In the three months since Bucky's started going on missions with the Avengers, he hasn't done much publicity. He comes with Steve to visit veterans' groups and sick kids (who are all delighted to see him, to his surprise), but he hasn't appeared at one of the Avengers' press conferences or Tony's fundraising galas. Steve imagines him sitting grim and alone in the dark in the suite they share forty stories above the ballroom, though usually when he gets back Bucky is on the couch with the TV on, or in bed with a book. It's surprisingly normal, and Steve doesn't know how much of it is real and how much an act, but Bucky had always believed in fake it till you make it, and if that much of him has come back, Steve's willing to let him have the rest.
But he can't hide away forever, and the latest fundraiser is for the VA where Sam works now, down on Twenty-Third Street. Bucky's visited with those vets, and wants to help them.
"If showing up at a party and wowing 'em with my dance moves is gonna help, then I'm gonna do it," he says, though his mouth is pinched and sour as he fumbles with his bowtie when the night of the gala actually arrives.
"Let me," Steve says, putting his arms over Bucky's shoulders and tying his tie for him. He brushes imaginary lint off Bucky's shoulders when he's done, and steps back.
Bucky gives him a small, grateful grin in the mirror, and Steve feels a little dizzy yet again at how much everything has changed, while some small things have stayed the same.
The party is loud and full of people who can't wait to get their face-time in with Captain America, and once Bucky is recognized, it's like they go into overdrive.
Bucky manages for another forty-five minutes (Steve has been scoping the exits himself for at least thirty), and then Steve gives the latest batch of curiosity-seekers his best Captain America smile and, with his hand at the small of Bucky's back, he steers them out to the foyer and into the elevator.
Bucky leans back against the mirrored wall with a sigh and undoes his tie. "Thanks," he says.
Steve's answering smile is a lot more genuine than the one he'd just used downstairs. "Any time."
It gets a little easier after that, or maybe Bucky just gets better at faking it, but Steve doesn't leave his side at these events unless he absolutely has to, which becomes less and less frequent, since even when Natasha pulls him aside to introduce him to a cute analyst from the FBI or Pepper wants him to meet a gallery owner she thinks he'll hit it off with, Bucky is usually hovering at his elbow, the way he did when they were younger and he'd realized the dates he'd found for Steve weren't appreciating him properly.
It's yet another thing that echoes through time, present mirroring past, and Steve doesn't let himself think about what that means. He's just pleased Bucky's memories are filling in. He's never asked for anything more than that, and he's always told himself Bucky's friendship is more than enough. He's always been good at holding hope close to his heart, and only letting it out when others need it.
Still, he's surprised when Tony and Sam start sending him links to gossip sites speculating as to the nature of their relationship.
"Can you believe this nonsense?" he asks one night after a breathless recounting of their very boring evening at the Met has aired. Steve hates the opera, and Bucky dozed through most of it, but the tickets were a gift from Pepper that seemed unwise to refuse. (Tony tricked out Steve's bike in thanks for saving him from the experience.) TMZ makes it sound like the most romantic evening ever, and Steve's pretty sure he'd remember if that were the case.
Bucky looks up from his book. "Why are you even watching this?"
"I thought there was a hockey game on."
"You want me to punch him for you?"
Steve laughs. "I think that might make his year."
Bucky puckers his lips in thought. Steve makes himself look away. "You're probably right."
"I usually am."
"Ha," Bucky says. "It's thinking like that that got your ass kicked up and down Brooklyn."
"Yeah, yeah," Steve says, and this too is familiar, home and loved in a way he thought he'd never feel again. To want more would be greedy.
"And anyway," Bucky says, getting up from the easy chair and dropping down onto the couch next to him, "I've been checking out the internet."
"And it seems like dames dig that sort of thing now. See? I can still get you dates after all these years."
"God help us all," Steve murmurs, letting himself tip into a lean against Bucky's side.
Bucky's arm slips around his shoulders, and he gives Steve a comforting pat. "It's all right, Steve. I'll take care of everything like I always do."
Steve remembers the dozens of double dates Bucky arranged back in the day; he can remember every single time a girl dismissed him in favor of flirting with Bucky, and the way Bucky had always dismissed them afterwards as not good enough. (There were a handful of nice girls, too, girls who were interested in art or history or him, but somehow he never saw any of them again either, and he'd been too wrapped up in his feelings for Bucky to care.)
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Bucky laughs and goes back to reading his book.
Steve doesn't let the gossip discourage him from being by Bucky's side at events, especially since his presence seems to have spiked Natasha's guns in regard to the matchmaking. He doesn't expect the crowd of reporters outside the Tower on New Year's Eve--he'd have used the underground entrance if he had--but he's gotten used to ignoring them.
When one of them shouts, "How long have you two been together?" he really doesn't expect Bucky to shout back, "Since 1934."
Steve hustles him inside before he can say anything else. Not that that would be a problem, because he's laughing so hard his eyes have started to tear.
"What the hell, Buck?"
"Did you see their faces?"
"Too many flashes going off," Steve answers. "But I can imagine the headlines."
That sobers Bucky up pretty quick. "Pepper's gonna be so mad at us."
"At you," Steve corrects him. "I had nothing to do with this fiasco."
