Actions

Work Header

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Chapter Text

It’s movie night, and Steve loves movie night. Specifically, Steve loves movie night with Sam Wilson. He’s tried movie night with the Avengers, and for a band of superheroes, they can all be surprisingly immature when it comes to talking, popcorn, and horror films.

Sam, however, takes movie night seriously. Tonight, he’s ranting under his breath about how Steve deserved better than SHIELD’s bullshit method of cultural and societal education after Steve told him he hadn’t seen any of the new Batman films even though he's been awake a few years now. This time he’s telling the truth, but sometimes Steve lies about not having seen movies just to get Sam’s goat because Sam is a die-hard movie buff.

Sam is also a veteran and a full-time counselor at the local Veterans Affairs office, which is how the two of them met. At some point, Steve realized that a veteran was a veteran, even if one of them served in a war that occurred over 70 years ago, so he went one day and hasn’t regretted it since. Sam happened to be there facilitating group, and Sam is normal and opinionated and not as starry-eyed about Captain America as most people, and Steve likes having a mostly normal friend.

Sam eventually finds the movie he’s looking for and puts the DVD in before plopping down unceremoniously next to Steve on the couch. They’re in the middle of a very explosive—literally— action scene involving giant robots and monsters when Steve’s phone starts ringing. The only people who ever call him are involved with SHIELD, so he pulls it out of his pocket while Sam presses pause. It’s Tony, so there’s a pretty high probability that it’s not important, but Steve answers it anyway.

“Rogers.”

“Put Sam on the phone,” Tony says without preamble.

Steve sighs. “Tony, how do you even know I’m with—“

“There’s GPS on your phone, Steve. Get with the twenty-first century. Now, Wilson. Put him on the phone.”

“Why don’t you call his phone, then?” Steve snaps.

“Because it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.”

Steve closes his eyes and counts backwards from five before calmly saying, “I’m hanging up, Tony.”

“Don’t hang up! It’s actually important!”

“Really? Because your non-important phone calls and your important ones start in the same manner.” He grits his teeth. “You have ten seconds.”

“Remember that favor I did for you? Yeah, well, I have a patient of Sam’s here, and things were going well, but then he woke up after we hooked up a new arm, and he’s maybe possibly losing his shit and I need Sam to help.”

Steve’s eyes widen. “What?”

“Your ten seconds is up. I need you to put him on the goddamned phone, Steve. Now.”

Steve hands the phone to Sam without explanation, but Sam must have overheard at least some of it— his couch isn’t that big, and Tony is definitely that loud— because he’s definitely in work-mode when he says, “This is Wilson.”

Sam listens for a few seconds, his forehead creased with concern, before he stands and starts pacing the living room. “Don’t you have a psychologist on staff?” Sam closes his eyes as he listens to Tony, and as the seconds tick by, it looks more and more looks like he might punch the TV. “Banner isn’t that kind of doctor, man.”

Steve has to cover his mouth to stop himself from laughing, not because he finds the situation funny— quite the opposite— but because he’s heard Bruce say the exact same thing to Tony dozens of times.

Sam sighs. “Yeah, I understand. He had a rough time at the hospital after the accident, so I’m not really surprised this set him off. I can drive and be there in three hours if I break the speed limit. Can Avengers get rid of traffic violations?” Sam pauses, and then his eyes widen. “Wait, what? Of course I’m not afraid of flying. I was a paratrooper, for God’s sake. Jesus. Okay, okay. I’ll be ready.”

“Well?” Steve asks once Sam hangs up and offers him back his phone.

“Iron Man is sending a jet,” he says, then pinches himself. “That hurt. This must be real life. How is this real life?”

Steve laughs. “Well, that’s Tony for you.” He sobers up a bit and stands, placing a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Is everything okay?”

Sam smiles and nods. “Yeah, it’ll be fine. At least, I think it will be. James is a tough cookie, but these kinds of things are hard for him. I think it will be good, though. He’s not one of those vets who’s coped well with losing a limb, and this is the best shot he’s got, so it has to.”

“Do you need me to head out while you get some stuff packed?”

Sam’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh, no. You’re coming with me.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

“Two reasons,” Sam says and holds up one finger. “First, I educate you culturally and feed you home cooked food on the regular, so the least you can do is act as a buffer when I get thrown into your crazy world of famous people. Second—“ He holds up another finger. “—Tony Stark just said to drag you along so you can try on your new uniform since you keep tearing the crotch.”

Steve can feel the blush spread across his cheeks.

“Don’t shoot the messenger, man,” Sam says and then heads towards his bedroom. “You keep a spare set of clothes at Stark Tower, or do we need to stop at your place before our chariot arrives?”

“I’m sure I have clothes there,” Steve sighs and falls back onto the couch. It creaks ominously beneath his weight.

It’s silent for several seconds before Sam calls, “So, the crotch of the costume, huh? Super solider serum for the damned win, am I right?”

Steve closes his eyes and counts backwards from ten like Sam taught him.

***

“This thing is nicer than my house,” Sam states as they settle on the jet. “Like, this couch here, it’s more comfortable than my bed. My bed, Steve. And I paid a lot of money for that memory foam shit after I could sleep on a normal bed again.”

Steve shrugs, the corner of his lips twitching up. “Wait until you see the tower.”

“I might puke,” Sam says seriously. “I’m from Harlem. I can’t handle this.”

“I’m from 1940’s Brooklyn,” Steve deadpans.

Sam purses his lips, then shrugs. “All right, you win that one.”

***

They arrive in New York within the hour and land on Stark Tower's helipad. Tony meets them on the roof, smiling brightly, and Steve is pretty sure it’s probably been at least twenty-four hours since Tony slept last.

“Steve, welcome back. Your apartment is still ready and waiting for you to grace us with your presence. I even bought the star-spangled bedspread you wanted.”

Steve sighs. He did not ask for a star-spangled bedspread, and he’s pretty sure Tony isn’t joking and it’s actually covering his bed.

Sam just stares at Tony, then at Steve. “You have an apartment in Stark Tower?” he finally asks.

“Everyone does,” Tony scoffs like he’s offended, then holds out his hand. “Tony Stark, not that I need an introduction, but nice to meet you in person, Bird Man. We already have one— you know, a Bird Man— so you may have to fight him for power. To the death would be preferable. In the mean time, though, please help Barnes breathe into a paper bag or whatever it is you do so we can get the diagnostics running. I need to make sure the neural signal is working.”

Tony turns on his heel and heads inside without waiting for a response, leaving both Steve and Sam staring after him.

“Does he even breathe between sentences?” Sam asks under his breath.

Steve laughs, and they begin follow. He glances at Sam after a few steps and raises a brow. “Why did he call you Bird Man?”

“We’re not gonna talk about it,” Sam harrumphs.

“His nickname was Falcon,” Tony calls over his shoulder.

Sam narrows his eyes and glares daggers into Tony’s back. “I don’t like him.”

“Join the club, pal.” Tony grins as they approach the elevator, winks at Sam, and then says, “JARVIS, take us to the medical suite.”

“Of course, Sir.” A pause, and then, “Welcome back, Captain Rogers.”

“Thanks, JARVIS.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Staff Sergeant Wilson.”

Sam’s eyes widen. “What is this place?”

“That’s JARVIS,” Tony says. “He’s the AI that manages the building.”

“And your life, Sir.”

Tony nods. “Yes, and my life. Thanks for the reminder.”

Sam shakes his head the entire ride down.

***

Tony takes them to the medical floor immediately. Steve’s hospital experiences don’t invoke particularly good memories. He was a frequent flyer as a kid and even through his young adult years. Asthma, pneumonia, broken bones from fights picked in alleys by drunk men tugging at the skirts of a scared dame. Steve’s got a lot to be thankful for when it comes to the serum, but his increased healing factor is definitely up there on the list. He’s impressed with Tony’s set up, though, because despite the usual decor of modern hospitals— white walls and bright lights— Tony’s still managed to make it look inviting. There’s a lot of artwork that he’d bet his shield Pepper chose, and many of the walls are made of glass, which help make the space seem less claustrophobic.

“He’s this way,” Tony says, skirting through the fray. Around them, nurses in scrubs and doctors in white coats bustle around.

“Why isn’t this being performed at an actual hospital?” Sam asks as they turn down a hallway.

“Because I can’t trust a lot of my tech to leave the confines of the building,” Tony replies with a shrug. “These people are on my payroll anyway— Stark Industries has branched out into medicine and medical equipment in the recent years. So, it made sense to keep things where the security is. Also where I am.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Oh, right. Moving an entire medical research facility into a tower in the middle of New York is way easier than moving you.”

Tony shoots him an easy grin as they round another corner. Soon, they find themselves in a hallway of rooms. There are Starkpads mounted on the wall outside of every door, and they stop in front of 46A. Tony taps on the glass screen, which prompts for a fingerprint scan. He presses his hand to it and after a few seconds, the door clicks open.

“This is a lot of security for hospital rooms,” Sam says, and Steve can hear the unease in his voice.

“It’s just a precaution,” Tony replies and pushes open the door.

The room itself is nothing like the hospital rooms Steve remembers staying in when he got pneumonia as a kid. Granted, hospitals these days are much nicer in general, but this is more like a hotel room with wood paneling, New York photography on the walls, and a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall. There’s a couch, a small dresser, a few tables and a chair and a vanity. The walls aren’t painted white, but a sunnier off-white.

A man sits on the hospital bed near the window, his blue gown rucked up around his muscled thighs. His right arm is crossed over his chest, and he’s grasping at a— Steve almost balks. He knew what the bionic prosthesis trail entailed— Tony had given him a lot of reading to pass on to Sam before Sam sent over his recommendation— but he wasn’t really expecting this. The man’s left arm is an arm, but it isn’t. It’s made of metal plates, and they shine in the dim light of the room. Steve has seen his share of prosthetics that would be considered advanced, but they have nothing on this one. It’s shaped to match the muscle contour of the other arm, and the fingers are jointed and detailed and probably not just for show. It’s a piece of art, really, and Steve hasn’t felt so inclined to draw anything since he sketched Peggy, grey and wrinkled and still beautiful, in her hospice bed.

Even with their entrance and the unmistakeable click of the door closing, the man keeps his head bowed, dark, long hair covering his face, and there is something heartbreaking about the image that twists Steve’s gut into knots. He stands with his back pressed against the door, suddenly feeling like he’s intruding.

Sam takes a moment to look around the room, his eyebrows high on his forehead, and then his eyes land on the prosthetic. His nostrils flare and he swallows, but then the concern is smoothed away, leaving Sam looking calm and collected, and he walks forward slowly. “James,” he says, a gentle cadence to his tone. “Hey, man. Hanging in there?”

James looks up, startled, and he’s pale. Dark circles stand out like bruises beneath his wide, stormy blue eyes. There’s something haunted in his expression, a bone-tired weariness that Steve remembers well in the soldiers he served with. He sees it reflected back in his own eyes some nights when he wakes from nightmares and goes to the bathroom to splash water on his face.

James stares at Sam for several long seconds, then breathes, “Thank god,” his voice gruff. He almost smiles, but his lips don’t quite curve up enough, and it definitely doesn’t reach his eyes. “I don’t know who you’re making friends with, but his idiot has the worst bedside manner, Wilson.”

Sam laughs quietly, some of the tension leaving his stiff posture. “Oh, yeah?”

Tony just pouts. “I do not.”

James rolls his eyes and shifts a bit on the bed. “He’s been asking me if I needed a hand since I got here. Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Sam shakes his head and places a hand on James’ shoulder— his right shoulder— and squeezes gently. “He isn’t really my friend,” he says in a tone he’d use delivering horrible news to someone. “It’s like that whole Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. I don’t have a choice.”

James huffs out a laugh, cheeks dimpling.

Tony turns towards Steve and raises a brow. “Hey, Capsicle, do you know who Kevin Bacon is?”

Steve sighs. This joke— this overdone joke— is Tony’s favorite. “Yes, Tony. I know who Kevin Bacon is.” He pauses and then adds, “Sam made me watch Footloose.”

Tony blinks a few times, and then he throws his head back and laughs. “Aw, you two have a girls’ night. How cute. Want to share a floor while you’re here? I can have Pepper send up some nail polish, too, if you want”

Steve doesn’t get a chance to reply because James states, quite eloquently, “Holy shit.”

Steve redirects his attention and finds James staring past Sam and right at him, mouth slightly open and eyes wide. Steve’s gotten used to these looks— he can’t go anywhere without being recognized these days, especially not after his face was plastered all over the news right after he woke up, with the aliens and all— but it still makes him a little bit uncomfortable. He smiles sheepishly anyway.

“That’s Captain America,” James states dumbly.

“And I am Iron Man,” Tony says, gesturing to himself and talking very slowly. “You did know that, right? Or maybe you didn’t. Is that why you didn’t get all goggley-eyed when you met me? You didn’t realize I was Iron Man? I am. I am Iron Man.”

Steve ignores him and offers James a nod. “It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet you. I’m sorry that I barged in. That was rude of me.”

“No, it’s—“ James heaves in a breath and releases it a few seconds later, then combs his right hand through his hair. Steve doesn’t miss the way he winces when his body stretches, the way he tries to keep his left arm completely still. “It’s actually pretty awesome, but I kind of wish I was wearing pants.”

Sam laughs. “Pants are overrated, man.”

“Speaking of pants,” Tony says cheerfully, “Steve’s been having some crotch problems with his Star Spangled Suit that I want to address so he doesn’t expose his patriotic package to the American people, so we’ll leave you guys to it for now.”

“Tony,” Steve hisses. He can feel a blush inching up his neck.

Sam chuckles and James grins, and this time it reaches his eyes, and Steve feels some of the annoyance fizzle out. He has a nice smile, and it softens the hard lines of his face. Steve finds himself smiling back.

Tony adds, surprisingly gently, “Barnes, we’ll try the stim test tomorrow, but remember, we have time. There’s no rush. I just want to make sure there’s no damage after the hook up, and if there is, I want it fixed so you have complete use of the arm. Got it?”

James swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing, and nods. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“I’ll catch up with you later, Steve,” Sam says.

“Will do.” He offers a little wave to James. “Nice to meet you, James.”

