Hand In Hand

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Bucky closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

After so many months of near-silence, the laughter echoing through the ground floor of the compound was jarring. A deafening overlap of conversations, grating and dissonant chatter- maybe he should just let the elevator doors close again. At least inside the elevator, it was quiet. At least in there, things were normal.

From beside him, Steve stepped boldly out into the crowd. The sheer number of people milling about the hallway was staggering, but of course Steve didn't hesitate. He led the way, and when Bucky felt the comforting pressure of your hand at the small of his back, he followed.

You passed a few familiar faces on the short walk from the elevators to the south wing's conference complex. There were agents who offered Steve polite, professional smiles before returning to their conversations, and a couple of straggling teammates who greeted the three of you with significantly more enthusiasm. Bucky could only blink when Scott Lang clapped him on the back in a poorly-disguised hug, and he was relieved when Lang turned to Steve and pulled him into an awkwardly tight embrace instead. Thor hurried past, but not without pausing to share a fist-bump with you; even Banner, who seemed to be in unusually high spirits despite the fact that he was sulking in the hall by himself, gave Bucky an encouraging nod and a smile as he walked past him.

But with one glance into what used to be the conference hall, none of that mattered. Panic rose in Bucky's chest, and he planted his dress shoes firmly on the tile just outside the doors.

This was a mistake.

Stopping next to Bucky, you let out a low, impressed whistle. "Wow," you breathed, then glanced up at Steve. "You're sure we're invited to this thing?"

Stark's New Year's Eve parties never disappointed, and as the grand finale of the publicity tour, he had gone above and beyond for tonight's gala. Ambient light shone on the sea of unfamiliar faces, glinting off their expensive jewelry as they ebbed around the transformed ballroom. Their classy black formalwear was accented by glitz and glitter, and the tables adorned with gold place settings and decorations managed to be more extravagant than gaudy. But the strings of lights and balloons hanging from the ceiling made the room feel smaller, more claustrophobic, and somehow Bucky was the only one who noticed the walls closing in-

"Of course," Steve said, unconcerned. "You're both on the guest list."

Bucky huffed out a bitter, halfhearted laugh, and Steve raised an eyebrow at him. Tickets to the gala had been raffled off to donors for several thousand dollars apiece, and staring in at the crowd of tech bros, business moguls, and socialites, it couldn't be more obvious that Bucky wasn't one of them- of course he was on the guest list. He was there as a favor, as a kindness. A gift from Tony Stark himself.

Bucky's invitation to the gala wasn't the only olive branch that had been extended that day. The first time Bucky read through the article- his article- when it went live early that morning, he was as surprised as everyone else to see a statement from Tony near the end.

"I've never been one to take the high road," Stark said. "I'm not the type to forgive and forget. But if you people think that I'm letting the man who murdered my parents not only walk free, but also live on my [redacted] property, you're stupider than I thought. Barnes was the Winter Soldier, yes, but things change. And it only takes one iota of interaction with that crotchety centenarian to see that he never would've done any of that [redacted] if he had a choice to begin with."

Tony's endorsement carried significant weight. Steve was quoted in the article, too, of course he was- but Steve's bias was common knowledge. It was a given that Steve would always vouch for Bucky; even when Bucky had nothing, he had Steve. Public forgiveness from one of the most influential men in the world- a man who had directly suffered from Bucky's time as the Winter Soldier- was monumental.

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