Actions

Work Header

Fashion Victim

Work Text:

It began, as you might expect, with Paris and a coat.

After everything had spooled so dramatically out of control, with Steve, with Tony, with everyone taking sides and no one quite sure where the line of the law was anymore, they had now begun the long process of reeling the threads back in. Somewhere in there, between this fraught meeting and that tense reconciliation, while trying to wrench together the straggling remains of S.H.E.I.L.D, Hill and Coulson had decided that it would be a genius plan to send Bucky, Steve and Natasha out to do a few interviews.

“You mean a press-junket,” Tony asked Coulson. He seemed dubious. “That’s going to end up leaving a lot of the spin out of our control.”

“We’re old hands at that,” Steve said. It wasn’t clear whether he meant the press junket or the spin of the story being out of their control.

“We’re well versed,” Bucky agreed. “Nat doesn’t have to come if she’s busy.”

“Oh no,” Agent Hill said, her mouth pressed into a thin line. “Natasha is going. This is a whole different game. These reporters aren’t asking you questions off some pre-approved list carefully designed to put you and your glowing face and the war effort in the best light possible. They’re out for blood and Nat’s going to ensure that you’re not giving it to them.”

Steve shrugged, and Hill seemed to take that as some kind of acquiescence, but Bucky had seen that shrug before and what it meant was, ‘Well, how about you do things your way, and I’ll do them my way, and we’ll just have to see who’s right in the end.’

The general idea, as far as Bucky had understood from the debriefing, was that Hill and Coulson were going to trot out S.H.E.I.L.D’s new totally above board and transparent policies with Steve as a poster-boy for all things good and glorious, Bucky as a poster-boy for coming back from evil and Natasha in charge of shutting down hardball questions.

The first day of the tour, they took the commuter train up to New York and did three interviews in a grey cement set of office buildings down town. The first two were with blogs that asked them questions about what kind of modern cereal they liked, if they’d been back to any of their childhood haunts in Brooklyn and if Natasha ever bossed them around.

The second one was a filmed interview with a man who came on to the little set and sat down across from them with a smile like a shark.

He started by asking Steve if his faith in America ever wavered.

Steve leaned forward like he’d been waiting all day for someone to ask him that question. “My faith in America?” he said, smiling back at the man with this huge guileless grin that made the man’s eyes narrow. “What do you mean by that? In the people? In the government? In my direct superiors? In the constitution? In the law? Define America for me. Do me one better: define my faith. Tell me, exactly when do you think I lost my faith in America if it’s gone now? Was it when I was branded as a fugitive and had to scrape the dignity of S.H.E.I.L.D off the floor and out of the hands of neo-nazis? Was it when I died for America? Was it when I shipped out to entertain the troops for months on end despite being the biggest scientific advancement we had in the war by that point? We could go back further – what exactly do you think had me finding faith in America in the first place?”

The man was taken aback. He’d been watching them through the Cinnamon Toast Crunch questions with a face that said, ‘I’m going to eat you alive’ but that look had been swiftly reduced to ‘maybe I’ll get a bite’.

“I want to understand your relationship with our government and the military,” the man said, doing his best to recover his confidence.

Bucky was not imagining it when he heard Natasha whisper “oh boy” almost silently under her breath.

“Relationship? Mmm, let’s go back to faith, because that’s what it comes down to. I question my faith in the authority figures of this country every single day and I include myself in that group,” Steve said. “But luckily, I define my “faith” by faith in people.”

Steve went on for another two questions about faith in people, but it was almost immediately clear that he could go on endlessly about his belief in human goodness and his certainty that most people did the right thing given the opportunity.

The interviewer turned to Bucky, desperation growing. It was evident from his expression that he didn’t know whether he was winning the interview or not, which was probably his problem in a nutshell.

“Were you tortured as part of the Winter Solider programme?” he said, abruptly.

There was an ominous creaking noise as the arm of Steve’s chair bent under his grip. Bucky crossed one leg over the other so that he could gently nudge Steve’s knee with his boot.

“Yes, obviously,” Bucky replied.

“And you suffered various—”

Bucky cut the reporter off before he could continue. “I suffered,” he said. “That’s really the long and the short of it. For a bit less that seventy years, I was either suffering or causing suffering. I did nothing else.”

The reporter looked down at the notebook in his hands. Bucky could see the lost look on his face, almost enjoyed it. Steve shifted next to Bucky, realigned himself, and it took until he tangled his fingers with Bucky’s to realise that he was angling so that they could hold hands out of view of the cameras.

The reporter looked back up and took this in, and Bucky could see that there was a war within him, between the scoop and shame.

“How does it feel to be back home?” he said, a little more softly.

“I’m not really home. I’m in a new place. It is strange and confusing. But a hell of a lot better than the alternative and Steve is here.”

“Are you thankful to have been saved by—”

“No.” Steve said, jumping in. “He saved me. At the very least, more times than I ever saved him.”

“He saved me,” Natasha said, suddenly. “He saved me when I was just a girl. It wasn’t the last time I needed saving but he taught me it was possible. You can read about that in the interviews I did last year.”

“And did you—”

“Before you ask another question,” Steve said, interrupting the reporter again. “I want you to think for a minute about whether you want a clip of one of us saying something terrible, or you want a clip of us saying something true.”

That really drew the poor reporter up short and what, quite accidentally, next came out of his mouth was “Are you for real?”

That made Bucky laugh. “You and me both,” he said to the reporter.

“One-hundred per cent,” Steve said.

“Make it a good one, it’s your last,” Natasha said.

The reporter looked down at his notebook, which Bucky was pretty sure wasn’t giving him much help, and finally said, “Do you really think what you’re doing is right? Lending your face to the rebuilding of S.H.E.I.L.D?”

Steve shrugged. “All I can tell you is that the second I don’t think what I’m doing is right, I won’t be doing it anymore.”

Of course, the top sound bite that made all the headlines and chat shows explode the next news cycle was Steve saying “I question my faith in the authority figures of this country every single day.” Strangely the second most quoted was Steve saying “I want you to think for a minute about whether you want a clip of one of us saying something terrible, or you want a clip of us saying something true.” Huffpost’s most viewed article of the week was titled “They’ve held their silence for three quarters of a century – are we really ready to hear them pass judgement on what we’ve done with the country they saved?”

“Well,” Coulson said, across the table in Conference Room Three, pinching the bridge of his nose like his headache had climbed into a spaceship and was ready for take-off. “I think I can safely say that we’ll be postponing the rest of the press tour for at least one news cycle.”

Steve looked somehow sorry without being apologetic. “Look Phil,” he said, sympathetically. “I can either uphold your new program of transparency and truth, or I can say nice things about cinnamon toast crunch and supporting our troops and not a word more. But I can’t do both at the same time.”

“Yes, but did it really have to be ‘I question my faith in the authorities every single day’?”

“That’s truncated!” Steve said, defensively. They had all become very well acquainted with the term truncated over the last twenty-four hours.

“It was…” Coulson sighed. “It was really an excellent interview. You were beautifully articulate. But it really didn’t do such a great job of proving your confidence in—”

“I’m not confident. I am hopeful and extremely cautious and I’m not going to lie about that.”

“Can I at least ask for a little tact?”

“I am very tactful! Falsworth used to call me Captain Tact!”

“It’s true,” Bucky said, knowingly. “Howard Stark once kissed Steve right on the mouth for so delicately explaining that Stark’s butt did indeed look big in that.”

“What?” Natasha said, laughing as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I’m texting Tony that.”

Coulson seemed to be struggling to find the words to explain himself. Finally, he said. “You use very emotive language. You make everything sound personal.”

“It is personal!”

“Hmm,” Bucky said. “We probably had better wait a while to come out, too. Until we get better at this.”

What?” Coulson said, voice almost a whisper.

“Did Nat not tell you? I thought she told you?”

“Tony, Sam, Bruce and I had a bet going. Bruce just won, so thanks a lot for that,” Nat said, mildly annoyed.

“Oh no,” Couslon said. “Maria is going to kill me for not knowing this. I’m a dead man. Oh dear God in heaven.”

He turned his face to the wall, like a grieving man. Or possibly he was just trying to hide his laughter. Bucky couldn’t be sure.

+

But, back to the coat.

The press tour, already off to a shaky start, continued in drips and drabs over the next few weeks. It wasn’t quite going how any of them had imagined.

Steve simply wasn’t suited to smiling blithely at reporters while they told him that he was the last bastion of grace and purity in a crumbling, morally grey world. Bucky wasn’t suited to interviews period. He had two basic settings, one was flirting shamelessly and the other was staring dead-eyed into the camera to deliver bare statements of fact.

People seemed fascinated by Bucky. S.H.E.I.L.D had released a statement before the tour, which explained the facts of his past. As of yet, there hadn’t been any public outrage over Bucky’s status as an ex-soviet assassin, but Natasha had already fronted the blow for that kind of breaking news. The main trouble was that the reporters didn’t seem to know what to ask him. That line way back from the first interview where he’d talked about suffering was still the most commonly quoted thing he’d said.

“How many innocent people have you killed?”

“I don’t know, a lot”

“Do you ever worry about relapsing?”

“Very unlikely according to Wakandan scientists.”

“How do you feel about all those deaths?”

”Very, very bad. I have a lot of screaming nightmares.”

“Do you feel like they were your fault?”

“Not intellectually, but that doesn’t help with the nightmares.”

“What keeps you up at night?”

“I think I just answered that one.”

“Can you tell us about your arm?”

“It’s made from a special metal alloy. The technology used is a Wakandan state secret so I can’t be more specific. It does not particularly hurt.”

“How does it feel to be a hero now?”

“Am I being heroic right now? I thought this was an interview for Entertainment Weekly.”

It seemed that nobody thought all those bleak, short answers made good copy.

All the reporters who’d turned up smelling blood in the water fell away. The messy and complicated truth of things was sucking all the bravery right out of the room. They’d travel, answer questions about which side of the bed they slept on (left, right, left), and if any of them cooked (Steve), and if they had to work hard to keep in shape (in a manner of speaking).