He and Tony leave the room, and neither of them say anything until they’re back in the elevator, and not surprisingly, it’s Tony who fills the silence.

“He’s a good kid,” he says, which is surprising. “I think he’ll do well when it’s all said and done. Wilson’s got a good eye for this kind of thing.”

Steve nods, his chest constricting. He and Tony don’t see eye to eye most of the time, but he's glad this is one of the things they agree on. “I’m glad you’re doing this.”

Tony ignores Steve and claps his hands together. “Now, to the pants!”

***

Steve doesn’t sleep much— doesn’t need to, not with the serum— so he’s up early, even before the sun, and heads to the gym. He finds that more than exercising for exercise’s sake, he needs a way blow off steam. There are still nightmares that crowd his head when he sleeps, still regrets that burn, still the sharp tug of nostalgia for men who are long gone. No one seems to understand, not really, and he doesn’t expect them to. To them, it’s been seventy years, but it’s only been years for him. Just a few short years and some rift in between them that has torn Steve out of time.

He runs, then he lifts, hits the punching bag a few times, and runs a bit more before he returns to his apartment on the eighty-ninth floor for a shower. The sun is up, and he feels better. He always feels better during the day.

He spends most of the morning in the common area on the floor below his, and he’s sitting in an armchair by the window with a cup of Tony’s fancy coffee and a Starkpad, skimming through the morning’s news, when Sam walks into the room. He looks tired, like he probably didn’t sleep much, but he offers Steve a smile as he leans against the wall and stares down at the bustling traffic.

“I’m not sure I’ve really processed all of this yet.”

Steve laughs. “There’s a reason I chose to live on my own and not here. Believe me, Tony’s offered. A lot.”

Sam hums his agreement, then pushes away from the window with a, “I need coffee.”

He disappears into the adjacent room that houses a kitchenette and returns with a steaming mug, then sits down in the chair across from Steve.

“How’s he doing?” Steve asks, powering off the Starkpad.

Sam leans back and sighs. “He’s all right. I think he was kind of dysphoric when he woke up from the sedatives. He never did well with the drugs, you know? Weaned off of them as quickly as he could, maybe too quickly.” He pauses and then says, “I don’t know if I ever thanked you, Steve. You know, for calling in that favor to Stark. It may be hell now, but I know James will benefit from it, and it’s thanks to you.”

Of course Sam thanked him. A dozen times, maybe more, even, but Steve just smiles and nods because he knows what Sam’s trying to say. “It was my pleasure. Plus, Tony needs to be good for something other than telling everyone that I have a tendency for splitting my pants.”

Sam huffs a laugh. “What is up with that, though?”

“Have you ever tried wearing a skintight outfit?”

“Can’t say I have, Steve,” Sam says solemnly. “Can’t say that I have.”

“Well, get back to me when you do.”

“I’ll make you one. A skintight costume, I mean. I’ll even make you some wings.”

They both turn towards the doorway to find Tony leaning against it, arms crossed over his chest. His hair is combed and he’s in a clean t-shirt and pair of jeans, but Steve doesn’t let that fool him into thinking Tony slept like a normal person. He figures he wouldn’t be Tony Stark if he did, though.

“You know that shit is classified, man.” Sam narrows his eyes. “How did you get this info?”

Tony holds up his hands. “I plead the fifth.”

Steve raises a brow. “Do I even want to know?”

“No, Captain Boy Scout, probably not.”

“You can really make me a set of wings, though?” Sam asks.

Tony smirks. “They’ll be even better than the old pair.”

A weight Steve didn’t realize he was carrying lightens and he exhales slowly through his nose. He liked how separate Sam was from the rest of his superhero life, or Steve thought he did, but seeing Sam banter with Tony like they’ve known each other forever relieves him in a way he doesn’t really understand.

“Anyway,” Tony continues, “that’s not why I’m here. You want to tag along for Barnes’ stim test? He says he feels up for it, but might be good to have you around. It’s not the most pleasant feeling, having someone zap your nerves.”

Sam stands immediately, gulping down the rest of his coffee even though it’s still steaming. “Yeah, definitely.”

Tony glances at Steve and nods towards the hallway. “You’re welcome to tag along, Cap.”

“Thanks, but I think James already has enough going on without me hovering.”

Sam gives him a thankful look and winks before he and Tony disappear.

***

He eats an early dinner with Sam, Tony, and Pepper. Pepper drags Tony away before the sun’s even made it’s way below the horizon because Steve was right: apparently Tony has been so worked up over the bionics project that he hasn’t slept since James arrived four days ago. Tony promises that he will find some kind of alcoholic concoction that has an effect on Steve despite his super solider metabolism before the week is out, and Steve doesn’t doubt him.

He and Sam retire to Sam’s apartment, which is is set up similarly to Steve’s: along with a large bedroom and a bathroom equipped with a jacuzzi tub, there’s a living room with a plush sofa and a large TV as well as a small kitchen that’s fully stocked with snacks and drinks. Sam opens a beer and microwaves some popcorn, and then they settle down to search through Tony’s cloud-accessible collection of films.

“What are you in the mood for?” Sam asked, scrolling through. “Hot damn, he’s got more movies on here than Netflix.”

“Maybe a comedy?”

“Blazing Saddles is comedy gold, but I feel like we need to introduce you to some Westerns before we watch it.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Steve laughs.

“I heard good things about John Wick.”

“I trust you.”

“Damn right you do.”

They’ve barely gotten through a few minutes of the movie when it pauses on it’s own and JARVIS’ voice fills the living room. “I’m sorry to bother you, Staff Sergeant Wilson, Captain Rogers, but Sergeant Barnes is having difficulty sleeping.”

“Shit,” Sam mutters under his breath and begins to stand.

“I wondered if you would like me to extend an invitation to your movie night to the Sergeant,” JARVIS continues. “With your approval, I will open all necessary doors to allow him to your living quarters.”

Sam blinks up at the ceiling. “Are you… are you meddling?”

“I do not meddle, Staff Sergeant Wilson.” Somehow, the AI manages to sound affronted. “I merely make recommendations. It is up to you if you would like to follow them.”

“That sounds like something Tony would say,” Sam grumbles and then looks at Steve. “What do you think?”

“I think the more the merrier,” Steve says with a nod and a gentle smile.

Sam just stares at him for several long seconds, something tender in the softness of his expression, before he look up at the ceiling and says, “All right, send him on up.”

They decide together to forgo John Wick and a dead puppy in the first ten minutes and the probability of bloody gun fights for something else that might be less stressful for a room full of veterans. Ten minutes later, there’s a knock on the door. Sam opens it.

James looks exhausted, even more so than when Steve saw him yesterday. He wears a long-sleeved shirt with the Stark Industries logo on it and a pair of loose sweatpants. He smiles nervously, running his flesh and blood fingers through his loose hair, the metal hand covered almost completely by his sleeve even though the right sleeve is rolled up.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he beginss, but Sam waves it off.

“We haven’t even started the movie yet, man,” Sam says and plops back down on the couch. “Come on, sit down.”

“Whatcha planning to watch?” James asks and settles on the couch between the two of them. His body seems to relax slightly when he settles in, and Steve offers him some popcorn by holding the bowl in front of him and waggling it. The corner of James’ lip quirks up before he reaches in for a handful.

“Well, we can’t decide between the The Princess Bride and the first Harry Potter film.”

James nearly chokes on his popcorn. “What kind of decisions are those?”

Steve groans and leans his head back, muttering, “here we go” as Sam says, “You forget that you’re sitting next to a fossil. They introduced him to the twenty-first century with Disney films, James. Disney films!”

“I mean…” James shrugs. “I guess it depends on the Disney film. I’d watch the shit out of some Lion King.”

Sam’s nostrils flare. “You’re a grown man, James. And he’s even older than you. I’m doomed.”

“Well, I like him,” Steve says seriously. “He gets to pick the film. Captain’s orders.”

James grins wolfishly—Steve is surprised at how his pulse speeds up from the look— and takes the remote from Sam with his left hand, seemingly indifferent to the bionic arm now that he’s invested in something else. He flips through the selection for a few minutes before he lands on John Wick.

“You guys seen this yet? I heard good things.”

Steve and Sam look at each other over James’ head and try not to laugh.

“Let’s do this thing,” Sam says. “Hope you don’t like puppies too much.”

***

Steve starts awake to a blue TV screen and heavy breathing.

He blinks a few times, confused as to where he is, and after a few moments of brief panic he remembers that he’s in Stark Tower, and the last thing he was doing was starting the first Harry Potter film after finishing Joh Wick. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the coolly illuminated but still dark room, and then he looks for the source of the panting. Sam isn’t there, but James is. He sits on the floor, his arched back pressed hard against the arm of the couch, eyes squeezed shut, and entire body twitching. He’s got his knees bent up towards his chest and his fingers grip the fabric of his pants so tightly Steve’s pretty sure the metal hand is definitely going to result in a bruised knee. Sweat glistens on his forehead, and even in the blue-tinged glow of the television, Steve can tell James is pale.

Steve doesn’t make any sudden movements, just slowly settles a hand on James’ shoulder. He waits several long seconds, keeping his breathing steady, to make sure James won’t panic and fight back. He isn’t sure if this is a panic attack, or a nightmare. He doesn’t know all the details about how James’ lost his arm. None of it matters, though. All Steve focuses on is James’ face.

“James,” he murmurs, careful to keep the cadence of his voice as steady and light as possible. “James.”

James’ body stills, but Steve isn’t able to breathe a sigh of relief before James launches himself off of the floor on unsteady legs. He looks around the room like a wild animal, pupils blown. His eyes are so wide all Steve can see is white and black. Steve doesn’t move, just watches James’ ashen face as his chest heaves and he tries to come to terms with where he is.

“James,” Steve tries again after a few moments, slowly sitting forward. He keeps his hands draped over his knees, trying to be as nonthreatening as possible. “Your name is James Barnes. You’re at Stark Tower in New York. My name is Steve Rogers, and I’m a friend of Sam’s.”

James just stares at him, strands of wavy brown hair plastered to his temples with sweat.

“You’re all right,” Steve tries. “You’re in New York, and you’re all right.”

He doesn’t expect that to work. He means it, but he knows how empty the sentiment feels when the entire world seems like it doesn’t make sense. It does something to James, though, as he sinks to his knees and bows his head. Steve is reminded of when he saw James for the first time earlier this evening, defeated and tired— so tired— and his heart breaks for the younger soldier.

“Bucky,” James croaks out, his messy hair a curtain over his face.

“What was that?” Steve asks gently, scooting forward on the couch until he’s just barely got an edge to sit on.

James slowly raises his head. His lips still tremble, and his Adam’s apple bobs sharply before he says, “You can call me Bucky. Sam won’t because he’s an ass, but my friends usually call me Bucky.”

***

James— Bucky— drags himself to Sam’s bathroom after another ten minutes of deep breathing. Steve talks him through it and tries to focus the other man’s jumpy attention span on his own steady breathing. Bucky keeps the arm close and won’t make eye contact, and Steve doesn’t blame him. He remembers waking up and thinking he was drowning in ice-cold water after they first found him, so startled and confused that SHIELD agents forced open his door to make sure he wasn’t being murdered in his sleep.

When the bathroom door shuts and Steve’s alone, he scrubs a hand over his face and then drapes his arms over his knees and does a little breathing of his own before he looks up at the ceiling.

“What time is it, JARVIS?” he asks on the end of a yawn.

“It is nearly four o’clock in the morning, Captain Rogers,” the AI replies.

“What floor is James sleeping on?”

“He has a suite on the medical floor, Sir. Should I prepare for him to retire there?”

Steve shakes his head, and it takes him a moment to realize he’s to talking to a person who can see him, but a computer. “No, that’s fine. I’ll let him take my bed. I don’t know if he’s going to want to go back to medical right now.” Steve sighs and leans back. “How’s he doing in there?”

“Sergeant Barnes’ vitals have stabilized.”

“Good.”

It’s another ten, maybe fifteen minutes before the bathroom door finally opens again and Bucky shuffles back into the living room. His shoulders are hunched and he clenches his fists at his sides, the plates of the metal arm whirring in the silence of the room and the knuckles of his other hand bleaching white. Steve had JARVIS turn on a light, and Bucky’s pale skin and the dark circles beneath his eyes make him look like a walking ghost. When he makes eye contact with Steve, though, his cheeks flush a pink.

“I’m sorry,” he begins, but Steve waves it away.

“You don’t need to apologize to me. Really. I still have nightmares about parts of the war from seventy years ago, and I didn’t go through half of what you did.”

Bucky opens his mouth, closes it again, and then says, chin jutted out, “Well, I’m still sorry.”

Steve smiles. “Dully noted, Sergeant.”

They stand they awkwardly for a few moments, Bucky shifting his weight restlessly. He looks like he might vibrate out of his own skin at any second.

“I should get back to my room,” Bucky finally says shakily. “Thanks for letting me stick around and watch movies, and thanks for—” he motions at himself, “—this.”

“Anytime,” Steve says, and before he loses his nerve, he also says, “Come back to my suite. You can take my bed. It’ll be more comfortable than medical— I had Tony specifically model the mattress so it wasn’t too soft.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows, some of the exhaustion slipping away to confusion. “Uh, what?”

“I don’t sleep much,” Steve says and then gestures to himself in the same way Bucky did moments before. “Super solider serum and all. I doubt I’ll be able to go back to sleep even if I fall into bed.”

Bucky blinks stupidly, then says, “You’ve obviously never slept in a hospital bed. Just uncomfortable enough to make me feel like I’m back in the desert.”

Steve links his hands behind his back and forces a smile. “I didn’t think about it that way. You don’t have to, obviously.”

Before Steve can make another excuse, Bucky states, “Nah, I’ll come,” and manages a smirkish smile. “I mean, what kind of patriotic idiot would I be to decline a chance to sleep in Captain America’s bed?”

“The reasoning is wrong, but it’ll have to do.”

And so they turn off the television and the lights in Sam’s living room, and fifteen minutes later, Steve is sitting alone in his kitchen with a cup of tea and another body wrapped up in his bed. He opens the book he’s been working his way through— War and Peace— and settles in, trying to ignore the odd feeling of knowing someone else is sleeping in his bed.

