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Speakin' Easy

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The tuxedoed woman at the piano leaned into a heavy final chord, finishing with a rich, unbroken hum which reverberated through the crowded speakeasy. Finishing on the dominant, Bucky thought reflexively. Not anything to write home about. Still, the note left a soft pang in his chest, somewhere around the spot where the shitty bathtub gin was burning a familiar hole in his windpipe. He took another swig from the beer mug he’d swiped at the bar, and his face twisted into a grimace.

‘Our stuff too strong for ya, Barnes?’ Steve teased from beside him, raising one cocky eyebrow. ‘You might wanna bow out now, before you get too zozzled on the fumes.’

‘In your dreams, Rogers,’ he chuckled.

Steve leaned in across the bar with that conspiratorial intensity that Bucky so loved to poke fun at – Steve, we’re part-time bootleggers, not members of the goddamn FBI – and muttered something he only caught a second later. ‘Seriously, we’d better save our sips. I reckon we could be on track for another dozen sales tonight.’

 ‘Someone’s feeling ambitious.’ He took another measured sip, enjoying the deep red lipstick stain he left clinging to the rim of the glass. He shifted slightly on the barstool to face Steve, enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of the wig skimming his shoulders.

 Up by the piano, the fat, dark-skinned woman in the suit played a jaunty tune. This was the part of the night he enjoyed the most, the point where business melted away into pleasure and for a moment, he could enjoy a night out with his best friend. They’d done well tonight, shifting a good ten small bottles of hooch smuggled in the lining of their coats, under their hats, in Steve’s thick, hollowed-out cane. Bucky had found them surprisingly useful for padding out the fraying dress he’d poached from his mamâ’s closet. It was a familiar routine by now, the pair of them jostling through the crowd and hawking under their breath – c’mon, doll, only a clam a bottle, way better deal than you’ll get from the rest of the stuff in this joint – and now he felt like he’d earned the right to sit here for a moment and just be; slip into comfortable silence as easy as he’d slipped on his pantyhose in the bathroom earlier that night.

 ‘You look great, Buck. Don’t worry.’

 ‘Huh?’ Bucky jolted and realised that he had been twirling his synthetic hair around his fingers, tugging anxiously at the fraying tips. ‘Oh, I’m not worried, pal,’ he quipped quickly. ‘I know you’re still gonna take me home tonight.’

Steve stifled an outraged laugh. ‘As tempted as I am by those getaway sticks of yours, I can look after myself.’

‘You say that every night we go bootlegging,’ Bucky chided, ‘but who’s the one who always has to hold you back from beating up those assholes on the first floor.’

‘I could teach them a lesson or two.’ 

‘Hard to teach them anything when your guts are strung up from the telephone wire.’

Christ, you’re graphic.’

‘Just saving your life, pal. Oh! And who was the one who remembered to feed Pooka this afternoon.’

I fed Pooka this afternoon.’

‘Ah, shucks, really?’

Steve chuckled, and a thrill of laughter bubbled up in Bucky’s chest in response. ‘I guess we both just love that damn dog too much.’

‘Another reason to have me over tonight,’ Bucky crowed. ‘Double the love, buddy-o.’

This was another part of their nighttime ritual. It reminded Bucky of the dance for the check he sometimes saw rich people doing at the diner. Steve would stubbornly reject Bucky’s offer for help, he would keep his hand outstretched anyway, gentle but insistent, until Steve gave in and took it. He always ended up staying over on bootlegging nights, to the point where he had started leaving his extra toothbrush by the bathroom sink. If Steve had noticed it yet, he hadn’t said anything. Sometimes, you didn’t need words.

Steve placed a small, firm hand on Bucky’s back; met his eyes. ‘I appreciate it, Buck.’ There was a quiet pause. He wondered if Steve had ever noticed that he had a tiny freckle under his left eye.

The singer finished with a triumphant arpeggio, and Bucky, in spite of himself, jolted his gaze back to the piano. She was whispering something to a white girl in cigarette pants and a black dress shirt, who was staring intently at them. Her short red curls bounced as she nodded with a bit too much determination for his liking.

