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an act of easy mercy

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When Bucky gets the call, he's supervising decontamination on 4th Ave. He almost doesn't pick up, but his supposedly crush-proof comm got stepped on by an AIM grunt the approximate dimensions of a gardening shed about five minutes into the fighting, and it's good odds the team are trying to wrangle him for post-mission fajitas.

“James,” Natasha says, and the way she says it is all he needs to know.

Fuck.

“Where is he?” Bucky growls, instead of shrieking like an Irish widow.

“Stark Medical, Room 12,” she says, and gets as far as “James, listen—” when Bucky hangs up and starts to run.

Arriving on the medical floor is like the worst kind of nightmare. Bucky's had that nightmare. There are guards posted at Steve's door, and Happy Hogan is planted like a tree at the far end of the hall, having a fairly impassioned exchange with someone in surgical scrubs. Other than them, the floor is entirely empty, and quieter than the grave. Bucky can't even hear the beep of a heart monitor, and that makes his stomach ratchet right up into his throat.

The last time Steve had needed guards, he'd been unconscious while an unidentified HYDRA agent ran amok through the nursing staff, carrying a syringe full of refined neurotoxin with Steve's name on it. Thor had eventually sussed out the spy and winged him so hard that he stabbed himself with his own death stick, and the entire floor was designated a biohazard for three weeks. The whole disaster been, pound for pound, the most putrid twelve hours of Bucky's post-DC life.

And now he's looking at it all over again.

Guard #2 checks Bucky's Avengers ID while Guard #1 radios in, looking pretty dubious about the blood caked in Bucky's hair and between the plates of his arm. Bucky bites his tongue as hard as he can, trying to psych himself up for what he's got to face on the other side of that door. Steve, shot full of neurotoxin. Steve, burned beyond recognition. Steve, missing a limb the serum can't grow back. Steve, getting his last rites.

By the time Bucky rounds the doorway into Steve's hospital room and sees Sam, flipping through a medical file with a thunderstruck expression, he's prepared himself for just about anything to greet him on the other side of that curtain.

What he's not prepared for is Steve saying, “Hey, Buck,” kind of sheepishly, and pushing all five-foot-four inches of himself a bit further up the bed.

 

 

Natasha pushes Bucky into a chair and Sam bullies him into drinking a bottle of juice before they'll explain anything, because (Sam says) Bucky's looking a little vasovagal, and because (Nat says) she'll only talk once he's clean or hydrated, and since she doesn't have a hose, it'll have to be the latter. Bucky maintains that he's not pale, for chrissakes, it's just concrete dust, but Sam is unmoved.

He doesn't bother arguing with Natasha.

Steve looks...good, for a guy who lost 10 inches and 100-some-odd pounds shortly after getting a building dropped on his head. There's a nasty scrape on his cheekbone that's shiny with antiseptic cream, and his hair is a disaster zone, but it just makes him look more the part—tiny Steven Rogers, fresh from a punch-out and looking for more trouble. The only thing that keeps Bucky from believing that Steve's just been scooped up right from 1939 is the wiry muscle on Steve's skinny arms, and the easy way he's breathing.

“But you're okay,” Bucky says, for the third time.

“I'm fine.” Steve doesn't quite roll his eyes. “Bruise the size of Texas on my back, if you really need something to mom me about.”

“Yeah, Captain Coordination, you're going to have a colourful weekend,” Tony says, swapping Bucky's empty bottle with a protein bar before he's fully registered that Tony is in the room. Tony waves a thick folder, fanning himself. “Bruce still has his nose stuck in your myocytes, so I'm designated gopher.”

“Hit me,” says Steve.

Fifteen minutes of jargon and obscure pop culture references later, only about half of which he actually gets, what Bucky gathers is this:

Some asshole AIM bio-engineer, instead of using his obvious genius to, y'know, cure AIDS or something, decides to spend his weekends developing a machine that nullifies the super-serum. Why Dr. Asshole decided to waste his time doing that when he could have just built a really big gun is anyone's guess, but Bucky's not about to go bother the guy's remains for an answer. Remains, because the stupid gadget exploded on launch, taking out Dr. Asshole, a dozen of his AIM buddies, and the—thankfully empty, except for Steve—building next door.

The part of the ramble Bucky really cares about is how the serum and the Vita-Rays did different things. Bucky'd always sort of tuned Howard out, because that's the only sane way to deal with a Stark, and Steve had constantly been Dr. Erskine this, Dr. Erskine that, but apparently the original process wouldn't have worked without both. While the Vita-Rays were supposed to cure Steve's medical woes and build the foundation for his new body, the serum was the transformative thing. Vita-Rays meant no asthma, no ulcers, no heart murmur, no compromised immune system, the whole party. But no serum? No super-soldier.

“So,” Tony finishes, flipping pages in the file, “You're disgustingly healthy, actually. You can't jump out of airplanes right now—yeah, yeah, world's tiniest violin, don't shoot the messenger—and you've still got scoliosis, don't ask me how that works, I think the ten tons of muscle on either side of your spine were supposed to be the fix for that, but hey, we'll get you a chiropractor. How do you feel?”

“Fine,” Steve says, and when Sam turns the full force of his eyebrows on him, he adds, “Sore. Couple of cracked ribs. Pretty achy overall. Hungry? Basically okay.”

“I've got the solution to all of that,” says Tony. He spreads sarcastic jazz hands across his face. “Resting! I know, so crazy. The nice doctor is fast-tracking medical clearance, I'll order food—what do you want, Ethiopian? Ukrainian? I bet you'd kill for Irina's stroganoff right now.”

“Thai?” Steve says hopefully, and Tony makes finger guns as he backs towards the door. Before he can get there, Steve says, “Tony? Are you and Bruce working on a cure?”

Tony's face pinches oddly, and Bucky realises he's seeing Tony Stark restrain himself for what might be the first time ever, which is seventeen kinds of awful. “Right now we're working on the theory that it's reversible, but given the givens—”

“It's probably not,” Steve finishes, way too calmly. Bucky waits for an explosion of anger that never comes. “Thanks, Tony. Keep me updated?”

“You bet, Polly Pocket,” Tony says, and flees before Steve can throw a plastic spoon at his head.

 

 

Bucky prepares himself for the fallout, and starts making mental lists of stupid shit he knows will cheer Steve up.

Except—

Except Steve doesn't seem to need cheering up.

Bucky can remember when that wasn't the case, when the world always weighed heavy on Steve's slender shoulders and sometimes he would just collapse. Steve was always the one to do the rebuilding, but Bucky had to watch, and it messed him up every time, knowing Steve was going to have to do it again when fate dealt him another smackdown. If Steve couldn't control his body, then by god he was going to change the world, and when he couldn't do that, the shadows boiled up in him. Like when his ma passed.

Two months on, and Steve was still stuck way down in that well of grief he'd fallen into. Bucky was never the sort of person to tell a guy when he should hang up his funeral clothes, but fact of the matter was, Steve just wasn't getting any better. If anything, he was sliding deeper into that well. He was quieter. Easier. He didn't fight Bucky on anything—not food, not plans, not even on the shit that pushed his buttons, and that last made Bucky want to shake Steve and then maybe cry for a week.

And in the evenings when Bucky's brain was buzzy-tired and he didn't have enough to distract himself, he was starting to worry that Steve was going to follow the dark into a bottle or a bullet, and Bucky, god help him, wouldn't be too far behind.

They'd been heading to the East Village to take some groceries to Bucky's cousin, who'd broken her ankle, when Bucky spotted a clutch of neighbourhood boys clustered in a half-circle around two swaggering young men. Irish Sean Moran and black Jim Duffy, weaving around each other like roosters. Irish and blacks, being on the lowest rung of the city so far as the rest were concerned, didn't fight each other all that often, but when they did, it was the kind of thing you didn't stick your nose into. Bucky tried to steer Steve across the street before the crowd got it in their heads to rope another couple of immigrant kids into the fray.

Steve held his ground and pointed, and Bucky realized it wasn't a fight at all. Moran had coal dust smeared over his face, drawling his vowels real slow, and Duffy was wearing Moran's cap backwards, singing out in the broadest disaster of a North Dublin brogue Bucky had ever heard. What Bucky'd took for cock-swaggering was (in the loosest sense of the word) dancing: Moran trying to kick-hop-shuffle his way through a Texas Tommy, and Duffy doing a marginally better job of heel-toeing an Old Country hornpipe.

It took Bucky nearly a minute of distraction to realize the sound he was hearing was Steve's full-throated laughter. Moran and Duffy took note and brought the whole clusterfuck over, asking after Steve's health in their borrowed accents, pinching him like maiden aunts while the neighbourhood kids crowed. Steve had to support himself on Bucky's shoulder to keep his legs under him, cackling until the tears ran down his face.

Bucky thinks about the irony of that now, in the future, after they've both been given one hell of a sensitivity training course—of how the only thing that could make Steve Rogers laugh after his ma died was a couple of schmucks taking the piss out of each other's genetics. How personally affronted Steve always got with the set ways of the world: death and bullies and war, how all of them came up against the limitations of his own body, how Steve would have laid his little self down in a moment if he'd been able to stop any of those things for good, and how dark it got in Steve's head when he realized it just couldn't be done.

But Steve's fine, maybe better than fine, maybe better than he's been since he hauled Bucky out of his own dark place, and Bucky thinks maybe there's something wrong with him, that Steve's happiness confuses him so goddamn much.

 

 

A few weeks after the incident, Steve, via unanimous vote, metaphorically passes the shield to Sam. Not physically, because it's heavy and impractical for a flyer, but Tony designs pop-out shield gauntlets for Sam's wrists to keep the symbol in play. The news goes insane, black rights blogs lose their collective minds, frothing racists get shut down at every turn, and Sam gets about a hundred crayon-sticky letters a week from kids. It's kind of beautiful.