Bucky had been spending an increasing number of interviews saying nothing at all. No one seemed to know what to ask him. He could tell that people were afraid of him, and he didn’t know how or if he should fix it. His standard was now one question per interview, usually some set up for him to tell a cute little pre-war anecdote and then they were onto asking Steve about adjusting to the modern world (it had been literal years now, people). Or, to everyone’s increasing dismay, they’d ask Natasha about what she was wearing.

Natasha seemed to expect it and tended either to provide some kind of short but knowledgeable answer or deflect the question with a demure smile that made lesser men shake in their boots. The real problem was that it drove Steve completely up the wall. By the time they were starting the European part of the tour, Bucky had taken to draping his arm across the back of Steve’s chair so that he could dig his fingers into the vulnerable spot under Steve’s shoulder blade when he inevitably started to get worked up.

“It’s ridiculous,” Steve was saying as they walked back to the hotel after a morning of four consecutive fluff interviews. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. Nat, you are probably the smartest person I know. Way smarter than the several people I know with multiple Ph. Ds. And yet somehow your input into the massive global shakeup we’re facing is the fucking fashion of S.H.E.I.L.D. agents? Which, I mean, anyone who knows you knows you don’t give two shits about. I’ve seen what’s in your suitcase. It’s all been packed in fully made up outfits by Pepper’s PA. All your clothes come from a subscription service!”

“Gosh, Steve, tell us how you really feel,” Bucky said, sharing a look with Natasha.

“You certainly did a good enough job of it with that poor girl earlier,” Natasha said, looking one part amused, one part exasperated.

“Ha ha, guys,” Steve said, visibly frustrated. “She wasn’t a poor girl, she was a reporter who knew exactly what she was doing—”

“She didn’t,” Natasha said. “She didn’t know what she was doing. She has some list of pre-approved questions, vetted by her producer and on that list is asking me about fashion because it’s safe and because I can give an answer that sounds knowledgeable. If I’m doing it from the notes Pepper’s PA gave me, what does it matter? That’s how it’s going to have to be because no one knows what to do with us in an interview since no one wants to ask you any real questions.”

“Why not?” Steve asked. “What is the point of this if no one asks us real questions? If no one asks all of us some real goddamn questions?”

“Because, Steve,” the pitch of Natasha’s voice dropped. “Of the media shitstorm between the warring factions “Steve-Rogers-is-Jesus-incarnate” and “Steve-Rogers-has-a-secret-fascist-agenda” and “Steve-Rogers-has-a-secret-socialist-agenda” that descends horribly and unceasingly on every outlet that attempts to say two words about you. We’re really rapidly running out of light-hearted anecdotes around here. All I can do is answer, or gently call them out. I’m here to make this work, Steve, so we can go back to doing our real jobs. We’re not here to stir up trouble. We’re here for the exact opposite of that.”

Natasha was practically breathing hard when she finished. Bucky felt suddenly bad that Nat had to do all these interviews with them anyway. Yes, she was good at it, but when Steve got going there wasn’t much anyone could do to stop him anyway. Maybe Sam should come have a turn at playing babysitter for them.

“Gosh, Nat,” Steve said, petulantly. “Tell us how you really feel.”

Nat smiled a kind of sad, put upon smile. “This whole thing was a stupid idea.”

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Bucky offered.

“I told Coulson it was a stupid idea. People aren’t ready to hear the kind of things we’ve got to say.” Nat said. There wasn’t much more to it than that.

The silence that fell was the mounting kind that threatened at awkward. The weather hadn’t gotten the memo, and the fading light was pale yellow, casting lovingly long shadows across the paving stones. They were in Paris and Bucky was struck by the sudden realisation that he could conceivably go anywhere he wanted right now. There were no orders stopping him.

“Let’s not go back to the hotel yet,” he said, bumping hips with Steve.

“I think Clint’s meeting us for dinner,” Natasha said.

“Go have your BFF slumber party in peace,” Bucky said. “I’m taking Steve out on the town.”

Steve sighed. “I’m probably not the best of company right now.”

“Good,” Bucky said. “Ninety-five per cent of the time the task of being terrible company falls to me. I think it’s only fair that we switch it up sometimes.”

“You’re not terrible company,” Steve said, automatically.

“You don’t have to constantly stoke my ego, you know,” Bucky said. “Fear not, the embers are still burning.”

Steve finally grinned at that, some return quip brewing, but before he had a chance, Bucky reached out to brush his fingers over the corner of Steve’s mouth where his lips were turning up into a smile. Steve drew to a halt and caught Bucky’s out-stretched hand in his own, pressed a kiss into his palm before releasing him.

“I see how it is,” Natasha said. “Who’s really angling for some alone time here?”

Bucky shrugged with practised nonchalance. “Moi? Trying to make out with my boyfriend in various romantic locales across the city of love? Surely not.”

Steve looked a bit bashful at that.

“Fine, fine,” Nat said. “I’ll leave you to your fun.”

Steve caught her shoulder as she turned away. “I’m sorry, Nat,” he said. “I’m just frustrated.”

“I know. Thank you.”

They reached the crossroads that the hotel was on and Natasha left them, ambling away and giving them an absent-minded wave. “Be home by curfew, boys.”

“Whatever,” Bucky replied. He was distracted.

He was looking at the display of the upscale shop across the road. “Jeeze,” He said, “Look at that coat. That is a fucking gorgeous coat.”

The coat in the window was long, past the knee and more than three-quarters of the way to the floor. It was fine wool, quite dark in colour but with a subtle pattern like rich oil paints sponged across a canvas: mostly mottled brown and khaki green with a hint of a chocolatey purple. It had a complex double-layered lapel and was cinched tight around the waist with a belt that sat just above the natural waist of the mannequin. This, combined with the width of the lapels and the softness of the shoulder gave what was otherwise quite a military-inspired design a feminine look.

“Huh,” Steve said. “Yeah, it’s nice.”

“Hmm… to own something like that, you know?”

They were walking past the window now, but Steve stopped. “Why don’t you go in a try it on?”

“What?” Bucky said. “I can’t try that on. It probably costs over a hundred dollars.”

Steve looked up at the shop. “It’s probably thousands.”

Bucky choked. “People buy clothes that cost thousands of dollars?”

“You’re forgetting about inflation.”

“Right, right. Well, anyway, case in point. I’m not going to even touch some coat the costs thousands of dollars. They probably wouldn’t even let me in there.”

“You’ve literally just come from a TV show filming. You’re a famous sort-of superhero. They’d definitely let you in there. Come on. You like it, you should get it.”

“Are you crazy, Steve? We don’t have that kind of money, what are you talking about?”

Steve laughed humourlessly. “Are you kidding yourself? We are loaded. We both have six-figure salaries and a joint bank account that Peggy somehow had the foresight to ensure has been accruing interest since the forties and with that money, we live in a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn and eat mainly eggs and mac and cheese. I can’t give it away. I have been trying but until I manage to hire someone I like to do it as a full-time job, I literally cannot give money away to charity as fast as we’re earning it.”

“What?” Bucky said.

“You know what the first thing I bought was? After I woke up?”

“I don’t know? Clothes? Food?”

“No, I was basically under house arrest with Nick Fury breathing down my neck all hours of the night and day. All those kinds of things magically appeared in my ‘apartment’.”

“Well then?”

“Pepper appeared and explained how debit cards worked, told me that I was rolling in it and I sat on my sofa for forty-five minutes staring at the wall completely not understanding the concept of total financial security and then I went out the door and I took the subway to Bill’s, which is owned by his grand-daughter now, by the way, and I bought thirty-two hundred dollars worth of records.”

“Thirty-two hundred dollars?”

“I just walked around the shop and if I liked the look of it, I put it on the desk and eventually there were too many to fit on the desk anymore so I checked out.”

“Holy shit.”

“The bank called me because it looked like a suspicious purchase. I basically told them to ignore whatever bizarre charges they saw for the next week. I just let myself go for it. Nick Fury had to let me get my own actual place because the people at front desk of the S.H.E.I.L.D. building I was in complained that the number of packages they were taking in for me was violating security protocols. So, if you want one fucking coat, let’s go get it.”

“Right,” Bucky said. “Okay. Why don’t we get dinner first, though? I think this is gonna take a while for me to get to grips with. I mean, I have to overcome both the memory of my childhood of abject poverty and the brainwashing that instilled in me the deep sense that I, a thing, am not capable of also owning things.”

Steve laughed, “This is what we should be talking about in interviews.”

“The world is not ready to hear you laugh at the black fucking jokes I make about brainwashing.”

Steve sighed. “Their loss. Also, point of order, your childhood was not abject poverty. It was just normal poverty – mine was abject poverty.”

“Maybe before my mother started feeding you, but you dragged us down, don’t you worry. How could one so small eat so much? Are you sure it was a ‘serum’ the ‘scientists’ gave you? It wasn’t just the extra portions of my mother’s brisket you consumed once I was gone?”

Steve bumped shoulders, smiling at the ground. “Let’s get hot chocolate. Have you had it yet, since we’ve been here? It’s almost as good as that place Dernier took us to outside Metz in ’44.”

+

They went back the next morning. He let the sales person talk him into a pair of criminally skinny black drainpipe trousers too, to complete the look. His boots were his own, some Wakandan things Shuri had pushed kind of unwillingly on him. The shiny buckles had various useful features like shock absorption, a boost that let him jump a good extra fifteen feet in the air, trackers in case of emergency and an experimental weapon, tantalisingly called a ‘nano-dagger’, that only Bucky was allowed to touch. Had he put them on purposely this morning because the sharp, slick leather look of them made them the most fashion-conscious sartorial items he owned?

He took a long time looking at himself in the changing room once he had everything on. It was a strange feeling to look at himself in a mirror.

He’d thought a lot about what he’d looked like before the war. Steve had found a mirror round the back of a closed down barbers and brought it home for what he claimed were ‘art’ purposes and he did use it to do some self-portraiture, but not too long after that Bucky had acquired some stockings and garters ‘for a friend’ from his third cousin.

