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a difficult winter

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i.

This is the anatomy of a bad day:

Step One. Brush the tip of your cool metal forefinger along the line of your boyfriendpartnerthing’s jaw, gentle as a hummingbird, persistent as a cricket. Say, reluctantly, “Stevie. Time to get up.”

Step Two. Wrestle self into suit and tie, even though the sun will not be up for another hour and your therapist has encouraged you to keep Normal People Hours when you can. Today you cannot, because today is not a Normal People Day. Today you are going to attend a press conference to have your picture taken and answer stupid questions like, “Sergeant Barnes, would you call yourself a hero or a villain?” because you are not a Normal Person, and the world will not stop reminding you of the fact.

Step Three. Admire boyfriendpartnerthing in suit and tie, because even a bad day can have redeeming features.

Step Four. Make breakfast for self and boyfriendpartnerthing. Just toast and soft-boiled eggs today, because the cold dread in your stomach makes it impossible to contemplate anything more complex.

Step Five. Fact trade.

(“This isn’t so much earlier than the time you usually wake up,” you tell Steve, which, all right, isn’t so much a fact as a passive-aggressive grumble.

“I’m missing my run,” Steve says.

“You’re quiet,” you tell Steve.

“You’re grumpy,” Steve tells you. And then, “Your shoulders look nice in that shirt.”

You run out of facts.)

Step Six. Take your daily rainbow of pills, and make sure boyfriendpartnerthing takes his, too.

Step Seven. Get into the sleek black Stark Industries car that pulls up at your apartment block, and manufacture an unsmiling hello for Ms. Potts and the small, lethal, quick-eyed entity at her side whose proper name is something else entirely but whom, for today, you are supposed to address as Natalie Rushman.

Ms. Rushman winks at you. You manage to wink back.

 

 

ii.

They are in the conference room with sixteen reporters and twenty-one cameras, and it is only T minus a few minutes until someone asks something stupid and everything goes to hell.

Bucky watches Steve with owlish intensity. The only thing his boyfriendpartnerthing hates more than people with questions is people with cameras, and his shoulders are already squaring into fighting stance, the careful showman’s blankness smoothing over his features. Steve can handle anything. When he feels like it, he can charm even the most cantankerous reporter into glazed quiescence. Bucky’s seen him do it.

The main problem: he’s also seen Steve revert under stress to fight-anything-that-moves mode and, while he finds it endearing, law enforcement officials and the general public do not.

The worst thing is that Bucky can see why they ask the things they do. After all, Captain America was something of an urban legend back in the war, until Steve and Bucky vanished from the face of the earth and Pegs parachuted out of the Valkyrie into the Arctic wastes. There are unanswered questions. Conspiracy theories. Even a movie. (Bucky saw it, though he wasn’t supposed to. He quite liked it. Poor sweet heroic Cap, purer than pure, with contact lenses that made his eyes just the right shade of cornflower blue. The Black Widow, scheming, voluptuous temptress, the Eve to his Adam. And his sinister Sergeant, brainwashed by resentment, who faked his death to lure the Captain into the Red Room’s arms.

Natalia found it hilarious. So did Bucky, until Steve put his fist through their flat-screen TV and they had to get a new one.)

That isn’t the point. The point is, Bucky thinks, as Steve delivers his perfectly rehearsed statement with one of his razor-barbed apple pie smiles, is that between the three of them (and Sam, and Sharon, and Maria, and Nick) they put Project Insight at the bottom of the Potomac where it belongs. And so, instead of simply getting to vilify them, the public has found itself stuck with a lot of questions. A lot of painful, awkward questions that Steve insists on answering, if only so he can tell the world what’s what.

(“Here’s a fact for you both,” Natalia told them during one of their nightly Skype sessions, voice crackling over Bucky’s shitty laptop speakers. “It doesn’t matter what they think. Sometimes there’s no cure for ignorance. HYDRA and SHIELD are gone and people need someone to blame.“

Steve’s chin came up, his jaw tightening. “Here’s another fact,” he said. “I can’t sleep knowing that there are people out there who blame Bucky for any of this. Or you.”

Bucky threw his hands up. “Here’s a third fact,” he said. “I don’t care.” But Steve hadn’t listened, because Steve never does.)

So here they are, and Steve is fielding questions with the same brutal efficiency with which he might throw a grenade. Even Ms. Potts is impressed. Bucky knows that Ms. Potts was planning to make Mr. Stark show up with fireworks and impolitic comments halfway through the conference to take the heat away from Steve and Bucky if needed; and he knows that Mr. Stark will deliver beautifully. But mostly he just listens to Steve’s voice, and nods assent now and then when it seems appropriate, and tries to quantify the rigid tension of Steve’s shoulders and the nervous tap-tap-tap of his foot under the table. He is aware, more than anyone else, of Steve’s limits.