The former and present Captain America end up roped into the media dance for a while. Tony, offended that they were invited on a certain talk show before him, rigs Sam's toilet to sing The Star-Spangled Man With A Plan when he flushes it. Sam and Clint reprogram DUM-E to beep the Barney theme song every time Tony threatens the robots. Clint bakes four honey cakes for Darcy's birthday. The Hulk adopts a stray kitten that loves him and isn't too fond of Bruce. Natasha teaches Thor how to dance the Hopak. Everything is back to normal.

Except it's not.

It should be easy, Bucky thinks.

Steve's back to the way he used to look, so Bucky can quit double-taking at that sharp-boned face riding on top of a foreign body. Steve's even healthy, so on top of things being back in balance, Bucky doesn't have to spend half his waking hours worrying about whether the next bad winter (or, these days, the next jacked-up supervillain) is going to be Steve's last. It's all good.

But this Steve is—different.

He's older, of course, and maybe a little wiser, but mostly the thing that gets Bucky in a soft place is how serene he is. Still bold as brass, but it's confidence rather than frustration boiling up under his skin. Things that would have made Little Steve punch first and ask questions later? Now mostly roll off his back. If there's a chance he can fix it with diplomacy first, he'll at least give it a shot. He'll accept help without spending half a circus's worth of effort trying to make it look like he's just doing you a favour, and hell, maybe that's just Sam's influence, but it knocks Bucky for six every time.

The way he moves changes too. Little Steve was always so tense, too aware of the limits of his body but not aware enough of his limbs, leading with his fists and his face, no finesse except when he had a paintbrush in his hand. Big Steve threw his weight around, constantly learning his body by pushing it as far as he could, not quite moving like he outright owned whatever space he was in, but like he was already ready take charge of it if he needed to.

New Steve is oddly graceful, balletic, cat-flexible. Not very strong, compared to the rest of them, but what a scrapper. Sparring sessions with Natasha always seem to turn into wrestling by the end, Nat cackling like a hyena while Steve wriggles out from yet another impossible hold to grab a handful of her hair. Bucky feels like someone's creepy uncle, watching them, but it's driving him nuts that he can't seem to work out the edges of this Steve, can't figure out where the old selves live inside him. He's just enough of all of them to confuse Bucky's poor deep-fried brain, and it kills him that Steve makes it seem so easy. Steve-the-kid and Steve-the-army-reject and Steve-the-science-experiment and Steve-the-superhero and New Steve, seamlessly blended into a better person than all of them, while Bucky's three years into Assassins Anonymous and still forgets, on occasion, what decade he's in.

And—to Bucky's complete lack of surprise—like some sort of Pavlovian spark in the lizard-parts of his brain, seeing Steve with all his fine sharp bones on display sends Bucky spiralling back down into that dark syrupy want he thought war and battle fatigue and Steve's strange new everything had burned out of him in Europe. Thing is, he'd been starting to think his libido was shut off for good, and if anything he was kind of goddamned glad of it, given the inconvenient direction his heart's been pulling since about 1929.

You're not the boss of me, he tells it, but it's not listening.

And he knows Steve wouldn't've been bothered, even back when; it was Steve, he would've offered to take a baseball bat to any guy who didn't treat Bucky right and that would've been the end of that, but Bucky just...didn't feel right about it. It would've been like living with a dame who wasn't family. No matter how much you protested she was like your sister, there was something wrong about sharing quarters like that, rough-housing with each other, sleeping in the same damn room. If Bucky didn't say anything, then they could keep being guys, just pals, pals who touched each other a lot without it meaning anything, without Bucky having to worry that Steve was reading something off about it.

Because there wasn't. There wasn't. Bucky'd never grabbed at Steve, never tried to cop a feel, never let himself get a little handsy when he was three sheets to the wind. No matter that Steve would have forgiven him, would've just set Bucky's fingers back where they belonged and laughed, the same way he'd done when Clint tilted into his lap last New Year's—Bucky couldn't have looked himself in the mirror if he'd seen even a speck of pity on Steve's face.

There'd been a guy at some of Bucky's haunts who could've been Steve's twin, and Bucky didn't go home with him, not once, not even when the kid practically threw himself into Bucky's arms one night at the Rockland when everyone was wild. If he's proud of anything in his life, he's proud of that: proud of never turning Steve's image into some kind of conquest. It wasn't just Steve's body he loved to distraction, but Steve, the whole parcel, and he had the important half—wasn't that better? Wasn't that enough?

He'd taught himself not to stare when Steve changed in their tiny bedroom, and it was good practice for the army, hiding without looking like you're hiding, a quiet acceptance of the rules, pretending you don't hate them to hell and back. He couldn't be like the fey boys whose delicate manners landed them jobs behind desks and backstage, who flirted with dishonourable discharge by letting everybody know they were queer, but making sure they didn't get caught. It hurt less to pretend, to go to the cathouses with the boys and pay a girl double to let him sleep and not say a word about what they didn't do.

It's only the hiding practice that keeps Steve from noticing that Bucky's all hung up over the change. It'd be a disaster without. Tony Stark is the kind of guy who builds entire floors for his superhero friends but doesn't take into account the possibility of new Avengers down the road, so Sam and Clint are doing a sort of timeshare-roommates thing between Manhattan and Bed-Stuy, and Steve had practically begged Bucky to bunk in the Tower while Bucky was still getting twice-daily Skype therapy from an empath in Calcutta. So he lives with the guy, and hell, Steve's had a whole decade of cohabitation between then and now to figure out how to read Bucky like a book, it's hard, but Steve's been the light in Bucky's darkness since he can remember, maybe even before, and he'll do anything to keep from losing that.

He'll hide for another seventy years, if that's what it takes.

 

 

Bucky gets called away on a quick surveillance mission that immediately turns into five weeks of running interference on Victor von Doom and his harem of hangers-on. He ends up getting his dumb ass captured just when he thinks he's getting ready to wrap up, and it's only the appearance of Sam and Tony that prevent him from dying of acute embarrassment, hanging by his feet over a tank of half-starved crocodiles. Once he gets home, courtesy of a very amused Clint and the Quinjet, he sleeps for almost forty hours straight.

When he stumbles into the kitchen after more than a month away, nothing seems to have changed. Steve, blearily reading the news on his tablet, makes a pre-coffee grunt in Bucky's general direction. Tony and Bruce obviously haven't made any headway on replicating the serum—he's not even sure if they're still trying—and the only evidence that tells him anything about what Steve's been up to is a fun-looking bruise on his left elbow. Sparring, probably.

“So,” Bucky says, after he's inhaled about 2000 calories and Steve's made headway on his second cup of joe, “What are your plans?”

Steve squints at him, still not quite awake. He stopped being a morning person after getting shrink-rayed, which Bucky finds sort of hilarious. “In regards to what?”

“Work. Avengers...stuff. You're not retiring, are you?”

“Not on your life,” says Steve. “Actually, I've been working with Nat and Clint a lot, seeing if I have what it takes to do their kind of work.”

“Spying,” Bucky says slowly. “Wetwork?”

“Maybe.” Bucky's expression must be concerning, because Steve adds: “But probably not. I mean, we're not really attached to that kind of organization anymore. Any threat big enough to eliminate is also probably going to need Avengering. I think Nat wants to see if I can do undercover, and Clint's getting me up to speed on the latest tech.” There's a flicker of a grin on Steve's face, there and gone. “I think he's hoping I'll take over the retrieval jobs so he doesn't have to cram himself in any more air ducts.”

Bucky snorts, relieved. “Have fun with that.”

“How was your mission?” Steve asks.

Steve's obviously changing the subject, which is less than ideal, but he's also gifting Bucky with a much-needed opportunity to bitch, so he'll take the loss. He's halfway through the wind-up to a really good rant about inter-departmental communication and fucking terrible satellite feeds when JARVIS says “Sirs,” suddenly, making them both jump. “My apologies for interrupting, but Agent Romanoff is requesting your presence in the meeting room.”

“Both of us?” Steve asks.

“Indeed.”

“Thanks, JARVIS,” Bucky says, and grabs their coffee cups to rinse.

When they get in, everyone but Bruce, Thor, and Clint are already there. Natasha, wearing pyjamas and a gigantic brace around her right knee—courtesy of a mutant squid, a three-storey drop, and a torn ACL—lounges in the biggest recliner. Bucky takes the beanbag chair on her right; Steve takes the gap between Sam and Tony on the sofa. Clint scrambles in and flops next to Bucky just as Hill's grainy video call comes through on the big screen. When everyone turns to the screen, Hill blinks and points in Natasha's general direction.

“Don't look at me,” Hill says. “Romanoff's taking the lead on this one. I'm just consulting.”

“I'll be brief,” Natasha says. “There's a charity ball on Saturday being hosted by Senator Booth. One of the baby analysts noticed something odd about the admittance list, and notified me.”

“What was it?” Sam asks.

“A disproportionate number of female guests,” Natasha says. “It's one of my red flags for a man who goes by 'General Schele,' although he's neither. He travels with a bevy of young, attractive assistants, all women, who perform the dirty work while he orchestrates from a distance. It's proved impossible to track him down in the flesh, but any appearance of his women gets pushed to the top of my priority list regardless. When Schele's been allowed free run, he destroys diplomatic alliances, humiliates politicians...makes a mess. Senator Booth, I'm sure we can all grudgingly agree, is not actually a scumbag, and might make a halfway decent President someday, so we're going to make sure Schele doesn't pull something off during the event.”

“Are you going to run the op on comms?” Bucky asks, hoping he doesn't sound too much like a kid on Christmas morning.

Natasha nods. “I am. Objections?”

There's a chorus of acceptance from all corners of the room.

“Now,” Natasha says, “The best way to get close to Schele's operation is to infiltrate the employee pool—except for a few long-term coordinators, he usually picks up assistants in each town he visits. Smart; saves too many people from knowing too much. Unfortunately, we're short-staffed, and that approach is not going to work.”

“Why not?” Tony looks up from his tablet and waves a hand. “Humour me.”