***

It was bound to happen, of course. It’s not like Steve specifically told JARVIS not to say anything, so when Tony waltzes into his kitchen while Steve’s reading the paper, he’s not surprised.

He is agitated, however, because the expression on Tony’s face means the interaction is going to go exactly the way Steve dreaded it would go, and Steve is running on maybe two hours of sleep.

“Is my patient here?” Tony asks. “JARVIS tells me Barnes is here. Did you bang my patient, Steve?”

Or maybe not. Steve nearly spits out his coffee. “What? Did I what?”

“Did you not bang things in the forties?” Tony asks and places his grease-coated hands palm-down on the kitchen table. “He’s in your bed, Steve,” Tony declares, mock-scandalized. “I mean, I always wondered why you never seemed interested in the women Pepper flooded you with at the galas, since you and Peggy Carter had a thing back in the day, but this—“

“This is not what you think, Tony, so just stop while you’re ahead,” Steve says in what Tony calls his Captain America Voice. “He watched some movies with Sam and I last night when he couldn’t sleep, and he had some nightmares after he dozed off. I wasn’t going to send him back to medical or make him stay on Sam’s couch.”

“You could have asked JARVIS to open a guest room,” Tony states, and before Steve can tell him he doesn’t know the first thing about what Bucky may or may not have needed, he leans forward, head cocked to the side. “Seriously, though, men or women? Or both?”

Steve closes his eyes and grits his teeth. “Please just get out, Tony.”

“But my patient—“

“You can’t have patients if you’re not a doctor, Tony,” Steve reminds him, and when he opens his eyes he levels him a glare. “And you are definitely not a doctor.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “I have a doctorate or three. That doesn’t count?”

Steve’s about ready to drag Tony out of the suite by his shirt collar when he hears the click of a door opening. He manages to mutter, “God help me” before Bucky trudges into the kitchen, his sleep-curled hair tangled around his face and his clothes rumpled but otherwise still on. Steve doesn’t know why he would expect otherwise, except Murphy’s Law seems to run rampant in Tony Stark’s vicinity.

“Coffee?” Bucky asks blearily.

Tony stares at him, unblinking, and then states, “I’m so telling Sam.”

“Telling me what?” Sam asks from the kitchen doorway.

“Does anyone in this building knock?” Steve snaps and sets his paper down with a little more force than is necessary.

Sam blinks, obviously startled and confused, and it takes a few seconds for him to realize Bucky’s at the counter pouring himself a mug of coffee. “Wait.”

Steve just rests his forehead in his palms.

“James,” Sam says slowly.

“Huh?” James rubs at his eyes. “Hey, Sam. Morning.”

“Why are you in Steve’s kitchen?”

Tony throws his hands up in the air. “That’s what I’ve been asking!”

Bucky must finally realize what they’re both trying to get at, and to Steve’s horror, he actually blushes, fingers tightening around the handle of his mug. Steve has to force himself not to bang his forehead against the table, he’s so mortified.

Thankfully, Bucky gets himself under control a lot more quickly than Steve. He runs a hand through his hair sheepishly and jerks his shoulders up in an uncomfortable shrug. “I had a nightmare on your couch since you left me sleeping there like an ass. Rooms upon rooms and you left me on the couch.”

Tony just blinks stupidly, waiting for more, but Sam’s confused expression morphs into one of understanding. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t think about it.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky says and takes a tip of his coffee. “I mean, I could have had one anywhere. Captain Rogers offered to let me stay here, though, instead of going back to medical.”

Sam nods. “Good.”

Tony looks back and forth from Sam to Bucky a few times, then his gaze lands on Steve. “What is even happening?”

Bucky actually rolls his eyes. “Nightmares, pal. I have nightmares, remember?”

“That doesn’t explain—“

“Some of my nightmares involve the hospital,” Bucky supplies without preamble. There’s a hardness to his gaze now and a stiffness to his posture that wasn’t there before. “Captain Rogers was kind enough to invite me here so I wouldn’t be alone or in a hospital room. He didn’t have to.” He raises an eyebrow. “And he didn’t take advantage of my virtue, if that’s what you’ve been getting at.”

Tony shrugs and purses his lips, looking guilty as charged. “A guy can dream.”

“What?” they all echo in unison, and Steve knows his face is beat red right now.

Tony grins wolfishly, all teeth. “Steve is Mr. Virtuoso. I was kind of hoping for some soap opera drama surrounding him. I can only hold the pants thing over his head for so long.”

“You’re a horrible friend,” Sam states, but he’s trying not to smile.

“I’m really good at other things, though!” He points at Barnes, switching tracks at the speed of light. “Med floor, ten o’clock. Let’s scan that baby and see how things are working, maybe so some more pressure tests since the stim test went well.”

Bucky waves him off. “Sounds good.”

Tony leaves. Sam doesn’t sit down, and Steve doesn’t get up. Sam rubs at the back of his neck.

“This place,” he finally says, “is weird as hell.”

***

Bucky leaves around 9:30 to shower and change before his appointment in the lab. He thanks Steve again and says goodbye to Sam, and after he’s gone, the apartment is uncomfortably quiet. Steve makes another pot of coffee and pours Sam a cup before they both settle back down at the table. Sam doesn’t speak for a while, just watches Steve sip from his mug.

“I never told you what happened to James,” Sam finally says.

“I don’t mind that, Sam,” Steve begins, but Sam cuts him off.

“You know he has a purple heart?”

“I didn’t,” Steve murmurs, and he knows the rest of the story can’t be good.

Sam shakes his head, and there’s anger burning in his eyes. He doesn’t let the frustration and anger take him over often, but Steve’s seen it a handful of times over the few years of friendship. He feels deeply for the men and women he meets, goes out of his way to help them and expects nothing in return. He’s got his own scars, physical and figurative, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He charges along like a tank and can still smile and joke because Sam sees good in the world despite everything, and sometimes Steve thinks that someone like Sam is really the hero while Steve is playing house like he did all those years ago, strutting around stages in a silly outfit.

Steve’s jarred from his thoughts when Sam says, “A carrier in his unit was hit by an RPG, and James, the heroic idiot that he is, all but threw himself on one of the others to shield him. The shrapnel shredded his arm. They couldn’t have saved it if they tried.”

Steve doesn’t say anything, just holds his coffee mug tighter.

“Thanks,” Sam finally mutters, his jaw clenched. He won’t make eye contact. “Thanks for everything, Steve.”

“You’re welcome,” Steve responds just as quietly, and they sit there for a while, finishing their coffee in a tensely companionable silence.

***

The rest of his time at the Tower flies on by. Steve gets a few new suits, and somehow Tony manages to actually make a pair of wings for Sam in all the spare time he doesn’t really have. Steve doesn’t understand what the wings even refer to until he follows Sam down to Tony’s workshop and sees something similar to a jetpack situated on one of Tony’s worktables.

“I made a few changes,” Tony says. “The jets pack more of a punch. Don’t hit any windows. I don’t think the New York City Audubon has volunteers for your kind of bird collision.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Seriously, though, man. Did you hack into my records?”

“I didn’t, per say,” Tony says.

Above them, JARVIS states, “I plead the fifth.”

Sam actually laughs, and Steve puts his hands on his hips. “I feel left out of this joke.”

“I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” Sam says with a shrug. “I was a paratrooper, just not a normal one. I didn’t fly a plane, and I didn’t use a parachute. I was involved in a unit that was classified and then some. But yeah, I had a jet-pack of sorts that allowed for more covert movement in enemy airspace.”

“A jet pack,” Steve deadpans.

“Exhibit A,” Tony chirps, motioning at said jet pack on his worktable like Vanna White. “Give the old man a show.”

Sam grins, and Steve watches as Tony helps him shrug into the pack. It latches securely about four different ways, making sure Sam will stay in it, and fits snugly around his chest and abdomen.

“He’ll need specialized clothing for actual flying,” Tony’s saying, “you know, like a tight suit, but this is just to make sure it works.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Sam asks with a raised brow.

“We’ll settle outside of court.” Tony winks. “Up, up, and away!”

Sam grins and grabs at two levers on either sides of the pack. There’s an audible click, and then they extend—

Steve thinks he actually gasps.

They’re wings, plated, metal wings, and they gleam in the artificial light of Tony’s workshop. Sam shrugs his shoulders, moves his arms up and down. The metal feathers of the wings move of their own accord, similarly to the plates of Bucky’s arm, and Steve is mesmerized by the fluid movement. He forgets, sometimes, what people are capable of making now.

“I can’t believe how light this is,” Sam says, shaking his head in awe.

“Same metal as Barnes’ arm,” Tony says. “The boosters are more powerful, like I mentioned, so you need to be careful. Adjust your movements to account for the lightweight.”

Sam doesn’t speak, just presses a button on the levers. There’s the hum of jets firing up, and then he’s flying and grinning and whooping, the wings curving around him. Sam looks happy and carefree, and the latter is an expression Steve doesn’t see on him often enough even though Sam always tries to tackle life with a glass-half-full mentality.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Steve says to Tony, “but thank you for it.”

Tony shrugs, expression solemn as he watches Sam skirt close enough to the wall that sparks fly. “Sometimes, Cap, it’s nice to just be able to fly above it all. Being grounded isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” He turns to Steve and the expression is gone, replaced by his tell-tale smile. “Plus, he’d be good backup. You should see his record—“

“Classified, Tony,” Steve reminds him.

Tony grins, and they spend the next hour watching Sam do loops around Tony’s— thankfully— high-ceilinged workshop.

***

He sees Bucky once more before he’s due back in D.C, and it’s not how he’d expect them to meet. It’s nearly midnight, and he’s packing his bag when he hears a knock on his door. No one ever knocks in Stark Tower, so Steve isn’t sure what to expect when he opens it.

Bucky stands there in a grey hoodie and black pants. He smiles tiredly at Steve.

“Hey,” he says, and the smile falters after a second. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think that you might be busy—“

“No, no, come on in,” Steve says and steps aside. Bucky hesitates for a moment before walking into the apartment.

“I wanted to say thank you,” Bucky says without hesitating, turning to face Steve as soon as he closes the door.

“You did already,” Steve says with a smile. “Please, don’t worry about it anymore. I understand the nightmares—“

“Not about that,” Bucky states, a slight blush staining his cheeks. “I mean about the program.” He holds up his hand and the sleeve of the hoodie slips down, exposing the metal hand and a few inches of wrist. “I know you’re the reason I’m here. Sam just told me he pulled a few strings, but seeing how close you are to Sam and Stark makes me realize it’s probably your doing.”

“No thanks needed, Buck,” Steve says. “One of the things I have had the hardest time dealing with aside from things like Starkpads and cellphones his how our veterans are treated this day and age. It’s why I’m involved with Sam and the V.A., and why I attended so many galas with Tony, God help me, to get funding for this program. You deserve better for everything you’ve done. You weren’t drafted, not like men in my day. You went of your own accord, left everything behind knowing the risks, and that is more than just bravery or courage. You’ve a hero, and you deserve better. So, you don’t need to say thank you to me. I should be thanking you for your service.” Steve tilts his head to the side and smiles. “So, thank you, Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky’s lips are parted slightly and he stares at Steve, not speaking, not blinking. After several seconds, Steve runs a hand through his hair nervously, worried that maybe he said something wrong. He feels like maybe he preached a bit too much, and Tony tells him he has a tendency to do that, except before he can apologize, Bucky reaches out with both hands and grips Steve’s upper arms. The pressure of the metal fingertips dig into his biceps even though his flesh and blood hand grips normally, but Steve feels Bucky adjusting it immediately, like he knows he doesn’t know his own strength with the hand yet.

“You’re a good man,” Bucky says solemnly, staring up at Steve with such a serious, unwavering expression that something in Steve’s stomach flutters. “I’m honored to have met you here, Captain.”

“Call me Steve,” Steve manages even though his thoughts are filled with static, and all he can think is that he doesn’t remember being this caught off guard by someone since Peggy Carter. “And it was a pleasure to meet you, as well. I’m honored.”

Bucky nods, and after a few seconds, the corner of his lips twitch, dimpling his cheek. “Steve. Right. I get to call Captain America Steve.” He blushes, and then laughs, his hands falling away from Steve’s arms. “Steve. Travel safe back to D.C. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” Steve says, still somewhat dazed.

Bucky turns and walked to the door, and he’s preparing to let himself out but offers sone more wave before he closes the apartment door behind him.

Steve walks back to his room and stares at his half-packed bag. He chuckles to himself and closes his eyes, rubbing a hand over his face as he murmurs, “I really hope so,” into the quiet of the room.

Chapter Text

Steve remembers strutting around stages in the 40s, fake punching fake Hitlers and twirling his fake shield to get people to support the war effort. It was a job, a necessary part that needed to be played, and for as much as he wanted to do something, Steve hated it. He wanted to fight. He wanted to be of more use. And if he’s being honest, he felt so exposed and so tiny even though he was all muscle and height.

Things were different for a while between the time he joined the Howling Commandos and when he went into the ice, and things are definitely different now— or so Steve tells himself on nights like tonight when he’s wearing a tuxedo in a nicely decorated hall, a smile on his face and a glass of champagne in hand. Tony Stark has been shoving him at whoever so much as looks Captain America’s way since he got there, which is the one reason Steve wasn’t even sure he wanted to attend the event— or any event Tony hosts.

However, as usual, Pepper asked nicely (after Tony’s pushy attempts failed miserably), and Steve thinks he’s finally just resigned himself to the fact that history is destined to repeat itself. At least he was given a plus one this time. Sam had been more than thrilled to join him, especially since this particular gala supports the VA and Stark Industries’ Bionics Project.

Except, Steve thinks, heaving an internal sigh, Sam is very, very not there, and Steve is currently cornered by a very handsy middle-aged woman in a very low-cut dress.

“What do you do in your free time?” the woman asks, edging closer until she has to tilt her head back to make eye contact with Steve. She’s pretty, but Steve isn’t interested, and her perfume is killing his heightened sense of smell.

“Uh, I like to draw,” he says, trying his hardest to keep his camera-smile in place.

