s like that. It’s fine. Seriously.” Bucky opened his eyes and forced a smile. “That kind of shit? That’s the next three days non-stop.” He sighed, and then pushed himself upright and shrugged out of his bag.

 

Steve looked around the room. There wasn’t even any art on the walls, and the main focus of the room was the large, very soft-looking bed in a dark wooden frame. Two matching nightstands flanked it, and across from the bed was a bureau in the same style, with a wide mirror atop it. In one corner of the room, between two closed windows, sat a desk and chair. On either side of the bureau were two white doors, Bucky opening one to reveal a walk-in closet and the other an en-suite bathroom.

 

Bucky made use of the bathroom, and when he came out a few minutes later, his face was wet and his eyes downcast.

 

“Hey.” Steve reached for him, and Bucky hesitated, then let Steve pull him in a for hug. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

Bucky stood in his arms, entire body stiff with tension, but he did lean his head on Steve’s shoulder.

 

“It’s like, no matter how old I am, I’m always going to be the five year old who had a lisp and couldn’t remember the capital of Turkey.”

 

Steve didn’t know what it felt like to have Bucky’s family, didn’t know how to navigate all of these complicated relationships, but he knew something of what feeling small and broken, even when he wasn’t, was like.

 

 

He pressed a kiss to Bucky’s cheek.

 

“I bet you were adorable with a lisp.”

 

Bucky managed a weak laugh.

 

“Ugh. I wasn’t. I had to go to a speech therapist for years, Steve. It was awful.” He pulled away from Steve, and Steve let him go.

 

Bucky wiped at his eyes, and then gestured to the bed.

 

“Sorry, about having to share, but we’ve done it before. If you want me to sleep on the floor, though, I can-”

 

“Don’t you dare,” Steve said, and rolled his eyes. “This bed is bigger than mine back home. There’s plenty of room.”

 

Bucky sighed, and he seemed to deflate. He looked, suddenly, very small.

 

Steve had to fight the urge to hug him again.

 

“Sleep?” he suggested instead.

 

Bucky nodded, and gestured towards the bathroom.

 

“Go ahead. I’ll get in there after you.”

 

Steve had to root around for his toiletry bag and pajamas, but then he took them into the bathroom, changed, and performed his evening hygiene routine while glaring at himself in the mirror.

 

He knew, despite Bucky’s assurances, that he had misstepped early, with Winnifred. He needed to do better. He was here to make this easier for Bucky, not harder.

 

Steve finished up in the bathroom, and when he returned to the bedroom, he discovered that Bucky had already changed into his pajamas, those familiar cotton shorts and t-shirt that Steve knew were just as soft as they looked.

 

Bucky switched places with him in the bathroom, and Steve got settled in the bed. The mattress actually felt divine, the exact right balance between soft and firm, and the pillows and fluffy duvet felt like clouds.

 

Before joining him in bed, Bucky turned off the lights, and then climbed into the opposite side of the bed and rolled onto his side, facing Steve in the dark.

 

“Has this always been your room?” Steve had to ask.

 

“Sort of. When I was a kid, we lived in Brooklyn. They didn’t move out here until I was in college - that’s when Dad got the job at Purdue? And Ma started working for the University of Chicago a few years later. So… I don’t know. I always felt like a guest, and this was the room they’ve always used for guests. My sisters actually went to high school around here - even Becca did for a while. Why?”

 

Steve shrugged and tried to think of a polite way to point out how bland and unlike Bucky the room was.

 

“I guess I’m just disappointed that I don’t get to see any posters from your favorite bands growing up on the walls, or look through your trashy stash of not-real porn.”

 

Bucky laughed.

 

“Yeah, well. Never had the band posters, and unlike you , old man, I grew up with the wonders of the internet. And I was in college by the time I was fifteen, so… God. I think I would have died if my Ma ever found my porn. Jesus. I even had this whole leather daddy thing for a while.”

 

“Did you really?” Steve couldn’t help but grin. Bucky shoved at his shoulder.

 

“Fuck off. Don’t act like you didn’t draw your own damn dirty pictures when you were younger.”

 

“I’m Captain America,” Steve argued. “I would never .”

 

“I bet you drew dirty pictures of Peggy Carter -”

 

“Definitely never. She would have killed me.”

 

“Howard Stark, then.”

 

Steve hesitated just a second too long before denying it.

 

“Oh my god. You did . Please, please tell me you can like - recreate them or something? Just, just draw them and slip them into your exhibit at the Smithsonian. Tony would be traumatized , Steve. It would be the best thing in the world .”

 

Steve had to laugh as he pictured Tony’s face if he did actually see the sketches Steve had once done of his father.

 

“You’re the worst,” he told Bucky.

 

“I know. I know .”

 

“Go to sleep. We can negotiate the dirty drawings tomorrow.”

 

“And now I’ll have that in my head while I try to sleep…” Bucky grumbled, but rolled over, onto his other side. “Night, Steve.”

 

“Night, Buck.”

 

-o-

 

Steve woke up with a dick stabbing into his ass.

 

It wasn’t the first time he had found himself in this situation with Bucky, and while he sincerely hoped Bucky had never woken up with their positions reversed, he knew that was unlikely. They had spent too many nights together on the couch or in Steve’s bed, at this point, for this to be new or that to have been even a remote possibility.

 

It was still dark outside, only the dimmest and grayest of light beginning to filter in through the curtains over the windows, and Steve debated the merits of laying in bed with Bucky or getting up.

 

But then Bucky curled an arm around Steve’s waist, pressed his forehead to the back of Steve’s neck, and rocked his hips forward.

 

Steve made himself stay perfectly still, refusing to give into his urge to just melt back against Bucky or, worse, turn around in his arms and kiss him awake. Instead, Steve counted to three hundred and then slowly eased out of Bucky’s arms and off of the bed.

 

He dressed quietly and quickly, in the dark, and then let himself out of the bedroom.

 

Despite Bucky giving him shit over it, Steve had packed his running shoes, pants and shirt. And after waking up like that, a few dozen miles in the freezing November air would likely do him some good.

 

He encountered no one as he made his way down the stairs and out of the house, and soon enough, he was running and trying his absolute best to remind himself that he and Bucky were friends and Bucky was his fake boyfriend and none of this was his .

 

Steve ran for longer than he had planned, and he had no idea how far he had run before the sky started to brighten with color and he forced himself to turn around and head back to the farmhouse.

 

By the time he arrived back, sweating even in the cold air and panting, it was fully morning and someone was on the porch, sitting in a rocking chair and drinking from a mug.

 

Steve recognized her from the photos on Bucky’s desk in the lab, and from Natasha’s briefing.

 

Rebecca Barnes, only two years younger than Bucky, and the sibling that he seemed closest to.

 

She was wrapped up in what looked like layers of sweaters, a scarf, a knitted cap and a jacket. It made Steve realize just how cold it was out here, and wonder why she was sitting outside in the first place.

 

“Good morning,” she greeted him when Steve walked up to the porch.

 

“Morning. I’m Steve.” He held out one hand.

 

She smirked at him, looking at lot like Bucky for just a moment, and shook his hand.

 

“Becca.”

 

“Nice to meet you. Bucky’s told me a lot about you.”

 

“Really? And yet… he hasn’t told me much about you .”

 

Steve shrugged. He didn’t have a good answer for that, except that Bucky had said Becca always pushed. Maybe she was pushing him ?

 

“How often do you two even talk?” he asked her.

 

Becca snorted a laugh and grinned as she settled back into her chair.

 

“Fair.” She gestured to the chair beside her, and Steve realized that he had been ambushed.

 

Reluctantly, he sat down.

 

“So. You and my brother.”

 

“Yep. Me and him.”

 

Becca looked him over with sharp eyes, her gaze somewhere between Bucky’s soft, usually fond gaze and Winnifred’s critical glare.

 

“I didn’t think he’d ever be the type to go for…” Becca waved her hand in Steve’s general direction. “He’s usually more into the cute, nerdy types. Like him.”

 

“Reuters had a poll out a few months ago - at least fifty-eight percent of respondents think I’m cute.”

 

Becca laughed.

 

“And you’re trying to make me think you’re nerdy just because you can tell me about your own PR. No, I don’t think so, Steve Rogers. Unlike the rest of my family, I’m not bogged down in all the science and crap. I actually took history classes.”

 

“So, what, you know my secret plans to become a superhero so I can catch the eye of a brilliant scientist and retire from my life of crime fighting to be a kept man?”

 

She tilted her head to the side.

 

“Alright. You’re an asshole. He’s always gone for those. And, I mean, who doesn’t like eye candy?”

 

“That’s exactly the line I used on him when I first asked him out.”

 

She rolled her eyes, but her gaze was definitely slightly less hostile now.

 

“So, just what do you see in my brother, huh? Captain America, who could date anyone he wanted to, and who saves the world every Wednesday?”

 

“I’m trying to make it every other Wednesday, these days. It cuts into my golf times.”

 

She looked unimpressed, and Steve made the mental note that sarcasm would only get him so far with her, apparently.

 

“What do I see in Bucky? Everything. He’s kind and funny, and so smart it’s kind of crazy, and he’s sarcastic and he’s… Well, he has awful taste in baseball teams, but he’s got okay taste in movies, and we’re working on the music thing because there is more to life than Guns N’ Roses.”

 

“And he’s easy to look at.”

 

“That too.”

 

She was silent for a moment, and Steve was dumb enough to think he might be off the hook.

 

“He falls fast and hard, you know? He always has. So when he told me you two were dating - well, when I found out on twitter and he later confirmed it - it was kinda weird. Usually, for Bucky, he’s two dates in and he’s dreaming of buying a house and getting a dog and adopting kids.”

 

Steve could see that. There was a loyalty and steadfastness to Bucky, but also a kind of reckless commitment to things and people - that made it easy to imagine Bucky doing exactly that with people he dated. People he loved.

 

“Oh?” Steve said, trying to sound polite while he crushed down all of the feelings of despair that were clutching at him.

 

“Yeah. But he didn’t do that with you. He didn’t call me after the first time you guys fucked and tell me he’d found the one again. Kid is crap at emotions, you know? Give him an equation, and he can figure it out no matter how many variables are missing - but you give him feelings ? And he’s a mess. Fight or flight, and nothing in between. Except with you. No post-fuck phone call. No texts about ‘I think I’m falling in love too soon again’ - none of that.”