Natasha folds her fingers down one at a time. “I'm out of commission. Pepper's busy CEOing. Hill and Carter are in Israel. Jane—Thor's with her—is down in Brazil for an astrophysics conference, and she doesn't have combat clearance anyway. Kate is two weeks into an undercover mission she can't drop.”

“Darcy,” Clint suggests.

Natasha eyes him. “It's finals, Barton. Do you really want to know what she said when I asked?”

“Yes,” Clint says, and Bucky flicks him.

“It's fine,” Bucky says. “We'll just do it the hard way. Can we get bugs on any of the girls, or influence who Schele picks up?”

“We can try bugging on site, but it's risky. If any one of them catches on, the whole op goes down.”

“There must be wait-staff,” Sam suggests. “We can get one or two people in there, maybe someone on the security team?”

“I can get you camera access either way.” Hill says.

“If all else fails,” Tony says, “I can pretend to get drunk and make a scene in front of the reporters, draw heat off whatever Schele's setting up.”

“We really need intel on Schele's op before it goes down, though, or else we have no idea what or when we're prepping for,” says Clint. “What if we—”

“Um,” says Steve, and several heads swivel towards him. “Hey, Maria? Do you think I'd fit in one of your dresses?”

“Hmm—yes, maybe.”

“Oh no,” Bucky says. “No. No way. Steve, seriously, it'll never work.”

“I can see it,” Clint says thoughtfully. Tony looks like he's about to die of sheer delight. Sam taps his chin.

“You're the same shoe size as Darcy,” Natasha says. “Can you walk in heels?”

“Only one way to find out,” says Steve cheerfully, and Bucky puts his head in his hands.

 

 

As it turns out, Steve doesn't fit into anything in Hill's closet—but he does fit into one of Natasha's outfits. It's modest on top to hide Steve's whipcord arm muscles, and racy on the bottom to show off his legs, which shape up nice.

Or so Natasha says, because Steve won't let anyone see him.

“I'd rather you all laugh at me down there instead of in my own living room,” he tells Bucky through the locked bathroom door. “G'wan, get in your penguin suit. Besides, I'm not gonna be ready until the last—ow! Natasha!”

“Stay still,” Natasha says flatly, and Bucky gets the fuck out of Dodge.

He's fixing his bow tie in the bedroom mirror when Sam pads in, wearing owl pyjamas and a hoodie big enough for two of him. Bucky needs a moment to process. “You're not coming with?”

Sam shakes his head. “I'm still too high-profile. Get mobbed by the paparazzi every time I try to leave the Tower.”

Bucky grimaces. “Suck city.”

“Nah, man—you kidding? I'm gonna have a few beers, finish Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker, and play nurse for Nat.” Sam grins. “I feel like you're the one with the short end of the stick, Mr. Bond.”

Bucky makes a rude gesture without taking his hands off his collar. When he heads past Sam for the door, Sam stops laughing and puts a hand on his arm.

“Hey—if things go to hell, I can be suited up and on site in less than five minutes,” Sam says. He offers his fist. “Got your back.”

Bucky baps his knuckles against Sam's. “Cap.”

“Agent.”

Bucky salutes over his shoulder with two fingers, and goes to face the music.

 

 

When Bucky stops looking for Steve and fretting about him for five minutes, he appreciates the hell out of the venue.

It's fucking gorgeous.

It's an old converted theatre, probably older than both him and Steve combined, old enough that the huge main floor is flat instead of tilted. All the seating is gone, replaced by thin modern carpeting, and the stage platform still exists, honest-to-god red velvet curtains tied away on the sides. An all-female jazz band in real smart tailored suits takes up maybe a quarter of the stage, off to the side of the senator's podium. The best part, though, is everything else: dark wood walls, carved wooden columns, private boxes lining the walls carved within an inch of their lives, the ceiling a mosaic of layered panels—all lit softly by elegant lights in enormous glass shades. It's just the same ambiance as an ancient bar Bucky visited once before the war, dim and warm and smoky, though nobody here has a cigarette between their fingers.

It's the kind of place people might have gone to see an opera or a ballet when he was growing up—where people still go, he figures, and it's nice that some things never change. Back then, it was all for rich folks, but probably today it's for everyone. He doesn't think Steve's ever gone, and even though Bucky's family was a lot better off than Steve's, it was still too luxurious for their blood. He adds it to his dwindling mental list of things he still hasn't tried in the future. See an opera. See a ballet. Maybe take Steve.

“Sit-rep, Barnes,” Natasha says in his comm, startling him out of the daydream. Bucky squares his shoulders, embarrassed.

“No fishy business,” he reports. “Schele's girls don't seem to be out on the floor yet, far as I can tell. Where the hell is Tony?”

“On the way. Bruce and Pepper had to manhandle him out of the lab fifteen minutes ago. Clint?”

There's a long pause, and then, Clint sounding like he's trying to whisper without moving any part of his mouth, “All good here.”

“Where are you?” Natasha asks.

“In the rafters backstage,” Clint replies, at a slightly more audible volume. “Dodging about eighteen security goons, if you must know. There's a lot of important people here.”

“Golly,” Bucky deadpans, “I had not noticed.”

There's a sudden burst of noise and laughter in Bucky's ear, and he's turning before he realizes it's coming from his comm. A few moments later, low: “Rogers in position, HQ confirm.”

“Tower to Rogers, confirm,” says Natasha. “How are you doing, Steve?”

“I'm in, solid cover,” Steve says. “They haven't told us the plan—my group is supposed to wait for a signal from the coordinators and then just talk to people, so make of that what you will. Two coordinators behind the bar and two mingling, but we're not allowed to approach them. Made a couple friends, but nobody with decent clearance or intel. I'm coming out to work the floor. Swell band, huh, Buck?”

“Keen,” Bucky agrees.

“Tell me about the good old days, Grandpa,” says Clint, in a squeaky little boy voice.

“They were totes sick, dude,” Steve says flatly, and Bucky hears Natasha choke on something.

“Well played,” Clint whispers.

“Nat, y'know, in your own time,” Steve says, and Natasha coughs. “I'm on the floor—now. Tag me before you lose me.”

“Copy, tagging you now,” Natasha says. “Smile, you're on camera. Sam says 'oh my good sweet lord', by the way, you can take that as a hello or a compliment.”

Bucky scans the floor while they banter, even though he knows it's futile. Steve's at the very least going to be wearing a wig, and if he's in heels higher than an inch, his gait's going to be unrecognisable. With the sudden flood of Schele's assistants onto the floor, it'll be impossible. Bucky resigns himself to dodging conversation and trying not to look as though he wants to murder everyone who bumps into him. Crowded ops are the devil.

“Shit,” Steve suddenly growls, sotto voce. “Rogers to all, I've just seen a waiter double-reverse a flash drive to one of Schele's girls. Natasha, I need intel. My two o'clock, Gibson tuck, tortoiseshell glasses.”

“Jessica Toland,” Nat says. “Twenty-five, tourism-religious-studies double major, rents in Flatbush. Not a coordinator, won't know what it is. We need that drive. It could be our smoking gun.”

“On it,” says Steve. “Going off comms.”

“Steve,” Bucky says, at the same time Natasha barks, “That isn't necessary, Rogers!”

“Relax, I've got eyes on him,” Clint says.

“How do you even know what he looks like?” Bucky demands, scanning the room for anyone female, slender, and moving purposefully. He gives up; there's too many of them to track.

“Clint bought me that skirt,” Natasha says.

“Also, hello, spy school,” Clint adds. “It'll be a dark day in Cap'n Dave's Abundantly Stuffed Quiver Hut when I can't ID one of you schmucks in disg—ohhhhh my god, what is he doing.”

“What?” Bucky hisses. A tall woman dripping diamonds shoots a dirty look at him. He edges behind a column. “Barton, what—”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I saw nothing. Wrong girl. Guy. Agent.”

“Barton!”

“Is Rogers safe?” Natasha asks, always pragmatic, over Bucky's minor panic attack.

“Abso-fucking-lutely.”

“Then it's fine. Let him do his job. Any sign of Tony?”

“Not yet,” Bucky says.

“All right. Everybody cool your heels until Rogers reports in. I'll keep an eye on the cameras. James, go get some food, you're looking peaky.”

“Aww, canapés,” Clint moans.

“I'll toss some finger sandwiches into the fly loft,” Bucky says. Clint makes a rude noise into his comm.

Bucky reluctantly fills up a plate with weird rich people food, the sort of stuff even Tony doesn't keep around, and hightails it back to his column. He eats with his right hand—the silicon faux-skin cover of his left tastes awful and kind of antiseptic—and spends more time praying that whatever Steve's doing isn't going to require body disposal than actually enjoying what he's putting in his mouth. He feels better when he's done, though. He envies Steve's renewed lack of a super soldier metabolism. Bucky just spends so much goddamn time eating.

He's handing over his empty plate to a passing waiter when Tony appears at his elbow.

“Oh thank god,” Tony says, tucking himself between Bucky and the column. He puts a heavy glass of scotch into Bucky's hand. “You're a hard man to find.”

“What's up? Have you seen Steve?”

“Hair nor hide. I was immediately roped by a flock of Schele's vultures, only just managed to escape.”

“Don't look now,” Bucky says, gesturing with his glass, “But I think you got another on your six.”

Tony wheels around just in time to intercept a little brunette in a red blouse and a tight black skirt. Bucky tries not to look at the miles of leg she has on display. She smiles like she hasn't just been caught following Tony across half the room, and says, silky smooth, “Hello, Mr. Stark, Agent Barnes. Enjoying yourselves?”

“Plenty,” Bucky says.

“I'm sure I will, when I'm not being hunted,” says Tony. “Go on, shoo.”

“Aww, you're no fun,” she says. She shimmies her way over to Bucky and looks up at him through her lashes. “How about you, soldier? Care for a dance?”

“No thanks, ma'am,” Bucky says evenly. “I got two left feet.”

“That ain't what you used to say to the girls,” she says, and winks.

Clint hoots in his ear. Bucky chokes on his scotch. Tony's head whips around so fast Bucky hears a crack.