Well, Steve had lost his mind over that, pinning him to the mirror, holding on to the edge of it, where it was screwed into the wall, wrenching until plaster dust had rained down. The whole time his other hand had been on the back of Bucky’s neck, securing him in place. The memory was fractured into a series of still images in Bucky’s bruised mind.

Steve’s dark, wet eyelashes sticking to his cheek. The pink quality of the light from the scarf thrown over the lamp. His own wet open mouth, his own full, beautiful lips, his own dark brown hair, falling just so in his eyes, the black lace contrasted against the tops of his own creamy thighs. The innumerable times he’d looked at himself in more ordinary ways in that same mirror were bleeding all over that one charged memory. Adjusting the collar of his army uniform the first time he’d ever put it on. Fixing the flower in his lapel before a night out. Brushing his hair up into the perfect coif. Putting lipstick and blush powder on for the curiosity of it and admiring the cut of his own cheekbones. Looking at himself naked at twenty and thinking about the pull and stretch of his own muscles, deciding that he’d filled out well enough for a boy who was chronically underfed.

He’d been vain. And back then he hadn’t particularly like that about himself, because who liked to be vain? But now as the feeling bloomed open again, staring at himself in the most beautiful goddamn clothing he’d ever touched in his life, vanity was suddenly his favourite thing about himself. It was the most wholly positive feeling he could remember experiencing since before he’d been captured. He was shaking with it. He knew, with some distant part of his brain, that he was having a kind of panic attack, but it also wasn’t one. He loved the way he looked. He loved the silky feel of the lining, how the shadowed hollows under his eyes seemed almost deliberate, the slightly feminine edge to the pattern and the high waist, the fact that a gun would have ruined the line of it, that the silver glint of his left hand was like an accessory, like a choice. The pencil thin trousers shifted his whole silhouette right away from the muscle-bound bulk he vaguely associated with himself when he went past reflective surfaces. Abruptly, with no warning, this was again a body he owned and the re-integration felt as terrifying as it did good.

“Are you okay, Buck?” Steve said. He was speaking quietly, just on the other side of the door.

“Yeah,” he said, through short, sharp breaths. “I’m okay. I’m not one hundred percent, but it’s... Hey… you don’t remember… Do you remember the mirror we had in our old apartment? Do you remember the time that we… that you…”

“Oh yes,” Steve said. Bucky could hear the mischief in his voice. “I very much vividly remember the time that we….”

Bucky laughed. “Maybe I should get some stockings,” he said. “I’m okay,” he repeated.

“Do you want me to go? Or come in?”

“No?” Bucky said. “Can you just stay where you are?”

“Sure,” Steve said, in that way he had, that was just the definition of casual, protective patience.

Bucky’s breathing slowed down and he said, “I’ll be out in a minute.” Steve took the cue and his presence disappeared from the other side of the door.

Bucky waited till he’d calmed the rest of the way down and looking at himself in the mirror felt at least mostly normal again. He could hear Steve and the sales associate chatting. Steve was trying out his shitty wartime French and the sales person was making fun of his archaic turns of phrase. His language patterns hadn’t really gotten a chance to modernise in French like his English had.

“You sound so much too polite,” the sales person said, in English.

“I am very polite!” Steve defended himself.

“No one is this polite!” The sales associate was laughing.

Bucky made himself stand perfectly straight as he opened the changing room door, imagining Nat’s dancer posture. “What do you think?” he asked, doing a slow turn.

“How is it you say this in America?” the sales person said, flicking their hair back over their shoulder and pursing their lips. “’Yes honey, you can get it.’ This is right, non?”

Steve laughed. “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” He quieted though as he studied Bucky. He gave him a raking once over. It was an appreciative, hungry look Bucky had forgotten could exist on Steve’s face. At once only a single breath of time passed and forever, sending a shiver rippling down Bucky’s back. “You can, though,” Steve said. His voice was deeper than usual.

“What?” Bucky said, feeling himself, of all things, start to blush.

“Get it,” Steve said, staring at him.

Bucky honestly didn’t even hear the price of the stuff at the register.

+

That afternoon, on the third soft-ball interview of too many, Steve couldn’t hold himself back anymore. “Why are you asking her about her shirt?” Steve said. Bucky translated, and the woman interviewing them paused, confused.

“Répétez la question s'il vous plaît?”

Bucky studied her, leaning back in his chair. She didn’t want him to repeat the question: she wanted him to explain. Luckily, Natasha stepped in before Bucky had to think of what to say. “He’s annoyed that you asked about what I am wearing because it is irrelevant to my job and to the reason I am here speaking with you. And because no one has ever asked him that question.”

“I don’t think I picked up all of that,” Steve said, turning to Bucky.

“She said you’re annoyed because it’s irrelevant and because people don’t ask you irrelevant fashion questions,” Bucky explained.

“Yep. Good,” Steve said, his mouth drawn into a tight little line.

The reporter didn’t have anything to say back about that. She just shrugged and gave Natasha a smug little smile, like “What are you going to do about it? That’s how it is.”

Steve opened his mouth and somehow, before he could get whatever cutting thing he was about to say out, Bucky found himself saying, “Let me tell you about who I’m wearing instead. It’s Ann Demeulemeester, fall season. I really like the layered, textured nature of her collection. For me, the military inspiration behind this piece really harkens back to how I had to dress for a good six years of my life and there’s something emotional about that on a personal level, but I’m obsessed with the details that drag us back to the modern era, like these oversized pockets and the androgyny evoked by putting this high, cinched waistline on such a heavy coat.”

Nat, Steve, the interviewer and the camera people all were staring at him, open-mouthed. He’d shocked himself. He was, internally, staring at himself, open-mouthed.

“What did you say? Nat, what did he say? I only got half of that. What did he say?”

She was stuck still, looking at Bucky like he’d been body-replaced. Steve tugged at her sleeve. “Uhh…” Bucky said. He translated himself for Steve’s benefit.

With each line that passed, Steve’s eyebrows rose.

“Where did you-?”

“I was googling the designer,” he said hesitantly. “In the taxi, earlier.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I see that.”

The reporter recovered first. Somehow, Bucky found himself answering two follow up questions and somehow this made the reporter not avoid him after that and she asked him a question about how to overcome trauma that he gave a whole three sentences as an answer for and then she asked about what kind of threat Hydra still posed. They all ended up speaking on that for good fifteen minutes and managed to strike a balance between being comforting and confirming the need for high levels of personal and national security.

They were on a roll after that. Each reporter that came in had better questions than the last, bolstered by the gossip of their predecessors. The last guy got a ten-minute speech from Steve about the historical banner of liberty that had been carried by the down-trodden into the modern era. He talked about French resistance fighters and his belief that the concept of resistance was like a beacon for hope that was always brightest in the darkest places and that his job as Captain America was not to be the beacon, as so many seemed to believe, but to direct the ever-shining beacon upheld by all those who did not accept oppression on places no one thought to look. The reporter started crying and hugged them all at the end. Hill called them after and told them she was about to get the first restful night of sleep she’d had in three months.

“Out of all the ways I saw this going, Bucky rescuing us with insightful fashion commentary was just not even on the list,” Nat said as they walked out of the recording studio.

+

The next day they flew out to London, working their way back to New York. Steve and Nat went to pick Sam up from the hotel where he’d been waiting for them to get in. Bucky took himself through the doors of the most upscale looking barber he could find and got a haircut.

He let them keep some of the length in the top, but got it off the back of his neck. Shorter again, but minus the brill cream he’d been used to before the war, or the sweat and dirt during, the mid-length hair that swept across his forehead and skimmed his ears had a very loose, bouncy wave to it. The guy cutting his hair had said “I think this really romantic fringe we’re giving you is going to do wonders softening your face.” He had never considered that soft might be a desirable quality in a man’s face, and now that his had it, he couldn’t stop looking at himself in the reflections of the windows he walked past. His head was so light.

Sam wolf-whistled when he saw him. Nat kissed him on the cheek and said, “That looks like it feels better.”

Steve said “Oh,” and “Can I…” and then before Bucky could answer, his hands were sliding up the back of Bucky’s skull, feeling the shortness of the hair there. “It’s so soft,” he said. He wrapped the curliest of the tendrils framing Bucky’s face around his finger and watched in fascination as it sprang back into place.

“Darling?” Bucky said.

“Yes.” Steve answered. He smiled down at Bucky and Bucky smiled back up at him. It seemed that sometimes they were still lucky enough to be in an ordinary kind of love like ordinary people.

They bagged two more good quality interviews. Steve was bouncing off Sam’s straightforward positivity in a way that was difficult for him to do with Bucky or Nat. Everyone was in a good mood when they broke for lunch.

The weather was cooperating. There was an early spring crispness in the air, but the skies were an untroubled blue.

“Do you want to go shopping?” Steve asked. “It seems like the thing to ask your boyfriend in London.”

“I think – yes, I do actually,” Bucky answered. They split off from the rest of the group and left them day drinking at a café on the Southbank and took the tube to Oxford Road. “It’s not actually as busy as I imagined it would be.”

“Well it’s the middle of a work day in March. I guess that’s not exactly prime shopping time,” Steve said, surveying the street curiously. “We’ve not been recognised yet.”

“Not sure if it’s that or they’re just unimpressed,” Bucky said. “Look at all their prissy faces.”

“You’re so judgy.”

Bucky hummed. “I love that word. That’s a great twenty-first century invention. I mean, even more New York than New Yorkers with how busy they all think they are.”

“I find it soothing,” Steve said.

Bucky sighed. “You would.”

They went into John Lewis first, since it was right over the road and it was charmingly the closest either of them had seen to the department stores they’d grown up with. It felt good just to walk between the racks of clothes and let the sleeves of hanging shirts run through his fingertips like raindrops. Steve ended up being the first to try something on – a Ted Baker bomber jacket. “I like the lining,” he said, looking at himself in the mirror on the wall between the shirts and the suit jackets.