And then, half an hour into the conference, some guy in the first row gets up and opens his mouth and Bucky knows, just knows, even before he hears the man say, “So, Captain Rogers, did it ever cross your mind that Sergeant Barnes was complicit in—” that this will be the butterfly’s wingbeat that starts the tornado, the drop that makes the cup run over.

It is. Steve smiles, caramel and sunshine, and says, “I beg your pardon?”

Bucky puts his hand on Steve’s elbow. The idiot reporter repeats his question, and Steve says, still smiling, honey and raspberry jam, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

Ms. Rushman stands up. The reporter backs away. Steve grins, grisly and lurid and saccharine, and vaults across the conference table in a single fluid movement.

In the heartbeat before he does it, Bucky launches himself into motion. One brain in two bodies, as always. His metal arm shrieks inside his tailored sleeve, curling around Steve’s torso and coming to rest snug against his ribs, firm as a crash-barrier. A flurry of cries. Ms. Rushman kicks the gormless reporter out of the way with one high-heeled boot and spins to crouch between Steve and the civilians, phone clattering out of her hand as she reaches for her concealed pistol. “Steve,” she says, half a plea, half a warning.

Steve stands pillar-still, making no attempt to break Bucky’s hold on him. “Natasha,” he says, in his clear, carrying voice. “Natalia.”

Someone gasps in recognition. All the cameras go off together like an orchestra of lights. She grimaces, and Bucky knows there will be hell to pay later on. “Stevie,” he admonishes, rubbing the back of Steve’s scratchy suit jacket with his free hand. “Don’t piss off Ms. Rushman.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” Steve says. Pastels and hot cocoa and macarons. He bends to scoop up Natalia’s phone and presses it back into her hand. “I haven’t answered the question. No, sir. It never crossed my mind.”

Somewhere far away, Ms. Potts is dismissing the press conference, all steel and grace. The reporters take their leave with unprecedented haste and Natalia, her face judiciously disinterested, hustles them back towards the car. Steve is still grinning, vodka and ice.

 

 

iii.

“Give me a fact,” Bucky says as soon as he gets out of the shower, hair still dripping. He is getting better about taking showers without Steve hovering just outside, even though his claustrophobia has yet to abate, and the hollow drum of water against the frosted glass door conjures up some half-decayed association with the cryo tank that puts him on edge. “A fact, Steve, now.”

Steve is sitting with his sketchbook at the coffee table, lining up all his coloured pencils in rainbow order in front of him, and whistling. Bucky wants to throw something at him. "Hmm,” he says. “Your hair’s wet.”

“Something I don’t know, dumbfuck.”

Steve pulls the towel out of Bucky’s hands and shifts over to make room on the armchair, which was really built for one normal-sized person, and not two extra-large supersoldiers. “Sam says you’d be a lot happier if we adopted that shelter cat you liked.”

“Don’t try to distract me with cats,” says Bucky. He knocks the sketchbook out of the way and curls up into as small a lump as possible in between Steve’s knees. It takes heroism of Bronze Age proportions not to go completely boneless when Steve starts to towel-dry his hair. He is still angry. He is still supposed to be angry.

“Okay,” says Steve. “Today was a good day.”

“Huh.”

“An excellent day. Everything went according to plan.”

After a lifetime of practice, it seldom takes Bucky’s mind more than a few seconds to catch up with Steve’s. Without bothering with the rising intonation of a question, he says, “You planned that.”

“Of course,” says Steve. “I don’t disrupt my own press conferences just ‘cause I feel like it. In an hour or so we’ll know if it worked.”

His laptop is on the kitchen counter, with Google News open in the browser. “What are you hoping they’ll say?” Bucky asks, incredulous. He can still see the camera flashes when he closes his eyes; can still hear Steve’s voice, calm and omnipotent, cutting across the startled shouts. “'Valiant heroes Barnes and Romanoff desperately restrain Captain America at press conference gone sour’?“

"Something like that,” says Steve. He twirls a limp lock of Bucky’s hair around his finger, humming thoughtfully. “Maybe also a few photos. You holding me back, and Nat throwing herself in front of the civilians. Come on, you know it made a pretty picture. I even stood under the lights just so. Pegs would have been proud.“

"Pegs would have shot you, you asshole.”

Mirth bubbles out of Steve, jostling Bucky’s head against his chest. “Probably. But she would’ve done the same thing, and you know it. Give me a fact. Are you angry with me?”

“Yes,” says Bucky. “No. Yes.”

“I’ll call Nat and apologise,” says Steve. “I’ll call everyone and apologise. Pass me my sketchbook, I’ll draw you a kitten.”

“Fuck off, Rogers,” says Bucky. But Steve serves up one of his best smiles, sugar and whipped cream and marmalade, and Bucky finds himself handing him the sketchbook anyway.