Steve?” Tony stage-whispers, while Bucky is quietly trying not to cough to death.

Ssh, keep it down,” Steve hisses back. “Christ, if I can fool the two of you, I've got this nailed. Buck, quick, pretend you wanna dance with me, I've got to gladhand someone the drive.”

“Well, doll, if you insist,” Bucky says, clearing his throat. He drops his glass into Tony's hand. Offering his elbow to Steve, he leans down and mutters, “I can't hardly fucking recognize you, what kinda black magic—”

“Make-up is amazing,” Steve says, without a trace of sarcasm. “Nat did a thing with...contouring? There was a lot of layers involved. And eyebrow threading.”

“Eyebrow threading,” Bucky repeats, as they join the spinning couples under the stage. He can vaguely hear Tony harassing Clint over comms; it sounds like Natasha's turned him down.

“Don't look at me, I'm the victim here.”

“Did it hurt?”

“A little,” says Steve, which means a lot. Bucky rolls his eyes. “Shut your face, I think it's swell. You got to be good at this stuff if you're aiming to be a really great spy. I'm gonna ask her to teach me.”

“Artist,” Bucky teases, and Steve grins. For a second, it's so intensely Steve under the powder and paint that Bucky feels a molten stab right under his sternum. He misjudges a step, and ends up a lot closer to Steve's legs than he planned. “Shit, sorry.”

“Your brain's on Mars tonight.”

“I was thinking,” Bucky says, blundering on, “About how we'd have been shit-scared to even walk past the door of a place like this, back in our day. Now look at us. What would your ma say?”

Steve grins. “She'd have a few choice words about the length of my skirt. Your ma would grab you by the ear and haul you off to a barber.”

“Becca would've appreciated my hair,” Bucky counters. “You ever—been? To a ballet or whatever?”

To his surprise, Steve nods. “Jane and Thor and Darcy took me to see the Nutcracker, my first Christmas here. It was nice. You?”

“Nah. Was thinking about it, though. Maybe an opera. What's good?”

Steve wrinkles his nose. “God, don't ask me. I don't know who'd know. Pepper?”

“Probably. You wanna tag along, Rogers?”

“Sure, it's a date—geez, Buck, a person'd think you'd never danced with a dame,” Steve says, as Bucky stumbles for the second time.

“Clearly we traded,” Bucky mutters. “Nat taught you how to waltz in high heels in two hours?”

“She's very persuasive.” Steve glares around like the whole room's offended him personally. “Damn, this isn't going to work. I thought I was going to be able to get the drive out on the fly, but the crowd's not thick enough.”

Bucky glances down. “It in a pocket? What if I...”

“Does this handkerchief look like it has pockets? It's in my bra.”

“Of course it is,” Bucky says, through his teeth.

“Look—” Steve pauses ominously. Bucky can hear the cogs grinding. “Okay, I've got an idea, but you gotta trust me.”

“Yup.”

“And do everything I say.”

“Yes ma'am.”

“That's better,” Steve says, and pulls Bucky off the dance floor. “Try to look like you're about to get in my pants.”

Right, because I don't look like that at baseline, Bucky thinks, and then: oh fuck.

Steve keeps flicking him these hot little glances, and, hell, Bucky doesn't need to pretend. He nearly goes ass over teakettle when Steve manhandles him around a curtain and into a side hall, snugging him in real close. Bucky grabs at Steve almost in self defence.

“Security camera,” Steve whispers. “ 'Bout ten feet behind your right ear. You'd better make this look good.”

And then he hauls Bucky's head down and sticks his tongue in his mouth.

Bucky's hands tighten on Steve's hips, and for a whole parcel of heartbeats, he completely forgets how to kiss. Steve apparently hasn't. Steve's apparently learned, some time in the last eight hundred years, and that brings up a whole parcel of questions Bucky isn't sure he wants answered. Steve's lips are unbearably soft, and he tastes like lipstick and white wine, and Bucky yearns for death.

He gets it together about ten seconds before Steve hisses: “Stop being such a fucking gentleman, Barnes, get your hand up my blouse,” into Bucky's mouth, and slots a thigh between his legs.

Bucky tugs the hem out of the skirt and grabs at all of Steve's padded nothing. He has a moment of panic, distracted by Steve sucking on his lower lip, before he realizes the drive is tucked beneath the underwire, right in the middle. He slips his hand around Steve's ribs like he's going for the clasp, dropping the drive down his sleeve as he goes.

He moves from Steve's mouth to his neck, just below his ear, and mutters, “How'd you kite this off her in the first place?”

Steve obligingly tilts his head back. “How do you think?”

Jesus.” Bucky wants to disappear into the floor. Steve crowding some nice-looking dame just like this, feeling her up. “She didn't notice you taking it?”

“Stole another drive from the tech room beforehand. Swapped 'em while she was, uh, distracted.”

Bucky's flesh hand clenches, and he shoves it under Steve's bra clasp so he doesn't scratch him.

Steve pushes him off.

“Hold up, Geronimo,” he says, pitching it high, and gives Bucky another one of those smirks that make him want to drop to his knees. “Maybe later. This was fun, but I have to get back to work.”

“Sure thing, sugar,” Bucky says, sounding a whole lot steadier than he feels. He breathes through his nose so it doesn't look like he's panting. “What's your room number?”

“As if I'd tell a dog like you.” Steve smiles his fake secretary smile, showing off a dimple Bucky wasn't previously aware he owned, and straightens Bucky's collar. He makes his exit, hips swaying, the conquering heroine. Bucky hopes Natasha didn't teach him that.

Actually, on second thought, he really hopes Natasha did teach him that.

Bucky steadfastly ignores the security camera as he adjusts the line of his pants and gives himself a few seconds to breathe. He shakes his head sharply and heads back into the main room, making a beeline for the first person he recognizes. It's Tony, more's the pity.

“Package delivered,” Bucky says redundantly. His head feels stuffed with cotton wool.

I'll say.” Tony whistles. “That was some improv, kids.”

“Shut your face,” Steve says, his comm echoing oddly. When Bucky can't pick him out on the floor, he realizes Steve must be in the ladies room, checking his make-up. “You're just jealous.”

“Of who? Nice lipstick, Barnes.” Tony grabs Bucky's chin and mauls him with a handkerchief.

Bucky swats Tony off and deals with it himself. “Thanks, Ma. Nat, I've got the drive. Can we get the hell out of here?”

“Not yet,” Natasha says in their ears. “Steve can't leave without raising suspicion, and Senator Booth is on deck in twenty. I need all eyes on him until the speech is finished, and then we can pack up.”

“Right,” Tony says. “How's everybody doing? Clint?”

“Sure, cool, I haven't just been spotted by the goon squad or anything, no sir.”

“Smooth, Barton. Deal with it. Barnes?”

“I am literally right next to you.”

“Yeah, and I asked how you were doing, honesty is very important in a working relationshi—hey! I was drinking that!”

The very restrained snort Bucky hears over comms might be Steve.

“Okay, fine, Grumpy Bear. Nat?”

Sounding extravagantly amused, Natasha says, “Enjoying the last of your Grey Goose Magnum with my feet up on your coffee table. How are you doing, Stark?”

“I'm having fun,” Tony says, faux-brightly. “You having fun, Steve?”

“Yeah, fine. Copacetic.” Steve: dry as dust. Bucky manages a laugh. “I just love having my ass pinched by randy old men.”

Tony gives Bucky the hairy eyeball.

“I did not,” Bucky protests.

“Uh huh.”

He ignores Tony and manages to spot Steve over by the bar, drifting through the crowd with a half-empty glass of champagne in his hand. Bucky feels himself relax. “Well,” he says, “The shitshow's almost over. Another hour and you can get out of those shoes.”

“It's 1937 all over again, except less fun,” Steve says.

“I don't recall you wearing skirts in '37,” Bucky says distractedly. Clint is trying to signal him from the stage entrance. Bucky spreads his hands and points at his ear.

Clint mimes being beaten up and losing his comm. Possibly also his hearing aids. Bucky rolls his eyes.

“You wouldn't,” Steve says. Bucky can just make Steve out, walking behind the ice sculpture, smiling at everyone, talking without hardly moving his lips. “You're not in this one.”

Tony makes a mock-outraged noise. “No way.”

“Yeah, yeah, yuk it up, cheap seats. Buck, you remember Frank O'Toole?”

“Sure. The firefighter.” How could he not? The guy was, memorably, half Irish, with the Greek nose and black curls his ma gave him, six-foot-five if he was an inch, and built like a brick chicken house.

“That's the one,” Steve agrees. “Laid you out for making time with his sister and then bought you a bottle of rye to apologize.”

Tony cackles.

“That was in '35,” Bucky says, just to show Steve he's paying attention.

“Yeah, well, summer of '37, you were in Illinois with your folks, so you weren't around to keep us from hoarding all the stupid in town.”

Bucky laughs. He's still laughing when Steve adds, “Well, we got bored, so we started daring each other to do dumb stuff—and I swear, Buck, we lasted a week before this happened—but it all wound up to O'Toole daring me to go into a queer bar on Sands, except he didn't know I'd been there before, so I called him a chickenshit for not going in his own self, and things got out of hand.”

Bucky's mouth goes dry.

“Out of hand how?” Tony demands gleefully.

“Well, next thing I know,” Steve says, “I'm sitting on a barstool in heels and wondering how to get down without breaking an ankle.”

“Where'd the heels come from, Ginger Rogers?” Tony asks.

“Friend of mine from art class, Deb Bernstein. You remember her, Buck? Tiny girl, huge glasses, nine brothers? Anyway, she thought it was a gas, did my make-up and everything. Bright pink lipstick. Looked like a good-time gal.”

As if from a distance, Bucky can hear Tony saying: “And she didn't, you know, call the cops on you?” and Steve replying, “Hell no, we lived in Brooklyn Heights, it was queens and artists from the Navy Yard to Atlantic, what do they teach you kids in school these days?” but Bucky can't stop hearing: he didn't know I'd been there before; can't stop himself thinking about tiny Steve Rogers in one of Deb's nice shabbos dresses, his ankles bent over the rung of a barstool, his hair probably in pin-curls, Christ.