 

Steve shrugged.

 

“Well, we waited a few weeks, before we were intimate. Maybe that helped him find the middle ground.”

 

Becca nodded thoughtfully.

 

“Sure. Maybe. But you’ve been dating for six months?”

 

“A little longer.”

 

“Six months, and no ‘Hey, Becs, how soon is too soon to bring up adoption?’ texts.”

 

“Look, I don’t know the relationship you have with Bucky. I only know the relationship I have with him. If you’re implying that I’m different than the guys he usually dates - you’re right. I am. And he’s different from anyone I’ve ever been with.”

 

“Really? Brilliant and sassy and pretty - seems like a dead ringer for Peggy Carter. Well, different equipment, but still…”

 

“So I’ve got a competency kink, and I like sassy, dark-haired, pretty, brilliant people.”

 

“Oh, wow. Captain America just said kink . I don’t know if I’m emotionally prepared to handle this.”

 

Steve glared at her, and Becca smirked.

 

“If you hurt him, I’ll kill you,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere. “I mean it. I don’t care about your super body or whatever. I will find a way to kill you, and I won’t make it fun.”

 

“Noted.”

 

“Ma went to get Rachel from the airport, and Dad’s in his office. Sarah and Gabriel won’t be here for another few hours, so if you and Bucky wanted to enjoy the quiet before the chaos, now’s the time. There’s coffee in the kitchen. Bring a cup up to him, and you’ll be his hero.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Hm.” She stared at him over the rim of her mug, watching him retreat into the house.

 

Bucky had said Becca knew him best, had said over and over that Becca was the only sane person in his family.

 

And Steve couldn’t shake the feeling that she was not impressed with him at all.

 

-o-


Chapter Text

 

The Barnes family was loud.

 

They argued with each other constantly , speaking over each other, interrupting each other mid-sentence, sometimes even shouting to drown out each other.

 

It reminded Steve, bizarrely, of the Howling Commandos. Of the times when they had come in from a mission and they were in the mess tent, desperate for food, still dirty from their time on the front, tired and hungry and nauseous from adrenaline and battle. The Commandos had been family, more family than Steve had ever really had, but those first meals back - the Commandos hadn’t liked each other, much less anyone around them. Those were the times when tempers were short, when arguments broke out and grudges were remembered.

 

Steve supposed, if you took away the war and the Nazis, this meal was kind of the same for the Barnes clan. George and Winnifred lived on the farmhouse, Winnifred commuting more than two hours each way to teach in Chicago several days a week, while George drove less than an hour to get to Purdue. Becca was in residence at the Teatro Real in Madrid, and this was her first trip home, apparently, in almost a year. Her husband, a don at Cambridge, hadn’t come over for the holiday. Sarah, the middle sister, had just finished her doctoral work at Harvard that spring, and had taken a fellowship with a DC-based think-tank. Her fiance, Gabriel, worked for Boeing and traveled around the world quite frequently - but had managed to make it for the Thanksgiving holiday. Rachel, the youngest Barnes, was a student at Case Western, and had arrived home without a guest. It seemed that all of the Barnes children followed Becca’s example - staying away unless it was a holiday, and even then, it sounded like Becca skipped Christmas to spend it with her husband’s family in Britain and Bucky, Steve knew, tried to avoid going home for Christmas when he could.

 

He couldn’t blame any of them, really, for wanting to avoid coming home to the dynamic of Winnifred and George Barnes.

 

On Wednesday night, they had an early dinner, but already George was pink-cheeked and argumentative with Bucky and Sarah as they loudly debated the merits of the new NGO Stark had set up to bring sustainable energy to remote parts of the African continent.

 

Gabriel, at Sarah’s side, seemed entranced with the food on his plate, staring at it as if it held the answers to the world’s most compelling mysteries. Becca, seated across from Bucky, kept rolling her eyes and offering bored interjections into the conversation between sips of wine and jabs at her siblings. Rachel, seated beside Steve, just poked at the food on her plate and emoted ugh so tangibly that Steve wanted to tell her he felt the same.

 

Winnifred, meanwhile, sat at the opposite end of the table from George, drinking just as heavily as he did, but her blue gaze was still sharp and predatory as it roved over her family and Steve.

 

“Darling,” she spoke up, cutting off Bucky mid-sentence.

 

All of her children turned to look at her. It was a surreal moment for Steve.

 

“I thought you said you were bringing someone home for the holiday?” Winnifred was clearly speaking to Rachel.

 

Her slim fingers tightened on her fork.

 

“Isabel couldn’t make it,” Rachel said, and she jutted her chin out as if in challenge.

 

“Isabel? Oh - Rachel. Really? You’re still involved with your TA? I thought you were over that meaningless infatuation.”

 

Across the table, Becca snorted.

 

“Give her a break, Ma. We all dated our TAs when we were in undergrad. Except for Bucky, who was just a baby when he went to college, and that would have been gross,” she added, raising her glass to her glaring brother in a mock toast.

 

Sarah smirked.

 

“That’s true - you waited until you were working on your thesis and decided to get engaged to your mentor. How is Dr. Lukin, anyway?”

 

That was a detail that hadn’t been in anything Steve had read or that Bucky had ever shared with him. Not that Bucky had been engaged, nor that he had been involved with his mentor.

 

“Oh, I saw him last month at a conference.” Winnifred turned her attention away from Rachel and refocused it on Bucky. “Do you still keep in touch with him?”

 

“No, I don’t,” Bucky said, and now he was the one clutching his fork too tightly.

 

Under the table, Steve rested his hand on Bucky’s thigh. He squeezed lightly, but Bucky remained tense.

 

“It’s a shame. Brilliant man. You two could have done great work together.”

 

“That was years ago, Ma. It’s been over for forever - and I’m with Steve now? The guy sitting right here .”

 

“I don’t get it,” George spoke up. “What do you even talk about, huh? No offense, Mr. Rogers, we appreciate your service and all you’ve done for the country, but my son is brilliant and driven and at the top of his field, and you… Hell, the history books say you didn’t even finish college.”

 

Steve made himself take a deep, steadying breath before responding. He was here to support Bucky. He was here to-

 

“That’s such bullshit ,” Bucky hissed. “What does going to college have to do with anything? What - you think Steve is some kind of idiot? This is Steve Rogers , one of the most amazing tactical minds the US Military has ever had. And yeah, he didn’t even finish college because he lived through the Depression and he fought in a war , Dad. He goes out and saves the world all of the time-”

 

“Only every other Wednesday, actually,” Becca cut in, clearly attempting to derail her brother.

 

Bucky just glared at her in momentary confusion before returning his attention to George.

 

“Who the hell in the world is more driven than Steve Rogers? And-”

 

“Jesus. Calm down,” George made an offhand gesture. “I think we all see what you like about him, James, but is this really-”

 

“You’re just jealous of him,” Rachel bit out, shoulders hunched and staring at her mostly full plate of food.

 

“Excuse me?” George asked, and around the table, everyone fell silent.

 

“You’re jealous of Bucky, because he’s better than you ever were, and because he’s happy even though you told him he wouldn’t be and-”

 

“Listen,” George thundered, face turning red, “I’m not jealous of my own damn son. I’ve made it clear, since the day he told us he was- that he- I have supported him - and you, missy. I let you bring home whoever you want, and I don’t give you grief. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to you tell me that I’m jealous when I’ve spent my whole life working to give you kids the best future I could. Jealous? You think I’m jealous of-”

 

“That’s not what she meant, Dad,” Bucky interrupted, voice soft. “She just- She didn’t mean it.”

 

“Don’t try to manage me,” George snarled, and then glared down the table at Winnifred. “This is your fault. He’s your fault, Win. Rachel too.”

 

“Oh, really ?” Winnifred gave a dramatic sigh. “Isn’t it always my fault, George, when the world doesn’t perfectly align itself to your expectations?”

 

They glared at each other for a long, tense moment. And then George shoved back his chair and walked away from the table.

 

Bucky sat still for a second, and then Bucky was pushing back his chair and going after him.

 

“Well,” Winnifred said after a moment, “there’s never a dull moment in our house. Rachel, eat something and stop looking like a kicked puppy. Your father has always allowed you to be bisexual and James to be gay. This isn’t that dramatic.”

 

Allowing us to be who we are isn’t the same as loving us,” Rachel pointed out, and Steve was glad she said it because he had been about to.

 

“He put a roof over your head. He pays for your tuition. He takes care of you. If hearing the words is that important to you, then you should have a conversation with him about that. When is the last time you actually had a conversation with him or with me that wasn’t over the telephone, anyway, hm?”

 

Across the table, Becca drained the last of her wine and gave Steve an indecipherable look.

 

Everyone was silent for the next few minutes, Rachel belligerently eating, Becca pouring and draining another glass of wine, Sarah and Gabriel trying to silently communicate something. Probably an escape plan.

 

Finally, Winnifred set down her napkin beside her plate, and it seemed like a signal to the Barnes girls. They all shot up from their seats, grabbing the plates and serving trays around the table and bustling towards the kitchen. Gabriel rose as well, taking his plate and retreating.

 

Steve moved to follow suit, but Winnifred waved a hand at him.

 

“Stay. James and George will be in his office for a while yet. This is, as you may have guessed, an annual occurrence.”

 

Steve hadn’t guessed that at all. How awful .

 

“George has a point, though,” Winnifred said. “About you and James. Tell me, how would you define your relationship with my son?”

 

“He’s…” Steve was nearly thirty. He felt ridiculous calling Bucky his boyfriend while his mother was interrogating him. But what else was he supposed to say? “He’s my friend, and I love him.”

 

“Hm. And what kind of partnership do you have?”

 

“We haven’t discussed any formal, long-term plans for-”

 

“No, no. Not like that. Every relationship is a partnership, Steve. Some of them are balanced, and some of them are unbalanced. In a balanced partnership, both parties give and take equally - their contributions to the unit are treated the same. In an unbalanced partnership, one party gives more and another takes more. You and James - how would you describe your partnership?”

 

Steve had the feeling that there was no way he was going to make it through another day and a half of this. He didn’t know how he was going to get through this conversation.