“It’s all about the lining,” Bucky said, sounding very self-assured before he snickered at himself.

Bucky bought two shirts in John Lewis, but deemed it largely ‘plain’. Steve found a scarf for Bucky in House of Fraser that went with his coat. It was oversized in length and width, though the fabric was quite thin, a brushed grey alpaca wool with a subtle green fleck. The feel of it wrapped around his neck was the heart of sumptuousness, yet something about it, maybe the olive tone, maybe the tiniest hint of scratchiness, also made of him think of army blankets, pulling them up to his chin in a wreck of an old church in France.

“You’ve got to get that,” Steve said, tucking Bucky’s fringe out of his eyes again with one hand and rubbing the scarf between his thumb and finger with the other. He’d crowded right into Bucky’s space, their noses nearly brushing. Steve was perhaps only two inches taller than him, if that, but it felt like a foot when he leaned like that, mouth soft and just out of reach.

Bucky wore the scarf out of the shop even though he could tell the clerk thought it was a little gauche to rip the tags off right at the register and hand them to her to put in the trash. They walked all the way down to Marble Arch, looking in the windows.

Bucky could feel the cool, calculating and impersonal part of his mind running diagnostics on the contents of every store they glimpsed and for once he was glad of his mental database for storing of every tiny detail. He let himself start building a kind of portfolio, the way he would if he were casing the street for a job. He recorded every bit of negligible minutia - the colours of clothes, the ways the outfits on the mannequins were put together. Usually his brain would have thrown all that out in favour of noticing where every dark corner and security camera was and now he made himself do the opposite.

They went into Primark last. “I think I’m already too spoiled to shop here,” Bucky said, casting a calculating eye on a floppy polyester kimono in a neon print.

“I can’t imagine its very ethical,” Steve said, scratching thoughtfully at his stubble. “I like this t-shirt though.”

“Thus fell a million principled men,” Bucky said, mournful.

“If you still wanted to try on some dresses, maybe this is a good place,” Steve said, looking around. People were minding their own business like it was a religion.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Less… judgy.” The word made him smile.

Bucky loaded up an armful of patterned dresses and a variety of fabric tubes he wasn’t even quite sure of how to put on. Steve brought the t-shirt with him so he could follow Bucky into the dressing room. The woman who counted their items didn’t seem to register what Bucky was handing over.

Bucky led the way to the furthest corner of the changing rooms, which were set out in a long series of blindingly lit, twisting pathways. There must’ve been at least seventy cubicles, but it was hardly a peak time and most of them stood empty, a few forlorn plastic hangers abandoned on the floor. Steve sat on a stool in the unoccupied room over from the one Bucky was changing in, his legs crossed in front of him at the ankles.

Bucky drew the teal curtain – for suspense, there was no one else on the whole aisle - and put on a bizarre grey net body suit first. As intended, it cracked Steve right up. “It looks like a onesie for a very cool baby,” Steve said.

“Oh, you sure know how to make a guy feel good,” Bucky replied, faking hurt.

“Aww, poor you,” Steve said. “Hottest guy on the block and he still needs stoking.”

Bucky pulled the curtain again before Steve could seem him blush.

He put on a neon bikini, one of the mysterious fabric tubes and some giant furry boots paired with leather shorts all in succession until finally, gasping with laughter as Bucky posed dramatically in the dressing room doorway with one foot up against the wall, Steve said “I surrender, I surrender, you look amazing in everything, even that thing that was basically a big ketchup packet. But will you try on something real? That you like?”

Bucky retreated behind the curtain again and contemplated the options before him with a trepidation that swept over him in an unexpected, chill wind. He’d been playing a game up till now and suddenly Steve had changed the rules and he wanted Bucky to like what he put on which felt fearfully close to looking in the mirror and really seeing himself again. He wasn’t sure he was ready.

He looked at the pile of fabric he’d brought in with him, picking up each item and contemplating it before putting it back down. He was taking a lot longer this time. He could hear Steve fidgeting with the curtain in the dressing room he was sitting in. Bucky could almost feel him desperately trying not to ask if Bucky was okay.

“Give me some kind of rule,” Bucky said finally, frustrated with himself.

“Red,” Steve said, immediately. He’d been out there thinking about it. Bucky swallowed.

There were a few red things. Once he pulled them out to look at them, he knew which one he liked immediately. It was a long, oversized deep maroon shirt dress, nearly transparent with a pattern of velvety flowers. He’d picked it up mostly because he liked the texture difference in the fabric, the opaque, raised floral against the smooth surface of organza.

The dressing room curtain opened and Steve’s mouth went dry.

“Can you tie this?” Bucky said, “At the back.” His face wasn’t composed now – not like it had been in all the joke outfits, wearing a pouty moue and winking with his head tipped back at that twenty-degree angle that meant Bucky knew he was hot shit. He looked a little lost.

He’d put thin black tights on. The red shirt dress was half unbuttoned and only just skimmed the tops of his thighs, since his shoulders had filled out the fabric at the top a lot more than it would have on the average woman.

Steve stood up to do the tie at the back, cinching the waist in, without saying anything. Bucky turned around to let him and they both looked up at the same time, gazes meeting in the mirror.

“Jesus,” Steve said. “You look-” Suddenly he was nineteen again and just looking at Bucky too long made him hard in his pants. Bucky tipped his head to one side and without even thinking, Steve was kissing him there, at the smooth juncture between his neck and shoulder. He brushed his nose into the fine freshly cut hair on the back of Bucky’s head. His hands went around Bucky’s waist, the fabric of the shirt was slippery to the touch. There was a hitch in Bucky’s breath, familiar and from a long, long time ago.

“Pull the curtain closed,” Bucky said. His voice was rough.

“Yeah,” Steve whispered, pulling it tight behind them before crowding forward so Bucky was pinned up against the mirror. Bucky rested his head against it as Steve ran his hands all the way up Bucky’s back to his shoulders and then all the way down to his ass, dragging the organza against Bucky skin. Steve’s dick pressed into Bucky’s ass for a split-second and Steve gasped.

“I want to suck you off,” Steve whispered.

“Oh fuck,” Bucky whined.

“Only if you promise to be real quiet,” Steve said.

Bucky couldn’t catch his breath to answer but he nodded frantically. Steve spun him around and sank to his knees. He slid his hands up and down Bucky’s legs, pushing the two, long ends of the shirt out of the way and mouthing at the millimetre thin fabric of the black tights as close to Bucky’s dick as he could get without touching it yet. Bucky’s thighs were glowing through the tights, creamy golden as Steve distended the fabric, tugging it down just enough that the elasticated waistband was now trapping Bucky’s cock tightly against his body. Steve put the heel of his palm against Bucky’s dick and let Bucky rock up into the pressure for a few scant, dissatisfying seconds. Bucky let out a moan of irritation.

“Shhh,” Steve demanded. “Or I’ll stop.”

Bucky clamped his mouth shut. He dared to look down at Steve. Steve sensed it somehow, and gazed up at Bucky, his lake blue eyes, his mouth so pink, his eyelashes a perfect dark fringe against his cheeks as he blinked. “You’re beautiful too,” Bucky whispered down at him, feeling absolutely high.

“I know, baby,” Steve said and then he tugged the tights down the last two inches, pulling Bucky’s underwear down with them and wrapped his lips around the head of Bucky’s cock. Bucky, by some miracle, did not make a noise, but he did thwack his head against the mirror. Blessedly, Steve didn’t stop to chastise him. Instead, he released his grip on Bucky’s hips just enough that Bucky could rock down a little into Steve’s throat. It felt nearly impossible to keep control over his mouth.

Steve barely let up for a good four minutes, it was too much. He swallowed around Bucky’s full length and Bucky let slip the tiniest sound of distress. Steve rocked back, breathing hard. “You okay?” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said. “I just… I really want you to fuck me.” He couldn’t look at Steve as he said it. He didn’t want to see Steve’s face going soft and gentle, ready to let him down as easily as possible.

“Are you sure?” Steve said.

Bucky blinked in surprise.

“Are you sure sure?” Steve said. “Because it’s obviously not a good idea but I really…” his hands were clenching and unclenching in the stretch of the tights, against the back of Bucky’s calves.

Bucky squeezed his eyes closed again so he could have a second of clarity where he wasn’t looking down at the unimaginable wet dream that was Steve’s face right now. “Yes, I’m sure sure,” he said.

“I’m just saying that the sensible thing would not be for the first time I’m in you in more than seventy years to happen with you up against the wall in the dressing room in a Primark.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, spiky. “I guess I wasn’t in the briefing where we’re doing the sensible thing now.”

“God,” Steve said. “You’re such a little shit.”

Bucky smiled up at the fluorescent light. “Will you shut up and fuck me now?”

Steve didn’t need to be told a third time. “Quiet,” Steve said. “You’ve got to be very good now, since I’m going to go slow.”

Bucky nodded and let Steve put his fingers in Bucky’s mouth.

“Fuck, you look good,” Steve whispered. He pushed the tights down to around Bucky’s knees, which slightly destabilised Bucky’s balance, but Steve was already putting his left hand against the mirror so Bucky could brace himself against it with his mental arm without cracking the mirror. Steve’s free hand was not exactly free. He was sliding one finger, wet with spit, smooth and careful against Bucky’s hole. Bucky concentrated on their reflection.

His face was flushed, his fringe in his eyes as soft and ruffled looking as any hair-dresser could have possibly wanted. His eyes were shiny – he looked totally fucked and, Steve was right, he looked amazing. Steve was sheltering him, all smooth, damp skin and flashes of a sly smile. Steve pressed a second wet finger in and Bucky couldn’t breathe but for once it wasn’t panic. “Come on,” he whispered. “Please, please.”

“Okay, okay, we’ll get there,” Steve was saying. Bucky tried not to whine. He was still struggling to keep his feet underneath himself and he slipped a little against the mirror, his right hand was too sweaty on the glass. The sudden movement pushed him all the way back onto Steve’s fingers, which finally skimmed over a flash of too-good pleasure. “That’s it,” Steve said as Bucky gasped, loosening.