He's momentarily distracted by Clint, again, who appears to have given up on charades and is making his way towards Steve, who he's not supposed to approach.

The fuck? Bucky mouths at Clint, but he's not looking. Bucky starts sidling his way through the tables towards them, shoving his fucking complex back into its dark little box where he can take it out and examine it when he's not on a goddamn job.

“Where was your firefighter buddy during all this?” Tony is asking.

“God knows,” Steve says in Bucky's ear, warm. “I'd lost track of him at that point—we only caught up later, after the police raided the place and some patrons got violent. Me and a bunch of the fairies got pretty beat up. Don't think the cops were expected a bunch of boys in skirts to be able to punch that hard. O'Toole hauled me off before they started busting out handcuffs.”

Tony snorts. “I thought you said 1937 was more fun than working undercover at a charity ball.”

“Well,” says Steve, “In '37, I was getting laid right about now.”

Bucky, on the verge of running Clint down, almost falls on his face.

“Agent Rogers!” Tony gasps.

“Steve, are you drunk?” Bucky asks, in disbelief.

“Oh my god,” Tony says.

“Maybe a little,” Steve admits.

“Oh my god.”

“Maybe a lot,” Bucky says. Steve laughs like whiskey dipped in sex, and that's it, Bucky is going to die, right here on the floor in his ridiculous suit.

Right then, Clint reaches Steve.

“I'm glad you guys are having fun,” Clint says, directly into Steve's comm, “But I've got to test a theory. Hey, Barnes, what's your favourite movie?”

My Fair Lady,” Bucky's tongue says, entirely without his permission. He claps a hand over his mouth.

Which is how they find out that Schele's pretty accomplices have been spiking the alcohol with truth serum.

The next fifty-six minutes are very exciting.

 

 

“That,” says Steve, dropping his duffel on the couch and stretching, “Was more fun than I ever want to have again.”

“I think you split a seam kicking that guy in the jaw,” Bucky says.

Steve plucks at the loose threads on his hips and winces. “Damn. This was a nice skirt.”

Bucky decides to ignore that. “Hey, we saved the senator from revealing his fetishes to about eight zillion reporters.”

“Sacrifices,” Steve agrees. “Ugh, I'm going to go clean up, I probably look like a raccoon.”

He's not wrong. If there was an award for World's Saddest Sexy Assistant, Steve would have won gold around the point when the stage curtains caught fire. Bucky flops down by the door and tugs off one very wet boot, thinking too damn hard.

Steve.

Steve and O'Toole.

Steve and O'Toole and queer bars.

Jesus, the things you didn't know about people.

And Bucky's not stupid, okay, because this doesn't change a damn thing about how Bucky is Steve's friend, and going queer once upon a time—even if he still does—doesn't mean Steve wants to crawl into Bucky's pants. This whole hang-up, he tells himself, has got to stop. He's going to be a respectful goddamn grown-up and jettison the Steve Thing into the harbour, good riddance, thanks for almost fucking up the best friendship a guy ever had, goodbye. Turn over a new leaf. Go out and have a couple dozen awful dates and maybe a few good ones. Live a life that doesn't revolve around lusting after Steven Grant Rogers. Get over it.

“Buck?” Steve calls, from the general direction of the bathroom, and Bucky, startled, realizes he's been sitting in the hall and staring at his feet for nearly a quarter of an hour.

He hauls ass and sticks his head around the door frame, only to be greeted by the sight of Steve barefoot in pantyhose, the blouse and the wig on the floor, a stubborn line of dark make-up ringing his eyes where the soap didn't quite scrub it off. He's still wearing a bra. Black lace. One inch of the skirt's high zipper is undone, and there's lace under there too.

On the back of Steve's neck, dipping down towards his shoulderblade, are four red scratches like a girl's nails might make.

Bucky swallows hard.

The universe hates him.

“I'm hopeless,” Steve says, oblivious to Bucky's small crisis. “I undid someone else's bra tonight, but I can't get mine off. Unhook me?”

Bucky does, and then he gets his hands off Steve's back like he's burned himself.

“Thanks,” Steve mumbles sleepily. He blunders off towards his room, leaving Bucky in the bathroom with his wet socks, trying to pick up the shredded pieces of his dignity.

 

 

Bucky's clearly still working off a sleep deficit. He's normally wide-eyed by 6:00 and going squirrelly by 6:30, but it's an effort to drag himself out of bed by quarter to eight. He vaguely remembers a series of awful, muddled dreams about all the ways the mission could have gone wrong. His brain needs a better hobby. A better series of hobbies, even.

To his astonishment, Steve's already in the kitchen and wearing something that isn't pyjama bottoms. By the state of the coffee carafe, he's been up for a while. Something looks odd about him, and it takes Bucky more than one surreptitious glance to figure it out: his eyebrows are still carefully plucked into a feminine arch. With his clean face and one of Clint's too-large purple tee-shirts, the effect makes him look either fey or tomboyish. Bucky can't quite decide which.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbles into his coffee. “About last night.”

“Don't worry about it,” Bucky says. “I mean, truth juice, hell, it ain't like—”

“Does it bother you?” Steve asks.

Bucky blinks at him. “What, you and...”

Steve makes a motion that's almost a shrug, lazy and feline. He doesn't break eye contact, so as much as Bucky wants to look away and immortalize that graceful little gesture in the back of his brain, he doesn't flinch.

“O'Toole,” Steve says tightly. “Queer bars. Whatever.”

“Stevie, if that kinda thing bothered me, I'd've taken some pretty drastic actions when we walked in on Ned and Bobby that one time.” Steve's hands are still pretty tense around his coffee cup, so Bucky adds, “I was maybe—a little hurt you didn't tell me, is all. You never kept any secrets I can recall.”

“Oddly enough,” Steve says, “It never really came up. What was I supposed to say? Oh hey, Buck, when you were down on your aunt's farm getting harassed by chickens, I was hittin' the streets in heels and—”

“Gettin' harassed, the fuck, those chickens loved me—”

“—shacking up with O'Toole for three days—whatever, you were still complaining about those chickens in September.”

Bucky doesn't deny it, just raises his eyebrows. After a moment, Steve grins, and Bucky follows.

“Well, I'm glad one of us was having fun,” Bucky says, and the iron grip Steve's got on his mug loosens up. “Whatever happened to O'Toole, anyway?”

Steve's smile gets a little strained in the corners. “Italy. '44. Found out last year.”

Bucky's face falls. “Shit, Steve. I'm sorry.”

“S'okay.” Steve shrugs. “It's not like we were going steady or anything.”

“Yeah, but he was your friend.”

“So was Deb, and Arnie, and Rick—they're all dead, so I don't see as how it matters.”

“Steve. Seriously.” Bucky puts a hand on Steve's shoulder and shakes him once, gently. “You're allowed to miss them, you know. You're allowed to be sad they're gone.”

Steve presses his lips together, then looks up at Bucky with a thin little smile. “Sam got to you too, huh?”

“Ain't Sam. It's just fact.”

Steve nods. He opens his mouth, closes it, grimaces, and tries again. “Habit. I made myself—not. When they woke me up. Hurt too much to even think about. Peg was the only one left, and she hardly remembered me from one visit to the next.” He looks up, bright-eyed and painfully hopeful. “At least I got my best guy back.”

Guilt hits Bucky like a ton of bricks. Steve trusts him with this heavy stuff, and here's Bucky, pretending he isn't keeping secrets of his own—selfish secrets, because he's afraid of losing his best friend. He's going to tell Steve. He has to, and fuck the consequences.

“Steve, I—”

“Do you wanna spar?”

Bucky comes up short. “What?”

“Spar.” Steve aims a couple of fake punches towards Bucky. “Duke it out. Wrestle. Whatever. We haven't yet, is all. I wanna see what you got, Barnes.”

“There's a good reason we haven't,” Bucky says warily. “You know I could hurt you.”

Steve shrugs with his shoulders and his eyebrows. “So can Nat.”

“No, I could really hurt you. I did really hurt you, and that was when you were big.” Bucky shakes his head. “It's not a good idea, Steve.”

For his sins, he gets the full Steven Rogers Puppy Eyes treatment.

“But Buck,” Steve says mournfully, “I need experience in fighting people stronger than me. How else am I gonna learn to take down big guys in the field? I could get killed if I'm not ready for it.”

Bucky glowers. “Tell me, Rogers, have you ever not got a thing you set your mind on?”

Steve grins and bounds up from the table.

 

 

Fifteen minutes later, he's already yelling at Bucky.

“Stop pulling your goddamn punches!”

“If I don't pull, I'm gonna come right out the other side of your thick skull.”

“Telegraph better, I'll dodge.”

Bucky gets hands on him and tries for a headlock, but Steve twists and skitters away, landing a good hit on Bucky's leg as he flies past. “You're gonna dodge right into my fist if you ain't careful, Flash.”

“Better slow me down, then.”

Bucky's impressed when Steve backflips out of the way of a flying tackle, but in the next instant, he almost takes off Steve's head with the metal hand. He backs right off, letting Steve land a good clobber on his jaw. Steve snarls even as he's landing it. “You're fuckin'—stop pulling!”

Bucky dodges a flying elbow and the sweeping kick Steve aims at his ankles. “I'm trying not to hurt you!”

“Then stop trying so hard!”

Bucky grits his teeth and does, catching Steve's fist and tossing him. Steve turns it into a flip and a roll, scrambling back to his feet and rushing Bucky with a shout. Bucky dekes, but Steve anticipates it, and rams into his midsection like a wrecking ball. It's half momentum and half surprise that lands Bucky on his back, Steve's knees on either side of his waist, Steve's hands pinning his wrists.

“That wouldn't've worked on anyone but me,” Bucky points out.

“Yeah, 'course, why'd you think I did it?”