"You're going to hang me out to dry?" Bucky flutters his eyelashes at Steve. "You'd do that to your oldest pal?"
"Of course not," Steve grumbles. "You know I wouldn't."
"I'm not mad," Pepper says, fifteen minutes later, standing in front of the large screen TV where numerous talking heads are expounding on Cap and Bucky's Big Gay Romance. "I just wish you'd warned me before deciding to go public like that. We could have crafted a statement, maybe sent you onto Rachel Maddow or something."
Steve exchanges a confused glance with Bucky, who shrugs and pops a bright red cherry tomato into his mouth. Steve doesn't know where they come from this time of year, but he refuses to let himself get distracted by that.
"I just told them what they wanted to hear," Bucky finally says. "Steve's love life isn't anybody's business, so maybe now they'll leave him alone."
This time, Pepper's the one who looks confused, but then her expression smoothes out and she smiles. "Then I guess I'll leave the two of you to work it out yourselves. You'll be joining us tonight for the party, though, yes?"
"Yes, Pepper," they chorus like the good little schoolboys they might have been, once upon a time.
After she's gone, though, they don't talk about it at all. Bucky gives the fakest yawn Steve's ever seen and says, "I'm going to nap before the party," and disappears into his room before Steve can respond.
Steve ties Bucky's tie again that night, and this time there's something in his gaze that makes Steve feel warm all over. He tries to ignore it, even as he feels the flush climb his cheeks.
"You've got schmutz," he says, gesturing towards the corner of his mouth, but Bucky just looks confused, so he reaches out with his thumb and brushes away a fleck of dried toothpaste.
"Thanks." Bucky licks his lips, and Steve has to look away.
The party's in full swing when they get up to the penthouse, though since it's only Avengers and their assorted friends and significant others, it's still only about a dozen people, whom they all know, which is a relief after some of the extravaganzas Tony's put on over the past year. Here, he won't have to stay glued to Bucky's side all night, just in case, no matter how much he actually wants to.
The food is excellent, as always, and Steve is glad there's something more substantial than tiny hors d'oeurves that never leave him feeling satisfied, and the liquor is, of course, top shelf. He still enjoys a beer or a belt of scotch these days, even though it doesn't really do anything for him, and Tony's got some Johnny Walker Blue with Steve's name on it. He'll never be a real connoisseur, but it's nice to drink something that doesn't taste like rocket fuel. He tries not to think about how much it costs.
They turn the television on at eleven-thirty for the countdown, and some plastic-faced man in Times Square chats with a bunch of people Steve's never heard of. Bucky's deep in conversation with Sam and Clint, something about wind shear and impossible shots. Steve drifts to the edge of the room to the windows. From up here, he can see across town to Times Square, a huge dark sea of people beneath the city lights.
"Can you believe they're still doing this?" Bucky asks him. His reflection in the window has his hands shoved into his pockets.
"Can you believe Pepper made us wear tuxes when it's just us?" he answers with a half-grin.
"Well, you do fill out your penguin suit real nice," Bucky says.
Steve's grin widens. "Thanks. Same to you, buddy."
Bucky bumps his shoulder and Steve bumps him back. "Didn't I tell you once I was taking you to the future?"
Steve laughs. "Yeah, Buck, you did."
Bucky gestures towards the city below, all decked out in holiday lights. "Here we are."
"Yeah." And Steve knows it makes him a terrible person, but he can't help but be glad that Bucky's here with him now, even though it meant he'd endured seventy years of hell to get here.
The countdown to midnight starts behind them, but Steve pays no attention as Bucky steps closer. Steve turns to face him, a question on his lips, but then the cries of "Happy New Year!" ring out, along with the clang of a cowbell Tony insisted was traditional.
"Aw, hell," Bucky says, and then he reaches up and tips Steve's face down into a kiss.
Steve stands there frozen for a second, wondering if this is some sort of joke, but he knows Bucky would never do that to him. Bucky pulls back, looking a little sad, and Steve realizes Bucky thinks he's not interested. So he curls his fingers in the lapels of Bucky's jacket and reels him back in for another kiss, this time participating fully.
Bucky tastes like scotch and heat, and it calls up an answering heat in Steve's body. He can go a long time now without having to breathe, and he wants to spend it all with his tongue in Bucky's mouth, his body pressed up against Bucky's, and all of New York City spread out beneath them.
Steve comes back to himself with the sound of Tony yelling, "More cowbell" ringing in his ears, and the others wishing each other a Happy New Year in boisterous tones, with much hugging and kissing and clinking of champagne glasses. Steve glances over at Pepper, who tips her glass to him with a knowing smile.
He grabs Bucky's hand and leads him out to the balcony. It's cold, but Steve isn't really feeling it, and anyway, the heat lamps activate when they step outside. "What?" is all he manages to get out.
Bucky smiles at him, the old smile that reaches all the way to his eyes and makes him look like a mischievous twenty-year-old again. "They say New Year's Eve sets the tone for the new year," he says, "and that's how I'd like to spend it."
Steve laughs. "Me, too, Buck. Me, too." They kiss again, and Steve whispers, "Happy New Year," against Bucky's mouth like it's a wish he never thought would come true.
Our bodies are rediscovering
what it is to be possible. It is one night
when the clocks in Brooklyn begin to spill backwards,
"The Fisherman" by Jon Sands