Unassuming, is the word Steve would use to describe the package Natasha brings with her, when she takes a trip down to the training room to find him. It’s just gone 5 am, and he’s already built up a sweat going at a punch bag like it’ll actually help him some. It won’t. His problems are still myriad after every single blow, what with the media trying their best to get dirt on him in any way possible, and Tony suddenly dead set on regulation of the Avengers’ activities, after the shit-storm that Ultron created.
He pounds the leather, hands wrapped up tight, and listens to the television: the screen is projected in his line of sight, and he keeps one eye on it, as he works. The news is dead-set on smearing him, at the moment, he guesses because of what he did during the Ultron debacle – or, more accurately, what he didn’t do, to stop it from happening.
The latest unnecessary speculation, taking place early in the morning on a 24-hour news channel when they think no one is watching, is about his love life. They’re evaluating the new Avengers line-up, now – no, they think the Scarlet Witch (a name he hates, personally, but it’s not his call and Wanda hasn’t commented on it) is too new to be his girlfriend – and yes, they think he and the Black Widow have been spending a lot of time together, and they seem to be very good friends-
“They don’t let up, do they?”
Steve punches the bag so hard the material splits, thrown off-kilter by the unexpected voice. As it swings back toward him, he catches it, and turns around to find the source of the voice. He catches sight of Natasha, dressed to exercise, too, holding a package in her hands. It’s wrapped in grey plastic, marked ‘for attention of Steve Rogers’, and has the stamp of their R&D department on it.
He knows what it is. He wonders if Natasha knows what it is.
“No. They don’t. But neither do I,” He says simply. She smiles, and there’s an edge of bitterness to it.
“Me neither,” She says; their attentions are drawn by pictures of them together on the news, out at a restaurant near to the new facility in full undercover gear (Natasha’s idea, though Steve didn’t want to wear the pink shirt she picked out, and went for blue – she insists that was why they were spotted). The anchors are spouting bullshit at one another about their body language. Steve sighs, and runs his fingers over the split in the bag he made.
“I’m gonna have to fix this,” He says. Natasha shrugs.
“We’ll get someone to sort it out. There’s gotta be 20 bags in storage,” She says. He winces.
“Thing is, I might’ve gotten through them already,” He confesses.
“Ah,” She says, and smiles. Her smile fades, as she watches Steve consider the rip in the material; he looks thoughtful, and sad. He’s been sleepless – restless, and a little distant. The thing with Steve is that he’s sometimes most lonely when he’s surrounded by friends. It reminds him of everything, and everyone, that he’s lost. She tries not to let him get stuck in his head, but it’s not a one-man job. She thinks about suggesting he sees his therapist more frequently – but then decides it’s too early for that conversation. Maybe later – but for now-
“Package for you. Just got delivered today, from the city,” She says, and he takes the package when she hands it to him.
“Right. Thank you,” He says, staring down at it. He looks much less troubled than before, at that moment, she notices – a few of the concerned lines have dropped from his face, as he stares downward. Not all of them, but some. She almost doesn’t ask,
“What did you order? You don’t usually ask for anything until we nag you about it for weeks,” She points out. It’s true – the magnets on the arm of his uniform took some convincing for him to request, and some serious rebuttal of the ‘but I can catch the shield for myself’ argument.
Steve looks up, eyebrows raised, an expression somewhat like a deer caught in headlights on his face. He opens his mouth, and pauses for a couple of seconds, before he seems to make a decision –
“It’s – something they’ve designed for me. With the new synthetics they’re making – the structured fabrics, the breathable ones?”
“Yeah,” Natasha says, curious.
“It’s a binder, actually,” He says softly, looking back down at the package, which crumples slightly in his hands as his fingers grip it.
“Cool – I’ve got some pretty serious architecture in my suit – I mean, they don’t just stay up by themselves,” She jokes. He smiles – both at her joke, and because of the acceptance implicit in her words. He’s glad he doesn’t have to explain what a binder is.
“This one’s for combat too – comfort, and movement. They assured me it would be better,” Steve confides.
“What did you do before now?” Natasha asks. Steve grimaces.
“Just – store-bought. Over the internet, actually – when I found out about them, that is. The future is great, but it’s not . . . Well, Captain America buying one of these things out in the open wouldn’t be . . . It’s – disappointing, how people can be,” Steve says, looking up at her. Her expression is sympathetic.
“. . . I know what you mean. I would hate it if the media found out I was bisexual, without it being my decision to tell them,” She agrees.
“Exactly,” He says, because that’s what he means – exactly. Just his luck to fall into two groups of people still very much discriminated against in the 21st century society.
“I’ll let you get on,” Natasha says, glancing at the news, again, “I’m going for a jog,”
“Have fun,” He says, half-joking. “Team’s meeting up at eight,” He adds.