Her eyes widen. “Do you do portraits?”

Steve’s stomach bottoms out. He opens his mouth to say no, but he somehow blurts out, “Yes, sometimes.”

“Do you take commissions, Captain?” the woman asks giddily. “I’ve never had my portrait drawn before, and just imagine! I could pay you, of course.” She pauses, and then smiles coyly. “Or, depending how the evening went, I could just buy you dinner.”

Flirting was never Steve’s strong suit— it wasn’t a suit at all, really— and he’s about ready to pretend he’s got a phone call to take and then cite important Avengers business when he’s saved by Pepper Potts ascending the stage. The lights in the ballroom dim, and Steve takes the chance and all but runs with it.

“I have to find my team for this part of the evening, ma’am,” he says. “We’re here to support the project. I’m very sorry.”

Her entire face falls into one big frown. “Are you sure?”

The rest of the audience hushes, and he gives what he thinks is an apologetic smile before he hurries towards the stage. He stops at the front lines and exhales a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, then he looks up.

Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last time, Steve wonders how a man like Tony Stark was lucky enough to have a woman like Pepper choose him. She looks absolutely lovely this evening in a sleek black dress with a high neck and hair is twisted into an elaborate style. She smiles at the crowd of people as they shuffle towards the stage and gives off the aura that she belongs up there, confident and lovely, and Steve envies her ease just a little bit. He doesn’t think he’s ever been that comfortable in the spotlight, which has always been something to contend with as Captain America.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming,” she says, hands clasped in front of her. “I know you are all very interested in and curious about this project, and while Mr. Stark would like me to bore you with the specifics, I think it would be more informative for me to invite Sergeant Barnes to the stage.”

Steve’s heart rate picks up speed as a murmur goes through the crowd. He knew Bucky would be here—of course he would be—but it still sends him for a loop. The four months since Steve last saw him have done wonders. There’s a healthy flush to Bucky’s cheeks, and instead of greasy and limp, his dark, long hair is combed away from his face. He’s got on an easy smile, too, a lot like the smile he flashed Steve when they parted ways at the Tower, but there’s a stiffness to his stance that Steve knows well enough to understand that he’s probably nervous.

Bucky takes the stairs two at a time, and Pepper claps, so the audience follows suit, but the confusion is palpable. They’re expecting someone disabled, and Bucky’s disability isn’t obvious. He wears a tuxedo, like many of the guests, except even if they don’t notice the black glove covering his left hand, Steve does.

Bucky kisses Pepper on the cheek before she steps to the side, and then he faces the crowd.

He rolls his shoulders and smiles, tight-lipped and nervous.

“My name is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, and I’m very lucky to be here,” he says, voice carrying across the hall even without a microphone. “Literally.”

The crowd breathes in.

“I lost my left arm to an RPG early last year,” he continues, both of his hands now balled into fists at his sides. “I was lucky I survived, but for a while, I wished I hadn’t. I wished I’d died with the men and women I lost in the desert. Some of it was the usual stuff you see in movies— PTSD, pain, physical therapy, the works. Some of it I can’t explain, not well. I joined the army so I could go to college because that’s how a poor kid from Brooklyn affords college, and I found that even though I wasn’t good at much, I was a good soldier.” He pauses and licks his lips. “Unfortunately, you can’t be a good soldier with one arm.”

To everyone’s surprise, especially Steve’s, Bucky sheds his jacket, then begins to undo his tie. Once it’s loose, he starts to unbutton his shirt. A few people in the audience laugh and whistle.

“This is where Mr. Stark comes in,” Bucky adds, his shirt open, and the hesitant expression on his face erupts into a devilish grin that makes Steve’s chest squeeze.

Somewhere in the crowd, Tony cackles.

Bucky takes off the glove. Steve thinks everyone’s too focused on the tease of skin to notice the chrome catch the light. The wolf whistles continue as he shrugs out of his right sleeve, exposing a very muscled, lean build.

And then the shirt is off, a splotch of white floating to the stage floor, and it takes a few moments, but the crowd quiets.

Steve remembers the arm bathed in the harsh, fluorescent lights of Stark Tower’s makeshift medical floor. He studied the arm briefly then and was amazed by it, as he is with most of Tony’s tech, except what Steve’s realizing now is that the damage on Bucky’s body— the speckle of silvery scars across Bucky’s chest and torso and especially the ropey, angry flesh surrounding the prosthetic—took up a lot of his focus. The hospital setting and Bucky’s obvious tension at the time made it hard not to see the scars.

He isn’t having the same trouble this time.

The chrome gleams under the warm stage lights, and even from a distance, Steve can see the plates moving ever so slightly as Bucky begins to flex his arm. He bends it at the elbow, rotates his shoulder, his wrist, and then runs the metal fingers through his hair. He still smiles the entire time, cheeks and chin dimpled, and Steve doesn’t think he’s imagining it when Bucky’s eyes find his and hold.

Bucky is beautiful, and Steve can’t seem to dislodge the lump in his throat.

“I tried prosthetics,” he continues as he curls his fingers into a fist and then uncurls them for the audience to see, “but they don’t quite satisfy when you’ve got a proclivity for using your hands.”

Everyone chuckles, and Tony finally steps onto the stage.

“Listen,” he says as he throws an arm over Bucky’s shoulder, his fingers tapping against the metal. “Sexual innuendos aside, and you all know I love sexual innuendos, this is an important project. We have veterans who come back physically whole that struggle to settle back into a civilian lifestyle— I’m looking at you, Cap.”

Everyone turns towards Steve. Bucky is still watching him, but his polite smile quirks into more of a smirk, and Steve can feel the heat rising up his neck into his face. He musters up the bravado to wave a hand and calls, “I still haven’t seen the Godfather, Tony!”

The audience laughs, Bucky’s smirk grows, and Tony grins like a shark.

“Do you see what I mean?” he huffs. “No one comes back from war whole, but then you have men and women like Sergeant Barnes here who come back missing a literal piece of themselves, too, and they’re expected to settle with some plastic hunk of junk that kind of looks like the limb they left behind but isn’t. Not even close. I’m not buying it, and neither should you, not when it concerns the men and women who protect us. Sergeant Barnes is the first soldier we’ve fitted with a bionic prosthetic, but he shouldn’t be the last, which is why Stark Industries is asking for your support.”

The audience claps, and Bucky offers a wave before he takes his shirt, tie, and jacket from Pepper and disappears off stage.

“I’d be happy to answer questions,” Tony says, “so be sure to corner Ms. Potts here and make an appointment to meet with me when you have a chance because this is a party and I’m done talking business for the evening.”

Pepper glares at Tony with a tight lipped smile even as the rest of the attendees laugh, and as they descend the stage, the lights flare back on and the live band resumes their set.

“Quite the party.”

Steve turns to his left to find Natasha standing at his side. She doesn’t attend these kinds of events often— there’s no reason for her to, since she’s not in the public eye, at least not as much as Steve— and it’s disconcerting seeing her clad in a red dress with a plunging neckline instead of her leather jumpsuit.

“Tony does sure know how to waste money,” he agrees.

Her red lips twitch into a small smile. “I knew he was hiring entertainment, but I wasn’t expecting a striptease.”

Steve chuckles. “As Clint keeps telling me, this is the twenty-first century, so I should expect anything. Where is Clint, anyway?”

Natasha gives a graceful shrug. “He’s around here somewhere. Probably loitering around the food table.” She tilts her head to the side, staring past Steve, and says, “Well, hello, tall, dark, and handsome.”

Steve looks over his shoulder to find Sam zig-zagging through the crowd and heading straight for them. He’s dressed in a black tux with a white tie, and the entire ensemble makes Steve think Sam is the kind of person tuxedos were made for. Apparently Natasha agrees with the way she eyes him.

When he reaches Steve, Sam claps him on the shoulder and smiles cheerfully. “Rogers, I’ve been wondering where you were hiding, and here I find you with a very beautiful woman while I was left to fend for myself.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re the one who said you’d be right back nearly forty-five minutes ago,” Steve says with a raised brow.

Sam opens his mouth, closes it, and then very seriously states, “It wasn’t my fault, man. The prosciutto-wrapped asparagus was delicious.”

Steve has to force himself not to laugh. Instead, he gestures towards Natasha. “Well, this is Natasha Romanoff. Natasha, this is Sam Wilson.”

“This lady needs no introductions,” Sam orates and takes the hand Natasha offers. “I watched her kick some alien ass on the news, man.”

Natasha bites at her bottom lip and studies Sam for several long seconds— long enough for Sam to get antsy— before she leans towards Steve and says, “I like him.”

***

Sam and Natasha get along like a house on fire, and it’s even more ridiculous how perfectly the group flows together when Clint eventually shows up with a plate full of food. He hardly bats an eye at Sam and talks to him like he’s always been there. They snag a small table lit with candles in the back while everyone else dances and drinks, and Sam tells them a bit about his work as a paratrooper. He leaves out the classified information, which Steve finds endearing considering his audience.

“Did you have a nickname?” Clint asks, mouth full of a potato-stuffed pastry. “Like, a codename? Everyone’s got a damned codename nowadays.”

Sam looks like he might answer, but then he narrows his eyes. “You already know it, don’t you?”

Clint swallows his food and nods. “I do. You gonna tell us, or are you gonna make me say it? I feel like you should have to say it.”

“Did you look me up?”

“Not me,” Clint says diplomatically.

Steve turns to the more likely culprit. “Natasha, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t,” Natasha replies calmly, taking a sip from her cocktail. “Though it wouldn’t be uncalled for, since he spends so much time with America’s Spar Spangled Hero.”

“Then?” Steve prods.

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Tony told us. Obviously.”

Sam stares at her for a few seconds, lips pursed, then he shrugs. “I get it.”

Steve blinks. “You get it?”

“Of course.” He reaches for one of the puff pastries on Clint’s plate. “What if I was, like, some brainwashed soldier whose mission was to kill you? You’re Captain America, man, and they’re your crew. They’ve gotta do their homework.”

“You tell him, Falcon,” Clint says, holds out his arms like wings, and flaps them as he makes a birdcall. He and Natasha grin stupidly as a few patrons turn towards them, confusion etched onto their faces.

Sam’s nostrils flare, and then he tucks in his arms, flaps his hands, and gives his fingers a wiggle. “You got so much nerve, hawk guy.”

Steve’s surprised at the laugh that tumbles from his lips.

“You know you’re not allowed to laugh when I’m not around.”

They all turn towards Tony, clad in a ridiculous red and black tuxedo, who approaches the table with Bucky in tow. Bucky hangs back, hands in the pockets of his slacks, and rocks on his heels. Steve has to force himself not to stare and instead directs his attention to Tony.

“No, please,” Tony monotones, standing with his arms crossed, “don’t get up.”

Clint and Sam both snort. Natasha takes another sip of her drink.

Tony sighs dramatically. “James, I wanted to introduce you to the Avengers, since you’re the guest of honor and all, but I just remembered that they’re all useless and you could do way better. I could do way better. I don’t know why I surround myself—”

“Hey, man,” Sam says, holds up his hands. “Don’t bring me into this. You might’ve made me some fancy tech that I did not ask for, by the way, so don’t even think of holding that over me, but I am definitely not an Avenger. I’m just here for the food.”

“You may not have spoke, but your eyes told me what you wanted,” Tony says in a smoky voice.

Sam rolls his eyes, but when he focuses his attention on Bucky, he just grins and offers a salute. “James, good to see you. That was quite the show up there. Can’t wait to share it with the Wednesday night group.”

“If I’d known there’d be naked men here, I’d have brought singles,” Clint adds, then holds out a hand. “Also, nice to meet you, man. I’m Clint Barton, the most attractive Avenger next to Tasha.”

Bucky leans across the table and clasps his hand, grinning. “It’s great to meet you,” he says, “and the striptease was Tony’s idea.”

Clint actually laughs. “No shit. Of course that was Tony’s idea.”

“You’re supposed to say no to Tony’s ideas,” Natasha interjects. “That’s Rule Number One.”

Bucky muses on that for a few moments, then offers a shrug. “I’m still learning all the fine print, but thanks for the head’s up. What’s rule number two?”

Tony waves his hand in the redhead’s face before she’s able to answer. “Hello, Tony Stark here. Despite you being a terrifying man eater, this is my party. I can have you forcibly removed.”

Natasha lips pull into a wicked smile and she turns fully towards Tony. “Oh, can you now?”

“Bad idea, man,” Sam and Clint say at the same time, then look at each other and beam.

“Shush it, bird brains.”

“My idealization of the Avengers is shattering,” Bucky says, flesh-hand pressed to his chest in mock-surprise, as he steps closer to Steve on the other side of the table.

“This isn’t as bad as it can get,” Steve replies stoically. “You should listen to the comm conversations during work hours.”

Bucky grins wider, if it’s possible, all teeth and dimpled cheeks, and holds out his hand— his bionic hand even though Steve knows he’s not left handed, not to mention he just watched Bucky shake Clint’s hand with his right. The glove is gone, and Steve hesitates for a fraction of a second, unsure of what the gesture means, before he reprimands himself and grips hold of it. The metal is cool to the touch, and Steve doesn’t know why, but he squeezes a little more tightly than he needs to. He knows Bucky feels it by the way his eyebrows inch up; his smile doesn’t falter, and Steve’s stomach does a little flip.

Surprising himself, Steve manages to find his voice. “It’s good to see you again, Bucky. You did great up there. I know it must have been hard to tell everyone what you’ve been through.”

“Thanks, and good to see you, too, Steve,” Bucky replies, gives Steve’s hand a little squeeze in return, then lets go…

…just in time for Tony to spin around. “Steve?” he asks. “Steve? You just called him Steve?”

Bucky blinks. “Yes? That is his name, right?”

Tony purses his lips together and shrugs, but there’s a gleam in his eye that makes dread pool in Steve’s stomach.

“You sleep in his bed once and suddenly you’re on a first name basis with Captain America, I guess,” Tony sighs dramatically.

The dread solidifies.

“Uh, what?” Natasha and Clint say at the same time, looking back and forth between Steve and Bucky— Steve, who already knows he’s blushing, and Bucky, who’s suddenly expressionless.