 

“I try to keep things as balanced as I can,” Steve said slowly, and that was true. He did try not to ask for too much from Bucky. He tried , but Steve knew he was a selfish, greedy bastard, and he wanted all of Bucky that he could have. And Bucky was… Bucky was too good. Too good for Steve. Too good for Steve to keep taking from him like this.

 

“Well, I’m sure you try your best,” Winnifred said in a tone that suggested she knew just how little that really meant. “But I know my son, and I know that he is the type to give and give and give. What, Steve, are you giving him for all of the things that you’re taking from him?”

 

Steve didn’t have an answer for that.

 

He opened his mouth, and he tried to think of something to say, tried to think of an excuse for what he had done for the past six months and the way he had used Bucky and-

 

“Ma, save the interrogation for tomorrow, okay?” Becca was back, leaning in the doorway and holding a new bottle of wine and two glasses.

 

Winnifred looked from the wine to Becca’s bright eyes and flushed cheeks.

 

“It’s too bad Ian couldn’t join us this year,” Winnifred said as she rose from the table.

 

“Yeah, then he could have told Steve all the best places to hide from you and Dad,” Becca agreed. She turned her attention towards Steve. “C’mon.”

 

Steve wasn’t sure Becca was saving him, but he was willing to take his chances if it meant escaping this conversation with Winnifred. He followed her out of the dining room, through a hallway that led towards the back of the house, and then outside.

 

Neither of them had put on coats, and Becca cursed before jumping off the back porch and running towards a barn several yards away.

 

Steve followed her at a more sedate pace.

 

Becca slipped into the barn through a small door, and Steve followed her when he arrived.

 

He was pleasantly surprised to find that the barn was warm, and bright, and appeared to be in no way a traditional barn .

 

There were rows of lights and beds of hydroponic plants in the barn, stretching almost to the roof, and Steve realized this must be some of George’s work.

 

Sitting on the floor, amidst all of the greenery, was Rachel, wrapped in a blanket, red-nosed and puffy-eyed. She looked up at Steve, and then glared at Becca.

 

“What?” Becca asked, innocent as she sat down beside her younger sister and poured two very full glasses of wine. She handed one to Rachel, who took such a large gulp that she choked. “Sucks to be Steve too, kiddo.”

 

Steve snorted at that, partially in agreement, partially in… frustration with himself.

 

He sat down across from them, and Becca reached into her pocket and pulled out a small gold cigarette case.

 

She pulled out a well-rolled joint and gave Steve a challenging look.

 

“Back in my day, I was prescribed those for my asthma. You think I care if you get high?”

 

Becca smirked, and Steve decided that, if they had perhaps met under different circumstances, he would have liked her.

 

He watched her light the joint and then take a long, deep drag from it before passing it over to Rachel. She offered it to him next, but Steve shook his head.

 

“It’d just be wasted,” he said when Becca started to get her back up. “And that smells like decent stuff.”

 

She relaxed again, and for a while, the three of them sat in silence while the two sisters smoked and drank.

 

“So, it’s… always like this?” Steve finally had to ask.

 

Becca snorted, and Rachel groaned and scrubbed at her face.

 

“Worse,” Becca assured him. “God, they can be so much worse. And thank fuck Sarah’s pregnant and nauseous, or she’d’ve been baiting the shit out of Bucky and Rachel. And Dad - he didn’t start drinking until after Rachel got home. So that could have been worse.”

 

“Ma only had one martini at lunch, too,” Rachel agreed. “And I think she’s distracted about her publisher pushing up the date on her book.”

 

“Yeah,” Becca agreed. She raised her glass. “Thank fuck for publishers pushing up release dates.”

 

“I don’t understand families,” Steve muttered. “Are they… all like this?”

 

“Ugh. I hope not,” Rachel shuddered. “I don’t think they are? I don’t know. Becs, what’s Ian’s family like?”

 

“Cold and dull, and convinced I only married their precious son for his family money, which, by the way, isn’t true, because Ian has a great dick and I fell in love with that way before I saw their country house.”

 

Rachel grinned, and Becca leaned over and pressed a kiss to her hair.

 

“It gets better, kiddo. You finish up at Case this year, and then you’re off to med school and you’re free.”

 

“You all still come back,” Rachel pointed out sullenly.

 

“Yeah,” Becca agreed, “but we don’t have to. And we’ve got other places to run away to, and people. It’s… it’s not as tough when you know you’ve got somewhere to go when you leave here.”

 

Steve thought about growing up, about his mother’s late hours and double-shifts as she tried to provide for the both of them. He would have given anything for more time with her.

 

But he couldn’t begrudge any of the Barnes’ wanting time away from their parents. Sarah Rogers’ home had been very, very different than the Barnes’ farmhouse. It had been soft, filled with warmth and laughter and love. This house was cold and large and cutting.

 

“So, Bucky didn’t tell you about Aleksander?”

 

Steve’s confusion must have been obvious.

 

“Dear Dr. Lukin?” Becca continued, in a tone that made it clear she didn’t hold him close to her heart at all .

 

“No, he didn’t.”

 

“He doesn’t like to talk about him,” Rachel shrugged.

 

Becca poured herself another glass of wine, and Steve couldn’t help but think of what an excruciating hangover she was going to have tomorrow.

 

“Bucky fell in love like… right away? I swear, Lukin invited him into his office and Bucky probably dropped his pants right then and there.”

 

Rachel snorted a laugh, and Steve found himself wanting to defend Bucky. Becca’s arched eyebrow kept him silent.

 

“So, anyway, they started dating, or whatever. They got engaged. Bucky brought him home, and Ma and Dad gushed over him. Like - the opposite of you, Steve. They loved him. Even Dad. It was awful.”

 

“The worst,” Rachel confirmed.

 

“Anyway, then Lukin’s research got major funding, and he got published and offered a job at Oxford, and his entire career took off.”

 

“What happened with him and Bucky?”

 

“Oh - you mean after Lukin took all of Bucky’s work and passed it off as his own, and used him to get famous? Yeah, after that, Lukin ditched him.”

 

Steve made a mental note to look the guy up. Maybe to pay him a visit. Maybe to see if Stark or Natasha could help him figure out some way to make his life completely miserable and-

 

“Oh, so you do love him,” Becca said with a triumphant smirk.

 

“What?” Steve stared at her.

 

“Bucky. That face was the ‘I’m going to rip apart the man who hurt Bucky’ face. You love him.”

 

“Of course I love him.”

 

Becca and Rachel traded smug looks.

 

“What?” Steve sighed.

 

Rachel shrugged, and then leaned against her sister.

 

“Nothing. Just nice to know it’s not all some bullshit PR stunt like Dad thinks it is.”

 

“What?” Steve found himself asking again, aware that it made him sound stupid. But- ”What?”

 

“Dad’s convinced Tony Stark pimped Bucky out to you as some kind of PR stunt to make you more popular,” Becca explained. “It’s all he talked about yesterday when I got here. How he didn’t want this crap in his house, how he was right about Bucky spending his life being miserable, and yadda yadda yadda.”

 

Steve felt the blood drain from his face, and he clenched his hands at his sides.

 

“That’s not what this is,” he forced himself to say.

 

“I know,” Becca agreed. “You had the murder face. You care about him. You passed the test. Don’t worry. Rachel and I won’t kill you in your sleep.”

 

“Unless you break his heart,” Rachel said. “I’m training to become a doctor. And I’m sleeping with my TA. I can get her to help me make it look like an accident when we murder you.”

 

“So why is Lukin still alive?” Steve had to ask.

 

“Because I told my sisters to mind their own damn business and stay out of mine.”

 

Steve turned at the sound of Bucky’s voice, unsurprised that he looked angry. Even less surprised that it looked like he had been crying.

 

“Oh, wa-wa-wa, doesn’t it suck that your sisters want to look out for you?” Becca mocked Bucky, but she held out the half-smoked joint, and Bucky sighed and came to sit with them.

 

He leaned against Steve while he smoked the joint, batting away Becca’s hands when she tried to take it back for a hit.

 

“How’d it go with Dad?” Rachel asked.

 

Bucky shrugged, but didn’t answer beyond that. They sat in silence for a while, and Steve was sure that Becca and Rachel were struggling just as much as he was with what to say to Bucky.

 

“I saw your article in The Atlantic last month,” Becca said eventually, referring to an essay Bucky had written about the history of public transportation in New York City, and how integrating new, super-conductive technology into the rail system was following in the footsteps of past innovators. It had been a very well-written piece, and Steve had, yet again, been impressed by just how amazing Bucky really was.

 

“Yeah?” Bucky finally gave Becca back the joint, and she took another hit before passing it over to Rachel to finish.

 

“It was good. It almost made me care about your science nonsense.”

 

Bucky snorted a laugh, and Becca grinned at him, the expression soft and affectionate. Steve was sure it wasn’t just because she was high.

 

“I made Steve listen to your lecture at the El Real, and that recording of you playing the lute.”

 

Becca groaned and hid her face in her hands.

 

“Ugh. Not fair! I hate my voice - and that lute! Ugh. That was the worst. Steve, I’m better than that. Bucky just likes to make people think I’m terrible. But, in reality-”

 

“He told me you’re the most amazing person he knows,” Steve contradicted her, and had to grin when she just stared at first him, and then Bucky, with her mouth open.

 

Rachel laughed.

 

“You’ve found her weakness - sincerity!”

 

Becca shoved at her, and Rachel shoved back, and soon they were rolling around and tickling each other.

 

Bucky turned his head into Steve’s shoulder.

 

“I’m gonna go to bed,” he said. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

“Me?” Steve frowned. “Who cares about me - what about you?”

 

Bucky shrugged, and then got to his feet.

 

“‘M fine. Don’t fall asleep out here again,” he said, and pointed at Becca and Rachel. “You know how Dad feels about us contaminating his plants.”

 

Steve rose as well, and Bucky looked over at him.

 

“I’m going to call it a night too,” Steve said, and then hesitated. “Unless you wanted to be alone for awhile?”

 

Bucky shook his head and held out his hand in invitation.

 

Steve took it and laughed when Bucky flipped Becca and Rachel off over his shoulder when they started making exaggerated kissing sounds.

 

Back in their room, Steve let Bucky have the bathroom first.

 

When Steve finished, Bucky was already in the bed, and the bedroom lights were out.