“Now, Stevie,” Bucky demanded.

“Yeah,” Steve said, pulled his hand back and pushed in. He went slow, slow and then he couldn’t hold his composure any longer. He grabbed the flimsy tie he’d done up and a handful of the shirt dress in his free hand and used it as leverage to fuck in for real. Bucky wasn’t even holding himself up now, he was just balanced between the mirror and Steve’s rocking hips, so he put his right hand around his cock and twisted. He came too quick, crying out silently, eyes wet.

Steve was gasping against Bucky’s bare back. The maroon organza was in tatters now, flecks of wet velvet smeared across the small of Bucky’s back. Steve had to bite down on Bucky’s shoulder to keep himself from shouting when he came.

“Fuck,” Steve said, catching his breath as he man-handled Bucky back onto his feet, helping him step out of the tights the rest of the way. “I guess we’re gonna have to shop lift the evidence?”

+

 

That afternoon, it all went to hell. They made it back to the studio in plenty of time. Steve had deemed them both suitably unruffled, but somehow Nat still raised her eyebrow when she saw them and put one finger on Steve’s collar, which was ever so slightly creased.

“I hope there weren’t security cameras,” she said. Bucky handed her the two cracked halves of an SD card and grinned with no small measure of lasciviousness.

“Don’t fix that,” he said.

She broke each of the two pieces in half again and put them in her pocket. “Consider it dust,” she said.

“You’re a real doll,” Bucky said, blowing her a kiss.

“Is this what he used to be like all the time?” Nat asked.

“Oh, we’re only getting started,” Steve said. “I’m concerned that the general bigotry of our youth was the only thing holding him in check. And the brainwashing.”

“Can’t forget the brainwashing!” Bucky announced cheerfully.

“What was that?” the next interviewer had walked into the room.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” Sam said loudly, clapping his hands together over whatever Bucky had been about to quip. They sat down on their blue fabric office chairs.

“So,” the reporter said, clicking her ball point pen with a particular brand of vicious enthusiasm. “Let’s start with the brainwashing. Tell me more about that.”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” Steve said. “There’s been a lot of that going around.”

To be completely fair, that first interview of the afternoon wasn’t the problem.

An hour or so later, the last reporter of the day came in. Sam gave him a long look and exchanged a glance with Steve. There was something off about him. He didn’t have a proper mic with him or any notes, just his iphone camera, which he started as soon as he walked in the room.

“Sorry, which outlet are you from again?” Nat asked.

“It’s an online blog – you wouldn’t have heard of it. We’re independent.”

“Right,” Nat said. “All the same…”

The guy ignored her. He was looking at his phone, pulling up notes maybe. Steve had leaned as close to Bucky as he could without physically inching their chairs together. There wasn’t a breath of space between them. Bucky let himself go, let himself Be Aware of his surroundings in a way that he usually tried to prevent, lest it lead him to slip in some other dangerous way. He leaned down just enough to touch the buckle of his shoe. He could smell that the guy was sweating just a little more than he should be.

“I hope you don’t mind,” it took Bucky a full five seconds to register that the man had spoken in Russian. “We’re a Russian-language blog. Did they tell you that in the notes?”

“Nyet,” Nat said.

“Okay, my first question is for you, Captain,” he said, in Russian, glancing up at Steve, without meeting his eyes. “Would you say you ever feel a longing to return to the past?”

The hairs on Bucky’s arm stood on end.

He repeated himself in English so that Steve would understand. “I’ll translate your answer,” he said. He smile didn’t go past his mouth.

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Sure,” he said. “In plenty of ways. I miss friends and family I left behind, just like anyone would but I couldn’t give up the work I have here now…”

“Great,” the man said, he was scratching compulsively at a patch of stubble under his chin. He seemed unperturbed by Steve’s stock answer and lacklustre delivery. He translated Steve’s words quickly, with even less detail than Steve had given. “Sorry if these questions seem a bit random.” He said, again in Russian. Nat was whispering in Steve’s ear so he didn’t have to wait for the guy to repeat himself in English. “I’ve just asked my viewers what they wanted to see so… this one is for Sergeant Barnes: What kind of metal is your arm made of and is it possible for it to become rusted-”

Steve’s hand was around the man’s throat before he’d even finished the final syllable. There were just a few words of Russian he could understand and that last one was definitely on the list. The man fumbled desperately with his phone, gasping.

“Where did you get those words?” Steve growled. Bucky felt all the air rush out of his lungs. He’d been right. He’d known something was wrong after the first one and he’d been right. He was so cold, he couldn’t feel his fingertips.

Sam was one second behind him, trying to detach Steve’s hands from around the man’s neck, saying, “Come on man, let’s not handle it like this. You don’t want it to go like this.”

Bucky wanted to say something too, he wanted to say, “Stevie, it’s not worth it, I’m not worth it.” But he was stuck. His mouth was stuck shut. He couldn’t quite remember why they were here.

“People deserve the truth,” the man was gasping. “They deserve to know what he’s capable of.”

Steve released the reporter in disgust. The force of it was enough the send the man clattering off his chair and he landed in a heap on the floor. Steve leaned down and wrenched the man’s phone from his hand. He contemplated it for a moment, like he was considering throwing it to the ground and crushing it under his heel. “I guess it’s fucking evidence,” he said and shoved it in his pocket.

He stalked back across the room to Bucky, sinking to his knees in front of him. Bucky’s vision swam. “You’re so tall,” Bucky said, or he tried to say it, but the words wouldn’t come out – not pertinent information – negligible details.

“What did you think was going to happen, man?” Sam was saying to the guy. “Did you think we didn’t know? Did you think we hadn’t gotten around to deprogramming the guy? We’re not goddamn amateurs. You ought to apologise because all you’ve caused is some serious emotional distress.”

“Come on, Bucky, baby, you’re okay, come on,” Steve was whispering, hands on Bucky’s knees.

It was hard to concentrate on Steve’s voice. He was shivering, it was so cold, but at least he had a good coat on. Some deep part of his brain laughed, he’d go out wearing a goddamn piece of art, anyway. The lining was brushing silky against his wrist and he thought about that for a long second – the feeling of the lining like water, brushing his fingers across sleeves in the atrium of a department store, not an icy plunge into water, but whatever the opposite of that was, light as rain. He sucked in a harsh breath.

“That’s it,” Steve said.

“This is mine,” Bucky said, curling his fingers up around the cuffs of the coat: another breath.

“Bucky,” Nat said. He’d forgotten she was there. Maybe she hadn’t been there before. There were other people pouring into the room now, S.H.E.I.L.D. agents. Someone must have retrieved them. Only something was wrong because they weren’t encircling him with guns pointed but instead they gathered around the reporter crumpled on the ground across from them and Sam was directing them to arrest the guy. None of them were even looking at him.

“Here,” she said. She handed him a compact mirror. He stared down at it confusion. A glimpse of his reflection peered back.

“Oh,” he said in surprise. He hadn’t realised until he saw the fall of his hair, a single half curl brushing his forehead that he realised he’d expected to see something else there entirely – a mask maybe. “I think I’m…”

“Bucky,” Steve said.

“Yes,” Bucky said, sitting up straighter. He tilted the mirror so he could see more of himself. He was wearing the oversized scarf still, with the subtle green fleck. It was the kind of detail that he once would have been forced to note and categorise as negligible, but it was not a negligible detail at all. Steve had chosen it so carefully to bring out the olive tones in the coat. He breathed again with an audible sigh. “I’m okay,” he said with surprise. “I’m okay.”

Steve sagged against his knees. “You did so good, Buck.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He was still shivering a little but it was subsiding. The air that entered his lungs felt normal, even a little too warm, with all the bodies filing into the small interview room. “Can we get out of here?”

“Of course, of course we can,” Steve said. They both stood. Bucky let himself list into Steve for a single second. “I’ve got you,” Steve murmured.

“I’ve got me, too,” Bucky said. “Surprisingly.”

Steve kept his body between Bucky and the reporter and the gaggle of S.H.E.I.L.D. agents all the same and Bucky couldn’t help but be a little glad. Nat came outside with them.

“This isn’t quite working, is it?” she said.

“We really gave it our best shot,” Steve said. “The old college try.”

Nat had her phone out. “You win,” she said, as soon as whoever was on the other end of the line picked up. “You’re in charge now. We’re done.”

“Finally,” Tony crowed audibly on the other end of the line. “Why all of you people insist on doing things the hard way first, I’ll never understand.”

+

Somehow, the video taken by the fake reporter was posted online that night.

“We think he was working with someone and that he’d paired the phone to another device nearby. The accomplice must have posted it,” Hill explained even later that night. They were back in Conference Room Three, though this time it was Hill and Coulson who were looking distinctly apologetic.

“The up side is that the fact that they posted it will probably make it easier to track down the rest of his network.”

“And the down side?” Steve asked.

“Well it just doesn’t look great, someone shouting some trigger words at me and then me flipping out over it, does it, Steve?” Bucky said, irritated.

“Have you seen the video?” Steve asked.

“I realise I send out a lot of mixed messages, but I am actually here trying to retain the last iota of sanity I have to my name. No I haven’t watched the fucking video.”

Steve whipped out his phone. “I wouldn’t ask you to watch it if I thought you wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he said.

He’d clearly had the video up already because it only took a second for him to hand it over, already playing. He sandwiched himself all along Bucky’s side, hip-to-hip, so they could watch it together. Bucky let himself lean into Steve and slid his thumb along the insides of his sleeves.

The video was uncut. There was shaky footage of the room spinning as the man sat down in his chair and Nat said, “Which outlet are you from again?”. The camera focussed in on the four of them, framed in a mildly jittery hand-held angle. They looked uncomfortable and stiff, already put off by the man’s avoidant answer. Bucky noticed that he was sitting back in the video, letting Steve’s shoulder edge in between him and the viewpoint of the reporter.