“Right,” She says, and turns away, making for the door – but she pauses, biting her lip and turning back with a troubled expression. When he sees that face, Steve’s heart sinks – this is probably going to be the reaction that he was dreading, saved for a few minutes later. With one notable exception in 1941, people mainly react the same way to him telling them he’s trans, and though he doesn’t want to believe that Natasha would ask him awkward or offensive questions, he can never be sure.
“. . . Don’t feel like . . . Like you have to pass around us, Steve,” She says.
He doesn’t know what to say, to that. He wonders if the others know about him – if so, which ones? How much do they know? – but reasons that they probably don’t. Still, he’s glad Natasha said that.
He nods, his expression sincere, as she smiles and takes her leave.
He looks down at the package in his hands, and smiles faintly.
The binder has a complicated fastening mechanism, and it’s more like a crop-top than a vest or a corset – a cut he much prefers, he finds. It’s a little difficult to get on, but then again, it probably wouldn’t be so damn effective if it wasn’t.
He runs his hands through his hair, and glances down at his blotchy chest, irritated from the struggle. If anyone could have seen him struggling with a piece of fabric, a moment ago, they would have laughed. He probably would have, too.
His main fear is that anyone would laugh at him as he is right now: in his boxers, and his binder.
Steve smiles faintly, his hands on his hips, the thumbs settling on his Apollo’s belt the way he might want someone else’s to, one day, if he can ever feel better than he does currently – healthy, and less troubled. The way he remembers hands settling on him before, with someone at his back, fitting together like two puzzle pieces.
He takes a deep breath, testing the tightness of the binder: tight, but not dangerous. Just enough – he’ll still be careful, in case he accidentally hurts himself, though. It’s manoeuvrable, too – he feels secure, in more ways than one. He turns to the side, and takes a look at his profile: not bad. Could be worse. He knows a lot of men with large pectorals, and he could easily fit into a line-up with them, and have the flattest chest (even after the serum – which, unfortunately, increased his size all over).
Slowly, he turns back to face the mirror. His hands fall to his sides, and he licks his lips, biting the bottom one, suddenly overwhelmed by the same thought he has had every single time he’s looked at himself in the mirror, like this, since 1941: he softly says to himself, the echo of a memory:
“. . . That’s my man,”
“You do what I say, when I say it, or I walk out that door and you don’t see me ‘til the war’s over, we understand each other?”
Bucky stands in front of Steve, in the centre of a boxing ring: they’ve got the gym to themselves, at this time in the morning. It’s just as well, because though Bucky’s agreed to help Steve get fit and stronger, and learn how to fight, anyone else might laugh him out of the room. Not Bucky, though – he promised.
Steve looks down at the boxing gloves clutched in his hands, and then up at Bucky: he glares at him, pulling himself up to his full height.
“You’re enjoying this,” Steve accuses him, eyes narrowing.
But Bucky just smirks: he knocks his boxing gloves together, and raises an eyebrow, and of course Steve is going to do everything and anything Bucky asks him. Anything.
“You bet your ass I am,” Bucky says, his tone cocky as ever. If Steve didn’t love it, he’d be so damn annoyed right now, he knows. Just like he’s pretending to be.
Steve sighs, and asks, “Alright. What’s first?”
“You gotta put your gloves on, dummy,” Bucky says, and Steve glares again, because he knows that. Steve’s about to clarify that he meant in terms of moves and exercises, but Bucky speaks before he can say anything else.
“Oh – and take off all those damn layers. You’ll be sweating like a pig in seconds,” Bucky says, indicating Steve’s clothes: he’s wearing two jumpers, a button-down shirt, and underneath it, a vest. Collectively, they swamp him, making his skinny frame amorphous. Steve freezes for just a second before responding:
“Thanks, I’m – I’m alright, Buck,” He says, waving away the command.
“What did I say, Stevie?” Bucky says, one eyebrow raised.
“I know, but really, I’m fine,” Steve reassures him stubbornly, in a desperate attempt to get him to drop the issue.
“-then I’m out the door,” Bucky says, backing away and to the edge of the boxing ring. He goes to step out of it, but Steve reaches out with one hand, and tells him –
“No – no, please stay,” His voice is small. Bucky pauses.
“You gonna do it?” He asks. Steve bites his lip, and doesn’t say anything for a long moment – he wonders if he’s about to scupper an entire friendship; years of not allowing Bucky to see him without any clothes on, no matter how much he’d like him to see, in an ideal world. But this world is so far from ideal, the way Steve sees it, for so many reasons. He nods.
“C’mon, then. Down to your vest, soldier,” Bucky says. “Then I’ll help you get the gloves on,”
Steve nods, and swallows – he makes nervous eye contact with Bucky, for a moment; Bucky gives him a questioning look that he can’t bear to see for more than a second, and he looks down at his own chest, willing it to be flat by the time he strips down.