 

Steve climbed in and turned to look at the outline of Bucky’s body under the blankets.

 

“Your father-”

 

“My father’s an asshole,” Bucky sighed.

 

“But he knew. About us.”

 

Bucky gave a bitter laugh.

 

“Fuck. I know . How- how fucked-up is that, huh? He always said it, you know. From the day I came out until now - until fucking tonight. He always said being gay was going to make me miserable, that I was going to end up alone, that people were going to use me and throw me away because that’s what happened to people like me .”

 

Steve felt a knot of anger and loathing settle in his gut. For George, but also for himself. Because he had done this - he had used Bucky. He had done this to Bucky.

 

“Buck, I-”

 

“Steve, I really, really don’t want to talk about it, okay? Seriously.”

 

“You deserve so much more than this, Buck. You deserve to be happy. You deserve-”

 

“Steve, drop it, will you?” Bucky sounded angry, and for some reason, that made Steve angry.

 

“Why? Why can’t I care about you? Why can’t I tell you that you deserve to be happy? When you tell me that all of the time and-”

 

Bucky rolled over, crowding against Steve until he was flat on his back and Bucky was above him, glaring down at him in the dark.

 

“I’m begging you, let it go , Steve.”

 

“No. Not when-”

 

Bucky kissed him.

 

And Bucky had kissed Steve hundreds of times. Maybe thousands - why hadn’t Steve kept count? But none of them were like this.

 

Bucky was angry, and he was desperate, and his teeth caught against Steve’s lower lip and his tongue surged into Steve’s mouth when he moaned. It was rough - it was just this side of painful.

 

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky, holding him close, hoping the kiss would never end.

 

Bucky was trembling against him, and Steve ran one hand down his back, tracing over the line of his spine, trying to soothe him.

 

“Please,” Bucky gasped, pulling away just enough to glare down at Steve again. “Please, just- Can I have this, Steve? Just this one thing? This one time? I- Tell me no. Tell me to leave you alone, okay? I just- Fuck, I’m so pathetic, Steve. I just want-”

 

Steve kissed him, unwilling to hear Bucky finish that thought, unable to see that look in Bucky’s eyes any longer.

 

He spread his legs, letting Bucky settle against him, and held him close as Bucky kissed him back until they were both breathless.

 

Bucky kissed his way across Steve’s jaw, down his neck, sucking bruises into his skin and biting him until Steve was squirming and panting under him.

 

“Buck-”

 

“Don’t. Please. Just- don’t, Steve. Please.”

 

Bucky shoved at Steve’s arms and his shirt, until Steve sat up and pulled it off. It dislodged Bucky from atop him, but Bucky quickly adjusted, climbing into Steve’s lap and running his hands over Steve’s naked chest in something like reverence.

 

Steve pulled at Bucky’s shirt until Bucky lifted his head and let Steve remove it.

 

He had dreamed about this from the moment Bucky had first held his hand, had wanted to touch him and hold him close and feel him writhe around Steve and-

 

And he hadn’t wanted it to be like this. Hadn’t wanted Bucky to have tears in his eyes or despair tugging at his lips, hadn’t wanted Bucky begging him to stop talking and just let him have Steve, as if he didn’t already - as if he hadn’t from that first moment.

 

It wasn’t right, not any of it.

 

Bucky pushed against Steve’s chest until he lay back down, and then he returned to tormenting Steve with his mouth, sucking on his nipples, tugging at them with his teeth until Steve cried out and had to shove his own hand over his mouth to keep quiet. He had no idea how thin these walls were, no idea whose room was next to theirs, no idea-

 

Bucky worked a hand under Steve’s shorts and his briefs, his fingers almost searingly hot when they wrapped around Steve’s cock.

 

Steve moaned and grabbed Bucky’s shoulders, pulled him back in for a kiss on the mouth that was sloppy and filthy, and so damn desperate on both of their parts.

 

Steve tugged at Bucky’s shorts and discovered that he wasn’t wearing underwear, and of course, of course Steve wondered if Bucky always went without underwear in his sleep shorts.

 

Bucky lifted his hips, let Steve push down his shorts, and then let Steve roll them so that Steve could kick free of his own.

 

And then Bucky was naked against him, lean and strong and warm, and everything Steve had dreamed he would feel like.

 

Steve reached for Bucky’s cock, and he stroked over the hard, heavy length of him until Bucky shivered and moaned and thrust into Steve’s hand.

 

Steve wanted to tell Bucky how beautiful he was. Wanted to tell him how long he had wanted this. Wanted to tell Bucky how perfect he was, how good he felt.

 

But Bucky’s eyes were squeezed shut so tightly it looked painful, and Bucky’s face was contorted into a grimace that couldn’t just be pleasure.

 

Steve pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, and tried to coax him into another kiss. Bucky’s mouth opened under his, and Steve continued to stroke Bucky, finding what he liked, until Bucky’s heels were digging into his ass and Bucky was burying his face in Steve’s shoulder and coming with a muffled shout.

 

He wanted to hold Bucky, wanted to soothe him, wanted to tell him so many things, wanted-

 

Bucky pushed at Steve’s shoulder.

 

“Roll over. I’ll take care of you.”

 

“You don’t have to,” Steve said. “I’m fine here.”

 

But Bucky was insistent.

 

“I can do it, Steve. Just- let me take care of you, okay? It doesn’t- It’s nothing, okay?”

 

It was, probably, the last thing Steve had ever wanted Bucky to say to him. And it didn’t do much for his erection.

 

Bucky got Steve onto his back, and Bucky’s come smeared across Steve’s thighs when Bucky slid down his body, but then Bucky was taking Steve’s softening cock into his mouth.

 

Steve clutched at the sheets and swore.

 

This- this wasn’t fair.

 

He was going to go to hell for this.

 

He was going to die a thousand, horribly painful deaths for this.

 

Becca was going to murder him.

 

Rachel and her TA girlfriend were going to murder him.

 

Natasha was going to murder him.

 

How were thoughts of all of his potential murderers not killing his arousal off?

 

Bucky’s mouth felt so good, so hot and wet, and fuck, but it was difficult to care about being murdered when Bucky swirled his tongue around the head of Steve’s cock and then trailed it down the underside.

 

Steve couldn’t help but thrust into Bucky’s mouth, hips lifting almost of their own accord.

 

Bucky moaned, hands reaching for Steve’s hips and urging them up again.

 

And God, this wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair, and nothing had ever, ever felt this good.

 

Bucky’s fingers dug into his skin, and Steve knew he would bruise, knew he would carry the marks of this for at least a few hours, and that thought - the thought of Bucky’s marks on him - sent him over the edge.

 

It felt a little like the world was ending, Steve’s vision contracting and pleasure exploding through him, and everything felt so perfect - until it didn’t.

 

Bucky pulled away, leaving Steve’s cock wet and cold in the air, and Steve’s nudity suddenly felt too raw, too exposed.

 

They dressed in silence, facing away from each other.

 

As they lay there in silence afterwards, Steve stared at Bucky’s back, and for the first time, he wished he hadn’t met Bucky Barnes.

 

-o-



Chapter Text

Thursday was, predictably, awful.

 

When Steve woke at dawn, Bucky was already gone.

 

His morning run did nothing to settle him, nothing to make Steve think about anything other than Bucky and how miserable he had been.

 

When he got back from his run, Becca was not on the porch waiting to ambush him.

 

Winnifred, however, was in the kitchen.

 

She gestured for Steve to sit, put a cup of coffee in front of him, and asked him how he liked his eggs.

 

“Families are complicated,” she said as she put a cheese omelet in front of him.

 

“Is that an excuse?” Steve asked, no longer feeling the need to play nice on Bucky’s behalf. After all, that hadn’t done a lot of good so far.

 

“Oh, no. This is my family, my house, my children. I’m not making excuses for my life or what I’ve built.”

 

“What kind of partnership do you have with Bucky?” Steve asked.

 

The omelet was delicious -and he wanted to hate it, but he was hungry - and perfectly cooked.

 

Winnifred toasted him with a glass of orange juice, and Steve wondered if it was just orange juice.

 

“You’re trying, and I can appreciate that,” Winnifred said, “but you still don’t really understand.”

 

Steve was about to ask what he didn’t understand, but Bucky walked into the kitchen.

 

He was dressed in a sweater and jeans, his eyes and cheeks puffy, and he looked awful.

 

He frowned first at Steve, and then at Winnifred.

 

“Sit,” she gestured to the chair beside Steve, and Bucky reluctantly took it.

 

“You were already up when I went for a run,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice low as Winnifred turned towards the stove top and started to crack more eggs.

 

Bucky nodded.

 

“I was working with Dad out in the barn. He’s got a problem with some of the drainage pipes, and I wanted to fix it for him before I forgot.”

 

Steve didn’t understand it. He didn’t understand any of it.

 

“So,” Winnifred turned back to them, “Sarah told me her good news last night. My first grandchild is a current work in progress.”

 

Bucky blinked a little owlishly.

 

“That’s great,” he said, and sounded genuinely happy for his sister.

 

“It is,” Winnifred agreed. She plated several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs, and then set them down in front of Bucky. “Of course, it makes me wonder. Have you and Steve talked about children?”

 

Bucky sighed and gave her a half-hearted glare.

 

“Ma.”

 

Winnifred shrugged one shoulder and poured Bucky a cup of coffee. Steve watched as she made it the way Bucky liked - heavy on the milk, light on the sugar.

 

“You two have been together long enough to start discussing the future. It seems that with Steve’s occupation, children might be a kind of… liability.”

 

Steve had dreamed once, falling asleep with Peggy in his arms, of having children. Of raising a family. He hadn’t really considered it again, since being rescued and introduced to the new century. And of course, he and Bucky had never discussed it. It wasn’t really a conversation that fake boyfriends needed to have.

 

“We’re not there yet,” Steve said, because Bucky had his mouth full and Bucky had stood up for Steve last night. “When we are, Bucky and I will have that discussion and consider all of our options. It’s important to me that he’s happy.”

 

Bucky wouldn’t look at him, but Winnifred gave Steve a slight smirk that felt more mocking than anything else.

 

“Yes, well. We all want James to be happy,” she said. “It’s just that some of us know better what he needs than others.”

 

The day continued to go downhill after that - Bucky shoveling his food into his mouth so fast it was actually impressive, and then he fled.