‘I appreciate the hell out of you, Stevie, but I think someone from the House just clocked us. We should skedaddle.’ 

A ripple of anxiety passed over Steve’s face. ‘Are you sure?’ 

‘Sure as shipyards. Redheaded gal in men’s clothes. Bulldagger, I think. She’s right over - ’

Shit. She’d vanished entirely. ‘Okay, I have no idea where she is, but we should probably still leave.’ 

‘Hey fellas,’ a singsong voice called from behind him. He whirled around to see the girl they’d just been looking for. Up close, he could see that she had a healing surface gash on her right cheek. A single white, purple-veined pansy was tucked into her buttonhole.

Steve shifted in his seat. Bucky knew, without looking, that he was biting back a smile at being called a ‘fella’.

‘Can we help you?’ Steve said, in a familiar hostile tone. Bucky shook his head slightly. That voice had a one hundred percent track record of getting their asses kicked.

‘Actually, gentlemen,’ she continued, ‘I think I may be able to help you. No, stay in your seats. I just wanna talk.' 

She sat down on the barstool next to Bucky. He could have sword that a second ago she wasn’t holding anything, but now she was twisting a thin silver knife in her right hand, weaving the handle through her fingertips with disturbing ease.

‘Mr. Barnes, Mr. Rogers, I represent a very influential man. My employer and I, along with our associates, have been contracted for the distribution of alcohol to Harry Hansberry’s Clam House. From your activity over the past few weeks, it would appear that you believe that this is your job instead.’ Her American accent had a familiar inflection to it that Bucky couldn’t quite place.

‘We’re sorry, ma’am, we didn’t mean to cause any trouble,’ Steve cut in. ‘You know how it gets, money’s tight, you’re looking to make a quick buck off the eighteenth, and –‘

She flicked her wrist, lodging the quivering knife in the countertop just inches from Bucky’s hand. He flinched violently.

‘I’m not interested in excuses,’ she said, calm as though she’d just stirred a spoonful of sugar into her coffee. ‘I’m interested in payment.’

‘You want our profits?’ Steve’s voice was still far too hostile.

‘Better. You see, my boss, for better or for worse, has taken a liking to your smuggling skills. I’m suspicious, given that you weren’t good enough not to be tailed by us, but then again the bar is high.’ She paused for a moment, her eyes flicking over Steve’s skinny frame, Bucky’s floor-length dress. ‘You’re fairies, right?’

‘Filthy as charged,’ Bucky said wryly. The tension in his shoulders eased up just a little at Steve’s splutter of laughter at the joke. ‘Hold up, does it matter?’

She smiled cryptically. ‘It helps. Anyways, how would you two like to make five times what you do selling those shitty bottles of hooch?’

Bucky looked from the drink in his hand to the silver knife still lodged in the countertop. From here, he could tell that the handle had been carefully crafted, decorated with twisting vines and flowers that would set him back a good six month’s wages.

‘Do we have a choice?’ Steve seemed to be voicing Bucky’s thoughts. 

‘Unless you wanna end up getting a little more intimate with this knife? No.’ She tipped her hat. ‘Midnight, next Tuesday, we’ll put you to the test. Don’t come looking for us. We’ll call you.’

‘But we don’t have a pho-‘ 

‘We’ll. Call. You.’ She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a fresh purple-and-white pansy, identical to the one tucked in her buttonhole. ‘Until then, get the hell out of my club. And tell anyone who comes asking for you that the Dandy Daggers came to call.’

She dropped the pansy on the countertop with her left hand, plucking the dagger with her right. A moment later, with a last sly tip of her hat, she had vanished.

 A surge of relief washed over Bucky, followed a moment later by the icy chill of dread. They sat there for a moment in numbed silence.

‘Jesus,’ Steve breathed finally.

‘No kidding,’ Bucky echoed. ‘So, we gonna do it, or not?’

His face furrowed into a frown. ‘You heard her. It’s not like we have any kind of choice.’

‘I know, Stevie, but holy shucks. This isn’t an after-work gig to pay the rent, y’know? I mean, for all we know, they could be the literal mob.’ 