Bucky glowers and tries to sit up, but Steve's got his wrists pinned at the exact right spot, like the old finger-on-the-forehead trick. He could throw Steve off, but any movement of his lower body is going to send his hips right up against Steve's ass, and Bucky's not sure he could survive that. A more violent attempt might actually hurt them both. He stays put. Steve seems like he's got a bug in his ear anyhow.

“Now listen here,” Steve says, and when Bucky opens his mouth, he snarls: “No, shut up, I'm getting this out. I know you've got some kind of problem with the way I look now, fine, whatever, you don't want to talk about it, that's your funeral, but I ain't going anywhere and it ain't changing, so—”

“I like you better this way,” Bucky blurts out. Steve looks like someone just clubbed him upside the head with a brick. He actually lets go of Bucky's wrists. “It's just—when I came back, and I started remembering, it was—it messed me up, how you looked. I didn't get used to it with the Howlies, I hated it, on account of I'm a shithead, and I still wasn't used to it when you got shrink-rayed, and—Jesus, Steve, I was just so goddamned glad you were back to normal and I kind of fucking hated myself for it, honestly, it's not you.”

“I think you're the only one,” Steve says. Before Bucky can get bent out of shape about that—excuse me, pal, heart on the fucking line over here—Steve adds, with way too much sincerity, “Thank you.”

“I—you're welcome? Why?”

Steve shrugs. “Well, you're right. This is me. The way I wanted to be, I mean. Strong. Not sick. When I got out of the machine, I didn't expect to look like—that. It kinda scared me, Buck. And don't get me wrong, it was great fun, being able to pick up cars and all, but...” Steve makes a frustrated noise and looks past Bucky's head. “I wanted to help, it was war, but I figured it would be over eventually and then we'd get to come home. Everyone's going oh, poor Stevie, lost all his superpowers, but I didn't ask for 'em in the first place. I just wanted to help.”

“I thought you were gonna be all tore up,” Bucky says. “I was waiting for the meltdown. I didn't know you'd be—”

“Relieved,” Steve agrees. “I recognize the guy I see in the mirror these days. And, okay, maybe I miss jumping off of buildings—” Bucky barks a laugh, and Steve smacks a hand over his mouth, grinning. “—shut up—but I'm okay. Really. So, we good?”

“We're good,” Bucky says, still laughing.

He stops laughing when he realizes Steve isn't getting up. In fact, Steve seems to have regained his hold on Bucky's wrists when he wasn't paying attention.

“Got something else we need to hash out?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Matter of fact, we do.”

“Well, I ain't going anywhere.”

Alarmingly, Steve flattens himself out over Bucky's torso. He stops with his whole weight pressing down on Bucky's hips, and stares. Blue eyes drilling into Bucky's fucking soul.

“You,” Steve says darkly, “Have a terrible poker face—” and Jesus God, he's close enough to kiss, Bucky's just about gone cross-eyed trying to look at him, “—when you're staring at my ass.”

“I—no, you're—”

“Misinterpreting?” Steve pulls back, just a hair, and nods thoughtfully. “Okay, sure, I'll buy that.”

“Uh, good, 'cause...”

And Steve's right back in Bucky's face, growling real low: “But there's no way in hell I'm misinterpreting the way you looked at me last night.”

“You told me to—”

“Ain't stupid. Before that, on the dance floor. I thought you were going to eat me.”

Bucky stops breathing entirely. His heart pounds like a hammer, thumping up in his throat hard enough to hurt. It must be beating fast enough for Steve to feel in his human wrist. Oh, he's going to regret this, because Steve is wearing his reckless-personal-endangerment aura like a crown, the dangerous one that shone out of his face whenever anyone dared to imply that a thing was too much for him, that he should play it safe—and Bucky knows that no matter what happens next, whatever Steve does, it's going to wreck him.

“That on offer?” Bucky whispers.

Steve's eyebrows climb into his hairline. He blinks, once, twice—and then a slow, smug grin lights up his whole face.

“Why, Agent Barnes,” Steve says, mock-scandalized, “That's awful forward of you, considering we haven't been on a date.”

“We made out behind a curtain last night,” Bucky points out. Steve smacks him in the middle of the chest. “I mean, uh, would you like to—”

“Six o'clock,” Steve says, standing up. Bucky's whole front feels abruptly cold. “Tower lobby. Wear something nice.”

Bucky accepts Steve's offer of a hand and hauls himself up. “Nice as in...snooty-coffee-shop nice? Top-hat-and-tails nice?”

“Cocktails-with-Pepper nice.” Steve lets go of Bucky's hand and heads for the door. Over his shoulder, he calls, “Don't be late!”

Bucky stares at the closed door. After a minute, his hands come up to his face. The flesh one is shaking a little, but obligingly registers that his cheeks and forehead are hot, crusted with dried sweat at his hairline. A hiccuping giggle escapes him, and then another, and another, until he's having a fit of hysterical laughter in the middle of the Avengers boxing ring.

Once he's calmed down, he takes three more breaths—in through his nose, out through his mouth—and then flings himself at the elevator.

 

 

To: Sam
I think I'm gonna throw up.

 

From: Sam
well don't do that
you need to keep all the calories you can get so you don't faint on your bf

 

To: Sam
He's not my boyfriend!

 

From: Sam
dude's taking you out on a mystery date after making v. v. clear he was not bothered by your blatant ass worship over the last like, two years
bf
bbbbbbfffffff

 

To: Sam
I'd rather wait for him to confirm his intentions, Sam.

 

From: Sam
fine, fine, be that way, but i'm tellin ya
anyway make sure you take him flowers, roses or carnations or smth classy

 

To: Sam
Steve doesn't like roses. His favourite flower is alstroemeria.

 

From: Sam
i stand corrected, not bfs
u are clearly married

 

To: Sam.
Shut up.

 

 

Bucky spends most of the afternoon in his bathroom, positively not freaking out.

It's fine, he's just going out with Steve, no big deal, they go out together and do guy things all the time, it's fine.

He's not freaking out.

There's nothing to be done about his hair but wash it and put it in a bun; ditto his beard, because if he shaves, he's going to have unattractive stubble in about five minutes. He cleans up what he can and brushes his teeth, but doesn't bother with the silicon cover for his hand. He pulls on slacks, a button-down and tie, and a sweater-vest, figuring a waistcoat and suit jacket would be too much, but he throws on a blazer and his nicer wingtips just in case. Steve didn't leave him much to go on, so he doesn't have any room to complain.

He's ready half an hour too soon. He's still not freaking out. He is, in fact, making himself a cup of chamomile tea because he likes the taste, not on account of Bruce telling him one time that it reduced stress hormones in the brain. Because he doesn't need that. He's fine.

The stalling technique is less than effective. Bucky's still early. Instead of pacing like a lunatic, he finds a chaise and people-watches, making up stories about the interesting ones to distract himself. The tall redhead shrugging out of her lab coat is heading home from the science wing to feed her four cats. That guy with the flowers is heading up to visit his girlfriend—no, his mother, it's her birthday, and he's taking her out for dinner. The security guard just starting his shift has smudges of ink on his right hand: studying for finals before he came to work. Or maybe it's oil; he biked here and his chain came off a block away. That blonde girl in the burberry coat and the black pumps is a secretary, has a sugar momma in accounting who bought her that handbag, and she's—

—coming straight for Bucky.

Bucky stands up just as Steve reaches him, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips. You couldn't have tossed a pebble off their balcony in 1941 without hitting a dame wearing the exact style his wig's pinned into. Steve's nails, when he reaches up to adjust Bucky's tie, are as red as his lipstick. He's only a few inches shorter than Bucky in his towering heels, and there's obviously a crinoline under whatever he's wearing beneath the coat. Bucky feels his mouth open, but nothing comes out.

“C'mon,” Steve says, visibly amused. “Car's waiting out front.”

Bucky's brain finally turns on the lights. He leaps for the door, holding it open for Steve. “You hired a car?”

“When I told Pepper what I was doing, she lent me Happy.”

Bucky gets the car door too, running on autopilot. When they're both settled, Steve taps on the divider with two knuckles. Through the tinted glass, Bucky sees Happy salute. His gaze goes right back to Steve, like a magnet, when the car pulls away from the curb. Steve's eyelids go half-mast.

“This really does it for you, huh?”

Bucky sidesteps the question. “Does it do anything for you?”

Steve's grin is wicked. “Buck, name me one time I ever did something I didn't want to do.”

The corner of Bucky's mouth flicks up. “Oh, I can think of a few times—”

“It doesn't count if it was Ma,” Steve says.

“Cheater,” Bucky says fondly, then flounders. “So—so you like it, then. Why do—I mean, go ahead, tell me to shove it if you don't wanna, but I just. Want to understand.”

Steve shrugs one shoulder, compressing a curl against his neck. “I didn't, first time I tried it. It was just for the dare. But there was something about it, so I did it again. That time, I got it. I was a—a different person. I felt more confident. I felt...” Steve shifts his jaw, chews his lip. “Even when I was weak and sick, I could make a grown man cry by crossin' my legs the right way. It was a powerful thing. I felt—powerful.”

Steve's eyes go unfocused, but it's clear he's not done, so Bucky keeps his trap shut.

“After the serum,” Steve says at last, “Anyhow there wasn't time, but even if there had been, I was scared to even try 'cause of how I looked. It would have been ridiculous, with all the—well. Can you imagine Captain America in a dress?” The smile Steve offers is so incredibly sad that Bucky honestly wishes he could go back in time and punch Erskine in the face. Or Stark. He's not picky. “So I used to watch the girls put their make-up on, help when they needed it. Tried to make myself stop wanting. It worked, up until I got shrunk, and then it all came back. I woulda started doing it again eventually, even if it hadn't been for the mission.” Steve looks at Bucky, then down, fiddling with a button on his coat. “Ain't just a dress, Buck. I'm a girl sometimes, in here.” He taps the side of his head. “And—and I like it.”