 

When Steve went up to their room to shower and change, the room felt depressingly empty.

 

He dressed in his Natasha-approved attire - maroon corduroy pants and a knitted navy turtleneck sweater that she swore made even her swoon a little.

 

He couldn’t quite bring himself to go downstairs yet, so, fully dressed, he sat on the bed and texted her.

 

I fucked up .

 

A moment later, Natasha responded.

 

We all do. Even me. What’s the damage?

 

Catastrophic .

You’re so dramatic. What happened?

 

Bucky’s parents are awful. I’m a terrible human. He deserves better than me.

 

His parents probably are awful. I read those files. You aren’t terrible. Everyone thinks the person they love deserves better than them. That’s what being in love feels like.

 

I don’t mean it like that, Natasha. He really does. What have I done to him? These last six months? Using him like this?

 

You didn’t use him. In fact, it was his idea in the first place. I was there at the meeting, remember? Get over yourself, Rogers. Not everything that’s wrong is because you fucked up. Put on your sexy sweater and go smile at him, and he’ll do the heart eyes thing right back at you and it will be fine.

 

Natasha’s advice was usually infallible, but Steve didn’t think she really understood the severity of the situation, or just how much Steve had really and truly fucked this up.

 

Even so, Steve couldn’t just sit here in hiding until he and Bucky left on Friday afternoon. He still had twenty-four hours of hell to get through.

 

And hell it was.

 

Whatever quality time George and Bucky had spent together that morning had done nothing to dull George’s ire, and he spent the better part of the Thanksgiving meal picking apart Bucky’s latest research project until Becca took the bold move of stepping in and saying that she was taking a position in Beijing for the next Opera season, and that, no, Ian would not be joining her.

 

It deflected attention away from Bucky long enough for him to down an entire glass of wine while Winnifred seemed to question every career decision Becca had ever made.

 

After the meal ended, and it felt like it lasted a lifetime, the family worked together to clear off the table, set out dessert, and bring out Scrabble.

 

Steve had played cards with the Commandos.

 

Steve had played craps with Peggy Carter and Howard Stark.

 

Steve had played Monopoly with Tony Stark.

 

Steve had played pool with Clint Barton.

 

Steve had played Risk with Natasha Romanoff.

 

Steve had never been involved in a more cutthroat, competitive game in his life. He had been in actual firefights that were less deadly than Scrabble with the Barnes family. Gabriel and Sarah had ducked out - citing Sarah’s nausea - which meant that Steve was guilted into playing by Becca.

 

It was awful.

 

It was excruciating.

 

Not even the lemon-maple pound cake that Winnifred had baked, or the mulled cider liberally spiked with rum that Becca provided, could do anything to dull the actual pain of playing the game.

 

Steve had known Bucky was competitive - they got into enough arguments over trivial things, and had actually gone to a bowling alley on a date once before ending the night with scowls and barbed words and deciding not to do that ever again.

 

But Bucky, compared to the rest of his family, was nothing .

 

Steve had expected Winnifred, and even George, to be cutthroat. He had even assumed that Becca would be. But it was Rachel, the hunch-shouldered seventeen year old, who was absolutely vicious when it came to calling people on their words and laying down her tiles to gobble up every available point and foul up spaces for everyone else.

 

Steve lost by over a hundred points, and despite the fact that Bucky wasn’t as ruthless as the rest of his family, he was only a few points behind Rachel’s winning score.

 

Winnifred suggested Bridge next, and both George and Bucky bowed out, citing work in the barn, and Steve found himself pinned in place by Becca’s knowing gaze and her insistence that Steve had to know how to play Bridge.

 

He partnered with Rachel, which he was at first grateful for, until it turned out that Rachel was as reckless at the game as Steve himself was. They constantly made bets that were too high, and Becca and Winnifred punished them for it.

 

When, mercifully, the game ended with Steve and Rachel losing, Winnifred laughingly tugged Rachel into the kitchen to help her deal with the dishes and Becca dragged Steve out to the porch with her so she could smoke another joint and he could act as a windbreak for her.

 

Through the windows, Steve could see into the kitchen, and Rachel and Winnifred were laughing, smiling at each other, the atmosphere between them completely different than it had been twenty-four hours ago.

 

“Families are fucked-up,” Becca said, following his gaze.

 

“All of them?”

 

“I mean… probably not. Not like this. I’m sure there are lots of families out there with supportive parents who unconditionally love their children and don’t force them to become hyper-competitive brainiacs and skip over their childhoods entirely so they can go to college at the age of fifteen or sixteen. There are families out there that are worse, too. But, yeah, there are families that are better. Gotta be.”

 

“We weren’t like this, my Ma and I.”

 

“Well, history books never called your mother an alcoholic mess who liked to use her own children to prove her psychological theories.”

 

“No. No, they didn’t. She - your mother - she told me she wouldn’t make any excuses for the life she’s built.”

 

Becca snorted.

 

“Yeah. That’s her. No excuses, never ever. She forgot to pick Bucky and I up at school once? Dad was out of town, Sarah and Rachel were home with the nanny, and she just… forgot about us. Never showed. Didn’t answer her phone. And the nanny couldn’t come get us, because she was just a kid, and, you know, she was taking care of babies . The principal finally just drove us home, and by the time we got there, Mom was there, drinking wine and just… It was like we didn’t matter. Like it didn’t happen - like maybe we just made it up in our heads? Bucky and I used to think we imagined it, you know? But when we were older, we ran into the principal and I asked him, and he said yeah, yeah, it had happened. I confronted her about it once, and she said that nothing bad happened to us, so what was the point in fixating on it?”

 

“Bucky and George - he doesn’t talk about him. Not like he talks about you or your sisters - or your mother.”

 

Becca nodded.

 

“He’s always wanted Dad to love him, and Dad’s never… really been able to? I don’t know. Dad’s a weird one. You’d have to be, to want to spend your life with Mom. Even before Bucky came out, he and Dad just… didn’t click. No matter how much Bucky tries. And god , he tries.”

 

Rachel and Winnifred came out onto the porch.

 

Becca handed the joint over to Winnifred, who took a long hit before passing it back to her.

 

“Dinner was wonderful,” Steve said, because he had to say something, and he had no idea what to say.

 

Winnifred exhaled, and then smiled at him.

 

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. James told me you liked sweet potato casserole, so I looked up a recipe that might be to your taste.”

 

And… it had been.

 

Steve didn’t get these people at all.

 

“Goodnight,” he said, offering a weak wave, and then he retreated inside.

 

Not surprisingly, Bucky wasn’t in the bedroom. Steve changed into his pajamas, brushed his teeth and contemplated calling or texting Natasha again, but decided against it.

 

He climbed into the bed alone and tried to sleep, failing horribly.

 

It was after two in the morning when Bucky finally came into the room, feet almost soundless on carpet, and he stripped down to his boxers and just crawled into bed like that.

 

Bucky adjusted the pillows and the blankets, rolled over onto his side, and finally realized Steve was awake and looking at him.

 

“Hey,” Bucky said.

 

“Hey.”

 

They stared at each other, and Steve couldn’t think of where to even start.

 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said. “About last night. I- I’m so sorry, Steve. That was shitty of me. It was shitty, and I took advantage of you, and I’m so sorry.”

 

“You didn’t take advantage of me. You were the one who was high - and miserable. You didn’t take advantage of me.”

 

“I rolled on top of you and shoved my tongue down your throat, Steve.”

 

“And you told me to tell you no if I wanted to. Did I say no?”

 

“You didn’t say yes,” Bucky pointed out.

 

“I kissed you back.”

 

Bucky sighed.

 

“You’re too good to me, Steve. I shouldn’t- I never should have asked you to come out here. And then last night- I just… I just wanted to not feel shitty, for just like a minute , you know? And then I made everything worse. I made it awful .”

 

“You didn’t,” Steve argued. Lied.

 

Bucky gave him a look.

 

“We both did it,” Steve amended.

 

“And we shouldn’t have,” Bucky nodded. “Look, can we just… forget about it? Just go back to being friends and pretend I didn’t jump you when I was at my worst?”

 

“We don’t have to pretend it didn’t happen to still be friends, Bucky.”

 

“Okay, but let’s just… never talk about it? Or I’m gonna die of embarrassment.”

 

“Does that mean I can give you shit for losing Scrabble to a seventeen-year-old? Don’t you have enough degrees to build a fort?”

 

“Engineering degrees, Steve! If there was a Scrabble that was equations and schematics, I would have slaughtered all of you. It’s not my fault Rachel is freakishly brilliant. She remembers every damn word she’s ever read. You know she actually studies for Scrabble games? I’m not kidding, Steve. She checks out books written a hundred years ago and cross-references new words in the OED, and she fucking memorizes them. She’s a monster.”

 

“I think she and I are the worst Bridge partners ever.”

 

“Oh god - Becca did that to you? I told her to be your partner. What a bitch. She just didn’t want to lose to Mom again. I’m sorry.”

 

“It was a lesson in risk management,” Steve said.

 

Bucky snorted a laugh, and he was quiet for a moment before reaching out towards Steve.

 

Steve slid his hand into Bucky’s familiar grip.

 

“Thanks for coming out here, Steve. It means a lot to me.”

 

“I’d say anytime, but I really don’t want to come back here, Buck. I like you a lot, but this… this has been awful.”

 

“I fucking told you,” Bucky said, but he was grinning as he squeezed Steve’s hand.

 

Steve squeezed back, and then Bucky let him go.

 

-o-

 

The drive back to Indianapolis took forever. There was traffic, no doubt people going out shopping, and Steve was more than a little irritated with himself after waking up spooned around Bucky and telling himself he could just hold Bucky and go back to sleep for a while. When he woke up again, Bucky was gone and his side of the bed was cold, and Steve felt like an asshole.

 

So, traffic and his own bad thoughts for company made Steve do something stupid.

 

“Okay, I owe you like… a lifetime of donuts from that health code disaster place you love for doing this,” Bucky said as they inched through traffic. He had been promising Steve all kinds of food all morning, as if he was some kind of catering service, as if Steve needed to be paid back or bought for doing this for Bucky.

 

“You don’t owe me anything,” Steve sighed. “You’ve spent the last six months pretending to date me. This was three days with your family.”