Sam laughs even though he looks guilty about it. “It’s not what you guys think,” he says, but the damage has already been done.

“I mean, it’s cool,” Clint says. “You do you, Cap. Or him. Hell, you do whoever you want. You’re Captain America, and it’s 2016.”

“There’s a tag they use online in the Avengers fandom community,” Natasha adds thoughtfully after a sip of her martini. “Steve Rogers: the Bisexual America Deserves.”

There are a few seconds of complete silence where Steve is pretty sure he might combust, his face feels so hot, and then Tony starts laughing hard enough that tears roll down his cheeks almost immediately. He bends at the waist, hands on his knees, and he opens his mouth several times, presumably to speak, but nothing comes out, so he just laughs some more. Natasha rolls her eyes and shakes her head, Clint is openly grinning at the spectacle, and Sam has a pursed look, like he just ate a lemon.

Steve runs a hand over his face and purposefully avoids looking at Bucky. “Well, on that note, I’m going to get a drink.”

“You can’t get drunk!” Tony calls, still cackling, as Steve walks away.

Steve keeps walking.

“You didn’t deny it, either!”

***

Tony’s right, of course. Steve can’t get drunk, not on your average alcohol, because the serum sped up his metabolism so much that it evaporates like water on a blisteringly hot day. It’s unfortunate, really, not because Steve has some intense desire to get blind drunk, but because it’s something he can add to his List of Nevers. He never got drunk before the serum— always too sick and too poor— and he doesn’t see it happening with the serum on board. He likes trying new things, though, so he’s sipping something called a Manhattan, which doesn’t taste half bad, when Sam appears next to him, jacket draped over his arm. He orders a drink and leans against the bar, looking past Steve at the crowd.

“We never talk about it,” Sam finally says. “You know, your social life aside from movie night and the VA and the Avengers.”

Steve sighs. “Probably because I don’t have one, Sam.”

Sam is silent for several seconds, and when he does finally talk, he speaks slowly, like he’s trying to measure his words, keep them contained. “Look, man,” he says. “I’m not one to pry. You know I’m here to talk about things when you’re ready. I respect your privacy.”

“But you want to know if Captain America is a queer,” Steve says flatly.

The look Sam gives him could turn a man to stone. “What? No. I don’t give a damn if Captain America is romantic with llamas, man. That’s not the point at all.”

Steve can’t help but smirk. “Llamas?”

“But,” Sam continues, ignoring him, “I care about what Steve Rogers wants. I care about the fact that you kind of isolate yourself, that the people closest to you had no idea you like men until Tony Stark had to be a giant dick about it. If you do like men, that is. I’m still not actually sure. It doesn’t matter what you like, though, and yeah, none of our damned business, but you don’t have to be in it alone, Steve.”

Steve’s throat feels tight, and he takes another long drink of the Manhattan before saying, “I wasn’t trying to hide it from anyone. I mean, it was weird, waking up to find out it’s okay now, but that’s not it. It just didn’t come up and I wasn’t about to just blurt it out. Everyone had assumptions, anyway, because of Peggy, and I still love her. It’s been seventy years for everyone else, but it hasn’t been that long for me, not really. I wasn’t ready for another big spectacle.”

“Fair.” Sam swirls his drink in his glass. “Though you probably shouldn’t had fought aliens as your first order of business, then.”

Steve forces a smile. “Yeah, probably not. I love what I do, but I don’t really like being in the spotlight.”

Sam stares at him.

“I know, it seems counterintuitive, but I hate it. It’s fine when I’m fighting and have a purpose, but take that away, and I really hate it.”

Sam snorts. “You picked the wrong day job.”

“I know.” Steve runs a hand through his hair, then tries to pat it back into place. “This lifestyle makes meeting people hard, hence the lack of a social life. Dating aside, just making friends— you’re relaxed and easy going, but most people meet me and they just see the shield and the costume. They see a celebrity, a hero, a science experiment. I’m someone to use or look up to or just something. And none of that is bad, but I don’t think they ever want to get to know me as Steve Rogers.”

“You gotta give people the chance to work through it, man. I mean, you’re a legend. You’re a hero. People are going to be star struck at first. I didn’t act like it, but I was. I read about you as a kid, you know? I wrote a report about you.”

“I don’t know if I have the patience,” Steve admits.

Sam considers that, then claps Steve on the upper arm and says, “We’ll work on it.”

***

It gets late. Sam excuses himself to the bathroom, and as other guests begin to file out, Steve starts to make his rounds. He’s managed to avoid the rest of the group thus far— Sam’s doing, no doubt— but he makes sure to find Natasha and Clint so that he can say goodbye even though they’re staying at the Tower through tomorrow. He doesn’t want to end the night on bad terms because he knows that in their line of work, a definite tomorrow can be snuffed out in an instant. If he’s learned anything, it’s making sure you say what you want to say incase there isn’t time to say it later.

He finds them near the front of the hall. Neither seem particularly upset when they notice him approaching, so he just jumps right in.

“About earlier,” he begins, but Natasha waves him off.

“Please, Steve. You have nothing to apologize for,” she says.

“How do you know I was going to apologize?” Steve asks indignantly even though she’s one-hundred and ten percent right.

“Have you seen your face?” Clint asks good-naturedly, nudging Steve with his elbow. “Your face is the Patron Saint of apologizing.”

Natasha snorts.

“Seriously, though, Cap,” Clint continues, “we were dicks. Tony is the biggest of dicks in a metaphorical way, but we were still micropenises, at the very least. Sorry. We weren’t trying to make fun of you or anything.”

Natasha levels Clint with a stare, her head tilted to the side, and then just shrugs. “What he said.”

Steve glances between the two of them, then nods. “Thanks. I’m sorry, too.”

“Told you,” Clint sighs dramatically and makes a show of turning off his hearing aids. “Patron Saint of Apologies.”

Natasha smirks. “Are you heading back to the Tower now? We just passed Sam, and he’s hitching a ride with us. Pepper called a car.”

“Well,” Steve says, ready to make an excuse to stay, but then he steels himself. He’s Captain America. He can do this. “Actually, I was hoping to find Buc— James.”

Natasha’s expression doesn’t change, except Steve thinks there’s a glimmer in her eye and a microscopic raise of her eyebrow. “Pepper commandeered him not long after Sam went to find you. I don’t think he’s left yet.”

“Thanks, Nat. Will I see you two tomorrow before you leave?”

“We’ll stick around for breakfast,” she says.

“Fuck yeah, we will,” Clint adds with a fist pump. “Waffles. You know how hard it is to come by waffles when you’re on mission? Fuckin’ waffles, man. Tony orders the fancy shit, too, and the whipped cream. The whipped cream.” He groans.

Natasha rolls her eyes and heads for the door, but not before grabbing Clint’s hand and dragging him with her. “Good luck, Steve.”

Clint gives him thumbs up and a wink that makes Steve blush.

***

Nearly thirty minutes later, Steve is ready to call it quits. He hasn’t seen Bucky, let alone Pepper, and there are only a few dozen people left lingering in the hall. Even the band has packed up, and some of the lights have come on. Steve doesn’t want to admit defeat, but he doesn’t want to hang around, either, especially because he expects the staff would like to get home at a reasonable hour, so he finally heads for the doors.

He’s not entirely surprised when he’s flanked by the woman from earlier because his luck tonight seems to be spectacular.

“Captain Rogers,” she says brightly, eyes glassy from alcohol and red lips faded. “I was hoping to see you again before you left. We didn’t have a chance to finish our conversation.”

“Ah, yes,” Steve stammers, guilt makes his words stutter. Not only can he not remember her name, which is so very unlike him, he doesn’t think his smile is even close to genuine because he really just wants to leave and put this evening behind him. “I’m sorry about my hasty exit earlier.”

“Oh, I understand.” She rests a hand on his forearm, sliding slightly closer. “Would you like to grab a drink with me, Captain? It’s still somewhat early for a Saturday night, I have no plans for the rest of the evening—”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m actually going to have to commandeer him.”

Steve and the woman turn to find Bucky standing there, easy smile in place. The product that was keeping his hair out of his face seems to have lost it’s hold, and wavy strands of dark hair curl around his forehead and cheekbones. He glances at Steve once, just once, and Steve sees the hesitation there, like he isn’t sure if this is the right thing to do.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Steve says earnestly, then adds, “Sergeant,” in a more formal tone.

Bucky tilts his head to the side. “Oh, yeah?”

Steve’s heart does a little flip in his chest and misses a beat, and he doesn’t think that’s happened since he was still skinny and sick and trying not to have a heart attack in his early twenties.

The woman doesn’t seem to notice a change in his demeanor, though. She smiles again, but it’s definitely more forced. “You’re a popular man, Captain Rogers.”

“He is a superhero,” Bucky says jokingly.

The woman glances at Bucky again, except her gaze drops from his face to his metal hand and lingers there. Bucky doesn’t miss it, just watches her stare for a moment, and then something in his expression changes. The polite smile is replaced by a smirk, and it’s the only warning Steve has before the other man reaches for his hand.

Steve’s body freezes but his heart goes haywire in his chest. The woman’s eyebrows jump high on her forehead, her surprise just as palpable as Steve’s, except Steve blushes furiously. He hopes the sensors in Bucky’s hand aren’t amazing because then he’ll know that Steve Rogers is sweating and his pulse is easily up to one-twenty. However, something in Steve shifts, like Bucky’s lack of hesitation makes Steve brave, so he curls his fingers around the other man’s.

Bucky’s smile blooms, and after offering a curt nod and a quick, “ma’am,” Bucky leads them towards the doors.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Steve manages to call out to the woman, who stands there staring after them like she isn’t quite sure what happened.

Steve isn’t sure, either.

There’s a line of people standing just outside the venue waiting for their valeted cars or their taxis, and even though Steve doesn’t see anyone he knows, several of the press still loiters. Before he can say anything to Bucky, the other man tugs Steve to the left so they can turn the closest corner. There are still a few people walking, but for the most part, the street is empty. Bucky doesn’t let go of Steve’s hand until they’re at the end of the block when he stops suddenly, making Steve almost bump into him, and turns around to face him.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly, and disentangles his fingers from Steve’s. “I got a bit carried away.”

Steve chuckles and flexes his fingers. “It was a good save.”

Bucky shrugs. “Does that happen a lot? You getting railroaded by people at these kinds of events?”

“All the time,” Steve replies with a short laugh. “Half the time, Tony sends them to talk to me because he knows I hate it, which is why I usually don’t attend, but I made an exception for this event considering the topic.”

“You’ve gotta be used to it, though. The attention. I mean, you’re Captain America.”

Steve runs a hand through his hair. “You’d think so, but the attention is kind of— well, stressful.”

Bucky nods, still staring at Steve intently, then shrugs. “I dunno how to help you there. I’m in the same boat and trying to deal.” He holds up his prosthetic hand and wiggles the fingers. “I wear a glove and people look at me weird. I don’t and people look at me weird. I guess it’s better than having no arm, right? They really looked at me weird then.”

Steve chuckles. “You did great, though, on stage. I hated doing tours like that in the forties.”

Bucky eyes widen and then he grins again. “I gotta hear that story from the horse’s mouth.”

“Do you want to grab a bite to eat?” Steve asks— or blurts, rather. “I, uh, could tell you about it.”

Without missing a beat, Bucky replies, “There’s a good burger place a few blocks down.”

***

The diner is busy, mostly filled with semi-drunk college students, but no one bothers them in the corner booth. Bucky sits facing the door, and Steve isn’t sure if it’s because he knows Steve would be more comfortable with his back to the crowd in case he’s recognized, or because Bucky needs to see the exit. Either way, he’s comfortable enough even though he barely fits in the space between the booth and the table.

They order messy burgers and a few baskets of fried appetizers to go along with their french fries, and Bucky orders a chocolate milkshake. As they eat, Steve tells him about applying for the army half a dozen times and being denied after every medical exam except for the last time, when Erskine saw something inside of Steve and allowed him to enlist. He tells Bucky about Peggy, about the way he felt like his body was being pulled apart in the machine, and about how he felt whole for the first time ever when he stepped out of it.

Bucky listens attentively, and when Steve finally stops to take a bit of his burger, Bucky says, “I can see it.”

“Hmmm?” Steve replies, mouth full.

“You being Tiny.” Bucky grins. “Tiny and stubborn as shit. Like a cockroach.”

Steve almost chokes on a piece of burger than he inhales wrong when he laughs.

“A cockroach?” he manages.

“I remember going to an exhibit on you when I was a kid,” Bucky continues, “but I forgot about your health and everything before you became Captain America. Man, you were a hot mess.”

Steve groans. “The exhibits makes it seem worse than it was.”

“I think there was a list of your medical conditions.” Bucky raises his left hand, the chrome flashing as it reflects the light, and begins to count things off. “Asthma, heart murmur, high blood pressure—“

“Okay, you can stop.” Steve shakes his head. “You have a good memory, though.”

“I loved history, I just hated school,” Bucky replies, and then he tells Steve about being a poor kid from Brooklyn who joined the army, about how he was being fast-tracked to Special OPs because he was a damned good sniper when the RPG ruined his chances, and how he’s been working for the last month at the VA with Sam.

“Do you like working there?” Steve asks as he wipes grease off of his hands.

“I didn’t, at first,” Bucky replies. “I mean, the whole point of the meetings are to open up about your experiences and whatever, and what self-respecting grown man wants to talk about his feelings?”

Steve smiles. “But you changed your mind.”

Bucky snorts. “Eventually. Took a while, but I realized that the VA is where no one actually expected anything of me, you know? I went to meetings for nearly four months before I said a single word, and no one gave a damn, not in the way I was worried about. Plus, Sam’s a persistent son-of-a-bitch, so obviously my macho bravado didn’t last long.”

“Sam has a way of doing that to people. He’s the reason I started going to VA meetings. They forced me to see a psychiatrist when I came out of the ice, one who worked through SHIELD, but it didn’t feel right to me. How often does someone need to talk their patient through missing seventy years?” He stops and realizes he hasn’t thought about that for a while. It makes his chest go tight for reasons he isn’t sure about, so he clears his throat and says, “Anyway, Sam convinced me to visit the VA after our first meeting.”