‘Yeah, ya figure?’ His voice was edged with irritation. ‘Listen, half the guys on my block work for The Killer and Costello, alright? I know how this jazz works. Once they come looking for you, they know you. Forever. We couldn’t do anything about this if we wanted do.’

‘Course,’ Bucky mumbled, embarrassed. ‘Sorry.’ 

Steve sighed. ‘No, look, I’m sorry. I'm just kinda rattled right now. We should get home. Pooka’ll be missing us.’

Plus, we might get stabbed if we stay. He was pretty sure Steve wasn’t in the mood to laugh at that. He nodded instead. ‘Reckon I have time to de-drag in the bathroom?’

‘Of course. I’ll wait for you by the door?’

 ‘Of course. See you in ten.’

It was only as Bucky slid the rusting lock closed in the bathroom stall, nervously replaying their conversation in his head, that he realised it. Let’s get home. Not ‘to my place’ or ‘to bed’ or even ‘my home’, but home. Their home? Was he overthinking this?

‘Shut up, Barnes,’ he muttered to no one in particular. He stepped out of his ballet flats – god, he needed some heels, soon – and rolled the nylon down his legs. The hair on them was slicked with sweat. In one swift motion, he grabbed the hem of the dress and pulled it over his head, the bra he’d sewn into it coming away as well. In a matter of seconds, he was standing nearly naked in the stall, his body so foreign and hulking and male that it seemed impossible that he’d been squeezed into a dress only seconds earlier. His head felt like cotton wool, hands not quite connected to his brain. Damn bathtub gin.

Dressing back up as a man was a ritual, a kind of performance, just like he knew dressing up as a woman was. He just knew the rules for one a little better than the other. Right leg steps in before left leg, leave one button undone at the top, roll up your sleeves twice in this spring weather and for god’s sakes, make sure your shirt’s tucked in all the way round. Check, check, check. He folded the dress carefully, slid it into the battered briefcase along with shoes and pantyhose.

It wasn’t until he reached the mirror at the sinks that he found himself chuckling at the absurdity of the situation. Here he was in a men’s dress shirt, lipstick and rouge, about to get either recruited by a gang or killed by them. Mamâ would have a stroke. The disembodied hand scrubbed vigorously at his face with a washcloth, scouring out any trace of femininity like his sisters cleaning grease from the frying pan. There. His face was a little red, especially around his stubble, but the disguise was near-flawless. 

Steve seemed jumpier than usual when he reached him by the club door, but his face lifted when Bucky caught his eye. Wordlessly, they ducked out into the street.

‘Listen,’ Steve said sheepishly, staring straight ahead as they turned right down 133rd, ‘I shouldn't have freaked on ya. We’re gonna be fine. There’s nothing the mob can throw at us that we haven’t already come out the other side.' 

‘Of course we’ll be fine, you goof. Sure as shipyards. End of the line, right?’

Steve chuckled weekly.

‘Plus, I know there’s the whole violent crime thing, but you gotta admit those knives look jake.’

‘Those saps on the first floor wouldn’t stand a chance.’

‘I take it back!’ Bucky exclaimed in mock horror. ‘Steve Rogers with a knife? No one in Brooklyn would live to tell the tale.’

 The orange haze of the streetlights bounced off half-opened windows, a penny in the gutter, his best friend’s bright blond hair, as they lurched down 125th. To the average passerby, Bucky found himself thinking, they wouldn’t seem to have a care in the world.

Chapter Text

Tony swirled a slug of whiskey in a cut crystal glass, a shaft of light suspended in the liquid like a prehistoric bug in amber. This was the real McCoy, shipped in from Scotland monthly by his father’s office. Worlds away from the fermented ginger claptrap he sold downtown, or even the prescription stuff he picked up for his tremors. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the heady, honeyed smell, before throwing his head back and downing it in one gulp.

His eyes flicked halfheartedly towards the desk, a cold, corporate island in the centre of the room. A single facedown page stood out in a sea of hastily stuffed files and crumpled invoices: the memo from Howard, arrived right on schedule at 9 this morning. He shuddered to think of the cold reprimands it probably contained – the financially irresponsible and corporate image and lack of application of talent. Like some goddamn report card. Completely unnecessary. He was doing just fine.