 

“Sure, but my family is the worst, Steve, and you - Okay, I’ll take you to a Dodgers game next season, and I’ll wear a Dodgers hat and no Mets gear of any kind. How does that sound?”

 

It sounded like Bucky was planning for this to keep going on for another six months, and didn’t have a problem with it. It sounded like Bucky was willing to just… let Steve keep using him. It sounded like Bucky was willing to give Steve whatever he wanted or needed and just… exist instead of trying to be happy himself.

 

“We can’t keep doing this,” Steve said.

 

“Doing what? We’ve only got two more exits before the airport. We won’t miss our flight.”

 

“No. This - you and me. This whole fake relationship. We can’t do it anymore.”

 

Bucky looked over at him, saw the set of Steve’s jaw, and immediately refocused his attention on the road.

 

“This is because of Wednesday night, isn’t it?” Bucky sighed. “Because I fucked everything up and-”

 

“No, Bucky. This isn’t because of Wednesday. This is- It’s gone on too long, already. It was supposed to be a few months to bump up my poll numbers, and then we would just quietly break up and go our separate ways. I just… It got easy, being around you. Being with you. But it’s gotta stop, Bucky.”

 

Bucky’s hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, but he nodded.

 

“Yeah. No. You’re right. I- You’re right, Steve. Yeah.”

 

And just like that, Bucky was willing to end it.

 

It probably wasn’t the talk Natasha had wanted Steve to have with him, but it answered Steve’s questions all the same.

 

Bucky was a nice guy. A good guy, and he considered Steve a friend. He had done all of this for him, because of those reasons. Not because Bucky felt the same for Steve as Steve felt for him.

 

The rest of the car ride was in silence so sharp that it hurt.

 

The flight from Indianapolis to JFK was bumpy and awful, and every time Steve and Bucky touched, Bucky jerked away as if burned.

 

At JFK, they collected their bags and Steve followed Bucky to the taxi lane, not knowing how to say goodbye, or if they were already past that point.

 

“What about the State Dinner in two weeks?” Bucky asked the question as a taxi driver loaded his bag into the trunk.

 

Fuck.

 

Steve had completely forgotten about that.

 

Fuck .

 

Maybe Natasha-

 

No, it was for the Russian President.

 

Maybe Pepper would go with him?

 

But that just felt like Steve was playing into the President’s anti-homosexual rhetoric by bringing a woman instead of his long-standing boyfriend.

 

“One last fake date?” Bucky asked, smile tight.

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, meaning it.

 

Bucky shrugged.

 

“It’s nothing, Steve. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

 

-o-



Chapter Text

 

It had taken Steve aback, how quickly he noticed Bucky’s absence in his life.

 

Less than a day after they got back to New York, he found himself reaching for his phone to see if Bucky wanted to come over to watch a movie.

 

On Tuesday, when he came back from a mission, he found Bucky’s room cleared out, Bucky’s spare mug gone from the cupboard, the last of Bucky’s fruit juice smoothie drinks gone from the fridge.

 

There were no more mid-morning coffee runs, no more going down to Bucky’s lab and teaming up with Gwen to tease him, or sitting back and listening to the two of them argue their way through a problem.

 

It was awful .

 

It was the worst decision Steve had ever made. The whole damn thing - start to finish.

 

What made it worse, the team knew. Natasha, probably, had warned them about it after he spilled the entire, pathetic story to her his first night back.

 

Tony kept stopping by Steve’s living quarters and inviting him down to check out some new improvements to the suit or the comm systems or some new robot he was working on.

 

Bruce started staying up late and inviting Steve to watch movies with him.

 

Clint started asking him out for dinner.

 

Natasha just followed him around like a shadow, not smug at all, glaring at anyone who got too close to him when he was out in public, as if she could ward off the questions about Steve and Bucky.

 

And he got the questions.

 

They had been, after all, very much in the public eye for six months.

 

Two weeks of nothing was significant. It was significant after a week of nothing.

 

Steve had given the excuse that Bucky was buried in work - and that wasn’t even a lie. Natasha had informed Steve, unasked, that Bucky was spending more time in his lab than he normally did.

 

After the State Dinner, Steve could stop making excuses, could stop hiding behind Bucky, and let their relationship just fizzle out for the press.

 

He had already sent Cortez and Thompson packing, had decided that whatever damage he would take in the polls, he would deal with himself, and if S.H.I.E.L.D. had a problem with it, then he would go down to DC and talk to Fury about it in person.

 

He was done with those games.

 

He was done, and he was lonely as hell.

 

The original plan had been for Steve and Bucky to spend the weekend in DC. They had booked a suite at the Hay-Adams, and made plans to visit museums during the day before Saturday night’s State Dinner.

 

But on Thursday, Bucky texted Steve.

 

Am I on the guest list at the White House, or do I need to meet you somewhere first?

 

Which more or less answered any question Steve might have about sticking to their original plans.

 

You’re on the list, but it might look weird if we arrive separately.

 

Can you pick me up at Union Station? My train should get there around 5:45.

 

I can do that.

 

Bucky didn’t respond, and Steve stared at his phone for too long, hoping for more than just that.

 

So, Steve drove down to DC. He borrowed a car from Tony, a beautiful Tesla that he knew Bucky envied, and he hung his tuxedo up in the backseat and prayed he would find somewhere to change that wasn’t too far from the train station.

 

Bucky did text him again - an update on his train schedule, a new arrival time, and then which part of the station he was standing in front of.

 

When Steve pulled up, he almost ran over a pedestrian.

 

Bucky was, as always, stunning.

 

He had on a black, wool overcoat, but Steve could see the flash of his white dress shirt, the clean line of his black bowtie. His jaw was shaved clean, his hair pulled back, and his lips were dark in the cold night air.

 

“Nice car,” he said as he climbed into the passenger seat.

 

“You look nice, Buck.”

 

He offered Steve a self-deprecating smile.

 

“Can’t show up looking like a slob to a State Dinner, Steve. Especially not if this is our last… you know.”

 

Steve nodded. He knew.

 

He knew, and he hated it.

 

He hated himself.

 

“How- how is work going?” Steve asked.

 

Bucky shrugged.

 

“Not bad. Gwen and I are going over to Amsterdam in a few weeks to start on the instal.”

 

“That’s exciting.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s taken me years to get to this point, and now it’s here and… feels kind of weird, you know? Like maybe I cheated?”

 

“But you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this, Bucky.”

 

“Still feels weird.” Bucky sighed. “What about you? That thing in Tunisia a few days ago looked rough. Is your shoulder okay?”

 

Steve swallowed hard, and tried not to let Bucky’s concern matter.

 

“It’s fine. A little stiff.”

 

“Did you take any of those blue pills?”

 

“A few, yeah. Bruce kept me company, so that was nice.”

 

“Good. I don’t like thinking about you being alone, not like that.” Bucky reached towards Steve, then stopped himself. “You gotta be more careful, Steve.”

 

“I know. Only one Captain America.”

 

“Fuck that. There’s only one Steve Rogers.”

 

Bucky’s voice was fierce, his eyes dark.

 

Steve didn’t deserve that.

 

He sighed, and Bucky let him stew.

 

They arrived at the White House, and Steve passed off the car keys to a Secret Service agent who looked entirely too happy to be sitting behind the wheel of the Tesla.

 

Bucky waited for Steve, and when Steve held out his hand, Bucky smiled at him and accepted it without hesitation.

 

It almost felt like things were okay. It almost felt like the way things had always been. Except that it wasn’t.

 

Bucky still smiled at him, still teased him and acted the part so flawlessly that Steve felt himself sinking into it all again. But there were moments, when attention was away from Bucky, when the focus was on the other end of the table, when Bucky’s smile slipped and his eyes turned sad as he studied Steve and their surroundings.

 

And then there was the dancing.

 

Bucky had taught him how to waltz months ago, when the invitation for the State Dinner first arrived, and it had been an afternoon of laughing and tripping over each other, and Bucky smiling almost the entire time.

 

Tonight, when they danced together, Bucky fit in Steve’s arms perfectly, but he wasn’t smiling.

 

They danced, and then Steve was pulled away and Bucky took on a new partner, and they kept dancing until they were once again dancing together, and the night was nearing the end, and Steve held Bucky a little bit tighter in his arms.

 

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered into Bucky’s hair as the final song ended.

 

Bucky pulled back and offered Steve a small, sad smile.

 

“Me too.”

 

By the time they said their goodbyes, and Steve got in one last chance to parade Bucky in front of the Russian President and glare at the man, it was after midnight.

 

The last train to New York left Union Station just after ten, and Steve had assumed from the start of the night that Bucky would miss it.

 

“I can give you a ride back?” Steve offered.

 

Bucky grimaced, but then shrugged.

 

“Yeah. Thanks. Not really a fan of taking the bus for that long of a trip.”

 

Bucky settled into his seat, reclining the chair a bit, and pulled his overcoat around his torso like a blanket.

 

“‘M probably going to fall asleep though,” Bucky said unnecessarily, his eyes already closed. “Been a long few days.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. I promise to get you home in one piece.”

 

Bucky muttered something at that, but then rolled onto his side, away from Steve.

 

Steve kept his focus on the road, and he made the four-hour drive much closer to three than he should really feel comfortable with.

 

But when he pulled up in front of Bucky’s Brooklyn apartment, the other man just rolled over, stretched, and smiled up at Steve.

 

“Jesus, how fast were you driving?” he asked as he sat up.

 

“Fast enough.”

 

Bucky shook his head, but he was still smiling as he unfastened his seat belt.

 

“I- Thank you, Buck. For everything.”

 

“You don’t have to thank me, Steve,” Bucky sighed, and turned to face him.

 

He stared at Steve in silence, and then leaned across the center console and fit his palm against Steve’s cheek.

 

“You’re an incredible person, Steve Rogers, and you deserve to be happy. I really, really want you to find someone you love, okay? I want you to have the life you think you can’t - because you can, and if you don’t, I’m going to kick your ass. I know where you live.”

 

Steve laughed, but then caught himself when it sounded too much like a sob.

 

“Buck.”

 

“Don’t try to thank me again, Steve. And don’t you dare fucking apologize. These last six months were great. Really, really great. I’m damn lucky I got to spend them with you. So don’t mess that up with your apologies or your crap, okay?”