First to go are the two jumpers: he pulls them up over his head, ruffling his hair in the process. He runs his hands through it to straighten it out – and when he looks up, Bucky’s already frowning, having worked out that there’s something off about Steve’s physique. The button-down shirt doesn’t quite cover it.
Here goes nothing, Steve thinks. He bites his lip again, squeezes his eyes shut, and undoes the buttons of his shirt, from top to bottom. He tries not to well up, imagining Bucky’s face, as he casts his shirt to the side too. But eventually, he has to open his eyes. He stops biting his lip, and decides to fix his face into a defiant, stormy expression that he usually reserves for bullies. He desperately hopes Bucky won’t become one of them.
Bucky’s face, just like Steve pictured, is shocked: he can’t keep his eyes off Steve’s chest, and his mouth is hanging open. Steve’s not big, sure, but there’s no denying it – Steve has breasts. Bucky can see them through his threadbare vest, sure as he can see his ribs, and his bony shoulders.
“Steve . . .” He breathes. Steve doesn’t say anything. “. . . Steve, you’re – you’re a-”
“Don’t,” Steve snaps, “Don’t. I don’t want to hear you say it,”
Bucky’s eyes snap up from Steve’s chest to his face, and see how red he’s become – he sees how he shakes with anger; how upset he is. His mouth shuts abruptly, and he looks anywhere except there.
“. . . I thought you were – all this time, I thought you . . .” Bucky says, but trails off. His hands, still in the boxing gloves, have dropped to his sides.
“. . . I am, Buck. I am,” Steve says. Bucky swallows.
“You’re a boy?” Bucky asks. It’s clear from his face that he’s struggling to understand.
“I’m a man,” Steve corrects. “. . . I’ve never been a girl,” He adds.
Bucky nods. Steve sees him take just one more glance at his chest, but he can’t blame him. Steve’s spent a lot of time staring, in the mirror – feeling like he’s got something meant for someone else, and not being happy about it showing. It’s not that he minds, when people can’t tell what sex he is, or that he’s designated female at birth – he only minds when, as is happening right now, people can see. Especially since it’s Bucky, who he’s loved pretty much since a few weeks after they met.
“. . . You’re a man,” Bucky repeats. He stands up a little straighter, and sets his jaw. Finally, he nods to the boxing gloves Steve has discarded on the floor- “Pick those up. We’ll get you ready to serve,”
Steve nods, face serious, too. Bucky helps him fasten them, and takes a step back, raising his hands to block.
“C’mon, Rogers. Take a run at me, then,” He says, the challenge back in his voice – the smirk is back, too, and only getting stronger. Steve gives him a small smile, the anger draining from him.
He tries his best: he’s not a fighter – not yet. Not a good one, anyway. The broken noses and myriad bruises, cuts and grazes all over him at any given time can attest to that. But Bucky’s a good teacher – he teaches with words Steve can understand, and expressions that are just this side of distracting, for him – he’s exquisite, talking about something he loves, with enthusiasm and that devilish smirk.
And the praise. Steve loves the praise. He’s never been too good at anything – not sports, not anything academic, nothing except art – so he doesn’t get praised often, but boy does he like it.
Especially when, as he’s panting and trying to get a hit in, Bucky comes out with,
“Good! – That’s my man!”
Steve would pause, but he’s on a roll – he just pants, and smiles, his grin wide; Bucky’s matches it, as he adds, “Come on! Keep it going!”
Steve jabs at him, and he dodges – he smiles wickedly, raising an eyebrow, as he bounces on the balls of his feet: “Don’t punk out on me now!”
Steve can feel himself going red. A couple of Bucky’s curls are wet with sweat, right now, and they’re hanging down into his eyes: he gazes at Steve from beneath them, and there’s a dark quality in his eyes; he likes this. He likes Steve, and he likes telling Steve what to do. Just like Steve said earlier. Steve smirks, and goes in for a hit – it lands, and Bucky grunts, but immediately grins, and praises Steve: “Now that’s my man,”
When they hear a banging at the door, and a gruff voice telling them they’ve got fifteen minutes, they wrap it up: Steve’s drenched in sweat, with his hair sticking up in all directions. He wonders what he must look like, right now: his vest is wet, and he’s sure it’s pretty much see-through. He catches Bucky trying not to look – but he can’t help it. Steve gulps, his mouth dry, and not just because of the exercise, as he pulls off his boxing gloves.
Bucky’s not moving, really: his movements are slow, and he’s staring at Steve outright, now, as if in a trance. He’s thinking hard, Steve assumes – eventually, he takes a few steps up to Steve.