Better than fine, actually. The fact that he hadn’t already quit as supervisor at Stark Industries’ engineering lab was impressive enough, given that he knew every word he spoke, every misplaced hand gesture was reported straight back to Howard, Father, Mr. Stark, whatever he was meant to call him. Hell, he was even scraping by at raising a kid of his own. Most importantly, he was twenty-seven and on track to building a small criminal empire, even if it wasn’t quite the kind of thing he could brag to Pops about.

The shrill ring of the telephone jerked him out of his revelry. He lunged, disjointedly, towards his desktop, wincing at the sharp pang of last night’s headache. One ring, two rings – he scrabbled under a pile of papers until his fingers gripped the sticky Bakelite plastic – cutting-edge material my ass - and wrenched the listener from its stand.

‘Hello?’ His voice was hoarse. His heart fluttered under his ribcage. Pathetic. Son of a millionaire, and a phone call was enough to send him screwy.

‘Good morning, Mr. Stark.’ Bambi’s voice was cool and measured. ‘I’ve delivered the memo from your father, as well as your itinerary for the day.’

‘Swell, thanks.’ He cursed the bead of sweat running down his temple. She had to call to tell him that? He knew it was company policy to make the most possible use of their technology, but she was only in the room over. 

‘And, um, there’s a man here to see you.’

He started. ‘Does he have an appointment?’

‘No.’

‘Tell him to beat it, then. I can’t entertain every Tom, Dick, and Harry who walks through the door.’

‘Mr. Stark, I would very much like to, but apparently it’s a matter of diplomatic urgency. He has informed me via our foreign affairs department that to insult him has the potential to trigger a rather undesirable war.’

Jesus Christ. His heart drummed irrationally against his ribcage, fighting his head’s insistence that this man was probably nothing more than an incredibly convincing looney. It was too damn early for this.

‘Sounds like a bunch of bohunk,’ he sighed down the phone, ‘but I’ll give him five minutes. Not a second more, you understand?’

‘Of course, sir. I’ll let him through now.’

Tony hung up with an abrupt click and sunk a little deeper into his cracked leather chair – he hated the damn thing, an alleged family antique that looked like it had been yanked straight from a Harlem flea market – massaging his temples with two fingers. A second later, the door swung open with a brisk click and a man strode in.

He wasn't expecting a black egg, much less one flanked by two equally dark-skinned people with elaborate head tattoos instead of hair. Though they wore elaborately embroidered red dresses – robes? – and thick silver necklaces, the shaved heads threw him off, made it impossible to tell if he was looking at women or men. The man in the centre, by contrast, was in American dress, a sharply fitted black suit that Tony could tell had an absurd thread count just by looking at it. His face, framed by a close-shaved beard, would have been strikingly handsome if he wasn’t currently staring down at him with what looked like a mixture of contempt and disgust.

‘Mr. Anthony Stark.’ His voice, inflected with an unfamiliar accent, proclaimed his presence with the kind of imperious assurance that made Tony itch to cut him down to size. ‘I presume I can take a seat?’

He made the split-second decision not to let either his irritation or his awe show. 

‘Be my guest.' 

He slurred the words with a deliberate feigned yawn, holding out his thumb to examine his flaking fingernail rather than the man in front of him – who really was handsome, either in spite or because of his arrogance. ‘I’ll warn you, though, you’ve only got five minutes.’

‘What I have to say will not take long.’ He sat in the armchair in front of Tony’s desk. ‘Mr. Stark, I am Prince T’Challa of Wakanda – ‘

Tony couldn’t resist a scoff at this. ‘Yeah, and I’m King of Atlantis.’

At the back of the room, the two bald people exchanged a sharp glance. ‘Sir?’ one asked, keeping her gaze – he was pretty sure, hearing her speak, that she was a girl – fixed icily on Tony.

T’Challa waved his hand. ‘It is alright, Okoye. I expect nothing less from such a disrespectful man.’

‘Sorry-  sorry, I’m disrespectful? I’m not the one marching into the office of a multi-millionaire with two baldie bodyguards and not so much as a goddamn appointment.’