“I like it too,” Bucky manages. “Um. Obviously.”

“Why? You—same deal, if you don't wanna, you know. Tell.”

“No, I.” Bucky tries to remember; not just the places or the people, but the feelings, which dissipate like smoke when he grabs for them. “I used to go to the drag balls, and this queer bar in Harlem—” Steve makes a surprised noise, and Bucky grins at him. “Yeah, I know, I know. Anyway, it was real segregated, you know, appearance-wise. Dames came in too—I went with a queer gal pal a few times—but half of 'em were really queens. A fella was only allowed in with somebody wearing a dress. If you wanted rough trade, you went to the docks or whatever, but in there, no. Real discreet. It was kinda, eh, nose in the air, but it kept the place from getting shut down for a long time, since it looked basically all right from the outside. It was only when you looked real close that you could tell. And I—” Bucky frowns at his own lap. “I don't know, just something about knowing they were guys under the nylons and the lipstick got me goin', and how some you could tell and some you couldn't, and all the different faces, I just could never get enough of looking. They were all so goddamned beautiful, and—”

Bucky glances at Steve, and has to stop, because Steve is looking at him like he's the second coming of Christ and the visitation of Mary all rolled into one.

After a moment, Steve shakes himself all over like a dog and folds Bucky's right hand between both of his, placing it in his lap, stroking the back with his thumbs. There's something strange about it, and all of a sudden Bucky realizes: Steve's hands are soft, softer than they've ever been, even before shield calluses and chemical burns and mud, softer than when he was a starving artist and they were cracked all the time from how often he washed cheap oil paint from his skin, and that hits Bucky right in the throat. Gratitude crawls over him like a sunset: the scope of his life, and then the little details, all the way down. They've got good friends and good things and money in the bank—they're here, together, safe, home from war, sitting together in the back of a town car in the future, and Steve's hands are soft.

“We're idiots, aren't we,” Steve murmurs.

“Yeah,” Bucky whispers, and curls his fingers around Steve's.

 

 

It's only after Bucky gives Steve a hand out of the car that he realizes where Happy's dropped them off.

“You little shit!” he hisses, trying not to attract the attention of all the well-dressed folks milling around the entrance. Steve laughs out loud. “The Met, really? How did you even—”

“Pepper's got a lady friend who goes to every show, but she's got bronchitis, so Pepper got her box for us.”

“A box,” Bucky mutters. “Jesus. Wait. Wait. You must've—you planned this, even before we went down to the gym!”

“Yeah.” Steve grins, the brat. “Before I came out for coffee, actually. I now owe her and Nat both a favour, which is a terrifying way to live and I hope you appreciate it.”

“Depends. This one of those operas where everybody dies?”

Steve shakes his head. “Verdi's Falstaff. Pepper says it's really funny, and nobody dies.”

“All right.” Bucky rolls his eyes even as he's offering Steve his metal elbow. “I'll forgive you for meticulously planning our stupidly romantic date behind my back, I guess.”

And Pepper's right—it is funny. It's the funniest goddamned thing Bucky has seen since Modern Times: slapstick and mistaken identities and terrible subterfuge. He's embarrassed for everybody and he can't stop laughing. More than even Steve, who keeps having to daub at his mascara, he's laughing so hard. It helps that Bucky knows Italian, apparently—why did they program him with Italian, of all things?—so he gets some of the linguistic puns that the overhead translations miss. He tries to explain them to Steve in the intermission, with illustrative hand gestures, and Steve doesn't understand but he laughs all the same. Bucky feels like he's full of champagne froth, lightness in the belly. He's never been happier in his whole damn life.

And it doesn't even end there, because Steve's reserved a table for them at some fancy-ass restaurant on the Columbus Circle. Bucky's not sure two mooks like them should even be allowed to wipe their feet on the rug, but Steve drags him bodily through the door, where a staggeringly tall waitress directs them to a quiet corner table and takes Steve's coat. Under it, he's wearing a long-sleeved red dress with a sweetheart neckline, gathered at the waist and full at the hip, falling just below his knees. Bucky's saved from uncouth staring by an elfin waiter with a liquor menu.

“Relax,” Steve says, when the wait-staff finally give them some breathing room.

“I feel like someone's gonna jump out and stab me if I use the wrong fork,” Bucky mutters, but he tries to loosen his posture. Steve is smiling at him over his wine glass. “What?”

“You got stars in your eyes,” Steve says. “Guess I know how to treat a guy right.”

Bucky feels like he's swallowing a whole truckload of gravel. “Sure do.”

Steve sets his glass down and stares into it as though it's a crystal ball. “Actually, I haven't been—totally truthful. It's an apology, partially.”

“Fuckin'—for what?”

“For telling you what I did with that girl last night.” Steve still doesn't look at him, but the corner of his mouth twists. “I was sort of trying to make you jealous. See if you reacted. Felt extra bad when it worked.”

“What did you do with her?” Bucky asks, and Steve looks up, startled. “Cause, see, Clint caught you guys in the act and wouldn't say.”

Steve carefully puts his hands over his face. “Clint saw me—oh my god. I'm gonna die.”

“Steve.”

“Yeah—yeah, okay. So I was gonna drag her off the floor on a pretence, tell her I had an emergency and ask her for tampons or something—”

Bucky makes a strangled noise.

“Natasha told me to!” Steve protests. “Girls talk about that stuff!”

“No, no, I know, I'm just trying to imagine you talking about it without bursting into flames.”

“I could've,” Steve says, offended. “I'll say 'vagina' right here in this nice restaurant, if you really want me to.”

Bucky clears his throat. “Thank you, carry on.”

“You're welcome. So, I got her off the floor, and honest to god I had this whole plan, but then she pulls me into the wings and—” Steve laughs shortly. “She must've had different ideas about why I was getting her back there, because—” He laughs again, and Bucky doesn't know why but he's laughing too: “—then she just slaps a dental dam right into my hand, and I thought, well, I appreciate a lady who knows what she wants—” And they both succumb, trying not to make a scene in the darkest corner of a posh restaurant.

When Bucky can breathe again, he says, “That's what Clint was oh-my-god-ing about? You, just—”

Steve fans himself with his napkin. “Getting down on my knees in the middle of a charity ball? Yeah, probably.”

Even though the music is loud and there's no one close enough to hear, Bucky lowers his voice. “And you've—you've done that before?”

“Lived on a train with twenty-some USO dames.” Steve shrugs. “It was educational. Figured out I wasn't that keen on going all the way with girls, but I like them, and I like—doing that. S'nice, making people feel good. Makes me wish I'd figured myself out sooner. I might've been happier.”

“I wish I'd been less of a coward,” Bucky says fiercely. “I wish—”

But Steve is shaking his head. “I wouldn't have been good for you, not then. I knew I wasn't long for this world, and if I saw thirty, I'd be lucky, so I—didn't care much. Hardly ever went with the same guy twice. Wasn't ever careful, unless the other guy wanted to be.” He makes a face, something between a grimace and a smile. “I don't know if you noticed, Buck, but I kinda had a death wish.”

“The ninety-ninth attempt to join the army mighta been a hint,” Bucky says, trying not to sound too gentle. It comes out soft anyway, and Steve reaches across the little table to pinch him. If Steve's going to call him out on being a sap, he may as well go for broke: “So you wouldn't've been good for me then. What about now?”

Steve rubs at the little red mark on Bucky's wrist and grins. “Probably worse.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. You'll never win an argument, and I'm hopeless before noon—hopeless in a kitchen, period—hate hanging up my clothes, and I squeeze the toothpaste from the middle, Buck, you don't know what you're getting into.”

“Only been dealing with your shit since Prohibition, I think I can handle it.”

Steve doesn't quite laugh, just keeps rubbing Bucky's wrist. “You—this isn't new. For you.”

Bucky shakes his head slowly. “Nah, it's—frankly embarrassing, Rogers, is what it is. Since ever. Always.”

“I knew in DC,” Steve says. “I realized I'd do anything, absolutely anything to save you, and if I had to mourn you again, I'd probably—do something I couldn't take back.” His smile tilts, wry. “I'm sorry I took so long.”

Bucky snorts. “What, because I had it bad for you before your voice even broke? Ain't a race, Stevie. I'm just...damn glad we ended up coming to the same place at the same time, after everything.”

“Even though we're idiots,” Steve says.

“Even though we're idiots,” Bucky agrees. Steve smiles like all the lightbulbs in the world, and Bucky's about to say something unforgivably sappy when he's saved by a whole troupe of waiters, bringing enough plates for five.

 

 

“How are you not in a food coma?” Steve asks, as Bucky bounces through the doors of the Tower after him.

“How many calories did you need when you were serumed-up, again?” Bucky teases, and Steve rolls his eyes. It used to make Steve uncomfortable, how much he had to eat just to maintain balance. Tony told Bucky, one time, how Steve set up a bunch of food-based charities after the Battle of New York. Bucky adds, for honesty's sake, “I think I'm still gaining back weight from the Doom mission. I must've lost about fifteen pounds, not getting enough food.”

In the elevator, Steve leans against the wall and says, “I sure don't miss that.”

“Not a whole lot you miss, I bet.”

“Nope,” Steve says, kicking off his heels and wiggling his stockinged toes. “I especially don't miss being taller than you.”

Bucky takes the hint and crowds right up against him, his hands bracketing Steve's on the rail, his thumbs just barely touching Steve's wrists, looking way down.

“Well, doll,” Bucky says, “Am I still in the doghouse, or are you gonna tell me your room number?”

Steve grins wolfishly. “Who says I only got a room? I'm the whole floor, handsome.”

The elevator doors open and Bucky steps back, gesturing grandly towards the opening. Steve snatches up his shoes and glides through, flicking a lazy, satisfied glance up and down as he passes. Bucky pauses with his lips parted, frozen. It's the moment he knows how the night is going to end, because it's right there in the curve of Steve's mouth, the warmth in his eyes, the victorious set of his shoulders. Bucky's saved from deciding whether or not to do a happy dance right there in the elevator by the ping as the doors begin to close. He dives out after Steve and reaches him just as he turns the key.