“Speaking of Sam, how did you meet him, anyway?” Bucky asks before shoving a near handful of fries into his mouth. “He keeps telling me he isn’t an Avenger, but I don’t think I believe him. I mean, he knows you, and then he said Tony built him some tech, and I know what Sam did for the Air Force before he was discharged. I’m on to him.”

“I met him while I was jogging,” Steve says, laughing. “He isn’t an Avenger.”

Bucky stares at him, and when Steve just blinks, he chuckles. “Leave it to Sam to meet a famous person that way. I get the feeling you two have been friends for a while, and you know he never said anything? Not a word to me, any of the other guys in his groups, nothing. Who keeps that shit to themselves?”

“It’s refreshing, honestly,” Steve admits.

Bucky’s expression sobers. “You did mention you don’t like a lot of attention ‘cause it stresses you out. Is it, like, stage fright, or social anxiety?”

Steve grimaces. “It’s not stage fright, really. I’ve never been afraid to make speeches, and I’m not afraid to be in front of a lot of people. I don’t think you could really call it it’s social anxiety, either.”

“Is this the cliche part where you say you want people to see the real you?” Bucky asks.

Steve stills. Bucky’s expression and tone give away nothing, but Steve’s stomach drops anyway. The warm rush that spread through him after Bucky laughed so candidly a moment ago suddenly feels like cement seeping through him. It takes him a moment to reply, and even then, he can’t quite keep the self-deprecation out of the words when he says quietly, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Me, too, pal,” Bucky says, just as quietly. “Yeah. Me, too.”

Steve looks up. Bucky isn’t looking at him. He stares down at his plate, lips pursed and eyebrows drawn in tight enough to create a dozen creases on his forehead, and Steve is relieved that he can study the other man for a moment without him gazing back because Steve is pretty sure whatever’s percolating inside of him is showing on his face.

Bucky loses himself in his thoughts for over a minute, but the seriousness dissipates after Steve pulls himself together and nudges Bucky’s leg with his shoe. He smiles, and Bucky smiles back before running a hand through his hair.

It takes a few minutes, but the tension settles, and they share the rest of Bucky’s french fries. Bucky drinks his milkshake too fast, giving himself brain freeze. As he watches Bucky groan and clutch at his temples, Steve wonders if this is what it would have been like to have a close friend growing up. He’s only met Bucky twice and told him things he hasn’t talked about of his own free will in a while. Even with the undercurrent that he doesn’t quite understand pulling him towards Bucky, he feels so at ease and comfortable.

It’s kind of scary, actually. The thought pushes him out of the booth to pay the bill.

“That was sneaky,” Bucky states, frowning up at Steve when he returns.

“I am a spy.” Steve pauses. “Kind of.”

Bucky barks out a laugh. “Sure, pal,” he says as he slips back into his suit jacket.

“Okay, maybe I’m not a spy,” Steve concedes as they leave the diner, walking shoulder to shoulder, “but I know a few of them. I mean, I work for SHIELD. The habits start to wear off on you.”

“That makes no sense, Cap,” Bucky says cheerfully. “Plus, you need to be a bit untrustworthy at the core to be a good spy. It’s all about deception, even if it’s for the greater good, and I get this feeling that you’re too good of a man to lie for a living.”

Steve’s heard this before— the good old boy speech— and he can’t help but bristle a little. “Everyone has this glowing vision of me, but I’m not perfect.”

Bucky eyes him, gaze slipping down to Steve’s feet before they travel back up to his face. “I didn’t say you were perfect,” he says, his voice suggesting that Bucky doesn’t believe that in the slightest, and the inflection in his tone makes Steve’s stomach flip. “Just said you’re too good of a man to be a spy.”

“You have experience as one, James Buchanan Bond?” Steve retorts.

Bucky grins and then shrugs. “Not spying, no, but I was a sniper. You gotta be a little off to nail people from two miles away, just like you’ve gotta be a good man to do what you do, Cap.”

“What is it I do, exactly?”

“Save the world, for one, but anyone with the means can do that. Hell, Tony does it, right, and look at him. First few times I met him, he tried to offer me a left-handed hand shake.”

Steve stops and turns towards Bucky. “He didn’t.”

Bucky smirks. “Of course he did. That’s what I mean. I didn’t take offense when he did it, to be fair. It was nice to have someone actually point out the elephant in the room, honestly, but it’s a crude viewpoint.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at, Bucky.”

“You don’t see the world the same way we do. I don’t know how to explain it better. I could tell pretty soon after meeting you, though. Other people could, too, obviously.”

“What other people?”

“You’re the way you are now for a reason, right? You said it yourself— Erskine saw something others didn’t, and that’s just you. Plain and simple Steve.” He strokes his chin with his hand, lips pursed thoughtfully. “Now that I think about it, that’s probably why you’re weird about attention, ‘cause attention warrants something extra, and you’re just being you.”

Bucky says these things matter-of-factly, the same way he explained how he started working at the VA, and Steve doesn’t know what to say, so he turns his face away a bit as they pass under a street lamp, not wanting Bucky to see him blush. “Where are you staying?”

Bucky doesn’t answer immediately. The plea for a subject change hangs between them, but then Bucky answers without so much as a hitch to his voice. “Stark Tower. I booked a hotel room, and when Tony found out, he canceled the reservation and told me I was staying at the Tower. I thought he’d put me up in a guest room or something, but he set me up on a whole goddamned floor.”

Steve’s never been so happy to talk about Tony. “That’s Tony for you.”

“So I’m finding out,” Bucky mutters with a shake of his head. “What about you? Tower?”

“Tony wouldn’t allow you to stay anywhere else. Do you think he’d allow me to stay anywhere else?”

Bucky snorts. “Touche.”

***

They take a cab to the Tower, and while that silence is comfortable, it lingers and becomes a lot more heavy as they walk through the lobby towards the elevators that lead up to the suites. When a set of doors open, Bucky leads the way inside and stands in the opposite corner, back to the wall, hands shoved in his pockets, and head bowed so that his hair hangs in his face. He doesn’t seem closed off, per say, but there’s something a little bit more tense about his stance that’s making Steve nervous.

As they near Bucky’s floor, he looks up and makes eye contact with Steve.

“You’re not what I expected,” he finally says.

Steve stiffens, and before he can stop himself, he asks, “What did you expect?”

Bucky blinks a few times, studying Steve’s face with this strange intensity that narrows his eyes. “I don’t know. More pomp, maybe. I wondered if the good-boy act was an actual act, or if the fame just hadn’t gotten to you yet, but it’s neither of those things. You’re just a good person.”

Steve hoped that he was done blushing for the night, but apparently not. His ears burn. “I’m not—“

“You are,” Bucky says without any room for argument. “You are. I’m pretty good at reading people— that happens when you’re always on the lookout for pity, you know? You learn to figure out when people are putting up false versions of themselves because they feel bad for you or they’re disgusted or whatever. It’s not fair, the expectation that everyone’s got an agenda, but it is what it is, and all I can say is good man is hard to find, Steve, but here you are.”

The elevator door dings and opens.

Steve jumps, startled by the sound, but Bucky doesn’t. He just pushes himself off of the wall casually and walks towards the open doors. He takes a second to stop and clap Steve on the arm, offering a small smile while his touch lingers. “I’m glad to have met you, Steve. There’s hope for his shithole of a world yet.”

Bucky walks out of the elevator, and a moment later, the doors close after him.

Steve just stands there, somewhat stupefied, as they elevator continues to rise to his floor.

Chapter Text

Even though it’s nearly two o’clock in the morning when Steve finally climbs under his red, white, and blue bedspread, he still wakes up just after five a.m. There are no cameras in the suites— or so Tony tells him— but JARVIS is still tasked with monitoring the occupants of the Tower, so the A.I. knows Steve’s habits by now. The moment his pulse and respiration change, signaling he’s awake, the tint on the windows begins to lighten. The sky is a dusky blue, the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon with rosy tendrils.

Unlike most mornings, Steve lays in bed and stares at the ceiling. His mind is racing already, the thoughts starting where they left off when he fell sleep only a few hours ago.

He should have gone after Bucky. Or he thinks he should have. He definitely wanted to, but Steve isn’t really sure what’s going on between them, and this is not something he’s good at. He never courted anyone— even his wartime dalliance with Peggy was just that, a dalliance in between missions and blood and gunfire. They never even kissed, and God knows Steve wasn’t much of a catch before the serum.

On top of that, he doesn’t know if Bucky is definitely interested in men, and according to Sam, the Avengers’ accidental outing of Steve didn’t necessarily make Steve’s interest completely clear. He’s not sure what the best way to bring it up is, either, and that’s the foundation of all of his problems. Steve just doesn’t know what to do, and it was one thing to wake up and not be able to use a smartphone, but this is entirely different. He isn’t sure he can be taught any of this stuff.

Steve Rogers: capable of fending off invading aliens, but incapable of managing a possible love life.

He turns over and buries his face in the pillow, and even though he doesn’t fall back asleep, he doesn’t get out of bed until almost seven. Even then, he takes his time getting ready, hoping maybe he’ll have some amazing moment of enlightenment.

He doesn’t.

The Tower guests are already in the main dining hall and seated at a long table that’s piled high with waffles, bacon, eggs, fruit, toast, bagels, and random toppings. The excess of the twenty-first century still boggles his mind, but Steve’s stomach growls on cue.

“Good morning,” Natasha says when he enters the room. Clint and Sam mumble their own early-morning greetings, Pepper waves from her seat at the far end of the table, and Bucky offers a gentle smile, eyes locked onto Steve’s.

The butterflies in Steve’s stomach come alive and he has to force himself to smile back. “Morning.”

“What’re you in the mood for, Cap?” Tony asks as he waltzes in past Steve. “Sweet or savory?”

“You know I don’t like dessert for breakfast,” Steve says as he follows.

“That’s the most un-American thing you’ve ever said in my presence,” Clint gripes. “America is all about freedom, and freedom means eating a fuck ton of sugar for breakfast.”

“Hear, hear!” Tony yells and holds up a waffle.

Pepper doesn’t even look up from the tablet she’s reading on. “Tony, stop playing with your food.”

“Dictator Potts over here,” Tony mumbles, but he tosses the waffle on his plate and begins to load it with whipped cream and strawberries.

Steve goes to the coffee pot and pours himself a cup, very aware that Bucky has been watching him from beneath his lashes since Steve walked into the room. That means that at least Natasha’s noticed, and probably Clint, but no one says a thing. Steve sits near Pepper, which just happens to be closest to the healthy breakfast options. He piles a few scoops of scrambled eggs, four slices of whole grain toast, and several strips of bacon on his plate. The table is silent for a bit while everyone eats, and Steve is finishing his last piece of toast and doing his best not to glance at Bucky every few seconds when Sam breaks the silence.

“You heading back to DC with James and I, Steve?”

Steve looks up and yeah, he’s pretty sure Sam’s noticed to. “I can’t, unfortunately. I have a press event tomorrow morning in Time’s Square, so it’s easier for me to just stay in New York until it’s over.”

Tony hums his agreement. “You’re definitely right. It’s for the best. I dunno how Sam would fly both you and James back to DC with his wings—“

“I don’t even have the wings with me,” Sam interrupts with a roll of his eyes. “What is it with you and the pack, man? You gave it to me.”

“I need to know about this jet pack thing,” Bucky adds. “I mean, I saw Sam’s getup when he was deployed, but…” He holds up his arm and waggles the metal fingers, grinning. “I know how over the top Stark Industries goes. It’s probably better than with the Air Force or Army could provide.”

Bucky’s smile does things to Steve’s stomach. He grips his coffee cup more tightly, very aware that Natasha is watching him, unblinking.

Tony shoves a piece of waffle in his mouth and stands up. “Well, James, today’s your lucky day because I can show you. I have another one I’ve been working on.” He raises his fork in the air. “To the lab!”

Sam blinks. “You made another one? Another set of wings?”

Tony pins him with an innocently confused expression. “I mean, what happens if you break the one I gave you when we have the Avengers assemble? You need to have a backup so we can have backup.”

Bucky’s eyes widen, and he gasps before turning to look accusingly at Steve. “You told me he wasn’t an Avenger!”

Steve rolls his eyes. “He isn’t!”

“Don’t you remember Rule Number One?” Clint asks.

Bucky shrugs and pushes away from the table. “To the lab!” he repeats, fist-pumping the air, and follows Tony, who’s already walking out the door. He only glances back at Steve once, but it’s very obvious and Steve feels like his brain might fizzle out.

Sam stands up, disrupting his personal crisis. “Hell yeah.”

Clint sighs and stands, too. “Goddamnit, now I need to see this.”

Distracted, at least for the moment, Steve bites his lip to stop from laughing while Pepper just pinches the bridge of her nose and mutters, “It’s like I run a daycare for grown men who protect the country. What have I done with my life.”

The dinging room becomes strangely silent. Steve isn’t sure if Pepper senses it, because she excuses herself and clears out, citing Stark Industries business not long after, and then it’s just Steve and Natasha. Steve doesn’t need to look up to know she’s still watching him even though she’s pretending to play Candy Crush on her phone. He’s surprised it takes her the full five minutes it does for her to break the quiet.

“So,” she says. “You got in late last night.”

Steve settles his elbows on the tabletop and fixes her with his Disappointed American Hero look. “I expect this from Tony, but not from you.”

She leans back in her chair and holds up her hands defensively, but there’s a little smirk tilting up the corners of her lips. “Whoa, there, Cap. Just starting up a little bit of conversation.”

Steve huffs out a laugh. “Sure you are. You’re pretty bad at this for a spy.”

Natasha’s smirk turns into a full-out grin, and even though Steve isn’t attracted to her that way, his chest constricts. She doesn’t smile much— at least, not smiles that he thinks are 100% genuine— and it makes him happy to know he can not only cause it, but be a recipient, as well. It definitely widens the crack in his armor, and he finds himself talking without another prompt from her.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he admits. “I’ve never, you know, dated.”

Her smile dims slightly as she tilts her head to the side. “This isn’t a tactical op, Steve.”