Steve looks up at him: he’s taller, now. When they first met, Bucky was shorter than him; stockier, rather than lean and muscular, as well as tall, like now. Steve’s always been jealous of his body – well, half-jealous, half awed. While he’s kept layers on around Bucky, even in summer, Bucky hasn’t done the same around him.
Bucky pulls off his boxing gloves, tugging one off with his teeth as Steve watches, mesmerised: he drops them to the floor, and brings his hands to his sides. Steve looks him up and down, in full knowledge that Bucky is doing the same to him. He’s acutely aware of the way his wet vest clings to him.
“. . . Since you’re a man . . .” Bucky asks, his voice lower than before; thicker. “. . . Suppose you like dames, huh,” He adds.
“I – I, uh . . . Don’t really mind either way,” Steve says, trying not to let on how much he wants to make a pass at Bucky right now. He doesn’t care that they’re both sweaty as hell, right now. For some reason, it’s part of the reason he wants to run his hands all over Bucky.
“Me neither . . . Never really thought of myself as much of a man,” Bucky says, almost conversationally. “. . . Is this okay?” He asks, reaching out to Steve – who immediately nods, probably a little too enthusiastic. Bucky’s hands make contact with his ribs, fingers slotting between the bones like they were made of corresponding moulds; like they were meant for this.
“Not much of a man, huh?” Steve asks, bringing his hands up to Bucky’s hips, and watching his face carefully for any objection. He only finds his eyes hooded, and his lips wet; his tongue keeps darting out, Steve notices. He can’t deny he loves it.
“Not really a dame, neither – at least you got a definite answer, huh, Stevie?” He asks, drawing Steve closer. Steve’s panting, again, as Bucky’s thumbs rub at his chest through the fabric, his palms still splayed on his ribcage.
“I do, Buck,” He says breathlessly, his sensitive skin on fire just from the contact. No one’s touched him like this before except himself. Something tells him Bucky’s had practise, and strangely, he finds that he’s pleased.
“That’s right – you’re my man,” Bucky says, and smirks. Steve surges upwards to kiss that expression off his face, deciding that enough is enough.
They don’t make it out of the gym before their fifteen minutes is up.
When he goes through the procedure, Steve thinks he might change even more than he does: he thinks that maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll have his biological sex reassigned by Howard Stark’s machine. However, despite hoping and praying, and all the arguing that he and Peggy Carter had to do to get him in the machine in the first place, he doesn’t come out of the machine with an X and a Y chromosome. He’s the same as he ever was – just taller, more muscular, super strong, super fast, super smart . . . He wonders if Bucky will recognise him, when he sees him again. If he sees him again. The recruitment office only accepted one of them to be able to go overseas and risk their life, that Christmas Eve, after all.
But when he next sees Bucky – exhausted and delirious, having suffered torture and experiments that made Steve’s procedure look like a flu shot – he gets that same look that Bucky always gives him when he hasn’t seen him all day. It’s just that, this time, it’s amplified – after all, Bucky wasn’t sure he’d live to see Steve ever again.
“Steve,” He says, as Steve helps him up, “. . . What happened to you?”
“I joined the army,” Steve quips.
“Wait – wait, you’re-” Bucky says, eyes wide, looking him up and down. Steve shakes his head.
“I’m – the same. Just bigger,” He says. Bucky nods once – then he smiles, again, a little more awake this time, as he says, “. . . That’s my man,”
Steve smiles into the smoke and the flames, as he gets them out of there. He’s Bucky’s man until Bucky dies, and then forever after that, too.
They sit alone in their motel room. It’s coming up on five in the morning; they’ve been awake since quarter to. They used the facilities to make an awful cup of coffee, and now their mind is racing, like it always does.
They’ve been staring at the patchwork of news and documents and photographs on the wall of the motel that’s come into being over several months – all on the topic of Hydra rats that jumped off their sinking ship, and thought they’d get away with it, without the Winter Soldier noticing and taking them out – for around twenty minutes, with the news on in the background. They’ve ignored an item about the Avengers, so far – but as they shift their prosthesis, warming up the mechanisms after a long period of inactivity, the anchors begin to speculate about the life of Steve Rogers.
They plaster pictures of him across the screen: Steve and Wanda Maximoff, Steve and Natasha Romanoff, Steve looking out-of-place in 21st century clothing. Steve caught jogging in a tight vest that shows off his muscles; another ‘cropped vest’ under his shirt that the anchors mistake for faddy training attire. They talk about how well defined his muscles are – no girl could ever resist those abs, or those huge pecs – and Bucky Barnes smiles faintly to themself, despite their grim surroundings, and grim task, because one day soon, they’re going to make contact with Steve Rogers.
They look at Steve Rogers, and they say softly to themself,
“That’s my man,”