 

“Why, you gonna kick my ass?”

 

“I could do it, Steve. It might not hurt you, but I could still do it.”

 

Steve lifted his hand to Bucky’s, still on his cheek, and slotted his fingers between Bucky’s.

 

Bucky pressed a soft kiss to Steve’s lips, just a gentle caress of warmth that lingered when Steve pressed into it.

 

Eventually, though, Bucky pulled away.

 

“Take care of yourself,” Bucky said as he freed his hand and opened the car door.

 

Steve watched him walk over to entrance of the Brownstone. He knew Bucky lived on the third floor, had been over there twice, before they decided the truly awful swarm of reporters waiting for them the next morning just wasn’t worth it.

 

So Steve waited until a light flicked on in a third floor window, waited until he saw Bucky’s shadow move through the room, and then he made himself put the car into gear and drive away.

 

-o-

 

Natasha slapped Steve with a rolled-up newspaper the next morning.

 

She hit him across the cheek, and when he raised his hands to protect his face, she aimed for his ribs.

 

“Ow! What the hell?”

 

She kept hitting him, a look of quiet fury on her face, until Steve finally wrestled the newspaper away from her.

 

A copy of USA Today.

 

Once again, there was a full-page color photograph of Steve and Bucky above the fold.

 

Steve had lost count of the number of times USA Today had printed photographs of them. It seemed that any slow news day could be supplemented with a story about them. Sitwell was always delighted about it. Which probably explained part of the reason why it always irritated Steve.

 

It was a photograph from the State Dinner, Bucky and Steve dancing, the Russian President standing in the background glaring at them.

 

“What am I being beaten for?” Steve had to ask.

 

Natasha crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow at him.

 

“You think the SVR is going to come after Bucky because of this?”

 

Natasha rolled her eyes.

 

“No, Steve. Probably not. Maybe.”

 

“That’s really comforting, Natasha.”

 

She glared, and Steve glared right back.

 

Natasha tapped the photograph, one perfectly manicured nail resting on Bucky’s profile before she went back to glaring at Steve.

 

“What about him?”

 

“Do you not see the way he’s looking at you?”

 

“It’s the same way he always looks at me,” Steve said with a frown. Because, in that photograph, it was. Steve had made a joke, something stupid to break the tension between them, and Bucky had called him an asshole and grinned up at him, eyes crinkling, and Steve had just stared back at him until he missed a step and Bucky had to steer them back on course.

 

“Why are men so stupid?” Natasha groaned. “I thought you were supposed to be smarter than the others.”

 

“I’m sorry to let you down?”

 

“He loves you, you idiot. Look at him - look at the way he’s looking at you.”

 

“He was pretending, Natasha. He-”

 

“Steve Rogers. Are you telling me that a mechanical engineer is better at pretending to be in love than an agent trained by the Red Room? Because there’s no way I have ever managed that kind of look when pretending.”

 

“Natasha.”

 

“You never had the talk with him, did you? When you came back from Indiana and you said you took my advice and it’s over - you didn’t have the talk with him, did you ?”

 

“I did!” Steve protested. “I told him we had to stop pretending to date.”

 

“And he said?” Natasha prompted.

 

“He said I was right.”

 

“And that’s it ?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

She made to grab for the paper again, and Steve jerked it away from her.

 

“Go over to his house right now and tell him how you feel about him.”

 

“Natasha, I can’t just-”

 

“I will tase you and have Clint drag your body downstairs, and I will drive you over myself, Steve. I have let you fuck this up for long enough. Go. Talk. To. Him.”

 

“Natasha-”

 

“No excuses. So help me, Rogers, I will-”

 

“Help me pick out what to wear!” he interrupted her before she could go into graphic detail about what she would do to him. He had had to listen to her do it before, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that inspired him to brave acts like telling Bucky he loved him.

 

Natasha sighed again, rolled her eyes again, and then grabbed Steve by the elbow and dragged him into his own bedroom.

 

“Here.”

 

She barely even looked into his closet before throwing a pair of khakis at him, a white t-shirt, and his brown leather jacket.

 

“You told me to stop wearing khakis.”

 

“Yes, I did. And then I burned all of the ones you had and bought you a new pair that actually fit . Put that on and get your ass to Brooklyn.”

 

She walked out, and Steve obeyed her orders, dressing in the clothes she had picked out even though it felt… awfully casual when he was going over to Bucky’s apartment to tell him what an idiot he was.

 

Then again, maybe casual was the best thing for that.

 

He took the Tesla, because he still had the keys, and because it felt better to drive himself than to take a taxi or go through the hassle of the still-under-reconstruction subway lines.

 

Steve even found a parking spot, half a block down, and he took a deep breath, forced himself to get out of the car, and walked to Bucky’s apartment.

 

Across the street, he saw a small, huddled group of what looked like teenagers.

 

Until they pulled out cameras and started taking pictures.

 

Steve groaned and tried to ignore them.

 

He buzzed 3B and waited.

 

Above him, a window opened, and Steve looked up to see Bucky looking out.

 

“Steve? What are you doing here?”

 

“Can we talk?”

 

Bucky looked from Steve to the group of paparazzi across the street. He scowled, flipped them off, and then ducked back inside. He slammed the window closed, and Steve figured that was… it.

 

A moment later, though, Bucky buzzed him through.

 

Steve took the stairs slowly, feeling his nerves coming back to him.

 

Seven months - surely Bucky would have said something if he loved Steve?

 

Natasha had to be reading into that photo. Into all of the photos. Even Natasha could make mistakes.

 

But then Steve was standing in front of Bucky’s door and it was open, Bucky leaning against it wearing sweatpants and a well-worn Mets hoodie that Steve should hate on principal but had never been able to.

 

“Hey,” Bucky said.

 

“Hey. Can I come in?”

 

Bucky stepped to the side and let Steve in before closing and locking the door behind him.

 

“You said you wanted to talk?” Bucky asked, sitting down on his couch.

 

Steve stepped out of his shoes and lined them up next to Bucky’s beside the door, remembering Bucky’s no-shoe rule.

 

He looked at the couch, but it felt too intimate. There was a wide-seated armchair closer to the window, and Steve sat down on it gingerly.

 

“I need to tell you something. I should have told you this - a hell of a long time ago. But… It doesn’t matter. It does matter, actually, but-”

 

“Steve, what the hell is going on?” Bucky looked genuinely concerned.

 

He always looked genuinely concerned for Steve. Ever since that first day, he had looked at Steve like he cared about him, like Steve was important.

 

“I love you, Bucky.”

 

There. The words were out. And he had said them before, to Peggy, so many times, so many years ago. But that had been different. It had been Peggy, and if she hadn’t wanted Steve to love her, she would have punched him or shot him and sent him on his way. She never would have done what Bucky had, never would have put up with Steve’s bullshit for seven months and-

 

“What the hell, Steve?”

 

“What?”

 

It wasn’t, of all the options Steve had considered, one of the responses he had planned for.

 

“What the hell ?” Bucky repeated, and he was angry. He was furious .

 

“I- I love you?”

 

“What- what do- what do you mean you love me, Steve? You just- Steve, we just broke up . Last night. We literally just ended- What the hell do you mean you love me?”

 

“I mean I love you! I’ve loved you since the moment you walked into that conference room and called me babe.”

 

“Steve, that was seven months ago ! Why the hell didn’t you ever say anything to me?”

 

“Because you immediately said you would never date me!”

 

Bucky made a frustrated noise and shoved his hands into his hair.

 

“That’s because I was- Because you’re- Steve! I threw myself at you every single time we were together.”

 

“You said you just wanted to be friends!”

 

“You said that a person like Peggy Carter only comes around once in a lifetime! I can’t compete with that!”

 

“It’s not a competition. I can love both of you. I do love both of you!”

 

“You love me,” Bucky repeated, and it sounded like the steam had gone out of his anger.

 

“I love you. Do you… feel anything for me?”

 

“Do I- do I feel anything for you ?” The anger was back, Bucky seemingly re-energized by Steve’s question. “Steve! I’ve spent the last seven months flirting my ass off. I’ve- I did literally everything I could think of to get you to just… try to think of me as someone you could actually be with. I- God. Steve, you fucking idiot, I love you.”

 

“Are you sure? Because you just called me a fucking idiot, and I don’t have a lot of experience actually dating you, but when we were fake dating, you were a lot nicer to me.”

 

Steve felt like he could sprint across the Atlantic Ocean.

 

He felt like his heart was trying to hammer its way out of his chest and into Bucky’s.

 

Bucky glared at him, and Steve grinned.

 

“You want nice?” Bucky asked, standing up from the couch and stalking over to Steve’s chair.

 

“I want anything you want to give me,” Steve admitted.

 

Bucky sighed, his expression turning soft and exasperated.

 

“But what do you want , Steve?”

 

“I want you, Buck. I just want you.”

 

Bucky slid into his lap, knees resting on either side of Steve’s thighs and pressing against the arms of the chair.

 

“Just me, huh?” Bucky repeated with a smirk. He cradled Steve’s jaw between his hands and tilted Steve’s face up.

 

Bucky kissed him, lips teasing until Steve opened his mouth and Bucky licked into him.

 

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s back.

 

“You’ve got me, babe,” Bucky said against Steve’s cheek. “I’m all yours, Steve.”

 

And then Bucky was kissing him again, and Steve kissed him back, tried to put all of his feelings, all of those wasted six months of longing, into the kiss.

 

Bucky groaned and dragged his fingers through Steve’s hair, down the sides of his neck and under the shoulders of his jacket.

 

“I can’t believe you showed up wearing this damn jacket, Steve,” Bucky growled into his ear.

 

“You don’t like it?”

 

“What? Steve. Half of America wants to build a shrine to this jacket, and the other half wants to burn it in effigy. Steve, this jacket is a fucking sin . You look like sex in this thing. You look like you’ve got one thing on your mind when you wear this thing, and it sure as hell isn’t saving America.”

 

Steve chuckled, and tried to help Bucky pull the jacket off of him.

 

“I didn’t realize you liked it so much.”

 

“I hate it,” Bucky assured him, pressing a biting kiss to Steve’s jaw that had Steve arching up into the sensation of pain and pleasure. “I’m one of the half of America that wants to burn it. I hate the way people look at you when you wear it.”