The man asked the first question. Listening again, it didn’t sound like Russian was his first language. His pronunciation was off. Bucky studied his own face as the man said ‘longing’. There was no doubt that he’d reacted. He flinched visibly in the video, leaning even further behind Steve. But where he’d expected to see a stillness come into his gaze, there was only the beginnings of panic.

He watched his whole body shudder as the man said ‘rusted’. Bucky didn’t look frightening. He looked frightened. As Steve knocked the man over there was another good glimpse of Bucky’s face – open, shaking, vulnerable.

Even after the video cut out, the audio carried on. They must have been recording multiple ways and Steve had only closed the most obvious one open. The video went all the way through Sam shouting at the guy and it cut finally as the man said, “People deserve the truth!” They could hear Steve in the background the whole time, muttering, low-voiced and soothing. They could hear him call Bucky ‘baby’.

“I see,” Bucky said.

“Yes,” Hill agreed. “It’s not that you look dangerous…”

“I don’t look dangerous enough,” Bucky said, with a kind of awe. “I look like, if you wanted to take me out of a fight, a good idea might be so say two words to me and instead of becoming a mindless killing machine, I become a quivering heap and immediately draw Steve to my needy side with a blanket and a cup of warm cocoa.”

“Well, maybe not the blanket and the cocoa,” Coulson began to say.

Steve cut him off indignantly, “I’d bring him cocoa if I thought it would help!” It was Bucky, Coulson and Hill’s turn to all sigh in exasperated unison.

“So, what are we supposed to do about this?” Bucky said.

Steve’s arms were crossed. “I think we’ve been around the block enough times by now to know that extending this press tour is not making the situation any better.”

“I believe,” Tony said, appearing from a silently sliding door to the left of the large interactive screen that took up much of the front wall of Conference Room Three. “This is where I come in.”

“Has anyone ever explained to you what the word classified means?” Hill said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “Do you think that this little tête-à-tête here is above my paygrade? Because I’m here to inform you that at this point in the game, I am the paygrade. Anyway,” he added, sniffing. “Nat pulled me in, so take it up with her.”

Coulson crossed his legs. “Get it off your chest, then, Tony,” he said, sighing.

“Well,” Tony said, arch. “Now you taken all the fun out of it. Darcy!”

A woman appeared at the doorway. She looked vaguely familiar, but Bucky was pretty sure she wasn’t a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. She didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d undergone level three anti-interrogation training anyway. That wasn’t to say she looked weak but rather to say she looked like she didn’t have time for that bullshit. She had a hat on. Bucky liked it – not for himself, but it had a kind of edge he appreciated.

“Darcy Lewis,” she said. She shook Bucky’s hand first, then Steve’s. “In the name off getting us off to a start that’s built on trust and genuine understanding and all that jazz, I feel I should tell you that I am dramatically underqualified for this job, but the pool of people who know how to use Instagram, have a high enough security clearance to be in this room and won’t be fazed by your-” she waved her hand in a vague circle that seemed to encompass Bucky, Steve and any possible emotional baggage that might be floating ominously in their shadows. “uh… antics, is vanishingly small.”

“So,” Tony said. “I’ve taken the liberty of hiring you your own social media consultant.”

“Me?” Steve said, dubious.

“No, obviously not.” Tony said. “You don’t need a social media consultant to explain how to look aesthetic when riding your bike down dusty highways at ninety miles an hour or while you’re painting the Brooklyn skyline on your roof terrace listening to podcasts. You’re easily packaged by any old idiot.” He pointed at Bucky. “Darcy is for you.”

“How exactly is a social media consultant going to fix what three months of intense engagement with the press has only made worse?” Natasha said, speaking finally. She sounded genuinely curious.

“Ms Lewis,” Tony said, holding out one hand in the universal symbol for ‘lead the way’.

“Well,” Darcy said, opening the satchel slung over her shoulder and extracting a medium sized stiff poster board that appeared to have several pictures and a lot of colourful bits glued to it.

“It that a mood board?” Hill said, faintly.

“I’m going to orchestrate a total brand reinvention. We’ll be going from this:”

She held up the board. The side that faced them did not contain any colourful craft materials. Instead it had several headlines and photos cut out from news articles glued to it. There was a picture from a wanted poster – a grainy side angle of Bucky’s cut up and bruised face under the brim of a baseball cap. There were a lot of clippings from a variety of unflattering news articles – Bucky always a step behind the main group, his eyes downcast.

There were also three pictures from the interviews yesterday. The first was from the morning – there was a red circle drawn around his jaw. The reason for this became immediately evident since the second picture was from the first interview after lunch and the same spot was circled showing a patch of red rubbed skin. In messy writing over the picture were the words ‘I know beard burn when I see it!!!!! What does this meeeeeeeeean?????’. He supposed that bore further consideration, but he couldn’t help but look the longest at the last picture: his face, frozen in terror under the shadow of Steve looming protectively just out of the camera angle. The largest headline, glued right under that read “Threat or Victim: Why should either have a place in America’s greatest and last line of defence?”

“Okay,” Steve said. “Point made.”

Darcy flipped the board over. “To this:”

There was only one photo on this side. It was a pap shot of Bucky and Steve on Oxford street, still from yesterday. Steve was carrying all the bags, his face titled away so the camera had only caught the barest suggestion that he was smiling. Steve and Bucky’s arms were brushing. It was a great photo. Long-angle lens from a window or not, you had to give whoever had taken it that. Bucky was looking towards the camera, stepping forward, like the pavement was a runway. His head was tossed back a little, the wind catching his hair. The coat was flaring open from the hips down, the blue silk of the lining burnished into aquamarine. His scarf was blowing back in the same breeze that had given such a flare to the coat and it left the line of his throat exposed. His mouth looked too red, his hair was chocolate gold in the sun. He was laughing.

Around the picture was a variety of fabric samples, sketches, clipped images of runway outfits. At the bottom, blown up big enough that it had gone slightly blurry, was a youtube comment that said, ‘TBH, the Winter Solider can GET IT. I would defo let him murder me for his shady soviet overlords if it meant two minutes alone with him in a room”.

Hill was reading the comment. She looked bewildered and mildly disappointed in humanity. “And…that’s the reaction we’re aiming for now?”

Bucky looked at Steve, trying to gauge his reaction. He wasn’t reading the comment. His gaze was glued to Bucky’s face in the picture. “You’re laughing,” he murmured.

“So how do we do it then?” Bucky asked. He squeezed Steve’s knee. “Go from this to that?”

“Let’s make you a twitter and Instagram account and go from there.”

“I need a thingy, don’t I? A call sign? What do you call it? A handle?”

“Yeah, or a username.”

“Right,” Bucky said. “One of those. I’ve got a good one. I want it to be ‘Dressed-to-Kill’… Howard Stark used to call me that.” He couldn’t make himself look at Tony as he said it – he could never tell if hearing those kinds of half-remembered details hurt or helped.

“Ooooh!” Darcy exclaimed, crossing something out in a bright yellow moleskin she’d opened out in front of her. “That’s better than what I’ve got.”

+

They didn’t waste any time. The video dropped the next day. There was no commentary underneath, no explanation. Dressedtokill posted a new video at eleven twenty-one in the morning titled ‘All of the winter soldier’s trigger words and how to pronounce them, kind of’ – the first post to the account.

The first image in the video was a flowery title card reading ‘BEFORE’. Then footage rolled. Just ninety seconds of grainy footage from a battery-operated back-up surveillance camera, which at the time of the event depicted, no one even realised had been recording. In it, Zemo advanced on Bucky, reading trigger words out of a red book. Strange lights briefly illuminated the twisted grimace on Bucky’s face. He looked desperate, he looked like a villain. He ripped himself free of his steel and bullet-proof glass confinement – out of the bloody emergency lighting of the cell. It was too dark to see as he brought himself to attention in front of Zemo, but his voice was audible, subtitled in English at the bottom of the screen. “Ready to comply”.

Then there was nothing for five long, black seconds. Into the darkness, music began to play – a jazz beat, the drum kit settling into place on its own before being joined by a few mellow piano chords. Another flowery title card: “AFTER”. The next clip of footage began. Shuri’s face filled the screen and the camera juddered as she adjusted it. “Hi guys,” she said, sitting back. She was in a bright and airy room, at a desk. The background was blurred by the camera’s focus, but there appeared to be some plants behind her, maybe a bookshelf.

“So, I was on twitter yesterday,” she began, cheerfully. “And I read this article that says apparently my good friend Bucky Barnes can be triggered by a series of code words and it’ll turn him into a totally controllable soviet assassin, and even if it doesn’t do that, then it will definitely induce a panic attack making him into a huge liability if he’s supposed to be in the middle of saving the world with his little hero team. Guys, this really confused me, because as I was reading up on this, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Shuri, didn’t you already fix that, like two freaking years ago? I’m pretty sure you did fix that!’ So, I thought I’d drop by to double check.”

Shuri stepped away from the camera, which refocused to show the rest of the room. It was a living room, warm colours, a deep green velvet sofa. The soft jazz was ambient, coming from a record player, sitting in the corner of the room on its own polished wood stand. Bucky Barnes was sitting in an armchair next to the window, immaculately lit by streaming sunlight and even more immaculately dressed in sharp black trousers printed with tiny golden flowers and a silky, voluminous fuchsia shirt with huge lacy cuffs. He was reading a book, but as Shuri turned her attention to him, he looked up at her, smiling. His eyes were noticeably lined in midnight blue kohl.

“Go on then, Bucky,” she said. “What happened? I’ve not come all the way to Brooklyn to do your nails.”

Bucky held out his right hand so the camera could catch the sparkle of green glitter. “You did such a good job, though.”

Shuri inspected her own glittery nails. “I think you’ve got a steadier hand.”

“So, what it was, Shuri,” Bucky said, offhandedly apologetic. “Is that we might all have been slightly jittery, seeing as that was the twentieth interview in four days. And maybe Steve had just been feeling a little protective at that moment for his own Steve reasons, and maybe we all over reacted the tiniest bit. It was highly classified information. The security breach alone – Nat is irate. But it won’t happen again. I promise I’m doing all my therapy and we have not undone all our hard work.”