He sighs. “It feels like one. We just grabbed a bite to eat last night, and when we got back to the Tower, I didn’t know if I should go after him or not. I didn’t, but I’m still not sure if I made the right choice.”

Natasha studies him for a few moments, very obviously weighing her words before she speaks. It’s the same look Sam gave him last night, and Steve wants to reach across the table and shake her, to tell her he doesn’t need to be handled, but instead he sits there, lips pursed, and stares right back at her.

She surprises him, though, when she crosses her arms over her chest and bluntly states, “I’ve got this feeling that you tackle all of your relationships as Captain America and not as Steve Rogers.”

For a moment, he considers denying it, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to get Natasha to believe him. He reminds himself that he wanted the kid gloves to come off when he replies, “It’s kind of hard not to, considering that is who I am.”

Natasha raises a brow, looking for all intents and purposes like a cat that caught the cream. “No, it’s not who you are. It’s a part of you, a big part, but it doesn’t make up the whole of Steve Rogers. You were Steve long before you were Cap, and he’s the bones of the whole Star Spangled Hero operation you’ve got going on.”

Steve scrubs a hand over his face and sighs. “So people keep telling me.”

“Maybe you should start listening,” she offers. “You’re a real boy, Cap, even if the job keeps trying to tell you you’re still a puppet.”

“I get that reference,” Steve says dryly.

She chuckles, but her expression is softer than before. “You don’t need to plan it. Just do what your gut tells you and you’ll be fine.”

“You want me to trust my gut? That’s the best advice I can get from a secret assassin?” Steve teases.

Natasha just gives him a look. “I’ve seen your gut in action plenty of times. It’s usually right. There’s a reason everyone on your team is still alive.”

Steve grits his teeth and ducks his head. “It’s not the same.”

“Love and war, Steve.” She stands and gives a little stretch. “Come on, let’s go see if Clint’s managed to convince Tony and Sam to let him put on the pack.”

***

“That was awesome,” Bucky’s saying as Steve and Natasha walk into the lab.

It takes about a millisecond for Steve to see what he’s referring to.

Laying on top of one of Tony’s very pretty, red Ferraris is Clint. He looks a lot worse for wear than when he left the dining room about twenty minutes ago, and while Steve didn’t see the jetpack or the Ferrari before, he imagines they looked a lot better, too. The wings of the pack resemble gnarled braids of metal, and the pack itself smokes daintily, thin, dark plumes surrounding a groaning Clint. The roof of the car itself is caved in beneath the archer’s weight, and shards of glass from the windows and the windshield litter the the ground.

They all watch as one of Tony’s robots rolls over. It stops in front of the wrecked car, points a hose upwards, and blasts Clint with what Steve assumes is fire-extinguisher fluid. Clint doesn’t even flinch as he’s covered in white foam, just grunts and mutters, “fuck me.”

Sam and Bucky freeze for a few moments, eyes widening, and then they’re both doubled over laughing. Sam all but stumbles into Bucky, and Bucky throws his metal arm around Sam’s shoulders as he shakes, sharp, gasping breathes mingled with choked laughter. Steve’s sucks in a breath and holds it while he watches. It takes him a moment, but he thinks there’s something about Bucky that reminds him of Natasha. He’s jaded and puts up airs, so seeing him laugh with such abandon makes warmth curl through him because Steve gets the feeling this kind of happiness doesn’t burst from Bucky often.

Natasha nudges him a bit and Steve tears his eyes away, blush creeping up his neck.

“I’ve never been happier than I can’t get Dum-E to work properly,” Tony states, deadpan, as he surveys the damage, “because both that pack and that car are probably worth more than everything you own combined times a million.”

“You know his track record in the field and you let him put it on,” Natasha says. “You did this to yourself.”

“But he did it to my car,” Tony whines.

Bucky and Sam still hang on to each other, wiping tears from their eyes and huffing out wet breaths. Bucky’s hair is ruffled and positively sinful combined with his flushed face, so Steve is forced to busy himself by helping Natasha peel Clint off of the car and then peeling him out of the still smoking jetpack. Clint, to his merit, gives an ornate wave of his hand and bows once he’s done scooping the fire extinguisher foam off of his face.

“Encore,” Sam manages between choked laughs.

Natasha shoots him a glare.

Sam immediately straightens up and points to Bucky. “It was him. He said it.”

Bucky swallows his laugh but makes eye contact with Natasha all the same. “Ma’am.”

Steve has to turn away so he won’t laugh.

“Pepper wasn’t kidding,” Natasha mutters to herself, then raises her voice. “All right, boys, time to end the fun. This idiot and I have a plane to catch.”

Natasha helps a hobbling Clint out of the lab first, quietly admonishing him while he grins down at her, and Tony waves them all off as he programs some repairs for his car, so Steve follows Bucky and Sam out. The two of them walk ahead of him, shoulder to shoulder and heads bowed towards each other as they laugh. Steve feels a momentary pang of jealousy, but it’s ridiculous, so he stuffs it back down.

At the elevators, Sam glances over his shoulder. “When are you back in D.C?”

“Probably Wednesday.”

“Are we on for movie night Friday, then?”

“You bet,” Steve says. “Your turn to pick.”

Sam doesn’t do what he normally does when it’s his turn to pick— rub his hands together and grin like a madman. Instead, he gives Steve a meaningful look, eyes wide and glaring at him. He nods a few times, and Steve frowns, unsure of what it all means, until Sam directs his attention to Bucky, who isn’t paying attention, thank god. Steve almost laughs, but he swallows it and the embarrassment down.

“You’re, uh, welcome to tag along, Bucky,” he says. “If you’re not busy.”

Sam’s expression mellows just as Bucky turns around. He glances briefly at Sam before smiling at Steve. “Yeah, sure. I’m down.”

***

Bucky becomes a regular at movie night.

At first, Steve is nervous. He doesn’t know what to say or do, the tense current of attraction still at the forefront for him, but Bucky never seems flustered and never mentions the night of the gala. Steve wonders if he read Bucky all wrong, and he wonders so hard that he contemplates bringing it up himself— his gut keeps telling him to, and Natasha told him to listen to it—except he does like where things stand for the most part. While he wouldn’t be opposed to something more than friendship, he’s severely lacking in the friend department, and it’s nice to have someone besides Sam to relax with on a regular basis. Bucky, like Sam, offers him some semblance of normal, metal arm aside. He laughs easily and he critiques the Avengers’ group dynamic when he sees them on television like he’s critiquing a football game. There’s something charmingly casual about Bucky’s presence, and so much so that Steve has to remind himself time and time again that Bucky is still recovering despite everything. He doesn’t want to rock the boat or lose a friend, so he talks himself off the ledge and just lets it be.

Plus, it helps that they always hang out with Sam. Even though Bucky’s number is programmed into Steve’s phone and they occasionally send each other text messages, they don’t get together just the two of them.

That is, until a few months in when Sam’s name, number, and photo pop up on Steve’s Starkphone two hours before they’re supposed to watch Robocop so Steve can finally understand all of the jokes Tony shoots Bucky’s way.

Steve dusts charcoal on his pants and tears his eyes away from the vase still-life he set up before he picks up. “Rogers.”

“Hey, man,” Sam says by way of greeting. “Bad news. I don’t think I’m going to make it tonight. I’ve got a last minute meeting and it’s going to run the kind of late where it’s five o’clock right now and I’m about to get me another coffee.”

“Oh.” Steve feels sweat prickle the back of his neck. “Yeah, no problem.”

Sam is silent for several moments and then he huffs a laugh. “Steve, it’s going to be fine.”

Steve offers his most convincing, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you do. Don’t give me that bullshit, and don’t cancel on him. Seriously, man, he still doesn’t get out much, and he loves movie night. Don’t cancel on him.”

Steve sighs and scrubs a hand over his face, then has to stop himself from cursing when he remembers he’s got charcoal all over his hands. “Yeah, okay.”

“Good man. Take one for the team. Take one for yourself, while you’re at it. Now, I’ve gotta chug this coffee and make like a leaf.”

Steve snorts. “I don’t think that’s how the saying goes.”

“Nah, I think it is. I’ll text you later, Steve.”

The line goes dead, and Steve doesn’t even have time to set the phone down before it buzzes. He looks at the screen.

BUCKY: just got a text from sam. you still up for tonight? its cool if not.

Steve stares at the message for a full five minutes before he types back.

STEVE: 7pm still work?

BUCKY: yup. i’ll bring chinese.

STEVE: Sounds good. Egg rolls please!

BUCKY: so needy

Bucky shows up at seven o’clock on the dot with a bag of carry out and six-pack of beer he knows Steve likes even though Steve doesn’t feel the effects of it. He’s dressed in a pair of dark jeans and a grey zip-up over a white t-shirt, his long hair pulled back into a bun. The glove on his left hand is on. He offers a wide, close-lipped smile, cheeks dimpling, and walks into Steve’s apartment while Steve holds open the door. Bucky sets the food down on Steve’s coffee table and then immediately pulls off the glove. Neither of them say anything while they get set up and Bucky scrolls through the movie list on Steve’s fancy new smart TV.

“Are we still watching Robocop?”

Steve looks up as Bucky shrugs out of his hoodie. “I’m up for it if you are, but I’m the one who hasn’t seen it before.”

“The question is,” Bucky says as he leans back, “do you want to watch the amazingly awful 80’s original, or do you want to watch the marginally better remake that’s got better special effects?”

Steve taps his lips with his index finger. “That’s a great question.”

To his left, Bucky chuckles.

Steve turns towards him, nearly hitting Bucky’s knee with his own. “What’s funny?”

Bucky flashes him some teeth. “You always look like you use as much brainpower considering silly things as you do important things. You probably have this same expression during debriefs and shit.”

Steve runs a hand through his hair and laughs. “Yeah, I guess I can be overly serious sometimes. Natasha tells me I tackle civilian life like it’s a tactical op.”

Bucky shrugs and looks back at the television. He doesn’t seem tense, but there’s a gentleness to his tone that wasn’t there before. “Never said it was a bad thing, Cap.”

“Well, it is if you want me to make a decision sometime this century.”

“80’s original it is, then,” Bucky says with conviction.

“I trust your judgement.”

“My judgement, oh man— we’ll watch Judge Dredd next time.” He starts the movie.

Once the movie’s on, some of the tension melts away. They eat fried rice straight out of the containers, and Bucky bought Steve three orders of egg rolls, which Steve systematically polishes off while he tries not to think about the fact that Bucky already keeps his ridiculous metabolism in mind.

His phone rings about halfway through, and Steve groans as Bucky reaches for the remote to pause the film. Natasha’s name and number light up the screen.

“I’m really sorry,” Steve says. “No one calls this line unless they need something important except for Tony.”

Bucky scrunches up his face in a “no problem” expression and waves at him, so Steve picks up.

“Rogers.”

“Steve,” Natasha grits, the line crackling with static, “I hate to ruin movie night, but we need you now.”

“Status report,” he demands. Next to him, Bucky tenses.

“A lot of men with guns. Possibility of an explosive or two. They’ve got hovercrafts. We’re thinking Hydra, but it’s unclear at this point. Tony’s got a jet on the way to you now, ETA twelve minutes. Hope your neighbors don’t mind a little noise in the street.” She pauses. “We need to rethink this living in DC thing. I needed you twenty minutes ago.”

Guilt stabs at Steve; he pushes it aside. “Suiting up. I’ll be there soon.”

The line goes dead and Steve stands. He looks down at Bucky and tries to muster up a smile, but he doesn’t think he succeeds.

“I’m sorry, Buck, but I have to—“

“You don’t need to apologize to me. I’ll clean this up. Get ready, Cap.”

Steve nods stiffly and hurries to his room, barely through the door before he starts taking off his shift and unbuttoning his pants.

It takes him ten minutes to get the suit on over the thin bodysuit he wears beneath it, and when he walks back into the living room, shield already on his back, he fully expects Bucky to be gone. He isn’t, though. He sits on the arm of the couch, shoes on, and is scrolling through his phone. He looks up when Steve walks in.

“I mean, it’s not the booty-short look,” he says seriously, “but I think you pull it off.”

Steve laughs softly. “Thanks, I think.”

Bucky looks like he might say something else, but Steve’s phone goes off again. Steve tries to reel in his frustration, and the cough-laugh from Bucky makes him think he fails. This time, it is Tony, but he’s forced to pick up since he knows the Avengers have been assembled.

“Rogers.”

“Hey, Cap. Can’t talk long. I’m being shot at. But hey, do me a solid and bring Robocop with you.”

“What?” Steve hisses, and he chances a very brief look at Bucky, who’s watching him with raised brows. He turns away immediately and growls, “No. Why would I bring him towards trouble?”

A muted explosion sounds in the background and Tony grunts, like he’s just been hit. He sounds less amused when he speaks next. “He’s due to come in next week for maintenance. It just makes things easier, Steve. Bring him with you. He can stay cozy and safe in the Tower.”

“This is a horrible idea,” Steve snaps and ends the call.

He stays where he is for a few moments, the phone gripped in his hand so tightly he won’t be surprised if there are cracks in the screen when he finally lets go. The thought of bringing Bucky to the front lines makes him want to just ignore Tony, but he decides to leave it up to Bucky.

When he turns back around, Bucky’s watching him expectantly, his expression carefully blank.

“Tony wants me to bring you with,” Steve says tightly. “For early maintenance on the arm.”

Something shifts in Bucky’s expression. “And you don’t want me to tag along.”

“It’s dangerous,” Steve starts, but Bucky rolls his eyes.

“I can handle dangerous just fine, pal.”

“Except you shouldn’t have to on someone’s whim.” Steve grits his teeth. “This isn’t a game, Buck.”

“I don’t think it is,” Bucky says, and there’s steel in his voice now. “I understand war, Steve. I lived it for nearly a decade, and it took my arm away. It took a lot of me away. I’ve only just started to get any of it back. I will be okay, though. I can handle a few gunshots in the distance while I’m luxuriating it up in Stark’s penthouse.”

Steve ducks his head, breathing out of his nose because his throat feels so tight he can barely swallow his own spit.

“Steve.”