Before Bucky can so much as try another line, Steve hauls him through the door, shuts it with his hip, and slams Bucky up against the wall. It shocks him silent; Bucky's got a good sixty pounds on Steve, who the hell taught him how to throw his weight around like that?

He hears the keys go skittering off down the hall. He tries to lean down and steal a kiss, but Steve smacks a hand over Bucky's lips.

“That smart mouth of yours,” Steve says. “Doll, seriously? You're gonna be working that one off for a week.”

“Got a better use for it,” Bucky says into Steve's palm, blurred.

Steve's hand falls on his shoulder, and Bucky has never gone so gratefully to his knees.

 

 

Steve's changed in a lot of ways, but one thing that hasn't changed a bit since they were dirty Brooklyn brats sharing each other's cots is that Steve is a goddamned octopus. It makes sense—if you're tiny and sick, your body's going to gravitate to the nearest source of body heat and cling, which in Steve's case was always Bucky. It's funny unless you wake up having to piss like a racehorse, at which point untangling yourself is moderately excruciating. Bucky's got years of practice under his belt, thank Christ, so he even manages it without making Steve stir, even if it's anything but dignified.

Bucky checks his phone—no emergencies, just an Avengers meeting at 11:00—and runs a bath. Coffee's only going to disperse the warm, quiet feeling still glowing through his limbs, and since he's going to have to leave the suite at some point today, he wants to keep it for as long as he can.

When he gets back to Steve's room, the only occupant is taking up most of the bed, blankets shoved down to his hips, for all appearances dead to the world. As Bucky watches, Steve's arms reach toward the headboard, ribcage tilting up, the arch of his long crooked spine the most beautiful thing in the whole damn universe. He stills like that, splayed out, stretched like a cat in a sunbeam.

Bucky leans in the doorway and smirks. “Subtle.”

Steve doesn't move or open his eyes, but a smile flickers around the corners of his mouth. “Is it working?”

“Dunno, depends what you want me to do with it.”

“I want you back in this bed, Barnes,” Steve says, and Bucky's nothing if not obliging. He ditches the towel and crawls over Steve, pressing his mouth to Steve's throat. When Steve hums, Bucky can feel the vibration against his lips. He leans back. There's bruises in the shape of Bucky's thumbs on Steve's shoulders, a necklace of marks over his collarbones, probably scratches all down his back.

“Damn,” Bucky says appreciatively. “You had me outta my mind, I don't remember making half of these.”

“Were you always that loud?” Steve asks. “It's a wonder you never got arrested, the noise you make.”

“Nobody around to hear me, figured I'd make the most of it.”

“Buck, I think Tony heard you. I think people on the roof heard you.”

“Take it as a compliment,” Bucky growls, and Steve looks insufferably smug. “Speaking of which, you wanna do me again?”

“Jesus,” Steve sighs. “You working off some kinda deficit? Sure, if you do all the work. Not all of us are supersoldiers anymore, you know.”

“Fine by me. Where'd the slick end up?”

“Dunno. On the floor, probably.”

Bucky grumbles until he finds it, hidden under a discarded blanket at the foot of the bed. He whips it at Steve, who spreads his hands and lets the bottle hit him in the chest. Bucky raises his eyebrows as he swings a leg over Steve's waist.

“Your rodeo,” Steve reminds him, even as he's stroking two fingers down Bucky's crack to rest against his hole. “State you fell asleep in, doubt you're even gonna need—”

“Took a bath while you were snoring, I'll need it. You helping out, or just inspecting the merchandise?”

Steve tucks both hands behind his head and grins.

“Punk,” Bucky mutters, slicking his fingers.

“If you thought I'd be an easy lay, I don't know what to tell you, Sergeant.”

“Technically,” Bucky says, changing the angle of his wrist and stifling a groan, “With automatic promotions, I'm actually a Sergeant Major.”

Steve digs his thumb into a bruise on the point of Bucky's hip. Bucky curses. “If we're playing that game, I still outrank you.”

“You want I should salute?”

“I want you to sit your ass down. You ready yet?”

Bucky pulls his fingers out of himself and reaches back to smack Steve's thigh. “Don't you sass me, you lazy son of a bitch,” he gripes, but he's already groping blindly for Steve's cock, angling his hips to catch it right. His first push turns into one hot slide, no resistance until his ass hits Steve's bony hips. Bucky's mouth falls open—god, god, it's perfect—and Steve makes a startled groan under him.

“Wasn't that easy last night, damn,” Steve grits out, fingers digging in at the top of Bucky's thighs.

“Told you, took a bath. Hot water's—muscle relaxant.”

“Thank you, Dr. Barnes.”

Bucky swats at him and tries to slide up, but fuck—it's too much, and the quick reflexive spasm of his body makes him shudder all over. He sinks carefully back down and makes little rotations of his hips, barely moving, nudging Steve just where he wants him, bracing his hands on Steve's pillow. It's a slow stoking-up, not the rapid spiralling high he's used to, but more like waves, sunlight moving across a floor, light coming up in him. Something this quiet shouldn't be this overwhelming. He pants without making a sound.

“Christ,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky opens his eyes to see Steve gazing up at him, half-drunk, a blatantly awed expression on his face. Twenty-some-odd years, and Bucky's never seen Steve look like that, never seen him look at anything like that, and he thinks, it's you, it's you, that's you he's looking at like you're a goddamned miracle, and his cock jerks against his stomach. Between that and the syrupy warmth spreading beat by beat through his belly, there's a split second where Bucky is genuinely concerned he's going to break down and weep.

And then Steve plants his feet and snaps his hips up.

Bucky whines tightly and falls to arms and elbows, his forehead hitting the pillow next to Steve's head. Steve's arms come around his ribs, holding him down tight, their chests flush together, Steve's skinny arms like a vice. Bucky lets himself go limp, lets Steve crush him. He can hardly breathe. Steve grips him and jackrabbits up until all Bucky can do is moan brokenly into Steve's ear, the tense muscles on either side of his spine gone to spaghetti.

Bucky's orgasm hits him like a cattle prod to the stomach, and the world goes fuzzy. He hears himself yell, feels his back arch out of Steve's grasp, knows he's coming, but he's not in it. He's floating.

When he comes back to earth, his wet face is mashed into Steve's neck, where he can feel Steve's hammering pulse against his cheek. Bucky waits until his heart stops trying to bongo its way out of his own ribcage, and then he punches Steve in the arm, hard.

“Ow! The hell—”

I'm tired, Buck,” Bucky falsettos, wiping his eyes on the pillow, “It's your rodeo, Buck, god, you're the worst piece of—” even as Steve kisses his jaw, his neck, sloppy and open-mouthed, “—shit, seriously, are we even for the doll thing? I think we're even, Christ, I cannot fucking believe you—” and Steve is laughing, laughing, laughing.

 

 

“So,” Tony says, when they've all gathered in the meeting room, “While you clowns were playing murder on the dance floor, I was uploading a worm and a set of heuristic algorithms to—you know what, never mind, short version is, I hacked their comm line and traced it back to Schele's hotel, where I set the Secret Service on him this morning. Richard Atherton, alias General Schele, has just been arrested for impersonating a military officer, multiple counts of grand larceny, and conspiracy to commit treason. Also, he was HYDRA. Show of hands, anyone surprised? No, I didn't think so.”

“Excellent work,” Natasha says, and Tony preens. “Additional commendations to Barton for figuring out the op in the nick of time, and—Steve? The undercover question is no longer a question. Consider that your audition.”

Steve grins and accepts a high-five from Clint.

“If spy school didn't take you, I was going to build you a suit,” Tony says. “See, because then you could jump off of buildings again, nostalgia all round—”

Why do you encourage him,” Bucky growls, and Sam snorts into his coffee.

“Speaking of encouragement, a little birdie told me you two had a date last night.” Tony leans forward on the couch. “Details, kids, or I'm never loaning you Happy again.”

Bucky looks at Steve. Steve raises one evocative eyebrow.

“It was okay, but we figure we're better off as friends,” Bucky says, trying to draw a line between apologetic and disappointed. “Just because we both like guys doesn't automatically mean we're compatible, y'know? The opera was great, though, you gotta tell me what Pepper likes so we can send her some flowers.”

Tony looks like someone's just kicked a whole basket of puppies right in front of him, and Bucky's struggling not to break character when Clint suddenly yells, “You are so full of shit!”

Steve loses it, sliding down on the sofa he's laughing so hard. Bucky grins. Natasha tries to flail over Steve's lap and pull Bucky into a noogie, but she can't quite reach with her brace propped up. Everything is chaos. From across the room, Sam shouts, “I knew it, I told you, I told you!”

“You said we were married!” Bucky shouts back. “We're not married!”

“Actually, technically,” Steve says, barely holding the giggles in, “When we were six, you came over and I gave you that Jack Earle ring I found in the gutter, and you put it on your left hand and said 'I do!' but Ma took it off you and told you to wait for someone prettier than me—” and he's off again.

Bucky gapes at him while Tony and Clint howl. “I don't remember that! Where'd it end up?”

“Museum,” Steve manages. “I kept it, and they got everything we had in our apartment.”

“Everything? Jesus.”

“Yeah. Bet there's some real embarrassed archivist trying to figure out what to do with all those unfinished pin-ups I was working on for Mr. Rosenthal.”

“You are just full of surprises this week,” Tony says.

“I dunno why everyone thinks I'm the bad influence,” Bucky grumbles. “This punk was drawin' eight-pagers and slumming in mob bars while I was taking night classes and going to high-class establishments—”

“Benefits of havin' been Captain America,” Steve says smugly. “Paragon of truth, justice, and the American—whoa, hey!”

“I'll show you the American way.”

“It's freedom!” Steve crows, and shoves Bucky right off the couch.

“I take it back, you're both awful,” Tony says, as Bucky drags Steve to the floor and kisses him right there, heart soaring, in front of God and everyone.