“Just to check-” Shuri said and pulled a red notebook from a drawer in the coffee table. She cleared her throat, flicking it open and finding the right page. “Sorry about my accent, Russian-speakers!” she said to the camera.

Then she reeled off the whole list of words.

Bucky read his book through the whole thing. After “freight-car” he looked up at the camera and winked. The video ended.

It hit a million views within the hour. It was at thirty-eight million views by the end of the day and they nearly managed to break records for most views in the first twenty-four hours.

Somehow the first big article posted in response which got shared around wasn’t a breakdown of what the trigger words could mean or an in-depth look at how Shuri and Bucky’s evident friendship might shed light on Wakandan-American foreign policy. The first article was a careful analysis of Bucky’s newfound fashion palate.

“Perfect,” Darcy said. “I could not have orchestrated that any better myself.”

“Didn’t you leak the video to Vogue thirty minutes early for this express purpose?” Steve asked, from his usual seat in Conference Room Three.

“Leave a woman the illusion of mystery,” Darcy replied, tsking. “When I write my memoir on this period of my life in thirty years, it’s gonna sound heck of a lot better without your pithy commentary.”

+

 

Bucky was neck deep in twitter when Sam let himself in.

“Do you want a coffee?” Sam asked, opening the cupboards in the kitchen audibly.

“I’ll make it for you, sorry,” Bucky said, distractedly. “I’m talking to a girl in Japan right now. How weird is that?”

“What are you talking about?” He was already starting the coffee maker, not expecting Bucky to make good on his promise. Steve was the same way. The two of them were good at the long-term aspects of being friends, like having sugar for Sam even though neither of them had it and always reserving one of the nicer mugs for Sam’s frequent visits, but they were too used to standing on absolutely zero ceremony with people they were close to and nothing had ever broken either one of them of the habit.

Sam, being military, was probably the best at dealing with it. The rest of the team had varying degrees of success. Tony treated their house like it was literally his own, which could get on Steve’s nerves. Wanda and Thor, having both been raised properly, had a bad habit of standing awkwardly in the archway between the kitchen and the living room, indefinitely awaiting the moment they would be cordially invited to sit somewhere comfortable or take refreshment.

“Men and make-up,” Bucky said, yawning and rubbing his eyes. “Somehow the thing that I’ve discussed most with people since Tuesday is the eyeliner. Bizarre.”

“I think it seems pretty obvious that the whole world was basically dying to find something light they could latch on to after all the fall out. I guess we should have figured that out a long time ago, after all the questions about cereal. Tony is proved a genius again.”

“Don’t say that too loud. He’s probably got us bugged,” Bucky said, leaning against the door jam. “There’s new milk in the fridge. I left that one out earlier. Maybe don’t use it.”

He was wearing tight, high-waisted duck egg blue trousers and a chunky-knit dark orange jumper that was somehow both cropped and oversized. It was probably one of the tamer outfits that Sam had seen Bucky in over the past week and it was still A Lot. “How are you doing?” Sam said. He gestured to the open laptop on the sofa, to the bags from high-end shops piled in front of the record shelves. “With all of this.”

“Well, I’ve discussed everyone knowing the trigger words now at length with Steve, Nat and my therapist and we all agreed that, if anything, it seems to have helped with my anxiety, so—”

“No,” Sam said. “How is becoming America’s new pop-culture icon going for you? Because the last hundred times we talked about what you want - what you and Steve are trying to work towards, I can’t say this exactly seemed to be in the cards.”

“No,” Bucky said. He fiddled with a discarded coffee spoon on the counter top, not meeting Sam’s eyes. “I think… I think that might have been a failure of imagination.” When he did look up, he was smiling. It was not Bucky’s usual reserved smirk. It took Sam a long thirty seconds to identify his expression as excitement.

“We’ve been trying for so long to be at peace,” Bucky continued. “Every way we could to for life to seem controllable and calm. We kept making everything simpler and simpler – cut down on too much interaction with the public, no appearances with fans for Steve, stay as far away from Tony’s parties as possible, letting Hill and Coulson control the media situation, just going where they pointed, trying and trying to adhere to the script and it was what everyone said would make us happy. Vacation in the off-season and hope nobody looks at you too hard, you know.”

Bucky’s words faded out. He was staring at a photo stuck to the fridge, from a few months ago.

Sam had taken the picture and he remembered the moment with a clarity that came from having thought of it a million times. The weather had been unseasonably warm for October, so Steve had convinced Sam to go up to Cape Cod with Bucky and him to ‘get away from it all’.

Sam remembered thinking, with no small amount of worry, ‘but what are you getting away from?’. The main activity Steve and Bucky filled their time with was sitting in their house with most of the lights off, talking meaningfully to each other for hours on end. For a break from that, they’d drive back and forth between different therapists and counsellors and walk around their old haunts in Brooklyn dripping with nostalgia. The occasional missions Steve ran had seemed like a massive relief to them all even if Steve tended to spend the whole time checking his phone to make sure Bucky was doing okay back in New York.

In the picture, Steve and Bucky looked windswept, weak autumn sun on their faces. The background was a deserted, private beach exactly as desolate as it was beautiful. Steve and Bucky were half focusing on the camera and half on each other, both smiling like they were trying extremely hard to prove to each other that they were having a lovely time and were aware that it wasn’t quite working out. It’d felt, at the time, like it might be slow, sad beginning of an even slower and sadder end.

“Being at peace, though. What a concept. That was never-” Bucky said. “I don’t know why we thought-”

Understanding dawned on Sam. “I should have seen it in Steve, I’m his best friend. Damn. All that killing ourselves over getting Steve to stick to a script in the interviews. That was an obvious sign. And… man, the number of war photos I’ve seen of you guys and here we are casting you as this silent, stoic type who stands at the back of pictures with his arms crossed. I should’ve-”

“It’s not like you to blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault, Sam-”

“Oh, isn’t it?” Sam gave a dry laugh.

“Okay, well, at least, usually you catch yourself at it.”

“So, you’re good?” Sam said. “That’s what you’re saying.”

“I’ve been pushing and pushing and pushing everything away thinking I’d finally have the space to breath, once it was just me and him and nothing else—”

“And suddenly, you stop pushing, the world rushes in and that’s when you finally get your first good lungful in years,” Sam said. “Yeah, I know that feeling.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “I’m here learning about David Bowie from some girl in Japan on the internet and I get you saying that the unbelievable popularity of my last week of fucking Instagram posts is because people are excited to see a side of the Avengers that they never expected, that isn’t heavy, but it feels heavy to me, in the best way possible. For the first time, I’m seeing the advantages of… I mean… the absolutely crazy shit Steve and I got up to before the war – I can only assume it’s been covered up.”

Sam scoffed. “I don’t think they’d really cover up historical facts about Captain America.”

“Oh no,” Bucky said. “They must have. The clubs we went to, the books full of sketches that would burn your eyes, Sam. I knew I was giving a lot of that up when I joined up. And Steve knew he was putting the final nail in the coffin when he agreed to do the whole super solider experiment thing. But we weren’t out there meticulously covering our paper trail. Maybe Peggy smoothed it over before anyone found out. I mean, she was… we all… Well, anyway, she knew everything.”

“What does this have to do with-?” Sam asked.

Bucky ran his hand through his hair. “God, I don’t know, I’m just saying-” he laughed. “Okay, I’m gonna tell you something. Maybe you should come sit down.”

“Uh, okay.” He followed Bucky back into the living room. Bucky sat in the big armchair and Sam sat on the couch. Bucky was sitting up very straight, hands on his knees. He had that perfect, soldierly stillness about him that Sam knew meant he was covering nerves.

“Right,” he said. “Steve and I are secretly married.”

“What?” Sam asked, astounded. Obviously, he knew they were together. He’d known since before they found Bucky again, literally years, but if someone had held him at gunpoint and asked, he never would have guessed. Mostly because Steve was the last person on Earth Sam could imagine being secretly married. Steve was the kind of guy who had to be stopped from constantly waxing lyrical about all the people he loved in excessive public detail. He held truth in esteem above all other virtues and a secret as big as that was much too close to a lie. But maybe it was Sam’s failing – not to connect the dots and recognise that Steve being with Bucky since the forties meant that he’d always been protecting some deep part of himself.

“Only Fury and Shuri know,” Bucky continued. “Well, and Darcy now, too. I just told her. It wasn’t even – I mean it was barely romantic. I was still out of my head most of the time when we did it. It was before Wakanda. I told him we should do it so that if I-” he hesitated and then put his pointer finger against his own temple and pulled an imaginary trigger. “I just wanted him to have as much legal power over me as possible.”

“Jesus Christ,” Sam said.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Bucky agreed. “Doing all those interviews was just proving to me that we could never… You know, I was just trying to content myself with that fact that I could be married to him. That was already something I never thought we’d have. But once you take an inch…”

“I actually can’t believe Steve didn’t tell me you guys were married.”

“Are you mad at him?”

“No! Of course I get it, I just… I feel like I’ve been looking at the whole thing – you and him, what you guys needed, backwards from day one.”

Bucky shrugged. “I guess doing things when they make sense hasn’t ever been our style.”

“I’m getting that,” Sam said.

“You know where Steve is right now?” Bucky asked.

“Where?” Sam said. This was not, in any way, how he’d expected this whole conversation to go. His coffee was going cold. He’d completely forgotten about it.

“He’s buying us rings. Darcy’s plan for us coming out is to not come out. We’re just both gonna start wearing ring like we, I think the correct phrase which I have recently learned is, ‘give no fucks’. Done deal.” There was that face again. He was excited.

“You know,” Sam said. “I don’t think we’ve literally ever talked this long.”

“Really?” Bucky said, unconcerned. He was glancing at his phone, it looked like he had a lot of notifications. “That’s funny. I never used to shut up.”

“I’m getting that,” Sam repeated.