He looks up. Bucky’s six, maybe seven inches from him now. He reaches out with his right hand and gives Steve one, two gentle claps on the cheek, very buddy-like, but then something shifts in his expression yet again and he allows his fingers, warm and calloused, to curl around the curve of Steve’s face. The movement of his thumb is almost unnoticeable, but Steve can feel the barely-there caress against his cheekbone, and he watches, eyes wide and heart hammering like Mjolnir, as Bucky’s gaze studies the planes of his face, searching.

“It’ll be fine,” Bucky says gently. “They don’t think about it, do they? That you’ve lost people, too.”

Steve’s ears ring and he swallows the lump in his throat. “Buck.”

“You won’t lose me,” Bucky adds, and he punctuates it with a rakish grin.

Steve exhales raggedly through his mouth. Bucky takes another step forward, the toes of his sneakers pressed to Steve’s dark blue boots, and for a moment, Steve thinks Bucky’s going to lean forward and kiss him. His eyes are like storm clouds and his lips are still parted even as the smile slips away.

Steve doesn’t know if he’s furious or relieved when the stuttering hum of a jet engine punctuates the heavy silence between them and breaks whatever’s there. Bucky steps back, his hand falling away, and shoves both of them in the pockets of his hoodie. There’s a barely-there flush on his cheeks.

“Duty calls,” he says, raspy, and then heads for the door before Steve can respond.

Dogs bark and dozens of people from the neighborhood crowd around their front doors as Steve and Bucky climb into the jet parked neatly in the middle of the street. Steve offers a wave in the hopes that it will stave off some of the neighborhood backlash, but then they’re strapping in and taking back off.

The jet’s capability means the hour-long commercial flight to New York only takes about twenty minutes. Neither Steve nor Bucky say anything to each other the entirety of the time they’re in the air. Bucky doesn’t look at him, just stares at his feet and occasionally checks his phone, and Steve is wrapped up in the chatters on his comms since he was outfitted with an earpiece about thirty seconds into the flight. His team, not surprisingly, abuses their communication line like they always do.

The ride gets bumpy as they arrive in New York, but they land on top of Stark Tower without issue. Bucky is lead off of the jet with a few SHIELD agents surrounding him to make sure she he isn’t caught in any crossfire, which is completely possible since a few of the enemy agents have what look like hovercrafts. Steve regrets for the sixtieth time allowing Bucky to be pulled into this, even if he’s meant to stay on the sidelines.

Once Steve’s on roof and Bucky is being lead away, he surveys the city from his perch. There’s smoke billowing up in dark plumes from several buildings and a few cars that are definitely on fire, but nothing’s been blown up, from what he can tell. All of the buildings, even the ones that are smoking, are intact. Tony zooms by in the distance, a blur of red against the dark sky, and the Hulk roars. Steve pulls his cowl over his face.

“Steve.”

Steve glances over his shoulder, surprise to hear Bucky’s voice. He was sure he’d already been ushered inside, but there he is, surging forward even though two agents have iron grips on either of his shoulders.

“Give ‘em hell,” Bucky says and offers a salute before he’s pulled inside.

Steve can’t help the smile that tugs at his lips, but the moment’s short. As the doors close behind Bucky and the agents, one of the enemy combatants zooms across the rooftop on his hovercraft. A few remaining SHIELD agents fire, and the distraction allows Steve to pulls his shield from his back and toss it. It hits the man in the throat as he nears Steve and he flies off of the craft, clutching at his crushed trachea. Steve sprints, catching his shield as it ricochets off of the jet just before he grabs a handlebar of the hovercraft, tugs it towards him, and hops on before the machine can turn upside down. It’s enough like his Harley that he manages to break before it flies off of the roof again.

“Cap just stole a hovercraft. Oh my god, JARVIS, tell me you recorded that,” Tony says in Steve’s ear.

“Let’s get to work,” Steve grouses.

“We’ve been working,” Clint says cheerfully. “You’re the one who needs to catch up.”

Steve huffs. “Just tell me how to work this thing.”

***

Steve is on the ground. Most of the people in a two mile radius have been evacuated, and the majority of the enemy hovercrafts have been torn out of the sky by Clint’s arrows, Iron Man’s repulsors, or the Hulk’s hands. There are still foot soldiers everywhere, though, crawling out of the woodwork like vermin. It leaves a bad taste in Steve’s mouth.

“This is a distraction,” he grits out when he meets up with Natasha. “It has to be. There’s no end game that I can make out, so what are we missing?”

“I agree.” Natasha runs a hand through her hair, pushing tangled, red locks away from her sweaty forehead. “Maybe we should—“

Her words end in a rattling inhale of breath as a bullet hits her square in the shoulder. She stumbles back and then manages a controlled fall to the concrete below. Steve is at her side within seconds, shield raised to protect them as he inspects the wound. Blood bubbles past her body suit and rolls down her chest in thick rivets. She grits her teeth against pain as Steve prods.

“Widow is down,” Steve states into the comms as he presses his hand to the would to staunch the bleeding. “Repeat, Widow is down. I need medical evac.”

“Steve,” Natasha hisses, and he looks up.

There are three men standing above them, armed to the teeth and pointing very large guns in their direction. Steve stays stock still, not wanting to provoke them into shooting before he can talk or strong-arm his way out of it. He’s not sure if either method would work. If they’d shown up minutes before, it wouldn’t have mattered that there were three versus two, but Steve and Natasha are at a disadvantage with their positioning and Natasha’s injury.

Not that it would stop either of them. Natasha shifts next to him, still pressed up against his side, and Steve quickly realizes she’s trying to very carefully reach for her side holster. Steve lowers the shield minutely to better block her body movements.

One of the men tenses. “Drop the shield, Captain.”

Before Steve can respond, each of the men crumples milliseconds after the other until they all lie dead, blood leaking steadily from wounds in their heads.

Steve and Natasha stare.

“Clint,” Natasha says slowly. “Was that you?”

“What?” the archer replies, confused. “No. What?”

Static hisses over the comms for a moment, and then there’s a beep, signaling someone joining the frequency.

“Barnes here.” He sounds grim and resigned, and it makes Steve’s heart break a little despite everything else going on. “They just got me fitted with an earpiece.”

“Why did you need one?” Natasha asks conversationally, leaning heavy against Steve. She’s got a hand pressed to her injury, the other still on her gun.

“There was an infiltration at the Tower. I’ve got six dead in what I assume is Stark’s server room by the looks of it and four more in the workshop.” Bucky pauses, and then adds, “And the three at your feet, Cap. Sorry I was late to the party.”

“What?” Steve says at the same time Tony demands, “In my server room? In my fucking lab? How?”

“A few of the SHIELD agents were playing both sides, I think.” Bucky sighs, some of the words muffled, like he’s rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m not sure, though. It all happened fast. Good thing this arm can pop out of most restraints, huh? What’s it made of, anyway, Tony? Adamantiaum? They tried to shoot me and bullets just bounce the fuck off.”

“You made those shots?” Natasha sits up straighter with Steve’s help. She’s pale, but at least the bleeding’s started “We’re a mile from the Tower, James.”

“I was a sniper, guys,” Bucky states, almost sounding amused. “You do remember that, right? I know you all read my file.”

Natasha hums thoughtfully. “Clint, you’ve been deposed.”

“It was only a mile,” Clint grumbles. “And I was busy!”

“Focus,” Steve snaps, and the comms go quiet. He wants to address Bucky, to release some of the anger and guilt boiling over inside of him, but he can’t, not now. They still have a mission. “Tony, what are they after?”

“I don’t know, honestly,” Tony says. “I’ve got a few things cooking in the workshop right now—“ He stops abruptly. “Well, fuck.”

“What is it”

“I’ve been working with SHIELD on a project.”

The entire team groans.

“I know, I know. This is why I was hesitant in the first place.”

“What is it?” Steve asks. “That you’re working on.”

“An AI defense program. SHIELD doesn’t have any of the specs because of shit like this, but there’s enough information going through the grapevine, maybe some of the basics stored on their servers. Goddamnit. James, is JARVIS active in the tower?”

“No.”

Tony exhales loudly. “He’s still active with my HUD, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ll be at the Tower in five.”

“Pick up Widow on your way,” Steve says. “We’re at 7th and 31st.”

“On my way.”

***

Steve doesn’t see Bucky for another three hours while they finish rounding up the remaining enemy agents, and then they’re being debriefed in one of Stark Tower’s committee rooms. Tony refuses to allow any of the SHIELD operatives into the room except for Fury and Maria Hill, and he asks them not to speak until he can have JARVIS do a full scan of the tower. He’s twitchy and seething, and Steve wonders when he slept last, especially because he doubts Tony will get any sleep in the next forty-eight hours.

By the time the debrief actually starts, they’re all exhausted and Fury is something beyond angry, though not at the Avengers for once. Bucky sits on the other side of the table next to Natasha. He not only looks exhausted, but there’s a nasty bruise on his cheek, dried blood on his hairline, and more blood spattered across the back of his metal hand. Steve doesn’t think the blood on his hand is his.

The debrief lasts nearly two hours, and most of the team leaves around the time Tony and Fury are standing toe to toe and yelling at each other about accountability. Steve’s the first one out, but he waits outside the doors. Natasha and Clint appear first, Bruce dragging behind them, but they take one look at Steve’s face and continue down the hall towards the elevators without a word.

“Hey, guys,” Bucky calls as he crosses the threshold into the hall, then does a double take when he realizes Steve is leaning against he wall, arms crossed, waiting for him.

“You’re on your own, man,” Clint replies.

Bucky turns fully towards Steve. He’s hesitant, Steve can tell, but he still says, “Hey.”

Steve doesn’t reply. He grabs Bucky’s right hand and drags him towards the elevators.

The hall is empty, thankfully, the rest of the team already having gotten on, and he waits for the second set of doors to open, pulling Bucky in after him. He hits his floor and stares at the panel. It’s taking him more effort than he likes to control his breathing, but he’s afraid he’ll explode if he doesn’t maintain some semblance of stability.

“Steve,” Bucky murmurs, two steps behind him even though their hands are still joined. “Hey, listen—“

“Stop talking,” Steve says, his voice some strained combination of Captain America’s demand for respect and a wildness that makes his pitch rise on it’s own.

Bucky listens.

Steve’s suite may be exactly how he left it when he was here a few weeks ago— he can’t be sure, though, because he doesn’t turn on a light. Bucky closes the door behind them, still not speaking but not pulling his hand out of Steve’s, either. They stand there in the dark for what feels like an eternity before Bucky starts to fidget, his palm sweating against Steve’s.

“You could have died,” Steve murmurs finally. “You could have died, Buck.”

“I told you I can take care of myself,” Bucky says indignantly. “Also, I’m not dead. I’m right here, and I’m not some fragile—”

Steve turns around and pulls Bucky in at the same time. They bump chests and Bucky grunts, and then in three strides he has Bucky crowded against the closed door. Bucky inhales sharply and even though he can’t see him, Steve can hear him gulp. It stops him a few inches from Bucky’s mouth, close enough that he can feel the other man’s hot breath on his lips. Neither of them are clear headed right now, and in the elevator, Bucky looked like he was about to fall forward from exhaustion. Steve doesn’t think this is the right time, even though his mind is screaming for it. He shouldn’t—

“God, please don’t stop now,” Bucky rasps, his metal hand gripping Steve’s hip tightly.

Steve throws caution to the wind and kisses him.

Bucky makes a whining sound, high pitched and needy, in the back of his throat. Steve frames Bucky’s face with his hands, careful of the bruising, and presses forward until he and Bucky touch from clavicles to hips. Bucky tries to pull him closer by his tactical belt, his stubble grating against Steve’s cheek as he tilts his head and licks at his lips.

“You could have died,” Steve repeats again, breathless this time, and rests his forehead against Bucky’s.

“So could you.” Bucky’s arms wrap around his waist and he spreads his legs so Steve fits even more flawlessly against him. “I killed one of them with my fucking hand, but the rest were put down by SHEILD. I just wanted to find you, needed eyes on you, so I asked for a scope, and there you were with Nat bleeding and these guys ready to shoot you. They were going to shoot you.”

Steve shakes his head. “I signed up for it, but you didn’t,” he manages.

Bucky barks a very non-amused laugh. “Yeah, well, too fucking bad. I’m in it now, I guess.”

“No, Bucky, you don’t—”

Bucky tugs sharply on Steve’s waist, and Steve gasps at the pressure of Bucky’s groin against his own.

“If this is what I think it is, then yeah, I’m in.” Bucky leans his head back against the door, a gentle thud. “Please tell me this is what I think it is. If I’ve been pining for months and you’re just riding the last bits of adrenaline, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself except die a slow, excruciating death.”

Steve chuckles. “It’s what you think it is.”

“I should let you know what you’re getting into, then,” Bucky says, and he nuzzles his nose against Steve’s jaw. “I still have nightmares. Sam calls me at all hours to make sure I’m eating and being human. I call Sam when he doesn’t call me because I hate being by myself but I hate going out. Sometimes I just watch Animal Planet all day.”

Steve full-on laughs now. “Are you sure you’re not describing me?”

“I’m serious, Steve,” Bucky says lowly.

“Me, too.”

“And the arm.”

“I don’t care about your arm.” Steve pulls Bucky’s metal hand to his lips and brushes them against the palm. Bucky gasps and Steve wishes he could see his face. “You’re amazing. All of it.”

Bucky’s laugh is breathless. “How are you even real.”

“Science,” Steve says, deadpan.

“Not this,” Bucky scoffs, splaying his free hand over Steve’s chest. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—I can’t wait to get you naked— but you’re just… you’re so…”

He trails off, but his lips find Steve’s again, and they kiss slowly, still pressed against the door, until a few bangs on the other side make Steve jump and Bucky slam the back of his head back in surprise. He hisses out a few curses.

“Steve,” Sam yells, “you son of a bitch, why do I have the damned wings if you’re not gonna call me and tell me you need help!”

“He has help!” Bucky snaps before Steve can quiet him.

Silence, and then, “Oh, shit, man. You finally did it! Good on you! Natasha won the bet, though. Damnit.” More silence. “Wait, help how? Did you suit up? Steve, did you let James suit up before me? Not cool, man! Not cool!”