 

That was… surprisingly hot.

 

“I’d like to burn your clothes too,” Steve said.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Bucky grinned, until Steve kissed the expression off of his lips.

 

“Yeah. Like this sweater.” Steve hauled the hem of the hoodie up, and Bucky lifted his arms, revealing his naked chest underneath.

 

“What do you have against my sweater?” Bucky demanded once his head was free.

 

Steve tossed the hoodie across the room and ran his hands over Bucky’s back, urged him to sit higher up so that he could lick his way down Bucky’s throat and across his collarbones.

 

“The same thing I have against all of your Mets crap,” Steve said, and Bucky laughed.

 

Steve grinned up at him, and Bucky kissed him again.

 

“Take me to bed, Steve.”

 

“Or lose you forever?”

 

Top Gun had been one of the first movies they had watched together, and as much as Steve had enjoyed the movie, he had enjoyed Bucky’s almost perfect line-by-line recitation more.

 

“Nah,” Bucky smirked. “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.”

 

Steve picked him up, and Bucky clung to him in a moment of desperation, before he laughed in delight and sucked Steve’s earlobe into his mouth.

 

“Fuck, that’s hot,” he groaned into Steve’s ear as Steve shifted his hands to Bucky’s ass and held him upright as he carried him down the narrow hall to Bucky’s bedroom.

 

Bucky went back to licking and biting at him, sucking Steve’s skin into his mouth in a way that was similar to that night back in Indiana. Similar, but so different, because Bucky didn’t seem desperate. He didn’t seem like he was just trying to hide away from the world and from everyone.

 

Steve ran into Bucky’s bed, and he dropped him onto the mattress.

 

Bucky let out an undignified oof , but then he was shimmying out of his sweatpants and Steve didn’t really care about anything else.

 

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

 

Bucky quirked an eyebrow at him.

 

“Says you? The actual Adonis?”

 

“Yeah, says me, the actual Adonis. You got a problem with me thinking you’re beautiful?”

 

“Not if you get out of those fucking khakis and get your ass over here, I don’t.”

 

Steve did as directed, discarding the khakis and then pulling off his white t-shirt and stepping out of his briefs and socks before he joined Bucky on the bed.

 

“So beautiful,” Steve said again, pulling at Bucky’s left leg until Bucky straightened it out and let Steve kiss his way up Bucky’s calf and then his thigh.

 

Steve paused above Bucky’s cock, made sure Bucky was looking at him when he dipped his head down and licked a broad stripe down the length of it.

 

Bucky shuddered, and his eyes closed.

 

“You’re such a fucking punk,” he whined, when Steve moved his attention to Bucky hips and belly and then his chest.

 

“You love it,” Steve teased him.

 

Bucky groaned and wrapped his arms around Steve.

 

“Fuck you, I really do.”

 

“Bucky.”

 

“Mm?”

 

“I love you, but I’m not going to let you fuck me dry. Do you have lube, or do we need to rock paper scissors over who goes to the Bodega?”

 

Bucky shoved at Steve.

 

“God, you’re impossible, Steve. We were having a fucking moment .”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I was going for! A fucking moment.”

 

Bucky crawled towards the side of the bed, giving Steve a fantastic view of his ass, and Steve let himself take the full globes of Bucky’s ass in his hands and squeeze.

 

Bucky muttered something that sounded like impatient , and rummaged through the nightstand beside the bed.

 

“Your ass is gorgeous,” Steve said. “Most perfect ass I’ve ever seen.”

 

“Keep complimenting my ass, and you’re not gonna be the one who gets fucked, Steve,” Bucky said, looking at Steve over his shoulder and brandishing a bottle of lube and a wrapped condom.

 

“No,” Steve said, and pulled Bucky back to him. “When I fuck you, I’m gonna take my time, Buck. I’m going to spend hours opening you up, and wait until you’re begging me to finally put my dick inside you.”

 

“Jesus Christ, Steve, does America know you talk like that?”

 

Bucky sure looked like he was enjoying it, and Steve made a note of that.

 

“But right now, Buck, I want you to fuck me and tell me you love me. Please, Buck.”

 

Bucky closed his eyes.

 

“You’re gonna murder me, babe,” Bucky groaned.

 

He surged forward and kissed Steve again while he pushed Steve back down onto the bed.

 

Bucky ran his right hand down Steve’s chest, gave his cock a taunting squeeze before gently fondling Steve’s balls.

 

Steve spread his legs, unable to stop from moaning when Bucky pressed his thumb against his perineum and dragged it towards his hole.

 

“I love you,” Bucky said, staring down at Steve with dark eyes. “I love you.”

 

Steve had been joking, a little, when he said that was what he wanted.

 

But it wasn’t a joke anymore.

 

Bucky was looking at him so sincerely, just like Bucky always looked at him, and Steve was sure this moment was more than he could handle.

 

A single, slick finger circled around Steve’s hole, and he made a sound that was, really, kind of embarrassing.

 

Bucky smirked.

 

“What was that, babe?”

 

“Fuck you,” Steve groaned when Bucky pressed the finger against his resistant muscles.

 

“Nah, I’m fucking you, remember?” Bucky’s finger slipped inside of Steve’s body, stretching him in a pleasant, burning way that felt both familiar and long forgotten.

 

Steve had watched Bucky’s hands for months now, had fantasized about having them on him, in him. And the reality was so much better.

 

Bucky leaned down to kiss him, and Steve tangled his fingers into Bucky’s hair, keeping him close while Bucky slowly fucked into him with that single finger for what felt like an eternity.

 

Then Bucky added a second finger, changed the angle, and found that knot inside Steve that had him moaning and clutching at Bucky while their kiss turned open-mouthed and filthy.

 

“Please,” Steve begged against Bucky’s lips. “God, Bucky, please .”

 

“Please, what, babe?” Bucky was grinning, even as he sucked on Steve’s lips, bit them, ran his tongue over Steve’s.

 

“I want you.”

 

“You’ve got me. I’m right here, Steve.”

 

A third finger was added, and Steve rocked down to meet Bucky’s hand, fucking himself on Bucky’s fingers and knowing he looked desperate. Hell, he was desperate.

 

He had wanted this for seven months.

 

“I love you,” Steve breathed.

 

“I know, babe. I know. And I love you too, Steve. I love you so much.”

 

Finally, finally , Bucky pulled his fingers away, and Steve watched him tear open the condom wrapper.

 

Bucky’s fingers were shaking a little as he rolled the clear sheath down his cock, and Steve swallowed hard. Bucky stroked himself, drizzling lube over his fingers and watching Steve while he did it.

 

Steve pulled Bucky back down for another kiss, and Bucky humored him, making it slow and somehow sweet, a caress of lips and tongue that was so different than the way Bucky had been kissing him just moments before.

 

Bucky settled between Steve’s legs, lifting his left leg up, and Steve helpfully spread himself open as much as he could.

 

“You’re so goddamn perfect,” Bucky groaned. “God, Steve, how is this real? How are you here? How do I get to be with you?”

 

“Shut up and fuck me, already,” Steve growled.

 

Bucky laughed, but he angled his cock against Steve, teased it against him, rubbing it around Steve’s loose, empty opening, and then he finally slipped it inside.

 

“Fuck,” Bucky breathed.

 

Steve nodded.

 

Fuck felt right.

 

So, so right.

 

“Just- Steve, I think I might die like this.”

 

“Not before I get off, you won’t. I’ve waited too long for this, Buck.”

 

“Ugh, you’re so demanding .”

 

But Bucky propped himself up and pulled out, grinned down at Steve until Steve glared at him, and then thrust back into Steve.

 

“Fuck,” Steve moaned.

 

“This is why you lost Scrabble, Steve,” Bucky grinned, and repeated the move, using enough force that Steve’s entire body shifted towards the headboard several inches. “You gotta use more than just a four letter word.”

 

Steve slapped a hand against the headboard, and pushed himself down onto Bucky’s cock the next time he moved.

 

“You said it first,” Steve reminded him.

 

“Even worse. Can’t repeat words, babe.”

 

“Please stop talking about Scrabble while you fuck me,” Steve begged.

 

Bucky laughed, and he looked so happy that it took Steve’s breath away.

 

“I love you,” Steve had to say again.

 

“I love you too,” Bucky assured him, and then, finally, started to fuck him in earnest.

 

Steve clung to him while Bucky surged forward, filling Steve up and then leaving him empty and desperate and then filling him again, until all Steve could really think about was the pressure of Bucky’s cock against his prostate, the too-full feeling of being fucked and-

 

Bucky reached for Steve’s cock, jerking him off in time with his own thrusts into Steve’s body.

 

It felt so good, so damn good, and Steve looked up at Bucky and watched him come apart, watched Bucky gasp and tremble and struggle to catch his breath.

 

And then Bucky was kissing him, hand still around Steve’s cock, and Steve reached down to tangle their fingers together.

 

“Love you,” Bucky said again, lips pressed to Steve’s. “Love you so fucking much, Steve.”

 

Steve came and Bucky held him, kissed him and pulled him close, and ran his hands through Steve’s hair while Steve remembered how to breathe.

 

When Steve opened his eyes again, Bucky was smiling down at him.

 

“What?” Steve demanded.

 

“Nothing. I just defiled a national monument. Feeling kind of proud of myself, is all.”

 

“I hate you,” Steve groaned, and tried to roll away.

 

Bucky let him, and then curled around Steve’s back and wrapped an arm around his waist.

 

“I missed you,” Bucky said. “I know it’s stupid. I know it was only two weeks. I- You make everything better, Steve. These last two weeks were awful.”

 

Steve wrapped his hand around Bucky’s.

 

“I know. I’m an idiot. I’m sorry.”

 

“You know what? I’m gonna let you have that one. You owe me that apology.”

 

“Hey, you didn’t say anything for the same amount of time - longer, actually. Where’s my apology?”

 

“Steve?”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Me too.”

 

Bucky kissed the back of Steve’s neck, and settled his head on the same pillow as Steve’s.

 

“That was my only condom, though, so if you wanted to embark on your grand plans to fuck me, you’re going to have to get up and go out to get more.”

 

Steve laughed, and he felt Bucky smile against him.

 

He let himself relax, Bucky holding on to him, and felt happier than he had any right to.

 

-o-