+

A month passed and dressedtokill rocketed upwards in popularity. Buzzfeed published several listicles with the best photos and videos from Bucky’s multiple feeds titled things like ‘Top ten times the Winter Solider was your new icon” and “Eight ways to accessorise you never thought an old man from the 1940s could teach you”.

Bustle had a long expose which did the rounds called “I guess superheroes are people too now and we’re into it”. Bucky modelled for a piece Seventeen did about prosthetics and fashion. An androgynous photo of Chiara Bordi and him dressed identically sprawled together next to a fountain ended up being the cover photo.

The met gala theme that year was about war. Steve wore his original military uniform, borrowed out of the Smithsonian and released a fifteen-hundred-word statement to the press about how war wasn’t fashionable or beautiful but war and art went hand in hand and to say otherwise was to misunderstand or wilfully forget a million creative minds who had lived and breathed and died and painted and wrote and sang out even when they were buried to their waists in mud.

Bucky wore a custom Palomo Spain gown based on the Picasso painting ‘Guernica’ and came top five in every major outlet’s breakdowns of the most iconic looks of the night. Steve couldn’t get over it. It was almost funny. He told Bucky he looked beautiful at least twenty times. He couldn’t stop touching Bucky’s waist, the shoulder bared by the asymmetrical design.

“I used to think it was really bizarre that I was frozen in a block of ice and woke up in the twenty first century where a robot can make your coffee for you before you wake up in the morning, but now I see I didn’t even understand how unexpected things could get,” Steve said, looking at the raspberry in the bottom of his glass of champagne like that was the thing that he couldn’t wrap his head around.

The décor for the gala involved a lot of shards of mirror. Bucky kept catching a glimpse of himself and then double-taking. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognise himself. By now he’d gotten used to seeing his reflection in fantastical clothing. It was just everything all at once.

The shards seemed to scatter each piece of Bucky’s new world order into its own individual frame. Steve’s undercut, which for the last few months had been veering further and further into punk each time he got it trimmed. Steve’s old dress uniform, familiar and unfamiliar: the Howling Commando’s insignia patch was slightly crooked because Peggy had sewed it on in a rush after Steve had destroyed his previous dress uniform in a last-minute mission and she couldn’t be trusted with a needle and thread but Bucky had been gone by then and wasn’t around to fix it. The two silver bars of Steve’s rank catching shine off the glittering lights. The bright red lipstick Bucky was wearing. The rings glinting on their hands. Steve fingertips resting in the small of Bucky’s back.

“Tell me about it,” Bucky said, blowing out a long, slow breath.

“Are you good?” Steve asked. Bucky could tell he was trying to be casual about it. He didn’t want to make it a thing.

“Maybe not one-hundred percent,” Bucky said, since he knew it usually wasn’t a good sign when his brain started to break his surroundings down into an album of still pictures. “I’m okay, though.” Steve took Bucky’s hand – he clearly didn’t believe Bucky’s reassurance, which was a kind of relief of its own.

Pepper called Steve just as they’d all sat down to dinner.

“I’m really sorry to throw a spanner in the works like this, guys,” she said. “But the head of Rihanna’s private security team just called me and said that she’s being held hostage.”

“Umm, I’m looking at her right now,” Steve said. “And I can tell you that the main struggle in her life right now is working out how to sit down in the dress she’s wearing.”

“Yeah, I know,” Pepper said. “Apparently, it’s her designer,” she explained. “The designer has implanted a bomb into the dress. Rihanna doesn’t know yet. They’ve just emailed her PA and explained that if her legal team doesn’t wire them forty million dollars in the next half hour, the gown is gonna go.”

“Go where?” Steve asked. Bucky, listening in, grinned.

“It will explode.”

“Oh, right. Okay. I’m on the same page now. How come you’re the person with info?”

“When am I not the person with the info?” Pepper asked, offended.

“Point taken,” Steve agreed.

“The email said don’t involve law enforcement. Rihanna’s PA called me because she knew I could contact you directly. Tony is ready to back you guys up, but he’s technically in London, so it’s not ideal. I’ve called Nat but it’s not going through. I’m not sure if anyone else would really-”

“No finesse,” Bucky said, shaking his head sadly.

“Right, we’ll deal with it,” Steve reassured her. “Standby in case we need to evacuate.” He hung up and turned to Bucky. “I think you’re gonna need to have some kind of wardrobe malfunction that only Rihanna’s team of fashion related people can fix.”

Once she was up to speed ten minutes later, Rihanna’s commentary was “some people really take the theme too seriously.”

Bucky laughed. One of Rihanna’s assistants was fashioning a giant bow to cover the huge hole Steve had ripped in Bucky’s gown just as they were crossing in front of Rihanna’s table. Bucky was up to his elbows in the bomb wired into her corset.

“It’s just your standard C4 red wire black wire job, darling,” Bucky said reassuringly, giving her a little wink. “I could do this with my eyes closed.”

“Flirt,” Rihanna said, tiredly.

Steve took a picture on his phone. “I think this is gonna be my first Instagram,” he said.

Somehow, defusing a bomb in an evening gown made Bucky feel a lot better. All the fragments sucked themselves back together into a whole picture. He kissed Steve hard on the cheek as they released Rihanna back to the party having debriefed with her security detail, the metropolitan police, the bomb squad and Pepper over conference call. The lipstick mark stood out perfectly on Steve’s cheekbone. It looked like a statement. They left it there the rest of the night.

Aside from Steve’s photo of Bucky defusing Rihanna’s gown in the women’s bathroom, there wasn’t a single photo from the night that didn’t have Steve touching Bucky somewhere. USA Today posted an article breaking down what kind of message they might be trying to send by this unusual and unexpected display of affection between straight men.

There were some quotes from historians explaining that men in the past displayed their emotions for each other differently and quoted one of Steve’s historical letters to Bucky in which he repeatedly called him ‘darling’ and ‘my very dearest one’ for further evidence.

Darcy, who had a considerable following in her own right by this point and was being hailed as the queen of new wave marketing and media consultancy, retweeted the article with the comment ‘Why do I even try to come up with strategies?’ followed by a rainbow flag.

Some random youtuber posted a twenty-five-minute video that cut together every hint of a relationship between Steve and Bucky that had ever been made public. There were photos of their letters in the Smithsonian and a variety of sketches of Bucky that Steve had drawn on scraps of paper in the war, a photo of Bucky, Steve and Peggy all dirty and asleep leaning against each other, which had only been published once because it was somehow too difficult to look at, pain and love so much on the surface of the image. There were a lot of random half-glimpsed moments of affection between them from various pap photos, the one second clip of Steve fearfully calling Bucky ‘baby’ in the trigger word video.

There was every picture taken of them wearing rings, of which there were a lot, and every picture of them at the Met Gala, besides the one where Bucky was defusing the bomb. There was one Bucky felt particularly charmed by, where Bucky was leaning in to whisper something in Steve’s ear and you could see how perfectly the colour and shape of his lips matched the print on Steve’s cheek.

Bucky reposted the video with a link to their marriage certificate. Steve came into the living room to catch Bucky smirking to himself in the big armchair.

“Well somebody woke up on the right side of the bed this morning,” Steve said.

“No thanks to you,” Bucky replied.

“I think you’ll find that was by your request,” Steve said, smug.

Bucky smiled up at him beatifically. “Did you know we’re married?” he said.

“Oh, I see,” Steve said. “You’ve been gloating on the internet again.”

Bucky shrugged. “You can’t take this kind of thing lying down.”

“That’s my line,” Steve said, leaning down to cup Bucky by the back of the head and kiss him, a little longer and deeper than he’d first meant to.

+

On Bucky’s third mission with the team, right in the middle of the big showdown against a deranged necromancer in a mech-suit made from bones with some added alien tech, one of the henchman popped up on the roof of a shipping container that the Hulk had tossed around and started reeling off the trigger words. Bucky had his boot in the guy’s back before he finished gritting out the final syllable of ‘seventeen’.

“Have you been living under a rock for the last year?” Bucky said, bashing the guy’s head against the shipping container until his helmet popped off like a pistachio shell.

“Well,” the guy said, panicking. “Master does go by the Grave Robber and in a way a tombstone is a rock, so…”

Bucky said, “You know those words famously don’t work on me anymore!”

“Yes, yes, we saw the video, but my master said you can edit anything these days-”

“Drop your fucking gun, you tasteless goon. You exhaust me.”

The guy dropped his gun. Bucky zip-tied his wrists together and dropped him off the side of the shipping container into a pile of other tasteless goons.

Later, in Conference Room Three, Darcy offered them all popcorn.

“I can’t believe you don’t give them snacks in the debrief,” she said. “I’ve got kettle corn or regular butter, guys. And I’ve left out a sheet so you can write down if you want something else next time.”

“This is why I recommended her for the post,” Thor declared, beaming down at Darcy as he slicked grave dirt out of his eyes.

“Because of the snacks?” Tony asked.

“Because of her resoundingly good common sense!” Thor said.

“I’m still not clear on why she’s got clearance for this,” Hill said, flicking through a clipboard with narrowed eyes. She had butter on her chin.

“Personally, I think that was a real success.” Steve was sounding very much like Captain America. “We should all be pretty solidly pleased with ourselves.”

Coulson nodded in agreement. “Nat, well done drawing the Grave Robber to the docks. The collateral damage was extremely minimal.”

“And Bucky – good job with the trigger words. With any luck, that’ll be the last of that,” Hill said, ticking something off in the paperwork.

“I have half a mind to leak your body cam footage” Darcy said. “Textbook banter.”

Hill made a thinking sound. “Not a bad idea, actually.”

Coulson tapped his pen on the desk. “You know. In the end, it’s really all worked out, hasn’t it?”

“Do not dare try to take credit for this.” Tony glared at him.

“Well,” Bucky said. “It wasn’t exactly your win either, much as I love you, Darcy, darling. I think it was just that fucking gorgeous coat.”

“Fashion,” Nat said, nodding solemnly in agreement.

They all nodded together. Fashion.