Bucky pulled on his suit jacket, the fabric feeling more vicelike than his Winter Soldier leathers ever had. It was necessary, unfortunately; he was at the Avengers’ Gala, and most people frowned upon combat suits at their fancy parties. He had been given the option of his old military uniform, like Steve, but he had turned it down. He wasn’t that Bucky Barnes anymore, the one who was drafted a lifetime ago. A tuxedo was safer, came with less expectations.
Though, if Bucky had known how uncomfortable tuxedos were, he might’ve chosen the uniform.
He was hiding on the outskirts of the party, having already done his requested half hour of socialization. He watched his team with a sniper’s eye, unable to turn off his instincts. Clint was at the bar, drinking idly with Sam and chatting with someone’s plus one. They were both smiling, seemingly at ease in the hustle and bustle. Steve was sweet-talking some congressmen, his aw, shucks face firmly on in the way Tony had showed him. Natasha was doing her own thing, alternating between watching at the edges of the crowd, like him, and flitting like a true social butterfly. She wore personas like silk, and Bucky didn’t doubt that she’d have racked up millions in donations by the end of the night.
The real star, though, was Tony Stark.
Tony played the crowds like he was born to (and from the snippets of his childhood that the man had confided in Bucky, he had been). He had a showman’s smile, big and inviting and completely fake. Any nerves, any uncomfortable tells were hidden from even Bucky’s highly trained analysis. He charmed group after group, the perfect blend of cockiness and humility to open people’s wallets. If Tony hadn’t hold him, a few nights ago, how much he hated these things, Bucky would never have guessed.
As Bucky watched, Tony gracefully excused himself from one conversation and seamlessly injected himself into Steve’s, who looked on the verge of punching somebody. Bucky recognized Steve’s conversation partner as a die-hard conservative, the kind that touted Captain America as a mascot for things Steve didn’t believe in; or, exactly the kind of guy that Steve would fight behind the building (or in it, honestly). Tony, despite liking those kinds of people even less than Steve, expertly diffused the tension, sending Steve off to the bar and biting the bullet himself, pasting a smirk on his face.
Bucky was so absorbed with looking at Tony that he didn’t notice Natasha fall into place besides him. He almost flinched when she touched him, berating himself for letting his guard down that much. She didn’t comment, thankfully, though Bucky doubted she missed his reaction.
“He’s amazing, didn't he?” she said instead.
“What?” Bucky was thrown by the non-sequitur.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Tony,” she explained. “The way he plays the crowd. It’s amazing.”
“I hadn’t noticed, really,” Bucky cleared his throat, aware of his all too transparent lie. HYDRA didn’t use him for his espionage skills, that was for sure.
“You’ve been staring at him this whole time,” she sounded completely unimpressed. “If you didn’t notice anything, you’re losing your edge.”
Bucky sighed, conceding. “He really hates this, doesn’t he?”
“I didn’t realize how much, at first,” Natasha said in a rare moment of vulnerability. The Black Widow didn’t admit to mistakes- ever. “I thought he enjoyed the ego boost.”
“How?” Bucky bristled defensively, even though he knew he would probably have fallen for the smiling act, too.
Natasha shrugged. “I misjudged him,” she said simply. “He’s a better actor than I gave him credit for. He makes it look believable.”
Bucky looked at Tony, radiant in the crowd. There was a drink in his hand, sloshing about as he gestured wildly to a small group. He would have looked like a king, a picture of ease, if not for the sharp edge to his smile and the slightest tense in his posture. “Yeah, he does.”
They lapsed into silence, watching again. Bucky saw Steve notice them, face brightening as he walked over.
“Bucky!” he greeted. “Why aren’t you out and about?”
Bucky shot him a blank stare. “I did my Tony-mandated time,” he said in a Brooklyn drawl. “But I figured I should wait for all of you to give up before going home.”
“You’d be here a while, then,” Steve cast a look at Tony. “Tony’s gonna be here all night. Me, I’m ready to blow this place.”
“Already?” Bucky teased.
“Not all of us can hide in dark corners and pine silently,” never let it be said that Steve didn’t give as good as he got. Really, the man was a menace.
Bucky tried to look dignified, but he was pretty sure his blush was visible from space. “I’m not pining ,” he hissed. “I’m keeping an eye on him, like I’m doing for all my teammates.”
“He’s pining,” Natasha stage-whispered, a small smile playing on her lips.
“I’m going to kill you,” Bucky said matter-of-factly. “It’s decided. You’re getting murdered.”
Natasha scoffed. “Like you could.”
“I shot you.”
“Technically, you shot through me.”
“You still got hit, didn’t you?”
Steve thunked his head against the wall. “You two have the most confusing friendship,” he complained.
“Heads up,” Natasha jabbed Bucky in the side with her (sharp!) elbow. “One o’clock.”
Tony was walking towards the group, the realest smile of the night on his face. He looked utterly exhausted, even the concealer not enough to hide his dark circles. He walked with purpose, not stopping to make conversation besides throwaway one liners and cheeky winks.
“Hey, wallflowers,” he said, falling against the wall next to Bucky. “Enjoying the party?”
Natasha smirked at Bucky, full of mischief and vengeance. “Steve,” she said lightly. “Come dance with me.”
Steve barely had time to protest before she had dragged him off.
Tony whistled lowly. “Hello to you, too, Nat!” he called. She flipped him off, hiding her fingers in the folds of her skirt.
“What brings you here?” Bucky asked, trying to figure out how to pretend like he hadn’t been watching Tony all night. Steve and Natasha were right; he was pining.
Tony groaned. “If I have to hear one more asshole try to pitch an idea to me, I’m going to lose my shit,” he swore. “Seriously, if I didn’t have to be here, I’d be blowing stuff up right now. DUM-E got a new fire extinguisher that he’s itching to test out.”
“Sounds infinitely more fun,” Bucky agreed. “You looked like you were ready to smack someone.”
Tony got a weird look on his face. Bucky blanched, realizing that he’d accidentally said too much. Before he could try to fix it (read: dig himself a bigger hole). “Didn’t realize you were paying attention,” he said neutrally.
Bucky winced. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. “I’m always payin’ attention to you, doll,” his voice was rough with uncertainty.
Tony met his eyes, looking for something . He seemed to find it, if his smile was any indication. “Care to dance?” he asked, holding out a hand.
Bucky took it without hesitation, letting himself be spun onto the dance floor. He even laughed, unrestrained, as Tony dipped him exaggeratedly. Bucky returned the favor a minute later, spinning Tony out before leaning and holding him tight. Tony licked his lips, eyes catching on Bucky’s. The moment was over as soon as it began, the music urging them to keep dancing. Bucky knew they'd have time for… whatever that was, later, when they weren’t the target of a hundred eyes.
Honestly, Bucky hated the galas, hated the pageantry and pandering as much as anyone. But dancing with Tony, being the full target of his dazzling brilliance, Bucky found that they had their upsides.