‘Millionaire, ah?’ It was the first time T’Challa had chuckled, and he didn’t like being on the receiving end of whatever joke he was cracking. ‘I suppose we all must start somewhere. Anyhow, Mr. Multi-Millionaire, I have received word that you are at the centre of – ‘ he made a sour face at the name ‘Jake distribution throughout Brooklyn and Harlem.’

Tony froze. The pounding in his chest was suddenly instinctive, frantic, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He had been so careful, never showing his face to anyone but Nat, Sam, and the Scandis, conducting everything from brewing to sales through sworn, trusted members or third-party morons who didn’t have the faintest idea what they were toting in their bike baskets, much less who it came from. How could he have been so stupid, thinking he could ever get away with a goddamn fairy street gang just by taking precautions?

He slid his hands onto his lap. His fingers trembled frantically under the table, hands shaking to his wrists.

‘Sorry, old boy,’ he found himself saying, in a distant snarky echo, ‘I think you just overshot the organised criminals. You’ll find the mafia down on 150th Park Avenue? Easy mistake.’

‘Stark, both you and I know that there has been no mistake. My Dora Milaje have pinpointed the operations of the – ah, what do you call yourselves? The Dandy Daggers? Foolish American alliteration, but it is a clever name. In fact, I’m sure your father would be fascinated to know just how clever your double life has been.’

‘You got one minute left of this baloney, Africa.’

T’Challa ignored him. ‘I have a stake in the interests of Harlem. I am sure you have not noticed from up in your ivory tower, but the “Africans” you and your people scoff at so are creating a movement beyond your wildest dreams. I would say that some rich white boy out of his depth running around, flooding the neighbourhood with paralytics, is not in our best interests.’

Who did this man think he was? ‘Actually, your highness, I’ve developed a plasticiser for the ginger containing no neurotoxins. Cheaper to make, too, if you know how to do it right. So – ‘

He broke off. Arrogant, idiot, idiot. He’d lost the last advantage he had the second he confessed to making the bootleg.

A faint smile played on T’Challa’s lips.

‘There is, of course, a way to avoid either your father finding out about your side business or you finding out just how sharp our spears can be. All I ask in return is a cut of the profits. We shall say twenty-five percent.’

‘Twenty-five per cent? Fat chance, buddy. It’s called business, and I’m winning it fair and square. Not my fault booze sells.’

He shrugged. ‘It is hardly as though you need the money.’

‘Hypocritical, coming from black King George. Which is another bit of bohunk, by the way.' 

Another nonchalant shrug. ‘Unlike you, I am capable of spending where it is needed.' 

There was a moment of icy silence.

‘Anyhow, you have twenty-four hours to consider our proposition.’ He slid a black business card embossed with luminescent purple writing onto the desk. ‘Call this number when you have decided. I do hope, for your sake, that you make the right choice.’

There was a firm rap at the door, and Bambi poked her head around. Tony started, while the silent women flanking the door didn’t so much as flinch.

‘Mr. Stark? You need to prepare for your nine-thirty.’

‘So sorry.’ He flashed T’Challa a dry, fake-pitying smile. ‘There’s a lot of work to do when you’re a successful businessman, y’know? You’d better, uh, I don’t know, beat it right now before I kick you out of my office?’

‘Goodbye, Mr. Stark.’ T’Challa’s tone was unchanging. ‘I look forward to doing business with you in the future.

He got to his feet as lithely as he had sat down and left the room, the two women following soundlessly behind them. The click of the closing door reverberated through the empty room.

Tony instantly collapsed his head into his hands with a wrenching groan. Twenty-five fucking per cent.

He would have to do it, of course. Sure, he’d play the long game, try and negotiate down the terms, but at the end of the day he’d give away every cent if it meant he could keep the Dandy Daggers as far away from Howard Stark as possible.

His eyes flitted, again, to the unread memo on the desk. He imagined the typewritten scorn that would burn through the page if he didn’t pay off T’Challa’s blackmail. Common criminal, he thought bitterly to himself. Filthy queer.

It was too darned early for this.